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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19 Responses to “Assigning a Theme for Your Model Railroad Layout”

  1. Gerald Bohmer

    I too have been “collecting” for several years. I have a dedicated space (9’x12′) for a layout, but the design is very much all over the place. I’ve settled on Kato name trains, and have several. ignoring the repainted F7s in favor of BLI Alco PA/B/A set for the California Zephyr, And a BLI T1 for the PRR Broadway Limited. My Milwaukee Road Hiawatha & 20th Century Limited still await proper power. Kato Unitrack sets & pieces fill several crates, and my rolling stock is split between the club layout and home storage. but my ‘theme’ if there is one, is ‘Glory Days’.

  2. Rick Bell

    Did I miss something? I have re-read the “assigning a theme for your railroad” but no whre does it discuss a theme. Are we talking about themes such as shortline, logging, mining, mainline ops???? I’m very interested in what is involved in selecting a theme for a layout.

    • Customer Service

      Hi Rick,

      Thank you for contacting us. I have received the reply from the expert:

      Developing a theme for your layout is a very important element of the overall design. What era am I modeling? Steam or diesel? Narrow gauge? How about the geography? Mountain, urban? How about an operating scheme? Main line, short line, industrial?
      How about my curve radius? Full length passenger cars and/or modern equipment need a larger radius. What will work in my space?
      Let me know how it goes.

      Thanks for Watching,

      Model Railroad Academy

      • Mike DeVito

        Hi, everyone! I had my first train set at seven years old, Lionel O-27 gauge, New York Central diesels and steam locomotive sets. And I still
        have them carefully boxed in my attic. Since 1978 I have been working with n-scale, and the theme then was a Bavarian village and a city of tomorrow. Well, since 1981 the 4′ x6′ board and track and mountain was stored in my garage. Because of this COVID-=19 pandemic, my son suggested we working on the train set. Well, have we had a great summer! The plaster of Paris mountain was in excellent shape. That plaster of Paris really looks like new after 40 years. We botrh wanted to continue the same themes with a twist—a haunted Bavarian village with a City of Tomorrow along with an area of ancient civilizations—more of a vacation resort. We only jusst finished replacing every piece of track, and now we are replacing the wiring and the Atlas connectors. As you all know—it’s a labor of love.


  3. Christer Kedström

    I am building “the Scania Pacific Railroad” which is a mix of Sweden and US. Half my train room is a mix of mostly New England and some Midwestern USA. The other half or so is a Swedish townscape and train land. The room is 23 x 20 feet with a big peninsula in the middle and a shelf type layout around the room. I am running Santa Fe, Pennsy and Milwaukee and the Swedish State Railway (SJ). Scania is the Latin name on the county in Sweden were I am living.

  4. H. LYALL

    I started several layouts as a boy, but now that I’m retired, I’m getting back into trains. My favorite engines through all those years have been the NYC “Hudson” 4-6-4, and the PRR GG-1. Not having the space or money to model New York City and its environs, I needed to create a fictitious line that both would share. Since I would have to model a small town, the answer was a fictitious shared main line in the Pennsylvania – New York border area, with a short line that served the area, having an interchange into the shared mainline. For a short distance through town, the short line and the mainline share some track, with the main line going double track outside of town and the short line skirting the edge of town and serving the two industries, a canning company and a dairy. All this is being done in HO on a table that is 5 1/4 by 8. One major difference between my town and most of the railroads shown in magazines and internet is that I wanted places to live for my townspeople who work in the stores and factories, I have 11 houses and an apartment house crammed into this little town.
    Naturally, when the PRR passenger and the NYC freight are not running through town, they are “hiding out” on the double track mainline outside of town. If I can get an extra 4′ by 4′ piece on the end, I can create a vision barrier so those two trains can really hide out. I have two small sidings where the short line passenger and freight trains can rest between trips. The time is mid 1950’s, allowing my short line to use steam and diesel. I have neither the skill nor the inclination to wire catenary for the GG-1, so that has to be supplied by the mind of the viewer. If any of you saw the stuff I put in my initial comments when I joined Model Railroader online, you know I’m talking about the Pennsylvania – New York Border railroad, nicknamed the Penny Line. I will be the sole operator (unless I can get my grandsons interested as they were when they were little), so operating sessions will probably last 10 – 20 minutes. Track work is primarily Bachmann EZ-Track, using blocks controlled by Atlas Selectors (can’t afford DCC). Scenery, other than structures, is non-existent at this point. I guess that means that, in spite of using HO scale, they’re really toy trains. I’d like to replace all this with N scale, which I think my eyes can handle, but my hands might be getting too shaky to do it; then there’s the cost factor to replace the hundreds of dollars already invested.

