Model Railroad Location

Model railroad location is one of the three big questions that need to be answered, before you can start building your layout. Where is your model railroad located geographically? This isn't the physical location of the layout, it's what part of the world you are modeling.

What a train might look like on another planetI will also point out that location doesn't necessarily have to be on this world. If you are really creative, and like a challenge, there is no rule that says you can't take the description of a railroad from a fictional location, or even from another planet, though the level of scratch building locomotives and rolling stock, not to mention every other piece of the layout for another planet is extremely involved. I wouldn't attempt it as a first model railroad, unless you have some experience as a professional model builder.

Most of the time though, we stick with modeling real trains that have historically or currently run on the rails of our own world.

Location! Location! Location!

It's been said that the three things you need for a successful business are location, location, and location. The same is true of a well built model railroad. The location of your model railroad is going to be shown by the type of terrain the railroad runs through. This is the first thing anyone is going to see.

While putting town names on the fascia, or in strategic locations of the model can help fix the location, people may not be familiar with that part of the country, or even the country at all. Also, visitors are notorious for not paying attention to signs within the model. If you are freelancing a location, it may not even exist in the real world, so putting a fictional town name up won't help.

Instead, it's up to the modeler to use the scenery of the model railroad to evoke the location of the modeled area. Forested slopes of tall trees, is likely to be the Pacific Northwest. Mountainous terrain with exposed towering vertical rock faces is probably the Rocky Mountains. Desert scrub, and wide open spaces with buttes and mesas, might be the American Southwest.

Mountain RailroadThen again, any of these locations could just as easily be another country. Along with the scenery of the layout, the trains that run on it will also give clues to the location. A European train running through forested slopes might place the location in someplace like Germany. That same train with the mountains and exposed rock faces, could be located in the Alps.

Location Affects Railroad

As I pointed out in What Does Your Model Railroad Haul, the location of your modeled railroad is going to affect what types of cars make up the trains, and what the trains will carry. On top of that, the location will also affect which railroad you model, and the road names of rolling stock that will be included in the trains.

For example, lets say you've decided to model the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Depending on your model railroad era that you're modeling, Your choices for railroads that served that area would include D&RGW (Rio Grande), BN (Burlington Northern) UP (Union Pacific), and BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe).

Rio Grande Heritage LocoUnless you are freelancing a time line where things happened much differently than the real world, you would be unlikely to see railroads such as Southern Pacific (until after the Rio Grande bought them), Rock Island, Norfolk Southern, Conrail, Cheesie (CSX), or Great Northern.

On the other hand, rolling stock variety of road names would be much wider. During any given era, on a railroad of that location, you could see road names for UP, SP, BN, Santa Fe, BNSF, D&RGW, Rock Island, Great Northern, and others. A modern era railroad is likely to have rolling stock from almost any railroad in the country.

As you can see, if you have a favorite railroad, and chances are that you do, the location is going to have a massive influence on whether you model it, or some other railroad. This can be worked around with some plausible freelancing, but if you want to maintain fidelity to the prototype, you'll need to choose the proper location.

Model What You Know

Just as with writing, you should try to go with what you know, when planning and building a model railroad. Most people tend to model either areas they grew up in, or areas they now live. You can model an area you are unfamiliar with, but it's much harder to get the right feel. It's best if you've at least been there several times, and have a large number of reference photos to work from.

Every area of North America will have specific road names that can be associated with it. The same is going to be true of other parts of the world. Research of the area is key. There are many people from around the world who model American railroads, and there are those Americans who model railroads from around the world.

The terrain, how it looks, what plants grow there, are there trees, is it hilly, mountainous, or relatively flat, what color the soil is, is it sand, clay, or some other composition? These are all factors in creating a believable model railroad. The advantage of modeling where you live, is that you can look outside to see what to model, and you can use natural materials you can collect yourself, to create the right look.

Model railroad terrain - Kansas PlainsThe better you know the location, the more accurate you can make the modeled representation. You may think of Kansas as absolutely flat prairie, without a single tree in sight, but even western Kansas isn't absolutely flat. Once you get farther east to around Russell, KS you start to see tree covered hills. There are still large wheat, corn, Milo, and soybean farms, but the countryside looks more like Missouri, than the stereotype of Kansas.

The same can be said for any part of the country. Every state has terrain that it's known for, but unless the state is small, the chances are that not all of it looks like every other part. Utah has rugged mountains, but it also has nearly flat valleys that are miles across, hundreds of miles long.

Being familiar with the location of your model railroad is what will set your layout apart. I can almost guarantee that no matter where you live, or what part of the country, or even which country you decide to model, if you don't have an accurate representation of that location, someone who is very familiar with the area will come to see your model railroad, and tell you everything that's wrong with the way you modeled it.

Research Materials

Even if you are going to model an area you know well, you will need to do some research. If you live in or near the area you're modeling on your railroad, go out with a camera and take some pictures. If there are tracks in the area, take pictures of them so that you can represent them on your model railroad accurately.

These pictures will be invaluable later, when you start working on scenery. Until then, they are reminders of what it is you are trying to accomplish with your choice of location. They can also be reminders of specific things you want to include on your model railroad. It may be a specific arrangement of track, or an industry that you want to include, or some geographic feature that you and others can point to, and name.

As with most of the research you'll be doing, Google is your friend. You can find images of the area you plan to model, as well as information on the railroads that served the area, and many other useful facts.

Also look online, and at your local hobby shop (LHS) for books about your specific railroad. You can also look online and at your local bookstore for books about the area you want to model. These will usually have photographs that may be of use in creating your model railroad, as well as history and information about the area that you may find would be great additions to your layout.

With a little searching online, you can find websites about anything you can think of. That includes specific locations, and information on railroads. At this point, you're searching for more general information, but as you continue to plan, specific information is going to be needed.

You can also find model railroad forums online. These are invaluable resources of information on everything to do with model railroading. Some forums are specific to model scale, or type of model railroad, most are more general, with areas for the more specific information.

You will find a short list of such forums in the right column of this page. I am not a member of all of these forums, so I can't tell you how good or bad they are. I can tell you that the Model Railroad Hobbyist Forum which I do belong to, is a wonderful resource full of helpful modelers.

You are also likely to find helpful people in the model railroad area of Yahoo Groups. These are all email groups that you can join. You will receive email from them anytime someone posts to any group you've joined. Some, like the Digitrax group, are extremely active, so you may end up getting more email than you want.

You can look through prior emails for most of the groups without joining, so you can see what topics they cover. There are hundreds of model railroad Yahoo groups, so you'll want to pick and choose which ones you join carefully. Some of them are very local in scope, so they can be extremely helpful, if not highly active.

Now we need to look at Your Model Railroad Era to answer when your railroad runs.

Planning Your Railroad

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