How to design a control panel for your model railway

17 June 2020
Switches, wires, lights and push buttons combine in these often-complex spaces. Howard Smith outlines considerations to make the heart of your model railway better suit your needs, as he creates a control panel for BRM's 'Runcorn Salt Union' layout.

Control panels were once the sole nerve centre for model railway operation. From here, every aspect of the layout would be controlled. With the advent of DCC, on such-equipped layouts, their use has declined and some DCC layouts have disposed of such panels entirely.

If you’re designing a control panel, it’s easy to be influenced by others’ designs and create a panel that you feel is how a control panel should look, not one that suits your requirements. Ask yourself why you need a control panel – perhaps you don’t. From the control of signals, to points and accessories, all can be accessed at the press of a few buttons on the numerous mid-range and above DCC handsets.

For DC layout users, unless operating a straight piece of track, some form of control panel – even if a solitary switch for a single point – will be required. On such layouts, the control panel remains key to operation because of the need for isolation sections. Signal and point control switches are usually added, some preferring to control each separately, others opting to wire signal control to points or isolation sections, to avoid Signals Passed At Danger (SPADs), declutter their control panel and reduce the number of switches that must be remembered to flick.

An important aspect of control panel design is making it easy to understand. You might understand it, but I feel it’s important that anyone should be able to walk up to it, and, within a minute or so, understand the task each switch performs. I’ve operated layouts where switches aren’t labelled and the guessing game becomes tedious. Take an isolation switch for instance – labelling it should be simple, but don’t write on/off on a label as it’s confusing. Does ‘on’ refer to the isolation being active and power cut, or does it refer to power being applied? Simplifying it to Isolation/Power, or better still, for space on small stickers, Isol/Pwr makes better sense for saving space.

Another important aspect is the role of a control panel in the operation of a layout other than that outlined above. Does the control panel operator act as ‘signalman’, thereby ‘authorising’ the passage of trains across a stretch of line? If so, the role is reversed and on a large layout the control panel operator doesn’t switch signals reactively for the benefit of the spectator, but proactively, indicating to those ‘in-charge’ of a train that they have ‘right of way’. Perhaps the layout is even larger and there is more than one control panel, each operator being responsible for a stretch of track, as per signal boxes. In this instance, is a form of communication between each required, perhaps?

Lastly, and possibly more sympathetic on a present-era model railway, some form of route indication with LEDs might be beneficial. If your layout is to tour the exhibition circuit, don’t be shy of sharing operation with the public, either. Computer control of your DCC layout on a flatscreen monitor with train identifiers, forthcoming trains and route indication can be quite entertaining. Let's get started.

To read more about our office layout, 'Runcorn Salt Union', read our build diary here.

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To get a rough idea of the trackplan shape and its curves, an overhead photograph is taken. A small panel is all that's required on this layout, keeping things simple.
How to design a control panel


From the photograph, a sketch of the trackplan is created on paper. An outline for the location of point switches and LED lights is added, with allocations for future lighting accessory switches. I’ve left room for expansion with additional switches.
How to design a control panel


The control panel frame, at 597mm in length was made by White Rose Modelworks at the same time as the baseboards. I’m measuring it for the overall panel fascia size.
How to design a control panel


Inspired by the Salt Union logo, present on the loading point building after the management buyout of the Folly Lane salt business from ICI, we design the control panel in Adobe InDesign. It’s the industry standard, but other equally-capable and free pieces of design are available to use, such as Gimp, or Inkscape.
How to design a control panel


The design is printed onto 80GSM self-adhesive paper. Checking the trackplan has printed to the correct size, it is carefully stuck to a 5mm thick piece of backing-board and left to dry for a few minutes, by our digital department.
How to design a control panel


Pilot holes for the switches and LED lights are drilled with a 3mm diameter bit, then opened to the final size carefully with a 6mm diameter bit. The board has a tendency to melt.
How to design a control panel


The switches are fed through the holes and secured – but not overtightened – with the nuts provided. DCC Concepts LEDs are a push-fit, but to keep them secure during transport, I’m adding a little UHU glue around the edges for safe measure.
How to design a control panel


Functionality of the new panel is tested and it is fixed using Velcro. More complex control panels require more holes and better planning, but for our needs, it’s adequate. If control with the switches is reversed, rotate them through 180 degrees.
How to design a control panel

For more information on DCC controllers, have a look at our guide here.

If you're looking for more advice on wiring your layout, the below articles should help give you a steer.

Wiring your model railway - top tips 

How to fit a DCC uncoupler

Still searching for trackplan inspiration? Our guide gives you simple trackplan suggestions to help you get started. 

If you’d like some more advice, take a look at the BRM Techniques page for all our latest guides and advice articles.