Layout design can be one of the most satisfying and enjoyable aspects of railway modelling but can also prove to be one of the most exasperating tasks. You know, in your heart of hearts, that you will probably never come up with the ultimate layout but you still persevere with revision after revision in the hope of eventually achieving success.
However, it is important to know when to stop and when to actually start construction – otherwise you can become a perpetual planner and never get to enjoy the pleasure of actually running your trains.
Most railway modellers are never entirely happy with their initial efforts irrespective of how much time they might have invested in the project. It is quite usual to spend a lot of process time redesigning your first outdoor "G" scale railroad to correct all the mistakes you may have made. Layouts are always evolving and are rarely completely finished.
Basic Design Principles
Before we examine the basic layout concepts it helps to have some understanding of the fundamental planning “rules” that customarily apply. Of course, rules are there to be broken, but if you do depart from the recommended approach be sure that you know why you are doing it and what impact it is likely to have.
This advice is based upon the accumulated expertise of numerous large-scale modellers who have built garden layouts of their own for many years together with expertise gleaned from helpful articles appearing in relevant magazines and numerous websites specialising in this topic.
Whilst you are free to disregard this wise counsel it may help you avoid at least some of the pitfalls that lie ahead.
According to the old French adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day" and it won’t surprise you to learn that building a garden layout can take appreciably longer than you anticipate. Indeed, many enthusiasts will insist that a layout is never ever finished - it just keeps evolving.
It is highly recommended that you start with a small installation that you can get up and running in a few weeks (or months) and is capable of later extension rather than embark on building a vast railway empire from the outset and risk becoming disenchanted with the whole project.
Yes, I know you have probably watched videos on YouTube illustrating how you can construct an small oval line in just a day but the end results are unlikely to keep you enthralled for long and unless you intend to keep it as a test track or for the children / grandchildren to operate their trains it is probably best to go for something which will eventually evolve into your final design. Layouts generally take a lot longer to create than you estimate due to adverse weather conditions and unforeseen circumstances.
Have a Clear Vision
Work out what you really hope to get out of your miniature railway before you
start. What are your design goals and will these provide the enjoyment you
are looking for? Draw up a list of aims and objectives and revisit it at regular
intervals throughout the process to check that you are still on target to achieve
Look Upon Track as an Investment
At the outset your initial investment in track is likely to far exceed your expenditure on trains and this is at it should be. Track is the very core of your railroad and you should not scrimp in this area if you want reliable operation. You can always add more locomotives and rolling stock as your finances permit but an investment in track is for a lifetime.
Use the Widest Radius Curves
Whatever make(s) of track you select for your layout always use the widest radius curves you can fit into the available layout space. All prototype track radii are invariably much larger than represented on model layouts so you cannot have curves that are too wide. Your trains will look better and run a lot smoother with fewer derailments on large radius curves and in the future, you may well decide to run locomotives that require at least 4’ radius (8’ diameter) curves to operate.
Ideally one should aim at curves of 10’ diameter or more. Indeed, some seasoned modelers’ advocate using minimum radii of 8’ (16’ Diameter) and even 10’ (20 Diameter) but not all of us will have the necessary space or the finances to follow this laudable aim in pursuit of added realism.
Short Radius 1 (600mm) curves that invariably come with starter sets should seldom be used on a ‘serious’ railway except for running trains round the Christmas tree.
Use Matching Points
When selecting points (sometimes referred to as turnouts or switches) through which your mainline traffic will be running, select those that have at least as wide a radius as the track you are using i.e. for 3’ radius curves use 3’ radius points. I know that is tempting to use the cheaper Radius 1 short versions but they are far from ideal and the extra outlay on larger radius points will be money well spent in the long term. Admittedly, for some types of operation, such as logging or mining, it may be permissible to use tighter points in conjunction with tighter curves but otherwise limit the use of the latter to freight yards and sidings.
Use the Same Style of Track
Once you have selected an overall style of track (say Narrow Gauge solid Code 332 brass rail on USA pattern sleeper spacings), there is a school of thought that says that you should try to keep subsequent purchases in the same style so as not to “mix and match” too much. Obviously if you get the chance to acquire alternative style track at an advantageous price there is no need to be too prescriptive.
Keeping to the same brand of track can sometimes seems the easiest and safest solution but as most Code 332 track is interchangeable (but not always identical profile or footprint) I personally would be more flexible on this issue and at least experiment with ‘mixing’ other brands if only to make meaningful comparisons between makes.
Consider Elevating Your Track
Many modellers are quite happy to build their layouts at or near to ground level but there are several reasons why it might be better to raise your track to a higher level more akin to that you might find on smaller gauge indoor model railways.
