Hello all

New guy here, joined a few months ago…and now trying my hand at designing and building my own Christmas layout. Familiar with O Scale, I played with my dad’s Lionel stuff when I was a kid in the early-mid 80s. Now I have young boys of my own and I want to give them something they’ll remember at Christmas time. So here we go…11.5 month head start! (FYI...new to posting here, new to everything non-Lionel (only exposure was Lionel), new to AnyRail, and new to command control).

Last December (2019), I was inspired by the “Thrice around the Tree” designs I saw in a magazine and here on the forum. I wanted a layout that looked “magical,” not necessarily prototypical. In my haste, I purchased multiple hundreds of $$s of Fastrack and a locomotive and some rolling stock. It was a “disaster” experience. Multiple issues with Fastrack switches and Lionel power supplies (GW-180) lead me to regress to a large oval on a 54W brick. Bummer. I recently received all my warranty items, but am most likely going to sell off all Fastrack and move to something else…like Atlas O. Besides, Fastrack was obnoxiously loud on my hardwood floors…I want whisper quiet (within reason).

So, here’s my AnyRail design idea for Christmas 2020...the beginnings. Will require benchwork of some sort. I have some difficult design criteria I must meet with this…portability (ie being able to break it down and store it) and weight (must be LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT)! Pictures first…(AnyRail design file is attached below for those who may want it; disclaimer...still in work)

Layout design using all Atlas-O (O36 & O54) (The 31"dia gray circle is the tree stand platform): ↓

Christmas 2020 layout_track

AnyRail 3D views:

Front Elevation ↓

Christmas 2020 layout_frt

Right Front Elev ↓

Christmas 2020 layout_rightfrt

Left Rear Elev ↓

Christmas 2020 layout_leftrear

Colors show Grades (Purple=7.5% ; Yellow=5.6% ; Red=4.2% ; Cyan=2.9% ; Gray=0%) ↓

Christmas 2020 layout_grades

Circles w/ #s show clearance in inches. Red arrows point to possible issues(?). ↓

Christmas 2020 layout_clearance

Next post will contain my design criteria.


Original Post

Design Criteria:

Critical (non-negotiable)

  • Modular: Need to be able to break it down in sections for storage and moving. I’m active duty military and move every ~24months.
  • Light Weight: The moving thing and storage/packing it up.
  • Must be able to accommodate a LIVE Christmas tree.

Non-critical (negotiable)

  • Command Control to run two Christmas trains simultaneously with route deconfliction (is that what it’s called?).
    • MTH DCS via WiFi and iPad App. No remotes.
  • 4-6 cars per locomotive
  • Solid rail track for QUIET-AS-POSSIBLE operation.
    • Considered Atlas-O, Scaletrax, and Gargraves. (designed with Atlas-O thus far)
  • Scenery (prefer the “easy” answer here)
    • Minimal buildings/accessories…maybe 5 or so buildings (?)
    • Lots of snow
    • Lots of trees
    • “climbing a mountain” look…steep cliffs and valleys with rocks and boulders


I think this will be broken into four main tasks: (1) building the 6’x9’ platform (benchwork). (2) building the track layout. (3) Wiring. (4) adding scenery/buildings/accessories

  1. Building the platform


    Given the modular and light weight requirement, I’m not exactly sure how to do this. I want to raise the base platform at least 12” off the floor, preferably 16-20”. Top of the track (and base of tree) is +13” from that. Will also need to construct some sort of pedestal for the tree stand to sit on, which will obviously need to be weight bearing.

    Plywood and 2x4s is the easy answer, but the WEIGHT...ouch. Fortunately, I have an extensive background in composite construction and that may be the answer. Foam-core sandwich laminates may work, perhaps even carbon fiber vs regular e-glass, but carbon gets super expensive really quick. And sometimes the weight savings isn’t all that great after a 3-ply per side layup. Perhaps vacuum bagging panels and then assembling them together somehow like Mianne benchwork.

  2. Building the track layout 


    I think the way to do this is a giant foam (Expanded Polystyrene ) block, then sculpt it to form. Carve in the track grades, the embankments, the everything. Once done, track verified it fits/works, cut the blocks into sections, like a 3D puzzle. Use the track itself to keep the blocks together…push pins through the track fastening holes etc. Foam would also help with the track noise and possible defer the use of track bedding. I think I may have clearance issues right now so keeping the track as low profile as possible is key.

  3. Wiring

    This probably won’t be an issue. I bought Barry Broskowitz’s DCS and WiFi books. I will read those and educate myself on how I should wire this up for DCS. I will need to keep modularity in mind while doing this. I’ve wired two experimental aircraft from zero-to-hero including avionics, so my confidence is high for this task (famous last words!).

  4. Scenery

    I’m not artistically creative, so I will struggle here. Probably throw a white hobby cloth over the whole thing, stick some trees into the foam, and call myself a scenery master! I honestly can’t see any of this right now as its too far away…this is a December 2020 problem! 

So, there is my initial going-in game plan. Please fire away, shoot holes in it, “oh you can’t do that stupid” it everywhere. Here are some ideas…Grades are too high. Not enough clearance in tunnels and bridges. Plywood and 2x4s CAN work. You’re seriously going to carve a 6x9x2 foam block? Atlas track and switches…are you a dumb-dumb? Again, I’m brand new with all this and don’t know what I don’t know. As I make progress somewhere with the design, I will update it here for you to see. Thanks!


Hi Russ,  I grew up running Christmas trains with my Dad, and now I run 4-6 trains during Christmas, so I'll throw in what I have learned over the past 14 years running trains with kids at Christmas.  

For the train you run around the tree, I think that KISS is the rule to follow.   Kids like to build the track, so keep the layout and power simple, but building a simple layout is a great intro to electricity and STEM.  My experience has been that kids like the remotes over transformers. They REALLY like the remotes.  And the apps if you have a device to dedicate to them, otherwise they will have your phone/pad for hours. Younger kids freeze with the MTH and Legacy remotes, too complex. They want the trains to run FAST, so make as many individual loops as you can fit, unless you don't mind repairing crashes, in which case, add switches.  They LOVE the milk cars, the present cars, the log cars, the ice cars, anything that dumps anything, so invest in operating track.  (But I have boycotted all modern lionel operating accessories, like the sawmill and ice house.  Perhaps the original models functioned well, but every modern version I had invested in died by the 13 month of ownership.) Get empty ore cars and gondolas so they can run their action figures around, and stock cars they can stuff things in.   Buy used.

We've tried fancy layouts under the tree from time to time, but the tree itself gets in the way of train fun. Every. Time. Even elevated and trimmed, consider that a 7-8' tree is quite wide at the base, depending on the species. Also, running trains with kids, you will have derailments. Even without switches. And problems with needles, ornaments, tinsel falling on track. I've had party guests spill champagne on the track. Coffee on the track...tree water on the track..I have a cat who insists on drinking the nice fresh water under the tree, and knocks everything over... onto the track. Do you want to lay down and correct track problems behind and under the tree while nestled in foam scenery on Christmas eve or during a party? 

I've tried to eliminate anything that requires me to make rules about the trains...so if you can imagine a scenario where you are saying, "Now, you can't do it that way or (insert problem here)...".... don't set it up that way.  I set it up so that they can run it themselves and have fun!  

(Then I built my own complicated 6x12 layout in the basement.)









Thanks Peg. All GREAT things to consider as I go forward! Of course, I won't listen...hahahaha...

I just got my WIU and TIU up and running tonight. I continue to source ATLAS O track. Right now I think I'm going to create my "table" out of foam sandwiched with 3/16" pegboard. Not sure...MTF.

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