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Model Railway Layout Track Planning | Model Railway Hints, Tips, How To Articles and Reviews at Model Trains Online

So you’ve kinda got an idea for a model railway layout. You’ve got a bit of space and you’re itching to get started. You have an idea how big your baseboards can be, but where the heck do you start when it comes to planning the track layout? A complete blank canvas can be great, sometimes… but it can also be a bit daunting. What do you plan first?

Remember that old song, probably from the Sound of Music or some other Julie Andrews type film… “Start at the very beginning!”, and the beginning for me, when I plan the track is where I’m going to stand or sit when I operate the layout. If space allows, do I want to be in the middle of everything or do I want to be on a side edge looking over the whole thing? If you know how big your baseboard is going to be and what shape it will be, operator position is often pre-determined for you!

Once I’ve got that sorted, I then look at where the power sockets are in the room and make sure it’s possible to get mains electricity to my controllers & transformers if they’re located in front of where I’m going to stand.

Tip: Avoid placing complicated track-work like points in hard to reach places!

Tip: Avoid placing complicated track-work like points in hard to reach places!

If that all works out, I can then look at where is going to be the most sensible place to run the wires up from the controllers to the track and connect them up. I always prefer to make the connections on a straight length of track, even if I’m soldering the wires on rather than using a proprietary power connector. It probably has no effect whatsoever if I’m soldering them on, it’s just personal preference.

Once I’ve reached this point (note: I may not have even begin building the baseboards yet!) I can then set about actually working out where the track will go…

Key Things To Remember:

  • Keep in mind your baseboard dimensions. An 8′ x 4′ baseboard to accommodate a very sophisticated N gauge layout, but only a relatively simple OO scale one when it comes to the track plan.
  • Where will you locate your key buildings and structures such as Station?
  • Will you want a Goods yard?
  • How about a Fiddle Yard & Sidings for storing wagons, locos and coaches? Should these be hidden from regular view or will they be a working feature of the layout?
  • Will you have bridges & viaducts? If so, what gradients can you use to get your track up to the required level and how much space will they take up? You can find recommendations for gradients etc in most model train manufacturers literature. In fact we’ll look at gradients in a future article as it’s a little more complicated than just guessing.
  • How about tunnels? Will you need access to tunnels in case of derailments?
  • Where will you position your other buildings like houses, shops, industrial buildings.
  • Will you want to use a backscene?
  • Will your layout stand freely in the middle of a room or up against a wall? If it’s up against a wall, try to avoid placing possible tricky sections of track like points and crossovers in the hardest to reach places.
  • Always take into account the minimum radius that each of your locos can run on. The tighter the radius curves you use, the shorter the locos, wagons and coaches you will have to run. Larger locos such as 4-6-2’s etc won’t be able to run on Radius 1 curves!
  • Will you want your trains to run in a continuous loop? This will require a larger, squarer baseboard. Or if you’re building a shelf style end-to-end layout you’ll need to use either DCC to program your trains to run or a device than can automatically send your trains back and forth.
  • How many trains will you want to run at once?

Tips For Getting Started

  • Start with the main power sections. Position these first then work from there
  • Work out where your longer straight sections or mainlines will run
  • Add your curved sections to complete your main loops & bends
  • Now add in any crossovers and points to enable you to manoeuvre your trains from one track to another
  • Finally add in sidings, goods yards, turntables and other features.
Picture Courtesy of mikeporterinmd

Picture Courtesy of mikeporterinmd

Model Railway Track Planning Tools:

  • Trusty Pad Of Paper & A Pencil – This is the oldest and most widely used tool! Initially, just draw out the rough shape of your baseboards on paper. If you know what scale you’re going to be working in (OO, N, Z etc) you’ll most likely have an appreciation for the size of the track pieces so will be able to take a rough guess at what you can fit on the baseboard. Just start sketching. Once you have a basic idea, you can then use Track Planning Stencils (these are great) to finalise exactly which track sections you’ll need to make it all work.
  • R8140 hornby track plansUse a Track Plans book or guide. Hornby’s Track Plans book is now in its 12 Edition and is a fantastic resource for inspiration for planning your layout. It features proven, professionally designed layouts to suit a huge range of budgets. There’s also C.J. Freezer’s Model Railway Track Plans book which is a superb source of inspiration to get you started.
  • Free Track Plans websites: There are a few websites around that have archives of free track plans. Some designed using the various software packages below and include parts lists and other info too. has a massive collection of plans for all kinds of layouts, small and large, plus there’s a page featuring lots of older Hornby inspired layouts from their catalogues and other resources too so it’s a great place to start if you’re modelling in OO Scale.
  • Track Planning Software: There’s loads of different ones on the market. Some you have to pay for, others are complete free such as these:
Screenshot from XtrkCad

Screenshot from XtrkCad

XTrkCad – Free, open source track planning software with lots of nice features.


Anyrail example track layout

Anyrail example track layout

AnyRail – This is a really nice software package (full review coming soon). You do have to pay for this one (£35/$59) to be able to design larger layouts (more than 50 track sections) but it can help you also plan scenery etc. Plus it’s got a huge track library covering all scales and a wide range of manufacturers including Hornby, Marklin, Peco and Atlas to name but a few.

Scarm example 3d view

Scarm example 3d view

SCARM (Simple Computer Aided Railway Modeller) – Free software, again with a vast library of track sections from every manufacturer you can think of to make designing your layout as quick and hassle free as possible. It can even handle flexible track sections and gives you a full 3D view of your layout too. A full review of this will be posted up soon too.

Planning vs Winging It!

Whilst there are some things in life where flying by the seat of your pants is the best option, it’s not really when it comes to planning your track layout. Whichever method you use, it can be daunting when you first start, but the key is to just erm…. Start! Set pen to paper, start clicking that mouse. Just draw and see what you come up with. Don’t get bogged down with the technicalities of the real railways unless you’re modelling a real location or you’re that much of a stickler for detail.

Throw caution t the wind and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. Just get stuck in. If you’re using stencils, just watch the radii on your curves and don’t make things too tight. If you’re using software, again, watch the curves, but there will normally be a warning if you’re trying to do something crazy!

If it all goes wrong when you come to build it in real life, you can always make slight adjustments as you go too! Nothing is fixed until you nail it down!

Do you have any track planning experiences you’d like to share with your fellow readers? What software do you prefer or is a pencil & paper your method of choice?

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