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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

A Peek Behind the Scenes

Newsletter subscribers know that I've experimented with printing building facades on vinyl stickers to use for" target=new>temporary buildings on my railroad. In case you think that's a little weird, the title photo shows a real-world scene from Bray, Ireland, where the builders have apparently done the same thing. We saw this a few times in Irish towns, where the original storefront of a building was saved (probably for historical or zoning purposes) and the rest of the building was being razed and/or rebuilt. My guess is that most tourists don't even notice the subterfuge. As many model railroaders like to say, it just goes to show that there's a prototype for everything. But I used it for the title photo of this article to illustrate that sometimes a major construction project may not be all that obvious on the surface.

Our readers will be surprised to hear that we've been working very hard on our web sites, since not many stories have come through lately. But we've been working very hard on things that are not obvious - unless something goes wrong. Let me explain.

Starting Small

When we started what became our first hobby site, the web was in its infancy, domain names and web server space were expensive, and Paul had just lost his technical writing job in a mass layoff. To bid for work as a contractor, Paul needed a "company," so he started Breakthrough Communications and put up a web page (

In the meantime, Paul's hobby of garden railroading was undergoing many changes. New vendors, scales, coupler types, periods, and control technologes were becoming available, upsetting the "worldview" of older hobbyists who considered "garden railroading" as synonomous with a particular vendor, period. By providing a stream of fact-based articles that put even the most "controversial" subjects into perspective, Paul helped the hobby transition from a carefully-guarded "old-timer's single-vendor club" into one that nearly any family can enjoy at some level. By humorously documenting his own failures, Paul also let readers know that it was okay to try new approaches and learn from occasional mishaps.

Reader response was very positive. So, to keep those articles available, Paul posted them on his company web page under the directory. Paul coined the name Family Garden TrainsTM to emphasize his conviction that garden railroading should involve the whole family, and that every family could practice the hobby in some way. (That's one reason why Paul reviews $150 train sets while other sites are busy reviewing $1500 locomotives.)

Growing Along With Readership

But as Paul's articles reached a wider audience, more questions came, and Paul found himself writing still more articles, usually to meet needs that we didn't anticipate. So the site kept growing, usually in directions we didn't expect.

Starting Other "Sites"

In the meantime, related, but somewhate off-topic questions kept coming up, like "what is the best train to buy for Christmas trees or villages?" The answer to that question really doesn't belong on So Paul started new "sister sites" like and But web servers were still expensive, so Paul kept serving all of his "sites" from the server, using "redirects" to make certain that anyone who typed the domain name into their browser would get to the right page.

As a result, if you have ever bookmarked any of our sites, chances are the bookmark points to

What's In a Name?

As domain name registrars like began driving down the cost of domain name ownership, Paul realized that other site owners who wanted to steer Paul's readers to their pages were registering names similar to the names of Paul's sites. So Paul wound up registering, not only but also, and so on. There is still some blatant copying going on, but since the fake sites contain very little actual information, Google's improved content-ranking usually makes them sink in the rankings anyway.

Unfortunately a whole "nudder" set of would-be pirates were copying Paul's newsletters and articles wholesale and putting them on their own web pages. One "defense" Paul made against that (and it's not a strong defense, we admit) was to change all of the relative links in most of our articles to full links, so that a person who tried to navigate on one of the pirate sites would find himself coming back to our server again and again (unless the pirate took the time to recode the links, which they usually didn't). That did slow down the most blatant kind of piracy, but it added an additional complication - we can't move our own pages without rewriting thousands of links to point to the new site.

Growth Without Planning

Paul speaking: If I was paying myself to develop a well-organized, easily-navigated family of related web pages, I'd have to fire myself. Because we usually went where reader questions and - occasionally - reader-supplied articles led us, our collection of "sites" has grown "like Topsy," that is, without much planning. The end result of some 16 years of adding articles and domain names is a sort of overgrown Banyan tree of sites that were all interwoven and crowding each other out. Literally. It had gotten to the point where I couldn't add one new high-resolution photo to any site without reducing the resolution of two photos somewhere else. And my ISP, who had been helpful in all other ways, could not figure out how to get me more HD space without breaking all of my links and scripts.

