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Know Thyself

Just as idle doodling and sketching can be relaxing, so can casually roughing out model railroad design sketches. The initial stages of model railroad layout design can be exhilarating, filled with promise and the untarnished vision of the perfect model railroad that surely lies ahead. It’s easy to be consumed by this experience and immediately whip out the graph paper and start drawing. There’s a problem though. What, specifically ARE we designing?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of not giving serious and deep thought to what we want from our model railroads. Not doing so risks correctly designing the wrong layout. Sketching, drawing, and posting various design iterations on chat forums for comment is always easier than self examination. The fact that self examination IS so hard is probably why we don’t do it. The results can be disastrous. Finding out you built, or are building, the wrong layout is expensive and discouraging and in extreme cases can result in somebody leaving the hobby.

I will concede that for some, designing layouts (even ones that will never be built) can be a relaxing stand alone past time. In most cases though, a design is no more than a plan, a set of directions whose singular goal is to serve as a guide to actually getting a model railroad built. That’s it.

The definition of a good design is simple. It’s a design that results in a layout being built that the modeler finds satisfying. Discussions of curve radius, yard ladder design, staging yards, etc. are just secondary minutiae whose role is to support that primary design objective.

Before doing the ‘easy’ part of the design (drawing the track) the first step is to give long and serious thought to what you want the model railroad to do for you. What do you want it to accomplish? What are your primary interests? What are your lifestyle and personality limitations? It’s only after these questions can be answered accurately and honestly are we to the point where we can pick up the pencil or open up our CAD program.

Here are some things to think about.

Too much attention is placed on the space available for the layout. A far more important question is, “How much energy do you have? How much time will you realistically have to spend on the layout? Will you be as energized two years from now when the reality of construction obstacles has set in? Is the design something that can be brought to critical mass relatively quickly without getting bogged down during construction?

What area of modeling interests you the most? Scenery? Structures? Rolling Stock? Does the design address those interests? Do you want to model a specific town that brings back fond memories or a longer geographic expanse? Do you want to model a specific rail company? Do you want to model a specific operational scheme?

Are you primarily a railfan, happy to just watch trains running through interesting scenery or are you an operator? Are you truly interested in operations? Really, or were just told you should be interested but really are not?

If you are interested in operations, what type? Main line runs? Passenger trains? Locals? Yard classification? All of the above melded into an overall transportation system? Does the layout size and scale address those interests?

Are you interest in highly detailed scenes, general representations, or a mix?

Have you built any layouts before? Do you have the requisite skill and experience level to build that 600 square foot layout you are planning? If not, maybe you should build a smaller practice layout first. Are you aware that highly dense designs with lots of grades, bridges, and over/unders are difficult to build? If you haven’t built a complex layout before maybe you do a flatter, simpler one first.

If you are an operator, can you realistically round up the number of people needed to carry out the operating scheme? What about in five years when the newness of the layout has worn off? Will your operators be just as interested then?

Not all of these questions are easy ones. If you put the thought into answering them though, the result will be a layout that actually gets built and fits you like your favorite pair of blue jeans.

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