Thoughts About Layout Design 1

Thoughts About Layout Design 1


By Ernest H. Robl

New model railroaders often want advice on how to design their first layout — or where to find appropriate layout plans. They are not happy when they are told that this is neither an easy nor simple request.

Yes, we all want a place to operate our trains, but that layout will depend on many factors, including:

  • The amount and shape of the space in which you want to build the layout
  • Whether the layout is expected to be a permanent fixture, or may need to be moved to another location
  • The type of skills you have (or the assistance you can get) for carpentry, wiring, and other tasks
  • How many operators the layout is expected to have — something I’ll look at in more detail later on
  • The financial resources and time you have and are willing to commit to this project

I don’t consider myself an expert on layout design. But, I’ve spent a lifetime covering prototype railroads as a journalist and have written about model railroad subjects (including layouts) for publications. Years ago, I did a number of photo assignments for the magazine Model Railroader. (Yes, that magazine does sometimes hire professionals for photo assignments.) I’ve visited layouts of all types in person and learned even more about layouts by reading about them.

So, I’ve developed a philosophy of model layout design, which I am applying to my current project, my third major attempt at a layout.

That philosophy is focused on a number of guiding principles — which are what this essay is about.

You don’t have to agree with my philosophy or my guiding principles, but having your own guiding ideas will help you come up with a better layout.

Many of the ideas that follow are probably not original to me, but, as much as I like to give credit for good ideas, I really don’t know where I first saw them or how they developed.

Many overlap. Some may conflict with each other. When that’s the case, look at which is more important — and which would cause the most problems if it is ignored.

So, on to the guiding principles:

A model railroad is a stage on which things happen.

To me, this is the most important principle, because it has many implications.

  • A theatrical stage is a defined space within which things happen, but it is assumed to be a part of a much wider world.
  • Actors enter and leave the stage — presumably coming from and going elsewhere in the real world.
  • The stage represents a time and place in the real world — not necessarily an exact time and place, but one that could exist or could have existed.

The most important implication of this analogy is that you want to have trains enter and exit the visible parts of the layout. For that, you need some hidden staging tracks.

Layouts are vast compressions of reality.

In HO scale, for example, the relationship between our scale models and reality is 1:87. So, even a single mile of track depicted at that scale would take up about 60 feet.

Even relatively small stations typically stretch over a couple of miles, once you include approach tracks and switches on their periphery.

So, you need to selectively compress many other features.

Operation is the whole point of the layout.

There is nothing wrong with collecting and displaying railroad models. But you can display these models on bookshelves or in display cases. On the layout we want to run trains — in a manner that at least somewhat echoes the operation of real railroads.

Therefore, all parts of your design need to be tested as to how they affect operation.

Once you have a plan on paper — the first drafts do not have to be to exact scale — mentally run trains over those tracks. See what works and what doesn’t.

How long a station track or platform length do you need for a five-car passenger train? A seven car train?

That doesn’t mean that planning for and construction of structures and scenery cannot be enjoyable parts of the hobby. But these activities are supporting players on our stage.

Every track has a purpose.

The idea is not to fill up your space with tracks, but, rather to first determine what you want these tracks to do.

Prototype tracks can have many different purposes, from the storage of unused cars to maintenance of locomotives — in addition to the expected purposes of connecting stations or serving industries.

At the point that you include a track in your design, you should also have an idea or what that track’s purpose is.

Yes, that purpose can change over time. See the section on backstories, below.

The edge of the layout is a slice through the “real world.”

Therefore, it makes sense that roads, fields, forests, and other geographic features of the layout go right up to that edge. After all, the roads are supposed to come from somewhere, too.

You probably do not want to slice through a house or other structure at the edge of a layout, though that could be interesting, if you have the appropriate interior detail.

If you do have a track that goes off the edge of your layout without a bumper at its end, you need to make sure that the connecting switch will not route a train onto that track. At the same time, this track is the perfect location to place a group of track workers and track machinery.

Stuff happens.

No matter how carefully you lay tracks, connect your wires, and do all the other tasks required to build a layout, sooner or later, something will go wrong. Keep this in mind as you design your layout. If tracks are close to the edge of the layout, include landscape features such as a hedge on that border to keep derailed engines or cars from immediately plunging to the floor.

For hidden trackage, add a border lip to the supporting surface.

You need access to every inch of track.

Track requires maintenance, mostly in the form of cleaning. Trains derail. And, electrical connections can fail.

Yes, track cleaning cars are valuable — I own one myself — but there are times when you just need to clean the track manually. And, of course, you need to be able to clean up derailments.

Don’t fight the laws of physics; they will win.

There are limits to the grades that a locomotive with various types of trains can handle. Curves that are too tight will cause problems. Running trains too fast through curves will cause problems.

And these problems will cause other problems already mentioned — things falling to the floor.

Avoid running tracks parallel to the edges of your layout.

While having tracks close to the edge of the layout simplifies access, the landscape — even if it is relatively flat, will look more interesting if tracks cut through it at an angle..

Avoid symmetry, when you can.

Nature is seldom perfectly symmetrical.

There are three big space-savers used by prototype railroads that we can use, too.

These are lap switches (otherwise known as three-way switches), double-slip switches, and curved switches. All three of these are more expensive both for the prototype railroads and for modelers than standard switches, so there needs to be a good reason for using them.

