Things to Ponder When You're Planning Your Model Railroad Layout . .

What Kind of Track Plan do you want?

by Raymond G. Potter

By now, you should be pretty far ahead in your plans for a miniature model railroad empire. If you’ve been following along, we’ve discussed the train room, the scale, the theme, and bridges. Now let’s talk a bit more about your track plan. This will be the single most important consideration that means the difference between success and failure of your model train layout. Even before laying out scenery and structures and nifty accessories, you want the track plan to be well thought-out and the trains to run as intended.

draftThere are several methods of operation for model railroads and the choice depends both on the individual modeler and the area being modeled. There is no reason that two or more of these cannot be combined into a single layout. In fact this is rather common. Obviously, the more space you have, the more of these you can employ. The methods are:

  • Around a continuous circular route – In this method of operation, the train starts at point A and continues to other points (B, C, etc.) on the layout and eventually returns to point A again. The train can complete the run autonomously and can continue the cycle with further input. While this could just be a single oval of track, this need not be as simple as it first sounds. A skillfully planned layout can have a single run of track make two or three circles around the layout (essentially a loop that is folded upon itself) on lines that parallel or cross each other before the end of the line meets the beginning again at point A. Adding in tunnels to disguise the continuous nature of the track and grades or helixes to raise or lower the altitude makes it even more interesting. Even in a medium sized room, say 15’ x 15’, it can be a while before the train makes a complete tour of the layout and returns to its starting point A. With smaller scales, it is possible to have a few different loops of this type running constantly along different paths. The majority of the layouts SMARTT builds, even the smaller ones, have at least two main-lines of this type.
  • Yard Operations (shunting and switching) – Many train enthusiasts want to do more than go around in circles, even if those circles are elegant and varied. These operators want to be able to pull a train into a train yard, separate the locomotive, park or shunt the rolling stock onto storage lines, pick up different cars and resume the route. Maybe they’ll pull into a roundhouse for maintenance, a turntable to turn around, or route the train to a service facility for water, coal, or sand. A yard is the place where all the action is. Typically, a yard will have a number of long straight tracks connected by turnouts to park, store, or assemble trains. A turntable, especially a remotely operated one, is a nice feature and is best complemented by a roundhouse. Tracks are left far enough apart in some places to accommodate coaling towers, sand houses, and other service structures. Industries can be served in the same way in an overall “switching layout” plan.
  • Dog Bone — In this variation on the circular route, most of the layout is a narrow run of one or more concentric loops, often in a long narrow space. At the far end of one or both sides, a broader space has a loop of track that the train can follow around so it is facing the other direction for the trip back. This return trip can be on the same length of track, resulting in a “reverse loop” that requires special wiring to avoid a short circuit in a two rail type layout. Alternately, the return trip could be on a track parallel to the outbound track as illustrated below.
  • Point to Point – Some modelers simply do not have the space to make a turnaround loop anywhere in their run. Picture a long narrow shelf, for example. For this reason, there is the concept of point to point operations, basically running from point A to Point B. At the end of the line, the train can be turned by hand, turntable, or a wye (a three point turn done on rails configured like the letter Y). Wyes also have special electrical requirements. Trolley lines are sometimes done as Point to Points, since they can run in both directions without needing to turn around.



In all of these operations, you can spice up the trip by making various “station stops” along the way, essentially stopping the train to take on passengers, freight, or additional rolling stock.

To add to the complexity, you can have more tracks attached to the main lines by track switches (turnouts) to create sidings where rolling stock is parked, or even branch lines that can have their own separate operations.

If you know that you will have many more trains set up than you can run at one time, you can have a whole hidden train-yard in an adjacent room or underneath the main level; these extra tracks are called staging tracks and are connected to the main lines via more turnouts.

As you add more and more lines and turnouts, the track plan will become complicated so it is vital to record what you are doing for proper wiring, reference, and troubleshooting.

Next time we’ll look at methods of track planning…

from the September, 2011 SMARTT Newsletter

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