Often avid model railway collectors have never had the chance of a railway to run their pride and joy until they are settled well into their working life. Very often these people are then put off by the cost, the amount of effort and expertise required and above all not knowing where to start.
Although there is a wealth of information on the internet there is no better way of setting off on the journey THAN with some helpful and informed guidance.
In this short introduction we will try to cover important considerations for you as the railway owner and operator including:

  • Layout location and size
  • Scale and gauge
  • Historical era
  • One-person or many persons operation
  • Railway in the scenery
  • Conclusions


Indoors or outdoors is the first consideration.  Outdoor layouts have a wealth of complications all of their own so for the purposes of this short introduction to model railways we will stick to indoors only.
Readers situated within easy reach of the South Coast of England have access to the permanent display of layout and locations at Pecorama in Bere, Dorset.  Layouts in the loft, in a bedroom, in a garage and more are all possible options depicted.
Having established the railway’s future home now the type of layout can be planned.

There is much to be said for the micro-layout style promoted for many years by the late Carl Arendt.  This type of layout can be laid on a desk and put away when not in use.  Moving up we have the end to end with a terminus at each end or with a station at one end and a fiddle yard (set of storage roads) at the other.  If there is enough space for a permanent layout the single or double tack oval is the next option.  However bear in mind that you need 4ft (1.3m) minimum at each end of the oval to turn the train around. There are variations on the theme for all of these alternatives.

An added complication is the widely available scales and gauges of track and rolling stock.  Discounting the true-to-scale offshoots such as P4 and EM the most common scale and gauge is ‘OO’ / ‘HO’. It may sound wrong to include two different scales in the same category, but that is because the scale of UK ‘OO’ is 4mm to the foot on 16.5mm gauge (gap between the rails) whereas the American and Continental stock also run on 16.5mm track but to a scale of 3.5mm to the foot, making USA and Continental models available to the UK market. 
At 2mm to the foot and 9mm gauge we have ‘n’ gauge.  At half the size of ‘OO’ you can get more railway onto the same size baseboard – ideal for watching the trains go by.
Smaller that ‘n’ comes ‘Z’ gauge and more recently, the smallest so far ‘T’ gauge
Moving up the sale we have Grandad’s favourite ‘O’ gauge at 7mm to the foot scale and Gauge 1 / ‘G’ gauge more suited to garden railways.

There are many more decisions to be made at an early stage in designing a model railway than just the space available.  Historical considerations must come high on the list. 
Most model railways are a representation of a geographic area or even a specific location as a snap-shot in time.  Bur why restrict yourself to the types of locomotives and rolling stock that would be seen on the line just at that time.
Many purists would baulk at the sight of an A4 streamline pacific shoulder to shoulder with a Brighton Terrier.  But as they say “There is s railway for every occasion”.  Why not establish your railway in the modern-day era as a preservation line.  With so many locomotives “on tour” each summer almost anything can be possible.  Your standard locomotives and rolling stock might be Southern or Great Western but organise your own “Gala Weekend” and visiting locomotives can be from any era and any location.
Taking the theme one stage further the Gala Weekend could also attract traction engines and vintage vehicles with possibly a car boot sale and other stalls not forgetting vintage bus rides for the paying public

The most important thing to remember is that a model railway is a hobby and must not become boring.


Most indoor layouts of a small to medium size, discounting club layouts, are designed for one-person operation.  This is not as restrictive as it once was.  With the introduction of Digital Command Control (DCC) the operator drives one or more locomotives at a time rather than powering certain sections of track as with analogue ‘cab control’ of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Those persons intending to build a layout to operate their collection of locomotives and rolling stock will need to assess whether DCC is right for them as the cost of converting a number of locomotives can be expensive.
DCC is by no means essential and  many analogue layouts still exist and are operated with no problems once the track plan is learnt and the section switches and isolating sections become familiar.
Even on a small layout two operators can work in harmony with analogue or digital operation.  Often there is provision for shunting, or an engine shed as well as one or two platforms for passenger traffic.
The more complex the layout the more operators can be accommodated and the more controllers need to be available.

One of the major failings of layouts is where the builder has tried to fill the remaining space not occupied by track with houses and other scenery,  On a model railway very often the guide is “less is more”.  In other words you get a better effect if the available space for the scenery is uncluttered with selected items forming focal points for atmosphere.
In the planning stage always bear in mind the reasons the railway would have existed in real life.  This could be market traffic, a lineside industry, a feeder line to a main line station, a refuelling depot or some other reason.  These considerations will affect the buildings and even the layout of the track.  Remember that the railway would have been built to serve these demands not the other way round.

A short introduction such as this will pave the way for more questions that need to be asked if your railway is to progress to a satisfactory conclusion.  Remember though that a model railway is never finished……………!
The important thing is the courage and motivation to get started.

Call us or email us at Iron Horse Model Engineering Services with your questions and we will guide you through any aspects of making your layout a reality.
01243 373624 or daveunderwood@griffin-uk.co.uk