Introduction to model railways/Printable version

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Introduction to model railways

The current, editable version of this book is available in Wikibooks, the open-content textbooks collection, at

Permission is granted to copy, distribute, and/or modify this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.


OVERVIEW[edit | edit source]

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.

EWS-66077-BristolTM-02.jpg EWS Class 66 diesel locomotive 66077 at platform 3 of Bristol Temple Meads station

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/see on your model railway[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

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

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 Copydex.

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[edit | edit source]

DCC (Digital Command Control) allows for advanced controllers for your model railway, such as the one pictured.

DC Is straightforward for the complete novice. However DCC provides more advanced functions such as sound, and running several trains on the same track.

Extensive and detailed information on DCC is available in DCCWiki And from various equipment suppliers such as DCC Concepts, who also provide detailed on-line help pages such as this

Scale[edit | edit source]

Model railway scales.

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.

Building baseboards[edit | edit source]

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.

Considerations are

  • 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

Getting started for the novice

Introduction[edit | edit source]

So you want to build a model railway, you have bought the first components and now you want to get started.

There are a couple of basic ideas to get straight.....

Whilst there are some good general principles that apply throughout the hobby, there are no “rules”. Other than

“It’s your railway, you can run what you want”

Other general principles are

- Keep your work space clean and tidy wherever possible

- When you make dust, clean it up. Dust is the enemy of good train operations. For a further look at tools, go to the chapter Introduction to model railways/Tools

Another point to keep in mind “Rome wasn’t built in a day” - those fantastic models you see in the shows and on TV take thousands of hours (and £!) to make....what we aim to do here is get you started....the rest can come later.

Train[edit | edit source]

for the novice, buy a “ train set” from one of the major manufacturers. Other ways to get started are to have “inherited” locomotives and rolling stock from someone else, or perhaps you have gone and bought individual pieces from a show, shop or a well known on line auction site.

Whichever, let’s assume you are the proud owner of two locomotives, a couple of passenger coaches and some freight wagons......

By the way, a “train” consists of a locomotive and at least one, usually more, wagons of some description - passenger, flat cars, container wagons, specialist wagons etc. A locomotive by itself is NOT a train!

So - what track do we need, and what is the layout going to look like?

Track[edit | edit source]

3D model

For the novice, the best way to start is with track that is “pre-formed” into standard lengths and curves. This allows you to quickly and accurately form a simple loop for the trains to go round. The radius of the curved sections will match the radius of the points, so the correct spacing between multiple loops can be achieved. All the manufacturers provide these standard pieces, but note that track is generally not (or not easily) mixed between manufacturers.

If you plan to expand and develop your simple layout in future years, make a note of which track you have bought. Even within the same gauge (lets assume 00), the size of the individual rails can vary - this is called the “code”, and generally refers to the height of the rail above the sleepers. Making different codes of rail join up accurately can be done, but is not a “novice” task.

Another type of track is flexible and comes in lengths of 1m and needs to be carefully cut and joined as required. This track allows for a more “bespoke” appearance and more realistic curves and is generally used by most people making a model railroad. For the complete novice, pre-built (eg setrack) is recommended.

The wikipedia article on Peco provides more discussion on one specific manufacturers products.

Layout[edit | edit source]

Part of an HO scale model railroad layout

The novice will generally want to have a simple layout for the track - but it is a good idea to have an eye to the future - allow for some future expansion might be a good idea early on, either by leaving enough space on the baseboard for future tracks, or lay a point to allow a future spur line to a new region of the model.

The basic layout types are as follows:

  • Continuous loop. A circle or oval, with trains going round and round. Often this is the basic plan provided in train sets
  • Point to point. A line with a station at each end, with trains going from one station to the other.
  • Out and back. A pear shaped track, with trains leaving a station, going round a reversing loop, and coming back to the same station.
  • Shunting (US: Switching). Either a station, a motive power depot or a yard where the primary mode of operation is shunting. This includes layouts which are built as a train shunting puzzle such as Timesaver and Inglenook Sidings
More details and ideas on layouts are included in this wikipedia article

Whichever option you select, there are various track planning software packages available, with libraries of components you can “pick and place” on your virtual baseboard. This will help avoid glaring errors in the layout before you start laying track.

Base - getting the baseboard right is essential. Go to the chapter on Introduction to model railways/Baseboards on this wikibook before you pick up a screwdriver or head out to the shops to buy timber!

Power[edit | edit source]

there are three options for powering your model railway.

DC[edit | edit source]

The easiest for the novice is a basic DC powerpack. This will have 12v DC variable output to control the speed and direction of your train, and one or two fixed voltage outputs to power accessories such as light, points or other special effects. To start, all you need is the variable voltage output, that is connected by a clip tomthe rail. The problem with this approach is that you have wires on the surface and this is not a “good look”. Most modellers will run all wiring under the baseboard, and thread the wires tomthe topside through small holes.

For the track, once you are happy with its position, and you have fixed it to the board using glue, screws or track pins, dril holes down next to each rail, thread the wires through and solder them to each rail.

If you have a lot of track, you might need to do this in a number of places to ensure good electrical contact all around the circuit.

Visit the electrical pages of the Brian Lambert website for detailed information on all things electrical. The link is on the further information and references page.

DCC[edit | edit source]

DCC integrates with systems of different complexity.

The second approach is to use DCC. DCC can be simple to wire, as again it simply uses two wires to the layout. However, to ensure good electrical continuity, it is essential to run small wires from each section of track down to a main bus-wire. If you start to split the layout into separate “blocks” for signaling, the number of wires expands - a lot. There are many advantages to operating with DCC , including being able to control multiple trains, at different speeds, on the same section of track, having sound effects, complex programming of points, operating equipment, using computer or WiFi controls and more.

The full scope of DCC is beyond the scope of this book, but extensive and detailed information on DCC is available in DCCWiki.

Deadrail[edit | edit source]

The final power option is known as Deadrail. In this system, there is no power wiring to the track, instead each locomotive has a battery and a radio control circuit, normally with a DCC chip, and control is remote via WiFi or Bluetooth. The advantages of this system are obvious. No complicated wiring (DC or DCC), and almost prototypical operation where locomotives have to stop occasionally to “refuel”.

There are no major manufacturers producing equipment for deadrail currently, although a number of smaller suppliers provide kits, equipment and advice.

Further information[edit | edit source]

Introduction to model railways/References and further information


Introduction to baseboards[edit | edit source]

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.

Considerations are

  • 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)

Here are the Big Three issues to look out for when getting started (reprinted from

1 Wrong Height

This usually means it’s too low. Bending over to work on a low layout will give you back trouble, and wiggling beneath it to work on the wiring will give you a bad attitude toward model railroading in general. Also, trains look better at eye level, and how many model railroaders have an eye level of three feet? Unless you’re constrained by double decks or similar restrictions, a permanent layout shouldn’t be lower than 42″, with 48″ a better height; some will go even higher. But don’t go too high, or the layout will be equally uncomfortable to work on, and you’ll drastically reduce the area you can reach.

If you have frequent visitors, keep their heights in mind, too — children and vertically-challenged adults don’t get much enjoyment from a layout that’s too tall for them to see.

2 Out of Reach You have to be able to reach what you need to reach. This doesn’t simply mean touching with your fingertips. Can you uncouple/recouple a train, solder a wire or use a track-rubber to ckean the rails. Can you reach inside a tunnel or behind a mountain to do this?

Model Railway Engineer Tip “Remember: if you can’t reach it, you can’t maintain it, and if you can’t maintain it, trains won’t run on it.”

Mentally put yourself in each place where a train operator must stand to do his/her work, and verify that everything needed to do the job is close enough.

3 Too Wide Benchwork too wide. Again, we aren’t talking about how far you can reach to get a fingertip onto something. We’re talking about how far you can reach to manually uncouple two cars, solder a wire to a rail, or adjust the tie-bar of a point.

For most people, at typical layout heights, that’s about two feet, and your reach gets shorter as the layout gets higher. Don’t plan on climbing onto the benchwork to fix things; even if you make it strong enough to hold your weight, you won’t want to kneel on your finished scenery just to clean your track. Pop-up access holes can be a solution, but will your knees be up to the challenge twenty years from now? The best answer is either benchwork that is two feet wide or less or benchwork that can be reached from both sides.

