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Introduction to Minimalist Model Railroading

Capturing the Essence of Railroading

Article by: Jim Spavins
Posted: February 2, 2016
Published: December 31, 2012

Why do we build model railroads? I believe the reason is to capture the essence of railroading. For some, it is to capture the essence of the big picture - the operational system. For others, a more focused essence - like a train crew switching industries. For others, it is to capture a day of railfanning track side. There is an endless list of ideas for which one could use as inspiration for a model railroad.

Minimalism - as defined in the art world - means to capture the essence of a subject by eliminating all non-essential features. As applied to a model railroad, this means that a model railroad design should strive to capture the piece of railroading which you want to represent. It does not necessarily mean eliminating all the modeling facets of the hobby and creating an abstract representation of a railroad (although that could be a valid outcome of some people's design) but rather relentlessly focusing the design of a model railroad to only its core reason for existence. At the end of the day, building models of railroads is an art - the builder is interpreting what part of railroading they want to experience and recreating that idea in miniature.

Throughout this series, we will focus on a few of the more popular reasons people build model railroads and how to apply this minimalist approach to the layout's design to capture the essence of railroading. We will start with the philosophical big picture of design and focus on the nuts and bolts application of minimalist layout design with a several dozen cases studies.

Prototype Railroads

If we are going to design a model railroad to capture the essence of railroading, the first place we need to start the design process from is to understand the various elements that characterize prototype railroads.

At its most basic level, railroads exist for the simple reason to move freight and passengers from place to place. From the largest class I railroads to the smallest shortline - all of the activity on the rails are to move something from point A to point B. Within this context, when looking at the prototype for inspiration, we can change our focal length and take a broad view of the railroad system or focus all the way down to the smallest detail of railroading to design a model railroad around.

Let's take a look at a hypothetical railroad - the East West Central Railroad. The railroad runs from City A to City B carrying both freight and passengers. It interchanges with the Northern and Southern Railroad between the two end points of the railroad. There is a branch to a major industry near City A and the railroad has to cross a landmark bridge over Big Creek on its way between the two cities.

Schematic Diagram of the East West Central Railroad

Schematic of the fictitious East West Central Railroad. | Diagram by Jim Spavins.

From this basic look at the entire system, we can decide where the focus of a model railroad design could arrive from. Let's look at some examples.

At a macro level, we could model the entire system, running trains from City A to City B. The focus would be on replicating the operations of the trains between the two terminal cities. This would include the through passenger and freight trains along with the various local trains running between the industry branch and the junction with the Northern and Southern Railroad.

Schematic Diagram of the East West Central Railroad

Focus #1 - The mainline operations of the East West Central Railroad. | Diagram by Jim Spavins.

Maybe if space was at a premium, we could focus on modeling just one portion of the system - for example the Western division between City A and the junction with the Northern and Southern Railroad. We could still focus on the operations of the trains between City A and the junction by modeling the through and local train operations.

Schematic Diagram of the East West Central Railroad

Focus #2 - The Western Division of the East West Central Railroad. | Diagram by Jim Spavins.

If we focused a little narrower, the design of the model railroad could center on just modeling the branch line to the major industry near city A. Maybe one train a day serves the industry and the crew spends most of the shift switching cars at the plant. The layout could be built to follow the crew's activities for the day at the plant.

Schematic Diagram of the East West Central Railroad

Focus #3 - The industrial branch of the East West Central Railroad. | Diagram by Jim Spavins.

Another thought is to look even closer at the real railroad and focus on modeling a particular job on the system. In this case, one of the jobs which could be interesting to replicate is the tower operator at the junction between the Northern and Southern Railroad and the East West Central Railroad. There may be a lot of traffic to move through the junction during a given day and designing a model around this feature would make for an interesting model railroad operation.

Schematic Diagram of the East West Central Railroad

Focus #4 - The tower operations at the junction of the East West Central Railroad and the Northern and Southern Railroad. | Diagram by Jim Spavins.

Of course, we could step back and design a railroad to enjoy a day railfanning at the landmark Big Creek Bridge. Many model builders experience the real railroads in this form, as opposed to being employed by a railroad and actually in the cab of the locomotive. We stand trackside and observe what the railroads are doing. For some, this is a very enjoyable activity. Why not make this the form of how you enjoy your model railroad as well. If operations aren't your thing, building a layout centered on a major railfan location or several could make for an interesting and remarkable model railroad.

