Planning a layout is probably one of the aspects of the hobby that I enjoy most (almost as much as scenic work).  I have loads of trackplans that i’ve doodled at some point which will never see the light of day, but it’s an interesting way to spend half an hour or so coming up with a new one.

This doodling tends to be of rather random trackplans for all sorts of ideas that come to mind that ‘might be nice to build’ rather than something that will definitely get beyond a few splodges of ink on a notepad.  When planning a layout which I want to build I tend to go about things slightly differently to the random doodles, to begin with I don’t doodle a trackplan at all!  What I see first are small scenes which I would like to incorporate into the finished plan, be it a boathouse with a slipway, a particular way the goods shed should be orientated, the shape of the platform etc.  When these ideas come to me I jot them down and form a page showing a mosaic of all the ideas for the layout.  Only then do i begin to think about the overall trackplan and how these scenes could fit together.

Isle Ornsay started off as a series of sketches on a pad a VERY long time ago, it’s gone through various incarnations in my head changing from an L shape, to a T shape, to an L shape again, and finally to an L shape with all the contents of the plan being flipped over to the other way round.

So, that’s the process I go through to arrive at a trackplan which I think will build up into a decent layout.  There are, however, many important factors that should be considered on the way to getting to the final plan.


When producing a plan one of the first things I think of is the intended geographic location of the layout.  An extension of this is then whether it is going to be urban or rural.  These decisions are very important and will have an impact on what sort of line you would be modelling had the prototype been built, for example it’s highly unlikely that a large station would have been built in the middle of nowhere, equally it’s very unlikely that a small station would have been built at one of the main towns your line will call at.  The geographical location will also have an impact on the type of architecture found on your layout, the plants and rock formations found in the scenery, the backscene images, even, to an extent, the figures to be used to represent the population.

Shape & Form:

Obviously the main dictating factor for the size and shape of a layout is the available space in which it can be built.  A successful trackplan, for me, is all about making the most believable scene in the space available, a railway in a landscape regardless of the size of the layout.

When considering the shape of a layout it’s important to think how it will be operated.  Isle Ornsay is to be operated from the front at home and from the back at exhibition, so i’ve designed it to look interesting and presentable from both sides.  Linked to this is the topography of the layout and how the lie of the land is portrayed, this has an impact on how the layout is viewed, and more specifically, where I like to consider the angles at which the individual scenes I first envisage can be best viewed.


This is an area that I think American Model Railroaders are much better at than us in the UK.  They often employ view blockers forcing viewers to look around, through, or along elements of the scene.  This can be used to focus attention on certain points and by doing so can create the feeling of the overall layout being perceived as much larger than it actually is.

The other advantage of considering the viewing angles of a layout is that it will help determine decent photographic compositions for the future to show the layout off to it’s best.

Scenery/Track Ratio:

One of the most comment comments I recieved whilst exhibiting Dunbracken was that people were pleased i’d resisted the temptation to fill the entire baseboard with track.  This meant that I could have a purely scenic area with no hint of railway at all.  I genuinely feel that this is key to creating the ‘railway within a landscape’ which many modellers strive to achieve.

I think there’s a percentage of the total baseboard which can be taken up by track before the layout begins to look more like a trainset rather than a model of a landscape with a railway in it.  I’m still trying to determine what this percentage is, but I would estimate that the trackwork should take up at most 40% of the baseboard.  That way the majority of the baseboard can be devoted to scenery and helping to create the landscape.

This will often be contrary to the operational requirements of a layout, with Dunbracken I wish I had added one more siding to make it more fun to operate by enabling more shunting.  Had I done this I think the delicate balance of scenery and track could have been tipped the wrong way and the overall effect of the layout lost.


At the end of the day everything boils down to believability, if you want to build a realistic layout then it has to be believable.  The scenery has to match your chosen location; the concept has to be something which would have been built to serve the purpose of your line; and the line has to look like it was built after the scenery, not the scenery built to fill the spaces left where no track has been laid.

When planning Isle Ornsay I bought several points from the Peco 009 range which I then scanned in on my computer and printed full sized to make templates.  These were also used alongside some templates produced when the old 009 Society Yahoo group was active.  Full sized planning was very useful to help determine if my doodling would actually fit into the space available.  It also helps eliminate things like reverse curves and make sure all the track flows nicely.


All the above techniques should be able to applied to make a layout that’s realistic looking and pleasing on the eye.  But if it’s not fun to operate or to watch then it’s no good, it is a hobby after all!  Designing for operation using the various shunting puzzle templates that exist is a good idea, and these can easily be expanded and joined together for larger layouts.  Having limited operation will lead to the same thing happening repeatedly on the layout, which can wear rather thin after a while – something I learnt to my cost after having built Dunbracken.  Keep it fun, you’ll enjoy it for longer.

Whilst I think it’s important to be able to visualise what you want to achieve before you start working, layout planning isn’t for everyone.  Many people find it difficult to envisage how something will look before they have begun working on it, if you can’t then perhaps layout planning in the manner I have described will be beneficial for you to try.

6 Responses to Planning

  1. Lucas says:

    dear sir,

    to create a realistic scenery/track ratio I find 25-30% max. trackcoverage suits best.



    • Tom says:

      Lucas, essentially I would like as little track as possible, but being in the UK with limited space available I have to compromise, so up to 40% seems reasonable if the design works to hide some elements of it. I’d like to do a small extension to the layout that’s just a piece of single track running through scenery.

  2. Lucas says:

    Dear sir,

    please allow me to explain.

    More often then not, once a layout is finished and up and running, there is a desire to extend the existing track. Either by an additional line or adding one or more points or turnouts with stubbs. If one were to start with a 1:4 ratio (25% track) “squeezing in” this extra track should prove relatively easy.



    • Tom says:

      I understand. I doubt I’ll add any extra track to Isle Ornsay, though, as I have spent so long planning it, and thinking of operation, that I wouldn’t want to make any changes.

  3. Lucas says:

    Dear sir,

    Personally I am residing in “the lowlands” (Holland, the Netherlands) so I understand your lack of space perfectly. Personally I only build shelf-layouts due to (even lesser) space. Yet the smaller the space the more planning it requiers. No plan (either on paper or pc-screen) ever seems to be fully mature until build and put into action. Changes and additions will be wanted. By allowing for space in the original plans (even on a shelf-space-layout) the end result may be somewhat more rewarding.
    Might I inquire as to your storagesystem?



    • Tom says:

      I know what you mean, but I find I don’t make many changes to plans once building has begun, so the ratio I’ve quoted works for me.

      In terms of storage, the layout is located in my loft, but is on trestles so as to make use of the space beneath it for storing other stuff – part of gaining “permission” to build a layout there in the first place 🙂

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