If you’ve gotten as far as choosing the room for your train layout, you are probably going to want to centralize your design around a specific theme. The theme will be the main idea for the time period and geographic location for your new railroad empire. Often the scale and the choice of motive power and rolling stock that you have collected will help decide the theme for you. For example, if you love the look of vast, expansive spaces, and your room space is moderate, you will more easily be able to express that look with the much smaller N scale, as compared with the much larger O scale.
Specific locomotive and rolling stock equipment that you may prefer will likely be keyed to a certain area of the world and the time period when it was most likely to be seen.
Conversely, some modelers are attracted to a specific area because of the geography, scenery, or architecture. Some modelers are so attracted to a specific prototype railroad that they will want everything on the layout to correspond exactly to specific paint schemes. Other dedicated modelers might even create an imaginary pike complete with its own livery and color scheme. Finally, some base their theme not on a specific area or railroad at all, but on a specific industry.
If you are basing your theme upon specific locomotives and rolling stock types, and you want to be true to the prototype, this can easily lock you into more limited geographic areas, whether you are modeling a US theme, or another part of the world.
Here in the US, most American railroads only ran in one or two regions of the country. This limitation will help define the scenery, as well as the structures to be depicted. For example, “fallen flags” such as the New York Central or Pennsylvania Railroad are more localized to the northeastern United States where green mountains and hills are common. In their heyday, these roads served heavy passenger traffic and the coal, steel, and iron ore industries. These facts will help provide you with all kinds of modeling possibilities.
Meanwhile, other “fallen flags” such as the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF), or the SP (Southern Pacific) run through the American west, the southwest, and the mid west. So deserts, canyons, and majestic mountains could play a big scenic role.
As far as the time period goes, many modelers like to use the “Steam to Diesel Transition” era of the 1940’s to 1950’s, as this allows them to run old style locomotive steamers as well as more modern equipment at the same time.
If you want to stay true to the prototype, using a specific geographic area as the basis for your theme will limit your rolling stock choices to what looks realistic for that area. For example the American southwest has lots of stylish wooden and stucco architecture and colorful deserts and canyons, but you are unlikely to see steel industry cars in the area. On the plus side, choosing an area for its specific regional style will give you a firm focus for your structural, scenic, and bridge choices, with lots of real world reference available on the internet or even in travel magazines and tourist brochures.
If you are a prototype modeler, you will want to follow up on the area theme by finding out what railroad ran there and what their color scheme was for the period you are modeling. Railroads typically bought large quantities of the same colors of paint so that most of their service structures could be identified as part of their network. Union Pacific’s yellow and red paint scheme comes to mind, but every railroad had its own color combination. Beyond color, railroads often chose a specific architectural style for many of their service buildings.
Suppose you are a prototype modeler but there is no prototype that exactly meets your needs. The more dedicated train aficionados will create their own railroad. These individuals will choose an area to model then invent a railroad that serves that region. They will create a color scheme, name, and deco style and some even have cars and locos custom painted to fit their unique railroad. This is probably too intense for a first layout, but a fantasy pike can be just the thing if you really want a special display that no-one else has.
Finally, an industry can be the theme for some, or most of your layout. The steel industry is a popular scheme. With a variety of structures and processing facilities, many of which are massive and quite impressive, and most of which are available in the smaller scales, your steel empire could include every step of the process, from the raw ore being pulled from the mines, to ore carrying ships and docks, to steel refining facilities like blast furnaces. You could even go further and provide an end user for the product like an automobile assembly plant.
Some train collectors just enjoy the gee-whiz aspect of watching the trains go round and don’t care about a specific theme as long as they get to display and play with what they love. If you’re looking for a way to unite all the disparate elements of your layout, however, choosing a theme and planning for it before you lay the first track can go a long way toward making your loose assortment of locos and cars into a realistic empire that will garner admiration for your forethought and planning.
from the June, 2011 SMARTT Newsletter