How to Plan a Model Railroad Layout

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My name is Matthew Hornbostel… I’m an artist, I’ve been fascinated by miniatures for years, and model railroading holds a strong appeal to me for that reason.  Here I will describe some of the creative processes I’m using to design my layouts.

There is a technical side to planning a model railroad layout, and I’ll discuss the utilities for layout planning first.

Here are some of the best model railroad track-layout programs I’ve found: – AnyRail.  It’s a Windows program, it’s user-friendly, and it supports a wide range of tracks in various gauges (T, Z, TT, N, HO, O, S, G…)  There’s a free version. – RailModeller.  Also user-friendly, and it’s Mac software. Lots of options.

There are also many 3d train simulation programs including the Trainz series, Microsoft Train Simulator, and RailWorks.  These can be used to experiment with track designs as well.

That said, it’s not enough to have a track-planning application.  You also need a practical idea for what type of layout you’re attempting to make. 

Budget: How much money do you have?

Space: How much space do you have to build on?  If you want to cover only a small area, a smaller scale like N, Z, or even T, may be appropriate… but if you have the space, larger scales (HO or larger) may be a good idea as they are often easier to work with.

Layout Structure: Do you want a densely packed “Spaghetti” layout, or a more spread-out one with an emphasis on scenery rather than track patterns?  Do you want a loop of some sort – where the train goes around a given path repeatedly – or a branching layout where the trains can be switched between multiple routes?  The complexity of your layout will be largely determined by the above (space and budget).

Layout Location: Are you trying to recreate a real railroad route, or make one that’s imaginary?  Either way, you’ll want to think about the scenery and what the landscape will look like… in terms of topography, industries, climate, population density, and so on… often a layout will have trains that pass through multiple areas – mountains, rivers, forests, towns, etc… think about what features you want to include and what details would make the scene seem authentic.  Remember that if you’re recreating a real rail line, you can and should compact all the features of that line into a smaller space.  Try to retain all the interesting details that define the setting, while drastically condensing scenes like deserts and prairies that in the real-world route extend for dozens or hundreds of miles with little of interest visible in them.  Also, keep in mind how much elevation changes, water features, bridges, tunnels, and overall variety of the landscape, can increase the dynamism and appeal of a layout. 

Time Period: When is the layout set historically?  What season of the year is it?  Earlier time periods may have steam trains, later ones diesel or electric – and the man-made details will vary based on the time period.

Industries/Transport: What are your trains carrying?  Does your model railroad route make logical sense?  Is the train carrying mail or passengers between cities, or carrying lumber, grain, coal?  What type of train is it, what does it carry, and how does it fit into the surrounding landscape?

All of these details, when placed creatively in a model railroad layout, can result in a believable miniature scene which is compelling to those who visit and view it.  Attention to detail, far from being a constraint, is an opportunity for creativity and better designs… ones which will captivate the attention of everyone who sees what you have made.

Don’t assume your layout must be vast in size or massively expensive to be a good layout.  Even small spaces, like the top of a coffee table, can be a base for something impressive.  I’m currently planning a highly compact T-gauge 45″ by 40″ layout, with elevation changes, farms, forests, mountains, a lake and river, a bridge, roads with little cars, and a town with over a dozen buildings… and about 16 feet of model railroad track.  Better, the layout can be completed for under $450!  The important thing is using your space and budget cleverly and making the best possible use of whatever resources you have… feel free to start small, build things from scratch, and expand as you go.  Model railroading does not need to be a hugely expensive hobby.

There are many layouts on that can give you ideas and inspiration beyond what is possible in this short article…   There are also many, many good books on the subject of model railroading available, and lots of model railroading materials for sale on and from a wide range of online vendors like Woodland Scenics, and plenty of valuable model railroading websites, many of which can be found through the directory of links at… or through simple web searches. 

You can keep researching – there are an endless number of resources available online – and you’ll be able to use what you learn to make your own beautiful, realistic miniature art of your own.


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