Ideas for Unique Layout Concepts

In this installment, I’d like to suggest various types of railroad layouts (in no particular order) from which you can derive inspiration for your concept:

Club layout:

I’ve visited some really great clubs – they generally can allow HUGE spaces beyond the range of the typical model railroader. Think long trains, wide curves, and plenty of scenery. Having a dedicated group of guys working on multiple projects can accomplish a lot as well as be rewarding and fun. The idea is that you inspire each other.

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Traveling Club modular layouts are a great way to introduce model railroading to the general public.

Caricature layout:

I would call it a Disney-esque display of creativity. The modeling is of great detail, but may incorporate multi-scale components to draw the eye and create a theatrical experience.

Commercial displays:

I’ve been doing commercial displays for almost 50 years now. A train can be a decor element for a bar/restaurant, a hotel, an office, or a museum. I use large scale for the visibility factor and for its heavy duty, outdoor-style of construction. A commercial train can put on lots of miles during the course of a day, weeks, and months. I always use metal wheels. The plastic wheels just don’t hold up.

Scenery is optional on these layouts, but I think long bridges and tunnels are a great effect and add mystique. I do use lighted building flats in some cases.

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G-scale layout installed in bar/restaurant by author.

Three-rail scale:

What I would call a case for the collector-turned-modeler. Why not show off your collection by operating it through realistic scenery? On a well detailed three-rail layout the third rail becomes an afterthought. I like fresh ideas.

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O-scale layout: with the right scenery and ballast, the third rail is barely visible.

Industrial, logging, and mining:

To me, these concepts are all quite similar. You might combine gauges (standard and narrow), antique or homemade equipment, sharp curves, steep grades, and spindly bridges. Add a shop area with all kinds of parts overgrown with brush. What’s not to like?

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HO-scale steel mill makes a big impression and adds plenty of switching action.

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Logging and mining scenes are typical HO narrow gauge themes.

Horse car lines:

There is a re-creation of the South Pacific Coast narrow gauge line at the Carter Resources Museum in Newark, California. Horses actually pull narrow gauge cars at the museum. I’m not quite sure how you get a miniature horse to work? Robotics maybe?

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Horse-drawn railroad in Peoria, Illinois, pre-1906. Credit: Wikipedia

Tourist lines:

Imagine a line winding up a mountain top. A cog railroad can do that. Or, as in the case of the Mt. Tamalpias and Muir Woods railroad in Marin County, California, you can push open narrow gauge tourist cars to the summit with a geared locomotive, have lunch, and ride all the way back down by gravity, with the braking controlled by a brakeman on board. The line was called: “The Crookedest Railroad in the World.”

Underground rail lines:

I’ve seen some very interesting modeling of underground rail lines. Europeans seem to be the most interested. They could be a very narrow gauge and maybe electrified and fit into a small space. I’ve seen mirrors used to view underground facilities. What a concept! They could be mine trains, subways, urban industrials, or even a rail system in an underground World War II bunker! Chicago had an extensive and fascinating urban underground rail network.

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A view of Chicago’s Underground Railroad, circa 1910. Credit: unknown

Railroad car ferries, hump yards, rotary dumpers and container ports:

Over the years modelers have invented various methods to animate these facilities. I’d love to hear of anyone out there who has taken on these complex projects and had success with them.

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Harbor port scenes with railroad car ferries bring lots of action to switching operations. Credit: BGSU

Next time we actually build something! Stay tuned for benchwork!

More in this series:

So You Want to Build a Model Railroad Layout?
Choosing Model Railroad Track Configurations
Assigning a Theme for Your Model Railroad Layout
Ideas for Unique Layout Concepts
Tips on Trackwork
Helpful Tips for Model Railroad Wiring
Creative Ideas for Model Railroad Structures

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18 Responses to “Ideas for Unique Layout Concepts”

  1. Paul Cesak

    Kinda sucks that you are using my logging site without giving credit. And it is not HO…it is On3

    • Tom Sander

      How come I never see any woman in these club photos? Is it still “Boys and their Toys”?

  2. jimoldiron

    Hi everyone I’m new to this. I am a volunteer for the Metolius Spike and Rail in Metolius Oregon. The city counsel knew that I like modeling buildings and so they ask me to do a model railroad and base it on anything I wanted. Well since Metolius was founded by the railroad, I decided to do the theme on the 1911 railroad war up the Deschutes river. I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how to start my layout. I need to make it look like the two trains are really working there way up the canyon on each side of the river. the space I have is 8 X 12 feet . Any ideas would be great appreciative.

  3. Chuck Wendt

    I would like to see more info S Gauge layouts. Thanks for an interesting web-site. Chuck

    • Leigh

      I agree. After 45 years of my American Flyer being in boxes and Covid keeping me home I started expanding and setting up a layout in my garage. S gauge isn’t too large or too small. Great variety of things to do but not a lot of scenic items such as buildings and figures available. Plus most articles talk about O, HO and N scale most of the time.

  4. James A


    • Customer Service

      Hello James,

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  5. Doug Hickman

    Anyone ever consider modelling the Delray Connecting Railroad? It’s on Zug Island in the Detroit River. It used to be a peninsula until Henry Ford cut a channel on the South side making it an island. It could likely be modeled almost completely on two 4 x 8 sheets of plywood. See it on GoogleEarth.

  6. Martin Ringis

    I’m finally getting back to model railroading after a very long absence ( 20 + years ). I’m interested in doing
    as before a layout of the area where I grew up, the coal region of Eastern Penna. I would like some hints
    on how to go about this. Mainly a two gauge track to accomodate the standard gauge & the mine lokies.
    Can you be of assistance. I run HO & N.

    Thank You

  7. Elaine Dern

    I want to place a train in my backyard. Looking for a reliable train set. Want the ability to add track. Any ideas. I am afraid to purchase some kit which has obsolete

  8. Bill

    I am working on an N scale waterfront freight terminal switching layout. Dose anyone have any ideas for overhead cranes, 1930’s vintage, for the piers on the layout.

    • Customer Service

      Hi Bill. That sounds really cool. I think your best bet is going to be 3D printing. Check out Shapeways and let me know what you find out.

  9. Bob Abbey

    Great series Doug. I have been away from my HO layout building for about 15 years. I did build a small G scale layout in my garage, but I want to start planning for a new HO layout in a spare bedroom. I like the size of HO for modeling industries and small towns. Like you, I prefer a local California railroad, but I prefer Santa Fe over Southern Pacific. I have spent my life living in Northern California and I worked 5 years in the Redding/Eureka area, so I am familiar with the area you modeled. I grew up in Oakland, California and the Sacramento Northern trains ran down the middle of the street in front of our house. I am sure those big steam locomotives are what gave me a lifelong love of trains. Thanks for helping rekindle my planning for a new layout.