Planning & Design of my layout - How I got from ideas & desires to running trains!

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I have documented my decision process on how I sorted out the answers to the questions that I have seen people agonize over endlessly.

I have found that by setting wants and then putting them in priority, along with REALISTIC expectations of effort and cost, the decisions are really not all that difficult.

Too many people, in my experience, just keep shifting the priorities of things so they never seem to be able to come to a decision. I hope outlining how I did it saves some people some grief and leads to a better decision.

Basic Planning / Decisions:

I gave a lot of thought on what I wanted. Operationally, I wanted two major things:
  • Two independent loops for unattended "display" operation of 2 trains.
  • The ability to run multiple trains with friends in a limited "operational" way, i.e. a real railroad.
This made some kind of remote control mandatory.
I also wanted to:
  • MU (multiple units) and doubleheading
  • no limitation in run time
  • have all the lights and sound I wanted in every loco, smoke too.
  • ability to fit in all locos, even the smallest
  • remotely control switch machines and not run a lot of wires

This made it a decision of battery power vs. track power, and battery power cannot accomplish all these things. I also did not want the maintenance of batteries, charging, and the replacement as they wear out.

I settled on track power and DCC. 

I also had the priority of reliability, so I made a small loop of 3 types of track, Aristo-Craft, USA Trains, and LGB. All of it oxidixed significantly overnight, and if left for 2 days, required "scrubbing" with an abrasive track cleaner. 

So I made a test loop in the front yard of stainless steel, where it would get hit with water on a daily basis:

10 foot diameter H&R stainless steel. Dead reliable, no corrosion.

Being a new house, it was easy to bury conduit completely around the back yard for feeders for power. I coupled this preparation with the decision to use stainless steel track for low maintenance.
These were the major decisions that had to be made to move forward:
  • track power
  • DCC remote control
  • stainless steel track

Track Construction:

First, I made a test loop of brass track, that was oval, with the R1 curves from Aristo-Craft, USA Trains, and LGB, all 3 brands.I thought since the weather is very mild here in San Diego this would be no issue. But I am 1 mile from the Pacific Ocean, and while it does not fell like it, my weather station says it gets to 98% humidity overnight. So what ran fine one day would need oxide removal (abrasive track cleaner) the nexe day.
After this experience, and reading all the naysayers forum posts about DCC outside would not work (hah!), I selected Aristocraft stainless steel sectional track, with SplitJaw stainless rail clamps.
For roadbed, I figured coarse pea gravel would be fine, I have good drainage everywhere in my planters. Initially, I used pieces of 1/2" hardibacker for turnouts to keep them level, especially crossovers and the switchyard. I later found that it was unneeded under switches, in fact the ballast would work between the switches and the hardibacker and raise the turnouts up. My track ran several months on top of bark chips as ballast! This actually helped set levels/heights, and then I'd scoop out a section of bark chips and pour in ballast.
I chose the Aristo stainless because it was half the price of the H&R stainless, which were my only choices at the time. The Aristo track has it's own issues, but they can be overcome. The supplied rail joiners are crap, poor electrically, and even not so good in just aligning the rails, so I went Split Jaw stainless rail clamps.
I also settled on pneumatic switch machines, so they are waterproof and also require virtually no maintenance.
10 Years later, everything is still solid and no real maintenance to speak of.

Plants / integration to the garden

I have a section on plants, and I decided to keep it minimal and in pots in the ground which will control growth and make it easy to trim them. See my section on plants.
The stainless track and pneumatic switch motors allows me to use overhead sprinklers wherever I want, but I later changed to drip mainly for the plants and weed control.

Further refinement of the layout philosophy and goals

To figure out a track plan, I gurther refined my goals. I wanted the following items:

  • Unattended operation of at least 2 trains in a display mode, in opposite directions (more interesting)
  • Ability to "convert" the 2 loops above into a single "twice around" layout for a "bigger" layout.
  • Enough spurs to allow some kind of operating session with freight trains picking up and dropping off.
  • Passing sidings for more interest.
  • A yard where trains could be made up and broken down.
  • Integration into the existing landscape so the layout does not overpower the back yard.
  • Reliable operation, wireless remote control, MU capability, low maintenance.

Track Plan

Below is the current layout plan, East (the back fence), is up, North to the left. (No the track ends are actually connected, this drawing is dimensionally accurate, from RR-Track, and does not reflect the "give" in rail joints)

The "box" in the center of the drawing is the house.

You can see the inner loop, the small kidney-shaped loop on the right. The switchyard is on the right, or South side. 

The outer loop goes along the back fence, North to the property line, and then West to the gate, then it doubles back along the house and comes back along the Eastern end of the house to reconnect.

In the future, some temporary track will connect the switchyard to track in front of the house, and then back near the where the normal loopback occurs. 

You can also see a spur on the North side, this will enter the garage for storage.The current total track length is just over 700 feet. With the track across the front and the storage in the garage the total will be in excess of 1,100 feet.

Outer mainline length is 400 feet including the 2 passing sidings, or a bit over 300 feet for one circuit of the mainline.





I have loved trains, real and model since I was a kid and when we heard the Santa Fe coming, my grandmother would throw me in the car, and we would race at breakneck speeds to see it come. She would put pennies in my ears to combat the sound of the horn!

I had a Lionel 027 set as a kid, Santa Fe F unit. For the first few years, it only came out at Christmas as an oval under the tree. Later, my dad, being one of those famous do-it-yourself types, added on a room, and put a 4x8 sheet of plywood in the wall, hinged so that it would swing out of the wall at waist height. Heaven!.

We moved in the middle of junior high to a much larger house, and I built a 5 x 9 foot layout from scratch, wood frame construction, with the cookie cutter approach to use a sheet of plywood for the sub-roadbed. I used Tru-Scale wooden road/bed ties, and hand-spiked all of my rail. I also built my switches from "kits" where the frog and points were assembled. That was a challenge.

No more progress until out of college. At some point I got married, and bought a house. I bought N scale trains, but had no space for a layout. I had a simple loop of track, but that was all. I joined a club, and got my first exposure to train club cliques and politics! Didn't get to run much! Pretty frustrating, since most people in the club were retired, so time meant nothing to them, my precious hours at the club we spent listening to arguments.

I had been thinking of an outdoor layout since there never seems to be enough space inside. I bought some Z scale, but still no layout. I went to the National Garden Railways Convention, and since it was in San Diego, went on all the tours of people's garden railways... I was hooked!
We bought a new house in 1998, and I was determined to have a layout, so planned it from the beginning. What I did is make the general space, and ran conduit all around the periphery of the yard. I also assumed that the track wanted to be the greatest radius possible, so made sure no landscaping was put within 18 inches of the walls. It paid off, but it took some work to keep reminding the landscaper not to plant a 20' palm tree smack dab in the right of way!

Other things I want to do:

Make up a vertical transfer table so that the tracks come into the garage so that entire trains can be made up and be ready to go. Also want a spur to go into a little refrigerator so that cold beer can be picked up and dropped off to guests! Another idea is a lift bridge that raises to the level of the kitchen window to load food and drinks for delivery!


Click the links below to go "deeper" into more details on layout planning

   Planning for operations     Designing a yard     





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