Assigning a Theme for Your Model Railroad Layout

The next installment in our ongoing series on planning and building a model railroad layout is all about layout themes. In case you missed our previous installment on track configurations, make sure to go back and check out that post for handy diagrams of common configurations. In this post, we’ll talk about establishing a theme that makes sense for your layout, using my own as an example.

But before we get started, let me first say that if you need inspiration for your layout project, read Nothing Like It in the World, by Stephen E. Ambrose. The story of the building of our first transcontinental railroad is an unbelievably captivating account of the project from start to finish. If you have trains in your veins, reading this book will fill you with inspiration. Prepare your golden spike!


The historic Golden Spike moment

Now then, back to building our own empires. There are some things to consider regarding the space available, the curve radii, and possible helixes needed to accomplish your goals but we can discuss the details a bit later.


HO layout under construction with multiple helixes. Photo credit: Doug Hodgdon

More is better, right? But, take note: big steam, passenger trains, and modern cars running about 80 scale feet or more in length need wider curves and clearances than other shorter choices. Double-headers and long trains are cool, but as much as I would like to operate a big-time main line railroad in my space, it just isn’t possible. So in my case, I instead focused on what I could build.

My old HO basement layout featured a railroad in Northern California’s Redwood country I named “Tidewater Southern.” In a 20’ by 20’ area, I had plenty of room to model this fictitious short line.

tidewater southern

Map of Doug’s “Tidewater Southern Railroad.” Photo credit: Doug Hodgdon

Then when I sold all of my HO models and switched full time to S-scale (1/64th), I decided to convert the back wall of my garage for my next venture. My new space wouldn’t allow a reasonable dog-bone curve for continuous running, so I designed a 2’ by 18’ shelf-type point-to-point industrial switching layout. My theme is to get the most enjoyment I can out of 36 square feet.

If you have a warehouse space and lots of time and money, I say go for it, but most of us live with restrictions on our rights-of-way, so compromise is in order. A layout doesn’t have to be big to be great. I’ve seen some really fantastic small layouts. There can be great fun and talent in putting more in less.

My layout is a semi-fictitious stub-end standard gauge branch line off my favorite railroad, the Southern Pacific in California. Other choices are old time, short lines, narrow gauge, specialty industrial railroads, or trolley lines.

southern pacific

Doug’s new switching layout featuring the Southern Pacific. Photo credit: Doug Hodgdon

I grew up in a town that had a 2’ gauge railroad serving a creosote plant, and I have a collection of Southern Pacific narrow gauge equipment, but after considering the options, my SP standard gauge won out for layout construction.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts on layout design or space challenges you’ve overcome. Your comments are welcome.

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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4 Responses to “Assigning a Theme for Your Model Railroad Layout”
  1. John Buckley

    I have had pretty much all sizes of layouts, all built to fit 12 by 12 rooms. Single level. Folded over dog bone. Double level with helix, around the room shelf and my current plan, an L shaped simple switching layout. I have found as I have gotten older that for me, smaller is better. Intimate close up modeling, in an industrial setting is more comfortable and enjoyable than a huge empire. Just my opinion.

    • Patrick

      I’ve got to agree with John about the smaller, more intimate layouts! My first layout was built on a 9′ x 5′ ping-pong table my parents gave me at the age of 9, and I built a fun roundy-round, with a bunch of switching. From about the age of 14 or so (I am now 51), I have always focused on smaller, shelf type switching affairs. I get this from my rail-fanning. Because I grew up, around 3 locations where I could sit all day, and some times nights, watching trains. All 3 places were located within a 1/4 mile of a signal, and I learned early on, that when the signals turned either green or yellow, within 10 minutes or so, a train would come rumbling by.

      There were also areas at my train watching spots, that the locals would come by and switch from time to time, and this is what really formed the foundation of my modeling ideas and style. It’s what I am familiar with. So I’ve always approached my layout as a hot spot for train watching. Lots of staging, a signal, a crossing grade, and a spot or two for switching, with lots and lots of detailing for spectating. Sometimes, I just love to sit and watch the signal glowing in the distance, and wonder where the next train is, and what it might be doing before it arrives. The smell of creosote in the air, the sounds of different insects doing what bugs do, and a slight breeze, and I’m always ready for rail-fanning!

  2. Rich Ciaffarafa

    After building several layouts from 4 x 8’s to some much larger I have found that the idea of modeling to a concept works for me. As we start out in this hobby we tend to collect everything we get our hands on and often wind up with stuff we can’t use. I found myself having no fun with my so called collection and decided to finally make a choice on what to model. Easy right? Not really, because now I had to sell off the items not needed and try to find the ones that would represent the railroad, era and place I chose. When I made my choice of the D&RGW’s old 3rd division I was living in an apartment. Highly condensed sections were built as modules which were set up twice a year at shows. Moved to a small house and the sections could now stay up but it didn’t really have the feel I was looking for. Wound up scrapped the modules a few years before moving again to a BIG basement which I thought would hold more than my original concept called for but not really. At this point my drawings confirmed that there was still not enough room for what I had imagined. After looking at several options and scenarios I decided to try a double deck design. Still not enough room. Reexamined my concept to decide what features I really liked about this line and found that I could replace half of the division with a simple staging area without losing the core of operations. Although I lost some areas with dramatic scenery I will be able to have my first layout with prototype based operation. My track plan is complete enough to start construction and I’m in the process of room prep now. The planning had taken way too much time to complete due to a lack of some prototype info on operations so I started a 4 x 8 to keep me from going crazy and to help avoid rushing my plans. This has been a very enjoyable exercise and is almost complete now.

  3. brian eiland

    I know it will be far from ‘prototypically correct’, but I want to name my new model train layout either, ‘the Continental’ or the ‘Trans-Continental’.

    Why? I’ve ended up with a lot of B&O, C&O steamers and diesels. And I just had to have a slew of those beautiful Santa Fe locos as well, both steamers and primarily diesels. I want to run them all on one layout.

    So as I have it planned I will have a B&O city scene on the lower deck, and a Santa Fe scene on the upper deck. My railroad will stretch from the east coast to the west coast.

    I also have some nice passenger cars for both the SantaFe line and the B&O line.