More detailed discussion on mechanical problems[edit | edit source]

Mechanical problems are physical errors that will keep the layout from working properly. The most common ones are:

Curves tighter than they need to be.

This is a questionable way to fit more track into your space. Okay, you’ve run tests, and all your engines and cars will run on a tight curve. The problems here are that (a) just because it runs doesn’t mean it looks right, and (b) what will you do on the day you bring home something new, long and gorgeous, then discover that won’t quite make it around your curves? Make your minimum radius a little bigger than it absolutely has to be, and you’ll have no regrets later.


S-curves tend to sneak into the best plans, they can be murder to fix if you don’t get them early in the game, and if you don’t eradicate or minimize them, your trains will not stay on the rails

Track too close to the edge of the table.

It’s tempting to push the limits of your benchwork in order to squeeze in a little more track. But you’ll regret it the first time a train takes The Big Dive. It might be a stray elbow, an inadvertent jolt to the benchwork or the aftermath of a simple derailment, but if there’s nothing stopping an engine or wagon from going down, then down is the direction it will go until something stops it (like the floor). Those stray elbows will also play havoc with your carefully ballasted track. And it’s a fact that trains look longer if they sometimes move behind trees and structures, which is impossible if there’s no room for trees and structures between the track and the table edge. You’ll be happier in the long run if you give up a little track space along the edges, both for scenery and for safety.

Overly-optimistic points arrangements

This mistake will never derail a train, but it has derailed many a track plan. Put simply, it means your pencil-and-paper plan hasn’t allowed for the fact that the curved leg of a turnout is a lot broader than you think. Then you try to convert the plan into roadbed and rails, and you’re dismayed beyond words that it won’t fit. No harm was done, but a lot of effort was wasted. Measure samples of the actual turnouts you’ll be using, before you start, and you won’t have to start over. Use trackplanning software to help get it right.

No straight sections for coupling & uncoupling.

This one is very commonplace, even in published plans. All couplers, in all scales, work better on straighs and very gradual curves than they do on hairpins. Automatic uncoupling just doesn’t work on curves. Yes, you can do it manually, but it’s still a lot harder than on straight track. Trying to couple on curves is even more difficult. If your yards and industrial parks are for switching and not for show, make sure they have straight sections where the action takes place, or you may soon give up on switching altogether.

Grades too steep.

The sight of trains straining upgrade and crossing over other trains on bridges has strong visual appeal. As hobbyists, we tend to minimize the "straining" part. But a 2% grade can cut your engine’s effective pulling ability by half or more. Add the extra effort needed to pull around the curves we usually put our grades on, and it’s a wonder our engines ever reach the summit. Downgrades add their own complications; the engine will buck and race as it tries to hold the cars back, and I’ve seen at least one train jump the tracks because the weight of the cars trying to roll downhill was greater than gravity’s ability to keep them on the rails. If you don’t have room for a grade that your trains can handle, you may be better off keeping the layout flat.

Benchwork the wrong height.

This usually means it’s too low. Bending over to work on a low layout will give you back trouble, and wiggling beneath it to work on the wiring will give you a bad attitude toward model railroading in general. Also, trains look better at eye level, and how many model railroaders have an eye level of three feet? Unless you’re constrained by double decks or similar restrictions, a permanent layout shouldn’t be lower than 42", with 48" a better height; some will go even higher. But don’t go too high, or the layout will be equally uncomfortable to work on, and you’ll drastically reduce the area you can reach. If you have frequent visitors, keep their heights in mind, too — children and vertically-challenged adults don’t get much enjoyment from a layout that’s too tall for them to see.

Biting off more than you can chew.

This means you’ve designed a layout that you don’t have the resources to build. Those resources can be money, time, or energy, but if you don’t allow for ways to get a small part of the layout working, you’ll probably lose interest before you can finish the whole thing. Better yet, if this is your first "real" layout, start small. Build a layout that doesn’t fill your entire space; use it as a chance to hone your techniques for track laying, scenery, and wiring. You may find that the small layout is all you need, or all you can handle. If so, great! There’s no rule that says a layout has to be huge to be fun. But if you still want to build The Big Dream, you’ll do a much better job of it if you’ve constructed one or two "practice" railroads first.

Access problems[edit | edit source]

Access problems are issues of not being able to reach things. Everything works as planned, but the humans can’t interact with the layout properly. This kind of problem results in a layout that doesn’t get enough maintenance, starts to act balky, and gets abandoned because it’s more frustrating than fun.

Too much hidden track.

The issue here is track cleaning, which is hard when you can’t see or reach the track. The hidden sections will get dirtier than they should, which results in stalled trains. Some hidden track is often a good thing for a track plan, but make a way to get to it easily, both for cleaning and for retrieving the inevitable derailed cars.

Turnouts in tunnels.

Some swear by them, some swear at them. Turnouts are tricky beasts under the best of circumstances. Hide one in a tunnel, and you multiply the problems of cleaning and maintenance, and perhaps add the excitement of not knowing for sure if it’s thrown the right way as a train approaches. The consensus is that turnouts in tunnels can work if there’s no other way to make your plan fit, but there are no guarantees. For a beginner planning his/her first layout, they probably are not a good idea.

Aisles too narrow.

This one is a judgment call, based on how you expect to run your railroad. If you’re a lone wolf with few visitors, you can probably get away with aisles less than two feet wide (assuming your waist is less than two feet wide and will stay that way). If you expect guests, or if your layout is meant for more than one operator, experts will strongly suggest giving up some train-table space in exchange for some people space. Three feet is about the minimum width for two people to pass each other without being very good friends. An access aisle doesn’t have to be full width, but your main viewing areas should be at least that wide.

Problems entering the train room.

How do people get to your layout? Duck-unders will work, as long as you and your operators and guests suffer from no back or leg ailments. Lifting, dropping, and swinging bridges pose no limits to access, but they add construction, tracklaying and wiring problems. Check the published plans of the big, successful layouts; almost all of them are walk-in designs. Why? Because the simplest solutions are often the best.

Human-traffic bottlenecks

Say you want a long mainline, and you can fit another loop of track into your space if you shrink an aisle at one point. Will it work? If the shrunk portion is smack in the middle of a high-traffic area, the answer is "no," because people won’t be able to pass freely through the one area where they’ll do the most passing through. Don’t short-change the aisle space around the places where operators must stand to do their work. Also give space around the interesting areas where spectators will gather and linger — engine facilities, industrial parks, long bridges, and tunnel portals. And never make a dead-end aisle too narrow for two people to pass comfortably, or people may get trapped at the end, waiting for someone else to move so they can escape

Walk-around control issues.

Tethered walk-around throttles are a great way to enjoy the trains and to troubleshoot distant track problems. If you intend to take advantage of them, make sure to allow for them in your plan. Are there enough jacks for the throttles? Are they in convenient locations? Will two operators get their cords tangled as they follow their trains around the layout? If your throttles can’t be unplugged, are they placed so you can reach all the important parts of the layout? Will a cable block other people’s access to an aisle? Mentally map out where the throttles can go, where they should go, and how they will affect human traffic

No workspace.

It’s so tempting to fill your train space with nothing but trains! And the benchwork is a convenient place to work on projects, as long as the benchwork is just bare wood with a few tracks on it. But once the scenery is down, where will you assemble your kits and lubricate your locomotives? Be wise and leave some room for a workbench or desk in the train room. If your benchwork is tall enough, you can fit the work area partially beneath the layout — you’ll be sitting down to work anyway.

Visual problems[edit | edit source]

Visual problems are issues of the layout’s appearance. Everything works, but it doesn’t quite look right. This kind of mistake usually goes unrecognized for a while, causes mild annoyance when it’s discovered, and keeps you from really being pleased with the layout from that day forward.

Missing Christmas tree.

In other words, your plan consists of loops of track that go around and around... and around. Maybe you need two or three separate loops for multi-train action, or a twice-around for a long mainline. Maybe you really like watching trains in orbit. But if the looping is too obvious, you’ll never convince anyone that you’re running anything but a train set that ought to have a Christmas tree in the middle. There are many ways to visually break up a race-track: scenery or structures between the tracks, tunnels, track at varying heights, gentle curves instead of parallel tracks and spur tracks into the middle of the layout. The idea is to make each loop look like it’s in its own scene, somehow separate from the other tracks, and to minimize the fact that each track connects back onto itself.

Too much track along the edge of the table.

