Layout Design

Layout Design
Design for operation and photography.

Layout design brings different images to mind in different folks. For some it's an onerous process to be gotten over as soon as possible the so fun of actual construction and operation can begin. Others spend years researching every detail of a favorite protype, agonizing over which portions to include or omit. Most of us like to just doodle trackplans.

The Bear Creek and South Jackson has progressed from a 4x8 twice around to a 22 x 20 L-shaped, around the walls helix layout to a monster design for a large basement room. As the designs have become more complex so has the need for planning. Without carefully working things out "Oops!" could result.

While planning a layout that will actually get built (of course you never really know but it's good to step back every so often for a sanity check) such things as:

  • Will this be too big for me (or group) to complete in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Will it require construction complexity beyond my abilities to actually build it? (see my SPC design below)
  • Will I still want the layout after it's built? Tastes change over time. If you're designing a double-mainline racetrack will you still want it if you decide you like industrial switching or running with Time Table & Train Order operation?
  • Can I afford the materials to build it? Track and lumber costs add up quick when a layout gets big!
  • Is the design overly grandiose? Is it just going to be too fancy?
  • How long are the trains I'll run? If I want 25 car trains but can only fit in 10 foot sidings there's gonna be a conflict! Will the engines be in one town while the caboose is in the previous one?
  • Can I reach everywhere? This applies to horizontal and vertical reaching
  • Does the aisle to railroad ratio make sense? It doesn't make sense to design a railroad to support 10 train at a time operation if the aisles will only hold 6 crew members simultaneously.
  • Should I build something simpler to improve my skills before tackling a big layout?
I decided not to build my On3 South Pacific Coast design after stepping back. It was fun to design and I've been interested in this prototype since the late 60's but there were too many issues that would have become problems for me.

So I decided to build a much simpler layout. A 4x8 layout. In HO (I still get comments from some of the narrow-minded types about leaving On3) standard gauge. I had doodled a whole bunch of HO layouts for the garage but all of them left me feeling doubts about taking on a large project. The 4x8 seemed approachable sized. Thus I planted the seeds of the first Bear Creek & South Jackson.

Charlie Comstock - GM Bear Creek & South Jackson Railroad.

My Track Plans
(in chronological order of design)

South Pacific Coast
South Pacific Coast
I spent a lot of time designing this On3 South Pacific Coast layout. But when I stepped back and took a second look I started worrying about things like construction complexity, the helix in the middle of the run, towns are way too close to each other for the prototypical 50 car lumber trains the SPC ran out of Boulder Creek each night, the need to horrendously compress too many scenes. But mostly the construction! This would be a monster to build! And having Laurel hanging out over the hoods of the cars seemed like less and less of a good idea (dust and the loong way to the floor)...

So sadly, I never started construction. Maybe someday, if I get that 2000 sqft train room (and the skill to scratch build about 15 locomotives!). But doing the design was a lot of fun.

Bear Creek & South Jackson #1
The first Bear Creek & South Jackson was slightly larger than 4'x8' but packed quite a lot of scenery into that small space by dividing it into a number of small vignettes (using bridges, a mountain range, multiple heights, cuts, and tunnels as scenic separators).

There was a single main town, South Jackson, a short branchline and a single passing siding. Trains could pick-up and setout from seven different industries providing good one-man operation.

Bear Creek & South Jackson #2
The second Bear Creek & South Jackson was dismantled in November 2002 when I moved. Tearing down a layout is really sad (but I knew a large basement would soon be ready for me).

This layout was designed as a proto-lanced bridge route from the Salem/Albany area over the Santiam pass to Redmond and Pocatello. Lots of Southern Pacific flavor. In my re-write of history, when the Corvalis & Eastern went broke in 1893 the Bear Creek & South Jackson management came foward, purchased the C&E assests for pennies on the dollar and succeeded in pushing the line up over the Santiam pass. To fit a 4.5 scale mile mainline into 328 square feet I resorted to an around the walls (and peninsula) helix style design. This in turn made it impossible to accurately model the topography over the Santiam pass (South Jackson represents Redmond and should be lower than Camp Sherman - not higher!). But if completed it would have a single track mainline, five towns/sidings (plus staging at each end) and should be suitable for running a TT&TO driven helper district (all those 2.7% grades!). And not modeling the SP means I can rationalize what ever equipment really catches my fancy.

Bear Creek & South Jackson #3
The third Bear Creek & South Jackson is currently under construction in my basement. This layout is another proto-freelance plan. It was designed to feed a large classification yard at Bear Creek. There are over 5 miles of mainline (not including staging tracks) and a one mile long branchline). Bear Creek yard roughly corresponds to Eugene in Oregon and tracks extend eastward over the Cascades through the towns of Oakhill, Mill Bend, and South Jackson. Westward is the industrial area of East Creek and the ag-center of Browning. The branchline runs from Mill Bend northward along the Deschutes river to the town of Redland.

Other features of the layout are numerous opportunities for switching, lots of real estate between towns, a set of loonng helper grades, and a decent amount of staging. This layout design was presented in Model Railroad Planning 2004 in the article "Fine Tuning a Trackplan for Operation".

Although I like to take model train pictures, this layout was primarily set up to allow operation.

Track Planning Resources on the Web
The LDSIG (Layout Design Special Interest Group) maintains a Layout Design Primer on the web. This is an invaluable resource for the budding layout designer.

The OPSIG (Operations Special Interest Group) is dedicated to the operation of model trains in a prototypical manner.

The NMRA (National Model Railroad Association) has a website packed full of information about trains and modeling them.

Track Planning Resources in Print
Reading materials about layout design are plentiful. Among the best (imho) are:
  • Track Planning for Realistic Operation, John Armstrong - This is an oldie but goodie, a must read

  • Creative Track Plans, John Armstrong - discusses several innovative ways to find space for a layout when space is at a premium

  • Walk Around Track Plans, Don Mitchell - a number of design tips plus several track plans designed (per the title) for walk around operation (including the monster Tehachapi Pass layout being construction at the San Diego Model Railroad museum by the La Mesa club.

  • Small & Smart Trackplans, Ian Rice - up to date track plans for small spaces.

  • Layout Design Journal - the quarterly publication of the LDSIG. This are packed with case studies and solutions to problems.

  • Model Railroad Planning - the yearly planning magazine published by Kalmbach. Filled with layout design examples and tips.

My Layout Design Tips
My (for what they're worth) layout design tips.
  • Know what you want! If you are new to the hobby you won't know what you really like about model trains. You won't even know which questions to ask at first. Try to find other modelers in the area. Visit every layout for which you can wrangle an invite. If you get the chance to run trains on a layout take it! If there is an NMRA meet in your area go to it. The only way to know what you want is through experience!

  • Don't let not knowing what you want paralyze you from modeling! Build some kits, build a plywood pacific (4x8 plywood with track on it) so you can run trains and have a place to put some buildings (this is another way to gain experience). Keep things simple for your first layout(s). Big and fancy can come later.

  • You won't know if you are building a lifetime layout until after you die. In the meantime you're only building the layout you're building now. I guess this means that if you feel like you can do better with a new layout, go ahead (more experience gains). Several large and well know layouts have recently become deceased when their owners decided to start new layouts. Moves, changes of heart and changes of job have all been the cause of this.

This web page and contents copyright © 1998-2005 by Charlie Comstock. All rights reserved.