“It is hard to look at a prototype and realize that it is miles and miles long or that an industry covers acres of land. Of course I can’t fit all of that into a model RR but deciding what and where to put the important parts is my battle.”
Will Carter, in response to my Jan. 09, 2013 post on working with long turnouts.

Will’s comment gets to the heart of the frustration many, if not all of us in this hobby experience. Trying to replicate the immensity of a full-sized railroad in any kind of indoor space is akin to trying to fit an aircraft carrier into a thimble. We’re only able to represent the tiniest fraction of the prototype, even with all the outlandish compromises we routinely accept. Deciding what to emphasize and how to do it is one of the toughest and most frustrating decisions we make. I’ve built the traditional basement sized layout in HO and now have a 2′ x 24′ P48 switching layout based on a single scene and I’ve reached a couple of conclusions.

1. A simple layout is definitely better, at least for me.

I long ago gave up on the idea of representing vast amounts of space in model form, at least in quarter-inch scale. It’s just impractical, so why even attempt it? I’ve discovered that modeling a tiny fraction of the full size world more faithfully brings greater freedom and satisfaction, than any of my attempts to fit in more and more compromises.

2. I’ve also concluded that the smaller the layout, the more vital it is for a train to leave the scene.

The principle in play is simple to understand. In the real world, a train appears from one direction (or via a staging track in model form), we experience its presence for a time and then it leaves, either in the opposite direction or back toward where it first appeared.

The importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated, especially on a small layout. If a train or loco is visible all the time, there’s no sense of the world beyond, which greatly influences your impression of the layout’s size. In other words, when you see everything all at once and, that’s all you see, then your perception of the scene is much smaller. The train goes here, then it goes over there, then back to here again, and so on. No mystery, no sense of anything beyond what you can readily see.

Enter stage right.
For the last twenty years or more, layout design has embraced the concept of off-scene staging tracks that are either hidden completely from sight or visible but downplayed to a degree.We’ve used every trick in the book to disguise the entry/exit points, employing bridges, tunnels, hillsides, trees, buildings, etc. All of them work in the right context and, context is key in my mind.

In an urban or heavy industrial setting, it’s simple and natural to have tracks slip behind a large building, under a bridge and so on. The context fits. The same applies in rural areas where a hill or a grove of trees provides a context appropriate transition.

This is what I did on my Indiana & Whitewater where the branch enters the staging cassette. It enters a low cut that has a dense cluster of tall, leafless deciduous trees on the aisle side. This is also the point where the overhead lighting stops. There is enough ambient light to see what’s happening on the cassette, but not enough to draw undue attention to it.

End of layout without fascia

This light level is very close to how you would see this scene in person. The staging cassette just blends with the semi-dark surroundings.

The transition is there and clearly seen when a train is in motion, but without the train, the off scene elements are so mundane, they are easy to ignore. It’s ridiculous how simple and basic it is in actuality, yet it’s easy to suspend belief and think the train is going away up the branch.┬áMy exit point represents a stretch of rural trackage. Screening it with a building might work but would require some explanation. A grove of tall trees is self explanatory in this setting. A large billboard would also work in this context.

What if I were modeling a prairie setting comprised of flat land stretching for miles from the track? My friend Trevor Marshall is doing just that on his S scale Port Rowan layout. He uses a multi-track sector plate for staging. Trevor screened the transition to the modeled scene with a line of tobacco drying barns, which are completely appropriate for this region. The sector plate is in full sight, but painted a neutral color with dim lighting. Light levels on the layout are brighter, drawing the eye where Trevor wants it. Again, the mind eventually makes the transition between the two areas seamless. Here’s a link showing the scene in mock-up form. This link takes to you the complete blog entry.

All it takes is a bit of misdirection, a little less light here, a bit more color and detail there. Think of how easily a sleight-of-hand magician fools us into thinking what he wants us to think. It seems to me that in layout design, we tend to over think many things that aren’t really that critical. We can obsess over this or that, when in the end, the mind and the eye just move on.

Will is right. We need to choose where the emphasis needs to be on a layout in order to tell the story we want to tell. We can’t have it all yet, that is exactly what we want.



  1. willbacker45

    Mike, thank you for mentioning me in your post. The reason I love this site is that each week I know something will come through to spark actual intellectual thought which then leads to great conversation and actual learning. I certainly enjoyed this post and the links to Trevors topic. I really think that having trains come and go from a layout is more important than most people really understand. Nothing destroys the illusion than the same engine is running laps around the same layout through the same scene with the same train over and over again. Locomotives switch, cars switch, and nothing is ever the same as it was before. Really fascinating!

  2. mike

    My pleasure Will. Glad to have you here along with all of our readers.


  3. Dunks

    Hi Mike,

    Thoughtful stuff again.

    It is interesting to note the evolutionary impact of the physical environment on rail modelling: in the UK, where a standard garage is typically in the order of 8′ x 16′, and the largest space one can hope for, the need to have a disguised exit to off-scene storage has been around for a long, long time, and lots of variants have been developed, frequently involving manual intervention (fiddling). They can be very, very effective.

    Fading out the layout lighting is a new one, and with hindsight so obvious. Typically, in the UK we try to simply distract the eyes away from the hole in the backscene.

    A simple idea, worth bearing in mind, and first suggested by Richard Chown (an Englishman living in Scotland, modelling Irish an French railways!) is to make sure that the the painted horizon on the backscene is higher than the top of the hole. This is wonderfully effective.

    Simon Dunkley

  4. mike

    Hi Simon,

    Interesting thoughts about the horizon line being above the opening in the backscene. I wouldn’t have thought of that. As in so many areas of the hobby you folks are miles ahead of us in the States.

    Typical practice here is similar to the UK in regard to distracting the eye away from the hole in the sky or landscape. It’s also become a convention to maintain equal light levels on both sides of a back scene where the mainline simple continues on to another scenicked portion of the layout rather than an off-scene staging area. Clearly the situation ought to dictate the treatment, rather than defaulting to a set of conventions.

    Thanks for commenting.