Jump to content

Railway Modelling and Layout Design


Recommended Posts

Thanks for a forum where there seems to be lots of support and no carping criticism. Helpful comments are fine but I have seen other instances where there are those giving out unhelpful opinions that ‘rubbish’ some folks’ efforts.  

In the JNS forum I see what I choose to call ‘infectious enthusiasm.’ Thanks guys and gals!


What I am about in this post is a little philosophy to hopefully add to the enthusiasm.  Diving right in, let me ask; what are we doing when we are modelling railways? What we see in answer is a huge variety of ways of modelling and I think it is driven by an attempt to evoke something about railways that touches the modeller.

This evocation could be from revisiting childhood memories with a ‘toylike’ layout to re-creating a real-life scene or rail operation in some detail and each speaks to the builder. This means that everyone’s efforts should be appreciated and encouraged as it is where they want to be. When building a layout then I think the idea of what it is that one is trying to evoke is a very important consideration.


Are we trying to build an animated miniature world as a creative outlet so we can watch the trains whizz around? Is it the idea of a railway as a complex transport matrix and making it work that we enjoy? Is it building models historically accurate to bring back the past? Is it pure satisfaction from making a very accurate model? Is there joy in shunting (switching) or other operational activity?


Many of these ideas are in competition with each other so that ‘wanting it all’ is going to make it hard to ever achieve. For instance, scratch-building to finescale will take a lot of time which may slow baseboard, track and electricals thus delaying getting into operation. Maybe focusing on just what you want to evoke is the important first step before any layout design.


Prioritising what is important to you to makes sure you get well on the way to your goal when you start designing and building. It is also possible that if you spend too much time on one facet of the hobby you will not experience something that may be equally enjoyable.


My own experience covers about a dozen layouts plus working on a couple of club exhibition layouts. Some of those layouts were for my children or grandchildren but all of them taught me a lot. In particular a large N scale layout built around heavy freight and intense passenger operation gave a lot of satisfaction but I started to find the maintenance was starting to build up and it took quite a while to get ready for each operating session which was just me or me and my son.


I had repainted and weathered every locomotive, built all the electronics, finished scenery and spent ages getting any bugs out of the track to make it highly reliable.  When my son finished high school and was more interested in girls and cars, I ditched the N scale and started work on a large HO system of a local prototype. I had in mind re-creating the operation I remembered from my home state in the 1980’s. Lots of equipment to build to historical accuracy meant  that after about 5 years I had no track, not even a baseboard.


I had some nice trains, but they only ever ran on the club layout, a couple of times a year!


So, the solution was to simplify; go to On30, freelance from a local prototype. This was circa 1930-40 era and it got well along but still a lot of bashing to make the models look like well-used equipment and most structures were scratch built. While I was enjoying myself, I found my desire to operate was still pushed ever into the future after I could had more finished scenery and structures. There was also the conversion of locos to DCC to be considered.


Planning to downsize to a smaller residence meant the On30 was too big to go with me so it had to go. I was then toying with the idea of a tiny shunting (switching) layout and started looking for some sort of design and prototype.


Wanting a little more than just shunting I revisited an idea that I had tried to develop when in HO but it got toooooo BIG! This is the idea of a simple mainline circuit with staging yard and then a branchline so that I have to work around the mainline operation. I have my shunting, I have my mainline for the flashy fast trains and heavy freights. Can it be built though?


I was looking at all sorts of prototype; local Oz, UK, French, German, USA and then Japan!

Familiarity with Japanese railways and the availability of high quality ready to run equipment, track and structures meant that there is a hope for me to get it up and running in reasonable time and get into operation. Why do I focus so much on operation? That is my preference but it reflects years of my own experience of rail operation; timetables, signalling, traffic control, scheduling freight and passengers, getting thousands of tonnes over the mountains, blasting through a tunnel on a steam loco or slugging it out up-hill in a diesel on a maximum weight freighter.


There is a lot more detail to be provided for the realisation of the layout design but for now that is my journey to here and I hope this can encourage others to follow what they wish to evoke. Whatever you do with your modelling though, enjoy it!

  • Like 4
  • Thanks 1
Link to comment
56 minutes ago, AzusaE353 said:

Thanks for a forum where there seems to be lots of support and no carping criticism. Helpful comments are fine but I have seen other instances where there are those giving out unhelpful opinions that ‘rubbish’ some folks’ efforts.  

In the JNS forum I see what I choose to call ‘infectious enthusiasm.’ Thanks guys and gals!

Thanks very much! We have really tried to make JNS a happy little place to talk trains, modeling and make friends.


You have presented some really nice thoughts here on model railroading. I’ve always felt it’s a difference balance for each modeler with interest, resources, abilities etc. I’m always talking up with newbies the importance of getting some track and just start playing with trains and doing quick mock ups of types of layouts and operation, mock up scenery with paper and tape and even just do some papercraft pdf buildings taped up fast to help start to learn what they enjoy and, probably more importantly, what they don’t like to do! 

it’s all a complex dance for each modeler and, like you said, requires compromise as almost never can we have it all! But the old lyric rings true you may not get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need! In my professional exhibit work I always had to take clients (usually museums or educational groups) on the the walk between what they wanted and what they needed, rarely the two did not line up. But the better we were able to bring out and visualize their real needs the more their wants became that and then the road got so much smoother and projects so much better.


thanks for doing this and I’m sure it will stimulate some more philosophizing here! We enjoy that here a lot.





