How to design a model railway


There are only three absolutely certain things about model railway layout design.
1. No matter how hard you try at it, you will always wish you had done it differently
2. You will always wish you had more space
3. Less is more
So let's look at some of the things you will need to consider.


Model railways can be split into two categories: prototype or freelance.
Modelling a real place accurately can be extremely challenging. Even a small wayside station can have a platform length that can easily run the full length of your bedroom! I once saw a model of Barmouth railway station and yard in its heyday. It ran through the full length of the attic in a stately home! If you intend to go this route, make sure that you do not bite off more than you can chew.
Of course, by modelling a real place, you will lay yourself open to scrutiny by a host of people (some very strange indeed and they always start off with "excuse me") who will then try find fault where ever they can! Of course the real place will evolve, so like it or not, you will have to fix a time for your model. Be prepared for a great deal of research!

The near perfect model of Chelfham Station on the L&B by the Shoreham-by-Sea MRC in 7mm/ft
An alternative is to extract the 'essence' of a real subject, simplify it and compress it until you have a viable model that will fulfil your needs. Dduallt, a 009 model by David and Robert Waller is an excellent example of how compression can be achieved but still be instantly recognised as the Festiniog Railway station. The layout also offers interesting operating opportunities.

Dduallt by David and Robert Waller
Most narrow gauge railway modellers are more anarchistic and tend to build freelance layouts: what might have been railways, often situated in real areas or even in places that do not exist! The first freelance narrow gauge line of note was built way back in the late 1940s by late P.D.Hancock; the Craig and Mertonford Light Railway. It was a wonderful layout on a part of the Scottish coast that never existed and it enthralled many of us for years!
Part of the fun of going freelance is that you can include all of your favourite locos and rolling stock or even design them yourself and then write your own history of the line to explain how it all happened! And guess what? No clever clogs can come along and tell you that you have the wrong number of rivets on the loco!
check this link out  the best freelance railway history I have ever seen.
Some layouts are constructed around a theme.

The superb Moorton Bottom Yard by Paul Windle which is based around a working hydraulic wagon lift
photo Mick Thornton

Andy Beresford with his Port Suzy. There really is an NG railway at the back! - photo Mick Thornton

Gerry Bullock's Gn15 Secciole Salina
Your freelance line gives you the chance to create your own little world where you can lose yourself  whenever you like.

Narrow gauge perfection in a larger scale. Punta Marina by Henk Wurst
There is a half way house; an imaginary extension of a real railway. County Gate is such an example.

County Gate station - L&B architecture but in a location that the railway never reached


You will have to decide how you wish to operate your layout. Your principle interest may be to engage in shunting manoeuvres, you may just wish to have a suitable environment to display your rolling stock or you might like to watch your trains running around or any combination of the above.
In general, there are two kinds of layout: the 'end to end' and the 'roundy roundy'. A disadvantage of end to end is that you will not be able to run in your new locomotives. County Gate, by the way is both as the main line is roundy-roundy and the branch is end to end. Most people have far more rolling stock than they can fit on their layout. It is therefore necessary to devise ways of storing stock out of sight. The most common solution is the fiddle yard.

The fiddle yard of Tan-y-Bwlch by Angus Watkins - photo Mick Thornton
End to end layouts have an advantage that they can be built on quite a narrow baseboard which may favour your requirements. It does mean that you will be quite busy driving and you will have to decide on what to do to run round locomotives at each end. Such layouts may have fiddle yards at one or both ends. A few end to end layouts may have modules built by a number of groups or individuals and then assembled together at exhibitions. A great deal of discipline is needed to ensure each section has compatible standards. This may be a good way forward if you have limited space and you can find other similar minded modellers to make other modules to join onto yours.

As far as the eye can see! Wimborne
Railway Society monster 009 Tarrant Valley Railway - photo Mick Thornton

009 layout of John & Jane Jacobs

Donegal by Alan Gee has hidden fiddle yards at each end - photo Mick Thornton

Another solution is the end to end with two viewing sides. Wood End of Steve Penn - photo Mick Thornton
Roundy roundy layouts will usually take up a lot more room. Narrow gauge railways have an advantage of being able to cope with tighter radii, but this may compromise your choice of equipment. Some maintain their layouts as end to end at home, but have a hidden loop which can be assembled at exhibition. Alternatively, provided that one can live with tighter radii the layout may be presented as an end to end but the track disappears each end into a hidden rear loop.

Tan-y-Bwlch by Angus Watkins has a rear hidden loop

Access to the rear loop and fiddle yard is cleverly disguised here on Tan-y-Bwlch by Angus Watkins - photo Mick Thornton

the gimmicks

Some people prefer to build their layout as a gimmick. Generally, while the standard of modelling may be very good indeed, such ideas offer little scope for interesting operation.

ironing boards

A few model railways have been built on ironing boards. Without question, in my opinion, the best narrow gauge effort is by Tom Dauben and this was his first attempt!. Nevertheless, I really look forward to seeing his completed 'proper' layout!

