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Let Time Drive Your Layout Design

Updated: Aug 24, 2019


Bloomington, Indiana in N scale. After years of work, I still had less than a third of the scene finished.

Many years ago the stars aligned and space and resources became available to build my dream layout, an N scale version of the Monon Railroad in the county I grew up in.  The combination of four hundred square feet to work with, plus how much N scale layout you can squeeze into a given foot, made the sky the limit.  Sound like the perfect situation?   I made steady progress over the first few years and got the layout up and running.  Eventually, my attention turned to the centerpiece of the project, the town of Bloomington, IN.

With a twenty foot long by two foot wide area to work with, I had space for, and designed in, most of the downtown area.   (Spoiler alert, 40 square feet comes out to 5,760 square inches!)  I tackled the first structure with abandon and finished it up in two weekends.  Something grated on my subconscious when I placed it on the layout.  At two inches square it easily fit in the palm of my hand.  More weekends, more structures, but not many square inches of town filled out.


One afternoon reality sunk in.  I placed a completed kit on the layout and looked up to see the literally thousands of square inches of empty bench work yet to be covered by “town”. What had I gotten myself into?  In a blinding glimpse of the obvious it had become apparent that I had bitten off far more than I could chew.  I’d never get the town of Bloomington done in this lifetime.  Because I had ample space for a layout I had designed in far more elements than I could ever hope to build.  I did finish all of the track.   That was another epiphany, it would take an army of operators, and an hours long operating session to work just a portion of the industries.


What’s the old adage?  Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  It’s a life lesson that certainly applies to layout planning.


As we begin the layout planning process we all have the tendency to fall into the trap of quickly and blindly putting the focus on how many elements we can fit into the space we have.  The crucial role of time doesn’t even enter the level of conscious thought.   The end result is almost always the same as what happened with my Monon layout.  Because we don’t let time drive the planning process we bite off more than we can chew.


Rather than let available space drive the planning process, we should let available time drive the design. 


Here are some questions that need to be answered and put on the first few lines of the proverbial “givens and druthers” of the design process.


  • How much time do I have to work on the layout?

  • At what points in time do I want to reach various completion milestones? For example, within a year I’d like to have some trains running. Within two years I’d like to have twenty per cent of the scenery done.

  • How long will I have the layout?

  • When I’m running the layout, either as a casual rail fan or via more formal operations, how long do I want a running session to last? Thirty minutes?  An hour?  Three hours with a full crew compliment?  In most cases it will be less than an hour running by yourself.  If that’s the case, do you need enough operational capacity to sustain a six hour formal operating session?

  • What aspects of the hobby do I enjoy the most? Building structures, scenery, operations?  If you enjoy building structures but are ambivalent about industrial switching then it isn’t necessary that all of your industries by rail served.


Although it’s always fun to see lines on paper, when working with my layout design customers I always start with the questions above.


As was the case with my Monon layout we tend to overextend ourselves because we grossly underestimate how long certain tasks will take.  More times than not the end result is a layout that never really launches or, if it does, doesn’t achieve the necessary critical mass to create the excitement necessary to maintain momentum.  We also have a tendency to over estimate how much track it takes to keep us operationally entertained and end up with overly dense track work and operational capacity that far exceeds what we could ever hope to utilize.


Bottom line, let time-related considerations drive your planning process.

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