Train Layout Design Elements for Track Planning

After you have looked at the Basics and Getting Started section and established your theme, era, locale and what type of display you want to create, you're ready for the next step...

Train Layout Design

If you’re like many of us in the early stages of model railroad track planning, you are probably in a quandary about how to start, what to model, freelance or prototype, etc.

Prototypical Model Railroad Design

Modeling the prototype is, in some ways, easier than doing freelance mainly because all the hard parts have already been done for you by the railroad that you’re modeling. If you want to know what the track plans are, just look it up on the Internet. If you want to know what certain towns looked like, find some pictures of the area or, better yet, go visit the place and see for yourself. Take your own pictures of the landscape, the tracks, the trains, the yards and the structures; bring them back to your railroad room at home and use them as reference photos.

The advantage of using the prototype trackplan is that you won’t have to struggle with what works and what doesn’t. If the trackplan worked well for the prototype company, particularly as far as operations and train movement are concerned, it will most likely work well for you also. This takes some of the guesswork out of track planning and can go a long way to get you started in building your railroad.

Additionally, if you research the prototype operations, including scheduling patterns, what kind of trains they used (e.g., fast freight, through freight, passenger, etc.), how many trains traveled through the area in any one day during a particular era, this will further help you decide on your own train layout design and how your model railroad layout will operate.

You can try to model the prototype very closely or very loosely, or anywhere in between. Remember, it’s your railroad. You’re the boss. You can do anything with it that you want.

If you model the prototype very closely, you know up front that you will never be able to replicate it exactly. That’s a given. The first thing you almost certainly won’t be able to replicate exactly is the scale distance from one point to another. Even in N scale, the scale distance of one mile would require 33 feet of layout space. The second thing is that it would be very difficult to include everything in a model that is observable in the prototype, partly because of space considerations, and perhaps partly because there are some parts of the prototype that are just not that interesting or that you don’t really want to spend time on. How do we get around this and still stick to the prototype plan well enough so that our model is a recognizable depiction of that railroad?

Selective Compression is one answer to this question. This basically involves compression of certain parts of the railroad that are perhaps less interesting than other parts, so that you can then focus on detailing the areas of the prototype that are more interesting. For example, you could take the 200 miles that the prototype train travels between towns or other points of interest and compress that into say 3-4 feet of layout space. These compressed areas would not be neglected areas, just compressed; they would still convey a sense and flavor of the area that you’re modeling by the way the scenery is done.

These compressed scenes, of course, would definitely not be “to scale” but they would make sense from a modeling standpoint. You could make your own scale so that you at least use your space proportionately to the real thing, like maybe 1 foot = 100 miles (between towns, for example).

Train Layout Design Elements, or LDE’s are the second answer to the question. These are the elements of the prototype that are recognizable visually and operationally that you do want to model in some detail. Your particular train layout design elements might include certain industries that are critical for the prototype you are modeling, or they might be certain towns, or even certain scenes, like the Horseshoe Curve on the Pennsylvania RR, that are or were important to the prototype.

Developing model railroads based on train layout design elements is a concept that was proposed by Tony Koester several years ago and explained in detail in his 2 excellent books on the subject, both of which I would highly recommend as you plan your train layout design –

Realistic Model Railroad Building Blocks: An Introduction To Layout Design Elements (Model Railroader)

Realistic Model Railroad Design: Your Step-By-Step Guide to Creating a Unique Operating Layout (Model Railroader)

Thus, in essence, your railroad could consist of several train layout design elements, connected by areas of selective compression...

Putting it all together

A simple method of trying to put this all together, so you can conceptually visualize your proposed train layout design, would be to use the “domino” plan advocated by David Barrow and outlined in the first book mentioned above. You could use small rectangles of paper or index cards, each one representing a four-foot section of your planned layout space, though not necessarily to scale…

• Draw each train layout design element (town, rail yard, engine terminal, junction, farm scene, coal yard, steel mill or other industry) that you want to model, based on the prototype trackplan, on each card. Add one or more of the building blocks from the "Track Planning" page to modify the LDE, if you wish, to form spurs , team tracks, runaround tracks, wyes, reversing loops or ladders to embellish or improve the LDE so that it may better conform to the purpose and operation of your particular railroad.

• Include cards containing the compressed areas between major scenes, as well. Draw in whatever mountains, valleys, bridges, rivers, waterfalls, etc. that you want to include in these areas.

• Then arrange the cards, or “dominoes”, into an overall trackplan (using one of the basic plans outlined at the top of the "Track Planning" page which you can modify for your particular purpose) that makes sense for your space, but still contains the key elements of the prototype so that it will be recognizable, and so that it will make sense operationally also, just as it did for the prototype.

There are many who would then take this plan and create a miniature model of the proposed layout, so that they can physically visualize what the completed project will look like and imagine how the trains will operate on the model.

To carry this one step further, if you want to invest in a good model railroad track planning software program like Train Player, once you’ve created your virtual layout based on your train layout design elements, you can then run virtual trains on the layout that you have designed to make sure it operates as you think it will, even before you put down your first section of roadbed. Excellent planning in the beginning will save you headaches and frustration later and minimize the number of “do-overs” you have to do.

Freelancing Using Train Layout Design Elements

Say you want to be on the other end of the spectrum. You don’t want to “copy” what some other railroad has already done. You want to design your own plan, your own areas or scenes of interest. After all, this is your railroad. You want to name your towns, mountains, junctions, etc. after members of your family or celebrities or whatever. You want to be more creative. This might sound much more fun to you than just trying to duplicate the prototype. Some of the most admired layouts ever built were freelanced. Of course the most famous of these is John Allen’s “Gorre and Daphetid” Railroad, which, despite its name and freelanced trackplan, it is nevertheless based on realistic prototypical operations.

You may want to be a freelancer because you’re a little nervous about trying to model the prototype, since you didn’t work there, you don’t really know how it looked or operated; and, even with research, you may be concerned that your model of it wouldn’t be recognizable. I was always a little nervous that a visitor would come along and say, “I was there and it doesn’t look like that!” Of course that would not be good “model railroader etiquette” to say that, but you don’t want them to think it either.

Even with this free-bird, freelance approach, however, you may still want to look at prototype railroad maps and incorporate certain elements (LDE’s) of those trackplans into your layout so you don’t have to “re-invent the wheel”. This may be especially important for engine terminals, rail yards and certain industries. If you find a well thought out, smooth functioning LDE trackplan that the prototype railroaders have already done for you, you’ve got it made. Just incorporate those plans with minor modifications into your overall plan. It will almost certainly help you in the long run, as far as operation of your layout goes, after it’s built, even if the final scenery bears no resemblance at all to the prototype.

If you’re already a railroad person, who perhaps worked in the railroad industry, and knows what trackplans work and which ones don’t, you could easily freelance your own railroad probably without having to look anything up. The rest of us, though will likely need to do some research. Either that, or learn by trial and error and eventually, by the fourth or fifth layout, maybe complete something that is interesting and that operates well.

If you’re a scenery buff like I am, operation may not seem as important to you as a long train weaving its way through beautiful scenery. Even so, if you’re going to spend as much time as it takes to do scenery well, you might as well spend a little more time designing the overall plan and operation of your layout so that it makes sense and the trains have somewhere to go and some purpose for their existence. That will, in the long haul, make the hobby even more enjoyable and appealing than it already is, if that’s possible:)

To find a map or atlas and other information about your particular prototype railroad, search for specific books or DVDs at the Historic Rail website...

Or, find it at the Historical Society website for that railroad.

Or, another great way to find prototype track plans is to use Google Earth!

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