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No Time To Build A Model Railroad Layout?

Updated: Feb 10

Let's talk about model railroad design strategy. At almost thirty feet in length, the above design isn't small. Even so, it's an example of managing scope and complexity so a modeler, severely starved for time, could pull it together relatively quickly without having to overcome one roadblock after another.

It’s the most common situation I encounter, a highly motivated modeler that due to life circumstances, doesn’t feel he has time for a layout. Doing the math it’s easy to see why he feels that way. With demanding jobs, a long commute, family time, and home maintenance it can feel we’re running into a time deficit just getting life’s basics accomplished, let alone having anything left over for a hobby. Even if there is some time available, it isn’t useful if we’re too mentally exhausted to focus. It’s no wonder that so many slip into the purgatory of surfing social media, forums, and indiscriminate online shopping by default.

However, even with these challenges front and center I’m still optimistic that, with the right approach, the right strategy, a satisfying layout is attainable for the vast majority of those currently on the sidelines. The key is developing an awareness of where the sticking points to progress and motivation are so you can sidestep them. It’s a matter of understanding and managing scope. Clean, flowing, manageable simplicity is far more sophisticated than an unbuildable, 75 turnout, dog’s breakfast of elements that were sprinkled salt and pepper style over the layout canvas.

What’s needed is an approach where substantial, meaningful, enjoyable progress can easily be achieved when you only have thirty to forty-five minute chunks of time to work with. It can be done. Let’s take a look at a few areas where people get bogged down as well as more efficient alternatives. These are areas where things can grind to a halt either during construction or because the thought of building the feature is so daunting it gets put off.

First and foremost, understand and manage design complexity and keep yourself in check. When you design something, try to visualize what it will be like to actually build it. Complexity isn’t directly related to layout size. If that's the case, then what are “complex elements”? Examples include: high turnout counts, dense track configurations, massive yards, wide bench work, grades, bridges over waterways, large urban scenes, reverse loops, wyes, and center peninsulas with 180 degree loops. Oh, did I mention high turnout counts? Complex features such as these, while appealing on paper, all add drag to momentum and take up time you don’t have.

Some tips:

-Use a shelf style bench style comprised of hollow core doors or book shelves on brackets.

-Keep the bench work width narrow, say twelve to eighteen inches

-Throw your turnouts manually

-Keep your turnout count to twenty or less

-Avoid grades

-Avoid bridges over streams

-Take advantage of the high quality “built up” structures on the market.

-Use cork Roadbed

-Use Atlas code 83 track

Finally, I caution people against getting caught up in the “all or nothing” quagmire. This is a case where the modeler feels they won’t be happy unless they have a massive, complex, “empire”. Since they know they don’t have the time to build that, they go to the other extreme, and give up on having anything. Time is spent on the sidelines pining for the day 20 years down the road where they can have “the dream”. The problem is that a) they’ve walked away from 20 years of enjoyable hobby engagement and b) when the day arrives where they can have the dream layout they don’t have the skills to build it.

Seeing progress and maintaining momentum is key to keeping interest in the hobby going. You can always, always, double back and add features later.

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