Planning a Railway Layout


Planning a model railway layout for the first time can be daunting, where do you start? should you make intricate plans, or just walk into a shop and buy what looks good? Well, my view is it is always best to have a plan to start with, even if a project evolves away from that plan in the making. This article aims to look at the basics of how to plan and what should be in a plan.

Model Railways are not a cheap hobby and hobbyists can spend years refining and perfecting their layouts, it is often best to spend a few months designing and getting input from your fellow clubmates and enthusiasts to get a layout that both looks good and is practical to use as well as saving you money.

Size and Shape

The first thing to think about, in some cases even before thinking about what gauge to model in, is to think about how much room do you have for a layout. Whether you want a custom simple track plan or aim to accurately recreate the Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway the space you have to use and store the layout will inform the entire rest of your design, or rule it out completely.

If you are lucky enough to be building it into a permanent home, be it an attic, garage or the kids ex-bedroom then you need to think about where you are going to stand whilst operating and maintaining the layout, not just now but in the future. You may be able to crawl under the baseboard into a control cut-out now, but what about in 10 years time? Would room for a chair (and maybe an undertable shelf for biscuits) be a good investment long term? If you need to be able to pack the layout away and store it then you also need to consider how it comes apart to be stored, this can limit design when it comes to scenery and topography, the important thing is to be practical, remember a layout must be usable not just pretty.

It can help to mark the layout size on the floor with tape. Once you know the physical constraints of what you can achieve, the next step is to decide if you are going to model a real location or create a fictional location of your own. Either way the next step is research.


If you have chosen to model a real life railway then this could be as simple as taking a closer look at your local station the next time you are there or as intensive as finding archive photographs and original engineer's plans. Your local model railway club or railway society will often have people with encyclopedic knowledge of the tiniest details, especially for the more popular time periods and is also a good way to make friends and pick up tips. If designing your own, then there is arguably more research needed, whilst it could be as simple as making a list of items you want to include, such as a tunnel, turntable, village or shunting yard and then browsing your local store for ones you like, people often like to produce "Typical layouts" which show an idealised representation of the railway in an area or era which will then require research into the railways of those times.

This research will hopefully be fun and feed you ideas for your layout and should leave you with a clear picture of what you want to build. It can help to keep a folder of pictures from this research, other people’s layout’s, images of scenery, photos of life on the railway during the period depicted to help inspire you as you go through the process.

Track Plan

Real Life Location

If you choose this option you will be building off a real life track plan, Once you have your track plan, you need to decide what scale is best to bring it to life to the level of accuracy you require. This will include deciding if any foreshortening of track or extra curves are acceptable, in order to fit it in the area you have available. Whilst a true scale version is the ideal sometimes abridgements are necessary to make a useable layout, which is the point after all.

Fictional Plan

Often the best option as it is the most easily tailorable to the limited space most people have, this also allows you to build to the parts of the hobby that you enjoy be it running intricate shunting puzzles or rust having locomotive run in circles. There are track plans available to download online from sites such as or which has over 400 layouts ready to download. For people wanting a truly custom track plan there is where you can download a program to design and visualise your layout. All of the plans from were made using this program so you can also import and edit these.

Think about the topograph you want to display, if you really want a large hill with a tunnel or a hanging suspension bridge then it is better to let this influence your track choice rather than attempting to trying to make it fit on top of an existing plan.

The important thing to remember is, whilst we all want a model railway layout that looks great, indeed the best ones seem to reveal more detail the harder you look. It needs to work as a functioning line, if you can't reach the back to right a derailed locomotive, then you need to rethink before building.


If you plan ahead, do your research and ask for advice, you will have a much smoother, and quite possibly cheaper time building your first layout. Make the design practical first and then you can up the detail level over the following years as your skill level increases.

Finally remember despite all the planning I have advocated above, don’t be afraid to change things as you go. Just as full sized engineers have to work around problems as they arise so will you, you may need to decrease a hill gradient so your favorite locomotive can make it up smoothly or upgrade your platform length so it can hold those new carriages you brought half way through. Don’t be discouraged, take your time and enjoy the process. This is all part of the fun that is model railways.

Christopher Williams

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