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Pen or PC?

Although many model railroaders are working with a track planning software, I don´t really need it when designing a model railroad layout. It´s the idea that counts; so a pencil and a sheet of paper for the first draft is enough for me. The Fleischmann N tracks measurements are all in my head, and as I prefer small layouts I just start by placing the tracks right on the board!

Original sketch of the "Terminal layout"

Track planning software

Model railroad design: The DO´s and DON´Ts

Of course, not everybody likes this "try-and-error" practice as I do! A model railroad software is a helpful tool especially for bigger railway layouts, as it provides the exact requirements (tracks, measurements). And I confess: illustrating this webpage would not have been possible without a digital planner! But as I said: the idea is important, not the CAD program. Beware of the CTSS - the "CAD-Too-Soon Syndrome", as it was described in a "winking" article by Byron Henderson!
Software planners are available for all operating systems like Mac (RailModeller), Windows (WinRail, WinTrack, AnyRail, PC-Rail) or Linux. Prices vary from Freeware (XTrkCad, open source for Linux, Windows or Mac) or a certain charge for more extensive planners. But no matter if using a planning software or not: The DO´s and DON´Ts are the same when planning a layout. Advanced hobbyists know them already, but for beginners here some basic principles for model railroad design. And don´t mind: rules are made to break!

# 1: Hide each sharp curve radius

A sharp curve radius looks bad - on every layout! So hide it. Note the position of the tunnel in the following study: The track route is exactly the same, but the visual effect is completely different.

Train tunnels


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# 2: Where is the viewpoint?

Involving the position of the (main) viewpoint in the planning process probably is the most important issue, when designing a track plan. It defines the routing of the "parade railroad line" (where you want to see your long model trains), and it affects the appeal of the complete model railroad layout. So if realizable, plan curves bending "towards" you instead of curves bending away. The wagons are coupled closer, and a train coming up towards you will always look more impressive than a train driving away.

N scale layouts

# 3: Staggered height arrangement

I´m sure: You want to see your model trains as much as possible! This is determined by the viewpoint, too. But now I´m not talking about tunnels. A staggered height arrangement from the foreground to the background maximizes the ratio of "train-visibility" on the complete layout. Look at in the following sketch: The routing is the same, but the second study provides a better visibility, as the railroad line coming from the upper left is not hidden by the ramp to the bridge in the foreground.

N scale bridges


 

# 4: No geometrical appearance

The following sketch looks somewhat stupid, but the effect is enormous: Track plans work best, when they give a realistic and natural "look and feel" of a model railway layout. Avoid long straight lines running parallel along the edge of the board, because they make the complete layout looking geometrically, even sterilely. For curves better use flex tracks instead of standard curves.

N scale architect

# 5: Avoid zigzag

Better a "smooth" looking route with a wide curve (or even better: a flex track) than a zigzag rail line with sharp bends. And open your eyes on your next railway trip: The tracks always follow the landscape - not vice versa!

Model railroad design

# 6: "Flip" the turnout!

Take into consideration to "flip" a turnout, if it makes a zigzag track line! In the example below the left hand turnout is replaced by a right one. Although it is a simple standard switch (and not a curved switch), the second example creates a more steadily routing.

N scale turnout

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