Model Railroad Planning

(Or how to eat an elephant)

Model railroad planning is the key to building a trouble free layout, that gives you years of enjoyment. Not only are we going to plan the physical aspects of the layout, but also the more abstract.

By abstract, I'm talking about the look and feel of the layout. Building a model railroad is more than simply laying track in a specific pattern, there are also elements of where the railroad is located, when it functions, and just as importantly, what the model railroad does.

The planning stage is where you make all the decisions about your model railroad. This is why it is so critically important. While the actual construction of the model railroad can be a lot of fun, you will basically be following the choices you've made while planning the model railroad.

Greeley Freight MuseumBefore you start, you should ask yourself some basic questions about what sort of model railroad you want to build, and why you want to build it. These Basic model railroad questions are to get an overview of what you want to do, what is the vision for your model railroad? This will help you answer many of the questions that come later in the design process.

As you progress through the process of planning your model railroad, it's important not to rush. Taking your time designing a model railroad will make the task much less frustrating. Remember, this is a hobby, you're not supposed to finish in a specific amount of time!

You will find that all of the elements of planning or designing a model railroad are intertwined, but these first three really form a web among themselves. So this is where we'll start.

Model Railroad Planning - Abstract Design

For the most part, it doesn't really matter what order you do your model railroad planning, but location, era, and work, set the ground rules for just about everything else.

First, we talk about the work that the railroad does. What type of railroad do you want to build and run? What does your model railroad haul? This will have a huge influence on both location and era.

Once we know what the trains will haul, we'll look at your model railroad location. Where geographically is your model railroad located? Some of the big decisions will have been made by your choice of cargo, but there are still a lot decisions to be made about the details of your location.

Now we look at your model railroad era. When are you modeling? This can be as broad as a number of years, or even decades, or it can be as fine as a specific month of a specific year.

The choices you've made about era, location, and type of railroad, will all go into your model railroad Givens and Druthers. This is one of the most important documents you will create. It contains every detail of every choice you make while planning your model railroad.

Prototype High Cube BoxcarNow that you've started your Givens & Druthers, this is a good time to look at Prototype Model Railroading, and Freelance Model Railroading. This one choice will determine what is allowed on your model railroad, and what isn't.

If you've decided to build a Freelance or Protolance model railroad, you may want to name it something other than an actual Prototype railroad name. Your model railroad name can be very serious, or completely whimsical, but it is an important decision you need to make.

Again, if you are going to build a Freelance or Protolance model railroad, it's time to come up with a history for your model railroad. Your model railroad history is the back story of who, what, where, when, and most importantly, why.

It's time to look at model railroad scale versus model railroad gauge. Many model railroaders use the terms interchangably, but they mean very different things. There has been a lot of confusion over the two, so I will do my best to sort them out for you.

While we're on the subject of confusing terms and size, let's talk about model railroad rail size, or code. There are a lot of different types of rail available to the model railroader, so we should look into that, so you'll know what to look for, when it comes time to build your model railroad.

Model Railroad Planning - Physical Design

Doing all of the above can literally take you years to work through. Though, if you're like me, you've aready spent years thinking about just those things, and you probably have basic ideas on most, if not all of them.

Now it's time to start designing the physical aspects of your model railroad. These are the concrete, real world elements that you can hold in your hands. Up until now, everything we've learned about, can be done as a mental exercise.

This is where things start to get intimidating because now you will start to design the things that make a model railroad real. That's not to say that you can skip any of the steps above. They are just as important as what follows, but this is where the rubber meets the road.

2 Scale Miles of Starage TrackFirst let's look at the space for your model railroad. Where will the layout be? How big of a space do you have? This is not the same as how much space do you want. As model railroaders, we tend to act like kids at the buffet.

Our eyes are bigger than our stomache. Model railroaders, especially new model railroaders tend to have the problem of wanting too much model railroad. This usually ends up with a spaghetti bowl track plan.

You don't need as much room as you think you do. This is something I can almost guarantee. While you will need more room to fit the actual track, due to curve radius, you don't need three feet behind the tracks in order to model a believable scene. This Earl Smallshaw clinic shows tricks and techniques for avoiding our tendency to grab more room than we need.

One of the easiest ways to keep this from happening, is to use the LDE Method. The model railroad Layout Design Element is the easiest way I've found to design just the right amount of track into your model railroad.

One way to have our cake and eat it too, is to design a multi-deck model railroad. This can effectively double or triple the space you have for a layout, but it comes at a cost.

Another basic question that needs to be answerd is, Loop the loop, or point to point? What format will you use on your model railroad layout?

Model railroad track standards are something you will need to think about early on. This is going to save you a lot of trouble as you start working on designs. You'll need to know if track can be fit into that small bare space in the corner or not.

As you're thinking about track arrangements, you should give serious thought to what the benchwork for your model railroad should look like. If you're planning a layout any bigger than an Inglenook, or shelf switching layout, benchwork is something you need to think about.

A part of the benchwork that needs to be thought about early in the design, is model railroad layout lighting. Good lighting of a layout has never done anything but add to the value and enjoyment obtained by the layout.

A basic part of designing track work and benchwork, is visualizing your model railroad layout. What does the basic shape look like? How much room does it take? How does one piece flow into another?

While we're on the subject of track planning, another way to ensure that you don't design in too much track, is to design your model railroad using prototype track work. This will also help you learn what specific tracks are used for, and why they are laid where they are.

Some model railroaders have been known to lift trackwork from other model railroad layouts. It looks good, and because it's on another layout already, you know it works.

I'm making the assumption that you're here because watching trains go round and round on an oval track has become boring. You're interested in designing something more interesting. That probably means designing your model railroad for operations of some sort.

Model Railroad IndustriesThat means having industries where cars get spotted and pulled. Model railroad industries are the life's blood of a layout. They are the reason for the railroad to be there.

Unfortunately, most industries that require access to the railroad are far too big to model completely. Model railroad selective compression is the method for modeling industries in a way that is believable, yet space saving.

Most model railroaders, including myself, use prototype industries for the model railroad layout. Not only does this give your railroad a reason for being, but it can also help you design the arrangement of tracks.

One of the most used track arrangements for the central focus of a model railroad, is the rail yard. Model railroad yard design is somewhat different from the prototype, but in either case, their function is the same.

This is also a good time to look at model railroad control systems. There are several completely different types of systems to run your model railroad, and at different prices as well. Using the correct control system, based on your needs, and the size and type of model railroad you're planning, is critical.

Model Railroad Design Using CAD

There are several different programs available for Computer Aided Design of model railroad layouts. They vary in price from free, to several hundred dollars. Each also has different features.

It really comes down to a question of should you use pencil & paper, or go through the learning curve required to use model railroad CAD programs?

I promised you that I would show you, step by step, exactly what is involved with planning, building, and running a model railroad. Just reading through this page may be intimidating, but as long as you take one step at a time, and take the time necessary to complete each step, you'll do fine.

Once you start actually working on designing your own model railroad, you'll find that no single step is really that hard. It will take time, but that's what a hobby is for.

So, just how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Building Your Model Railroad Layout: