Model Railroad Scenery

Model railroad scenery is one of the most important aspects of building a model railroad.

Note that the word railroad and railway are interchangeable in many parts of the world.  Here is a listing of helpful hints:

(1)  Do not select large model railway or railroad buildings if your layout is smaller than 4 ft x 8ft.  Although your buildings are to scale, the horizontal distance that the train moves is most often not.  For example, if the train travels in a straight line a distance of 3 feet across the model train track, this represents a distance of 87 times 3 ft = 261 ft in Ho scale.  Now if you choose to use a building that is 261 ft in HO scale it would occupy 3 ft on the layout. This would be disturbing to the eye since when we observe an actual 8 ft section of track we tend to want it to represent several miles and not 261 ft.

Hence for HO scale housing,  using smaller buildings on the order of  three  inches wide by six  inches deep by three inches high are more pleasing to the eye.  For commercial buildings,  four inches wide by six inches deep by five inches high are more than sufficient to represent heavy industry. Now for something like N-scale the housing and commercial building dimensions would be about one-half the size that they are for HO scale.

It is also possible to have a very small layout, coffee table size whereupon the buildings could be even smaller and possibly use fewer of them to give the layout a more pleasing impact to the eye.

Now if  you have a large layout, 200 ft by 30 ft, it would not make any difference if you used skyscraper type buildings in one corner, they would look realistic.

(2)    Model train scenery should have one or more themes, i.e. farm country, city scenery, river life, logging, mining, industries, etc.  The purpose of a theme is to give the train a purpose for traveling between two points on the layout such as traveling from a coal mine to a coal processing plant and then possibly to a steel mill.  Another example would be a train that is on a commuter run between several towns or cities. The number of themes is a function of the scale used vs the layout size.  An N-scale train layout on a 4 ft by 8 ft layout can easily accommodate two to four themes, while an Ho layout on a 4 ft by 8 ft layout can probably accommodate one to two themes.

(3)    Model Scenery must reflect the scale of your layout (O gauge, HO gauge, N gauge, etc.) In addition, model train buildings, bridges, model railway figures, vehicles structures, trees, model railway stations, back scenes or backdrops, model railroad tunnels, and model railroad signs must reflect the era being modeled.  All of the above items are generally sold to reflect the particular scale of your train set.  Now as far model railroad signs are concerned, the hobbyist can very often search the public  library or the internet for information associated with a particular railroad such as the Pennsylvania,  New York Central or Union Pacific, etc.

(4)    If at all possible to use model railroad signals that agree with the railroad company being emulated. For example, if you are running New York Central  trains, you should also use signals that emulate New York Central signals.

Again, the public  library or the internet for information associated with a particular railroad such as the New York Central  signals or Union Pacific, etc.

(5)  Model railroad lighting such as street lighting, station lighting, and building lighting should also reflect the railroad scale and era depicted.  There are plenty of books available which reflect the steam era, the diesel era as well as the transition era (steam to diesel) of the 1950’s.  These books generally have plenty of pictures which will depict the above items.

There are many manufacturers of  lighting products made specifically for model trains such as Model Power, Miniatronics and Walthers just to name a few.  They are available in most of the train scales.

(6)    Model railroad landscaping which includes grass, bushes, trees, mountains and water must also be to scale.  As stated before the above items are generally sold to reflect the particular scale of your train set.  Woodland Scenics sold by Walthers  carries many of the aforementioned landscaping items. Refer to Table 3 or a complete listing of Model Train Manufacturers vs Train Scales.

7)    Model railroad ballast used to create roadbed comes in different sizes to reflect the scale of the model railroad, and in different colors to emulate the stone used for the railroad’s location. Again, check the public  library or the internet for information associated with a particular railroad such as the New York Central  signals or Union Pacific, etc. After doing your research, again check Walthers for supplies.

8)  For additional scenery ideas try visiting as many model train shows as possible. There is a chance you will be able to view model train layouts with associated scenery for the most popular model train scales such as HO, N, and O.

9) Toy Trains for younger children are generally set up to circle around the base of a Christmas tree or merely as a temporary track layout set up by the child himself.  Hence, Model railroad Scenery as used by the adult hobbyist is not used.

Model Train Pictures

Model Train Pictures depicting certain areas of the country are very useful in designing your layout’s theme or themes.

