The layout design and planning process

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You now have concluded the reasons why you want a layout, and believe you should take the time and plan it. But how do you go about doing this? Here are some answers to the question.

Decide on what "Type" of Railroading you wish to focus on. This will be greatly determined on the Reasons you concluded when you decided to build a Model Railroad, discussed in Why do you want a layout?. Is it rail fanning, industrial switching, passenger operation, freight operation, both passenger and freight operation, dispatching, way-freight, or even other possibilities! It is important you decide this now, for changes, though always possible, can be "painful" for the wallet and heart!


Where to build your Empire?

The basement, garage, spare bedroom, your bedroom, the family room, the living room, in its own building, all are possibilities. In any space, unless you are living as a single person, will have to be negotiated from the "better" half. For some, this will be easy, and others, not so. Here are some unique "solutions" as illustrated by fellow model railroaders.

  • Extending the layout into the garage, the Benchwork is supported from the ceiling, and is high enough, to allow the "better" half's car into the garage when there is not an operating session.
  • Building the layout on one of the book case shelves in the Family Room.
  • Designing a basement with a new house to be built above it.
  • Taking over either the Family Room or Living Room completely. WARNING: Do not attempt this unless you are absolutely sure the "better" half will agree with the idea.

The basement or a separate building tends to be the most chosen location for our empires. Before you decide where to build your layout, take into account all the costs involved in preparing the area. Especially for the garage, basements, or separate building, all involve extra costs to "prepare" the room, before building the first piece of benchwork. Refer to Layout room preparation, for more on this subject.

Whatever type of Railroad you wish to build, and where you are going to build it, will have a tremendous effect on what Scale you are going to choose.

Scale, the BIG question?

Scale is a very subjective decision. Some prefer to see the rivets and details, therefore O Scale or larger is preferred, others like a more accurate proportion of track vs. Scenery, therefore N Scale or smaller is chosen. Most of us choose HO Scale, because it is a compromise between the two. This is where the type of Railroad and the size of the area you can build it affects scale. Unless you have a 50 Sq. Ft. building, it would be difficult to have an O Scale Double Track Mainline Railroad, in the 1990's including a dispatcher. On the other hand, if you have, what I call "Clumsy" hands as I do, you do not want to work in N Scale. Even HO can be too small to work with. You will need to evaluate the Pro's and Con's of what each scale offers you.

Layout Type and Style?

By now, you have selected what the railroad is (in general), where you are going to build it, and in what scale it is going to be. Now you have to decide what style of layout to use in building the railroad. Do you want an island style, bookshelf, or walk-around layout. Will one deck do, or is multiple decks needed. All of these are covered in Chapter B.

Research, Research, Research!

Before starting on an actual track plan, it is a very good idea to begin some type of research into the prototype. Even if you are modeling a completely fictitious railroad with no "prototype" in mind, it is advisable to "consult" with prototype practices. If you are modeling a prototype, then of course more research would be advantageous. But be careful not to spend all your time in researching and ignoring building, which is the whole reason for doing all of this!! You do not need to take a geology course in college to know how to model scenery. You only need a minimal amount of information to know enough to do it correctly.

Developing Your Standards, And Keeping Them!

With your research in hand, you now can start drawing your track plan. Before you start, though, you should develop your track standards for your railroad. There is always the NMRA Standards, which is the optimum choice. If you do not have the space, however, following the ones set by the NMRA may not be possible. What is important in setting your standards is to ensure the equipment you will be using can negotiate the standards you set. Do this by taking your largest equipment and run it on some track tacked down to your minimum standards (grade, radius, turnouts, etc.). If there is no problem, then you can adopt those as your standards. When you set those standards, DO NOT FUDGE THEM! You will regret it if you do. Many model railroader's, including myself, have done this, ending up ripping it out and starting over!

Take your time, but do not procrastinate!

An oxymoron? Not really. Before taking nail to wood, you should have a well thought out design and plan in hand. You do not want to spend all your time planning and procrastinating to begin building your railroad empire. You do not need to have a fully developed plan to start, just a good sense of direction in where you want to go.

There is no real "order" in design and planning.

Although this is listed in a certain order, there is nothing preventing you from going in a different one. The steps shown here are ones which should be covered in the design and planning process. How much depth in each step you commit is totally up to you. Just be sure to remember why you are going to through with all of this, BUILDING and OPERATING the Model Railroad!

About this content:
Original author: Ken Leaver, Jr. Last revised on 3/11/98.
This LDSIG article is ©1998 by Ken Leaver, Jr. (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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