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After you have selected your layout location, developed a general track plan, and decided on your locale and era, it is best to give some thought to the industries your empire will serve before casting everything in concrete. Your selection of industries will, in many cases, have a distinct impact on your track design as well as the shape and positioning of your benchwork. One of the basic decisions on your industries is whether you want one industry on the layout to serve another, providing a relationship for moving shipments from one to another. An alternate approach is to assume that the suppliers and customers are largely off of the layout and thus the industries will be switched, the trains made up and moved to a "hidden" location that represents the distant industries. Shipments from those industries will then come "on-layout" from the hidden storage area and the cycle continues. The logical thing is to use a combination of the two approaches with emphasis on whichever best meets your desires.

Another different approach, usually for smaller layouts, is to develop the whole layout around a single large industry and it's component elements. Examples of this type of layout would be steel mills, large paper mills, oil refineries, and large coal or mining operations where the railroad is owned by the industry and moves traffic from one functional area to another. This type of layout will usually employ a lot of unique or specialized rolling stock particular to the industry. It would also employ a lot of rolling stock that is for in-plant use only and is beat up and likely missing much of the safety equipment required for interchange. A connection with a regular interchange railroad provides the necessary means of receiving supplies and shipping product. This interchange can be merely simulated with a junction.

Lastly, you may not be motivated to model the industries on your layout prototypicly and rather prefer to merely place industrial structures in logical locations and concentrate on just building a railroad. That is OK too as this is a hobby and should be fun. It is up to you what approach you want to take with the industries for your layout but, from a design perspective, it is important to make this decision early as it affects the rest of the planning.


There are many factors to consider in choosing which industries to use on your railroad. Some of the factors to consider are:

  1. Era - Some industries either did not exist or were more prevalent at certain times. As an example, retail coal yards are almost extinct now whereas they were common as fleas up until the 1950's after which they began to decline due to the reduced use of coal for home and business heating. Another example is the electronics based industries which took off in the 1950's. Foundries were everywhere up until the plastics industry put them out of business.
  2. Geographic location - The industries in agricultural areas are different from those in mountainous areas. Port locations have different industries from desert locations. The industries you choose should be typical of the geographical area being modeled.
  3. Theme selection - Some layouts portray a theme more than a specific geographic location. The theme may focus on a generic location such as a port centered layout that is not specific to any geographic area, but which will dictate water related industries.
  4. Size and scale - The size and scale of your industries set the stage on which your trains operate. The size of your industries should be selected by such factors as the class of railroad you are building and their location. It looks ridiculous for a large class I railroad with major motive power to be serving a lot of tiny industries that are dwarfed by the rolling stock. On the other hand, it seems inappropriate for a small, run down railroad to be servicing large, modern industries. Granted there are exceptions but your railroad will look more realistic if the industries are kept appropriate to the size and scale of the railroad serving them. If you want to have the best of both worlds, design a small branch line or connecting short line to provide for the tiny, funky industries. This approach can even provide a means of having slightly different eras on the mainline and the branch line.

Large industries should be modeled as large industries. We all use some selective compression in our structures to prevent them from overwhelming the layout, but if you try to build a large industry with structures that are obviously too small you end up with a caricature that is not convincing. Well then, how can you model a really big industry without devoting the entire layout to it? There are several approaches:

  1. Model the structures as almost two dimensional flats against the wall. In this way you can have structures that dwarf the trains but take up almost no layout space. The biggest mistake most modelers make with this approach is not providing any variation in depth for a line of structures. By having some structures along the wall project out a little more than the others, or adding a covered loading area or a craneway over the track you break up the monotonous appearance of these flat structures.
  2. Model a representative part of the industry with some indication that the rest of the industry is just around the corner out of sight. Some ways this can be done using the edge of the layout as the break-off, having part of the industry represented as a flat on the wall, or having the industry lead disappear behind other scenery. The representative part could be an oil loading rack for the petroleum industry or a single large mill building for a steel mill. These approaches give you the rationale to use the rolling stock from that industry. You can of course decide that the industry is totally off layout in staging, but that is no fun (my opinion).

Selective compression

Few of us have the space to model any facet of our layouts to the exact scale of the prototype except in limited cases. This applies to our industries. This means you either have to model very small industries or use a technique known as selective compression. Selective compression can be done in various ways, for example shortening the side of a building with 10 windows to one with 8 windows but keeping the general appearance of the structure. This usually entails compressing each dimension somewhat to keep the structure in proportion. One mistake to avoid is reducing the size so much that the structure no longer seems appropriate in relation to the trains.

Suggestive modeling

Another technique for modeling an industry is similar to the above. You can suggest an industry's existence without actually modeling it. The difference between this and modeling a representative part of the industry is that you need not even model a part of it. For instance, industry signs that point to an area just out of sight, or a loading dock with product ready for shipment. Another idea is a bulk mineral transfer station such as a branch or narrow gauge line that dumps coal or rock products into standard gauge car from an overhead trestle. No need to model the mine or quarry - just a dumping facility.

