For many, the railroad is all we see of a place

For many, the railroad is all we see (along with the gaping hole).

Modeling is a strange endeavor. We have the full-size objects to observe, yet we miss seeing so much of what is actually in front of us. Whether we are recreating a real location or constructing a composite of several, the results are often lacking. Our outcomes seem off or something is missing and we are at a loss to explain what or why. I keep coming back to the questions asked and the way we outline the work.

Back in February I wrote a post titled the Power of Place, in which I asked if we can truly model the intangible aspects of the landscape. Things like sound and motion that are ever present in the full-size world. The post also suggested that for our purposes, much of our impression of a place is based on the presence of the railroad, or railroad activity that occurs there.

What if you eliminated your favorite element?
In doing your homework what if you completely ignored the railroad and focused on the surroundings themselves? How would you approach the work then?

What is the power of place without the railroad?

What is the power of place without the railroad?

This is the same photo as the first one. It was cropped at the top and the track and the gaping hole in the scenery was cloned out with Photoshop, otherwise nothing else has changed between them.* Without the distraction of the track, is it easier to analyze the qualities of the scene? What do you see here now? What kind of place is this? What sort of vibe does it have now? While this is obviously a model, does it remind you of a place in the real world? And, here’s the question to make you squirm: without the railroad, would you even give this landscape a second glance?

We really don’t like the ordinary
We’re told it’s better to model the ordinary or commonplace but we really don’t like the ordinary. This new scene is non-descript, even dull. As a result, most modelers would ignore it, or think of how to fill it with track, buildings; anything that would attract the eye or be more fun to model than a bunch of weedy gravel. And that, I suggest, is part of the problem we have in capturing the essence of a place. We don’t see what is there, we see what we want to model and looking through such a strong filter greatly skews our vision.

Looking at the landscape in the second photo, I’m struck by how open the scene is without the track and that openness is the very essence of the scene now. Would you even consider giving that much space to nothing but gravel, ground cover and dirt? As I did originally, most would fill it with track, so we could have more options for operating “interest”, whatever in hell that’s supposed to mean.

Track, track and more track. Never have too much track.

Track, track and more track. Never have too much track. Oh yes, you can.

Is there a balance between the amount of railroad needed for the operations we desire and creating a profoundly believable setting? Yes, I suggest there is but it’s hard because the design emphasis is so one-sided toward trackplanning first last and always. But, is this the best way? It depends of course, on the objectives you’re shooting for. A large layout lets you get away with things because you have more space to play with. Yet rather than stretch a scene out and let it breathe, we compress everything in order to include still more. On a smaller endeavor, you must learn to distill and focus on the essentials and I suggest that character is just as important as playing train. I also contend that the character of a place doesn’t automatically mean crowded, dilapidated or cartoonish. Empty space has character and power.

As the I&W matures, I’ve discovered that a truly believable scene has breathing room. As I focus the scene that is called Sycamore, it’s becoming more captivating than my original vision ever was. As the amount of track and other elements on the layout come into balance, I have a greater sense of place and I like what I see.

(*Because there is always someone who misinterprets things; I want to be really, really clear, that I have not physically removed anymore track from the layout. The second photo was digitally manipulated. The track from the first photo is still there and I have no plans to remove it.)


  1. Trevor

    Hi Mike:

    You and I have arrived at the same conclusion about the importance of breathing room in a layout. On my current layout, I’ve modeled a lot of “ordinary”, including meadows, farm fields and orchards. And I’ve found that these have made my layout that much more enjoyable.

    It certainly helped that I am recreating a portion of a real railroad, in a real place and time. Studying photos of my prototype provided the answers to what I should model, and what I should leave out. The temptation still exists to add more vignettes – and I will add a few over time, but I will select them carefully so as to not turn the layout into the type one typically sees in a hobby shop window – which includes one of everything on the shelves, in order to sell product.

