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Model Railroad Bench Work Footprints

Selecting the appropriate bench work footprint for your model railroad design is one of the most important design decisions you’ll ever make. As with all things, there are pros and cons with each available option. The key is to know which factors come into play so that you can make an informed decision as to which provides the best trade off for your situation. First, you need to have the self awareness to know whether you are a prototype modeler, operator, or casual/just-for-fun train runner. Next, you need to evaluate the following aspects of each option:

  • Total run length

  • Reach in distances. Are there return loops that create major access problems in the corner of the room?

  • Lift out bridges. Lift outs offer lots of design benefits but can you live with them?

  • Does the track pass through a scene only once? Passing through a scene once provides the most realistic vista but do you care?

  • How many linear stretches does the design offer up? Prototype railroads are linear and modeling them requires lots of straight runs for yards and industries.

  • Opportunities to design in staging yards, particularly punch throughs to adjacent rooms

  • Does the plan have hidden track? This is something that is easy to rationalize on paper and something you’ll almost certainly regret later.

Let’s take a look at three common bench work footprints and compare the pros and cons. I’m assuming a common 18 foot by 20 foot room with access via a door (as opposed to stairs coming into the middle). Minimum radius is 30 inches. Minimum aisles widths are kept to 30 inches with the exception of a few pinch points.

The “Island”

The island style deserves a hard look for the casual train runner because of its great ergonomics. You have easy reach ins all around, can follow your train without being cut off, and you have no duck unders or bridges to deal with. Realistically you need a room width of at least 18 feet to pull it off (in HO). The larger your room, the more viable this option becomes.

Run length: 72 feet


  • Trains only pass through a scene once.

  • No duck unders or lift out bridges.

  • Can easily see and reach trains at all times.


  • This option generally has the shortest run length.

  • Limited options for staging.

  • Not as many long, straight runs as other designs. This will result in shorter yards.

Around the Walls, Center Peninsula

The around the walls/center peninsula is the option of choice for prototype modelers and prototype operators.  If you need to take ergonomics into account (and you do) it is the most space efficient design in terms of giving the maximum main line run per square foot.  In most cases this is my preferred option when working with my customers.  Note: the most efficient form of this design is only ONE serpentine peninsula, not multiple peninsulas.

Run Length: 114 feet


  • Trains only pass through a scene once

  • Can easily see, follow,  and reach trains at all times

  • Maximum run length per square foot (If you take into account ergonomics

  • )Lends itself to punching through a wall and putting staging in an adjacent room

  • Long/straight runs for longer yards and towns


  • This plan requires a lift out bridge to cross the door way. Although these are easy to build and interact with, it’s a deal breaker for some people.

Around the Walls with Return Loop

I’m including this because it offers the longest mainline run of all the options and has the advantage of not requiring a lift out bridge. Having said that, it’s not my preferred design. The ergonomics are less than ideal, particularly in scales HO and larger. While it does offer a long run, the extra length isn’t that useful if you want to disguise the fact that a train only passes through a scene once. On the flip side, for the casual runner, having a train pass through a scene twice is not only o.k., but actually desirable.

Run Length: 147 feet


  • Long run length

  • Doesn’t require a lift out bridge

  • Trains pass through a scene twice offering the opportunity for trains passing over one another on bridges and trestles (if you like that sort of thing)


  • Long reach in distances at corners with return loops

  • Not as many long, linear runs as other designs resulting in shorter yards and towns

  • Trains pass through a scene twice offering the opportunity for trains passing over one another on bridges and trestles (if you hate that sort of thing)

  • If you want to disguise the fact that a train passes through a scene twice, the advantage of the longer run is somewhat offset by needed long lengths of hidden or semi-hidden track.

  • If you choose to hide the return track (shown in pink) then you are dealing with all of the ergonomic problems associated with said hidden track.

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