Schematic Diagram of the East West Central Railroad

Focus #5 - The landmark Big Creek Bridge on the East West Central Railroad. | Diagram by Jim Spavins.

This isn't even close to an exhaustive list of ideas for where the focus of a model railroad could be found on a prototype railroad. As you might imagine, each of these points of focus would lend themselves to a very different type of layout design - although they all would be in some way capturing the essence of the East West Central Railroad. Part of the enjoyment of the hobby is that each of us can interpret the railroad in a different form and in our own way. Model railroading is an art where we can express how we want to replicate railroads in miniature.

Once you have thought about what the focus of your model railroad will be, the next step will be to relentlessly concentrate on this goal and capture it in miniature. For guidance in this phase of the layout planning process, we can turn to the minimalist design philosophy.

Minimalist Design Philosophy

The most difficult choice to make when designing a model railroad is the first one - what are you going to focus your modeling efforts on? Many people, like me, have wide and varying interests in the hobby. It can sometimes be agonizing to determine what you want to spend your time, money, space, and effort on. We can't have everything - but sometimes in our designs we are tempted to try to include as many features as we think our space and budget will allow. However, this is where many people stumble and I think the application of the minimalist design philosophy can save lots of time and money when it comes time to take your design from the idea stage to construction.

The minimalist design philosophy requires that you start by picking a focused facet of railroading to design around. In the previous section, we looked at a number of ways we could focus our efforts to capture the prototype. The idea is to take the essence of that focus and relentlessly remove (or minimize) any features which would be non-essential to fulfilling that goal.

All too often when starting down the path of designing a model railroad, we begin by creating a want list of railroad features and add as many items as possible for our idea of a dream layout. Then we take out a sheet of paper and try to cram as much of that want list as possible into the space available - making lots of compromises along the way.

The suggestion with a minimalist design approach is to not start with a list of wants. Instead, begin by stating what the focus of the layout will be - or the essence of railroading you want to create. As a design process, what to and not to include in your final plan becomes much clearer by stating this goal as opposed to assembling a collection of railroad features into a track plan. If an item is non-essential to your layouts focus - it can be removed from your design (or at least minimized). If it is essential, find a way to include the feature. While you may still have to make compromises, these compromises will not be at the expense of the core reason for your layout's existence.

Imagine that you start your layout design with a list of features you want to include as opposed to a specific goal. Here is a sample for discussion:

All of these items could make for an interesting model railroad. However, each of these design points are different facets of railroading. No matter the amount of space you have available, each of these particular desires will be competing for resources and, most likely, your design would have to limit the amount of resources used on each of them. Unless you have an unusually large area for your layout, in order to include all of the above items, your resulting design will have to compromise each of these features. This will most likely leave each of these features a bit less satisfying than they could have been. For example, to make room for the railroad bridge, maybe you have to eliminate a town or two from the operations of the railroad. The bridge might have to be scaled down as well. The operations of the layout are then compromised as is the essence of the railroad bridge. While your final track plan from this list of wants might have a little of both- neither might be particularly satisfying when completed.

The idea then, is to figure out the exact reason you want to build a layout - what facet of railroading you want to capture - and focus your design towards this goal.

Let's restate those features listed earlier as potential focused layout designs. You could build a layout to:

Each of these features could work as a potential design goal for the railroad. Each are very focused on a particular facet of railroading and will lead to very different design outcomes. Instead of making compromises in attempting to capture different facets of railroading through a list of various desires in one layout, the layout instead will focus on a major goal.

While you will have to give up on some of the features that might have some small bit of interest to you by choosing instead to focus your efforts on just one facet of railroading, if you pick the area you find most interesting, your layout will be more satisfying than one that attempts to capture just a small slice of a diverse set of desires.

However, for some of us, focusing intensely on one particular facet of railroading may not be an easy task since we have different aspects of the hobby and railroading which we enjoy. If you don't know what it is you want to create, a better place to start than figuring out a list of layout features you'd like to have is to begin by going through a Layout Design Self Assessment (See the Checklist at the end of the article for details).Before you put pencil to paper or mouse clicks to CAD program, take some time to determine what parts of the hobby you truly enjoy.