  • Like 1
Link to comment

Thanks for sharing some wise words about layout design. It's sometimes forgotten that there are so many ways to do railroad modelling and thus so many ways to design and build (or not build) a layout. It's easy to get stuck in track planning without reflecting about why you want to have a layout in the first place, or reflecting about that different people have different goals.



And yes, I've found this to be a very friendly and inspiring place.


People who want to decide for others how to practice a hobby has caused many good communities to stagnate or go down the drain. Back in the 00-ies and early 10:s I was a member of a community where gatekeeping behavior grew to a point where some vocal and influencial members started arguing that everyone under 18 should be banned from the community, basically because allegedly you couldn't be a serious hobbyist at that age and having them around would reflect badly upon the rest of us (or something to that effect). I was so disgusted about it all that I eventually ended up quitting both the community and the hobby.





  • Like 3
Link to comment

Nice thoughts AzusaE353. I also appreciate the variety of approaches here. I've spent a lot of time over the years pondering and refining what I want out of a layout. Where I have ended up is wanting something quite simple and well presented (though perhaps not entirely realistic) where I can see and imagine trains running through a scene. There is just something about that which I've always enjoyed, and so I tend to concentrate on scenery.


I'm at the beginning of planning my next layout which I hope to start this year, and its going to be quite a minimal though large layout. I bought most of what is needed in Japan a couple of weeks ago. 🙂

  • Like 2
Link to comment

Hi all

Thanks for the kind words for my post. I started to think further and was musing on my own way of doing things like planning in detail and then getting on with it but it is possible there are some out there that this approach is kind of scary or off-putting. I guess there are some that feel that a hobby is something that you really can do your way and I am sure that all your comments are supporting that idea in general but what about those that are a bit more spontaneous? Lay out tracks this way then that way then another and just have fun with different configurations. I guess I am a bit too plan focused to enjoy this approach but for those that do let's encourage them also.


Puts me in mind of an experience I had: Many years ago I had a colleague who had just bought his kids a 'train set'. The train and the oval of track. Thinking I was doing the right thing I invited him home to show him what I was doing with my own layout. He just stared then said 'I could never do anything like this!' Instead of encouraging it put him off somewhat and I don't think he ever attempted anything more than the train set. I guess we can only hope to have many ideas presented here so that everyone can pick the bits that will suit them.


Also, as I understand it, many Japanese homes have little space for permanent layouts and so they set up, enjoy and then pack up. The only permanent structure might be the box with everything in it!


My latest layout is very space constrained and I guess I could call it the 'long door' as it is about the width of a doorway (800mm) but 3m long. I have built it very light and am trying diagonal bracing to keep it stable. I will be trying many new ideas to try to get it operating quickly but also able to progress other interests in parallel (scenery, lighting, automatic control). Also being fed up with electrical work on the underside of the baseboard, this one will hinge up vertically so I can wire in comfort. I am seriously considering legs with locking wheels too so that I can swing it wherever I want for operation or maintenance. Not practical on a large layout but there have to be some benefits in being small!

  • Like 2
Link to comment

Yes there is a big spectrum of approaches, and each is good depending on the individual for what is best for them.





Link to comment

I have never had a permanent layout. I'm in the process of building one, my first, but progress is slow. In the past I used to carry my emergency kit, a small Pelican case with enough track for an oval and an Inglenook, a loco and a enough freight wagons for said Inglenook, and a very small DCC controller. This was set up whenever I felt the need to chill out for a while, or to amuse/annoy my colleagues. It was often set up on the CEO's desk when he was out and about, until he found out about it and demanded a more permanent installation that he and the rest of the C suite could play with. I did work with some cool people. Having done this for many years and in many countries, I think I know what I want in a permanent layout, and it is certainly not prototypical operations. If I wanted that I'd become a train driver just like my brother. My idea of fun is single track loop with a main station and a small goods yard and maintenance area, two local stops with passing tracks, and a hidden storage siding so that I can swap trains around. All DCC controlled with sensors for automation (DCC-EX is my system of choice). The theme of the layout is a heritage railway museum. I understand that these are rare to non-existent in Japan, but I live back in Australia now and there are quite a few of them here. UK too I believe. This way I can run old steam locos with anything I like behind them, and even have my N500 Shinkansen pass through the main station (the TGV's in France often run onto local tracks to reach their final destination, I used to travel on one to from Paris CDG to Saint Étienne Châteaucreux, definitely not a high speed track). Freight operations will be solving Inglenook puzzles, passenger operations will be navigating the museum excursion train around the loop while two automated trains are also using the same loop, one in each direction. If I just want to sit back and admire the scenery the automated trains can run unassisted. As Martijn said, if this entertains me then I reckon I must be doing it right.

  • Like 3
Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...