    • Mark Carberry

      Would love to see a few pictures of your town and the main/short line separation techniques you employed, thx!

  5. Larry Fries

    Lighting use multi color LED string 5 meter long that are dimiable to highlight zones/area.
    Low red + low yellow + medium blue for sunrise
    Medium red + low yellow + low blue for sunset
    Medium yellow + high blue + medium white for Daylight
    Low red +high blue + low white for night
    put green + blue + yellow LED in buildings

  6. Russ 🚂 lyman

    Sixty-six and starting layout after fifty years of everything being boxed up. Steam in the eighteen hundreds is my passion

    • Louis Caputo

      77 & starting American Civil War themed RR of 1800s w items boxed up for 25+ yrs. Sound somewhat familiar, Russ? Will run HO on ping pong table & need Divine Intervention!!

  7. David

    A theme. I suggest that, if possible, one visits as many other model railroads as possible. It took me many tries, and half finished railroads, before I discovered that I like small railroads, preferably narrow gauge, with meandering track, and well worn equipment. Sure arrow straight mainlines with 50 car trains are impressive, but that isn’t want I like to watch, nor what I like to model. I could have saved a lot of time and money had I discovered this sooner. Instead I kept trying to replicate the class one model railroads I saw in magazines.

  8. Dennis Austin

    This is an interesting discussion. I settled on the turn of the century Morenci Southern Railway to model. A narrow gauge mining railroad running 14 miles up a mountain in Arizona. Supplies, and coal run up the mountain to mines, a large company store and a smelter at the top. Large copper ingots run down the mountain It was also a tourist railroad in those days. A hand full of engines and cars. Standard gauge on one end, and what is called “baby” gauge up on the mountain with a spider web of tracks with little Porters and mine cars. The Morenci Southern was nicknamed “The Corkscrew to America.” There was a series of trestles creating loops across a ravine that allowed the railroad to climb up the mountain. The loops are what makes the railroad unique. Unfortunately my space to have my model railroad in is unusual in its floor design. I just couldn’t find a way to include the loops in the space I had. I am still working in the same copper mining theme in narrow gauge. The current layout is a mountain climbing layout with the loops. I might still use the Morenci Southern Railway name. My favorite themed narrow gauge model railroad is David Meek’s Thunder Mesa Mining Company.

  9. Bob

    I’ve been working on a “basement” room layout for some time, (12×20 feet — HO scale — “G” shaped with a helix to a lower lever return loop and storage tracks. As a theme, it is supposed to represent the 6 actual miles never built between the CP Penticton sub (which ended at Osoyoos, BC) and the GN Coquihalla run to Princeton, BC (which deviated from its northward journey at Oroville, WA.) The two lines were actually only 6 miles apart at water-level on the Okanagan River. That’s the theme: an interchange line between two major carriers at the start of the 1960’s. But as I age, I am gaining interest in scratch building structures and switching operations — and am wondering if I ought to ‘shorten’ the layout to a switching area with “off-layout-staging”? This would allow me more energy and less guilt over spending inordinate amounts of time either cleaning track OR building better structures. My “if only’s …” are growing longer than my anticipated life-span (and I hope to make the three-digit mark, but who knows!).

  10. 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.


  11. 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.

  12. 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!