By now you should have an idea of where your train room is going to be and the space you have to work with. You also should have nailed down a scale you want to work in. The next question becomes what do I want to build?  Therefore the next step is a theme for your model railroad, followed by a good track plan that fits the theme you have chosen. Fortunately, there are a lot aids to help you along; books, videos, professional layout designers and builders, as well as your own creativity. Let us look at each one of these in a little more detail.

Putting the horse before the cart, coming up with a theme first is very important. What does a theme mean? It could be an area of the country like the North Carolina foot hills. It could also be an era like the 1920’s – 1930’s in New England, or a specific railroad, like the Union Pacific. You could go the total freelance route with a generic setting, or make it whimsical. Always remember that it is your model railroad, your empire, your world, and it has to make you and your family happy.

  • Prototype- Say you like the New York Central running along the Hudson River and you have 20 X 35 foot space. This could be very impressive with high mountains in the background and the east shore of the Hudson in the foreground. Small towns, tunnels, and the large yard at Harmon New York could be other features for such a pike. Or you might like to recreate the Southern Pacific running along the Pacific coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This approach is for those who really have a love for a particular railroad.

  • Era-A lot of modelers who go the prototype route also like to model a particular era, for example the New York Central layout along the Hudson could be done in the 1950’s. This would allow you to run both steam and diesel powered trains. Or, if you like modern trains, do a contemporary model railroad with all those big new high-horsepower locomotives, and of course you can add an Amtrak train or two. Or, you can recreate the 1950’s in the coal fields of West Virginia showcasing:  mountains, streams, coal mines, and small towns. Big steam locomotives and early diesels would pull those long trains of coal hoppers and the fast passenger trains. . On the scenery side it could depict a specific location in the US or make it generic – it’s always your call.

  • Freelance-Here you can mix everything together into one big model railroad stew. Create your own railroad, cities & towns, even the type of scenery can be freelanced. One aspect of freelancing is that you can make up your own railroad. If you love model building and painting you can not only come up with a name for your railroad but a paint scheme as well. An example of this type of modeling is a layout we did here at SMARTT  for one of our client’s: a fictitious railroad called the “Algoma Central” set in a cross section of the Midwest and the Appalachian Mountains. (see photo below)

  • Whimsical- A great choice for those who don’t want to be seriously following anything in particular but just want to have fun. A typical amusing example of this is mixing the occasional dinosaur with the railroad. Our client, the late Paul Ilyinsky had a dinosaur on his pike. So did the well known John Allen. He was a master of this, and his layout reflected that. Even though his famous layout, the Gorre and Daphetid, falls into the whimsical category, John was a true master modeler with an artist’s eye for all the small details that breathe life into a model railroad. In fact, John Allen’s layout is considered one of the greatest model railroads of all time. (see photos below).
    Another one of our favorites is the TARDIS from Doctor Who (A London police call box, circa 1920’s) which has shown up in many of our layouts. It can pass for a phone booth. Whimsy gives you all the creative freedom you want to do whatever you think is fun on your layout.

  • Anything goes This is one of the most popular approaches to a model railroad. If you like it-do it, or run it! You do not need to follow any prototype or operating guide lines. Many who operate three rail O gauge trains follow this approach. Trains, scenery, structures all can be whatever you like. Mix and match anything you want.

G&D photo from greatesthobby.com
WhyMRpart4-2G&D Photo from gdlines.com
from the Keith Beard Collection

John Allen’s Gorry & Daphetid (note the antlers on the locomotive head light)

After you’ve settled on a theme, it’s time to come up with a track plan. A good track plan is the key to making your model railroad not just easy to operate but also interesting for years to come. You don’t want to return to the days of a train constantly going around and around on an elongated circle unless you thrive on boredom. On the other hand, you don’t want to create a layout that resembles a spaghetti bowl. The all-track and very-little-scenery approach does not lend to a very visually interesting layout. That is why you need to come up with a good balance between scenery and track. Harmony, yes-that Zen thing is important. This is where all those aids we talked about in the first paragraph come in handy. Take your time and don’t rush your track plan, and remember there is always SMARTT  to lend a hand.

Let’s take a brief look at trains, locomotives, and rolling stock. I know I have used these words before; there have never been so many highly detailed model trains available as there are now. There is a very large variety to choose from in all scales and not only do many come with a full range of realistic sound effects, some even talk! In fact, one manufacturer has a program that allows your voice to be used as one of the locomotive’s crew members. I could write on this subject forever, so the best way to explore what is available is get the catalog for the scale you are doing and plan out what you want and figure on what you can afford.

A special note for those who have little children who love Thomas the Tank Engine; there is a real Thomas in the US that runs on standard gauge track. It makes the rounds to various locations every year, so even you dyed-in-the-wool prototype modelers can justify running Thomas. Thomas is available in many scales, and would be a great way to get children interested in the hobby too.


The full size Thomas Locomotive operating on the Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania
photo from tripadvisor.com by Abingdon_MD_Mike)


Once you have a theme and a track plan, it is time to go to work and begin to build your railroad empire. In the last installment, Part 5, we’ll look at putting it all together. 

— Ray Del Papa

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