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Should You Double Deck?

When you look at a developing model railroad design it should be from the perspective of having the blinders off and being crystal clear as to what it entails to build, maintain, and interact with. Only when you can say with total confidence that you know exactly what you’re getting into, the good, the bad, and the ugly should you sign off on it.

In my design business, the request for double deck layouts is relatively common. I’ll press the client as to why he wants to go that route and, after several back and forths, it comes to, “I want a huge layout to accommodate all of the wonderful features I’ve been dreaming about for decades and multiple decks gives me the biggest layout”.

If ever there were a subject where there are such polarizing trade-offs, the decision to go with multiple decks is it. True, double decks add more space but you have to give up a lot in exchange. There’s nothing wrong with tradeoffs, per se, as long as you are clear on what they are. That’s the problem when deciding to go with double decks, modelers tend to only see the positive and subconsciously suppress all of the associated pitfalls.

Here are some things that need to be internalized when considering multiple decks.

Ergonomics: If you’ve been waiting for decades for your dream layout, during the first several years of construction excitement will be so high that you’ll be willing to overlook any ergonomic inconveniences. After two years though, if there are ergonomic problems they WILL begin to gnaw on you. How often we interact with our layouts is often subconsciously driven by how comfortable they are to do so. Layout height is a key component of comfort. If you have two decks neither will be at the optimal height. Both will be less than ideal.

The Helix: You need a way to get between decks. Depending on the size of your room, a helix may be the only option. They look simple enough on paper but are a total pain in real life, a necessary evil. First, they take up a huge amount of space. Assuming a very tight twenty-seven-inch radius, the total footprint of the helix is going to be a whopping twenty-five square feet. If your room is small, the amount of room the helix takes up may largely negate the space you gain on the upper deck. You also have to clean the track in that catacomb. Waiting for a train to make five or six spirals to navigate the helix is less than entertaining.

Lighting: A single deck layout is easily lit by overhead room lights. A multiple deck layout will need BOTH room lighting and under deck lighting. This adds construction complexity and considerable cost.

Overwhelming size: By far and away when I ask clients why they didn’t finish a previous layout the number one answer was that it was too large and they eventually became bogged down with the magnitude of the task. A four hundred square foot, double deck layout, is much more complicated to build than a single deck, four hundred square foot layout.

Double deck layouts can serve a purpose in the right situation. They are best suited for experienced modelers that are rabid about prototype operations and need the mainline run length to accomplish their operational goals. If you have limited modeling experience it’s best to get at least a simple practice layout under your belt first. If you aren’t really into operations there becomes less and less reason to take on such a hornet’s nest of a project.

Double Deck Check List:

  • Can I accept that each deck will be at a less than ideal viewing level?

  • Can I accept that waiting for a train to navigate a helix will be boring as all get-out?

  • Can I accept that cleaning the rail in a helix isn’t particularly fun nor is re-railing a train in one?

  • Do understand the sheer enormity of scenicing and adding structures to even a sliver of a layout this size?

  • Do I understand what is entailed in installing the below deck lighting?

  • Do I understand the enormity and complexity of constructing double deck bench work?

If you can answer yes to all of the above then, go for it!

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