What will my layout look like?
Having decided what it is you want, possibly in detail, possibly just a general idea it’s now time to start planning the layout itself. The most obvious place to start is with the track layout but beware. If you are not following a prototype there is a temptation to cram in more track than is sensible. Too many points can lead to sidings or loops that are really to short for useful operation and something that just looks over crowded. As noted earlier, even on end-to-end layouts curves can be squeezed to make things fit. This is nearly always a false step and will provide untold problems down the line. If you haven't already done so its probably worth referring to out guide on "How Much Room Do I Need?”.
In parallel with your track planning you need to think about the services that might reasonably operate on your layout. Traffic flows of goods traffic and types of passenger services. If you are planning a fictional layout it is often useful to place your fictional layout on the real railway network, identifying destinations for services and possible sources of goods traffic. Obviously this will vary enormously from one layout to another.
Also worth considering at this time is the scenery, whether it be rolling fields or industrial warehouses. Use cardboard mockups to get a general idea of size and shape. It is arguably more important if you are planning to use off-the-shelf buildings, custom buildings can be altered to fit the location if needs be.
Examples of foam board and card buildings being used to test out the original planning assumptions during the construction of Peter Hamble, an industrial OO gauge layout
A word should be said here about height. Not the height of the layout but height on the layout. The world is not flat. Nor, almost universally, are the environs of railway stations, goods yards and running lines. Certainly the track bed may be flat but the surrounding ground level very rarely is. Adding height to a layout, even a very small amount of height, can significantly enhance the realism you can create. In particular adding depth below rail level can be effective, whether it be a river, canal, occupation underpass or simply the ground rolling away. But this needs careful planning, both in the track plan and in the baseboards as once set its a fairly immoveable feature.
What should I make my baseboards from?
Speaking of baseboards, you need how to consider how you will get these. The main considerations are, are you going to build or buy and will they be fixed or portable. We have produced a brief guide to the types of baseboard construction you may want to consider.
What rolling stock will I need?
Having decided on your baseboard you need to give some thought as to how are going operate and how many operators you are going to need. From the point of view of the train services and traffic flows you thought about earlier, how many locomotives do you want moving at once? How many locos might be parked on the layout at the same time? Do you want banking or double heading, that is two or more locos acting together. These considerations will have significant impact on your control system choices as we will see shortly.
Although we are not considering rolling stock here directly you will need to make a decision on what type of coupling you intend to use. That too can influence the design of your layout. Couplings and uncoupling is an area fraught with wide choices and contradictory advice so we have added to that, showing you some of the Coupling Options.
How will I control the layout?
You can provide a traditional control panel with a switch, and a wire or two, to every point, signal, uncoupler, isolated section of track and many other things, and many people still do. But a neater and infinitely more flexible solution lies in the provision of a Layout Control Bus (LCB). Simplistically this can control everything that isn’t the trains, points, uncouplers, signals, etc. You can use DCC, much more of which below, but there are some serious disadvantages with this that may be significant to you. We have a simple overview of Layout Control Bus options.
Having considered the overall operation you will also need to look at what type of point motors to use to drive your points, this is largely independent of any decision you have made on the overall control of the layout. Traditionally all point motors worked on the same principle but in more recent years a number of alternatives have become available to the modeller, each with its own pros and cons. We have produced an overview of point motor options.
You will also then need to know how the point frog (as it is commonly known in the hobby but, more accurately in the UK prototype, point crossing) will be switched. The choice of point motor may influence this decision and we have a useful article on one particular solution here that is applicable to any DCC layout.
Working signals are another consideration, if they are to be working will they be interlocked with the points. Some of these seem complex at first but there is always someone who has done it before and once resolved it can be duplicated across the layout as needed, leading to much enhanced realism and, for many people, increased operation satisfaction.
How should I control my trains?
Finally in this section we’ll look at driving the trains. The main choice is between DC and DCC. DC is the ‘traditional’ operating system where the controller actually drives the track, so any other locomotives have to be isolated. The increasingly common DCC (Digital Command Control) allows you to drive the trains and obviates the need for isolating sections. We have a number of articles on DCC and setting up locomotives and an excellent description of the basics of DCC.
How will I operate my layout?
Something that may seem obvious, and is on many layouts, but should at least be factored into the design is how many operators you will have and where will they stand, or possibly sit. The number of them is clearly influenced by the size of the layout, but size is not everything. Some very large layouts are operated by one or two people. On larger layouts different people may have different roles, signalman, drivers, etc. On a home based layout the chances are where you operate the layout from is probably obvious, on an exhibition layout however you may want to operate from behind the layout, visible or otherwise, or from the front where you can interact with the public. Again, nothing is right or wrong but it is a consideration in your layout design.