Early in the planning process, it’s common for clients to tell me that they have a specific number of towns they’d like to have on their future layout but are having difficulty visualizing how to fit them all in.  (This is often because, in many cases, they simply won’t fit but we’ll get to that later!)

Getting on a successful path with respect to model railroad layout design starts with zeroing in on what the core questions are that need to be asked.  That’s followed by having the self-awareness to give an honest answer to them.  Finally, there are always tradeoffs and the final plan ultimately becomes an exercise in what is most important to you and what you’re willing to give up in order to get it.

With respect to how many towns to feature on your layout, the primary question to ask is this,  do you view the layout essentially as an operational chessboard (or structure display case) where the sheer number of towns takes priority (and appearance is of secondary importance)?  Or, do you want to capture the sense of a region visually and appearance is important to you?  Is watching trains wind through geography and vegetation most important or is maximizing square footage for placing structures and track density for operations more important?  When you can a handle on the answer that fits your personal tastes then you’re on your way to deciding how many towns to shoot for on your layout.  How you go about reaching the final design boils down to the physical length of your towns  AND how much space you want between them.  After that, it just becomes a matter of simple math.

If you view towns essentially as placeholders and, don’t need or care about a sense of distance, then a few feet of separation is all you need.  However, if capturing the sense of an area is important then a second element needs to be incorporated, the scene separator (or scenery only zone).   A scene separator  is any section of layout that is devoid of structures and secondary track (sidings, spurs, yards, etc.)  Examples include fields, hills, mountains, wooded areas, vacant lots, etc.  A scene separator creates a sense of distance either visually or in terms of actual distance or both. Without the separators, things take on the look of urban suburbia where one town abuts the next as opposed to going from town A to town B.  That may be fine as long as you know what you’re getting into going in.


The planning process as it relates to how many towns you ultimately decide to incorporate (or can incorporate) comes down to three steps:


Let’s take a look at an example.  For the sake of illustration, we’ll assume a half basement twenty feet long by fifteen feet wide.  Trains will consist of a locomotive, caboose, and ten, fifty foot long cars.  Curve radius is twenty-four inches and turnouts are number sixes.

Assuming you only want a train to pass through a scene once, the footprint that yields the most efficient use of space is the classic format of around-the-walls-with-center peninsula.  In the example above the bench work width is two feet.  The space you have is the space you have so with the bench work drawn in, the next step is to thread the main line through it as shown.  In this case, the main line run length is 65 feet.  Now let’s look at the actual size of the track elements we’re likely to encounter, specifically yards and sidings.


Yard ladders take up more space than most realize and, when sketching a plan freehand, it’s easy to quickly get into trouble by not accounting for their true size.  For the sake of our illustration, the yard and sidings end up being about ten or eleven feet long.



So, as you can see in the image above we have a 65 foot “line” and three types of placeholders to place on that line.  It now becomes a matter of your own personal visual tastes as to how you choose to arrange things.


You could have a very dense arrangement like this.



Or, you could allow more room for scenery like this.


At this risk of being the bearer of bad news, unfortunately, the one thing you can’t have is eighty feet of “towns” on a layout with sixty-five-foot main line run!



Our example track plan with an emphasis on scenery and distance between towns.



How things might look for somebody that wanted to maximize the number of towns and, who places less importance on scenery and the separation between towns.


Wrapping things up:

  • Decide what’s most important to you, maximizing the number of towns or incorporating fewer towns to allow room for scenery and a sense of distance between them.  Decide what you’re willing to give up in order to have the features that are most important to you.  For example, if you want more scenery you’ll have to have fewer towns and vice versa.
  • Sketch out a schematic of your bench work footprint and overlay a schematic of the main line run.
  • Using actual yard ladder and turnout geometry, rough out the length of your towns and yards.
  • Place your “true to scale” town track geometry over the mainline schematic and adjust as needed until you have the look you are striving for.