Previously, we discussed the types of operation your track plan may be called upon to recreate. You may just be going for a simple oval or two to let the trains run around. It’s hard to go wrong with this approach, but without any operational complexity other than start/speedup/slow down/stop, the layout will rapidly become boring. You are going to want the ability to choose more than one route for your trains, employing track switches (turnouts). You might want to park one train on a siding attached to the main line, while another runs in its place. If you want your tracks to cross over and under each other, you will need to change the height of the track above the ground using slopes (grades). Maybe you even want a yard to park or service your trains or a hidden staging area to park even more trains.
Once you have an idea of the type of operation your track plan will call for and the space you have available, it’s time to start on the plan itself. Don’t forget that there are two main types of track available in most scales: flex track and sectional track.
The simplest method of track planning is to lay out a load of sectional track on the table or floor (don’t step on the track) and see how the sections fit together. For a single loop or two on level ground, this might suffice, but stepping beyond will need more forethought. Even laying out sectional track has its pitfalls if you don’t use the sections as they are designed. Never force tracks that are not flexible to bend to fit your idea of a track plan. This will cause almost constant headaches. There are many books and internet sites that will give you a prepared plan to use for your layout. Some of the more detailed plans will include a complete shopping list of all the sections you need to complete the plan. Atlas trains has published many of these plans over the years.
Beyond the “lay it on the table” method, the next step up from a pre-drawn plan is to manually draw a plan up yourself on paper. Some track planning books have scaled drawings of key track elements and sections that you can photocopy and stick on paper as though they were real track sections. Be sure that you understand the scale of your drawing and that you stay consistent with that scale. If you are more adventurous and have a good grasp on the geometric principles, you could do it completely by hand using graph paper and a compass and straight edge.
If you have passed this level of development, or if you are not that confident of your abilities to draw track lines that will work, it may be time to try a computer aided method. There are a number of software packages on the market that will allow you to choose a scale and lay out the track, both sectional (from a software library included with the program) or along custom curves that you determine. Using software and saving your work frequently can give you a lot of flexibility. Want to try a track plan with two slightly different variations? Just save the plan you’ve already created as two different files and manipulate away!
At SMARTT , we work on a completely custom level, rarely employing or being bogged down by the limitations of sectional track. For this reason, we do all our planning in a professional drafting program called AutoCAD. There are any number of drafting programs available on the market ranging from the simple to the intricate. AutoCAD and its brethren offer the benefits of computer flexibility to draw and redraw ad infinitum combined with tools to create complex and professional features like easement curves that enhance operation. You must still be very familiar with geometric techniques to insure that the plan you create will work properly. Our methodology lets us bring the track plan straight into the physical benchwork design process so that we can have all our benchwork and roadbed custom cut by a CNC router. It also lends itself to later steps in the design process like custom scenery modules and structures.
Regardless of the planning method you choose, give a lot of thought to your track plan and how it will grow with you in the future. Planning ahead now for future sidings, branch lines, and other features will allow your layout to continue to grow as your skills mature, and the thrill will always be there, ready to run on your command.
from the November, 2011 SMARTT Newsletter