Introduction to themes, eras, roles, intent, geographic location, etc.

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Some of this material is also touched upon in Why do you want a layout? and in Using Givens and Druthers to guide the process. There will be some overlap in these categories.



A model railroad's theme is hard to disentangle from geographic location, era, and prototype but disentangle one must. While it is hard to explain in abstract terms just what theme is, examples make short work of getting our point across. If you like western narrow gauge mining railroads and wish to model same, you have made a decision about theme. If you enjoy modeling urban areas and the railroads that worked them, you have made a decision about theme. Mainline versus shortlines is largely a decision about theme. If you have decided on a switching layout, you probably have begun the process of choosing a theme but are not quite finished yet. Will your switching layout focus on a small yard in a small town or will you attempt to capture some of the switching done near and about a large freight yard in an eastern city?

The choice of industries you model is largely an issue of theme. Are you interested in logging? Mining? Warehouses? Steel Mills? Auto Plants? Do you like grain silos? Refineries? This list just scratches the surface of industries that can set the theme of your layout. Setting yourself free from the orthodoxy of other modelers could allow you to select a theme that truly pleases you and draws the praise of other modelers who admire your creativity. Featuring any of these on a layout would likely dictate your theme.

Of course, your choice of geographic location will impact the theme. A sugar cane railroad on one of the Hawaiian Islands will have a much different theme than a small Eastern narrow gauge railroad on the mainland.

Are you interested in passenger operations? Will you include a big city passenger yard in your layout? How about a passenger terminal with an REA facility and post office? This too can be a theme. Are you interested in railmarine? What about New England fishing villages? Do you want to include tracks crossing an industrial waterway with barges passing underneath? Do you want to include railroad tugs sporting your railroad's color scheme? Will you include a railroad car ferry? Car floats? A float bridge? While these could be characterized as decisions about era and location, your choices in these just cited regards are really decisions about theme


Era is the time setting of your model railroad. It will no doubt impact your theme and your choice of prototype but it has a flavor and texture all its own. It certainly will dictate your choices in rolling stock and motive power. Before picking an era, be aware of the models available in your scale and price range. It may be that some items will only be available in brass. It could also be that your choice of era will require you to get involved in scratch-building or paying someone to do the scratch building for you.

You might even pick an era independent of your railroad preferences. You just might want to model an era because you like art deco buildings or the look of automobiles of the 1950s, or perhaps it is the advertising of the 1960s that captures your fancy. How about the roaring twenties as a theme? Perhaps you just love the look of big city warehouses? While these words might seem like heresy to some, I am acutely aware that its your railroad.

How specific will you be? Is steam, transition, or diesel era as specific as you would like to get? Or would you like to focus on a specific day, month, and year, as has Jack Burgess of Yosemite Valley RR fame.


By roles we mean two things, first, the role you seek for your layout to play; and second the role its owner seeks to play in its operation or construction. Is your layout being designed for Railfanning purposes? If railfanning is your primary interest, then accurate and appealing rolling stock and motive power will have an important role for you that must be duplicated in model form. An overriding interest in railfanning might even extend to a attenuated interest in lineside railroad structures which will call on such modelers to include them on their layouts. Historic preservation? Historic preservation requires much research and modeling buildings and other man-made structures as well as natural areas that no longer exist or are threatened with destruction. Does your modeling efforts serve to further your interest(s) in industrial archaeology? If so, your will certainly wish to include industries on your layout that are no longer in operation. You will also need to research what sorts of rolling stock served these industries and then model the same. This could involve having custom decals made up for more obscure rolling stock that has yet to capture the attention of commercial decal manufacturers. If your interest runs to operations you might care a bit less about scenery. Yet, good scenery cannot help but increase operational enjoyment.

We now turn to the role of the layout builder. Does he see himself as the curator of a museum exhibit? The Dispatcher? Engineer? Yard Master? Trainmaster?