    As an example, when modeling a farm don’t create an “Old MacDonald” environment (with a horse and a chicken and a cow and a pig and a tractor and a dog and a cat and a…). Instead, pick one element – a field of corn, for example – and do it large enough to make it look as though the farmer can make a living from his crop. It’s difficult to restrain oneself – frankly, it’s boring to plant 2400 stalks of corn (as I did in one location). But the end result is worth the effort.

    As for the intangibles of a place, I think hobbyists could do a lot more with scenic sound and effective lighting. I’ve experimented with these on my layout and I’m encouraged by the results. The same caveat applies, though: don’t overdo it.

    As an example, when I added ambient audio to my layout I used bird calls to establish an overall mood, then added localized audio for a few key features, such as a bit of water sound near the river and the occasional “moo” near a small herd of cattle. I resisted the urge to add dog barks, children playing, screen doors slamming, dinner bells ringing, cars backfiring or horns honking, and so on. Most of the time, we do not hear those things: They attract our attention because they’re random/infrequent sounds – the exception to the overall background noise. But our brains tend to filter out bird calls unless we’re listening for them, because they are an almost constant noise in our environment (at least, in mine). A gurgling river, or the steady hum of traffic on a freeway, would be other examples of sounds that we notice when we first encounter them, only to have them disappear as our brains adjust to a new aural environment.

    As with everything else in the hobby, we get what we pay for. Hobbyists tend to open their wallets for the train-related things, like locomotives and rolling stock – but not for the things that go into creating a satisfying environment for our models in which to run. Effective ambient audio and lighting require an investment that many people are not willing to make because it cuts into the budget for the train-related things. It’s a personal choice, of course, but having made the investment on my current layout I know I am much more satisfied with my hobby now than I was with previous endeavours – and I will no longer consider building a layout for myself without these elements in place. If anything, I’ll make more effort to include them into the design of the layout from the outset.

    Always an interesting discussion – thanks for starting this one.


    – Trevor
    Port Rowan in 1:64

  2. mike

    Thank you for adding to it.


  3. mike

    I appreciate the way you’ve used the concept of mass plantings on your layout.
    Except for the impression of the tree canopy, modelers seldom do this to the extent you have. The corn field, tobacco crop and the orchard, all add to the layout ambience.


  4. Simon

    Is there a balance between the amount of railroad needed for the operations we desire and creating a profoundly believable setting? Yes, I suggest there is but it’s hard because the design emphasis is so one-sided toward trackplanning first last and always. But, is this the best way? It depends of course, on the objectives you’re shooting for.