One of the best sources of model train pictures are the following magazines:

(1) Model Railroader Magazine

(2) Railroad Model Craftsman

(3) Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine

The above magazines are also good sources of model train videos, model railroad books, model railway dvds, model trains for sale, model railroad engine information, and model train catalogs. It is also advantageous to browse through the Internet to look for more pictures. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum has some wonderful pictures.

Model Railroad Layouts

After the Model Scale Selection and available space are determined, some other factors require consideration: adequate lighting such as incandescent, fluorescent or track lighting, layout location heating requirements in winter and/or air conditioning requirements in summer, and spare electrical receptacles.  

 Carpentry skills are necessary for this initial task.  If your skills are minimal, it is best to get assistance from a friend, family member or a professional. Many of the construction materials are available from your local lumberyard, ACE, Home Depot, or Lowes hardware chains. Upon completion of this initial task, it is a good idea to draw your track layout on the tabletop with accurate track radii using radius templates constructed out of cardboard.

See figure below:


If possible, actual turnout templates can be constructed. If you choose PECO turnouts, manufactured in Great Britain, this manufacturer will mail you a catalog and associated turnout templates upon request. In the real world the turnout is called a switch. It controls train direction.

Many layouts have background scenery, as a minimum a blue sky and some clouds. It is possible to hand paint that on an existing wall if so desired. More complex Background Scenery can be purchased from Walthers on-line. It is best to do this task prior to placing the layout table against the wall.

Many people create layouts with one or more tracks, which permit the train to rise along a sloping terrain and/or possibly clear another track directly below it. In order to achieve this one must be aware of the impact that scale has.

By definition, % Slope or Grade = Rise divided by Run times 100. Refer to Table 2  for a listing  of Rise vs Run vs % slope for the most popular model scales. The Clearance required for an object below the highest rise point is also given.

Model Train Software

For those of you that are computer literate, the ATLAS company offers some free model train software (Right Track Freeware). It is a layout planning program limited to PC users with  Windows only. The program allows the user to create a layout design which reflect the various track systems manufactured by ATLAS as well as switches (turnouts), turntables, buildings and electrical controls also manufactured by ATLAS.

The software also reflects items made by others such as Walther’s Cornerstone Series, railway Design associates, Design Preservation Models, Life-Like, Lionel and Atlas O, LLC.

Layout areas as large as 100 ft x 100 ft can be planned. The plan can be printed out along with an accompianing parts list to determine pricing estimates.

For those of you can afford more complex software cost-wise and  in terms of computer skills it is possible to purchase via the Internet, (RR-Track for Windows or VirtualPC or Parallels Workstation for Mac)  software.  The software is quite comprehensive because it contains many attributes that are very desirable to the model train layout designer such as:

RR-Track also contains the following:

Track Libraries (50 total) reflecting  the most popualar as well as unpopular model train railroad gauges in combination with all of the manufactures that make them.

Accessory Libraries (11 total) reflecting the most popular model train guages. Typical Accessories emulated by the software are buildings, lamps, bridges, etc.   It is also possible to draw your own items in-place as desired.

The program can supply two dimensional and three dimensional views of the planned layout, parts list, and ofcourse printouts. It is even possible to calculate slopes and display them.

Scale Drawing

When designing any type of model train layout. it is a good idea to take the time and create a detailed scale drawing of your model railroad layout track design, which includes the turnouts.

What is a Turnout?  A turnout  allows the train – no matter what the scale to switch tracks and direction when the software or manual switching is applied.  In the real world the turnout is called a switch.

Turnout information, such as detailed size and curvature can be acquired from some of  the turnout manufacturers like Atlas and Pico and possibly various other manufacturers. 

I personally designed my entire layout using  PECOs. I simply e-mailed the company who in turn mailed me a free catalog which contained  life-size templates of every turnout they manufactured. With these templates I was able to create a fairly accurate hand drawn sketch of my planned railroad track layout.  I also took the templates of interest, made several copies of them and placed them directly onto my layout train surface and drew the rest of my proposed track placement.

Since I also planned to use flexible track exclusivly, I developed my own paper templates for the required Track radii.   In addition companies who specialize in scaled down trains such as ATLAS provide  free software to assist in your layout design.  They provide this software in the hopes that you will purchase turnouts and other components necessary to create the train layout of your dreams.

 The following drawing depicts simple 4 x 8 ft table (Typical Plywood Availability). Notice there are markings every foot on each side of the drawing. Each mark is actually 2 inches apart on the paper. On the drawing  2 inches = 1 foot. 


