04 August 2020
Planning a model railway is akin to a crossword as ideas mesh together. Phil Martin's suggestions will help keep your thoughts focused, ensuring your trackplan is optimised.
First tip; don’t worry about getting everything exactly correct from the start - make rough approximations or even guesses in the early stages if you need to. They will either prove to be great ideas or will be changed later on. Eventually the design should settle into one design where all the parts works well together and you can live with any compromises you have made.
Make a wish list
Before you start planning you should have a list of the features you want in the layout. This can include scenic features, operations, era, region and practical things like the fiddle yard, access requirements and minimum requirements for train lengths and track radii. Consider how much capacity your fiddle yard will need and include that in your list. Keep this list in mind while you are planning and come back to it later to make sure you have ticked everything off. Be prepared to compromise if you find that things don’t fit.
First, think critically about whether the proposed space is actually suitable for a layout. Is it easy to access for you and any visitors? Is the temperature comfortable for most of the year? Many layouts are never completed because of difficult access or uncomfortable conditions, which quash the enthusiasm for the project. Might there be humidity problems which would cause timber to swell and metal to tarnish? Is the space secure enough that you don’t fear losing your expensive equipment?
It is important to measure your space accurately including the positions of any doors and whether they open in or out. Don’t assume that walls are straight or at right angles to each other! Hold a long straight edge against walls to check for bowing and take triangular measurements to check angles.
Scale and Gauge
You probably have a scale in mind before you start planning and it’s important to understand what will fit in the space available. For end-to-end layouts the minimum length is approximately three times the length of the longest train you want to run. For continuous circuit layouts, also known affectionately as “roundy-round” layouts, the minimum radius for curves is one of the most important factors. For OO the minimum radius is 438mm, also known as a second radius or “R2”. Almost all OO rolling stock will work on such tight curves but it will look much better on wider curves of, say, 610mm radius or more. For EM and P4 designs the minimum radii must be increased further still.
Size and Type of layout
Different types of layout suit different spaces. Variations and combinations of all the following types are possible and any of them can produce a great layout if you work within their limitations.
This fiddle yard module is designed to provide quick turnover of locomotive-hauled commuter traffic in and out of the classic Minories terminus. It folds into a 3ft 6in long box, like the matching layout, and despite this small size uses only one small radius turnout, the others all being mediums for smoother running. The drawing shows some construction and electrical details.
Trainset on a board
The “Trainset” type of layout is often built on a single 1220 by 2440mm board. This might seem to be the simplest solution for a first layout but it has some problems: in OO you will be forced to use the minimum radius curves and they will take up a lot of the space, making it difficult to fit other features into the plan. You will need access on all four sides because 1220mm is really too far to reach across without causing damage so the layout will take up a lot of space in the middle of a room and it will be difficult to move safely.
This type of layout most commonly has a terminus station connected to a single fiddle yard and it may be linear, L-shaped or U-shaped. They are simple to construct and are typically either fixed to the walls or free-standing with their own legs so that they can be dismantled and moved easily. Minimum length is more likely to be the limiting factor than minimum radius. Maximum baseboard width is around 762mm to be able to safely reach from front to back. Unless you invest in automation you can’t simply watch the trains go by, you have to drive them. Small end-to-end layouts are a great way to showcase your modelling skills.
This type of layout is based around a continuous circuit of track (usually single or double) that allow trains to run unattended. Many people find this a therapeutic pastime in itself and it has the practical advantages of giving longer running time/distance between stops and offers a safe and convenient place to set up the running characteristics of DCC locos. The layout can be all scenic but more typically includes a non-scenic fiddle yard as part of the circuit. Both minimum train length and minimum radius need to be considered. If the radii are wide enough you might be able to accommodate a station on a curve to help fit the layout into a smaller space. A roundy-round layout is usually built permanently into a room but can be free-standing. You will probably need some way to get into the middle of the layout (the “operating well”), which will mean slightly more complex baseboard construction and reduced track width at the entry point. An alternative is to create a dumbbell configuration, if space allows for the loops at both ends.
