Ideas for Adding Personality to Model Railroad Layouts

I’m digressing a bit for this installment. I’ve had many great experiences designing and building model railroads for over fifty years now and met rail modelers from many avocations. For me the most inspiring part of that experience has to be the emotional connection that develops while working and sharing creative ideas with fellow modelers.
So, for me, the human interaction component is a key element in “The World’s Greatest Hobby.” Applying that concept to our three-dimensional artwork of building our displays of model railroading is what I refer to as adding the Fourth Dimension. It’s the reward we receive for ourselves after hours of dedicated modeling work.

Focus on Storytelling

Thinking in these terms should be a precursor to scenery detail work. Model railroading can be storytelling as well as all its other attributes. In its own way, the enjoyment of our hobby can be akin to reading a novel or watching a good movie. Just maybe we’re building a movie set including actors, all in a miniature scale. Wow!
As a youngster, I had the great fortune of riding with real train crews and visiting their shops and yards. I asked questions and learned what their lives as railroaders were like. Relating back to those experiences, I believe that as we create our alternate realities, our layouts really need to address the human dimension that ostensibly created those scenarios in the first place. What if we lived in their world? What would our daily activities be like? Would you be the railroad’s president, or maybe the town’s mayor? How about a civil engineer or a town planner? Sound crazy? I’m hoping this blog will be a conversation starter. Related video: Personalizing Your Model Railroad Layouts

Develop a Back Story

Think about it—we create the environment for our miniature workers. What are their jobs? Where do they go? Are there historical influences at these locations? Bottom line—does your layout have a “personality”?
A little about the historical aspect. I believe that to bring a scene alive there should be a “back story.” A developed story, real or imagined, can transfer a true believability to our projects. Scenic elements can be used to provide a visual history of passing time, such as an abandoned building, an old roadbed, or derelict rail equipment. Can you feel the creative juices flowing? Related video: Using Applied History to Duplicate a Prototype Railroad I’m very interested in your feelings about the “fourth dimension” of model railroading. If we develop enough interest, hopefully we could develop an ongoing discussion section on the theatrics of modeling at the Model Railroad Academy website.
More on designing and creating a model railroad layout next time! 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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28 Responses to “Ideas for Adding Personality to Model Railroad Layouts”

  1. Tom Fafard

    I enjoyed this article. I find that trains are great, but if your layout does not have a purpose it is just a diorama. Putting “history” or meaning into the life of your railroad makes it much more believable.

  2. Bob

    There are layouts and modular railroads that use many extras, but often they are just the expected “out of the box” details that some add almost “mechanically’. While those are nice details, they don’t necessarily bring the scene to life. My N scale layout is 90% Swiss & German with hints of both the US and Japan here and there. The walls are muraled with the Swiss alps and farms. The challenge then was to create the scenes to match the background. Some years ago a couple visiting from Germany came down to see the layout. The woman exclaimed these words: “I feel like I’m home again.” No finer compliment has ever been paid.

  3. Gile E Tojek

    My most recent layout is a mirror of my life. Focused around my high school years with many of the places I frequented. This may not be meaningful to others, but it is to me and that is what model railroading is all about.

    • Customer Service

      Great question. A custom built and detailed model structure can be quite expensive compared to off the shelf stock.
      This my seem a bit morbid, but the best place to find custom structures is railroad estate sales or railroad flea markets.

  4. Fred Morley

    Just purchased a house with an loft room 11×14 to build my RR. It will begain with my 1950 Lionel 2023. Will build a 1950-60 city around my home town. One overpass where my dad just got through before a derail fell, no one was injured. Found photos of house I grew up in. Other half will be divided by a mountain tunnel to modern era.

  5. TIM

    I’m mostly “finished” with the nuts and bolts of my two Downtown Cityscape layouts (bench work, track work, ballasting, wiring, buildings, landscaping, etc.), and now I’m into the fun part of layout building (after running trains!), setting the scene! The two layouts (4’x8’ and a 2’x8’ trolley line) offer a LOT of possibilities for interactions, both dramatic and humorous, with six ‘main’ streets, three dingy alleys, and the background under an 8’ span of MTH Steel Girder Arch bridges.

