How To Design A Layout For Your Scale Model Train Track

Toy trains to realistic prototypes all need a setting. Designing a layout for your model trains is an easy process once you answer some basic questions.

Have you recently received a new train set as a gift? Or maybe you've been digging through boxes in the attic and rediscovered the old trains that you hadn't thought about in years? Either way, you're seized by the desire to set up a train layout in your home. Before you rush off to the hardware store to buy plywood and construction materials, you should spend some time deciding what kind of layout you'd like to build, and how best to use your available space.

The first question to consider is: what size trains will you be using? There are several scales in common use: G (for "Garden") scale (1/22.5 as large as real trains); O scale (1/48) in both 2- and 3-rail versions that are not compatible electrically; S scale (1/64), a nice middle size that is growing but doesn't yet have a huge following; HO scale (1/87), as close as there is to a happy medium (and also the most mass-produced and affordable); N scale (1/160), very small and space-efficient, and gaining on HO in popularity; and finally tiny Z scale (1/220), still somewhat of a novelty and difficult for some people to handle, but nonetheless growing rapidly too.

Each scale also has offshoots in "narrow gauge," using skinnier track and rolling stock, that appeal to smaller groups of enthusiasts. Similarly, several incompatible large scales use the same track as G scale, while being at slightly different size ratios such as 1/32, 1/20, and so on. Every scale has magazines and websites devoted to it, and a bit of research and reading will help you decide which scale is really best for you. If you received an N scale set as a gift but want larger, chunkier trains, it's a good idea to take it back to the store unopened and exchange it. Similarly, if you don't have enough space for G scale, or if you don't like its stubby, toylike locomotives and cars and very tight curves, trade it in for a smaller scale. It is far easier to make that decision when you haven't invested much money in equipment, because model railroading (like any hobby) can drain you of a lot of cash before you come to the realization that you might prefer a different scale. Most model trains, except for collectibles which are mostly antique large-scale items or expensive high-end handcrafted brass, don't bring a high resale value. You'll lose money if you try to dump a big lot of trains at flea markets or through online auctions. Settle on your scale before buying!

The second big decision about layout planning is based on what kind of railroading you want to model. You may want a "toy train" layout not much more ambitious than a Christmas tree oval, constructed from sectional track with built-in plastic roadbed, lacking scenery or detail and paying little attention to the types of locomotives and cars you use other than what "looks neat." At the other end of the spectrum, some seek to recreate a specific time and place on a particular real-life railroad, meticulously choosing equipment that matches historical photographs and painstakingly hand-laying track from scratch for complete realism and flexibility. Between these polar opposites lies every imaginable compromise, and most people choose one that suits their skills and their available time.

Next, think about the finished layout and what sort of operation you will enjoy. Do you want to be able to turn on the throttle and have trains run continuously, with little fussing or manipulation of gadgetry? In that case, your track plan should be some variation of an oval or figure-eight. Some people crave the challenge of switching and moving single freight cars around, coupling them and uncoupling them as in a real freight yard or industrial area. Even on a simple beginning layout, you may want to include a siding or two just to add operating interest for the future, because the fascination of a single train running around a loop may diminish after a while. Your available space and the scale you choose will determine how sharp the curves will need to be, and this is an important detail. If a tight space requires a maximum of 18-inch radius curves in HO, for example, then you will need to plan a freight railroad with locomotives and cars of short-to-moderate length. Even though most manufacturers construct their models of long passenger cars and locos to be able to negotiate such sharp curves, that doesn't mean that they'll look good doing so on your layout (imagine an 18-wheel truck turning around in your driveway, and you'll get the idea). It's also worth considering - should you expect to be moving every few years - whether or not your layout should be in any way portable or movable. Most model railroaders build more than one layout in their lifetimes. Even if you plan to stay in your house for a long time you may wish someday to tear down an existing layout and build a new one, as your skills improve and your objectives change.

Let's assume that now you've decided which scale to use, and you have a good idea of the space and budget available to you. You have in mind exactly the type of railroading you'd like to imitate, whether it's long passenger trains whooshing by on a main line or a small switcher moving coil cars around at the steel mill. What's your next step? Go to the hobby shop or the library and take home some books on layout planning. Many such books are in print, catering to the beginner as well as the advanced hobbyist, and in one of them you'll find the track plan that's right for you. Most of these specify the materials needed for construction. Don't forget, also, to look for some material on how to construct your train board, layout table or more advanced benchwork. Other books (and the many railroad magazines) address topics such as electrical wiring, building scenery and structures, oiling and maintenance of locomotives, and dozens of related topics. You can learn a lot at clinics put on by the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) at its trains shows around the country, and also by spending time with experienced modelers and asking questions. Take your time - good layouts are not built in a day!

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