This plan originated on RMWeb with the question of whether it was possible to fit something like Plymouth North Road into a 16ft by 8ft garage. By skewing the station and combining the pointwork into the curves at the ends it fits very well, with room for five through platforms around 6ft long and three bays. The fiddle yard design (by another helpful RMWeb member) makes very efficient use of the space. Minimum radius is 610mm.
Network layouts to represent a larger part of a railway network including multiple destinations, junctions and other features of major railway infrastructure. Such layouts need a lot of space and run the risk of never being finished or worse, never getting to a state where they can even be used! These are best built and operated by a team of people.
Keep the track level and easy to reach
Track gradients need to be very shallow to work reliably: 1 in 35 at the steepest for small trains only and ideally 1 in 50 or shallower. They take up a lot of room so it’s simplest to avoid them if possible.
Hidden fiddle yards or storage loops sometimes seem to be a good space-saving idea but they can be difficult to live with because of access problems and lack of visibility so only consider them as a last resort and plan them with great care!
Starting to plan
It’s important to design the whole layout at once because all the parts can affect the others. Don’t leave parts such as fiddle yards until later.
Start with the rough positions of the big features like stations, fiddle yards, town and countryside areas. Ideally, someone entering the space should immediately see the best view of your model, not the back of a backscene board. Any lifting section is best placed in a non-scenic part of the layout and it makes sense for it to be next to a non-scenic fiddle yard.
Think about the visual composition of the scenic areas and how trains will enter and exit the scene. This is a huge subject that will be covered in part II in the next issue.
The baseboards should fit the railway, not the other way around! So don’t draw baseboard outlines too early but do bear in mind the need to reach across the layout while planning the trackwork and leave comfortable space for yourself in any operating wells or access hatches.
It’s important to know how the real railway worked in your target region and period. Stations built at the same time by the same company often share similar features. So even if your station is fictitious you can give it a sense of verisimilitude by picking up the key style elements from real nearby stations. Railway companies tried to avoid facing points wherever possible before the 1930s. During WWII there were big changes over the entire network and again in the ‘70s and ‘80s when a rationalisation programme radically changed the character of much trackwork.
If you want to model a real place or just want some inspiration there are some useful historical mapping websites where you can see real railway trackplans. The maps don’t show details like slip crossings but that information will be on the signalling diagrams for the location, which can be found on the web and in specialist books. Be careful to match the date of the signalling diagram with the date of the map and, if you are in any doubt, ask the knowledgeable people on RMWeb.
Track plans from maps can’t usually be scaled down directly onto your layout - they have to be compressed. That means shortening sidings and loops, tightening curves and using shorter, sharper turnouts such as those supplied by Peco. You might even have to leave out some elements entirely but if you do, check that you have retained the essential character and operational working of the plan you are adapting. Railway features are often very long and thin, strung out along the formation, so another compression technique is to try re-arranging them to be alongside each other - but be careful to keep things looking and working authentically.
Straight tracks parallel to the baseboard edges can be rather dull because trains move in one axis only so it’s often good to align the main tracks diagonally, which also makes better use of the space. You could also introduce some subtle curves if you don’t have any, just to make the trains articulate and look more alive as they move.
If you are modelling a rural scene you usually need more room for non-railway scenery and the track shouldn’t get too close to the backscene unless you have a convincing method of concealment. In urban scenes you can push the track closer to the backscene and use walls or buildings to disguise the proximity.
A clever way to use a small space is to model part of a station, imagining that the other part is off-scene but you may then find it unsatisfying that some crucial operations take place off-scene.
When to stop planning
It’s best to get everything sorted out in the plan before you start to build. When you can visualise all aspects of the layout and how to operate it I suggest you set the plan aside for a while before starting construction! After a few days away you will usually see tweaks and improvements that you missed before. If you can’t see any major improvements then it’s time to build!
Looking for some tips in laying track? Our useful guide provides the basics to help you get started.
Need more advice? Take a look at the BRM Techniques page for all our latest guides and advice articles.