    Spot on, Mike.
    Too often track planning is confused with layout planning. The latter is a much bigger process, of which the former is but a small part – and a subservient part at that. Layout planning begins with two simple questions. Firstly, “What resources do I have (space, time, money, friends, models already built/owned) and what constraints do these put me under?” These are all useful points, as if one is money rich but time poor, then items can be bought in, and if one is money poor and time rich, then self-build is indicated.
    The second question is more subtle, “What do I want to achieve, i.e. what are my objectives?” This isn’t really about subject, or indeed scale of the models (these may be such strong personal preferences that they are decided in advance, if they are not, then these decisions should come later) but about the scale and purpose of the layout. Is it meant to be a home layout for solo operation? Maybe for operation with a friend or two? Maybe to host dispatcher controlled TTO operations. One person can only really run one train at a time, although it is possible to have other trains controlled by a computer or set running round an oval in the background – or as trains in the landscape. As Trevor Marshall has repeatedly demonstrated, it is perfectly possible for two or three people to spend the best part of 2 hours operating a freight extra on a simple layout with 8 turnouts. Put another way, is the focus about creating a scene for trains to run through (a popular theme in mainland Europe), about running one train at a time, or many trains? Is the focus on getting something running quickly, or on the building as much as the operating? This then feeds back into the question of resources.
    If one has already firmly decided on say, a Norfolk and Western A class in O scale, but only has a small cupboard available, then the only option is to use the space for building and storing models, until either a move somewhere with more space, or acquaintance is made with another local O scaler who has a large layout. However, if one is more flexible, then the objectives can be tuned more finely. As Lionel Strang demonstrated some years back in Model Railroader, an Appalachian coal hauler is entirely viable in a reasonably small space in N scale. But if one wishes to have a more unusual set of models with a personal touch, running on a model of a backwater which supports one, two or three people for an enjoyable but not exhausting run of the daily mixed train, in a reasonable space, then a branch, shortline or industrial spur offers a lot of opportunities: think Lance Mindheim’s East River, Jack Hill’s New Castle Industrial Railroad, Kenneth Olson’s Dawson Station, Trevor’s Port Rowan, or your own Sycamore. All of these can start with out of the box equipment and track. All can be upgraded to Proto:x standards over time with handbuilt track, all can have the RTR replaced with upgraded RTR, modified RTR, kits and scratchbuilds over time. In short, all of these are achievable within the normal resources available to us all. The track plan for these is largely incidental, and if the model is even loosely based on the prototype, largely sorts itself out. All of these are notable for generally being operated by one train at a time.
    Reading back over this, it strikes me as similar to aligning John Armstrong’s “givens and druthers” to Trevor Marshall’s “achievable layouts”. I think I’d rather give it the title, “planning within parameters”. (See what I did there? “I’d rather give…”? No. Oh well…)


  5. rcandamoonpie

    As I see it, the layout plan includes (in no particular order) a room plan, layout theme, bench work plan, track plan, scenery plan, and industry/structure plan. Track planning is a highly analytical activity and the trains are presumably the focus, so it’s easy to spend time on the infrastructure that supports the trains. I tend to think that the scenery plan gets ignored because the analytical rules for scene composition and use of color and texture aren’t well-known by the modeler.

    I know I would appreciate some information on structure spacing to help me understand how close I can place structures while neither wasting space nor making things “look cramped”. My current approach is to build my track plan and make changes during construction as the scene comes together. However, I would feel more confident in my design if I could know how things would look in 3D from my 2D plan.

    Is the development of a set of “scenic standards” a possibility? Or is this just something for which some will have a knack and the rest of us will learn by trial-and-error?

  6. mike

    Is the development of a set of “scenic standards” a possibility? Or is this just something for which some will have a knack and the rest of us will learn by trial-and-error?

    Hi Rhett,

    I think the word you’re looking for is principles than standards and the answer is yes, there are scenic principles one can learn. Trevor touched on one in his opening comment: Mass. By using plants like his corn stalks and orchard tree in mass quantities, he captures the real world characteristic that we are accustomed to seeing. As he and others commented, modelers seldom go to such lengths because of the expense and work involved. That said, look at what he has accomplished with his scenery and how it resonates with so many others.

    Height is another principle seldom used effectively. We don’t like stuff towering over the trains, yet, how often in real life do trees, buildings, even utility poles do just that. Again the excuse is that such things can get out of scale (another poorly understood principle) or impede reach-in for maintenance. These are both valid concerns but they can be addressed with a bit of experimentation.

    The answer to your question about structure spacing is more open-ended. Here in town there are many older neighborhoods where the houses are only a few feet apart. In one case two houses are so close that the roof of one overhangs its neighbor. If you modeled that, would people say it isn’t prototypical? You bet they would, until you showed them a photo to prove it. This is why I always emphasize a relentless study of the full-sized world, whether it involves vegetation, rolling stock or anything else we might included in a scene. Over time, you develop an eye for the relationships and details. Like anything, it takes practice. This is also why I bring in examples from art and other disciplines. As suggested we are locked into a mindset that shapes our understanding in more ways than we realize. Most just take it for granted that this is how you do stuff and never bother to question why.