To start with, there are two distinct phases of a model railroad's existence - the construction phase and the operations phase. Before starting with a list of railroad features to model, what parts of these phases do you enjoy? If you enjoy operations, what type of operations - switching, running, dispatching? If you enjoy layout construction - what parts? Trackwork? Scenery? Structures? Is there one of these phases you enjoy more - railroad operations or model construction? For all of these activities, rank those from your most favorite to least favorite and you will get a better idea of where your design should end up.

When you have determined your favorite construction and operational activities, it becomes a much easier process to pick a facet of railroading which will maximize these interests, minimize the others, and create a satisfying layout. Be honest in this phase of the process with your assessments as only you can truly determine what will make an enjoyable hobby experience for you and therefore a successful layout design. Most of us will only a have a handful of opportunities to build model railroads in our lifetime. There is no point in designing a model railroad which might make another person happy. If you don't enjoy the building and operations of your railroad, it wasn't a successful design.

As a side note, if you are a beginner to the hobby, you might not yet know what activities you like and dislike simply because you have never done them. The only way to know is to take some time to get some experience. If you don't want to invest your own money, find a local railroad club and help work on their layout. Many are accommodating to newcomers to the hobby and will be happy to have an extra set of hands on projects. If you don't want to join a club, I'd suggest finding a simple small layout plan and then begin building. Make sure you give every facet of the hobby a chance as you may find out something you were at first intimidated by becomes your favorite thing to do. At the same time, something you thought you might enjoy doesn't actually pan out that way in reality.

Once you have your assessment complete, you can begin to figure out what type of prototype railroading would fit those interests to create a focus for your model railroad. This isn't to say that you have to model a prototype railroad exactly with your design. However, even most freelanced railroad themes take many cues from real railroads and their operations. By looking at various prototypes, you can begin to get a sense of where your particular interests fit and it might lead to finding the essence of railroading for which to design your railroad around.

Let's take a look at the five ideas from the East West Central Railroad and how we might design a model railroad around them using the minimalist design philosophy. Each of these discussions about the prototype takes a look at what the essential features are to capturing that particular essence of railroading. Then, we determine what is non-essential to modeling this facet of railroading and either minimize or eliminate those non-essential features from the railroad design. Since there are more than five areas for which you could focus your efforts, if you have other ideas from the prototype not mentioned here, the same process would apply. First, determine the essential features to capture your essence of railroading and then relentlessly eliminate everything non-essential.

So how would one begin to design a model railroad if you wanted to replicate the mainline system operations of the East West Central Railroad. The first step would be to decide what is essential to build a railroad that captures the operations of the system.

I would argue the essential design elements to model the mainline system are the following:

At a certain level, almost everything else is unnecessary. If your complete focus is on modeling the mainline operations, would it be important to find space to model an exact replica of the Big Creek Bridge? Probably not. Would you want to build a representative model of the bridge? Maybe. Part of the challenge with minimalist design is to determine at what point you capture the essence of the mainline system operations. If this is your focus, buildings and scenery technically aren't important - a huge shift away from traditional model railroad design. However, at some level, I think most people would like their railroad to have some scenery or structures, but on a layout like this, the idea should be to find only what representative scenery and structures are essential to capturing the mainline operations. If you truly enjoy operations, dedicating large amounts of space and spending years of time meticulously building exact models of the structures along the right of way won't provide as much enjoyment as turning the wheels on your model equipment.

When you look at the entire system, maybe a smaller portion of it is more interesting than modeling the whole thing. In this case, maybe it is the operations of the local trains operating between City A, the industry branch, and the junction.

I would argue the essential design elements to model the division operations are the following:

Just like modeling the entire system, we can minimize similar elements of the layout's design like structures and scenery. If we are modeling just a portion of the system, maybe the reason to do so is the operations of a particular train limited to just this division. Maybe there is a local freight which serves some interesting industries or maybe this part of the line has a commuter train running to city A. The idea would then be to eliminate some part of the operations of the mainline system to focus on the operations of this train which you find interesting. For example, if the local freight is your interest and the train only runs at mid-day when there are no commuter trains operating - you could eliminate the commuter train operations. While you might build scenes that are important to the freight train operations, these scenes may not be important to the commuter train. For example, industries and passenger stations aren't usually located in the same area so a freight layout may not include models of any of the train stations. A layout depicting the commuter operations should focus on different areas than one focused on the freight operations.