Firstly, all trains and scenery look better if viewed at closer to eye-level and whilst this may not always be possible on a garden layout it’s worth thinking about elevating some sections at around 3 – 4’ (generally recommended as being the optimum viewing height).
It is also much easier to place your locomotives on the track, attach and couple your cars and also reach any manually operated points. Not being ‘under foot’ your line is also likely to suffer less accidental damage and height will improve drainage. When you reach old age, there is a lot to be said for not having to bend down to operate your railway.
In fact, one of the biggest regrets expressed by many garden railway modellers is that they failed to elevate their railway sufficiently and that given the opportunity to start all over again they would remedy this oversight from the outset if only to reduce the ongoing maintenance burden which significantly reduces the amount of time to "run trains". In some cases this has unfortunately caused some large-scale garden modeler's to abandon their layouts altogether which is a great shame. after all the hard work invested.
For a more
Ensure Ease of Access
Whatever level you decide to use for your railway always ensure that you can easily reach the full extent of the layout. Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong (eventually) whilst Sod’s Law ensures that if there is a derailment it will be in the middle of the tunnel you have created on the far side of the track and often inaccessible without demolishing the scenery!
Generally, if a layout is larger than 4’ wide (and garden layouts usually are) it will require considerable agility and skill to reach anything in the middle. Unless you are spry and possessed of very long arms 2’ is likely to be the furthest you will be able to reach. Try to make certain that you have ready and unimpeded access along the full perimeter of your track even if you don’t need it for operational running. This advice applies even if you intend to operate your points remotely as they can often fail to switch e.g. due to ballast between the blades.
On large raised layouts by all means incorporate some method of either crawling under or over to reach the interior in emergencies without making it obvious e.g. a removable bridge or viaduct. Having said that be wary of anything too ambitious (such as pop up access holes) as advancing years can make even the simplest bending and crawling manoeuvre unduly taxing.
Plan Your Layout for Reliable Operation
Eradicate as many track features that are likely to result in frequent derailments of other mishaps as you can from the outset. These include curves that are two tight; parallel tracks that are too close together; ‘S’ bends; excessive grades or inclines; poorly located sidings, etc. which can creep into many layout plans without even being noticed. Good electrical continuity will prove of paramount importance so decide at an early stage what type(s) of connection you will be using and where you need cables and wires to run as installing these at a later date can be problematical.
Keep Inclines / Grades to a Minimum
The necessity to keep your gradients to the minimum cannot be over-emphasised as excessive track rise and fall can severely inhibit the pulling power of your locomotives. We will cover this subject in greater detail elsewhere but it is generally recommended that for a garden railway the steepness of any gradient (up or down) should not exceed 2° (or 2mm in every 100mm). This is particularly true on a curved section of the line where other adverse forces are also at work.
Try Not to Cram to Much into a Small Space
It is usually a mistake to try and incorporate too much track and scenery into what is still a relatively small space no matter how large your estate. After all, if you model in 1:22.5 scale each foot on your railway is about 22.5 feet in real life – hardly enough to accommodate a small house let alone a proper railway.
Far better to be selective and limit yourself, certainly at the outset, to a small number of interconnected scenes or dioramas which convey the look and feel of the type of line and period you are attempting to create in clearly defined portions.
You will discover that the ‘art of compression’ is a skill that you will find extremely useful.
Don't Exceed Your Budget
Apportion your budget realistically and spend it wisely. Focus on what you really need rather than what would be “nice to have”. Garden Railways can prove an expensive pastime so try not to exceed your planned budget.
Don’t get hustled into overbuying products that appear to be discontinued; offered as “last chance”, “final clearance offers” or even “end of the line” as it could mean that a newer, better version is about to be released. You are also more likely to end up with trains that are not appropriate and do not necessarily fit your chosen them or era.
Conversely don’t ‘penny-pinch’ on foundations and track unless you happen to come by materials free as under-investment in these key areas can cause problems down the line.
Store Your Stock Close to Your Railway
If the site is secure store your trains as close as possible to your railway as continuously having to transport your locomotives and rolling stock back and forth to the layout can prove a bind and severely limit the time you have available to actually run your trains. The ideal solution for many is to have a storage area (in say a substantial locked shed or outbuilding) where trains can be simply run out through an access port but if you are concerned about loss or damage this may not be right for you.
I have noticed that some modellers employ “cassettes” of pre-configured trains to connect direct to the track, sometimes by means of a turning ‘plate’. This solution is often found on smaller scale model railways, particularly for shows, but given the probable length and weight of such contrivances for large-scale trains I doubt whether they would be practicable in the majority of outdoor situations.
