Building a Layout the Way Real Railroads Are Built

Not sure this is the best forum for this discussion, but here goes.

Over the years, I have read a handful of articles in the hobby press about guys who build their layouts they real railroads build theirs:  they build the scenery FIRST and then lay track (modifying  where necessary to make it work).  I don't just mean painting the plywood prior to laying track:  these guys built mountains, streams, forests,  Then they hacked at the "rock" and cleared out trees for the grade and then the rails.

Has anyone here approached the project that way?

I can see a certain appeal in the method, but it seems a little wasteful and probably more expensive.  Besides:  I'd cheat and plan ahead.  To do it right, you'd have to have someone else play God and build the terrain . . .

Frisco, MoPac, and T&P near Rolla, MO
Original Post

Today's computer-based train layout planning software enables hobbyists to create a fully-scenicked, multi-layer layout as an emerging digital empire, change it as they wish, and when "finished" start building it. Let the computer do the development stage without slinging paint, sloshing plaster, paving roads, placing trees, or sculpting waterways -- and then altering that hand-crafted environment and installing rail routes.  I used ANYRAIL software for my home layout, but there are several other software products.

Mike    (ritrainguy)


I built my latest layout the way you suggest - with no cheating. For realism, you need to start with the terrain. I had specific ideas for how the terrain would look, including a large hill, tunnel, truss bridge and trestle bridge crossing above a low riverbank, and a town at an intermediate elevation. No track was put down until the terrain was designed and installed (but not necessarily with completed scenery). I'm not going to include any pictures now but I expect my layout article to be published in OGR soon. Also see my article about a scratch-built factory now appearing in OGR Run 300 (pages 51 and 19) for some pictures.


I'd rather douse myself in honey and pet a mama bear and her cubs...

There is value to building a layout in sections by completing everything including scenery and some level of detailing before moving on to the next section.

In an early 70's edition of RMC there was a On30 layout featured called The Venago Valley that was built in this manner. The author/builder was the late Bill Livingston.

Jeff C

Well, THAT'S an interesting theory. Not one I would ever be inclined to test, though. Seems like a serious waste of material and effort.

It is true that there is a certain amount of skill involved in laying track on grades dictated by still-imaginary terrain, but I think that is one of the core skills of layout building. And, as Mike said, modern CAD systems make the whole process a lot more accessible to the spatially-challenged.




My heart is warm with the friends I make, 

And better friends I'll not be knowing;

Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,

No matter where it's going.

                        Edna St. Vincent Millay


This approach might be more feasible in the smaller scales.  It also works with a video game software called Auran Trainz, at least through Trainz Railroad Simulator 2004 (aka TRS2004.)

In the game's terrain editor which is called surveyor, the keystroke combination Alt-MMMG ("Make Me a Map George") starts a terrain-generating routine.  You can watch the mountains rise up out of the flat, featureless grey grid plane!  When you're happy with the topology, then you start with the scenicking and track laying, etc. 

This is a one-player "sandbox" type video game with no objective toward winning or losing.  For years i've been hoping they would add an economics engine, where it costs money to level mountains, place bridges, lay track, and run trains.  Sort of like Sid Meier's Railroads, but with detailed 3D graphics and more of a detailed operational approach.  That would make the game a lot more interesting, at least for me!  Good topic!!

Creep, coast, and pull.  We're not talking about cold fusion here.

Some of the European Fremo (Free-Mo in North America) module builders do something similar. In the module build, the terrain contours are cut into the end plates (and cross braces, if required), then the sub-roadbed is laid. At that point, once the module is framed up, the terrain can be done and the track placed. With a sectional layout construction, the same technique could be applied. In one of Ian Rice's books, that technique is illustrated quite well.

Matt Jackson
"The best service you can provide for the hobby is to pass on what you have learned."

 Angels Gate Hi-Railers San Pedro, California

"Celebrating 20 years of moving freight and passengers from Point A to Point A!"

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Where would you get all those 1:48 people to do the work for you?

I think this would be a fun exercise in a computer simulation game, but probably not the way I'd want to do my layout.  Not enough real estate to make it interesting.  At least in my case.