If most of your mainline runs parallel to your table edge, it looks just like the oval of track on the 4x8 that you’re trying to get away from — toylike. Let the track undulate in gentle curves (like the prototype does), or set the whole mainline at a slight angle to the benchwork.

Not enough room for the scenery

This is especially hard to avoid on small layouts. Do your buildings fit between the tracks? Did you allow for the width of the ballasted section before you said "yes" to that question? And how do your miniature workers get to each building — is there room for a road that leads to it? It’s also easy to not leave room for vertical scenery. Suppose you have two tracks next to each other, one low and one elevated. How do you join them scenically? A retaining wall? A rock cliff? Do retaining walls or rock cliffs make sense in the area you’re trying to model?

Undersized structures.

It’s tempting, especially on a small layout, to fit in more industries by reducing their size. Yes, there’s such a thing as selective compression. But when your factory is barely bigger than the wagon next to it, it will look decidedly odd. You’ll also have a problem convincing anyone that such a small industry could fill a wagon a day for your railroad. One or two decent-sized industries will look a lot better, and you can position several wagons on their spurs at once to generate as much traffic as a bigger number of smaller industries could do. Fitting low relief buildings oare a great way to pull this trick off.

Clashing scenery types.

We sometimes want to put too much on our layouts, without considering how the various elements will look next to each other. This was beautifully illustrated in the (N American) Atlas book, Seven Step-by-Step HO Railroads. Thaddeus Stepek drew a picture of track running across a pond on a viaduct. Half of the pond was liquid, with sailboats; on the other side of the viaduct, it was frozen, with skaters. Nearby, a lone mountain rose straight out of the plains, and a tunnel ran through it instead of going around it. These are extreme examples, but the problem is real. If you absolutely have to have radically different locations or seasons on the same layout, it can be done with scenic dividers or carefully planned transitions. Skimp on the planning here and, to paraphrase the Atlas book, "you can decorate your layout so it would look better if you hadn’t."

Trying to include everything

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had enough room to model the entire coal industry, from mines in the mountains to the seaports? Or the whole East Coast mainline from Edinburgh to London? I have yet to see or meet anyone who had that kind of space. It’s tempting to try to have a little of everything, but if Kings Cross is only ten feet away from Waverly on your railway, you’ve strained believability beyond the breaking point. And if your Edinburgh and London are the size of Banchory and Virginia Water, forget it. As with scenery types, you can do it with careful use of scenic dividers. But for a first layout, you’ll be much better off if you choose one or two scenes of reasonable size.

Features you don’t need.

Is a model railroad still a model railroad if it doesn’t have a goods yard, a turntable, a mountain with tunnels, and a river with bridges? Of course it is, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at a lot of published plans. We tend to assume that every railway must have these features, and a few others you can probably think of. If your kind of railroading needs them, then use them. But these space-eaters can devour your layout, crowding out other features that might be more important to you. Look at every major aspect of your plan and ask yourself: does my railroad need this? How would it suffer if I didn’t have it? Would I be happier if I omitted it in favor of something I like better?

Operational problems[edit | edit source]

Operational problems are errors in planning how the trains will run. There’s nothing wrong with the plan or the way it looks. But when you try to go beyond toy-train running and do something realistic on your new layout, you discover that it can’t be done.

Not enough sidings or crossovers.

This becomes a problem when you try to run more than one train. With only one siding, one train can run while another waits, and that’s it. With two sidings, the second train can try to dash from one siding to the other before the first train gets there. Once you have three or more sidings, the second train can actually do more running than waiting. Similar issues arise with double track and crossovers. Here, the problem is whether a train running in either direction can use the wrong main as a passing siding. Also be sure that a train running in either direction can get to all sidings, spurs, and yards. Trace out your routes in advance to see if the trains can do all that you might ever want them to do.

Overly-cramped sidings.

At a bare minimum, sidings need an arrival track for incoming trains, sorting tracks for rearranging wagons, and a departure track for trains heading out. These functions can be combined if need be. The question is, are there enough tracks to do all that your goods yard is meant to do? If the shunter is constantly tripping over itself trying to do its work, you may need a thoroughfare track from one end of the yard to the other. A passing track (so the shunter can work without fouling the main line) is always a good investment. You can also add space by lengthening the goods yard tracks; bending them at a super-gentle curve may let you stretch them without causing other problems. If all else fails, you may have to reduce the amount of work that your goods yard is expected to perform. Anything is better than a yard where no one wants to work because it’s an exercise in frustration.

Excessively difficult switching.

Some people really like switching puzzles, with multiple switchbacks and short tail tracks. You won’t see many of these in real life, because railroads don’t like complications unless there’s no other way to get a job done. In miniature, they can be fun. But not everyone likes switching puzzles, and sometimes even the greatest Timesaver fanatic gets tired of planning every move five steps in advance. When this happens, the switching puzzle becomes nothing but scenery — track that nobody uses because it’s such a pain in the neck. One such puzzle is probably enough for most layouts. For the rest of your yards and industries, keep it simple, like the prototype does.

Duplicate routes serving the same purpose. Consider a common beginners layout where a train has two choices of route on one side of the layout. Why would a real railroad ever send a train the long way? Real trains don’t take different paths just to break the monotony. If you want a plan like this, you need to provide a reason for having two routes. You could put an industrial spur on one path and a different industry on another. Or you can have a bridge on the short path with a weight limit, or a tunnel with a height limit, that forces some trains to go the long way. If it’s just two parallel routes with nothing to distinguish them, you’re wasting space on redundant track, space that you could probably use for better things.

Gratuitous reversing connections.

If you look at older track plans, you’ll see many reverse loops and wye connections. The articles that describe them take it for granted that being able to turn a train around is a good and necessary thing. Why? Real railroads don’t turn trains around just so they can go back the way they came. If your staging scheme can use such a turnaround, or if you need a wye for turning engines and single-ended equipment, by all means use one. But wyes and reverse loops eat up a lot of real estate. Don’t clutter your layout with track that doesn’t serve a purpose, just because somebody else says you ought to have it.

Not enough for the trains to do.

What do trains do? They pick up passengers and deliver them, they pick up many different types of freight and deliver it, they roll along the mainline, they meet and pass other trains on sidings, they interchange cars with other railroads, they get rearranged in yards, they get serviced on tracks while the engines are maintained in roundhouses and engine shops, they maintain the track with special MOW equipment... the list goes on. How many of these actions can your trains perform on your layout? If you’re content watching trains go around and around, it doesn’t matter. But if you want more out of this fascinating hobby of ours, then don’t limit your options. The more things your trains can do, the more enjoyment you and your friends can get out of the layout. Don’t try to pack everything in, of course, but any layout can perform at least two or three of the above without any compromise.

No place for traffic to come from or go to.

If you’re modeling the a specific area or line, how did that other company wagon get onto your layout? Railways derive much of their income from interchanging with other railways, and we can derive much action and realism the same way. An interchange can be as simple as a spur that leads off the edge of the layout to an imaginary Someplace Else, or as elaborate as dedicated staging tracks with trains from "the other railroad." Interchange is one of the keys to realistic operation, and it’s a very simple way to expand your railroading options.

Insufficient fiddle yards.

For flexible operations, few things improve a layout like fiddle yards — hidden sidings or spurs where trains can come from and go to. On a mundane level, they let you run a different train without resorting to the shunter or “Hand of God”. On a deeper level, you can simulate the comings and goings of trains on a real railroad. The trouble with a fiddle yard is that, once you start using it, you come up with more and more uses for it, and you run out of tracks. If you can find the room, plan on at least twice as many tracks as you think you need. It’s easier to install them at the start than try to fit them into a finished railway, and I’ve never heard anyone complain that he had too much fiddle yard capacity.

As you browse this list, I’m sure you’ll think of other problems that might arise, or that have arisen in your own modeling past, which I neglected to mention. That’s great — it means this article has started you thinking about how to avoid trackplanning problems. An ounce of prevention goes a long way, even if the ounce is reduced to Z scale. And you’ll enjoy your layout a lot more if it’s free from basic problems at the outset.

Further information[edit | edit source]

Introduction to model railways/References and further information


This page will list the normal tool requirements and where you will use them. Note that not all these tools are required all the time, and many could be considered “nice to haves”. But like most jobs, it is a lot better to have the right tool rather than struggling on and either taking longer, or making a mess of it, or both!

Over time you will build up a selection of tools that you prefer.

