Human factors, aisles, crew lounge, etc.

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A number of human factors need to be taken into consideration when designing a layout. We are assuming a clean, dry space to work in right from the start (see also chapter D8 on finishing the layout room). Good access to virtually every square inch of your layout needs to be provided for construction, maintenance, and operation of your trains. Ease of access depends upon a combination of the height of your layout, its depth, the size of your aisles, and the relation of these factors to your own physical dimensions. As in everything else in layout design, planning your layout for habitability requires a number of compromises and trade-offs.

Access is profoundly affected by the relationship of layout height to its width. Lowering the height of your layout increases the depth into which you can reach. Raising your layout decreases the distance you can reach without damaging scenery at the front of the layout (or dislocating your shoulder!). But, every layout is unique. The limits shown below are routinely exceeded in both directions, so you should not be afraid of ignoring any of this advice so long as you clearly understand what you are gaining and more importantly what you will lose by doing so.

Classic era model railroaders tended to build their layouts at relatively low levels - from floor level to tables mostly in the 30" to 36" range. Since model railroaders like to view moving trains at eye level, a layout in this range is best viewed while sitting in a chair, or bending over. Either method requires extra aisle space. Lower layouts trade easy access to the top for more difficulty when working on the underside.

Average layout heights have been gradually rising over the years. Modern modelers, especially those who are operationally oriented, build theirs higher - many in the 48" to 54" range. The higher layout makes it easier to view the trains at track level. It is also easier to work on the underside, not to mention being easier on the back if a duck under is necessary to get from one side of the layout to another. But higher layouts require you to stand up to operate (which is hard on the feet), and in areas such as yards, it may make it difficult to see far enough into the layout to be able to read car numbers on inner tracks. For that reason, yards are often built at a lower level than the rest of the layout - 42" to at most 48" being a good range.

One of the best ways to decide on the height of your layout is to visit as many operating model railroads as possible before starting your own pike. Take a small tape measure along with you and discretely measure layout height, aisle widths, and any other dimensions that seem interesting to you (such as distance between levels). Keep a record of your findings, including what you like and dislike about each. As a general rule, the smaller the scale, the better the layout will look when built at heights that are closer to eye level.

It is very helpful to develop a set of personal standards for yourself. Important information to include is:

   * Your own Height
   * Your Eye level
   * Distance from floor to your armpit
   * Reach from your armpit to wrist
   * Distance from floor to your elbow
   * Your depth ­ front to back ­ at waist and chest
   * It would be a good idea to have these dimensions for your crew and visitors as well. Try to decide how many people will need to be accommodated at one time. Will you or some of your operators or visitors have special or unusual access requirements or needs? (see chapter on Handicap accessibility) 

+ Your own height and that of your tallest expected operator or visitor set the minimum overhead clearance requirement.

+ Your eye level minus three to four inches is the highest level at which track can be located while allowing you to see car numbers on a second track. If you are tall, this may have to be adjusted down a bit to allow for shorter operators.

+ The eye level of your shortest visitor needs to be considered when setting average layout height. If the short viewers are only occasional visitors (as opposed to regular operators), step boxes can be provided for them, but they are unhandy and can get in the way.

+ The height from floor to your armpit is the highest level at which you can reach into the layout without resorting to a ladder or stool.

+ The height from floor to elbow is about the lowest level to mount a control panel for easy standing access without strain. If your layout is located below this level you will have to bend when reaching into the layout.

+ The distance from your elbow to your wrist is your maximum convenient reach into a higher layout. You can actually reach in as far as the distance from your armpit to your wrist, but some contortion may be necessary to avoid damaging scenery, structures and rolling stock at the front of the layout.


At about a 30" layout height, most people can reach as much as 36" into the layout for scenery construction. It is better to restrict this to a maximum of 30" for simple trackage with no turnouts and to a maximum of about 22" to 24" for areas that may need frequent access for operation or maintenance. Where access is available from both sides of the layout these figures can be doubled. They can be varied a bit, depending on your own height and reach, but are a good starting point for planning purposes.

As the height of your layout increases, your reach will decrease. At a height of 54", track is best kept within 12" of the layout edge. Scenery can of course be located somewhat further back, but remember that you will need access to it not only for construction, but for rerailing equipment, maintenance and occasional cleaning as well. It is also more difficult to light a high layout evenly and well (see Chapter D9 on layout lighting).

When trackage reaches heights over about 54", some problems in both viewing and access will be created. Since some of the most impressive prototype RR scenes are viewed from below up an embankment or to a bridge, you willl need to decide in each case if the benefits accruing to your design by high trackage will outweigh the problems created by the height.