Small Industries

If you have a small layout, you may want to use a lot of small industries to generate a lot of traffic and switching opportunities. When selecting small industries, try to keep them of a size that would logically use rail service. Running a freight car up to an industry smaller than the car does not make sense (I am sure someone can point to a prototype instance of this however). Use of industries that are too small will tend to make your layout a caricature rather than a representative of the prototype.

Railroad serving industries

Some of the facilities that serve the railroad itself can be considered to be industries. These include such facilities as icing platforms, coaling and sand towers, oil servicing facilities, railroad shops, etc. These are in fact traffic generating entities. They also need to have sidings for delivery of materials and serving of the rolling stock.

Team tracks

They got their name from the horse drawn teams that would back up to freight cars to load and unload cargo. The team track often runs behind or beside a freight house or loading dock and is commonly used by small shippers and receivers. Team tracks range from a spur of a few car lengths to 3 and 4 track mini-yards with widely spaced tracks to allow trucks to drive up between them. Large cousins of the team track are now called bulk transfer yards. They allow similar use with customer access directly to the rail car. Unloading for large facilities usually include a crane. Unique unloading accessories such as a conveyor or hose for unloading liquids may be present. Almost any type of rail car could be found on the team track depending on the industries using it. Flat cars with machinery, box cars, gondolas with barrels or drums, of chemicals, reefers with produce and on and on. As these were in almost any town, a couple on any sized layout would be appropriate. A lot of trash around the track from cleaning out cars would give the appropriate atmosphere. Some team spurs may take on the name of their major user, like the Terry lumber spur if there is (or was) a lumber company on the spur. As you can see a team track can add a lot of interest to your layout.


Modeling the prototype. Some modelers elect to model a specific prototype railroad and the towns and industries that appear(ed) along the line. Others merely select one or more industries to model as closely as possible to the prototype. When done well this is a very effective approach and is satisfying to hear a visitor recognize the similarity. It is desirable to model the setting for the prototype along with the industry as the additional effort is usually minimal and the effect is very noticeable.

Prototypical Modeling. For those that either do not have any specific prototype in mind, want to utilize kit components in creating the industry, or just do not want to go to the effort to match a given prototype another effective technique is to model the industry prototypically. This means that your model reflects the practice of the prototype. This technique includes considering the major elements of a typical prototype of the industry and making your industry believable and functionally accurate.

Freelance Modeling. I consider freelance to be different than using a prototypical approach. When freelancing you may not attempt more than a similarity to what you are modeling. This can be achieved by use of kits with little or no modifications. Of course some kits are fairly accurate representations of a prototype, but most are fairly generic. I always like to make at least some changes to personalize the model. Some signage is highly desirable to convey the understanding of what the industry is intended to represent.


The one key factor to consider when selecting industries for a particular era is to be sure that the industry and it's components are not newer than your era. The industry can be older (within reason) as many older structures and machinery continue to function long after newer technology arrives. The bulk of your industries should appear to be fairly contemporary with your selected era as that sets the scene for you. The viewer should be able to look at the layout and have a fairly good idea of the time frame. For the knowledgeable modeler, the motive power and rolling stock are probably the biggest indicator, but the average person will perceive the era based on your structures as that is closer to their experience. Conveying the time frame of your layout to the viewer is like building a stage set. In this case the stage is your layout and the actors are the trains.

Signs on the structures help to position them in time. This can range from the type faces used to the pictures and dates on the signs. For instance, if you are modeling an older petroleum refinery, pictures of barrels of oil will help portray the correct date. If it is a more modern refinery, pictures of modern oil trucks, pipelines, etc., are appropriate. The vehicles and machinery around the industry also help to establish a time frame. The figures you use with the industry also help to convey time frame by the way they are dressed. You can either buy figures appropriate to your time frame or make minor, simple modifications to them to project the proper look.

The older your industry is relative to your current timeline (i.e., the year you are modeling) the more rundown and weathered it should appear. Brand new industries may be sparkling clean with bright paint but almost any industry, especially near the rail line where ours are, tend to get dirty in a hurry. Some modelers do not like to weather their models, either because they just like them to look new or because they are concerned that they will mess up the model they just spent many hours creating. The best way to get over the fear of messing up a model by weathering is to take an inexpensive plastic structure and use it as a test model. To start with try removable weathering techniques (so you can make multiple try's and clean it off easily to try again) like chalks, water based paints, and plain old dirt. It helps to read a few articles on weathering before you start but you can't hurt anything. When you feel comfortable with a technique, try it on your better industry models. In any event, most models convey a more lifelike appearance when toned down from the paint-out-of-the-bottle look, and clearly will make your industries look like they have been functioning.

A very effective technique in building industries to convey the idea that they have been in business for a long time is to have multiple structures as part of the industry with some being of obviously older vintage. The immediate impression is that the industry has been added to over time as the business grew. This can be accomplished by combining multiple kits of various vintage or by scratch building some or all of the components. Another asset of this approach is that your industry does not look exactly like every other modeler's industry just because you bought the same kit. The variety of kits on the market these days is quite large but you can still visit many layouts that look like they cloned the industries.

