Basic Model Railroad Questions

Basic model railroad questions are the 30,000 foot view of the model railroad you want to build. They will help you create a vision of your model railroad before you ever start to build it, and keep you on track so that people who see it for the first time, will "get it". These questions will help create a model railroad that makes sense.

Ask The Question To Get An Answer

So you've decided that you want to build a model railroad. That's great! Why?

This sounds like a really rude question, but it's the first question anyone who hears that you're building a model railroad is going to ask. "Why are you doing that?" That means this is also the first question you need to answer, even if it's just for yourself.

Why do you want to build a model railroad?

Model Railroad YardMost people look at model railroaders as a little odd, a little weird, even a little crazy. That's fine. Really what it is, is that we're dedicated to a craft. A craft that most people like to watch, and are even mesmerized by, but don't really understand.

If you ask anyone at a model railroad show, "What is it about a model railroad that interests you?" most people will just say "I dunno."

If you are going to claim a space, take the time required to really do the job well, and spend what will amount to a lot of your hard-earned money on the hobby of model railroading, you really should have a concrete answer as to why. Your wife is going to ask you this a lot, over the life of your model railroad.

She deserves a good answer for putting up with you, and you deserve a good answer too.

So why do you want to build a model railroad? There are as many answers to this question, as there are model railroaders, and each answer is as valid as the last. Everyone has their own reasons for building a model railroad.

Maybe you have a desire to do a specific type of railroading, that no one else in your area does. The hobby is full of "Lone Wolves" who go off to their basement or garage and build a layout that's meaningful to them.

Perhaps model railroads remind you of your childhood. There are many stories of modelers who build representations of the railroad that ran behind the house they grew up in, or through the town they lived in. These types of layouts used to be mainly steam, but now more and more are transition era, or even modern diesel.

It might be that this is a way to spend time doing something with your kids, or grandkids, or even your wife. As often as model railroading turns out to be a Lone Wolf hobby, just as often, it becomes a way to create family time. By giving kids age-suitable projects to do, you get to bond with them, teaching them new skills, and they have a sense of ownership in the railroad. This has a side benefit of less accidental breakage, because they take pride in their own work.

Perhaps the simplest, and maybe the best reason for why to build a model railroad, is because it's fun. Never underestimate the value of fun. Model railroads are fun to plan, fun to build, and fun to run. People of both genders and all ages enjoy model railroads because they are fun.

Whatever your reason for wanting to build a model railroad, the important thing is to have a clear sense of why. People will ask, and if you don't have a ready answer for them, you don't have a good answer for yourself, and your miniature world will tend to be a bit fuzzy.

Do You Have The Time?

A good model railroad isn't something that you build in a few hours. Even a small switching layout can take months to build, depending on how strict your construction standards are, and how detailed you want to get.

Not having a lot of time shouldn't put you off model railroading. Just understand that the more time you put into your layout, the faster it will tend to progress. Remember, this is a hobby. It's supposed to fill your idle hours with something enjoyable. There's no time table or schedule, except for those you impose on yourself.

Model Railraod SceneryIf you read the various websites and model railroad forums, you find a lot of people who are coming back into the hobby after years away from it, or who haven't really done anything on their layout for months, or more.

This is perfectly acceptable. Most of us have lives outside model railroading. If you have a family, especially with small children, you are going to be busy, and time for yourself and your hobby may be infrequent. You may have a job that demands a disproportional amount of your time.

Be realistic about how much time you have to spend working on your model railroad, and build a layout sized to get trains running as quickly as possible with the time you have. Even if you have an entire basement you can fill, and more than enough money for supplies, if you haven't got much time to work on it, you are going to find yourself discouraged quickly at the apparent lack of progress.

If time is an issue, start small. Either a small switching layout that won't take a lot of time to get track down and trains running, or a relatively small section that can be expanded later. Once you get trains running, even on a small layout, you will find that your enthusiasm for the project increases exponentially.

We all want a huge layout that has the most realistic scenery possible, and lets us spend hours doing what we love to do, run trains. Even if you don't have much time to devote, you can make this a reality, as long as you plan well.

Do You Have The Space?

The one thing most of us can't do anything about, is the amount of space we have for our model railroad. This is especially true if you are renting, or worried about having to move.

How much space do you have for a model railroad?One of the things that kept me from starting a model railroad for years, was the fact that I was renting, and for several years because of the economy, I wasn't sure how long I would be in any one place. At the time, these seemed like insurmountable obstacles. What I've learned since, and wish I'd realized then, is that the only obstacles to starting your model railroad, are the ones you create.

If you haven't got more than a few spare feet of space, you can still build a switching layout that will keep you occupied running trains for hours at a time. In a 2X8 foot space, you can build a satisfying switching layout in HO scale. It's portable in the bed of a pickup truck, and can be mounted on legs so that you don't have to worry about putting holes in the wall of a rental house.

In N scale, 2X4 feet is equivalent to  the 4X8  tabletop in HO scale.  That means a switching layout  in a 2X8 foot space isn't that small in N scale.

If you really don't have more than a coffee table sized space for a layout, look into Z scale model railroading. You won't find nearly the array of equipment as N or HO scales, but in Z scale, even a coffee table becomes a full sized layout.

Just because a larger scale is what you want to eventually model in, that doesn't mean you can't start with a smaller scale until you have that dreams space. The other thing is that by starting in a smaller scale, even N or HO will seem positively huge by comparison when you're working on small parts.

Do You Have The Money?

This may be the most relevant question you have to ask yourself. This tends to be an expensive hobby, with a single locomotive costing anywhere from $150 to $600 depending on various factors.

Over the life of your model railroad, you could easily spend several thousand dollars on locomotives, rolling stock, structure models, benchwork materials, and scenic supplies. If you are struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table, you should probably wait until life becomes a little more stable for you.

Model railroads can be expensiveYou don't need to put out a large payment up front, and there are many ways to build a model railroad inexpensively, but some things will need to be bought that are relatively expensive. Not everyone has the skill to scratch build a locomotive.

Scratch building structures, and using simple materials such as dirt, pebbles and even dead weeds from around your area, you can create quite a remarkable model railroad for amazingly little money.

You can plan your model railroad for the cost of some graph paper and pencils. Taking the time to plan your model railroad well, gives you the time to save up for the more expensive purchases, and by deciding exactly what you want to do before you ever start the actual build process, you can save money by knowing exactly what you'll need, and keeping your purchases just to those items.

Creating a budget that allows for putting a little money to the side each month for model railroad purchases, is a great way to consistently save for those bigger expenses. As I keep saying, this is a hobby. It's supposed to give you years of enjoyment.

Don't worry if you don't have answers to one or more of these questions right now. That's what the planning process is for. The National Model Railroad Association calls this "The World's Greatest Hobby", and personally I have to agree. Life is full of stress, this hobby should releave stress, not create it.

If you follow all the steps listed on this website, you can create the model railroad of your dreams. Sit back and take some time to think about what it is you want to do, and why. Everything else can be worked around. Most of all have fun!

Planning Your Railroad