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A Model Railroad Design For Passenger Train Enthusiasts

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

This guy really caught me off guard. One second it was quiet, an instant later he was on me. I know he was going over 100 mph, by how much I'm not sure. Experiences such as this beg to be modeled. January 2013. Seabrook, MD. (A modeling note....notice the color difference between tracks).

Rail themes that involve lots of action in a small space, at slow speeds, lend themselves very well to model railroading. That’s why industrial switching and branch line layouts are so popular. In an average size space you can create something that is both plausible looking and packs in a lot of operating potential.

Not all themes, passenger train based model railroads for example, are so accommodating. That doesn’t mean they should be skipped over, however. If the model railroad design process is approached the right way, you can create something that is both very rewarding from a modeling and operations standpoint, as well as unique. Let’s face it, “passenger only” model railroads aren’t something you see that often. The problem is that passenger trains run at high speeds and cover long distances without doing much along the way. That combination of high speed and distance is particularly problematic from a design standpoint if we want to create something that is even remotely believable given our limited space. Even if you spread your station stops/towns ten feet apart, that would be way too close. You just can’t approach a passenger train theme in the same way as you would others (not that the popular “squeeze it in all costs approach” works that well for anything, but I digress).

The planning and design battle is won at the very beginning, at the conceptual stage, by making pragmatic and well thought out decisions as to the scope of the project and what we want the layout to do. In today’s example, I’m suggesting walking away from the multi-town, typical “model railroad design” approach. Instead, the plan focuses on doing one thing, one thing only, and doing it well. Specifically, the strategy is to model a single town, stretch it out, give it and its approaches some breathing room, and feed it both ways from staging with passenger traffic….lots of passenger traffic. 140 mph Acela’s, 60 mph regionals, and slower commuters. There is even the occasional freight in the mix.

Model Railroad Design Service Passenger Track Plan

The example above is based on a short section of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) around Seabrook, MD during modern times. It’s typical of what I’d work up for a customer as part of my model railroad design service. What’s special about Seabrook? Nothing at all. That’s the point, it’s representative of numerous stops along the NEC right-of-way. Let’s get one thing out of the way before we start. On the surface being a “pure” prototype modeler sounds like a worthy goal. However, when faced with the reality of our limited space, if you can let go a little and proto-freelance, you’ll end up with a better end product. By proto-freelance I mean making an honest stab at capturing the feel of the prototype but give yourself some flexibility. To that end, the plan could be used exactly as drawn for almost any section of the NEC and for any era. Depending on what you wanted to do you could run NJ Transit, Septa, even period Pennsy if you wanted. The plan could serve as a platform for casual rail fanning or equally as well for a serious modeler and operator.

By going with just one town, let’s see all of the positives you get in return:

  • Realism and believability. We aren’t shoe horned into the stereotypical “model railroad” look that comes from trying to do too much for our space (and time….and energy).

  • Lots of operational and rolling stock variety. You have high speed Amtrak, regional Amtrak, Marc (commuter), freight, and M.O.W. Lot of things to spend money on!

  • Being an urban theme there are lots of fun, unique, and challenging structure building opportunities. The substation being just one example.

  • The track runs on concrete ties which gives a project for track laying enthusiasts that you don’t typically see.

  • The catenary would be fun. Components are available from Model Memories. (I would only model the poles/towers, not the actual overhead wires. Even over short distances the pole arrangement changes quite a bit.

  • You have signals if that’s your thing. On my custom built model railroads I generally use Logic Rail Technologies signal control system.

  • Research opportunities abound such as learning how dispatching is handled given the varying speeds of the trains. Passenger trains have different locomotive lighting protocols than freights and it would be fun to research that. There are some videos on YouTube that show that playing out.

  • The plan is meant to be “family friendly”. Because there is no center peninsula, no helix, etc. it would dovetail into a room with minimal disruption.

A few notes on the design…. turnouts are Walthers number 10, I’d go larger if they were available. Aerial photos of the area illustrate just how huge prototypical passenger track switches are. The minimum curve radius is 32 inches. I also studied the aerial photos closely to see how the prototype handled the crossovers. Their locations are few and far between! I copied the exact arrangement of a spot about five or ten miles north of Seabrook and did a second mirror image copy at the other side of the layout. I figure if the Amtrak design team determined this was the best arrangement for them, it would be good enough for us!

A “quality model railroad design” identifies your deeply rooted core interests and matches those with the real world of your available space, available time, and available energy after a long day at work. It has nothing to do with turnout count or track density.

For the record, even though there aren’t that many turnouts, I don’t see this plan as settling. It’s focused planning. If you really want to get into super detailing it could easily be a ten or fifteen year project. Interested but don’t want to build it yourself? I’ve built similar themes before. Give me a call and ask about my custom layout building service.

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