Animated Train Layout Effects

Oil pump

Ready-made animation effects

There are many animated train layout effects you can use to enhance your model railroad layout and increase the “Wow” factor. Many of these items are ready-made and can be placed on your railroad right out of the package…

An animated jackhammer scene, an animated station platform where six figures move across a walkway, lots of different animated signs and billboards, theater marquees, etc, remote control turntables, working sawmills, oil pump kits, swing bridge kits, cable trams, circus animations – just to name a few - are all readily available in catalogs, online and in your local hobby shops. They are not all available for all scales, but they are usually easy to get for the most popular scales.

Lionel (O scale) offers probably the most number of animated train layout effects of any of the manufacturers, including log loaders, gantry cranes, conveyor loaders, icing stations, sephamore signals and even a hot air balloon ride. There are many more as well – too numerous to mention. AC powered motors are used for their animations, as they are for Marklin and American Flyer animations as well.

Create your own animated train layout

If you can’t find the ready-made animation that you’re looking for in your scale, you can always make your own with a little ingenuity and knowledge about the parts required…

Small electric motor

Small electric motors are available in all sizes and styles – made by Atlas, Walthers, Faller, GRS, Tamiya and others. These are mostly DC powered, as opposed to the ones mentioned above. Jameco motors, which contain their own built-in gear reduction and Switchmaster motors, which slow down when the power is shut off rather than stopping abruptly, are also useful for model railroad applications. There are even very tiny little motors made by GRS that spin quickly in very small places.


Gearboxes – Tamiya makes a variety of gear sets that can be attached to your motor to change the gear ratio of the high-speed motor so it can be used for a slow speed application. These kits come with easy to follow instructions. They can be attached to a 15 ohm rheostat, wired in-line, so that you can adjust the speed.

Universal gearbox mount – made by M-TEC, though you could easily make your own mounting box out of thick plastic styrene or Plexiglas for mounting under your layout, using either a horizontal or vertical orientation depending on the animated effect you wish to achieve. Vertical mounting is good for amusement park rides, rotating street signs, radar antennas, or small turntables. Horizontal mounting would be good for oil pumps, pile drivers, waterwheels, sawmill blades, millwheels, etc.

Cams are irregular not-quite round, discs that can create an up and down movement when mounted on a motor shaft. If a plastic rod is mounted vertically through a hole in the layout so that the bottom tip is against the edge of the cam, when the motor turns, the rod goes up and down as it follows the irregular edge of the cam. Depending on the shape of the cam, you can make it go up slowly and come down fast, as a pile driver might do, for example.

Sprockets and chains, made by Plastruct and Tamiya, can be attached to a motor and used to run a conveyor belt or a mine shaft, waterwheels, windmills, carnival rides, even highway systems.

Mechanical linkage from model airplane parts that you can find in hobby shops can be useful depending on what you need your animated device to do.

Rack and pinion

Rack and pinion animation systems are useful for linear activity, like elevators, fire ladders, car lifts, or opening and closing sliding doors. The basic mechanism is shown in the image on the right.

Lead screw drives are devices containing a motor that turns a long threaded screw. The screw has a nut (carriage device) on it that travels back and forth as the screw is turned one way or the other. This would be good to use for slowly moving a gantry crane back and forth.

Muscle wires are strands of a nickel-titanium alloy that changes shape and length when electrical power is applied. It could be used to lift crossing gates up and down, lift logs with a crane, etc. (Available from

Electric pistons can be used for any action requiring a quick movement of 2 cm in one direction, then a slow return to normal.

Highway systems made by Faller for HO or N scale are available as modular units in straight and curved sections and also has intersections and left and right switch points for cars to travel on. They also make accessory kits with gas stations, construction sites, bus stops, traffic lights, etc.


Lots more animated train layout effects can be seen in the video tapes made and sold by model railroader and photographer, Al Sawyer, in Kansas City, MO. “How to Do Special Effects” is one of his videos that was made at a model railroad clinic and explains many of his methods. Send a self-addressed-stamped-envelope to Al Sawyer, 1011 West 111th St. Kansas City, MO, 64114 to request more info.

Once again, Paul Newitt’s book entitled Creative Effects for your Model Railroad is an excellent reference and resource for your animated train and railroad projects.
A Beginner's Guide to Creative Effects for your Model Railroad

Ferris wheel

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