The timeless 80/20 rule, model railroad planning is not immune. All too often we have our 80/20 priorities backwards.  We spend eighty per cent of our time wringing our hands over what I would consider more tactical issues and only twenty per cent on the much more important strategic questions.  What curve radius to employ, how many staging tracks to use, what type of bench work footprint is best?  These are all tactical issues.  They do matter, but they are of much less importance than the one central litmus test.  The hallmark of a good design?  It’s pretty basic when you step back and think about it.  A “successful design” is one that results in a model railroad that produces the maximum level of enjoyment given your own personal interests, skills, weaknesses, and lifestyle. It’s a design that targets and hones in like a laser on the areas of the hobby you find most satisfying and maximizes the time you spend on them.  It also minimizes, to the extent possible, time spent on those areas you find less enjoyable.   Maximizing ‘fun time’, that’s the target, that’s the “eighty per cent” that should be our strategic focus.   It seems so basic, so obvious, and yet it’s all to easy to give it lip service, not see the forest for the trees, even for  experienced modelers.

Model Railroading is recreation, and the hallmark of a good design is one that recognizes that reality and zeroes in on it.  We all have an intuitive sense of whether we are enjoying our hobby or not.  Sure, there may be times when we need to grind through a mundane task such as wiring, but at some point we become aware of whether we are enjoying the model railroad we are building (or have built) or whether we are not.

Reducing a successful design to its most basic level, the bottom line becomes a) how much enjoyment we are having  b) how long  that enjoyable period lasts and c) how often are we able to get into the layout room.  In other words how much fun we are having, for how long, and how often. A times B times C.   It’s the time element I’d like to delve into here and how it impacts all facets of design, construction, and operation.  Long before we get to the tactical issues of design, the minutiae of the X’s and O’s, it behooves us to address the more important strategic issues and do so effectively.  If you don’t address those big picture questions, you run the risk of correctly drawing the wrong design, a design that is technically correct but leaves you flat and unmotivated to interact with the layout.  Before you pick up that pencil and straight edge, or open up your CAD program, give some serious thought to TIME and how important it is to what you’re trying to do.  Here are some questions to get you started:

-Once I start construction, ideally how long do I want it to be before I can at least do a little bit of train running (say over 20 feet of track)?

-How long do I want it to be before I can run my full schedule?

-A layout never needs to be totally finished but it’s nice to have enough done that you and your visitors can see at least some portion of your vision.  How long will it be before, say a third, of my layout is totally done (track, scenery, structures)?

-What aspect of the hobby do I want to spend most of time on? Scenery? Structures? Operation? Freight car assembly? Other? A good design will be skewed so that is in fact where you are spending your time.    If you love scenery and don’t give a rat’s rear about operation do you really need a plan with a hundred turnouts?  If you love structures, but are ambivalent about scenery, do you really need bench work that is three feet deep?

-Whether you are a die hard operator or railfan, how long do you want your ‘running sessions’ to last?  Twenty minutes, three hours?

– How often will you run.  A few times a week, once a month, once a quarter?

-How much “high energy” time do I have to work on the hobby?.  You may have three hours of time in the evening but, if you’re totally fried after a long work day and commute, that time isn’t something you’ll be able to take advantage of.

-Where are the potential time sinks and how can I minimize the chance of getting bogged down by them?  For example, if you want detailed hand laid track, you could quickly tack down some flex track temporarily, get trains running, and then gradually replace it with more detailed track at your leisure.

A design isn’t complete until it can honestly and accurately address these types of time related questions.

In my experience I often see designs (again, often from very experienced modelers) where the owner has designed in a lot of hoops they must jump through before they get to the ‘good stuff’, the ‘fun stuff’, what they truly enjoy.  Sadly, they frequently burn out before getting to the promised land.  Or, they design in complex, time-consuming-to-build, features that they don’t really care about.

We increase the odds of maximizing how much we enjoy our hobby if we put TIME, in all its iterations, front and center and at the absolute earliest stages of the planning process.


Shown above is an example of how awareness of time can be applied to layout design.  Let’s say an individual is:

  • Primarily a rail fan and, as such, wants a relatively long main line run
  • Enjoys building rolling stock
  • Is less interested in building structures and scenery
  • Has limited time

The bench work depth has been minimized to speed up construction.  Scenery is relatively simple and would go quickly given the narrow bench work. The turnout count is low as is the amount of track.  An optional staging yard is shown to store additional rolling stock.  Putting it all together, we have a layout that would relatively easy to build in a short time and is skewed to the owner’s specific interests.