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Starting out – in Railway Modeling

Following the Article on how to make a Great Model Layout, the following Article provides one possible “Layout RoadMap” – a proven strategy to follow in designing your layout.. that will save you time, effort and even money – especially in the long run.


Trains4Africa 1.  Before you start, Stop and reflect..

When deciding on a Theme, there are many possibilities and this is only limited by your imagination. you may want to model a real railroad or one which was born in your imagination alone (freelance).

Just keep in mind, before we continue..Whatever you decide, you will need to take into consideration many factors such as:

  • Space available
  • Type of bench work
  • Height of the layout
  • Maximum grade
  • Minimum radius
  • Minimum separation
  • Electrical considerations
  • Lighting
  • Scenery
  • and more..benchwork2

You probably just want to get started, but planning your railroad will help to eliminate many pitfalls and minimize any disappointment due to mistakes which could have been avoided. Planning will allow you to consider future expansion right from the beginning which will make it much easier when the time comes.

A good starting point is to establish a file of information or ideas that will be easily accessible when you get to the serious design stage. this could include individual ideas on scraps of paper, or magazine articles and photographs, drawings or sketches you may have made, video tapes, magazine articles, how to books, technical information about new developments in the hobby, track plans, scenery ideas, notes from “how to “classes you may have attended, instruction sheets, catalogs, computer layout design software, or google.

Give some thought to where you want to build/operate your railway-inside, outside, front yard, back yard, sitting near the pool or perhaps you are confined to a basement- as long  as you can relax and be creative. Remember a pen and some paper, perhaps a laptop computer, or just old magazine articles can go a long way.

Planning your railroad could take a few days or even years. Whatever your time frame, it is important to have all your bits of information and ideas organized so that when you are ready to start the serious design stage you will have all the information at your fingertips.


2.  Track Layout

One of the first things you should consider when designing your layout is the track layout.

There are many ways to design a layout, including the following:

  • Lay the track out on the floor to see how it will fit in the area you have chosen for your railroad.
    Once you are satisfied that you have arrived at your final track configuration, you will need to make a sketch of the layout indicating the location, and part numbers or some other way of identifying each piece the way you have laid it out.
  • Use a published track plan from a book/magazine or Internet
    This simplifies the process because these plans have already done all the designing for you, and usually include electrical diagrams and other considerations that will normally save you a considerable amount of time. some of these plan books can be adopted for any scale. there are usually instructions on how to do this included in the book.
  • Use a track planning template and draw your layout piece by piece.
    This is very time consuming, but it allows you to have a lot of flexibility in your design.
  • Utilizes a computer and a design software such as PC-Rail or Cad Rail.
    This will allow you to explore many possibilities in a relatively short period of time.
    Once the layout is the way you want it you can print out the track plan and an inventory list of track pieces necessary to build your layout. it is even possible to print the track layout full size, although it will take a lot of paper.

Track Layout

Some Layout Restrictions to be Aware of..

  • One of the most important things in the design process is the maximum climbing ability of your trains, or the percent of grade. it is difficult for most model railroad locomotives to climb up hills. even the real railroads have great difficulty.-Wheels tend to slip, and motors tend to overheat, particularly on long trains. for this reason it would be rare to find a model railroad with more than a 4% grade.
    -Two to three percent would be more desirable, and no grade at all will eliminate the problem completely
    -a 4% grade would be equal to a four inch rise over one hundred inches of forward movement.It may be necessary to cut away soil or scenery in some areas and fill other areas much the same way the real railroads do to keep the grade to a minimum.There are several ways to check the grade, including a surveyors transit, a water level, or maybe even a piece of string and some kind of level.
  • Another consideration is the minimum radius of track that you can efficiently use.This is going to be dictated by the size of the locomotives and rolling stock that you plan to use on your layout. the longer the locomotive, the wider the radius needs to be. your railroad will also look better with the widest radius that will fit in your space.
  • Another important consideration is minimum track spacing.When two tracks run parallel to each other you will need a minimum spacing which will allow two trains to pass each other without touching.this spacing will depend on whether the track is straight or curved, and also on what the radius of track that is that is being used.
  • Another consideration when designing your track layout is the distance from the track to the edge of your benchwork.The track should be far enough back from the edge of your layout so that if the train should come off the track it will not fall on the floor.
    ..this could be a very costly mistake !
  • Generally your track will look better and the trains will run better if you use long gentle turns.
  • Avoid double or reverse curvesIt will look better and the trains will run through the curves better if there is a short section of straight between the curves.
  • Plan your track so that it is all accessible.Long tunnels will need to have access from underneath. you should be able to reach all track on the layout to allow for cleaning and maintenance.


