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Plan Your First Model Train Layout with Pictures

For those considering creating a model train layout of their own, there are several things to consider.

Layout Design Tips

Choose a Theme.  Consider designing and building a layout around one of these themes: a basic cityscape, an industry (coal, oil, passenger stations, ship port intermodal lines), a scenic route (mountain, desert, the country), a specific rail line (Northwest, Canadian, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, MKT), or a specific area of the country that you like, say somewhere near where you grew up, for instance.

Decide a theme for your layout

2. Decide on Rolling Stock. 

What kind of rolling stock (train engines and cars) do you want to run? Some of the choices are:

  • Passenger
  • Freight
  • Intermodal (sea and rail)
  • Steam or diesel (choosing a specific era may decide this for you) or crossover from steam to diesel (1930s through early 1950s)

Start with a small layout

3. Decide How Much You Can Spend: You do need to figure out the initial outlay for the basics you’ll need to get started, beginning with the layout table, the track, and the wiring.


4. Operation Aspect of the Layout Design.“Operation” involves how your train will operate while on the tracks. 

Switches allow trains to move from one track line to another

6. Physical Space allotment.Determine how much space you have to build a layout in. This may also help decide which scale train you choose. 

7. Layout Base.The layout base or table should be made of 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick plywood, cut to the dimensions of your layout plans. Use two-by-four posts as the supports for the layout. They should be placed about every 4 feet or so and cut the height that you feel you can comfortably work with.

Vehicles, roads, newspaper machines and the like make the layout more realistic.
              Vehicles, roads, newspaper machines and the like make the layout more realistic.

8. Laying Track.Track will vary with the train scale you decide to work with. For Lionel O or O27 scale, the tracks come in two basic styles. Snap track. Snap together track, comes in standard lengths and curves. Very little technical know how is needed with this track as it comes with wiring connections already in place (it makes wiring easier) it easily snaps together, and it comes with faux ballast base. Other track styles can be cut into custom lengths and shaped into custom curves, for a more complex layout.

9. Signals, Lights, and Other Accessories. In general, accessories like signals and lights should be placed on their own, smaller transformer. Specialized buildings like the sawmill, log loader, forklift station, passenger stations, train yard control towers, gateman’s shack, etc. fall under accessories that will need to be run off the smaller separate transformer.

Large transformers

10. Buildings and Scenery. Most buildings can be created as is from kits, can be purchased already made, or can be custom made if you’re artistic and feel so inclined to build these yourself.

lumber yard and sawmill

model train layout with real sound photo

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