One of the layout planning factors where defining your era can help is in allocating era correct trackage for your industries. Older eras will often include coal delivery trestles for the industry power plant. Most modern plants no longer use coal. Other examples include allotting adequate industry space for materials yards in older industries and space for the heavy cranes and hoisting machinery that typified older industries. Modern industries have gone to mobile cranes in many cases.

Multi-era methods. Some modelers feel they can not or will not stay with a specific era, perhaps because they want to run the neat equipment from different eras. This tends to destroy the sense of time and place for the viewer unless handled with some rationale. Some workable approaches are use of a modern mainline with older branch line (or narrow gauge subsidiary), use of a rail museum or tourist line concept to explain antiquated equipment, or physical separation of the different eras (a separate layout is best) to eliminate the anachronisms. In the end, you choose and can do what you want because it is your railroad.

In summary, defining the era of your layout early helps you to acquire appropriate structures and plan the layout to include those industrial features of your era.


There are some techniques that can be helpful in the selection and portrayal of the industries for our railroads. Due to our limited space for our layouts, most of us need to design in as much industry rail activity as possible in a small space.

Multi-service industries. An example of a multi-service industry is a port facility. The port facility actually includes multiple industries such as a rail-marine transfer facility (or in more modern terms an intermodal facility), possibly a bulk oil transfer facility (for older eras a coal transfer facility), and other related industries combined into one large operation. This type of industry can be the whole layout if desired.

Another aspect of a multi-service industry is one modeled as two different related industries with a scenery block separating the two personalities. This is especially useful for making open load cars such as hoppers, gons and flats seem to be employed logically without worrying about adding or removing the load. From one viewpoint, unloaded cars enter an industry where the load would be removed (such as hoppers of coal entering a power plant) and from the other viewpoint the loaded cars emerge from an industry which would have logically loaded the (such as a coal mine tipple). Thus you can push the loaded cars into one industry and they come out of another - he loads remain and are logical, and the two Siamese twin industries take up little more room than one of them would in a traditional set up.

Mock-ups. Mock-ups of structures before the actual industry is built can serve a lot of good purposes. It allows you to visualize the size and location before committing to purchase or construction. Often what seems like a good idea for locating an industry is found to be undesirable or impractical when you see it in place. It is also a quick and easy way to get all of your industries conceptually in place at an early stage in layout construction as industries can be time consuming to create. A mock-up looks better than a blank space. The mock-up itself can be anything from crude, plain cardboard boxes of appropriate size to fairly accurate representations of the intended model. An easy way to do a mock-up of an unbuilt kit is to photocopy the various elevations of the plans, glue them to cardboard and assemble. That way the mock-up is of accurate size and looks like the intended model. Photos of the prototype set in place also give an idea of what is intended.


Researching an industry can be an entire subject in itself but I will touch on the high points here. The best resource is a prototype facility. These are not always accessible or, if you are modeling an older era, the prototype may no longer exist or be extensively different from what it was in your modeled era. With a little effort you can usually find adequate information to create the level of representation that you want.

Modeling publications. Most of us have model railroad magazine subscriptions that cover railroad industries to some degree. You can also check with friends for back issues. A good source of model magazine information is the NMRA library in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Industrial references. Depending on the era you are modeling, you can usually find some industrial information in the local library (the bigger the library the more information available). Used book stores are also a good source although not all will carry this somewhat specialized material. Many cities have industrial museums which can be a source of information if you seek out the knowledgeable staff.

Libraries and historical societies. Visiting libraries nearby; the local community library, corporate libraries and state local and federal libraries can be quite helpful. By all means ask the staff for assistance with your research. Many historical societies are willing to assist people seeking information. Do not restrict yourself to only railroad historical societies. Community historical societies often have great resources on local industries.


The best possible source for modeling an industry is the actual prototype. Modelers of contemporary eras can actually visit, photograph, measure, sketch and perhaps tour a prototype of what they want to model. While there, take advantage of the opportunity to talk with employees of the facility. In addition to asking about the operation of the plant, ask about the rail traffic. Often a larger industry will have a public relations office which can be helpful in providing valuable information about their business. Some industries regularly arrange tours for individuals or groups. Contact them in advance if you will be traveling any distance.

Modelers of bygone eras have a somewhat more difficult task as the industries they are modeling may no longer exist, or at best may be substantially modified from their appearance and operation in the era of interest. A visit to the plant or plant site may still be beneficial. Even industries long torn down can still exhibit foundations or track patterns. Older employees of nearby industries and businesses may well be able to relate information of value, or suggest sources of useful information.

An organization that may be of interest for those desiring to be prototypical in their industries is the Society for Industrial Archeology (SIA). While this may sound dull, the organization publishes in depth information on older, often obsolete industries. They also have national and regional conferences which include papers (clinics) and tours of industries both old and new. With these tours you get plenty of information about the industry. Those who may be interested in joining the SIA can request information from:
The Society for Industrial Archeology
Department of Social Sciences
Michigan State University
Houghton, MI 49931-1295


With some advance consideration of the industries your railroad will serve and how you will portray that, you should be able to create a more prototypical, more enjoyable layout. There is more to designing a layout than creating a track plan.

About this content:
Original author: Stan Knotts. Last revised in 1996.
This LDSIG article is ©1996 by Stan Knotts (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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