Subscriber & Member Login

Login, or register today to interact in our online community, comment on articles, receive our newsletter, manage your account online and more!

Model Railroad Planning 2017


Inside this edition you'll find 100 pages of model railroads in the planning and construction phases. Model Railroad Planning 2017 features 14 stories covering layout advice, expert tips, and detailed instructions from the best in the field. An essential tool for all skill levels, you'll learn everything from track planning and yard construction, to scenery tricks and creating photogenic layouts. Includes layouts in HO, N, and O scales.

Order your copy today »

Issue Preview:



Modeling a busy shortline terminal

During my time at Model Railroader and now at Model Railroader Video Plus, photos have proven to be my greatest source of inspiration for designing and building new layouts – and often as not, a single picture is all it’s taken to get the ball rolling. Therefore it’s not surprising that it was a photograph, or at least a small file-folder full of them, that gave the HO scale Winston-Salem Southbound layout its start.

I’d never heard of the “Southbound,” as the locals called it, until I’d found the photos. But it didn’t take much digging to realize that this railroad would make an ideal modeling subject. It covered a single region, served a variety of industries, had a fair amount of traffic, owned a varied roster of locomotives, and possessed a quirky history – all characteristics I deem necessary for a rewarding project.

After conducting some research on the WSS – and admittedly, there wasn’t much to go on – I focused on one small piece of it: the very tip of an industrial branch line. The result is a design for a shelf-style layout that will fit along an 11-foot wall, which can also be expanded as time and space allow.


Building the Southbound

Part of the fun of my job is that I not only get to come up with new ideas for layouts, but I also get to build some of them. In 2015, the regular MR Video Plus crew and I set to work building the HO scale Winston-Salem Southbound layout, the plan for which is featured on page 11.

The railroad uses standard L-girder benchwork, built with clear pine boards and 1⁄2" plywood subroadbed. I like the flexibility L-girder construction offers, as the joists and supports can be moved if they interfere with under-layout features, such as switch motors. This style of benchwork also makes it easy to build curved edges, such as the gentle arc that runs along the back of the layout.

It's done with mirrors

On my HO Virginia & Western RR, I placed a high priority on fully developed scenery in addition to reliable operations. I wanted the scenery to complement both high-stepping Northerns on crack passenger trains and articu­lated steam engines struggling to haul coal out of the Blue Ridge Mountains down to tidewater. I was fortunate to have a 26 x 44-foot basement that accommodated long mainline runs on a point-to-point railroad.

As in most basements, there were those inevitable obstructions that got in my way during layout construction: heating systems, waste pipes, electrical boxes, and worst of all the columns that hold up the house. I planned around many of these objects with judicious track location and creative scenery. But I found that in some situations, mirrors could be placed directly next to the offending object to produce the desired scenic effect.

There are 10 mirrors on my V&W, ranging from as small as 6" square to the granddaddy: 4 x 6 feet. The use of mirrors on my railroad falls into three general categories that can apply to almost any size layout: hiding something, continuing the scene, and visually enlarging the railroad.

An N scale traveling layout

Although I’m a member of the Erie Lackawanna Historical Society and model the EL in HO, I have always wanted to see what I could achieve in a small space in N scale. I started designing a layout capable of being taken to exhibitions and where the main size constraint was the back of my Volkswagen Golf with the seats folded flat. This gave a maximum size of 40" by 70" to work in.

I’ve always had an interest in Eastern railroads – especially in Pennsylvania – and have collected reference books for influence. My main interest is the Erie Lackawanna, but I also gathered information on other roads such as the Reading, Lehigh Valley, Lehigh & New England, Pennsylvania, and Central RR of New Jersey.


A slice of Wyoming in the U.K.

Why would someone who lives in rural Gloucestershire, England, model part of a Union Pacific engine terminal in Wyoming? For many, a layout is an unashamed trip back to their childhood. On reflection, I guess there’s an element of this here: I have a clear recollection of the son of two of my parents’ friends having an HO model of a UP 4-8-8-4 Big Boy, and of being insanely jealous of this amazing beast.

What rekindled this long-forgotten interest was visiting my daughter while she studied at the University of Wyoming in Laramie as part of her American Studies degree at the University of Birmingham, England. An essential part of the trip was a visit to the well-known footbridge over the UP to railfan.


