Choosing what your layout will "do"

So many people are so eager to start, they start buying stuff without really knowing where they are going. Take a bit of time to read the following, it will help you.

Understanding your dream:

Part of the planning process and definitely part of your enjoyment will be a good "connection" between what you want your railroad to do, and how close you are achieving it.

Many people are so excited to start, they don't ever sit down and list what they they really want from their new hobby.

Guess what happens? They never realize their "dream" or they just waste time and money and get frustrated. The hobby is littered with unhappy people who never get what they wanted.

Planning? I want to run trains:

Other than just dropping a simple small oval on bricks or a concrete patio, RESIST the people that say "just start laying track". There's a lot to putting track down on the ground, and trains run terribly in this situation.

Sit back, close your eyes, and imagine what a perfect day of running trains is like. Is it having a couple of short trains with highly detailed cars running slow circles? Long passenger trains? 100 car freight trains with big locos? Running a branch line from point A to point B picking up and dropping off cars?

Do you see yourself running, or several friends/children/grandchildren? Do you want it completely automated?

Think about what makes you happy. Then you can make a plan to get there.

Not sure what floats your boat? Join a club, visit several layouts, ask the people you meet. Get an idea of what really interests you as an end result.

OK, I can't figure this out by myself:

As a recommendation, try to make your layout capable of more than just one mode of operation:

  • Unattended running, or "display" mode. A loop with mild or no grades, and where the train is visible most of the time is good for visitors and just letting things run.  Make two INDEPENDENT loops if you can. Setting them up to run in opposite directions also adds interest. No interaction needed if you leave them alone.
  • Running with a friend. If you like the idea, you want to consider making your track as "long" as possible. One trick is turning two loops into a "twice around" configuration. Two independent loops with a crossover between them can accomplish this. For more fun, passing sidings are needed. This allows you both to be on the main line at the same time, or to let two trains pass each other in opposite directions.
  • "Operations" in smaller scales is very popular, and be just as much fun by yourself, or with a number of friends. Adding spur (siding) tracks with industries to pick up and drop off cars, a switchyard to make up and break down trains and a passenger terminal are all things that can add lots of enjoyment.
  • Go visit more layouts... you WILL eventually be able to "know" what you want.

Scope? How big, how involved?

Sometimes planning can backfire. Some people think they need to plan every detail of a large, complex layout before doing anything. You may have heard the term "analysis paralysis". . Get the idea, and then make SURE you can implement it in stages. Then detail the work on the first stage, making your first stage will allow you to run trains. Read this again!

Many people will also want to design their magnum opus, the layout to end all layouts. That's great. Be sure to learn and talk to people about what it will take to MAINTAIN your layout. Start smaller with the ability to expand. I cannot tell you how many people make this complex layout or use hard to maintain techniques, and then they stop running trains.

This goes to the basic materials, techniques, and, unfortunately cost. So think this through a bit. If you want a large layout, but you are severely restricted in funds, you run the risk of building something that is a nightmare and will never run right.

Back off to building in stages, or something less involved.

Under budget, it's true, higher quality components can radically reduce maintenance, fewer fast growing plants, etc. One thing I did was to select stainless steel track, double the price, but never needs cleaning. 20 years later, thank God I made that decision.

Bottom line, spend some time thinking about you want from your investment in time and money. Be realistic. Make a budget and a goal.