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Model Railroad Design of the Day - a Track Plan for the Structure Builder

A "successful" model railroad design is one that actually gets built and provides the owner with the degree of enjoyment they had hoped for. Nothing more, nothing less. It has absolutely nothing to do with turnout count or track density.

A tandem of UP Genset units works the 38th Street Spur in LA. Running only four blocks down a narrow alley to a glass plant, the structures along the right-of-way would be pure heaven for the structure modeler to build.

One of the most difficult aspects of model railroad design is a subtle one. It’s truly understanding where your interests lie. It’s important because once you can get a handle on that, you open yourself up to developing a plan that targets those interests and minimizes time spent doing things you don’t care that much about. That’s really the foundation of where I put my focus when working with customers on a layout design.

You can learn a lot from watching people. Personally, I enjoy operations and running trains….. somewhat. Everybody “says” they do too. However, if you watch people closely you'll notice that they gravitate towards what they like doing the most. What I see is people spending 95 per cent of their time “building stuff” and 5 per cent running trains. No shame at all in that. If that’s the case, recognize it, accept it, and design towards it.

Old habits die hard and it’s time to let those one-size-fits all design formats fall by the wayside. As a hobby we are culturally wired to associate design quality with turnout count. The more switches, the higher the track density, the more elements, the better the design. That's the conventional wisdom. I would argue that the opposite is the case. In a well thought out design every element has a purpose. If it doesn’t, it gets sent to the cutting room floor.

I have no clue what the actual numbers are but, anecdotally, I see the most popular areas of interest being:

  • The rail fans. They want a collection of scenes and at least some run length so they can watch their trains running against the backdrop of those vignettes.

  • The rolling stock and locomotive modelers

  • The structure modelers

I’m going to address the last one, the structure folks, today. Modelers love structures! For many, it’s their favorite aspect of the hobby. In a blinding glimpse of the obvious, if that’s what you enjoy, it makes no sense to build 65lf of run length, going through hill and dale, if you have no real interest in building hill and dale. I’ve heard people say that to be a “true” model railroad you need to run lots of trains. What? Why? I’ve heard that if you don’t run tons of trains you “just have an operational diorama”. So? What’s wrong with that?

Let’s look at a design focused like a laser on the hobbyist whose primary source of enjoyment is building structures. The purpose of the plan is to give a platform where most of the time can be spent doing so, and a minimum amount of time spent on elements that aren’t relevant. It’s helpful to have a prototype to serve at least as a general guide. I tend to be a “proto freelancer”, somebody that tries to capture the feel of a specific location while giving myself license to pick and choose nearby elements to incorporate.

Let’s take a look at an example. It is just that, something to illustrate a point. Your theme will likely be different. One of the commenters on my last blog reminded me of a rail fan favorite served by the UP in LA. I’m going to call it, for lack of a better phrase, the 38th Street Spur. In terms of track, it’s very basic, a single spur peeling off the main and running a few blocks. What makes it standout is the amazing structures. They just beg to be modeled. Running four blocks through a narrow alley it’s lined with one fascinating building after another. At the end of the spur is a glass plant that would keep you busy six to nine months building it.

UP's 38th Street Spur to Girard Glass in LA

I’ve taken a common room size that many of my clients have in their situation. The focal point is the peninsula which is the foundation of the project. I’ve added a small shelf on each wing with staging so you can run trains end to end. I’ve also added an optional industry at one end to add operational interest if you want to do that from time to time. That’s it. No space or energy is wasted on anything that isn’t related to the central purpose. The footprint shown would keep you pretty busy. I see no upside in getting greedy and adding more. To that end I’ve added a large entrance lobby to keep things comfortable.

You might ask, "Where is all of the track? Why aren't there more turnouts?" As a layout designer, my job isn't to find a way to shoehorn as much useless noise into a layout room. It's to come up with something that addresses the point of this blog. Specifically, a plan that is geared to towards your interests with a minimum of "stuff" that doesn't serve that end goal.

I would envision this layout would take several years at least to build. You would want it to take that long too. What’s the point of rushing through things so you can then hit a check box and call it done? If you do that you’ve worked yourself out of a job, and reduced the amount of time spent doing what you enjoy.

This view down 38th Street gives you a sense for the character of the structures.

I would envision the following construction sequence. The first month would be spent getting the bench work quickly but cleanly constructed. The wings would be shelf mounted. Paint the walls a light sky blue to represent the backdrop. Paint the legs black and add a cleanly mounted and painted fascia. Put some Atlas track down and get that running. At this point you can take your foot off the gas and get to the point. Which is?

The point is to spend leisurely Sunday mornings with a cup of coffee, relaxing, and building structures. Just savor the experience. Don’t rush. Enjoy yourself. If you can achieve that, then you have what I would call an “excellent” design. It gets built and serves its purpose.

At some point you will be “done”. Photograph it. Write an article or two. Then, build another layout in the space.

If this line of thinking appeals to you, you might enjoy my latest book, "How to Design A Model Railroad".

Here are a few more photos of the spur:

Standing in S. Alameda next to the main at the point the spur peels off. Although not in the layout footprint I'd be inclined to employ some modeler's license and incorporate Jasan Glass.

Two Bing Birdseye aerials. You can see Girard Glass in the bottom image.

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