Adding traction to a steam railroad

Thinking of adding a trolley line to your layout? Well, that can be a fascinating addition to an existing model railroad. It can be simple or as complex as you might want. Just be aware of one hidden risk: A trolley operation can become addictive – sometimes to the point that it becomes more intriguing than a traditional steam railroad.

That’s because it can be scaled to your available space more easily than most other types of railways. Most electric lines were short, with ultra-sharp curves, steep grades, simple but frequent operations, and short trains – often just a single car. Scale-length trains are practical. Adding even more realism is that, like their prototypes, the models are powered by electricity!


Scenery on the edge

Some of the toughest layout real estate to scenic may be those narrow strips of space between the fascia and the track. Locating fragile details up front puts them at risk, and often the space is too tight for structures.

I try to limit my railroad’s edge scenery to ground cover, bare dirt, ditches, and low-lying details such as ties. This stuff is relatively immune to damage from misdirected reach-ins by operators. Ideally, structures and other fragile construction can be concentrated on the far side of the tracks.


Spaces between places

When most of us sit down to enjoy a steak dinner, we take a few bites of the steak – the main focus of the meal – and then turn to the French fries or salad for a taste or two and maybe a sip of beverage. Then it’s back to the steak, the meal’s main course. You’re giving your palate a breather. When you dig into that steak again, it tastes that much better.

The same principle is true when you’re planning scenery for a model railroad: Give your visitors a savory eyeful to digest, then give them a side dish to cleanse their visual palate.


Pop quiz on yards

Quiz time: Although there are seldom yes/no, left/right, black/white answers to how the full-size railroads did things, especially as conditions changed over the years, there are some basics of yard design and function that should prove helpful to modelers.

A balancing act

The current-day CSX Cumberland Subdivision is an appealing modeling subject with its famous locales and railfan scenes. But even with a multi-deck approach in N scale in a large space, I knew that compromises would be necessary.

This former Baltimore & Ohio RR line is still quite busy today, with a variety of CSX freight traffic, Amtrak’s Capitol Limited, and MARC’s (Maryland Area Regional Commuter) Brunswick Line sharing the tracks. There are also many rail-served industries and interchanges with other railroads. My track-plan client’s primary interest was in modeling contemporary mainline traffic, but potential for en route switching was also to be incorporated.


A sectional urban switching district

The Delaware Avenue Switching District is intended as a portable, walkaround HO layout built from three 2 x 6-foot sections. The center section of the L-shaped layout will need a 1-foot extension on the corner to facilitate the curves.

I designed the layout to be displayed at various model railroad meets. The layout sections should fit on tables normally found at convention centers. My design uses both sides of each module, so aisle access should be planned accordingly. Crews must walk around the Monroe Yard/17th Street Yard end of the layout to follow their trains.


Wyes as Layout Design Elements

This article has a dual purpose: to illustrate the utility of modeling wyes, especially those scaled down from prototype scenes as Layout Design Elements (LDEs); and to call your attention to a major attribute of N scale – its reduced reach-in distance. The compression of certain prototypical functions into a practical area is something you can often achieve with N scale that may be impractical in larger scales.


Finding room for switching

Bruce Williams’ South of Pico Boulevard HO scale layout sits in a small area atop the stairwell that provides access to the main HO Southern Pacific layout. The 4'-0" x 13'-6" Los Angeles scene features an impressive industrial district.

Hiding tunnels where none belong

One of the most vexing problems model railroaders face is the need to use some sort of tunnel to hide the movement of our trains from one point to another. In the design of proto­typical layouts and even for some prototype-­based freelanced layouts, it’s often unavoidable to include a tunnel where none existed.

While every layout will have its own set of problems, the need to have a train disappear on a mountain-themed layout is one that can present challenges. Railroads in urban or agricultural settings can use a variety of view blocks, like warehouses or grain elevators, between the viewer and the tracks to obscure the point where trains move on or off the layout or emerge in another scene.


Modeling 8 decades at once

Neal Schorr’s three-rail O scale layout features a unique approach to depicting time. The modeled period shifts from the steam era (PRR) to the 1960s (Penn Central) to modern times (Conrail and Norfolk Southern) as it progresses from east to west. Changes include number of tracks and ballast edges.


Freight yard design and operation.

Model Railroader Newsletter See all
Sign up for our FREE e-newsletter and get model railroad news in your inbox!
By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Model Railroader magazine. Please view our privacy policy