John's Jottings

129. Shunting Skullduggery - March 2017

Posted on March 1, 2017 at 5:15 AM

There were ructions at the Catfield show last weekend. One of their club members had brought along an American-style switching layout. He was encouraging visitors to have a drive under his instruction. And they were all successful, even though it took some time.


One member of the public asked to have a go, but announced he’d do it without guidance as he knew all about shunting and solving shunting problems. However, after quite some time and many, many moves he declared the problem unsolvable.


“You shouldn’t be presenting puzzles that can’t be solved,” he admonished the layout owner. “What a disgusting trick to play on the public. Makes us all look like sadists. Puts people off the hobby altogether.”


At first the owner just smiled benignly. But the critic persisted and managed to frighten off several youngsters who had been queuing up for go, though one little lad stayed on as he didn’t want to lose his opportunity to have a drive, even if he didn’t complete the shunt.


The owner got fed up with the criticism. “You set up the cars,” he challenged his critic. “You decide where the arrivals are to go, and this lad, with my guidance, will show you how it’s done.”


The contest was accepted. The owner gave the instructions. The young fellow, not altogether sure what happening, followed them meticulously. It took some time, but all the incoming cars were placed in the correct sidings and the departing train pulled away to a round of applause. The young ‘engineer’ got his certificate, just like all the other young ‘engineers’ who had completed the task.


The critic was furious and highly embarrassed. He was convinced there had been some slight-of-hand - a piece of skulduggery - that he hadn’t spotted. He watched another kiddie complete the task, and was even surer that something devious had gone on.


Realising that the critic still didn’t believe his own eyes, the owner gave him a sheaf of papers. They were a pictorial step-by-step guide to solving the problem. “Take them,” the owner said. “Go and have a cup of tea. Sit down and study them carefully. Identify any incorrect moves. You know - the invalid ones that make the shunt possible.”


The critic took the papers and flicked through them. “This is impossible to understand,” he snapped. “There’s so much of it. Can’t you make it simpler? You’re just trying to bamboozle me with unnecessary complexity.”


While he was supping his tea, he realised that quite a lot of the children had certificates. He asked to see one. It recognised both driving the switcher locomotive and successfully completing a complex set of moves. He was furious. If they could do it, even with help, why couldn’t he?


He returned the paper ‘solution’ to the layout owner and slunk away, too embarrassed to admit that he couldn’t find a flaw, and annoyed with himself that he hadn’t worked it out for himself.


“Ah, yes,” said our chairman. “It all goes to show how skilful those shunters and yard-masters had to be when dealing with wagon-load traffic. It’s a skill that some modellers have yet to appreciate, and many have still to develop.” He’d got a good point there.


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