Layout Design Choices

Layout Design Choices

Deciding What to Build and How to Build it

By Fred Preller

You stare at the blank sheet of paper, pencils sharp, rulers, protractors, triangles, french and spline curves at the ready – or just staring at the blank screen of your layout design program. The power to create your Mighty Railroad Empire is yours. All you need is to put the first track in place…

But have you decided what it is you want in the end? A giant layout modeling heavy freight from Denver to Salt Lake City, through the soaring Rocky Mountains? A super-detailed little switching layout? An oval with plywood landscape? Flat? Mountainous? Level of realism?

If you have all that worked out in your mind – or better, written down – you are really ready to begin, and can skip the rest of this article. If not, read on…

It is OK to commence layout design without a detailed image in your mind of all the twists and turns, switches, sidings, elevations, etc., but it will be more difficult if you do not have an overall concept in mind. I know: I have started building a few layouts with no pre-planned layout design, and the idea that I will work out the details as I go. My problem in each case was not the lack of a plan – it was the lack of a concept. As each new Model Railroader magazine arrived, I would glean some operations concepts, scene ideas, and construction techniques that I would take right to the layout. The result, predictably, began to look like a mish-mosh (for those unfamiliar with the term, that is not a compliment). And, my interest and enthusiasm waned, all because there was no unifying concept, other than “build a model railroad.”

So, when my evil brother Gordon (and his henchmen on the Reynauld’s 2015 Train Tour) goaded me into doing something with my 20 or so boxes of old – some was really old – Märklin stuff, I knew I needed to establish a basis that would lead to successful completion of something. So I did it – I wrote down my layout concept. Here it is:

A small easily-storable layout that will be interesting for adults and children to operate.

For me, a simple one-sentence statement of the layout concept is best. That forces me to strip away a lot of detail that really should be deferred until it is time to list the design criteria. Notice for instance that I did not indicate whether there would be freight or passenger traffic – your concept may be strongly oriented towards freight, so perhaps your layout concept would mention that. You might say:

A permanent extensive freight layout with realistic southern Rocky Mountains scenery.

 I expanded my layout concept into the following list of design criteria:

  • Size: 4′x8′ (nominal), with an optional detachable staging/marshalling yard.
  • Trackage: Use my existing inventory of Märklin M-Track and accessories, augmented if needed (eBay, etc.).
  • Construction: Easily storable, such as by hoisting it to garage ceiling.
  • Configuration: Flat (all track at same elevation), with no hidden track.
  • Scenery detail level: “Toy” – no super-detailing of structures or terrain.
  • Operations: Provide freight interchange with a mainline and several sidings, and simple passenger traffic options, both with and without the optional staging/marshalling yard.
  • Signals: None.
  • Catenary: None.
  • Automatic train operation: None.
  • Control system: Digital control of locomotives; analog control of accessories (switches, uncouplers).

As you might expect, I had numerous reasons behind each point, of which most were traceable back to the concept statement. However, some were based on economics: I didn’t want to buy all new C-Track (at a cost of roughly $2,000). Others were related to complexity: the catenary decision is an example of that. Although I did not document all those reasons, I now wish I had (but that’s just me).

I suppose you could see a connection between my pre-retirement employment (as an aerospace engineer) and this approach. That may well be the case, but I find it is much easier to have the documentation complete – and readily available for reference as I build – before I start. In that way, I am able to keep my project on track, so to speak, and to end up with a product that I am happy with.

While my list of design criteria works for me, you should, of course, develop your own. I would be flattered if you would use my list, but you will undoubtedly find additional criteria to add that are significant to your layout project. One thing I would strongly recommend: document the criteria for things you are omitting, as well as what is included. And remember, it is your Might Railroad Empire, so you can change the concept and list of design criteria if you want: the fact that you make such a change should prompt you to review the effect on other criteria, as well as on the design concept itself.

2 Responses to Layout Design Choices

  1. Bill Weizel says:

    Useful approach as it appears to simplify some of the decisions that one must make. Procrastination and a lot of other things have gotten in the way of my ‘threatening’ to build a layout over the last 20 years or so, but Fred offers a useful way to think about inventorying what one has to get moving… Thank You…

  2. Hans Blessing says:

    Thank you for the information on converting old maerklin parts to digital format. I have a few “Z” gauge tracks I would love to convert to the digital format. Reading your artikel it gives me new hope to do so. i also have some trains I hope to convert as well.
    Thank you again.
    Hans Blessing

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