Track map of The Newman Interlocking and freight station

The trackage of the area around Newman Tower in the heyday of the Pennsylvania RR. in Richmond IN.

I’ve written quite a bit about the concepts and different ideas behind the layout design process. Some time ago however, I decided to stop giving specific layout design advice to others. People who freely give this kind of advice usually default to their preferred way of doing things. The continuous running crowd promotes continuous running options. The point-to-point people do the same. Either format might fit your goals or might not. You are the only one who can answer that definitively. Everyone else is just guessing and the advice givers, myself included, are biased.

One of my first thoughts is why do we ask for advice in the first place? Why do we assume others always know better than we do? In certain cases it’s true, others do have more specific, specialized knowledge in a subject, however, why are we so quick to ignore our own knowledge, experience or preferences in favor of someone else’s ideas about what we want?

Here’s my uneducated guess, we don’t have any faith in ourselves. We get so wrapped up in wanting to do things “right” or we don’t want to look foolish in the eyes of our peers. In short, we want to fit in. I didn’t have any faith in what I wanted, which caused me to go through different layout ideas and projects like you wouldn’t believe. I’d get to a certain point and start having doubts that wouldn’t quit until I yanked it all out and started over, declaring for all to hear that this time, I was going to do it right! Well maybe the next time, or the time after that or…

I’ve come to the understanding that we worry too much about what the so-called experts and our friends think. While I might have an idea or two about a situation on your layout it’s more likely my thoughts will just get in the way of you finding the solution that genuinely fits your needs. Want to know how to dress up that oval of yours? I’m not the guy to ask. Need help figuring out how to squeeze in another industry? No help here. In truth, you’re a lot smarter than I am when it comes to what you want from this hobby.

How about this thought? I’m an expert on my layout and my layout only. I became an expert on my layout by studying the prototype instead of the planning books. Before the disciples of this or that planning guru start their battle cries of protest, let me say there is useful advice in these books if you aren’t interested in following a specific prototype or any prototype for that matter. For me however, the conventional ideas have lost all their appeal. Over time I’ve developed a very specific set of criterion for my practice of the hobby. I now prefer to look to the original source –full size railroads- rather than someone’s idea of how to fit in evermore caricatures of track, buildings and other features.

My personal criteria have developed over many years and satisfy my desires for how to practice and enjoy the hobby. I’ve had visitors suggest how I could expand the layout around a corner of the room or some such thing. I politely nod and say thanks, then decline. You see, representing the prototype simply and faithfully is the first priority for me today. That includes the track, which means long turnouts over another car or two of capacity in a siding or runaround track. I simply don’t have room for the realistic curve radius I would want for my layout. Since I don’t have the room, I side-stepped the problem by eliminating the curves. My criteria also includes the surrounding scenery and vegetation. Again, I seek a high degree of realism, which leans toward wrapping these choices in a much smaller package in terms of layout size. Through an expensive trail and error filled process, I’ve come to prefer a small well detailed layout over a large one full of compromises to quality.

The next volume of The Missing Conversation is coming in a couple of months. In it I wrap up the layout design theme from volume one by sharing my own layout design story. The choices I made won’t fit every situation, nor are they intended to. If you find good stuff or simply agree with some of the ideas presented great. If they aren’t your cup of tea, that’s fine too. The whole purpose of this blog, my books and other writing, is to empower and support folks like you to think for yourselves and enjoy the hobby in the way that suits you best. Regardless of whether you agree or not, these days there’s one and only one piece of advice I will freely give: Study the prototype, study the prototype, study the prototype.



  1. Jerry

    I think the reason modelers lack faith in themselves is because we have all been conditioned since childhood to follow the crowd. To be cool you have to do what everyone else is doing. This mindset carries over to the hobby and produces what I refer to as model railroad sheep. After all, if you have to depend on someone else to define what is cool, how on earth could you be smart enough to design your own layout?

    I find this topic quite interesting as I am in the process of designing my own layout.

  2. mike

    Hi Jerry,
    Not just conditioned to be cool, but to conform period. School in the twentieth century was nothing if not a factory for learning how to conform to a set of someone else’s expectations.

    The hobby was presented in much the same way back in the day. The articles were all about here’s the way to do something, follow along. My memory is faulty to be certain, but I don’t remember very much emphasis on how to do original design or planning. The staff at MR did all that for everyone, and then gave us the materials list of what to buy.

    I also seem to recall that back then following a specific prototype railroad closely was looked on as something out on the fringes by the general modeling population. You COULD do that, but MOST people will want to do it this way.

    Times have sure changed haven’t they? Now we expect people to be creative and innovative (whatever that means these days), whether they have the skills or not. The most innovative layouts I’ve seen are Lance Mindheim’s East Rail Miami based layout and Jack Hill’s New Castle Industrial layout (you can Google both). Both followed the prototype and in Jack’s case, he’s a professional railroader who brought his real world knowledge to the design. The result is an utterly beautiful simplicity and economy of form.

    As for model railroad sheep, I know a good herder with a pair of sharp herding dogs. 🙂

    Hope you find something useful to apply to your layout design process. Thanks for commenting