Thoughts About Layout Design 2

Thoughts About Layout Design 2

Starting with a start set

By Ernest H. Robl

In a previous post, Christmas in July, I wrote about how start sets were a good way to acquire model railroad items at great prices — even if you are not a beginner.

In writing the first part of this commentary — what follows will make more sense if you’ve read that part first here — I began thinking about how to apply some of the ideas I was discussing to those really just starting out with a start set.Okay, while a start set is a great way to get items at super prices, they are just a foundation on which to build.

Neither the rolling stock nor the track contained in a start set will give you much in the way of great operating potential.

Typically, most start sets come with one engine and three cars — and a basic circle of track. There are add-on track sets, which still provide track components at a good price. More often than not, these add-on sets are aimed at providing a double-track oval with some cross-overs that allow trains to go from one track to another.


A current Roco start set (available in mid 2017) with an Austrian diesel branchline locomotive that can be used on both freight and passenger trains and that would fit either Era 5 or 6. The set comes with a Multimaus digital controller and a small oval of geoLine track — without any switches. The entire set is priced around $250 — about what a decoder-equipped locomotive would cost by itself. (Roco catalog illustration.)

A much better application of these expansion track components — rather than double tracking a small layout — is to provide passing sidings and industrial spurs. With this approach, you will undoubtedly have some track pieces left over. Don’t be troubled by that. You can always use these later.

Many start sets come with one engine and three identical (other than different operating numbers) freight or passenger cars . This is not a bad thing, but limits operational possibilities.

Many manufacturers offer relatively inexpensive cars that are ideal additions to a start set — freight cars under $25 and passenger cars under $30. Find ones that fit the era and region of your start set and slowly add to your rolling stock over time.

An important point is that, if you are modeling any European country, particularly from Era 3 on, it will not be unusual to have freight or passenger cars from other countries operating in the country you are modeling. Cars from countries bordering the country you are modeling should be the most common.

But, by all means concentrate on the shorter freight and passenger cars that are otherwise applicable to your era. Even in the current era (Era 6), there are still plenty of relatively short freight cars in use on the prototype railroads. Short cars will allow you to use more cars per train — on the same length of track — giving a more realistic appearance.

Project parameters

Okay, here are the basic parameters I set myself for this project

  • We will do the layout in HO, as that is the most common scale — and the scale with which I am most familiar.
  • The layout should fit onto a piece of 4×8 foot plywood, as that is readily available.
  • However, there may be a slight overhang in one or two places, as it is easy to add a small extension to the edge of the layout.
  • For now, we will keep the layout flat, without major grades, but with a portion hidden under scenery, allowing trains to enter and exit.
  • The layout will either be free-standing or with only one of the short sides against a wall. In other words, we want access from the back to a hidden staging area.
  • At some point, we want to reach the stage where you can have at least two operators running trains.
  • At least in the beginning, most turmouts should be manually operable, helping to keep costs down. Some turnouts, such as those furthers from the edge of the layout or hidden under scenery would almost by necessity need to be remotely operated.
  • The layout should be designed such that track expansions and other features can be added over time, rather than all having to be all in place at the same time.
  • The layout should even be expandable off the basic 4×8 plan in the future.
  • The layout should use sectional track, without requiring any cutting of track, so that we can try out configurations without making any permanent changes to the components.
  • The layout should use moderate radii — not the tightest curves available.

In the example that follows, I have used Roco geoLine track, as that is what Roco currently supplies with its start sets. The geoLine library of tracks is also available for the freewarre track planning program that I have been using for my own layout.

Getting started

You’ve picked a start set that will give you the basic oval, an engine (equipped with a decoder), and a digital controller.

Now, look at what we can do with the addition of a few switches to a basic oval.


Here a basic oval on a 4×8 foot base has been supplemented by a few switches.

Notice that the oval is at a slight angle and is not the biggest size that would fit onto the base — for a reason.

This configuration lets you do some run-around moves, pick up and set out cars, and otherwise get used to switching maneuvers.

Here we’ve already declared the back half of the layout as “off stage” — a place that trains can come from and go to.

Upping the potential

Now, look at what we can do with the addition of a few more switches.


Within basically the same space, we now have a lot more operating potential — and the ability to run at least three trains..

The plan still uses mostly radius R3 tracks, which came with the original start set. Only the industrial track within the oval, a track that would not be used by longer passenger trains, uses the R2 radius.

There is a slight overhang at the very front, which can be accommodated by the addition of a small strip of wood to extend the layout.

Now, we can run (and hide) some fairly substantial trains. The station can have its own switcher, stored in a small engine house at center right. That switcher works with the cars set out by through trains and takes them to the industries, where they are later picked up again to be put on an outbound train.

You can have a small station within the oval at the front, in which case the track nearest the station would have wood planking allowing passengers to walk out to the two longer tracks. Or, you can have the station building at the very front of the layout, on a detachable add-on piece — or you can just image it’s there, in the part of the world not included within out layout. In the latter case, you probably want at least and indication of a station platform.

Expansion possibilities

The version of the plan that follows shows just some of the possibilities for adding spur tracks that would go off the main layout, either to additional industries or to small stations, or both. These lines could run along shelving of a foot or less in depth.


A final version with connecting tracks going off the main layout. The industrial tracks at upper left have been moved slightly with a half-curve to better accommodate the switch to the new spur.

You could, for example, have a Triebwagen (diesel railcar) run from the end of one spur through the main station to a station at the end of another spur. That railcar would never need to use the hidden storage tracks, leaving them available for other trains.

If you already adventurous, you could have a slight grade up to either one or both of the industries on the left side. (Industrial locations with two tracks can either be two tracks within the same industry or tracks serving two adjoining industries. Grades up are a lot easier to do on a table-top layout than grades below the main track level. For the ascending grades you can use foam ramps available from a number of manufacturers.

These plans don’t indicate any number of things, such as the location of uncoupling tracks and structures.

Having an engine with digital couplers as the station switcher would help with many switching maneuvers.


These examples are not perfect, by any means. You can probably look at them and find any number of things you would do differently. That’s good. Given enough time, I could find things I would change — if I were actually building a layout that size.

Don’t forget, we are using sectional track, so it’s quite possible to try things out on the real layout top — or even on the floor, before you have the layout table in place..

Among potential issues:

  • I used many curved turnouts, which are more expensive than regular turnouts.
  • You would need some fairly steep cliffs at the back of the layout to divide the hidden trackage from the industry within the oval.
  • Some run-around moves require the engine to go into one of the tunnels.  (I’ve seen stations in Austria where this is the case.)

But consider this: It took me vastly more time to write this description than it did to come up with the three versions of the track plan included above. Those were done in less than an hour total, though I also tried a variety of other possible configurations, which, for various reasons, didn’t work out. (I did, of course, already know how to use the track planning software.)

These are ideas for trying out concepts I discussed in the first part of this two-part article. Now, come up with your own ideas, using parameters you set yourself.


After publishing the main text above, I realized that there was a fairly simple solution to improving operations in the station — adding another set of cross-overs as shown below:


The addition of the second set of crossovers — using two additional switches — greatly simplifies either a through freight or the local switcher working the industrial tracks at upper left.  It also reduces the number of times that run-around moves would need to go into one of the tunnels.


As always, comments are welcome.


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