Introduction to model railways
Railways are remarkable. They have shaped societies, built nations and joined continents. Straddling the globe, they link people with people and connect industries that drive economic growth.
Given their global reach, it is no surprise that building model railways is one of the worlds most popular hobbies. The hobby has many different aspects with the potential to attract people of all abilities, ages and gender. It involves many different technical concepts, but includes other interest areas such as art and historical research.
This wikibook is not a detailed “how to” for each of the different aspects (although links and references will be provided). However, it should provide the starting point for people entering the hobby, and answer the “where do I start” type of question.
Here are some early thoughts and considerations - read through this first to get some ideas straight and then take a look at the topic specific chapters listed at the bottom of this page.
Figure what it is you like to do/ want to see on your model railway
So many people just start throwing track down only to realise that “if I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t start from here !”
So - fundamental questions that have to be resolved early include....
- Specific location or freestyle?. If specific, you can use photos and other sources to make it all look right. If freestyle, you are not constrained, but might be more difficult to get the look and feel right.
- Specific era or don’t care?. Similar to location, a specific era will have information you can use, but you will then be constrained to use the correct colours, signage and other details. Freestyle means you can mix and match and do what you want.
- Round and round or end to end. Available space, access, operating modes, skill and experience will all impact the layout choice. The wikipedia page “Model railroad layout” has more on this topic. You can also do an Internet search for train layouts and choose the “images” option.
- Is it about showing off a collection of locomotives/stock, or is it about the scenery and dioramas? Some people just like to run trains. Others have a great collection of locomotives to show off. Others may be drawn to the artistry and like the diorama details.
- What story is being told ?. It is useful to think through what the model is showing. In the full-size world, trains connect towns, industries and cities delivering people and goods. This is the essence of the “story” and your model needs to be able to show this at some minimum level.
- Which industry is be represented? The choice is wide, but commonly chosen themes are mining, cement, iron/steel, agricultural, container yards....
- How about a Military theme? The first World War used railways of various guages extensively, right up to the front lines.
- Avoid obvious discontinuities - such as “bridge to nowhere”, station platforms with no access and so on. These will look obviously “wrong” as your model develops.
Planning the layout
Also need to consider early what the scenery is going to be - how much will be back scene and tricky to get to later?
Consider doing the backscene early.
What time of year for the main colour way? Spring greens or autumn colours?
On Track Laying - be sure you can touch EVERY section of track - for cleaning , derailments etc. this includes tunnels that also need access.
Be careful about track clearances - use one of the standard gauges to get this right (NMRA, PECO etc do these or you can download the details and make your own eg from Brian Lambert.co.uk
Use an underlay to get the correct ballast profile- but cork is not a sound insulator as the ballast, once glued, provides a strong acoustic couple unless you use a rubber based glue such as clouded.
Think about site-lines and elevation. Break up straight runs with curves and/or scenery. Have tracks at different levels - even a little bit helps. You don’t want a board with a couple of ovals at the same level.
Long straight sections should not be parallel with the board edge if possible.
Pre-drill sleepers and use track pins for fixing the track - this allows relatively easy adjustment later.
If portable - need to consider safe storage of the locos, stock buildings etc.
DC or DCC
DC Is straightforward for the complete novice. However DCC provides more advanced functions such as sound, and running several trains on the same track.
Popular in the UK is 00 which is easier to handle and see by the older modeler, compared with N which allows nice long trains and plenty of scenery in a small place - but tricky to see !! Outside of the UK, H0 is used and is about 10% smaller than 00 (but which, confusingly, runs on the same gauge of track).
There is a List of rail transport modelling scale standards in wikipedia which includes a more detailed discussion and description of this topic, and covers the other scales that may be of interest. Most of this wikibook will focus on H0/00 and N scale modelling, the the most common starting point for the novice railway modeller.
There are a number of resources out there - but a single source of reference is hard to come by.
You could join RMWeb for more in depth help across all topics.
Specifically for electronics, you can join MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) which offers help and advice as well as hardware to install a wide range of electronic features to the model.
There are multiple Facebook groups covering a wide range of topics.
There are several YouTube channels covering modelling skills, specific railway models and a wide range of detailed topics.
The baseboard is, literally, the base of everything you do. Make big errors here, and the subsequent hours of effort and thousands of pounds may be put in jeopardy.
- what area do you have?
- are there any height restrictions?
- any access problems?
- think about access to track for cleaning and train recovery?
- what about access to below-track wiring?
- think about building multiple layers
- materials - favourite is plywood braced with timber beneath. Avoid pasting tables (not strong enough), and MDF (too heavy and too much dust and doesnt take track pins very well)
The topic is discussed in more detail in this specific section Introduction to model railways/Baseboards