Lap switches are two regular switches, facing the same way with diverging tracks going to opposite sides, that have been overlapped. Hence the prototype name of lap switch.

Double-slip switches are two switches, back-to-back, that have been overlapped.

And, of course, curved switches mean that we can have longer station or passing tracks, because the switches leading to them have been moved into a curve.

Single-slip switches are not space savers. They normally require two additional normal switches as bypass tracks. They do provide some additional flexibility in operation, but, in the beginning, I would stay away from these.

You don’t need to put every piece of rolling stock you own on your layout.

If we go back to our stage analogy, a theatrical group will typically have more actors than appear in any one play. Similarly, you can change rolling stock to run different types of trains, even if all of those trains do not fit on the layout at the same time.

Rules matter.

Almost from the beginning, railroads in all countries have had all sorts of rules that employees are expected to abide by, often at the peril of being fired for not obeying them.

The rules have two basic purposes:

  • Safety
  • Predictability

Let me give an example of the second: If situation X happens, employees are expected to do Y. While this may have some safety implications, it also means that if a particular situation comes up, the employees will not have to spend time figuring out what to do — and all employees will expect the same response from other employees.

We don’t need to have a lot of rules on our model layouts, but having at least some that replicate prototype practice can make operation more interesting.

Two of the rules that I plan to use on my layout:

  • Only work trains or local freights heading into an industry without run-around possibilities are permitted to move between stations with cars ahead of the engine. (Push-pull trains with cab control cars are not included in this rule.)
  • Local freights working an industry are not permitted to leave uncoupled cars on the main line if that main line is on a grade. (There are actually means of securing uncoupled cars on a grade on a model railroad, but that’s a subject for another time.) So, the local freight will have to leave other cars at the nearest station.

Logic matters.

Convoluted industrial or yard trackage can be a (sometimes fun) challenge to switch, but, if installing a switch at a particular place or moving a switch to location would greatly simplify operations, the prototype railroad or industry would have done so.

Don’t make track configurations unnecessarily complicated.

Having a backstory helps.

Movie or novel characters typically have backstories — even if they aren’t revealed in detail to the audience. These stories of what happened before the slice of time depicted helps define the characters and their motivations.

Your stations, industries, or other locations on your layout can have backstories, too. What you are depicting is a location at a particular time. But, the configuration of that location may have been determined by something that happened in the past.

Example: In the station at the end of the branchline on my layout, there is a two-stall roundhouse. The tracks are accessed by a 15 degree switch.

Well, normally, engine houses only accessed by switches would be rectangular and would have parallel tracks. My backstory is that this station did have a turntable serving the roundhouse initially, but it was taken out and filled in to make more space in the yard for other tracks — after the branch changed over to tank engines and bi-directional diesels, which do not need to be turned.

Similarly, on my previous layout, the backstory for the home base of my fictitious railroad construction contractor was that it was on the site of a former Austrian Federal Railroads maintenance facility. That — and the fact that a track construction company would be able to maintain complex track components such as double-slip switches — allowed the use double-slip switches, which would not normally be found on industrial trackage.

The same will apply to the home base of the track construction company on my new layout.

Operators affect design; design affects operation.

I’ve already mentioned the need for access. Larger layouts will have aisles that go into the layout. These aisles need to be wide enough for the people that operate the layout. If you plan to have multiple operators, the aisles may need to be wide enough for one person to get by another.

A common mistake is to exactly shrink a plan designed for one scale to another smaller scale. For example, you can keep most of the features of a track plan for HO scale, if you build it in N scale — but when you shrink the plan, you cannot shrink the aisles. The humans operating the layout are still the same size for an N scale layout as they are for an HO or O scale layout.

My own layout will be primarily a one-person operation — but it will certainly be possible for a visitor to run a train up the branchline or switch an industry while I am doing something else.

In the beginning, you may need to explain to your guest operator which cars need to go to what tracks — and why. (Remember about tracks having a purpose?)

Whatever works for you works.

Unless someone else is paying you to build a layout, the only person you have to satisfy is yourself. If you really want to run some improbable combinations of rolling stock over an improbable track configuration — hey, it’s your railroad.

Long ago, I saw — on a layout at a train show — a train that depicted a particular U.S. railroad. At that time, that railroad’s management had been extremely unfriendly to railfans. So, the train consisted of locomotives and flat cars carrying military tanks. But, rather than being labeled for the U.S. Army or Marines, the military tanks on the flatcars had the insignia of the railroad!

To be continued

Many of the above points could be discussed in much greater detail, but, for now, I’m just presenting some basic ideas.

In the second part of this Blog (click the link to go there), we’ll take a look at applying some of these principles to a small beginner layout — that begins with a start set.


As always, comments are welcome. However, more extensive discussions will work out better in the Reynauld’s Forum


3 Responses to Thoughts About Layout Design 1

  1. Arvids says:

    Good article! A printer friendly setting for printing this article would be appreciated.
    Thank you,

  2. Ernest Robl says:

    I cannot provide a direct printer-friendly version, however, with most browsers, you can select the text to be printed — in this case just the column with the Blog posting — and then during printing just specify the printing option of only printing the marked selection.

    For example: Select the text to be printed, then do a P to bring up the printing dialog box. There you select the option of just printing the selected part of the page. Then click on the [Print] button.

    That should give you a more printable version.

    – Ernest

  3. srinivas says:





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