N-Trak Show Organization
by Steve Gillett

Preparing for a show is a simple task for an individual who has only one or two modules that will be inserted into a layout, but the planning and coordination of the total layout is much more complex. The decision to take an N-Trak club layout to a show requires organization and planning in order to orchestrate the myriad of tasks required to make that decision a reality. The steps involved include layout design, member education and preparation, process description, logistics, operations and, most importantly, communication. With the proper tools and techniques, these tasks can be made much easier to accomplish. Some may argue that the following is over-kill, but I've found that in over 15 years as my club's layout coordinator along with my involvement in large shows such as Louisville Derby Express – 2008, these processes make that responsibility much easier and provide the peace-of-mind that nothing has been forgotten.

1. Layout Design

You might think that if your club has a fixed set of modules and they always are assembled in the same way, this step doesn't apply to your situation. But what happens if your layout won't fit in the area made available by the venue coordinator or if you need a left hand junction and you only have a right hand junction or don't have a junction at all?

Prior to designing the layout, one must have an inventory of which modules are available. Club members must be polled to see if they want to bring their module(s) and/or if they will be available to work the show. Concurrently, the venue sponsor must provide details of the space available, including dimensions, location of any posts or other obstructions, floor covering (cement, carpet, etc.) and access. Once this data is in hand, the design process can begin.

The NEONS designs its layouts using the drawing tools available in Microsoft's Excel program. We use Excel because it is commonly used software that is available on most computers, is graphical in format, and because the resulting documents can be easily transmitted via email. Not only does it allow us to send a virtual visualization of the layout plan to our club members, it is an excellent way to coordinate a multi-club layout plan among participating clubs that could be hundreds of miles apart, facilitating the back and forth layout negotiations that are integral to planning an event.

In preparation for this step, one must first set up a grid. This is simply a spreadsheet with rows and columns of the same width and height that make a rectangular grid. It is essentially electronic digital graph paper with each square representing one square foot. I recommend a grid with rows and columns of 20 pixels x 20 pixels.

Layout Design Grid

A layout template must also be created that has diagrams of all the club's modules so that the diagrams can be cut and pasted to the grid. These diagrams can be as simple as a two square by four square block that represents a plain ol' four footer module, or it can be complex with the diagram showing all the track on the module in its correct position. The diagrams can be color coded to identify module ownership, module type and/or multi-module dioramas. To build a complex diagram, (assume a 2' x 4' module for this example) draw a rectangle that is 48 squares by 96 squares. Each square is ½" x ½". Then draw in the red, yellow and blue lines at the 4", 5/5", and 7" standard locations, modifying them as necessary to represent the module. Add additional tracks, buildings, scenery, etc. Finally, use the "Group" function to link all the items and shrink the 48 x 96 square diagram to a 2 x 4 square diagram. Once you have that done, make three copies, rotating one 90° clockwise, one 90° counter-clockwise, and one 180°. Now you have a diagram of a module that you can insert into the layout on any side, with the tracks in the proper position. As an alternative to all of this diagramming, some clubs have taken pictures of their modules from above, then cropped the pictures and sized them to 2 squares x 4 squares. The good news is that these diagrams only have to be created once, and will be available from then on (unless your computer crashes and you don't have it backed up!)

Layout Template

Finally, outline the layout area assigned to your club on the grid, then copy and paste the diagrams of the modules you want to bring and move them around until you find the layout that works for the show you're attending. Don't forget to save your work! When it's time to make changes or tweak things, copy the tab as a separate sheet, so you'll still have your original.

Tips on using Excel's drawing tools:

  • Activate the Drawing ribbon by going to INSERT and clicking on Text Box. The Drawing ribbon has a wide variety of shapes, lines, arcs and free-forms from which to choose.
  • Always COPY pre-drawn objects from the template, leaving the originals in place.
  • Depressing the ALT key during drag and drop snaps object to gridline intersections.
  • Depressing the Shift key during object selection allows multiple objects to be selected.
  • Depressing the Ctrl key during drag and drop causes copy instead of move.
  • Depressing both the Ctrl and Alt keys during the drag and drop process causes the object to be copied and snapped to the grid at its destination.
  • The Group and Ungroup commands on the ribbon combine multiple objects into one object and break them back to individual objects. (Groups can be nested)
  • The Rotate commands on the ribbon allow objects to be rotated in any direction by as small an increment as one degree.
  • Depressing the Shift key with the cursor on one of the object's corner points makes the object shrink or expand proportionally.
  • Depressing the Ctrl key with the cursor on one of the object's corner points makes the object shrink or expand proportionally from the center point of the object.
  • Use Zoom to enlarge an area where detailed work is required.

OKC 2014 N-Trak Layout Diagram

This diagram can be easily modified if conditions change. It can be printed, emailed or otherwise transmitted to the show coordinator, other clubs and to your members.

2. Determine Wiring Blocks and Power Hookup Locations

The next step is determining the wiring blocks and power hookup locations. Depending on the club's power equipment, the plan for locating power supplies may be a no-brainer or very complex (see NEONS Power System).

