There are three possible purposes track can serve on a model railroad.  When pulling your design together, you have to ask yourself, if a section of track on my plan doesn’t serve any of them, why am I including it?

  1. Operational Necessity.  This one is obvious.  As a minimum you need one track to get from Town A to Town B.  It’s a given.
  2. Operational Interest.  There is a segment of the hobby that enjoys operating a layout prototypically.  They employ timetables and operational procedures that match those of an actual railroad.  For them, spending an hour carefully sorting cars at a complex industrial park or classifying a yard is pure joy.  In these cases it makes sense to add track that supports this aspect of the hobby.  If this isn’t your idea of fun, however, and it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it makes no sense to add tracks that for something that isn’t enjoyable for you.
  3. Scenic Interest.  For many, there is a pleasant memory centered around a specific rail scene past, present, or even in their imagination.  They want to copy that scene and be transported there.  In this instance copying the elements that comprise that scene makes sense, even if it means adding track you may not use as part of the “canvas”.  The track arrangement essentially becomes three dimensional art.

(Note that on an actual railroad the only feature they care about is item one, operational necessity.  They don’t want track that is “interesting to operate” and they don’t spend millions on track because it looks interesting.  From their perspective the goal is to use as little track as possible to move a car from point A to point B efficiently and profitably.)

To an extent, planning the track density of your model railroad design becomes an exercise in self awareness.  It means getting a grip on your true interests and what you ultimately hope to get out of your layout….often easier said than done.  It is a necessary exercise however and one which, if you don’t do, could result in correctly designing the “wrong layout”. By that I mean a layout that is technically correct but isn’t right for you.   Are you essentially a railfan and want to watch trains winding through scenery?  Do you want a miniature representation that will transport you to an actual time and/or place that evokes pleasant memories?  Are you an operator, fascinating by the intricate chess game involved in moving trains from point A to point B? You need to be able to answer these questions before making a decision as to the track density that’s right for your situation.

Why do I bring this up? Why does it matter?  When a customer initially reaches out to me, it’s common that they’ll forward a track plan they’ve seen in the press that appeals to them and often this plan will have a very complex and dense track arrangement.

I’ll ask them, do you enjoy operations?  No.   Do you want a copy of an actual geographic location?  Nope.  Many times they’ll elaborate and say that ultimately what they want is a platform to sculpt scenery, build structures, and do some train watching.  Now we’re getting somewhere because you don’t need a one hundred turnout layout to accomplish that.  If you go down that route you’ll end up adding tens of thousands of dollars to the construction costs, hours of maintenance, all for a feature (dense track) that you really don’t have any interest in utilizing.  A successful design should hone in a like a laser on your own personal interests so that when you have that layout you can spend the bulk of your time doing what you enjoy most.  Anything that doesn’t support that goal is wasted time and money.

If you love operations and have the crew to man the layout, then yes, that track serves a purpose and should be designed in.

If you’re modeling the track arrangement of your home town and want a 3-d painting to fill out the canvas, put the track in.

If it doesn’t serve those purposes then why is it there?


Side note:   Often a customer will ask that one (or more) yards be included in a design.  My next question is, “do you enjoy switching yards?”.  If the answer is, no, then that begs the question of why a yard is a design requirement.  The most common answer is, a place to store my rolling stock.  Fair enough but keep in mind that yards require ladders of turnouts, an arrangement that eats up an enormous amount of room, room that could be devoted to other features you might find more interesting.  If car storage is the primary purpose of your yard consider open storage shelves next to the layout as an alternative to a yard.