Baseboards[edit | edit source]

Woodworking tools required for the basic framework and baseboards include

set squares. Marking out timber for cutting

steel rules. Drawing straight lines.

spirit levels. Essential the main board is level.

circular saws, jigsaws, chop saws and bench saws. Cutting timber to required size.

hand saws. More careful or small cuts

Junior and Senior hacksaws. Cutting metal components.

Powered screwdriver - large and small with range of bits. Makes large number of screw fixings easier

Selection of hand drivers (Phillips, Pozi and flat)

Electrical[edit | edit source]

Small screwdriver set with multiple bits. Used in various jobs on the model

Multi-meter. Circuit testing typically for correct voltage, and for open circuits/continuity testing

Soldering iron. Connecting main power feed and droppers to rails, connecting droppers to main bus.

Soldering iron stand. Safer use of soldering iron

Wire stripper and cutter. Better and easier preparation of wiring.

Crimping tool and selection of cable crimps. Wire connection is best done with crimps.

Other wire connection systems can be used eg:

  • “Chocolate blocks” - aka terminal strips, standard screw type
  • ”Chocolate blocks” , male/female connector type
  • “suitcase clamps” ( as used in the automotive wiring business)
  • Wago connectors are also effective and easy to use (Screwfix).
  • solder strips. Useful for connecting lighting circuits and other accessory systems

range of electrical wires. Much of this can be recovered from redundant electrical equipment, or sourced from electrical wholesalers

Track Laying[edit | edit source]

Small hammer. Used for initial placing of track pins.

Long nosed pliers. Holding track pins as you hammer them.

Set of pin punches. Used to drive track pins the last few mm into sleepers.

NB . A fuller discussion on track laying techniques will be covered later

Pair of quality side cutters (Xuron or similar). Cutting rails to length (not required for setrack installations, essential if using (flexitrack)

Side cutters. Cutting wire or other small components to length Bull nosed pliers. Holding and gripping larger components

Utility knife (eg Stanley knife). General use, and for cutting sleepers (normally required when using flexitrack)

Mini electric multipurpose tool (eg Dremel) (these can be mains or battery powered - battery powered better for most purposes). Various models available in various sizes. Great utility for cutting, grinding, drilling, polishing, sanding. Etc)

Miscellaneous[edit | edit source]

Clamps - one-handed carpenters clamps in various sizes. Used while gluing, extra pair of hands while measuring etc.

Fixed bench clamp. Holding components while drilling, gluing etc.

Magnifying glass and stand (also comes with small clips). For small detailed work

Inspection lamp. General illumination especially useful if wiring under the boards and you have not got a fancy hinged arrangement to make access easier

Head mounted lamp. Used while doing close work, under the boards soldering etc.

Dust-buster cleaner. General clean-up of the work surface and scenery area

Miniature cleaner (as used for PC cleaning). Getting dust etc out of small/delicate areas.

Compressed-air can. Pushing dirt/dust out of nooks and crannies

Soft brushes. Used to gather dust of very delicate components prior to vacuuming

Scenery[edit | edit source]

Air compressor. Weathering stock and painting modelsmand scenery

Airbrushes. Used with the air compressor. Needs practice - refer tommultiple on-line resources for details

Spray booth. Good practice if spraying a lot of models

Static grass applicator. Essential for adding grass details to the model

Wide range of paintbrushes. Used for painting models from figures up to backdrop scenery

Various glues

  • PVA. General water soluble adhesive with wide range of uses
  • contact adhesive. Used for more difficult surfaces and where PVA will not work (eg plastics)
  • hot glue gun (large and small). Wide range of uses, and easily removed where not required. Can be “stringy”
  • cyanoacrylate (aka superglue) - gel and liquid. Rapid sticking of multiple surfaces. Especially useful for fixing skin to plastic....
  • PVC and other specialist plastic glues . Used for building styrene models etc.

Further information[edit | edit source]

Introduction to model railways/References and further information


This page will introduce the various key aspects of making your model railway come alive....

Overview[edit | edit source]

Hit YouTube for some how-to videos for each topic area.

Weathering[edit | edit source]

Weathering is the term used to make your models lose their brand new plasticky look , and replicate the natural process where we get dirt, rust and other colours that over time change the appearance of a building, locomotive or carriage.

Essentials to start with are:-

1. If using brushes, make sure they are extremely dry - you build up very small subtle layers of (different shades) of paint. An alternative to dry brush is air brush - a whole different technique (and cost)

2. Weathering powders are also available - brush or rub these on. Brush off surplus - then at the end a light spray of Matt enamel will fix the colours in place.

3. Don’t try to make a guess where to apply the weathering. Look at pictures or real-life items. Where are the rust streaks? Don’t forget the track. Real rails are rusty at the sides, and are only shiny on the top surface. Ballast in sidings and maintenance areas will be oily and grimy compared with main line ballast which is much cleaner. Where are the damp patches? Where is the moss and other vegetation growing? Observe closely and then start to replicate using the techniques outlined above....

Buildings[edit | edit source]

Discussion on the different types and building techniques

various options are available to make buildings for the layout. In order of difficulty...

  1. Resin cast, pre-painted and weathered. These are quite costly compared to other techniques, but give an “instant” result.
  2. Plastic moulded, unpainted. Some work required to make these look right, but you have the advantage of choosing your own colour schemes to match other buildings in your miniature world.
  3. plastic kits. These can be single colour, or pre coloured; a number of companies make these kits. In either case, these kits will always look “plasticky” unless painted . Making plastic kits requires the correct glue , and kits can be modified to make them look different from “stock”. This is known as “kitbashing”
  1. purchased card model kits. Available in the main popular scales for UK modellers, these provide a high quality appearance, however are somewhat limited in finish (red brick or stone) although the range is expanding all the time. These models , especially the newer designed range, have very clear instructions and provide a relatively quick way to build a city or town. These are also very suitable for kitbashing.
  2. downloadable paper models. A number of websites provide a range of printable models, some with a limited number of free models so you can practice the techniques used. The paper sheets are stuck to card, and can produce a relatively quick and inexpensive urban or rural environment. Card models are also ideal for kitbashing and making more unique scenic items for your specific model. A good range of UK based models is available from Scalescenes.
  3. scratchbuilding. This uses printed paper (bricks, stones, paving etc) or other household items in true “Blue Peter” style to make any design of building you like. This provides a truly bespoke feel for your world, whereas some of the other techniques may always look “off the shelf”.

Useful household objects[edit | edit source]

You don’t have to spend a fortune on scenery items. Here is a sample list of items that are commonly found useful for detailed scenery applications

Item Used for
foil from wine bottles hinges, straps, lead flashing for roofs;
foil from some tubes - such as tomato paste as above
cleaned UHU tubes as above
dis-assembled pop-rivets chimney pots, vents
plasterers scrim tape ladders, fences
1mm stainless steel mesh remove strand and wrap around pencil for barbed wire
rod from pop-rivets handrails, sign posts
garlic bulb sacks fencing
lego bricks 90deg right angle formers for construction
disposable clips from clothes stores hanging items to dry
corrugated cardboard remove outer layer to reveal corrugation - paint and use as fencing or roofing
beer mats paint as required for loads
PVC drain sections storage tanks
clear plastic packaging (toys, easter eggs, PECO points etc) window glazing
Mosquito netting fencing and grating
Black coloured paper clips Drain pipes
Ground up fir tree needles Use as scatter - colour fast
Dried tea leaves Use as earth
Hydrangea flower heads Cut off dead petals - reveals tree trunk and branches
Rolled paper stems from cotton buds Easy to colour - chimney pots, soil and drain pipes. Can be bent to angles
Some embossed foils (eg cigarette packet liners) Chequer plate

Landscape[edit | edit source]

Adding different heights to your miniature world is essential if you want to move from train set to model railway.

There are a number of ways to achieve this, each with advantages and disadvantages.

It’s good practice to build in different elevation trackbeds at the baseboard construction phase. If you can plan that far ahead!

For adding different elevations later, you can build and fix “mini-boards “ onto the existing base. This will use scraps and offcuts from the larger carpentry work. The important bit if this is for a track is to ensure there are no sudden changes in elevation (e.g. steps in the plywood), and that gradient is kept to around 2-3%.

