I’ve been thinking about building another layout. I’ve missed the simple pleasure of impromptu running, the construction aspects and, I admit, I enjoy the basic planning stages, and thinking about what to build.

What to build? It’s the question that stops people dead in their tracks. It’s easy to become paralyzed by all the choices and decisions to be made.

I’ve got this space: what to build? I like this era: what to build? I also like all that other stuff: what to build? Should I switch scales or change prototype: what to build?

In an era of abundance, simple choices become impossible because there are just too many options. What if I make the wrong choice? Hey no problem, just sell the stuff for a fraction of what you paid and go buy something else. It’s just a hobby and it’s all good, right?

Well, maybe, or maybe not.

At this stage of life, I want to keep things simple, especially my involvement with model trains. So how am I answering the question of what to build?

I want to be very clear that I’m not offering another layout design process. I’m also not speaking to rank beginners taking their first steps beyond a trainset. What I share in this post and in future posts are simply my choices, driven by specific criteria that are meaningful to me. In no way am I proposing that they are universal solutions for everyone. The only advice I extend is to take what you need or find interesting and ignore the rest.

For this layout, I’m not switching scales or eras. I’m comfortable with my choices so those questions aren’t even on the table for me. As for operations, watching the local in Centerville as a child or L84 today, it’s the same experience. I’m focused on what’s happening in front of me. It matters little where that train came from or how those cars were processed to get here. My interests and questions are on the here and now, and that focus is the main driver for this project. I’ll cover this in more depth in a future post.

I’m aware this electron microscope view of operations is unusual but it’s where my interests lie and it’s taken me awhile to understand this. It also takes fortitude to ignore the layout design thinking imposed by the literature and the well intentioned but unsolicited advice from others about what I (actually they) could do with all the empty space I’m supposedly wasting. (Thanks for sharing but see Rule Number One folks.)

What I’m considering is building one or two cameos that are linked together by non descript staging track. Each cameo would be a complete scene much like paintings hung on a gallery wall. The scenes will be related to each other but not connect directly. This format has more in common with diorama building where the trains provide an advanced level of animation. In my view the design provides more flexibility both visually and operationally. I don’t have to worry if part of the train is in the “next town” when switching because the lack of distance between the two isn’t so painfully obvious. The fascia frames each scene completely and directs attention toward the middle and away from the edges, if that makes any sense.

Of course the major downside is the limited nature of such operations. Switching a few cars may be fun at first but repeating the same moves can become boring. If you enjoy the challenges and interaction of more complex operations, this is not for you.

I saw this idea many years ago in one of Iain Rice’s books from Kalmbach but have never seen it executed. I’m interested to see how or even if it will work. There are no guarantees and I may abandon the project on a whim if I major problems develop. To paraphrase a quote I read recently: One experiment is worth more than a hundred expert opinions.

I have a space picked out, a preliminary design and have gathered some supplies but I haven’t cut the first piece of material yet. I have a lot going on and modeling time is not on the list for now, so don’t expect to see photos of new work anytime soon. They will come later.



  1. Matthieu Lachance

    Once again, you raise a number of relevant questions, particularly for people facing a similar challenge and with already a good deal of experience under their belt. I recall a gentleman here in Canada once built a layout based a a local prototype he liked. To make his life easier and take into account obvious limitation in time, space and resources, he selected 3 specific location he liked along the road and basically built 3 dioramas that he stacked in a room. Due to space concerns, he linked each diorama by an helix in a closet. Not the best option out there, but it worked for him. It resulted in a series of vignettes that caught the essence of his prototype, without having to be overwhelmed by the whole thing while taking care of scene separation exactly like you described. I always thought he found a great way to built a layout that looked “big” but still focused on what mattered to him. Funnily enough, I had a recent discussion with fellow club members about how we could frame each scenes on the large layout to get rid of unsightly and unrealistic transition between location. Far to be easy to implement, but certainly something I would take in account if designing again a multiple scene layout. It will be a pleasure to read your thoughts about this new experiment, whatever the end results.

  2. mike

    Hi Matt,

    That does sound like an interesting solution your friend came up with. I share your distaste toward a helix but as you said, he made one work.

    I know the design works for the modeling but I want to do more experiments with it before committing to finished material. On the city cameo, the warehouse drove the height of the fascia window opening and placement of the light strip. For the new work, I think the opening can be reduced in height, which will put the light strips in a better spot. It’s worth the cost of a couple sheets of foam core and an afternoon’s time to do a full size mockup or two to finalize everything and that might be the subject of a future post.

    I appreciate you taking the time to weigh in. From reading your latest post, it sounds like we are on very similar paths with our thinking.


  3. Mike Kraczek

    Hi Mike,

    I am returning to the hobby after 15 years away. 15 years older too. 🙂
    I have read most of your blog and want to thank you for taking the time to write them as your perspective on modeling has caused me to pause and really think about what I want out of a model railroad. I have a room 11’x22′ that has space for a shelf type layout around the walls. I really like the idea of using the railroad as an artistic expression of the world according to Mike. Instead of jamming in as much track as possible my railroad will focus on a 4 track passenger station and a 4 track freight station in an urban environment. There will be one industry, a munitions plant, and one staging track to hold a train.
    When I’m in the mood to operate I can run trains in and out of my terminal, when I want to enjoy trains running through my creation I can do that as the main line is a loop (over half of it is hidden from view so you cannot see the train at all times). While the railroad is free lanced, I want to build something that looks so real you’d swear you have seen it before.
    Thanks for your efforts, I wish you well on your journey.


  4. mike

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you found the posts helpful. In the end, if we’re not enjoying what we’ve created then what’s the point? It sounds like you’ve figured it out for yourself and good luck to you as well. Thanks for writing in.