Maybe your interest in the hobby is to spend the day with the crew of a train switching freight cars. On our example East West Central Railroad, there is a branch line to the major industry near city A which presumably is served by a daily train. This branch would make an interesting subject if you wanted to replicate the crew's day.

I would argue the essential design elements to modeling the job of the crew on the branch are the following:

For this type of railroad, the focus is on the crew's day along the branch line so any items that would be unrelated to the crew's activities could be eliminated. As an example, there may be structures along the branch line which the crew doesn't interact with during its daily operations. These could be left out of the design to save space for what is important to capturing the crew's day. Scenery should be kept relevant to the day's activities as opposed to adding in scenic features for aesthetic reasons as opposed to operational reasons. If a scenic feature, like a tunnel or grade, is important to the operations - by all means include it. However, if it is something that just might be interesting to look at - it wouldn't be essential to capturing the operations of the railroad.

Another thought is to look even closer at the real railroad and focus on modeling a particular job on the railroad like the tower operator at the junction between the Northern and Southern Railroad and the East West Central Railroad.

I would argue the essential design elements to model the tower operations at the junction are the following:

This type of railroad would focus on one particular scene - the junction - and creating an appropriate set of controls to make the operator of the layout feel like they are operating in the tower. Since the focus is on this operation, it would make sense to minimize items like the mainline run to and from the junction as well as any unrelated scenes to this operation. Space would be best used creating staging yards to hold a large amount of traffic running through the junction along with a control area for the tower operator. The scene itself should focus on the railroad and scenery, while the structures should focus on the immediate area around the junction.

As a final example, many folks experience railroading only as an observer. For some, they derive great pleasure just watching the trains roll by. One idea is to take this experience and make it the focus of the design of the railroad and build a layout around the landmark Big Creek Bridge. If operating a layout from the perspective of an engineer isn't your thing, building a layout centered on a major railfan location or several locations could make for an interesting and remarkable model railroad.

I would argue the essential design elements to model the railfan experience are the following:

When beginning to design a model railroad of this type, the focus should be on the visual scenes you want to create as opposed to creating a working model of the operations of the railroad. For example, you might not want to include adding any industrial sidings to your railroad. If you aren't interested in switching cars and the visual of a train rolling by an industry isn't particularly interesting to you, why spend your time, money, and space to model even one? At the same time, if you enjoy hanging out by the yard or an industry, why not figure out how to build a model of one where you can just sit and watch trains switch. There is no point in building big mountain vistas if that isn't your interest either.

Design Constraints

Once you have defined for yourself the purpose of the model railroad, the next step is to determine the design constraints on your vision.

In any context of model railroad design, there are four main design constraints - time, money, space, and skills.

Time is always a limiting resource if the expectation is that you will build your entire model railroad yourself. There is only so much time available for the hobby after family, friend, and work obligations. Some people are lucky to have friends to help them or money to hire custom builders to do the construction. However, even in the context of operating and maintaining your finished railroad, time is a limited resource. You could build a layout capturing the operations of an entire division of a Class I railroad - but how often will you have time to run a railroad like that? Setting up an operating session may take several hours. You will also have to clean all the track and make sure all the locomotives and rolling stock are in good working order.

It is important to ask yourself, does the design of the railroad match how you want to spend your time interacting with the layout. This includes not just the building activities but also the operational and maintenance needs. Every railroad theme will create different kinds of work for the railroad. Do you enjoy building scenery or structures? Do you enjoy detailing freight cars and engines? Do you like scratchbuilding? Do you like switching cars? Do you like operating sessions? If there are particular activities you enjoy, make that the focus of your layout. If there are parts of the hobby you dislike - minimize them the best you can for your theme. For example, if you don't like scratchbuilding, you might not want to build a Proto48 2 rail O scale layout. No matter what theme you pick if you work in that scale, there are very few commercial components available for this type of railroad. My guess is that you won't enjoy working on your layout and will never get to the point where you might enjoy the finished product.   However, if you would rather just run trains - design a layout around as many commercial components as possible and limit the amount of scenery and structures you have to build. Over time, you can make those items look more realistic with paint and weathering but in the meantime you can have a fully operating layout very quickly. A layout which emphasizes the activities you truly enjoy doing will be more fulfilling in the long run than one that includes every possible feature of railroading you might enjoy.