Jonathan Peiffer


At my old place it was a hill side and woods in the back and I had fun laying out my G scale layout using the naked eye. No computer simulations, thank you. I had extensions and branch lines all through the woods. Had a steep line going up a hill side and a coupler would let go and there would be a runaway.  Had to spend too much time and effort on maintaining it so gave it all up

Sheesh.  I am finding PLENTY of limitations as I build my layout. Going out of my way to find new ones would be masochistic! The real RRs declared bankruptcy a lot while they were abuilding. This hobby is so expensive that I might be able to fit that into my layout design! How prototypical...



Don M.

Interesting. You think if real railroads could lay track and then have the terrain appear would choose to do it the way they have too? They'd choose our way. The challenge is operations. Laying track, wiring, switches, etc. is challenging enough to get aligned and tracking properly without having to simulate cuts and fills, blasting, tunnel boring, etc. 

That is simply "bass ackwards". Why in the world would you spend all that time and money just to hack chunks of it out to get the track in? It is difficult enough to lay track without the scenery in the way. It isn't as if we have an army scale sized people to do the work. We have to get in there with our oversized hands.

Now it is a good idea to plan out your terrain before laying your track. Cuts, fills and bridges give a layout a much more realistic feeling, AS IF the railroad was carved through the landscape. Three railers may not take this approach as much as two railers do. It takes a lot of space to pull it off.

If you are working with a flat deck platform.....maybe.     (Edit, thought about it...NEVER ! )

However with open grid construction having scenery formers in place covered with hard shell and vegetation, or even with foam and terrain finished......a sick game IMO.

However, major modifications of the build plan during the construction process it's self,  that can be a challenging adventure.  

Due to the protracted process of building my own RR  the extra time gave rise to variations which expanded widths, added peninsulas, carved out several staging yards, poked holes in perfectly good drywall. spliced in layout sections  from other pikes, repurposed knee walls, stole space from  a woodshop, sliced out an access aisle,  moved water heater, relocated electrical service, relocated plumbing, etc, etc.  None of which was in view at the start.

Chopping into perfectly good, finished scenery, hah! Forgedabotit!  I'll be lucky to get scenery even started in my lifetime.  I can run trains on track and subroadbed,  Can't run trains on foam or plaster.

Does anybody know a good source of operating O-gauge  dynamite sticks? 




My heart is warm with the friends I make, 

And better friends I'll not be knowing;

Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,

No matter where it's going.

                        Edna St. Vincent Millay


Seems like many of us begin with "Layout Planning" with an overall design concept that includes terrain ideas.   Then work out the details of the "Track Plan".   Next, fill in the imagined terrain details, making adjustments.   So "Track Planning" is only a portion of the design process within the larger design of "Layout Planning", and in a sense terrain ideas are actually included at the beginning of the process, kind-of like the terrain already existed.   Of course during construction, most of us then construct and test the track first and then add scenery after.

I suppose the proposed idea could be attempted with rough-ed in foam scenery, which can then be carved and filled fairly easily as the roadbed is pushed-through and then track laid.  On the other hand, I am always eager to get some trains running as a first priority.

I also tried G gauge in the backyard years ago, and had an operating layout for three years.   I found it to be too difficult in Georgia's heat to keep the layout running.   The sun's heat plus the energy on the rails tended to expand the rails significantly, and the higher temperature increased resistance to the current.  It was pretty cool when everything was working.  Perhaps battery-powered G would have worked better.

O Gauge: the IMAX of Model Railroading, and a multi-sensory experience.

It makes sense and doesn't. A lot of towns and cities grew around the railroads not visa versa. I suppose it depends on what era your modeling and how much space you have. Still I like building scenery so I think if I had a huge space it would be fun.

Dave Ripp

The thing about trains... it doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on.

Another variation might be to design your landscape on paper first, and perhaps rough it out but leave it far from finished; then design your industry/roads/town/bridges/buildings/track plan around it, which would be more realistic and create interesting challenges to design around, just like in the real world.  It would avoid the unnecessary work of finishing the landscape and then altering it, perhaps thereby getting the best of both worlds.  Curious if anyone out there has tried this approach?


Outdoors you have to do this..indoors, you would have to plan the whole road anyway, track and scenery, to efficiently use your available space.  Throw up a plaster mountain range and then lay and wire track in the crudely hacked tunnel?  I'll pass.

??Another one of THOSE!!??  What you want to sell is not what I want to buy!

I think it would be fun to do that! Start laying track, put a work train on it, and start building trestles, bridges and tunnels. Sure you'd have to plan just a little bit, especially for tunnels. As bad an idea as many of you think it is, I might just try it. 

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