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Model Railroad Planning 2020

Model Railroad Planning 2020 is one of those unique special issues that mixes track, layout, and scenery planning into one outstanding publication. Published by Model Railroader magazine, the popular annual covers a lot of information in 100 pages with all-new planning stories by expert contributors like Tony Koester and David Popp.

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David Popp Model Railroader


Value is where you find it

I allocate the number of pages to each feature based on a number of factors, one being diversity of content. If the theme is narrowly focused, I assume it will be of interest to fewer readers. Often, however, as I read through the author’s draft, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the obvious theme – for example, David Popp’s article on a suburban Chicago commuter operation (“Commuter attraction,” page 18) – has much more to offer than the title implies. The Windy City has a lot of fans, but those of you who might not be interested in that region or type of railroading may find his research and layout planning tips of considerable value.

N scale Columbia & Western model railroad

Enhancing diesel shop operations

Prototype insight changes how a yard and shops are operated

The objective of my N scale Columbia & Western (C&W) is to model the Canadian Pacific’s (CP) “Kootenay Divisions” circa 1970. Initially hampered by incomplete information and having almost no operating experience, but with enthusiasm to get started, I did my best to replicate the prototype track arrangements within the space available. I also endeavored to reproduce the trains and spectacular scenic features of the prototype (see Model Railroad Planning 2012 and Great Model Railroads 2016).

As I gained both experience operating the C&W and knowledge of the prototype’s operations, I revised the C&W’s track plan and operating scheme to more closely follow the prototype. Nowhere is this more evident than around the Nelson Yard Diesel Shop.

HO scale track plan for C&NW commuter train

Commuter attraction

Modeling a suburban city can provide amazing operating possibilities

Crystal Lake, Ill., sits along the former C&NW Wisconsin Division main line, 42.9 miles from Madison Street Station in downtown Chicago. The Wisconsin Division originally ran northwest from Chicago to Minneapolis, passing through Madison, Wis., and St. Paul, Minn. Today, it’s owned by Union Pacific and, in addition to freight, carries more than 40 daily Metra commuter trains. In 1954 the line was still firmly in the hands of the C&NW.

Model train layout in a family room

Layout in the family room

The HO scale Port of Los Angeles shelf layout makes a welcome houseguest

Many of us dream of having a large model railroad in a basement or garage, with scale miles of track and long trains. But we’re often confronted with the reality of a lack of separate space to dedicate to a layout. By re-examining the space we have, it might be possible to build a layout in another part of the home that shares other family activities. It would take a tolerant spouse to agree to building a layout in the formal living room, dining room, or master bedroom. But family rooms and dens, with their ubiquitous televisions and children’s toys, are fertile ground for a model railroad.


The Espee in the UK

Modeling the Southern Pacific 5,400 miles away from home

After living in the same house for 25 years, my wife, Jane, and I finally relocated in 2016. Following temporary relocation to facilitate major renovation, we returned to our refurbished home in March 2017. Jane gifted me sole occupancy rights to the basement, which measures 15 x 25 feet, almost the whole footprint of the house.


A busy eastern Virginia junction

CSX, Buckingham Branch, and Amtrak trains provide variety on this N scale double-deck layout

I approached the design of my N scale model railroad with two goals in mind. First, it would be based on a prototype subdivision with a balance of run-through trains and switching operations. Second, scene composition would be guided by minimalism to enhance operational realism by having long-distance runs to and from centers of switching activity.

HO scale New Haven Berkshire Line model railroad

All the layout's a stage

Focal points become sets, structures become props on this model railroad

Model railroad layouts depicting a highly detailed single town or location are popular in the United Kingdom. These standalone layouts are often built small and portable for display on the exhibition circuit in the U.K. Operation consists of rolling stock entering the modeled location from hidden staging.
Model railroad in a highway trailer

A model railroad in a highway trailer

Roll you railroad room to your modeling site

Ever since I first chose O fine scale, which in the United Kingdom means 7mm scale, or 1:43, I struggled with where to set my model railroad. I wanted to model a London & North Western (LNWR) branch line, something we have plenty of in North Wales. But which one?

After considering the various lines, I selected the one through Llanberis. The village is along Llyn Padarn and nestled at the foot of Snowdon, Wales’ largest mountain.

With the model location selected, I now needed to find a space for the layout. All the normal places friends have used – the attic, spare room, garage, shed, garden, or a purpose-built room – had merit. How- ever, they didn’t address my own problem of constant relocation because of my job.
Multilevel model railroad

Building a layout more efficiently

Tips from a veteran model railroader and project manager

I’ve been a model railroader for the past 45 years and have worked in the heavy-construction industry for more than 40 years, the last 30 as a project manager. During that time, I’ve learned a thing or two about completing projects in the most efficient manner possible. Sharing a set of rules I use to guide my professional decisions may be of benefit to fellow modelers, as they’re directly related to constructing a layout.

O scale Norfolk & Western model railroad

Big steam is back in the Appalachians

An O scale railroad began with a layout visit and a napkin

As is so often the case, Chris Smith’s interest in model trains was nurtured with three-rail O gauge Lionel trains. Over the years, he acquired quite a collection of high-rail rolling stock representing a wide range of prototype railroads. But as nice as that equipment was, his perspective changed when he visited a two-rail O scale layout. Within minutes of seeing it, he decided that was the kind of railroad he wanted.

N scale Portland, Ore., model train track plan

A single location layout

This N scale track plan inspired by Portland, Ore., Union Station fits in a double garage

The standard two-car garage found in many homes usually measures around 20 x 20 feet and thus forms a useful 400-square-foot layout site. It’s not huge, but it offers sufficient scope for a model railroad that will keep several operators entertained and handle a good-sized equipment roster.


Coping with urban canyons

How to plan for lining turnouts, uncoupling cars, and cleaning track in tight spaces

Designing a model railroad to depict prototypical operations in older, urban industrial areas can be a challenge if the modeler doesn’t have a large enough area in which to build an around-the-walls layout. Typically, from the late 1800s to the 1950s, industrial buildings in cities were large, multi-story structures crowded together, often with complex track arrangements running between and into them in what are best
described as urban canyons.
HO scale Denver & Rio Grande Western Tennessee Pass model train track plan

Through the basement and around it

A dual-gauge HO track plan for a famous stretch of Colorado railroad

A long-time interest in the transition-era Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW), in both standard gauge and narrow gauge flavors, plus a large (if somewhat inconveniently arranged) space set the stage for this multi-deck track plan.
Model railroad fascia signs

Planning tips

Add fascia signs

Prototypical operation was the name of the game on my former Iowa Interstate Grimes Industrial Track HO railroad. Part of playing the game well was ensuring crew members knew exactly where they were on the line.
I labeled every road crossing, bridge,
Topping off a model railroad helix

Rear platform

Topping off the helix

When it came time to scenic this area, I wanted the helix and the continuous-run/staging track to be hidden at normal viewing heights. This required disguising the entry to the helix (left side of the photo) as much as possible but still providing easy access to the manually lined turnouts.


Freight yard design and operation.

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