Space is often the most talked about design constraint. We all have a physical limit to the space we can use in building a railroad. Some may only have a narrow shelf in a small room while others may have a large basement. When you sit down to design your railroad, it will be important to think about how you are going to use the space. Thinking back to your railroad preferences, are there items which can be limited in the design - thus freeing up space for more of what you want to include in the railroad.

For example, if you enjoy operations, you might want to consider limiting or eliminating items which may only be included in your design for their aesthetic value. There may be a great scenic vista which might be visually interesting, but if you prefer having the wheels rolling on your trains or switching cars, eliminating this piece of scenery from your design will free up space to be used for adding operational elements to your layout. In the end, this will probably leave you much more satisfied when your railroad is built and operational.

At the same time, if you prefer building scenery and don't have much interest in operating your model railroad prototypically, why bother adding a yard or even multiple sidings if it doesn't add to your enjoyment of the hobby? Think instead about how to create a great visual story of the essence of railroading you want to create through your scenery work. You probably won't enjoy looking at the yard or even creating scenery for it. Using the space for other scenes will probably better suit your interests.

When it comes to space, make sure you leave enough room for the people you plan to visit, operate, and build your railroad. It might be tempting to fill every inch of space with whatever theme you choose but you need to leave space to enjoy it. Even if you only plan on one or two people at a time, make sure the access to the layout is sufficient for anyone to be able to move around and see the work you've created. As tempting as it may be to squeeze the aisle width, add duckunders or lift outs, these almost always become a major headache in the long term for your railroad.

Money is always a factor when building a model railroad. Even if you are fortunate to be able to splurge on a large layout, you will never have enough money for everything your ultimate railroad might entail. Obviously how much money you have or are willing to spend on the railroad is a personal matter and shouldn't be taken lightly. The total cost of a model railroad can become quite expensive. It wouldn't surprise me if some of the basement empires talked about in the model railroad magazines have cost as much as a house. At the same time, a satisfying layout could be constructed for a few hundred dollars.

When thinking about money from a minimalist design perspective, this philosophy frees up your hobby dollars to be spent on areas that are important to you and to capturing the essence of railroading you want to create. If you were interested in building a layout capturing the operations of a railroad, you will need a fair amount of capital to purchase a fleet of locomotives and rolling stock. Depending upon how big your ambitions are, this could involve several hundred pieces of rolling stock and a few dozen locomotives. If you also want to fully scenic your railroad using commercial components, scenery materials and details may cost over $100 a square foot if you aren't careful. For this reason, it might be wise to limit the amount of scenery and maximize your operational focus in the final design. This will keep more of your hobby dollars focused on acquiring your fleet of equipment and less money spent on the great scenic vistas which may be of lesser importance.

Since for most of us, money is a concern when building a railroad, focusing your efforts can make attaining a satisfying railroad a bit easier. If you start with a long list of wants, you might not be able to afford all of them (let alone have time or space).   As you discover the essence of railroading you want to create, you might realize that you could actually spend more on the particular items which are of interest to you since you will spend less on areas that are of little value to you. If you were in the camp who wanted to focus time and energy on scenery, not having a yard would save quite a bit of money by not having to spend on excess turnouts and flextrack. Also, you probably wouldn't need quite the same fleet of locomotives and rolling stock as the person building an operating railroad. This money can then be used toward more scenic and detailing material which you might have spent otherwise adding yards and equipment.

All model railroads require Skills to be constructed. The various skills needed will depend on the type of railroad which you are interested in building. It is important to ask yourself during the design phase if you have the skills to build what you are designing or are willing to learn whatever skills might be needed to construct the railroad.

Learning is part of the enjoyment many people derive from the hobby. Model railroading is so diverse in activities that you can learn to be a carpenter, electrician, machinist, artist, painter, sculptor, operator, among many, many other talents. If there is something that you are particularly interested in learning, it might be ok to design a new railroad around this skill set. For example, maybe you have no idea how electronics work but you want to build a computer automated system for your layout. If you are passionate about the idea and know that in the past when you needed to learn something, you took the initiative and completed the project - I'd say go for it. However, if you know that you really aren't interested in learning new things and just want the automated system for your design, it might be a red flag on the process. This isn't to say you can't or won't build the system but you have to understand your limits. Imagine if this control system was the heart and soul of the model railroad's operations. If you never were able to build it or never gathered enough interest to build the project - you will not enjoy your finished layout.