In the meantime, cost of a web server with enough HD space and bandwidth to handle any of my sites (individually) has gone from $40 a month to $6-8 a month. So when I took it upon myself to save a valuable Christmas collectors' resource, I put on a separate server. The setup was painless and the new server worked just fine.

Trial Separation

Overcrowding aside, the really big problem was that our biggest sites had gotton so big that they were getting hard to navigate - there was just SO MUCH STUFF that really should have been put on separate pages. It was high time to "bite the bullet" and move whole sections out of those sites into other sites. But we figured that separating the smaller sites out onto their own servers first would make more sense.

So starting about three years ago, we started "peeling off" the smaller sites onto other servers. The hard part was that a lot of web pages that looked like separate sites were actually all part of the original web system. They shared style sheets, header and navigational graphics, and hundreds of other files. So separating the sites out was a lot like separating co-joined octuplets.

Don't get me wrong, the sites still have lots of cross-references, but when you go from to, say,, you are actually changing servers now - you weren't before.

Of course, our first site - Family Garden Trains - which once contained enough files and links to simulate six or seven separate site, was the most complex of all. Thousands of internal links still point to, and we're updating those links a few at a time.

Advantages to Come

Benefits should eventually include:

  • Sites should be easier to navigate, since there won't be so many internal links to stuff that is really part of another hobby.

  • We should be able to add much more content - there's more room on the servers, and we can hopefully keep the sites better organized without a bunch of "related but not core" pages all linked in together.

  • The sites should give readers faster response, since all our readers won't be going to the same server at the same time.

  • We'll be able to judge the relative value of each site better and know where to direct future enhancements.

  • In the future, if we need to move or upgrade servers, we should be able to do it without ANY HTML coding to speak of, and without anyone who's ever linked to one of our pages having to recode his or her link..

In the meantime, we've tested the ported sites and they seem to be working better than ever, but there are bound to be glitches. The biggest "glitch," of course is that ordinarily you would be able to tell if we were putting hundreds of hours into site development. But in this case, the real test of our "system port" is that you SHOULDN'T be able to tell the difference. That may not make much sense to anyone who has never developed a web page, but there it is.

Work Left To Do

Within the sites, thousands of "internal links" still point to pages. We've been steadily converting those links to point to the new servers, but there are a LOT of links. So you may start out on, hit a link and find yourself on There's nothing technically wrong with that, since we will try to keep the new and old sites in sync for now, but we're trying to fix things so you stay on the new pages.

Redoing Your Favorites/Servers

For the next year or three we will keep the old address ( alive, so your favorites/bookmarks should continue to work. But eventually, you should consider making sure your favorites/bookmarks point to the new servers. One way you can do this by going to the new site (anything NOT starting with and adding that as a favorite, then deleting the old favorites. We will probably leave SOMETHING up in the space indefinitely, but it may boil down to announcements that the page has moved and the new page is at so-and-so.


This article has talked mostly about the garden trains and big trains pages, since they're our biggest and most complex, but nearly all of our sites have been affected, including:

Each of those sites, which all started on, are now on their own servers, with the caveat that "internal links" may still take you back to, especially on, which we're still actively converting.

Fortunately our,, and sites started out on separate servers, so they're "right where we left them."

In the meantime, we apologize for any inconvenience and want to assure you that we have several articles and resources in the works and will get to them soon.

Looking forward to your suggestions, additions, criticisms, and anything else to let me know you're paying attention, I remain,

Paul Race

P.S. Enjoy your hobbies. Especially enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks.

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Note: Family Garden TrainsTM, Garden Train StoreTM, Big Christmas TrainsTM, BIG Indoor TrainsTM, and BIG Train StoreTM are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications ( All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.
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