3. Benchwork

Many people do not give much consideration to the type of benchwork, or the platform which supports the track, and generally it all depends on the intended use of the layout.

Three important design criteria to consider however:

  • The decision to use open gridwork or a flat platform
  • The decision to make this a fixed or portable layout
  • The height above the floor (which will affect the operation and viewing of the layout)

benchwork1General comments:

  • Open gridwork will allow for the best overall flexibility for both the track and the scenery and only takes a little more time than flat boards.You will find that the extra time spent on open gridwork is well worth the effort.
  • The height of your layout is more of a personal decision than anything else, but the scale you are working in will have a lot to do with your ultimate decisionMost layouts, however, are built with the track approximately 40 inches above the floor.


4.  Train control and Electrical considerations

This is probably one of the most important aspects of designing your railroad. usually, however, it is the area that gets the least amount of attention until it is too late to do much about it.

Most of the books on designing a model railroad are so far out of date on this subject that it leaves the modeler in the position of building a railroad to 1940 standards.

The question you need to ask yourself before you get too far along in your planning, is how many locomotives am i going to run at one time either now or in the future ?

If your answer is only one locomotive, then the conventional AC or DC method will work just fine for you.

If, however, you are planning on running two or more locomotives on the same track at the same time, then you owe it to yourself to investigate the possibility of using a DCC (command control) system – you will quickly realize that DCC offers so many advantages, that there is no other choice.


Read this Article on DCC to get a better understanding of the technology

Here is a short explanations of the frustrations that you will encounter if you try to operate more than one train at the same time with the conventional system..

When you put a second locomotive on the same track with another, it will move either forward or reverse at approximately the same speed and direction as the first locomotive (this is of course if both locomotives are of the same type and mechanical condition)

The only alternative you have to operate them independently of each other is to divide the track up into separate electrical circuits or blocks as they are called.

This will require a second transformer, additional wiring, and a couple of double pole – double throw switches.

Sound complicated ? really isn’t, but it doesn’t get any easier as you add locomotives or electrical blocks.

Now lets look at a more up to date way to operate two or more locomotives on the same track at the same time:  enter DCC

With only two wires to the track and no separate electrical blocks, you can run each locomotive independently of each other, at different speeds or in opposite directions on the same track, at the same time.

Sound simple ? is ! and it is even possible to operate with reverse loops and no complicated extra wiring or switches to throw.

How is this made possible?

Each locomotive is fitted with a small computer chip which has its own discreet address. this allows totally independent operation of as many locomotives as you have installed chips.  You can even operate one locomotive without a chip installed, right along with the others, and it can still be operated independently.

DCC operation even allows you to interface your trains with a personal computer, which will make Automation possible

The advantages of DCC are many, and this state of the art technology will greatly simplify your electrical wiring, and allow for more realistic operation of your trains.

5.  Scenery

Model railroading scenery is an important part of the design process.

It is important to consider what scenery elements you are going to incorporate, and make allowances for them when you design your track plan and benchwork.

You will also want to plan for the location of bridges, rivers, lakes, buildings, whole towns, or possibly trackside industries.

It is these scenery elements that give your railroad a purpose to exist.

Careful planning will greatly simplify your design process, and help give you many hours or enjoyment once the railroad is completed.


6. Lighting

Lighting is very important to your layout. it helps to set a mood, and can also help to highlight certain scenes to make them appear more realistic.

Fluorescent lighting rarely will do justice to a model railroad, and a series of incandescent spotlights aimed at just the right places will look more natural, and help to give a lot more visual impact to your miniature world.

You may want to consider track lighting on a dimmer switch, or strategically placed individual spotlights on separate dimmer switches.

Typically a dimmer switch will allow you to have better control over your lighting for such things as night scenes, or to highlight a specific scene.

There are also computerized Lighting Systems that will allow you to automate the lighting of the layout, while adding numerous special effects.


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