  7. Aultsville Lad

    Bravo Mike, again you have awoken in me more thoughts to apply to the process of building our little piece of O scale realty. One thing that stuck with me from my college art training was the concept of negative space and that is certainly something that is in play in this edition. Your consideration for sound and motion are what have tweaked my interest though and particularly motion. I have already decided on sound and was well into that design process before track was ever considered, but what of motion. I have seen numerous layouts that include animation of one sort or another but these tend to become caricatures in themselves and although occasionally interesting are usually more distracting. I think the real issue is that motion can only be applied to specific elements, the trains are the first of these, after that we can actuate signals but where to go from there is really the difficult. Autos can be made to move but never convincingly, and what about the population, they are all rooted to a perpetual existence, could we make them move about and no, not the German version of miniature copulation available in half O, but people who travel in a useful way. This is unlikely so, where do we strike a balance that is acceptable to the viewer so that we don’t wonder why some movement is good and other is not.

    So what about the negative space thought. There is nothing negative about this space at all, it is the area that supports the focal point and in some cases can be the focal point if designed well. When I broached the question of a track plan the first priority for me was to have the track as close to on edge of the three foot width as comfortably possible to allow maximum real estate for the world in which the trains would travel. I always make lists of elements that I will consider for a layout long before track is drawn and this list gets reworked many times before any carpentry begins. I want my trains to sink into the landscape in a natural way and to be dwarfed by the other elements as naturally as can be achieved, time will tell if we make it.


  8. rcandamoonpie


    I don’t know if “principles”, “rules” or “standards” is the right word to use. I started out using “rules”, and I think that’s what I really desire. “Standards” is too strong and “principles” isn’t strong enough, IMO.

    For the example of the principle of mass, if there were a rule that said “To accomplish the feel of an agricultural field (and not a garden), the length of the field should be at least xxx scale feet long and at least xx scale feet deep.” The rule would give the track planner a scenic constraint. A counterpart rule to say “Visually, xxx scale square feet of agricultural field is the point of diminishing returns” would also help to know when the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

    I’ve currently devoted a 55,000 scale sq.ft. area in S scale (about 13.5 actual sq.ft.) to a cotton field to reinforce the rural, agricultural nature of the railroad (unwittingly using the principle of mass). Since I haven’t finalized the layout plan, I’m SO tempted to add a spur to a cotton warehouse along the backdrop in this area, but I’m afraid doing so would reduce the impact of the cotton field.

    I agree that the building spacing thing is a bit open-ended. I have several very tall structures that will need to be placed closer to other structures than they are in the real world, but I need to maintain enough space between them to keep from suggesting the same industry in an urban setting (which did occur frequently). Lance Mindheim had a post on building spacing and suggested that you never compress the space between buildings. I can’t really do this without losing the suggestion of a rural town altogether. A general rule that says that “Buildings that are placed a distance of 3H apart (where H is the height of the tallest building) will create an open feel while buildings spaced closer than 1H will appear cramped” is sort of what I had in mind, but this may be an over-simplification.

    Examples for the other principles abound. I’m just wondering if there’s a way to condense the principles into a set of general rules (made to be broken) that can guide the layout designer to the development of a convincing scene?

    Best Regards,

  9. mike


    I’m not ignoring your recent comment. I simply want to give it the response I feel it deserves. I actually think that the depth required should be in the form of a new post rather than an excessively long answer here.

    Let me consider it some more.


  10. mike


    As you suggest most forms of animation will not scale down in a convincing manner, which is why I’m not a fan of such effects. I do believe that the principles from the arts such as positive and negative space, the use of color and composition are all wide open fields for modelers to draw from for inspiration.

    True, these concepts are poorly understood, but not impossible to grasp and I’ll continue to feature them in the blog. Your comments about the negative an dfuncdtino of negative space are spot on.


  11. rcandamoonpie


    I appreciate the time, thought and effort you put into this blog. A sincere “thank you” for considering my question further.