You should be particularly careful of the inside corners of "L" and "T" shaped areas of the layout. Swing an arc on your plan equal to your reach from the inside corner towards the back of the layout (from both sides of the "T") and see if there are any areas that will be unreachable. You may have to resort to some form of access opening or "pop-up" to get to them. Although there are occasions where this will be the only way to reach some areas, they are always inconvenient to use and should be avoided if at all possible.

Aisle Width

Aisle width is crucial to good operation. No matter how interesting the track arrangement at the end of a long very narrow aisle, it will not be appreciated properly if you can only get one operator at a time down there when staging a meet. This is such an important factor, that many operation oriented modelers begin planning their layouts by first laying out the aisles.

An aisle along a wall that is only used for occasional construction or maintenance can be as narrow as 12" (but check your own depth at layout height first before establishing that as your a minimum!). An aisle that is only used by one person at a time can be 24" wide. When two people have to pass in that same 24" space it becomes tight. Although 24" is something you can live with if you have to, 30" is a better minimum where people will have to pass frequently. Areas where two operators tend to congregate such as an active switching location are better set at 36" wide. And in high-density areas, such as around major yards, 48" might not be enough. Around control panels it is a good idea to add an extra 2 feet to your aisles. Any of these dimensions can be squeezed briefly if that will let you get in an important element of your design (such as a turn back curve). The 24" aisle can drop to as little as 18" for a SHORT distance, so long as the aisle widens out to somewhat more than 24" for a bit on each side of the choke point. It is important not to have any activity, such as switching, occurring on the layout that might cause operators to congregate at the choke points

It is very helpful to make a full sized cardboard mock-up of key areas of your proposed layout so you can actually try them on for size. See if your aisles will work. Find out if you will be able to reach things on the layout.

Overhead Clearances

Your ceiling height is probably going to be a "given", but generally speaking, the higher it is, the better. If installing a drop ceiling, try not to drop too much! Sometimes a difference of only an inch or two in ceiling clearance will have a major effect on design possibilities in a multi-level layout. If there is a choice of spaces for the layout, the one with a ceiling height that allows you to walk around without worrying about bumping your head is always preferable. Where track crosses an aisle it is nice if it can be at a height allowing you (and your operators and visitors too) to walk under it without having to duck. Since this is not often possible, try to have it cross at the highest possible level.

A "nod under" at a height of 60" to 72" works well, but has to be well marked so that operators won't bump their heads by mistake. Clearances down to about 54" are workable, but as the nod under gets lower, it also becomes less convenient to use.

If at all possible, "duck unders" should be avoided. They are always a problem, especially for older operators and visitors. Where a duck under is necessary, again, the higher it is the better. If a duck under can be kept to 48" or more, most people can swing right under them IF they are not too wide. Width at a duck under is an important factor as the narrower the area to be traversed, the better. A recent idea is to add hand rails at both sides of a duck under. Once a duck under is below about 42" it really becomes a "crawl through". Think about providing carpeting on the floor to protect knees, or a tethered chair with its legs sawn off and castors fixed to the underside to make sliding through easier. In all cases, it is a good idea to install a smooth ceiling all of the way through duck unders to protect the traveler's head. For safety's sake, it is particularly important that the ends of joists which project into the passageway over a duck under be beveled.

In all cases when planning duck unders, consider not only your present age and physical condition, but the fact that we are all of us aging, and what is easy today may be most difficult in a few years. Take the physical limitations of your crew and visitors into consideration too.

A number of creature comforts should be considered too. Both room and layout lighting are very important. They are covered in a separate chapter. A cushioned surface to stand on is important when you are standing hour long during construction or during an operating session. If at all possible, vinyl tile or floor covering should be installed under the layout area before beginning construction. Easier yet on your feet is carpeting, though it is hard to find small dropped objects such as coupler springs on a carpet. And climate control is important too. Not only will the layout operate best if both the temperature and humidity are kept within fairly close limits, but so will you and your guests.


If at all possible, a Crew Lounge should be provided. The lounge is best located adjacent to, but outside, the train room. This gets operators who are not currently running a train out of the train room (so they will not be kibitzing and interfering with other operators). It also lets them relax a bit between assignments, making the whole operating session less stressful and therefore more fun. In addition to a place to sit and table with the latest model magazines and some railroad books, it is nice to have a small refrigerator for cold drinks and a counter for cookies and snacks. Lounge size depends on how many operators you intend to host and how many of those will not be running trains at any given time.

About this content:
Original author: Ross Pollock. Last revised in 2000.
This LDSIG article is ©2000 by Ross Pollock (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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