The beginning of a model railroad - Part 1: Planning
No one gets it right the first time…. Well most don’t, and I’m no exception. I’ve built and dismantled three layouts, the first one got about 50% of the way through scenery before being dismantled and the second two didn’t even get scenery before destruction!
The biggest mistake I’ve made in the past is rushing a project so I can run a train, this generally leads to dissatisfaction with the track layout and/or planned scenery. There are many consideration that need to be well thought through before cutting that first piece of wood and laying the first piece of track.
The first important task to consider when building a railroad is working out what space you have to work with, what will be in the room with your layout? Be it a TV, lounge or even a bed and in my case a car. You don’t want to build a layout that is going to impede on the room in a negative way.
You also want to know the benchtop dimensions before deciding on a track plan so you can plan your track to the available space. The last thing you want to do is plan a grand railway only to discover it’s not going to fit, next thing you know you’re compromising on minimum radius and spur length to fit in all those industries and tracks! Bigger is not always better, a large project can cause creative block and become overwhelming to a point where no work gets done!
My available space is a garage, and I have to share it with a car. It measures 5.9m by 5.9m. This seems quite large however I want to be able to move the layout easily as I move house quite regularly and I want it to be compatible with other smaller locations.
· Easy to assemble and disassemble
· Light weight
· Removable legs
· Stackable for storage
· Strong to withstand moving
With those requirements in mind it’s time to design the modules. I want to be able to build the modules with minimal work, the easiest way to do that is by using standard cuts of wood that are available from the hardware store. 600mm (2ft) is a common width and will give me plenty of clearance when doing the track plan, standard length is 1200mm (4ft), and this will work well for the individual module length.
I also want to consider the type of scenery I want now before constructing the module, the plan is to have scenery above and below track level with a large majority of the area at track level. For ease of use, construction and cost I’ve decided to use extruded foam board. This will allow me to easily manipulate the terrain with minimal effort and by using 2 inch foam I will have the flexibility to make terrain a considerable depth below track level enabling me to rivers and gully's. It just so happens that the foam board comes pre-cut in panels that match my module dimensions (600mm by 1200mm).
1. Foam board measuring 600mm wide by 1200mm long.
2. 6mm thick plywood board measuring 600mm wide by 1200mm long.
3. Module frame made using 15mm ply, sides measure 90mm tall by 1200mm long and the cross members are space at 400mm intervals.
This frame will give me the light weight I need as well as the strength required for moving and stacking the modules.
As for the legs, I will simply screw them into the corners of each module. I will first need to reinforce each corner to give it strength. I don’t want to get too complex with the leg assembly, with the way each module is designed I should be able to place the module on its side and screw in the leg assembly when it’s ready to be connected.
The basic design will look like this:
The legs I’m using are only 30mm by 30mm and considering that the height of the modules will mean long legs, about 1200mm in length, you might think they will not be sufficient. However, once the modules are connected together they will be strong enough to have minimal wobbling, and for additional support I will attach cross beams to help limit movement.
And finally in terms of the leg assembly, I will install adjustable feet to the bottom of each leg. That way I will be able to make minor adjustments to help ensure the modules are level and the legs have rubber feet which will assist in preventing the modules from moving once they are all connected.
Similar to the method of designing the modules, I will first ask myself a few questions to help get an idea of what I want. Let’s start with scenery because one of the main drivers for me building a model railroad is making realistic scenery, so for me this is the most logical place to start.
What scenic elements do I want to model?
· Early 1970’s scenery and buildings associated with the Great Northern Railway in North America
· A scenic block between the detachable staging cassette and the modules (a tunnel)
· A bridge crossing a river, most likely shortly after the tunnel
· Track crossing a dirt road and a track crossing a paved road
· Working crossing signals and gates.
And I’ll also decide on some optional scenic elements:
· A house for sale
· Interior building lights and street lights
After building a list of scenic elements I now turn my attention to operational elements. These two areas of focus are really interchangeable, depending on what your main interest in model railroading is, you may want to decide on operations first and then develop the scenery around that and vice versa. For me it’s scenery then operations.
My list of wants and needs for operations is as follows:
· 1hr operating sessions
· An industry that has more than one spot for boxcars
· A run around track
· Industries with and against the main line direction
· Single main line
· No more than 4 industries
And to add an additional level of operational interest, the detachable staging cassette will be designed in the famous shunting puzzle, the Inglenook siding. That way I can build a system where I shuffle the cars position in the staging area then I will need to organize the cars so they can be taken onto the modules and switched into the correct positions.
I know I want no more than 4 industries, but the type of industry I want may dictate the layout of the track. Sometimes I find it best to look for examples online as to types of industries. My layout is set around the year 1970, I am looking to model generic type locations that won’t require advanced scratch building so with that said I’m going to model a lumber yard, a team track and two factories that accept box cars.
An example of an industry that may dictate track arrangement may be a coal loading facility or grain silo, large complexes with multiple spots in general.
If you are not using the slow motion type switch machines then you shouldn’t have any issues.
If you main concern is being able to have the frog powered, then I can suggest the caboose industries manual ground throw with electrical contacts, they enable you to have a hand operated ground throw while still changing the frog polarity for smooth locomotive operation through the turnout. Click here to see their product page.
Additionally, you can always try installing DCC decoders with capacitors that will help your train stay powered over dead areas of track.
A great tool that you have in deciding whether a plan will or will not work is to post you plan up on a model railroad forum. Forums are full of great and highly experienced modelers and they have a wealth of information, which most are more than happy to share. I have posted many track plans up on forums and thankfully problems that I simply overlooked was picked up by numerous forum members.
· Model Railroader Magazine Forum – United States
· Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine Forum – United States
· Railpage Forum – Australia
· Model Rail Forum – UK
· Model Railway Forum – UK
· N Gauge Forum – UK
· Railroad-Line Forum – United States
One modeler in particular is Bill Brillinger, he help design this concept image of my plan and was instrumental in helping with the design and layout. Adding a few trees and buildings makes an amazing difference to the general feel of the plan and can help spot the trouble spots and mistakes in track arrangement.
I urge you to check out Bill's railroad blog viewable on Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine forum page:
Bill Brillingers Railroad Blog
There is a great amount if information and tips on his blog.
On module 2. I’ll place the lumber yard, I feel this will allow me to make a gradual transition from mountain scene full of trees and rocks, then lead that into an industry on the outskirt of town. The lumber yard will do well as an edge of the town industry. The scenery will then lead into a more civilized and populated area, factory 1 and factory 2 are still open for ideas. I’m planning to model one as a freight station with a loading dock and the other as a factory that accepts box cars beside the building where roller doors open directly into the box car door.
And finally on module 4. I’ll model the team track with a driveway and main road close by.
Another problem many model railroaders have when planning is trying to work out track dimensions, my first layout involved me downloading track templates which are available from many track manufacturers and then printing these and making mock up paper layouts. This works well but can be time consuming and making changes to the layout plan can become tedious. I was lucky to recently discover a track planning program that met my needs and if you’re making smaller railroads then the program is available for free. AnyRail5, it has a trial version available to use for free, it’s limited to 50 track elements and for a small modular switching layout this is more than enough to get your basic plan down. If you are planning a larger railroad then you’ll most likely need to purchase the software to complete your layout.
Not only is it good for planning your track, but all the diagrams I used in this article were drawn using AnyRail5.
I will have a YouTube series that starts at construction of the modules and then moves on from there, going through modular railroad construction step by step right up to completion of a modular model railroad.
Thanks for stopping by and checking out the website.