Steep transitions between different heights can be brick retaining walls, available as kits, or use downloaded brick/stone effect paper, or tree bark. Tree bark can be purchased from model shops (eg Woodland Scenics products) , but a nature ramble might let you find some of your own. Tree bark, when touched up and blended into your scene with foliage looks very convincing.

Woodland Scenics also make a range of moulds which, when used with plaster of paris, can create a wide range of rock and stone effects.

If you are only concerned with creating scenic hills there are a number of options:-

  1. Pre-built tunnel and hill sections. These provide a quick and easy way to add relief, but are, essentially, toy-like. It is always going to be better to build your own using one or more of the techniques below.
  2. Carve insulation foam to shape and cover with plaster cloth or similar. Modern closed-cell insulation board can be obtained from hardware stores or builders merchants. This can be carved with a hot-wire tool , electric bread knife or regular knife. Some people will even construct their whole layout from this material. Small pieces can be glued together, and the whole finished with plaster cloth, static grass etc. to make your finished scenery. An alternative is polystyrene block, as found in packaging - but this is extremely messy to work with and is not recommended. However the polystyrene “peanuts” can form nice small hills when covered with plaster cloth
  3. Build a lightweight substructure from wire-mesh, strips of card, foam off cuts etc. and cover with plaster cloth or similar. Cut out longish strips of card and interweave - as if making a lattice basket. Staple or hot glue these to the baseboard and cover with plaster cloth. Wire mesh has the added benefit of being quite strong, and so is suited to locations where you perhaps plan to place something later that is slightly heavier than normal, or for forming self-supporting tunnels. But other than in these applications, it is probably best to avoid it. Wire mesh (“chicken wire”) is not easy to work with.
  4. We have mentioned plaster-cloth a few times. This is the stuff the nurses use to make a plaster cast, and is obtainable on-line, Hobbycraft or model shops etc. Cut off a short length, sit in water for about a minute, then smooth it over your substrate. It does leave a surface with small 1mm holes, so it is best to use several layers, or apply a layer of plaster later. If using a plaster mix, you can pre-colour this to avoid annoying white patches showing through your paint and/or grass layer. A cheap alternative to plaster cloth is to make a mix of relatively dilute polyfiller or equivalent, and dip kitchen towel in-lieu of plaster cloth. Not as easy to work with when wet, but when dry is pretty robust. Again, you can add a paint to the mix to make it self coloured. Plaster-based scenery is quick and easy and usually ready to paint, add trees etc. within 24 hours.
  5. Adding scatter to vertical and hard to get to surfaces. Get a core from a kitchen rollmand cut one end on the diagonal. Cover the other end with tape and make a 10mm hole in this. Paint glue onto the hillside where you want the scatter to stick. Put a teaspoon of scatter in the open end of the tube , holding it level and about 25cm from the target and blow through the taped end. This produces a nice effect on those hard to reach places.

Grass[edit | edit source]

Having built your baseboard, and have some track laid, you will soon get fed up with flat sections of bare board. Covering this with trees or buildings is an option, but expensive and time consuming. A quick option is to make these areas into grass - perhaps to become fields, or to form the basis of future industrial, commercial or residential use.

There are a number of ways to create a grass effect - with varying degree of realism.

1. Quickest is to use a purchased grass mat. These come in range of colours, and are simply stuck down onto your board. At a later date some water and a blunt knife will allow you to scrape away the flock to make paths, roads or building plots. Generally this material is heat sensitive, so if you place some scrap material beneath the mat before sticking, and then use a hair drier, you can create some elevation on the board. Some degree of height variation in the scenery is always going to look better than a purely flat board.

2. Sawdust. This is a traditional medium, and generally we create quite a lot of it, so why not use it. You can mix various grades of sawdust with water based paint, dry-out this mixture in a low heat oven or microwave (approval from your local domestic authorities may be required!) and you can create your own scatter material in different colours and sizes. Paint your board with some PVA glue, sprinkle as required and there you go!

3. Electrostatic grass. This is generally considered the “go-to” method for applying grass. It requires a special applicator, and the purchase of grass flock in various lengths and colours. The applicators cost anything from £10 to £80, and consist of a metal mesh and a power supply to apply a charge to the mesh. As the device is moved up and down to shake the flock through the mesh, the individual strands of “grass” receive a “+” and “-“ charge. When they reach the board, they stick to the PVA/water mixture, and one end of the grass is attracted to the wire mesh, hence making it stand up. Using different lengths and different colours over the same area can result in a very realistic effect.

4. Special grasses. Tall reeds, clumps of grass in an otherwise tightly mowed field can be modelled a number of ways. Manufacturers produce various patches and clumps of grass, or you can make your own using small clumps cut to your desired length from an old paint brush or similar. Again, each clump can be hand attached using a small amount of PVA.

Trees[edit | edit source]

As with other aspects of the hobby, there are different tree options - these are listed below in order of cost - but not necessarily in realism.

1. Pre-made trees of various types and sizes by a number of manufacturers - for example Noche. This will give you a quick and effective foliage , but at considerable cost.

2. You can buy plastic tree-trunks and branches, to which you add your own colours and types of flock foliage. The Wargame market has some good suppliers of this type of material. This technique gives you trees that look more or less how you decide, in a range of sizes and colours that match across your model.

3. Sea-foam. This is a natural product, supplied in boxes with a range of colours. You can make a variety of shapes and sizes of trees, to which you can add your own flock (foliage), if required.

4. Use rubberised horse hair, diluted PVA and scatter.

Just pull out as much of the hair. as you want, then tease to the shape you want, trim any bits off you don't want. Put your scatter in a big plastic disposable cup. Soak the horse hair in a 50/50 diluted PVA in a trigger spray bottle. Drop it into the cup and jiggle it around in the scatter, remove and let dry.

5. Hand built trees. Typically produced by winding strands of wire together and then teasing-out into branches. Apply some paint, possibly some filler, and flock foliage, and you can make any tree you like. You can create individual bespoke trees - if you have the time!

6. Many garden plants, as used for dry flower arranging can be used to make trees, probably in addition to leaf foliage flock.

Hedges[edit | edit source]

Here are a few tips on how to make hedgerows. Like many aspects of scenery making, the best effect is built up by using several layers of different textures and colours.

Horsehair padding[edit | edit source]

Cut a strip of horsehair to your required size and lay flat, spray with hairspray very closely then sprinkle on some coarse scatter such as a thick weed cover . Then repeat the process but this time using some very dark green dust like scatter. On the final pass use some 2mm static grass to highlight followed by a final whizz with the hairspray. You will find without some scatter it will look very thin, sparse and grey .

You can also use sawdust dyed using Dylon fabric dyes to the colour you require which can be numerous different combinations and Hairspray super hold.

Scouring Pads[edit | edit source]

Cut green scouring pads to the height you require and again cover in coloured sawdust or other materials as described above.

People[edit | edit source]

Railways carry people between towns, to go to work, visit family, go shopping etc.

But take a look at your model railway- how many people are waiting at the station, walking in the fields and streets or sitting in the passenger coaches? Not many, probably.

Adding figures gives your miniature world a population. There are a number of ways of doing this, all involving cost, or time, or both!

The cheapest option is to buy bulk packs of various figures on-line. These will almost always need to be painted, and this is quite an effort to get right, especially for people who are going to be very visible in your scenes. Half people are also available to go into your passenger stock or road vehicles.

A number of manufacturers make pre-painted figures as individuals or in sets (police, road worker, Railway gang, passengers etc.). Some of these can be very realistic, but are expensive. Keep an eye on eBay, or perhaps go to your local model railway shows to pick up a used bargain or two.

3D printing is proving to be a bit of a game changer in the modelling world, and there are a number of small suppliers doing figures across a range of topics and themes. You can even have yourself scanned and printed in miniature to rule over your new world...

Lighting[edit | edit source]

In a similar way to people, adding lights to your model will give it a whole new and attractive feature, for minimal cost.

Traditionally, small incandescent lamps called Grain of Wheat (GoW) were used, in various colours. These are powered using your 12v auxiliary output, or better, a spare 12v variable supply. GoW run pretty hot when dropping the full 12v, so adding a variable supply will allow you to run them cooler and extend their life. They can be run in series, so the 12v will get split evenly across all the bulbs in the series. You can experiment to achieve the desired level of brightness. Being simple bits of wire that emit light, they do not care which way round they get wired. Unlike LEDs!