If the role you see yourself playing is museum curator then you may, for example, place an accurate historical replication of place and time before operational ease. As a curator, count on putting a great deal of time into research that could cut into the time you have available to build your layout. As curator you are really telling a story. You must carefully pick those elements from reality that serve a purpose in telling a story. Remember what your teachers in school told you about art -- assume that everything in a painting is there for a reason, it is not just happenstance. Your modeling will tend to do the same if you are to be a good curator of the story of railroading.

If you see yourself as a dispatcher, be sure to plan for a dispatcher's desk somewhere in the area dedicated for your model railroad. If you see yourself as Yard Master, we can safely assume you will need to plan for one or more really interesting yards. If the yards are large, although this is not a prerequisite, they make tend to elbow out other layout features.

Geographic Location

This one seems self-explanatory. Its importance lies in reminding us that just because we have picked a prototype and era our work - or play - does not end there. I model the Long Island Railroad in the 1960s. When people hear that, they think of commuter trains winding through suburbs, or taking people and goods through what was then still largely a rural panorama past duck farms and people ice skating on frozen ponds. Quite to the contrary, I model the western end of Long Island, marked by warehouses, light industry, and very few trees. It is critical that I communicate to my visitors the geographic area I seek to model. My task, and that of others, no doubt, is made even more pressing as I model the Montauk Branch. When most folks hear the word Montauk, visions of the east end of the island spring to mind with the Montauk Lighthouse stark against the sea.

The desert, New England, Southern small towns are all locales that could form the basis of the geographic location of one's layout. Some layout planners might think that geography is not a central choice to be made in planning their layout but I would argue otherwise. The choice of what geography to model does not flow mindlessly from one's choice of prototype layout. Many railroads traversed all manner of geographic areas. For this reason, research will be important in matching your geography to your modeled prototype. Think about what geography appeals to you as you narrow down the area you seek to model of your particular prototype. When freelancing, your choice of geography may less constrained but that does not release the model railroad planner from the constraints of plausibility.


Weather and seasons have started to figure into the setting for great model railroads. One must admit that until relatively recently, the depiction of weather was the poor stepchild of model railroading. Just getting a layout finished and well detailed seem challenge enough for most modelers. That has changed with several highly publicized layouts. Take for instance Cal Winter's Florida East Coast Key West Extension, the subject of Allen Keller's Volume 41 of Great Model Railroads. Who hasn't seen Allen's video and not felt the sweltering heat of Florida? For that matter, who hasn't been impressed by the cold weather connoted by the barren trees visible on Paul Dolkos' Boston and Maine layout in HO scale. How about Rand Hood's winter scenes? All these layouts demonstrate the important role that weather can play in our layouts.


There can be no denying that season in many respects overlaps with weather as a subject for modeling. Though, there is a difference between the two. Two modelers can both model the winter season and yet model different weather. One can model deep snow while the other can model a relatively dry cold. Similarly summer can be modeled with figures dressed for the season even while the weather (dry-wet) offer choices to the modeler. My own unscientific observations lead me to believe that most modelers, when they pay attention to season at all, model the spring or summer. That is, they model trees that have green leaves. Other layouts I have read about have sought to model Autumn through the use of colored leaves on the trees. I suppose Paul Dolkos' layout is one of the most striking layouts I have visited with its bare trees suggesting late Fall or Winter. My opinion is that most modelers would be better served by paying closer attention to selecting and then modeling a particular season on their layout.


Your decisions about the topics covered in this chapter will have wide ranging implications. They will dictate your choices about scenery, rolling stock, benchwork, and even fascia, yes fascia! One beautiful layout appearing the modeling press depicted the southwest and carried that theme through to the facia and valance and wings which were made of corrugated steel to evoke the nature of the non-residential buildings dotting this area. Clearly scenery will flow from your choice about geographic location(s). The man made scenery (structures, bridges, etc.) will flow from both geographic and era choices you make. What role you envision playing with your trains will influence your benchwork choices.

About this content:
Original author: Nicholas Kalis. Last revised on 4/28/2004.
This LDSIG article is ©2004 by Nicholas Kalis (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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