Identify Optimum Operating & Viewing Points
Self-explanatory but often overlooked. Arrange your layout in such a way as you can observe every stretch of track at all times. It’s a good idea to create suitable vantage points for family members and visitors. Leave sufficient space inside the layout for access to attend to any maintenance requirements and the occasional mishap which may otherwise be out of reach.
Leave Room for Expansion
Always try to leave sufficient room for future expansion. There may come a time when you need to extend your line and the lack of space could prove very frustrating.
Use Track Planning Software
In the “olden days” it was customary to sit down with some graph paper, pencil, rubber (eraser), compass and protractors to sketch out your layout from scratch. I believe it is now referred to as the “acoustic” method.
Skip forward a decade or so and CAD/CAM was all the rage but only a few dedicated users ever managed to get the hang of this technical monsters.
Disillusioned modellers reverted to pen and pencil but as computers evolved and became commonplace a number of software developers saw a market for simplifying the task somewhat and making the human interface with the machine a little easier. There are now quite a few software packages available to download, albeit tending to focus on the more popular smaller scales, but several now include G Gauge track and scenic elements.
Once you have mastered the techniques it is easier to modify designs as you go and some have the facility to view your designs in 3D so that you can visualize what they will look like in the flesh.
Go to the Module 7A section appended to this main Layout Design Module to see what is currently available.
Basic Track Design Concepts
Just as there are said to be only 7 basic plots in films and literature but thousands of storylines there are only a few basic model railway track design formations but thousands of layouts – all variations of the same rudimentary concepts.
Indeed, no matter how complex the final track plan appears it is invariably a variation or combination of one or more fundamental types or categories of layout design used in imaginative ways.
These simple track formations have been detailed ad nauseam in model railway books and magazines so I do not intend to spend a large amount of time discussing them here but this guide would be incomplete if I failed to include at least a few words on this topic for those who are new to the hobby.
I realise that by now you are possibly getting daunted by the exhaustive list of things you have to do (or at least give a certain amount of thought to) before even laying you first length of track or run your inaugural train. On the other hand, it does help to sit down with a pencil and paper and get some thoughts clear in your head and write them down as a checklist. Many garden railway enthusiasts find this to be one of the most pleasurable activities but as I said before, don’t get too bogged down in the planning phases or you will be in danger of becoming a perpetual planner!
The layout design will need to reflect, the specific theme you have chosen to model, the space available and prevailing terrain, your design aesthetics and most importantly, the available budget. You also need to make a realistic assessment of the spare time that you will have available to devote to the construction of the layout.
If you are a newcomer to the hobby it is usually best to start off with something small and not too ambitious. By all means build the track in stages and work up a schedule for each phase to keep track of progress.
You may have already operated your train indoors and have a preferred track design in mind. This might involve one or two ovals of sectional track with a station (with or without a passing loop) and a siding on one level. This could be enhanced with some planting and possibly a bridge or short tunnel.
If space permits it is prudent to lay out the track indoors or possibly outdoors on a patio or deck to check that your design is practicable. In ideal weather you could also have a dry run on the lawn. You can then ensure that the length of your train(s) can be accommodated but also take into consideration any locomotives and rolling stock that you might wish to add in the future.
This large scale garden railway at Bekonscot Model Village really did take some planning.
The potential danger in this approach is that the resulting layout might just look like a “toy train” with trains going continuously round and round a circuit, chasing their tails, for no apparent reason.
Purists would insist that a railway track needs to have a reason to exist and go from one place to another destination to be prototypical. This would infer an ‘end-to-end’ layout which may offer a lot more operational interest but can present practical obstacles if the ‘other’ end is 20 meters away from your observation and control point.
There is a measure of logic in this argument but all layouts are ultimately a compromise and if you are happy just watching trains go by so be it – this can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the hobby and can sometimes be lost.
There are all manner of trade offs to be made and it is entirely up to you how you design, build and operate your layout. You might even decide to re-enact the Great Locomotive Chase from the American Civil War which has been the subject of at least two popular films - Buster Keaton's silent epic "The General" from in 1926 (when a real full-working locomotive plunges off a bridge into the river) and a slightly more recent re-incarnation in the "Great Locomotive Chase" of 1956
A scene from Buster Keatons silent frilm called "The General" from 1926
A scene from the "Great Locomotive Chase" from 1956
A large-scale layout re-creating the events of the civil war in model form featuring two MTH special locomotives to commemorate the great train chase of the Civil War. Union soldiers had stolen the "General" from the Western & Atlantic RR and headed north. Some Confederate soldiers gave chase with the "Texas." The models are both Proto-1 .
In the following Module 8 we will examine the fundamental building blocks of track design; the pros and cons of each; pitfalls to watch out for to ensure high operational reliability and software tools you might use to make things easier.