You can buy some GoW lamps pre-built into scale street lights, and some premade buildings have lights fitted. If you are making kit buildings, try adding lights at the build stage. (See the following section on fitting lights)

LEDs are increasingly popular, and for good reason. They are dirt cheap, and come in a range of sizes and colours. You can get them extremely small at around 0.5mm, up to 4mm or larger. LEDs run cold, but are polarity sensitive, so they DO care which way around they are fitted into your circuit. As with GoW, you can buy pre-made lamps for stations, car parks, roads etc using LEDs.

An LED requires a resistor to be fitted to limit the amount of current. Typically, if you want to run one LED off your 12v supply, solder a resistor of about 1k ohms to one of the legs. The LED will drop the approximately ~3v it needs, the rest will be dropped across the resistor. Series resistors (in-line) of 2700 ohms, 3300 ohms will dim the LED but note They need to be half watt resistors.

Alternatively, wire 4 LEDs in series, and each will drop around 3v and work correctly. (Assuming a 12v supply)

Do a search online for led resistor calculator. There are lots to choose from. You need the forward voltage and the mA figure and your input voltage. The calculator will tell you the minimum size resistor needed for each led. The best option is to buy a selection of resistors from say 100r up to 4k. That will give you room to change them to get the brightness you want. Put one resistor per LED then you can change the brightness of each LED in each room if required. There is a help page here gives more details on LED technology.

LED dimmers are available.

You could also try experimenting with the colour of led you are using. Bright white might be ok for some modern era applications but white and some yellows can give a better rendition for earlier times. It’s a bit like putting bright whites in a Gresley suburban coach, the result is the equivalent of having todays LED lighting in a 100 year old coach whereas a yellow will give a more 'old light bulb look'. If you are using individual LEDs either put an additional resistor in series, up the value of the resistor or find a source of a lower voltage. Without a resistor LEDs work in the range 2.5 to 3.5 volts (different colours have different forward voltages) and you will blow the LED. If you spent hours fiddling to get it fitted , this is annoying!

For general lighting effects inside buildings, you could perhaps use one of those redundant Christmas light sets? Once you start, you will find myriad ways to make your world glow!

Fitting the lights[edit | edit source]

Assuming you have figured out which light to use, you have the correct colour, resistor and tested it works, you now need to fit the light into your model.

First step, as in the rest of the hobby, is planning! It’s no good spending hours building your model, only to then cut it apart to fit the LED and wires. Which room needs the light? Where will the wires go? Where is the likely place for light-bleed?

Light bleed refers to light escaping through cracks in the model, or even directly through thin sections of plastic, which creates an aura around the light that's been fitted.

It helps if you use a matt black acrylic paint in areas that cannot be seen inside buildings and also loco bodies if fitting lights. This can help reduce “light bleed” which can happen with some plastics.

To avoid light bleed at joins in model buildings, a number of techniques can be used, such as copper tape, electrical tape or blue-tac. A good trick is to use small magnets to hold the roofs on instead of glue which makes service issues simple; this is a bit more time consuming to eliminate light leakage (bleed) but well worth it!

Insulation tape can also be used to hold down LEDs, or partially cover led with the tape to reduce light levels.

Another technique is to use 12V LED strips which have an adhesive back, so can be stuck inside the buildings, the wires then poke through a pre-drilled hole in the baseboard and then soldered to a circuit of copper tape, connected to a variable voltage transformer.

Track underlay and ballasting[edit | edit source]

Croxley West by James E Petts

You will need some or all of the following tools and equipment:

  • Bag(s) of ballast
  • Ruler
  • Eye type dropper or syringe
  • PVA or preferably latex based glue (Copydex or similar)
  • Fine mist spray bottle
  • Assortment of small paint brushes or old toothbrushes
  • IPA/Meths/Washing up liquid
  • Ballast applicator

Many modellers consider ballasting a chore, but one that is necessary to get the right look. Ballast for railway modellers comes in many sizes and colours. You will need to choose the size dependant on the scale of your model railway, and the colour because of what was used at the location of your railway. Size is really important as over or under size ballast just looks wrong. Colour is not as important as variations occurred around the country dependant on what local stone was available. It is possible to combine two colours to create the effect you require, but mixing the materials must be done accurately to allow you to combine the two colours again should you require more material.

Another important aspect is the profile of the track bed. Typically the track sits a couple of feet above grade, on a bed of ballast. In the model world, we create the ballast profile by sitting the track onto a strip of cork, cut to the correct width and a sloped edge. Other suitable thickness materials can be used.

Old / disused lines may not need shoulders but can be ballasted straight to grade

If your baseboard is covered with insulation boards (as sold in hardware stores to go beneath laminate flooring), and the correct glue is used (see below) a reasonable amount of sound damping can be achieved. On the other hand, if there is no sub-track bed, and PVA is used, the ballast provides a very effective sound-couple to the baseboard which can act as a sound board!

If you are going to paint/weather your rails, its best to do this before applying ballast.

Once you have chosen the material you are going to use for ballasting its time to start laying the material. Ballasting can take a long time, but if done correctly will last for years and will enhance any model railway layout. Badly laid ballast will spoil any layout, and will be hard to remove once applied.

Along either side of your track, draw a line using a pencil to define the edge of the ballast. Dont worry if the line is not straight, as you will be bringing your other scenic material up to this ballast edge. Look at photos of your desired location to find how wide the ballast bed should be. A roughly blended edge will look more natural that a perfectly defined edge. A ballast applicator can be used which will lay the ballast at approximately the correct depth and width.

Sprinkle or apply a layer of your chosen ballast and carefully arrange it between the sleepers, using the brushes, and up to the edge line until you are happy with the results. An old toothbrush is ideal for this in that it was hard enough to move the ballast but not too hard as to dislodge it. Carefully press the ballast down between the sleepers. It is easier to do short lengths at a time rather than do a whole long length in one attempt. On points or crossing make sure that the ballast does not interfere with the operation of the points. One way to do this is to place 1mm rubber strips, between the blades and the rails, with some similar strips on the inside of the blades, and a strip over the joining brace, then ballast is poured in the centre space, and then glued. Tweezers and craft knife out the rubber strips, before rubbing the set of points over with a track rubber.

Once you are happy with the look and position of the ballast you need to carefully and lightly spray the ballast with water to which you have added a small drop of washing up liquid or alcohol. This addition breaks down the surface tension of the water and allows it to flow better and soak into the ballast. Do not water-log the ballast and be careful not to wash the small granules away.

Once wet, apply a 50-50mix of water and PVA adhesive, again with a small drop of washing up liquid using the eye dropper to the ballast. You should be able to watch the adhesive mix flow and soak into the ballast. Allow to soak in. Capillary action will draw the glue through the ballast so be patient and give it time to work its way in. Again do not add too much. Gauging how much to add will come with experience. If you do not add enough the ballast will crumble and not stick. If you add too much it will wash away. You can always add more where required.

An alternative to the above wet-glue method is to mix the ballast dry with a dry powder glue - this is available from Delux Scenics, or you can use Cascamite. You apply the dry mix as above, and then spray as above. This method can save some time and if done well can achieve the same results. Whichever method is chosen you have to leave your big soggy mess to dry thoroughly. This can take some time, and should not be rushed. Do not run any locos on the track as the track power or any DCC signal may be affected by the water in the ballast.

Once everything is dry, you should be able to remove any excess ballast and to add more if required to places where it has not set properly. You will have small grains of ballast where they should not be, and will have glue on your track. Small bits of ballast can be carefully removed with a scalpel blade, but take care. PVA glue on your track can also be removed carefully using a knife blade. The glue does not really stick to the metal track, but will to areas that have been weathered and painted. Be extra vigilant around point blades for small bits of ballast and glue as these will affect the good running of your model.

Finally, the ballast and sleepers can be weathered to achieve truly lifelike results. For the best weathering effects, mix together a fine wash of mid-brown/grey acrylic colour and apply, followed by a dry brush with white for that finishing touch. The ballast will look better once the surrounding scenery is brought up to meet the ballast.

Once all ballasting is completed test the track again, cleaning where required.