Dunbracken by Tom Dauben in 009

pizzas and micro layouts

I suspect that this type of model began as nothing more than a test bed to try new modelling techniques or as some kind of ghastly joke. Sadly, the number of micro layouts has grown like a rash. We can largely blame exhibition managers for this, as they keep on offering prizes for these things. No matter how good the model may be, such layouts just allow a train to go round and round; hardly interesting after two or three seconds. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose.

They don't come much smaller than this. Tuppenny Handley - Phil Savage
photo by Mick Thornton

Black Dyke Mill; Chris O’Donoghue’s pizza based around a windmill

 A slightly larger micro which does offer some operating interest The Wee Donegal - Robin Winter
photo by Mick Thornton

other gimmicks

The list is endless; from railways in box files to track on a sundial. One has to admit that some are very clever but again very restrictive from the operating point of view.

 A truly tiny layout in Nn3 (6.5mm gauge, 2mm scale), The Exmoor Treacle Mining Company, by Charles Wright. A full layout complete with continuous run and a spiral in a briefcase! - photo Mick Thornton

0-14 layout, Sucrerie Durand et Gault of Jack Treves which fits in three suitcases. This is by far the best I have seen and even offers reasonable operating opportunities
Some modellers have a smaller section of a bigger home layout that they take to exhibitions.

One of my favourites is Minho Douro by John Cannons - a removable exhibition section of a large permanent home layout
photo by Mick Thornton

developing your design

Some model railways are built permanently into homes. Personally, I would always caution against this as few survive a move to a new house. It can also be very difficult to access parts of your layout and of course, you can never enjoy the experience of taking it to an exhibition and sharing it with many others. If you do decide to make your layout portable, you will have to give some consideration as to how each baseboard fits with the next. Track crossing joints at oblique angles, for instance will be a continual source of problems. Many modellers create scenic breaks between boards to help hide the joints.
Narrow gauge railways are generally simple in design but nevertheless, you will quickly find how large they actually are when you scale them down. An accurate model of Boston Lodge (Festiniog Railway) or Pilton Yard (Lynton and Barnstaple) would more than fill the average room in 4mm/ft scale. The design will almost certainly have to be compressed to fit your space and this has to be done without losing realism.
You will have to decide on how your layout is to be presented. Your best chance of getting realism is to use a backdrop which comes round the ends. Please, Please remember that there are no corners in skies! Some otherwise lovely models are ruined by these. In 4mm/ft scale (009), a 6" radius does the job just fine.

County Gate showing the wrap around backdrop
As you begin to design the layout, consider all the possible viewing angles. It will have to look right from all of them. If you intend to exhibit, also make sure that the height of the layout is accessible to those standing as well as those who sit (and of course children). If you prefer the layout higher at home, it is easy enough to have extendable legs.
If you are computer minded, there are some excellent model railway design software such as Anyrail, Cadrail, Templot or Trackplanning . Some allow you to view the layout in 3D. Some are free downloads while some you pay for.
Before launching into building, I always make 'mini models'. The topography is carved out of foam and I make the buildings out of balsa wood. I find it really helps to check that the design works well. There are plenty of ways to plan full size too, photocopying points to produce templates, drawing round one you already own, or hunting down some online downloads. This will enable you to see your layout full size and makes it easy to identify any areas you’d like to change, as well as allowing you to position stock on it and check that various movements etc. are possible.
When drawing out your track, remember to maintain your minimum radii and choose as large as possible. Everything will run a lot better if you do. Where possible, try to lay transitional curves. Here, the start of the transition is at infinite radius and at the end of the transition it has the same radius of curvature as the adjoining circular curve, thus forming a very broad spiral. This will reduce the risk of coupling lock and derailments.

The drawing above shows a transitional curve (red) of track entering a spiral of fixed radius.


Personally I dislike track running parallel to the baseboard. If it is at an angle, the scene always looks much more dynamic. It is also nice to occasionally have the track disappear behind something, even if this is just a tree or building. This is common practice in the USA and adds to the fun of watching trains run through a landscape.
When designing scenery, make sure that your buildings and trees are properly to scale. Only too often, buildings are modelled far too small. You may elect to reduce scale to the rear of the layout, however, to gain more a feeling of perspective. Model things from reality, not what you think is real. Have a look at photos of real life examples of what you would like to model. You can then piece these scenes together to make a much more convincing landscape if you look at real life first.
The early design of the layout should also include how you intend to light it. If you are to exhibit, it is frankly essential.
Once you have finished your track plan, it is always a good idea to post it on one of the major forums. This will nearly always produce some very useful feedback.
So hopefully, this will give you a good start. Taking your time to design the layout properly will save you so much time and grief later.