However, if you have a friend down the street who is an electronics wiz and is willing to help with your control system - you have found someone else with the skill set to complete your railroad. If you are lucky enough to have friends who are willing to help on your railroad and have skill sets you lack, it might be ok to consider this in your design. Just remember, that if your friends ever move away or are unable to help for whatever reason, you will need to find someone else to help with this part of the railroad or figure out how to do this activity yourself. You might be stuck with a partially completed project and be caught trying to complete it yourself. You can go from enjoying your railroad to it becoming a burden very quickly if you rely on others to complete critical tasks for you. This is an important factor when considering using outside help for your design.

At the end of the day, it is important to consider how you want to spend your time, your money, your space, and use your skills to build a model railroad. If the essence of railroading you want to capture matches with these design constraints, you are on pace to completing a satisfying layout design and ready to start figuring out how it will all go together.

Practical Design Considerations

When you have finally determined the true focus of your modeling within your design constraints, then it is time to put pencil to paper and start to figure out how to actually arrange track, buildings, and scenery together. At this stage, it is time to get down to some of the nuts and bolts of layout design. In reality, once you have done your assessment, you will have a very good understanding about what it is you will want to include in your design and what you will want to minimize. The rest of the design is simply figuring out how you want to present the essence of railroading you want to capture.

Layout Types

There are several different layout types in which space can be used for your railroad. If you only have a limited area, the design choice might be obvious. However, if you have a larger area, you might be able to pick one type over the other depending upon what it is you're trying to capture.

Shelf Layouts -A shelf layout is one which runs along the perimeter of your space. The viewer is generally on the inside of the room looking at the layout attached to the walls. The name comes from the idea that some of these layouts look like a shelf around the perimeter of the room.

Island Layouts - An island layout is one that is self contained where the observer can walk around the outside of the layout with their back to the wall of the room and the layout in the center of the room.

Double Deck Layouts - A double deck layout is one where, as is implied in the name, there are two different levels for railroad scenes for which the trains can run through. These levels, or decks, are stacked on top of each other and generally connected with a helix. This style of design has the advantage that more railroads can be squeezed into a given area. However, there will also be twice the amount of construction time and costs compared to single level layout in the same space.

Micro Layouts - A micro layout is generally a very small - less than 32 square foot - layout which is free standing. Typically these layouts are meant to be set up temporarily and then put away. These layouts are usually extremely portable and focused in their design theme.

Modular/Portable Layouts - A modular or portable layout is one which is meant to be moved from place to place and usually set up for display at public events like a train show. A modular layout is one built to specific standards such as those set up by organizations like Ntrak or the National Model Railroad Association. Modular and portable layouts offer their own design challenges as construction material choice becomes critical as the layout is subjected to more stresses than a similar static model railroad.

Aisle Widths

If you are fortune enough to have a space big enough where you will consider a footprint for a layout which requires aisle ways, you should set some minimum width standards. A typical home has hallways which measure at least 3' in width. While it may be possible to have a smaller area for you to squeeze through, you need to think about whom else might use the space. If you plan on having visitors, wider aisles will make moving around the railroad much easier. In addition, with more space, visitors will be less likely to accidently brush up against a finished portion of the layout and damage something.

Another important consideration for aisle width is what to do in an emergency situation. If you ever needed to evacuate your train room in a hurry or needed to get help to someone who was injured in the space, wider aisles would be extremely beneficial in this situation. You might want to check out your local building codes to see if they have minimum standards for aisle, hallway, or passageway widths. In the unfortunate event anyone was ever hurt in your train room while visiting and narrow aisle ways caused the situation to become much worse than it could have become, it is possible you could be liable as the layout owner. The moral of the story - don't skimp on aisle widths.

Minimum Radius

To make sure the trains operate smoothly, a minimum radius needs to be determined. There is a physical minimum radius but also an aesthetic minimum radius. For example, the practical minimum radius can be described in the follow formula:

2*N = R, where N is equal to the length of the longest piece of equipment to be run on the railroad and R is the minimum radius to keep the trains operating physically on the track.