Model Railroad Scales

Once the available model railroad layout space has been determined, it is time to select the Model Railroad Scale. The Scale is defined as the ratio between  the Real World Dimension to the Model Dimension. This ratio for Ho scale is 1/87. Hence 1 foot in the real world is 1/87 of a foot for the model size. If a real world locomotive is 50 feet in length, it would translate to 50ft x 1/87 ft which equals 50/87 ft = 0.57 ft = 6.9 in. for the loco model size.

Basic selection for the scale model to use is based on the following criteria:

 N-Scale Model Railroad– With 17 inch minimum diameter, can fit quite a lot of track and model railroad scenery on a 4 x 8 ft table. Backmann trains is one of the top manufacturers of  N and HO Scale Model Railroad equipment and supplies

 HO-Scale Model Railroads– With 30 inch minimum diameter, can still fit quite a lot of track and model railroad scenery on a 4 x 8 ft table.

 O-Scale Model Railroad – With 31 inch minimum diameter, cannot  fit  a lot of track and model railroad scenery on a 4 x 8 ft table, because  the 8 ft sides don’t seem long enough, but train is rugged compared to Ho and N scale. Lionel trains is one of the top manufacturers of  O-Scale Model Railroad equipment and supplies.

 S-Scale Model Railroad– With 40 inch minimum diameter, cannot  fit a lot of track and model railroad scenery on a 4 x 8 ft table, because  the 8 ft sides don’t seem long enough and 4 ft sides only have 4 in clearance on each side.

 TT-Scale Model Railroad– With 21 inch minimum diameter, can fit quite a lot of track and model railroad scenery on a 4 x 8 ft table.

 G-Scale Model Railroad– With a 5 foot minimum diameter, this is definitely the outdoor train model.

For additional information, refer to Table 1 for a complete listing of the more popular Model Scales with each of their attributes. Pay particular attention to the minimum diameter of each scale because it has the biggest impact on layout size. Remember, the sharper the track turns, the more can be put on a model railroad layout table.

Model Railroad Plans

For the adult hobbyist, the development Model Train Layouts require quite a bit of planning, and a variety of skills from the fields of carpentry, model kit building, general electricity, wiring, painting, and lately the concept of digital control techniques just to name a few.

Prior to starting a detailed design, it is wise to gather as much information as possible. Purchasing some magazines such as Model Railroader Magazine, Railroad Model Craftsman, or Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine or reading railroad modeling books at the library will also be helpful. The Internet is also a very comprehensive source of valuable information.

Another source of information are model railroad shows which very often have more than one layout on display. One can acquire quite a bit of free advice from the dealers at the various tables about model trains and associated accessories. Most shows have the products in the room devided into the various scales such as O, HO, N, and G scales. Hence, you probably will even find all types of model trains, including the brass type.

After gathering the above initial information, it is time to utilize your imagination of overall Model Railroad layout design to include but not be limited to model train track layouts and associated scenery design.  Your design should also reflect an era in time, such as the pre or post steam era or the transition to diesel locomotives. The desired landscape such as farmland, mountain area, seaside, city, etc, must  integrate with applicable figurines, model buildings, and vehicles, etc.

Your layout should have a theme such as industrial manufacturing, mining, fishing or vacation areas. If the layout is large enough, several themes can be modeled.  Available space such as garage, spare room, shed or outdoor venue is the next consideration.  The next step is to pick the model train railroad scale.  But after that, it is time to generate a scale drawing of your planned track layout. This can be accomplished with pencil and paper or if you prefer you can use computer software, which can be downloaded, free of charge from the Atlas Model Railroad Company.  

Model Train Layouts For Kids


Question: My father has enjoyed the hobby of model trains from when he was a kid. The problem is he has a tendency to get a little “grand” in his plans. My kids are interested in having a model train and wanted a second opinion on – What is the best model train layout for kids in the 8 to 12 year old range? My father says HO is best. Pam, Kansas City, Mo.

I disagree with your father for the following reasons:
1) HO scale is half the size of O scale with the trains being more delicate and rugged.
2) At the 8 to 12 year old range the youngster is only interested in running trains to the point of causing a derailment, hence the O-scale train (the typical Christmas set-up) is the best choice.

As the youngster moves into his teenage years, his interest can be stimulated by attending Model train shows and exhibits with his parents. At these exhibits he will be exposed to running layouts in many of the popular scales such as O, HO, N, and G respectively. He will also be exposed to associated model train supplies for each of the scales. In time he can make his own decision as to whether to consider other alternatives to O scale.