How much space do you have?
You may be lucky enough to have a railway room, a garden shed, or even a garden where you can put your railway. You may have a shelf or need to have something that can be packed away after each session. This will have a significant impact on your next decisions but there is always room for a model railway, there have been a number of interesting little models in A4 box files and smaller over the years.
Another consideration is whether you intend the layout to be portable in order that it may be taken to exhibitions for instance. Irrespective of the space you have available you do, in this case, also have to consider the issue of transportation and the time and effort of erecting and dismantling the layout on site.
What style of layout do you want?
The classic model railway is a circle, or oval or track, a “roundy-roundy”. Although it can have a definite “train set” inference many superb, accurate and detailed models, including some very accurate representations of real prototypes, have been built in this basic style. It also allows for the “watching the trains go by” enthusiasts. But it does take space and tightening the curves to make it fit into an unnaturally small space is likely to cause headaches later. Let's look at some examples from the layouts on show at Virtual Railex 2021.
Both these large O scale layouts are based on fictitious stations on real railways. Look at Grindley Brook and Love Lane (and all the other layouts illustrated here) in the layouts section to see how effectively the classic train set shape can be used to create high quality model railways.
The main alternative to a complete circuit of track is an end to end layout. These can vary enormously, both in size and setting. One major question is do you want a fiddle yard (off scene storage) at one end or both. The former would suit a country or urban terminus or perhaps an industrial setting, the latter a through station.
Kensington Addison Road is another O scale layout but on this occasion of a real station and one that still exists. This layout uses the technique of only having half the station modelled and a bridge as a 'scenic break' at the other end, albeit just as it is on the prototype. The fiddle yards at either end are train turntables, turning whole trains without having to handle the stock. This is not a common arrangement, especially in O scale but, if you have the space, a very effective one. With a total length of 50' including fiddle yards it shows how big O gauge layouts can get.
Charwelton shows how the fiddle yards need not be in a line with the scenic parts of the layout. A 32' long scenic section allows far more scenery to be shown as it is OO scale.
Brighton East is a good example of a terminus layout with a 10' scenic section in EM gauge, with just one fiddle yard. A fictitious setting albeit loosely based on a “what might have been” development of Kemp Town station.
To show how something with a very different prototype uses the same basic idea Pottendorf is an HO scale layout with a single fiddle yard. Loosely based on a prototype in Germany and designed to use, albeit with careful selections, off-the-shelf rolling stock and structures it still delivers a very convincing layout in just 8' of scenic board.
Another consideration at this stage might be gauge. A narrow gauge line, such as the Ffestiniog Railway, has many of the same benefits in model form as the real thing. In particular curves can be sharper and rolling stock, generally, shorter.
Of course, if you are going into the garden you probably have a lot more flexibility but you will almost certainly want at least one location that is under cover for maintenance and storage. We have provide some basic guidance on Garden Railways.
How much do you want to make yourself?
Moving on from the physical layout itself you will need to consider what it is you want to do. You might want to make everything, hand built track, scenery, buildings and rolling stock or you may prefer to use items available “ready-to-run” or “off-the-shelf” or somewhere in between. Any approach is right if its right for you, its your railway after all.
How much space do I need for what I want to model
It’s very important to take into account how big model trains are, not in terms of scale directly but in terms of train lengths, “how long is a standard express train?” for instance, or “How long does a run-round loop need to be?”. These questions and, in the vast majority of cases, the compromises that you will need to make on your layout will add to the considerations you need to make when settling on a plan. We have produced a guide that helps you start to answer the question "How Much Room Do I Need?”.
Now you can ask yourself “What scale and gauge do I want?”
Having considered all the questions above you can now decide what scale and gauge you want to work in. That’s not to say you only need one, many modellers work in multiple scales and gauges. We’ve produced a guide to what the main characteristics are of the various Scale & Gauge options.
Where and when will my model railway be set?
Finally you have all the information to decide what your model railway will broadly look like, add that to your Research and you can start to answer the question of when and where the layout will be set.
Of course many people start with the answer to this question. “I want Kings Cross in 1933” or “Little Bumbleford-on-Sea in 1957, when I was a child on holiday”. But answering the questions above will help you understand what is possible and how you might go about realising your dream layout.
Assuming you haven’t started at the end then you can now decide if you want a real location with accurate track layout, scenery and operation or something entirely fictitious. Again, there is a lot in between the extremes. See some examples in our Layouts section.
Allied to this you might want to consider when your layout will be set. Whilst it is your layout so you can run anything a much more realistic impression is likely to come from picking a reasonably constrained time period. This also helps focus what can otherwise be a hobby that will take you down many side roads.