Just keep in mind, this is the physical minimum radius. In practice, you will want to make curve's radii as large as possible to allow for smoother operations. As a practical matter, if you are interested in focusing on operations, a smaller radius closer to this physical minimum might be preferable to fit your desired features into your space. At the same time, if your focus is on the scenery or visual appeal of the railroad - a larger radius might be better suited towards your design goal. Sometimes, when you are designing your railroad, if you have hidden track area, you can make the radius in these areas smaller (since it isn't visually important) and keep the visible radius larger. This will help save some space as opposed to having a strict minimum radius for your entire layout.

Turnout Sizes

The numbers next to a turnout represent the angle of divergence between the two tracks. The smaller the turnout number, the bigger the angle. The bigger the turnout number, the smaller the angle. In general, the reason for the different angles relates to the speed at which a train can operate through a turnout. A Number 4 turnout would be rated a lot slower than a Number 10 or 12 turnout. For this reason, smaller turnouts would be more appropriate on spurs and siding where speed isn't an issue while mainline turnouts will tend to be longer. Commercially available turnouts for model railroaders are usually at the lower end of the number scale - usually between a Number 4 and Number 8. Real railroads tend to build turnouts with much larger angles but with space constraints, modelers tend to go with smaller number turnouts. If you have the room, larger turnouts will operate better and also visually look more appealing but at some point space becomes an issue for most railroad designs.


To have grades or not to have grades, that is the question. Grades can add operational interest to a layout, and practically speaking, allow us to fit more railroad into a limited space, however, they can be a source of problems if not constructed well. At most, model railroads should strive to have 2 - 2.5% grades or less. Grades are calculated as the vertical rise divided by the horizontal run to determine the percentages. As an example a grade of 2.0% = 2" rise / 100" run. This means for every eight linear feet of trackage, there should be no more than a 2" change in the vertical height of the rail. While it is possible to have steeper grades and still have models operate, it will present a challenge. In addition, just like the real railroads, the steeper the grades, the fewer cars you will be able to pull up the grade with the same amount of motive power. Grades also tend to be less forgiving than a level model railroad to model railroad equipment which isn't adjusted properly. When you build a layout, you'll find some freight cars on your roster with variations in coupler heights and trucks which may be too loose or too tight. These cars may make it around a level layout but will create problems going up and down hills. As you think about the work you want to do on your railroad - if tinkering with rolling stock is low on the list - try to eliminate grades.

Track Arrangements

Sometimes people become hung up on the track arrangements for their model railroads. Many times, there is a temptation to add as much track as possible to fill the space available for their railroads. However, if you are stuck on figuring out a track arrangement, the best thing to do is look at the prototype.

For the most part, railroads want to eliminate as much track as reasonably possible - which is in stark contrast to model railroaders who generally want to add as much track as they can to their railroad. There is a simple reason for this: track costs money. It costs railroads money to build track and costs money for railroads to maintain track and costs railroads money to operate complex track arrangements. The fewer tracks they can use to serve a customer with, the more profitable the operation is in the long run.

Take a look at the design below of the track plan for a four foot HO scale module of a factory. The track plan serving the model factory looks interesting - however, only 5 freight cars can be spotted at the industry - and there are five turnouts and a crossing! The reason this was done on the module was to fit the factory complex into the confines of the 30" x 4' footprint of the module and to also add some visual interest to the overall scene. However, a real railroad would try to figure out how to serve this customer with one or two tracks and eliminate the needless complexity.

Cenntennial Modules Track Plan

A busy HO scale factory module design. | Diagram by Jim Spavins.

If built in real life, this module plan would add substantial costs to maintain the trackage. Also, with its difficult switching arrangement, any train serving this factory would take more time to switch. This also increases the cost of a crew as they need to spend more time working here. When you are thinking about track arrangements, simple spurs, yard ladders, and junctions will provide for accurate representations of the prototype. In reality, you will find operating layouts designed like this just as interesting as the many switching puzzles published in the magazines.

When thinking about track arrangements through the lense of minimalist design - generally less is more. If you want to model the operations of a particular prototype, just add the tracks which are appropriate for the particular operations. In some cases, a prototype location might have more track than they actually use on a daily basis and some can be eliminated from the design.

Staging Yards

A well known idea in the hobby is the idea of creating a staging yard for a layout - a place off the visible portion of the railroad where trains can be set up and then run onto the rest of the layout. Depending upon the type of railroad you want to build, this may or may not be something you will be interested in including. Just a thought when you go about designing a staging yard - make these yards fairly easily accessible. Sometimes the desire is to want to hide these staging yards since they are not on the visible portion of the railroad. However, these can be busy locations for people since this is where cars generally need to be placed and taken off the railroad. If the yard is hidden under scenery or in a place that is difficult to reach, it won't prove to be very useful.

