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Model Railroad Layout Construction Sequence

Updated: Jan 20

When I started building my Downtown Spur layout, I temporarily laid Atlas flex track and placed some cardboard mock ups in place to see what I had. As I recall I had the track down in one weekend. I then went back over the years, gradually replaced the Atlas rail with Micro Engineering code 70 and detailed scenes as the mood struck me.

The order in which we build our layout’s elements plays a vital role in maintaining the enthusiasm necessary to achieve the momentum that is so important to making progress. Just the thought of how we’ll approach our launch may determine if we get started building at all. Getting bogged down early on with more complex construction elements has been the death knell for more than a few model railroads. For example, let’s say your design is to have a route that goes from Point A to Point E. The plan calls for a yard at A, handmade turnouts, and numerous bridges and viaducts along the route. If your strategy is to start at one end, fully detail the track before moving onto the next town, progress will be slow and it will be years before your vision starts to take shape. That can slowly sap your motivation. The key is to get trains rolling from end to end as quickly as possible using temporary track and then doubling back at your leisure to work on whatever area strikes you as interesting on any given weekend. Having at least the main in front of you, up and running, can do wonders for morale.

Here's the sequence I suggest:

Get the bench work up. If your plan calls for the traditional around the walls center peninsula, consider adding the peninsula later.

Lay the sub-roadbed. If the track grades are flat throughout, consider using two inch thick extruded foam instead of plywood.

Use temporary wood beams to span the areas where future bridges and viaducts will be located.

Lay the cork roadbed for the main line route only and perhaps a few key sidings. No more.

Temporarily lay the main with Atlas flex track held in place with a small drop of white glue every six inches or so. Go light with the glue. Work quickly but neatly.

Run the main line power bus beneath the layout and tap the main line track into it with feeders spaced every six feet (give or take).

Hook up your DCC system and get trains running from end to end.

Take a breath, pat yourself on the back, and enjoy this milestone.

At a subconscious level, having a clean layout presentation impacts how inviting our layout space is. This is a good point to add your fascia and paint it. Paint the bench work legs semi-gloss black.

Start filling in your space with a few mockups (see above). It can be difficult to visualize what a scene will look like simply by looking at a drawing. 3D mock ups are an effective way to manage your composition and make adjustments before investing a lot of time actually building elements such as structures. Open up your kits and tape the walls together or just rough in a structure’s approximate shape using cardboard boxes.

Now, pick whatever scene or project motivates you and go back and detail it. Start filling in the secondary track. If you want handmade turnouts, cut those in gradually. If you want more detailed track such as Peco or Micro Engineering, simply wet the temporary Atlas rail, pop it loose and replace it a section at a time. Gradually putting your bridges in to replace the temporary beams you put in earlier.

While this plan of attack does involve a small amount of double work, in the end it pays off by allowing you to get trains running and see your vision very early on.

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