Further information[edit | edit source]

Introduction to model railways/References and further information

Scenic model railways

References and further information

Useful YouTube channels[edit | edit source]

Sam’s Trains

Strathpeffer Junction


Everard Junction

Kathy Millat

Warley MRC

Chadwick TMD

North East Model Railway

Tim Cooper's The Scrap Line

Mike Buick "how to's

Dudley Central

Lakeside Parkway



Useful websites[edit | edit source]

Brian loads of detailed help on a wide range of topics

Topic based Facebook groups[edit | edit source]

Model Trains for Novices

N Guage model railway group

Model railway enthusiasts

Model railways

Model railways, trains and layouts

All scale model rails (this group has a focus on scratchbuilding and use of lighting)

British railway modeling

Garden rail international

It’s my railway I’ll run what I want

DCC Model railways

009 Railway modellers (focus on narrow gauge modeling)

Other groups and organisations[edit | edit source]

RMWeb community help group with numerous topic based help areas.

MERG provides detailed knowledge and hardware for electronics used on model railways

Magazines[edit | edit source]

Railway Modeller

British Railway Modelling

Continental Railway Modeller

Model Railroader (USA models)

More technical issues

This page will discuss some of the more specific detailed issues commonly needing explanation

Understanding Track Code[edit | edit source]

Track is sold in sizes called "codes," which indicate the rail height in thousandths of an inch. Code 100 (.100"), code 83 (.083"), and code 70 (.070") are common sizes in 00/HO scale while code 80, code 70, and code 55 are used for N scale. These sizes represent the various sizes real railroads use.

Older rolling stock may have flange sizes that are greater then the rail height, meaning the stock will bump along the chairs (that attach rail to sleeper). This is not a Good Thing!

Sleeper Spacing[edit | edit source]

Track purchased in the UK is suitable for running H0 and 00 trains. The difference in scale is about 10%, and the track is scaled for H0 use. This means the sleepers are incorrectly positioned for use on an 00 model. Most modellers don’t worry about this, but it is possible to reposition the sleepers.

For the benefit of those of you respacing Peco Code 75 / 100 track, you need to be aiming at 5.5 mm between the sleepers - this gives a good balance between the narrow gauge track and small sleeper size, making everything look in proportion. A few things to bear in mind - 1) In the real world sleepers can be closer together on high speed lines, and curves. 2) Point timbers are closer together than plain track so it’s no big deal to have the points standard looking. 3) Wooden sleeper track will have a different spacing to concrete sleeper track. 4) Don’t worry if the sleepers aren’t perfect, it’ll make it look more prototypical. 5) Glue the track down - there’s no point in making it look good and then ruining it with track pins! 6) Use N Gauge ballast, again for a similar reason to the last point. 7) To make it look even better, remove all of the webbing, don’t just cut through it. It takes a lot longer but it looks much better when ballasted.

Point motor options[edit | edit source]

Points near Plymouth (England)

There are a number of ways to change/throw a point.

Manually - cheapest and easiest for points you can reach.

Use a long pointed stick. Slightly less intrusive than a direct “Hand of God”, but still not great although useful for points in hard to reach places that you fitted a while ago and can’t automate!

Manual Ground Throws. These are close-coupled to the point and are operated by hand. Note that in many circumstances this is prototypical as remote sidings often had manually operated throws, so these can look appropriate on a model railway.

Wire in Tube. Similar to a Bowden cable on a bike, and the same technology as used in RC airplanes. A thin wire down the inside of a narrow plastic tube (typically <1mm) engages with the point at one end, and with a ground throw or motor at the other. The tube can be buried in a groove in the board, hidden under ballast etc. This technique can be useful if you cannot get under a baseboard, but setting them up accurately can be tricky.

Solenoid motors. These used to be the standard motor for point operations. A coil of wire around a soft iron core is energised. The resulting magnetic field attracts the core, which is connected to point. Reversing the current reverses the polarity, and moves the point the other way.

Manufacturers make units that clip directly onto their points, which can then be wired via a switch to the AC auxiliary output of your controller. This provides a cheap and effective remote system. The downsides are that the operation is akin to “snap action” and can be noisy - this is very unlike the real thing. If you have a lot of points, you will need to improve your power supply by adding a CDU (Capacitor Discharge Unit) to increase the power available.

Some solenoids can be fitted below the baseboard and operate the point via a stiff rod that goes through the board and engages with a small hole in the point tie-bar.

Specialist point motors. These are fitted below the points, and operate the point via a flexible steel rod engaged with the tie bar. These motors operate at a slower speed and so are more prototypical, and can include auxiliary contacts to operate frog polarity switching, signals, lights etc. Due to their being fitted below board, consideration to fit must be made at the design and build stage.

Servo Motors. These are cheap devices and are as used in RC airplanes. They are controlled by a specialist circuit board, where the limits can be set-up as required. Servo motors are small and retrofitting is much easier than with underboard point motors, as they can be let down into the board at the side of the track. Fully hidden installation beneath the board is also possible.

Point Motors and Servos can be operated using an analog control panel, or can be addressed as part of a fully integrated DCC system.

Documentation[edit | edit source]

As you progress in your model, you will add more wires. These could be additional track feeds, lights, points, signals, animations and so on. Over time, you will forget what goes where! To aid future fault finding, make a note of your wiring details. Number the connectors, use different colour wires for different services (and stick to this!). The document can be as simple as a handwritten notebook, or a fully functioned database.

Examples of simple wiring list and point motor wiring diagram

Simple terminal strip detail for model railway


Couplers[edit | edit source]

Couplings are one of the unsung heroes of our model railway.

Obviously, they allow you to connect stock together, without which we only have individual wagons, and not a train! But what else do these components do? What Bad Things can happen when they are not properly set-up, and what fixes and alternatives are available?

Let’s think about uncoupling a bit more...your train has left the freight yard, you’ve traveled over 100 compressed miles, and now here you are ready to deliver a load of stuff to a widget factory. You’re backing into the spur and your “crew” is getting ready to uncouple the wagon so it can be left at the warehouse and unloaded. What happens next?...

Worst case scenario - two giant hands come down from the sky and try to jiggle the wagon loose from the rest of the train. It doesn’t come loose right away so the hands have to lift it off the track in order to unhook it, then try to rerail it again next to the furniture factory.

Next to the worst case scenario - one giant hand holding a big stick comes down from the sky and puts the stick down between the couplers; the big stick turns a little and the car rolls free.

Best case scenario - there are no hands in the sky. The train backs up into the spur and stops for a moment. The couplers separate. The train pulls forward a little, then backs up slowly, pushing the wagon into position next to the unloading dock. The train pulls forward with the spotted wagon remaining in place at the loading dock. The train then pulls out onto the mainline to travel to its next destination.

Different coupling designs

Tension-lock couplings.

The most common design used in the UK is the “tension-lock”. These are relatively simple devices, and have a small hook on each wagon that links over a receiving bar on the adjacent unit. When tension is applied (eg by the loco), they lock together - hence the name.

Problems with this design?

  • On tight radius bends, the buffers can clash and lock together causing derailment.
  • Shunting and positioning wagons is not easy, with decoupling devices not prototypical.
  • Manual decoupling of wagons often tricky.


This type of coupler is much more like a prototypical device, and some manufacturers offer a near-scale item. They are much easier to use in a shunting environment, with decoupling achieved by hidden magnets, or by magnets just above sleeper level. Kadee is the leading manufacturer of this type, offering a wide range of items with different lengths and heights allowing retrofitting to a large range of stock. A number of manufacturers claim to be equivalent to Kadee.

N Gauge Rapido tension lock.

Manufacturers in this scale have pretty much standardised on the rapido tension lock system, which looks a little more like a prototypical unit.

Horn-hook couplers.

Often found on older H0 (N American) models, these rely on side pressure to keep them locked

Chain and Hook.

This type is common on the larger scales and is prototypical for old stock. Modellers in Fine Scale (4mm) will also use this type of coupling. Remote uncoupling is not easy with this technology, although it can be attempted with remotely operated solenoids built into the rolling stock. Generally coupling/uncoupling is achieved by “Hand of God” using a stick with a small hook on the end to lift the chains into position.

Dingham autocouplers work with 3-link and are unobstrusive automatic couplers


Most people don’t like horn hook or tension lock couplers and can’t wait to replace them with (or “convert” them to) knuckle couplers that are more realistic and work well with the magnetic uncouplers. This allows the Best Case Scenario described above. It takes time and effort to convert all of your equipment to knuckle couplers, but you dont have to change everything, at least, not straightaway. Simply do the rear hook on the locomotive, and one hook on one wagon which will act as the lead wagon on the train. All the remaining hooks can remain as-is.