First, the location of block breaks (if any) must be identified and marked on the layout plan. This will include the location of all insulated joiners and where power bus lines must remain unconnected. (Note that a red line block break does not necessarily have to occur in the middle of a junction module. You can make the red line block break on the spine and have power double back to the other side of the junction module in the same block. Simply identify where on the spine the break will occur, then insulate the joiner tracks and plug the blue line power pole into the red line power pole of the spine modules on either side of the block break. The power poles automatically take care of the polarity change. By doing that, your blocks can be wherever you desire so as to balance the lengths of each one and, more importantly, your loop can operate independently of other loops.)

Second, identify and mark the location for your master command station, each power booster, all radio towers, LNRPs and throttle access ports (UP5s).

3. Plan the LocoNet® Cables (if you're using Digitrax® or NCE®) and Skirting

Many clubs forget that extra-long LocoNet cables add additional resistance and result in signal degradation, so the shorter the LocoNet cables, the better. NEONS has Digitrax UP5s on the inside and outside of all corner modules and at least one on each multi-module diorama so that, in most situations, an operator is never more than 12' from a LocoNet port. We have a box full of LocoNet cables of varying lengths, all labeled. We use the shortest cable possible to link the UP5s together. After the layout is designed and power hookup positions are determined, LocoNet cables of the proper length are layered onto the diagram. This ensures that we only use the length of cable we need and thereby minimize any unnecessary line resistance and signal degradation. It also ensures that all equipment that needs a LocoNet connection gets one (if the installer properly follows the diagram) and that the LocoNet cables do not form a loop.

LocoNet Cable Chart & Skirting Plan

Just like LocoNet cables, NEONS has several sections of skirting that range from 10' to 30' in length. Most of our layout designs need several runs of skirting. One running from the spine interface with another loop and ends at our infield gateway module. Others run in either direction from one special module with a deep gorge that has a special section of skirting. By planning which length sections go where, we avoid being a foot or two short or several feet long in each section. (See N-Trak Tips – Layout Skirting.)

OKC 2014 N-Trak Layout Detail Diagram

4. Logistics, Getting the Modules and Support Equipment to the Venue

A "Travel Checklist" is an excellent way to ensure that everything you need at the venue will be there. Again, an Excel spreadsheet listing all the items that need to be brought and who is to bring them is a most valuable tool. But, it is only valuable if someone actually checks off the items as they are loaded onto or into the vehicles or trailers that are heading to the show. Nearly all of our items are kept in a custom supply cabinet (see NEONS Supply Cabinet). NEONS modules are stored in specially made cabinets (see NEONS Module Storage Cabinets), each of which hold specific modules. We have a Cabinet Pack Diagram that indicates the appropriate shelf and cabinet for each module. Finally, we transport our equipment to and from shows in a 24' rental box truck which is completely filled. To get everything to fit, we have a Truck Pack Diagram that shows how the truck must be loaded.

5. Venue Coordination

The most important requirement in having a successful exhibition is to communicate with all the club members, letting them know what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and what experience has shown to be the most efficient way to do it. To facilitate this communication, NEONS has prepared detailed documentation of the processes and procedures involved. This documentation contains the knowledge and experiences we have gained from previous events to ensure that everything is done when it's supposed to be done, in the most effective order and with the least confusion. The documents include a Pre-Show Checklist, Set-up Procedure, Tear-down Procedure and Post-Show Checklist. Obviously, these processes are customized to our club's unique situation. However, every club has a routine that the veterans know but the newer members are just learning.

6. Have Fun, Run Trains, Find Bargains and Treasures

To make sure all of our members have an opportunity to run trains and adequate time to shop and browse, and to ensure that there are always trains running for the pleasure of the public, we have a signup sheet for running times. Running Schedule We have three guidelines regarding these goals:
  1. There should always be at least one train running on each track at all times when the show is open to the public.
  2. All members should have an opportunity to run their trains. Our only restriction is that unless a member is physically unable, he or she must help with setup or teardown in order to operate. In other words, there will be NO FREELOADING! By simply having this policy, we've never had a problem and never needed to enforce it.
  3. Operating courtesies and daily startup and shutdown procedures are detailed in the NEONS Layout Operating Information.

By using these tools, processes and techniques, the preparation and execution of taking an N-Trak layout to a show can be accomplished with a minimum of problems. From my perspective, as the show coordinator for NEONS, its most valuable attribute is that in minimizes stress and worry and reduces the time required to complete each phase of the process.

When it comes to layout design, NEONS embraces variety. Over the years we have assembled our modules in a U shape, a dog-leg, rectangle, zig-zag, ell, bulging rectangle, triangle, and other unique patterns (see Prior NEONS Layout Diagrams). When you're designing your club's layout, remember that it doesn't necessarily have to be a rectangle. Having an inside corner in your inventory of modules provides a lot of flexibility to your layout design options. If you don't have an inside corner, get one!