How to create your own model railroad track plans...
After developing your concept, or theme, you're now ready to consider various model railroad track plans. The information on the first part of this page has to do with the basic building blocks and various schematics that can be used in forming your basic track plan. You will probably want to use the information here in conjunction with that on the Layout Design page, as you form your overall plan...
Basically, track plans will usually be one of 2 types or a combination of the two:
• Point to point (simple switching layout)
• Continuous running (or loop to loop)
Here are some examples of simple continuous running track plans, which can be combined, twisted, duplicated upon each other or stretched out in different ways to make unique track plans none of which look alike:
• Simple Oval
• Figure eight
• Twice around
• Folded dogbone
When laying curved track, you should use an easement, which eases your way into and out of the curve. In other words, start your curve with a larger radius, then ease into the tighter radius, then come out of the curve again with a larger radius. Your trains will look better going around the curve that way.
You can use turntables, wyes or reversing tracks as a way of turning your trains around (without having to manually lift them up off the tracks).
You must remember to make gaps in the rails at each end of the reversing loop and in at least two sides of the "wye" triangle in order to avoid short circuits. (You make gaps in the rails either by cutting through the rails with a saw or rotary tool and filling the gap with non-conductive plastic or silicone sealer, or by using plastic rail joiners sold for this purpose.)
You may need a runaround track to keep your engine or train from being blocked in on a branch line, and to allow drop-offs without tying up the mainline.
A passing siding is an important component of any model railroad track plan. A conventional siding is a simple way of getting one train around another. Perhaps a better, more versatile, way to do this is to use a lapped siding as suggested by Dave Husman in the 2007 issue of Model Railroad Planning...
A configuration called a “ladder” is used in train yards to help in sorting trains and forming consists.
A Spur is any short branch off the mainline that can be use to service an industry, station or other facility.
A team track is a branch or spur off of a mainline that can be used to unload railroad cars to trucks for local distribution of goods.
You can use any of the above as building blocks in various combinations to form the trackplan that meets your needs.
Now that you know about the basic different building blocks for track planning, you can start brainstorming about how you want your basic layout track plan to look and operate.
Pencil and Paper...
One way to do this is by sitting down with paper and pencil (I emphasize pencil here) and just start drawing some ideas, based on the concept of your railroad that you have decided on in the previous sections of this site (the "Getting Started/Theme page"). You will most likely go through several pieces of paper before deciding on your general layout plan here. You may even keep going back to it over the next few days or weeks to try to make it better. It may help to review the section on train layout design elements on the "Layout Design" page. You could make a very detailed plan on paper before you start building if you wish. However, you will probably still change it several times as you get into physically laying the track. Sometimes things that look good on paper just won’t fit in the space you have.
It helps to use graph paper with each grid being a scale measure of your layout. This will help you to be realistic in your drawings so that your trackplan will more likely fit into the space you have available. Make sure you include terrain, roads, rivers, towns, structures, etc. And try to avoid "spaghetti". Sometimes simpler is better.
Don't forget about polarity
One very important thing to keep in mind while drawing your trackplan, is polarity. If your train will be looping back on itself such that it will be returning on the same track from which it came into the loop, you will have to have railgaps somewhere to prevent an electrical short. Some of these loops are not easy to see. For example, looking at the trackplan at the top of this page, if you imagine a short train or locomotive traveling east (left) on the bottom of the layout plan, and then backing up into the branch, as it makes it's way back and forth through the branches to get to the top of the plan, when it re-enters the mainline, it will be going in the reverse direction compared to when it started on the bottom. This won't work unless you have a railgap somewhere in the middle.
Frankly, what I personally like to do is just use paper and pencil to get a good, general idea of how I want it to look, then go ahead and start building benchwork. You will have time while you’re building the benchwork to go back over your drawings several times to refine your ideas. Just be sure that your plan is good enough in the beginning that you won't have to later redo your benchwork because you forgot to put in a loop or branch that you absolutely must have.
Model Railroad Track Plan Software - Powerful Tools
At some point in this process, after you have a rough draft of your layout on paper, you may want to use one of the many great software programs available to look at your plan in more detail and show it to others. Many of the programs allow you to run virtual trains on the tracks to see how they will operate. You can even get an idea about how many sections of track and how many turnouts you will need. Go to the Software Page on this site to find out more about these helpful model railroad computer programs.
Once your benchwork is built you can start putting down some tracks loosely on the subroadbed and see how it looks and how it might operate. This will help you further refine your plan when you can see it in 3D.
Grades, clearances are important to consider NOW...
If you are planning on having grades, or elevations, in your track plan, or if you want to find out more about making sure you have proper clearance for your tunnels and bridges,and the proper space between curving parallel tracks, etc., you may wish to visit the page on Grades and Clearances.
Take your time with planning...
I usually spend quite a bit of time on my model railroad track plans. I try to imagine how my trains will travel, how they will operate, how many trains I want to have running at the same time without having to worry about crashes, how they will spot cars in spurs, how they will pick up the empty cars, how to avoid tying up the mainline, etc., etc. I do this on paper at first with lots of different drawings of different parts of the layout and then I use the Railmodeler software to "draw" it on my Mac. Mostly, I want to try to avoid "re-do's" later.
When I get to see how it works in 3D on the subroadbed, integrating the track with the terrain, the plan changes further.
If you know what structures you will be using, you can include them in your planning at this time and see how the trains interact with the buildings as well as the terrain. You don't necessarily have to use completed structures here. You can just use mock-ups or just a piece of cardboard cut out to match the dimensions of the base.
Eventually, after considerable thought and deliberation, I end up with a model railroad track plan that I'm happy with, that I think is interesting, somewhat realistic, and should be fun to operate.
A great reference on creating model railroad track plans can be found in John Armstrong’s book, Track Planning for Realistic Operation. This is considered by many as the bible for model railroad track planning. I would highly recommend it if you are planning anything more than a very simple layout.
Track Planning for Realistic Operation: Prototype Railroad Concepts for Your Model Railroad (Model Railroader)(3rd Edition)
Rather than designing your own layout, you may wish to use or modify a layout plan that has already been created. There are many excellent references containing multiple trackplans of all different sizes and shapes:
• SCARM (Simple Computer Aided Railway Modeller) - This is a model railroad design software program, but on this particular page on their website, there are many, many track plans to choose from and/or modify as you like.
• Linn Westcott’s, 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders
One Hundred and One Track Plans for Model Railroaders (Model Railroad Handbook, No. 3)
• Model Railroader’s 48 Top-notch Track Plans
48 Top Notch Track Plans: From Model Railroader Magazine (Model Railroad Handbook, No 39)
• Mad Trackplanner's Page - Lots of small N-scale layouts.
Another way to design your trackplan is to use model railroad track planning software. This is described in further detail in the "Software" section of this site.
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