Coupler height

No matter what kind of train couplers you have, they won’t work well if they are mounted at the wrong height. You will need a coupler height gauge for your scale to tell whether your couplers are the right height or not.

Assuming the couplers are mounted on the wagon, if the coupler is sitting too high, you can lower it by putting a shim between the bottom of the wagon floor and the coupler pocket. If the coupler is too low, you can add one or more washers between the bogey/truck and the wagon bottom. If the coupler is mounted on the bogey, you may have to replace the bogey assembly or the wheels, particularly if the coupler is too low.

Magnetic uncouplers

Kadee was the first manufacturer to develop this system for knuckle couplers, in which a special magnet (not just any magnet) is positioned under the track at a strategic location like in front of a branch line, spur or ladder, such that, when a train is backed up and stopped with the knuckle coupler over the magnet, the “glad-hands” of the coupler come apart when slack is allowed. The train should then be pulled forward a little, and then backed up again to push the wagon(s) into the proper position without recoupling. The train can then pull out of the spur leaving the wagon where it was placed. This is called the “delayed uncoupler”, as opposed to the “regular uncoupler” which will recouple itself to the train after it is pushed back off the magnet.

Youtube has a number of videos which demonstrate the principle of magentic knuckle coupler operation. some videos also show how tension lock couplers can be converted for magnetic uncoupling

Electric uncouplers

These are also available for all scales, which are primarily electromagnets activated by applying current to a wire wrapped around a cylinder many times which creates a magnetic field. These have to be mounted in a space cut out from under the track.

Manual uncouplers for tension lock couplings can be fitted. The train must be positioned over the unit and the loco backed-up slightly to take the tension off the coupler. The uncoupling ramps are very obvious.

Uncoupler installation tips

If you are going to use uncoupling devices, it makes sense to include them in your original track planning. It’s easier to install them as you are laying your track initially rather than trying to do it later, although it can still be done. You may have to use a rotary tool or track saw to cut out and replace small sections of track in order to place the magnets, but it wouldn’t be that difficult. If your track is already laid and you want to install uncouplers, go for surface mounted magnets laid above the sleepers available from the manufacturer. Small rare-earth magnets can also be set into small (~4mm) holes drilled into the track-bed.

Incorrectly installed couplers can lead to derailments, or disconnections and subsequent crashes as your train hits the left behind wagon in the tunnel!

Read about full size w:Railway_couplings here

Using flexitrack[edit | edit source]

Flexitrack allows you to make bespoke curves and will give greater credibility to your model than using Setrack. The problem though is that as soon as you connect one end to a fixed track and start to bend it the rails shorten and lengthen with the end popping out of the connected fishplate. What's the correct way to use flexi track to avoid this?

Always pre-bend your track to the curvature you need. Fix one end really firm so the ends stay parallel - as you gradually introduce your curve at the other end you get different lengths, due to the different radius (and hence circumference of the circles you are making). These need to be trimmed square.

Once happy with the curve , you need to keep the new (irregular rail) firm and then cut the rails square. I hold with bull-nosed pliers and cut using a Dremel. Xuron cutters also work. Do NOT use regular side cutters as these pinch the rail and you will have a lot of filing and cleaning up to do which will probably pull the rail out of the chairs.

Note that if you do pull the rails out, with care it is possible to completely remove and re-thread rails on flexitrack!

The better curves you will get are well worth the practice and effort.

Forced perspective[edit | edit source]

Forced perspective is a technique which employs optical illusion to make an object appear farther away, closer, larger or smaller than it actually is. It manipulates human visual perception through the use of scaled objects and the correlation between them and the vantage point of the spectator or camera. In our miniature railway world, it is often used to make things at the back of the baseboard, which may be 24” to 36” away, to look as though they are much further away. This effect is used to good effect in the purchased backscenes, that are at a significantly different scale than objects at the front of the scene.

If your layout is on a board with viewing from every side, there is limited scope to apply the technique however wherever you have a “front” and a “back” to your model, there are various tricks you can employ.

  • Trees can be slightly smaller than the same “size” tree at the front
  • If you have picked up various model cars at sales put the smaller ones at the back
  • If you are making downloaded card buildings, print the ones for the back of the scene slightly smaller.
  • As mentioned, the backscene painting/picture can be scaled smaller
  • As shown by a couple of teams on the GMRC, you could build backscene models in a smaller scale (i.e. 00 at the front, N at the back)

You can read more about forced perspective here


Keeping the track and wheels of your model clean are essential for the reliable operation of your railway.

When the model is not being used, keep it covered with a dust-cloth.

You can also help “design out” some of the dust problem if you have built a proscenium over the layout (this also provides somewhere to mount your lighting, and potentially storage on top)

The frequency and type of cleaning technique used will depend on the amount of track you have, what type of track and how accessible you have made the layout.

Track and stock cleanliness will also be affected by whether you are creating a lot of dust in your model room, how much paint spraying you are doing and other environmental issues (damp, humidity etc)

Whilst much focus is in cleaning the rails, it is important to keep wheels clean, especially any plastic wheels, which are prone to collect dirt and distribute this around the layout.

Note: This section is aimed at indoor railways. Garden rail layouts have a whole different level of issues to address!

Track cleaning methods.

  • Remove dust first with soft brush and small vacuum (e.g. computer vacuum, dustbuster etc)
  • Track rubber - followed by a clean with IPA - various manufacturers (However, some users find that they leave little bits everywhere, including stuck to the top of the rails, where, being insulating rubber, the bits actually make running worse. They also scratch the top of the rails which produces lots of small ridges [see also emery cloth in 'things to avoid' below]. The ridges encourage sparks which erode the wheels and track and is partially responsible for the dirt that accumulates on wheels! Rough rails also encourage wear and corrosion. The corroded metal is a very big cause of the dirt on wheels and is an insulator.
  • Hardboard (the type with a smooth side and a 'rough' side) - 'rough' side down. This actually polishes the rails but is tough enough to remove the softer dirt. Use the edge and 'elbow grease' if the dirt is too tough. Regular use should keep on top of the dirt and stop it building up too much.
  • Cardboard (acts as a track rubber) then IPA
  • Soft cloth and IPA
  • Cotton buds and IPA
  • Track cleaning wagons (IPA and track cleaning pads fixed to purpose made rolling stock (from a variety of manufacturers eg CMX, Dapol, ROCO etc)
  • Noch axle hung track cleaning pads which will fit majority of rolling stock
  • Rub track with graphite (artists pencil, carpenters pencil, 6B pencil)
  • Use an electronic unit attached to your power supply (DC Only)
  • Acetone (nail varnish remover)
  • Specialist track cleaning fluids are available (e.g. Goo Gone, Track Magic, Dapol Track Fluid, Railzip)
  • Ballasting. This can cause problems, especially around points. Excess ballast and glue should be cleaned up using flossing sticks, cotton buds and IPA.

Wheel cleaning methods

  • Autosol metal polish
  • IPA
  • Fibre glass pen
  • Purpose built motorised track section. Fibre glass rods are vibrated as the train runs. Install this either on a main line, or on a purpose built siding, accesible by all rakes/locos.
  • Wet a j-cloth or similar with IPA. Put one set of loco wheels over the cloth, with one set of wheels directly on the track. Apply power to getbthe wheels turning, while holding the loco. The wheels spin on the cloth and will get cleaned. Keep using fresh bit of cloth to monitor progress.
  • Woodland Scenics wheel cleaning system
  • Peco and Gaugemaster wheel cleaning systems
  • rotary tool with soft brass brush wheel
  • Bachuras Wheel Doctor.
  • Halfords electrical contact cleaner on cotton buds to clean loco wheels and pickups

Locomotive cleaning

If in doubt, leave this to a specialist! However there are some things that can be attempted by the novice.

Clean the pick-ups occasionally using the likes of a micro tip brush which is ideal for getting into tight areas

Things to avoid

Don’t over-lubricate - this will attract dust.

Do NOT use emery cloth or similar. The temptation is great, but the micro-grooves left will simply attract more dirt, quicker.

Do NOT use WD-40. Whilst this is often a miracle cure for many things, it is not good for cleaning track, or lubricating locomotives.

Controversially, some people use ATF (automatic transmission fluid). Although it does have conductive properties, oil on the track will act as a dust attractor, and lead to increased wheel slip. Others will claim good results from ATF; this might be down to the different scales used, so it could be a viable alternative in some cases.