    In one area, I’ve got a mini scene in a small alley with a painter being micro-managed by a landlord as he puts a fresh coat of red paint over decades old whitewash. And in other news, there is a breaking story in the downtown shopping district with a daring daylight robbery (or a nighttime burglary, if the room lights are off!) at a high end jewelry store. Police are on the scene and an arrest has been made, but the situation is still unfolding, with one gang member trying to escape on foot, and another trying to get to the getaway car, a black, 1951 Mercury parked in the trash strewn alley. Film at Eleven. On the trolley line, I had to “dig” up a small section of plaster street to rewire the trolley track, and I’ve left the plaster chunks and the hole for a Road Crew that is doing street repairs with their attendant equipment, i.e. jackhammers, air compressor, picks, shovels, pylons, Road Work signs, etc.

    The possibilities are nearly endless, and my daughter even suggested a series of ‘progressive’ scenes with a young couples life played out around town. First date at a coffee shop, second date at a pizza place, ‘serious’ date at a nice French restaurant, leading to a wedding at the church, and then moving into a first apartment… really, this could go all the way to old age and beyond!

  6. JOHN

    I have developed a back story that involves July of 1976 and the incusion of the Erie Lackawanna into Conrail. CR has decide to drop several of the ex-EL lines including the Pascack Valley line. J R Hobbs has bought a number of locomotive for his newly formed Jersey Northern Lines to serve his Erie Shipping Company. The line runs from Jersey City, NJ to Suffern, NY and on into quarry areas in northern NJ. His passion for steam railroading is satisfied by owning several steam locomotives and running a tourist operation.

    Question for you. Do you ever present members with the oportunity to post a wish list for things they would like to see? For me, I’d like to see a how to story on buliding a turntable.

    • Customer Service

      Hello John,

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      Your feedback has been forwarded to the proper department. We continuously are working on adding new content to the site.

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  7. Alejandro Rommo

    Quiero comprar los cuadros en 3d.
    Que debo de hacer. Dónde los pido, gracias

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  9. H. LYALL

    Just read your ideas about “backstory”. One of my gripes about most layouts is the lack of houses for business and factory workers to live in. I think that housing is a good part of the backstory. You need a couple of really big houses for the local owners of a factory or business, then you need a nice set of middle size houses for middle class peoples like professionals, and last you need a good row of small houses, close together for the factory workers. I have tried to include this in my 8′ by 5′ 3″ table layout. It doesn’t leave as much room for track, but it makes a nice village. I still have to add the other scenery, but I think the buildings are about complete.


    Details bring a model railroad to life. Just by adding items to a layout that are common place in real life brings realism to a layout. Old pallets, drums, litter, old ties, equipment parts, wheels and the list continues are items that should be included in model railroad scenes.


  11. rod

    i am wanting to build ho layout 32 by 8 over my office restroom and maint room and look down with mirrors and going around the inside of the building 8 feet up 60 by 90 o scale 2 tracks 800 and 50 of track can you give me some help on this thank you

    • Customer Service

      Hi Rod. Well, that sounds like a big project. Do you have any specific questions?

  12. J R

    Great Blog ! I would only add that building a model RR is a never-ending journey. On that journey, we discover the purpose of the RR which unveils exciting scenes along the way. Our layout transports goods and people to and from various towns through those exciting scenes. Sound effects & automations enhance the experience.

    • Customer Service

      Wow. Not that I’m aware of. I’d be very interested though. And, there is some great modeling going on down there.
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  13. Joan and Charles Cleveland

    The comments on adding personality are quite interesting and appropriate for what I want to accomplish. My wife and I are planning to build a small 027 gauge layout to accompany my 1954 Lionel train plus additional accessories. Our layout will probably be no more that 6 x 12 and we want to include numerous landscape/housing/roads that reflect where we were raised. This will be a “developing” accomplishment and restricted by size and the 027 gauge. We are, however, looking forward to a good experience. Will keep you advised as time goes on.

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  15. Wally

    I agee. I am a beginner but I have read in many places that (mini) scenes should tell stories. I find myself wanting more human figures to put around my structures. Without people, the stories our buildings tell are not as compelling.

    I also see echos in the advice for creating realistic operations: decide what you industries produce, what raw materials they need, what waste they will produce and in this way construct meaningful waybills. The consistency of the story makes the operation ‘come alive’.

  16. Derick Santorella

    EA will also be upgrading cost ranges, and therefore if your player isnt selling for his or her lower value then your range is going to be modified lower slightly to ensure that people sell their cards. They have to still me positive using these changes if cost ranges should be successful for several reasons.

    • Customer Service

      Hi, Joseph. No. Good thought though. Maybe we should start one. Thanks.