Try to leave these staging yards with reasonable space - both for people and equipment. At the same time though, you might want to hide them from view of the visitors by either creating a separate room or space for the staging yards which can be visually blocked from the viewer - but still accessible by the operators. For example, if you can create a separate room for your staging, the door can separate the aisle with the view from the workings of the staging area. On a smaller layout, simply placing a curtain or folding panel over the staging would work as well. In this case, the curtain or panel would just be moved out of the way when work needed to be done in the staging and then covered back up. This is a much better solution than burying the yards under the scenery.

Layout Height

A subtle design feature which can have a big impact on the railroad is the height of the layout. There are three important considerations when determining the height to set a layout. These are construction concerns, operational needs, and visual appeal. Each of these areas is competing and might suggest a different finished layout height for your layout. For example, if you want to draw a viewer visually into a scene, you might want to design the railroad so it is closer to eye level for a standing person. However, it may be very difficult to build and operate a layout set this far above the floor. If you plan to focus your layout design where you will have heavy operations, maybe something a little lower where the equipment is easily accessible to operate, would be a good solution to picking a layout height.

Presenting The Railroad

Usually one of the last considerations in the layout design process is the design of the non-modeled portions of the layout. This is a sometimes overlooked part of the layout design process but critically important to capturing the essence of railroading you are trying to create. In many ways this is just as important as how the track, buildings, and scenery are arranged.

If you are building a permanent railroad set up in a dedicated space, it will be important to consider items like lighting and fascia design. For each type of railroad, the lighting choices will be different. For example, a layout meant to operate will need lots of light around the entire room. Operators will most likely need to see paperwork and car and engine numbers. While it might be nice to have specific lighting just focused on the layout itself, this may not be a wise choice for a layout heavily focused around operations. At the same time, if you are building a layout completely focused on the visual aspects of the hobby, potentially only lighting the layout would be an appealing choice. The rest of the room could be dimly lit with just enough lighting to help people move around.

The same choices hold true for the fascia design. It is always nice to have a clean front to your railroad but how you use that space will be different depending upon the railroad you want to design. A layout focused on operations may need controls mounted to the fascia in an easily accessible fashion while one focused on aesthetics may try to find a way to place these controls to they can be covered or placed out of the way.

In addition, you will want to think about items related to the theme you are following with your design. For example, if your layout is focused around operations, think about the human space needs. For example, you will probably have some kind of paperwork. Therefore, you will want to set aside some space close to the operating area for a place to set down car cards or waybills or a switch list while the crew does their work. If you are focusing on a railfan layout, how about setting aside a space for chairs or stools to watch trains roll by.

Minimalist Model Railroading Case Studies

Capturing the Essence of Railroading

Introduction - Minimalist Model Railroading

Case Study #1 - Claremont Concord Railroad
Scale: O Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #2 - CP Rail's Kicking Horse Pass
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #3 - Trolley Museum
Scale: O Scale        Size: 2'x6'

Case Study #4 - N&W 611 Excursion
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #5 - CS Industries
Scale: O Scale        Size: 10'x11'

Case Study #6 - Sono Tower
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #7 - Boston and Albany Railroad
Scale: N Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #8 - Central Yard Engine Terminal
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #9 - Iron Horse Railroad Museum
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 10'x11'

Case Study #10 - MM&R Timber Co.
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 10'x11'

Case Study #11 - Springfield Metro
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 10'x11'

Case Study #12 - South Station, Boston, MA
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #13 - Canaan, CT
Scale: N Scale        Size: 10'x11'

Case Study #14 - Chas Chemicals
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #15 - Westerly, RI
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #16 - Connecticut River Drawbridge
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #17 - Valley City Viaduct
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 12'x18'

Case Study #18 - Wood River Railroad
Scale: O Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #19 - Portable Shortline
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #20 - Charter St. Steam Plant
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 8"x15'

Case Study #21 - Eastern Scenic Railroad
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #22 - West Springfield Yard
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 29'x44'

Case Study #23 - Good Ol' 4x6
Scale: HO Scale        Size: 4'x6'