Thursday, May 7, 2009

Designing a Model Railroad Layout for Maximum Action In A Minimal Space

Here's an article that I published online recently:

Gleefully unwrapping that large package on Christmas morning and discovering a toy train set within must surely be a cherished childhood memory for many a model train enthusiast. Setting it up on the floor, with Dad's help of course, the next couple of hours were spent watching the locomotive and its parade of coaches and wagons circle that oval of track endlessly, its purpose and destination limited only by our imaginations.

Fast forward 30 years and we decide that it would be a fun hobby to get into. But this time we would take it seriously.

HO Train Layouts
Upper track level of The Sunny Model Railroad

We have our eye on that highly-detailed miniature steam locomotive with the multiple carriages. We scour the net for information looking for the best track to buy and read up on baseboard construction while aspiring to create scenery that can rival, in miniature, anything that man or Mother Nature could create.

Most importantly we've gotten approval from our other half to setup our dream layout in a part of the house that will henceforth become own little railroad sanctuary. The next step is a visit, or several, to our favorite hobby shop. We leave contented, wallets lightened and a little deeper in credit card debt.

For those of us fortunate enough to have a large loft, garage or spare room in which to pursue our grand design, we have hundreds of track layouts to choose from, with a myriad variations of each. Oh, the possibilities!

But if, like me, you live in a small 2-bedroom apartment and you do not have the luxury of a 12-foot straight run with 6-foot turns, that tiny 6'x3' oval is not going to hold ones interest for very long.

Enter the two-tiered double loop. This is exactly what I created on my 6'3" x 3'6" layout in HO scale.

HO Train Layouts
Fleischman trains on the upper and lower deck of the model railway. Both tracks are independent of each other
Consisting of two independent loops powered by separate transformers, the lower loop is an irregular oval with a short siding. The second elevated layer is a modified dog bone, switchable to a straight pass, also with a short siding. A single layered double loop would not have fit on a layout this size but this limitation turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I now have a more complex and interesting layout especially with the double levels.

I created two separate tunnels for the lower oval, one through the mountain and another at the opposite end so that the steam passenger train is visible maybe only two-thirds of the time as it winds its way around the track. To add realism I can stop the train in one of the tunnels and delay its exit to create the illusion that the train is traveling a far greater distance.

On the upper layer, a goods train passes through its own tunnel in the mountainside and then past a signal-control tower with the possibility of some simple switching on the siding.
Possibly the best part of this system is that the trains are controlled independently -- all without the aid of Digital Command Control!

Because of the split-level, the center of the layout forms a meadow valley and this is where I'm constantly trying out new ideas and themes hoping to get really creative with my landscaping. As it stands, a farmer watches over his flock of sheep as they graze on marigolds. Some distance away, workmen are at work building a small cottage. Further away still, the dazzling white quartz sand of a man-made beach fronting a lake lined with tall water-grasses awaits its holiday-makers. All in all, a model railroad is a continual work in progress that one secretly hopes will never be done.

Having squeezed a fair amount of train action out of my limited space in HO scale I can't help but think that if I had a chance to do it all over again, N scale would be my choice. Oh, the possibilities!

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