HO Model Train Layout Guidelines


HO Model Train Layout Guidelines
Some basic tips for drawing railroad layouts are offered in this article. These guidelines can be used for any scale layout, I’ve used HO because it’s very popular, and the scale I am most familiar with myself. If you are modeling at a different scale, I have several articles outlined the exact details them, in my Tips For Model Railroaders.


The first step in planning your model train layout is to know what scale you are going to work at, and what the overall dimensions of your layout will be. Sketch some rough ideas on paper to get a feel for what you want and how it will work in the amount of space you have.
A good idea is to establish minimum dimensions for your layout such as the minimum curve radii, switch turnout angles and maximum grades. The rolling stock you want to use, and methods of operation, help determine these design elements of your layout. If you are running short trains with just a few cars and engines, then 18″ minimum radius curves will work fine. On the other hand, for larger and longer, you may need curves of 30″ radius or larger (HO scale).
What is the maximum grade you can use?  A 4 or 5 percent grade is rare in prototype railroads but you may need it in your model due to the amount of space you have. If you are planning for one track to cross over another, you must have enough length of track to rise 3″ to 4″ (HO scale) without getting too steep for your models. (Note – prototype railroads rarely go above a 3 percent grade. If you want your model to be completely accurate, then you will also be limited to this amount of grade.)
Model Railroad Clearances
Take extra care when one track comes close to another. Ensure that there is enough clearance for two trains to pass, otherwise the cars will collide and derail. This is especially critical at curves. When the railroad car is on a curve, the ends go over the track width. And, the middle of the car is forced to the inside of the track.
The longer your rolling stock, the more offset you need between curves. You can check this visually by placing your longest and shortest rolling stock on a section of curved track to see the overlap. Set two sections side by side, place your longest locomotive or rolling stock in them, and see for yourself.
Layout Drawing Techniques
A simple way to draw your ideas of a railroad layout is to begin by drawing all the outside dimensions or fixed objects (such as the outline of the room, posts, etc.). Once these fixed objects are located on the drawing, then fill in around them with the track.
Draw in the important scenery, buildings, roads, etc. If you are replicating some real place, work from maps, or perhaps even measurements you took on a scouting visit! Many modelers fine they have to “compress” space, leaving out some of the longer distances, so they can get it all in. That’s fine.
Locate the major curves of your layout next. You know which corners will have a 90 degree turn on the layout. Place a circle in this corner drawn to the radius that you think you need. Place circular arcs in all the corners of the main line. You will connect the circles with your main lines later.
Then select where any switching yards and sidings will be. Using your plan you can try different locations, unless your plan is replicating some real place.
Once the important curves, yards and other objects have been drawn in, begin connecting curves with straight lines. You may want to use broad curves to connect different areas on the layout (instead of straight lines). You can always make adjustments later.
Then draw in any sidings, off the straight track. Just “rough in” the switch at first, until you know exactly where you want it.
Make a simple three dimension drawing (X, Y, Z) to ensure that grades and crossovers are adequate. Begin by locating the portion of your plan which will be the minimum elevation. This can be the lowest part of the table top, the floor or any other arbitrary point you like. The main thing is to make it easy to measure from.
Use your three dimensional drawing to check the clearance at bridges for the train to pass under. Make sure that the grade produced by creating a rise at a bridge is not too steep for your train. A 4 percent grade is about the steepest most models can climb. Leave enough clearance at the bridge for the thickness of the bridge, the height of the cars and the height of the rails and ballasting. In HO scale this requires from 3 to 4 inches of clearance.
Building Your Layout
Once you have drawn a perfect layout, you will still have to build it. During construction, you may adjust for errors in the drawing when you build the layout. You want your drawing to be accurate, but sometime close is good enough!
Some modelers make a full size drawing and trace through the paper or lay the track on top of the paper. This could be impractical for you, if it’s a large layout. You must be careful if you are printing out many pieces of small paper to draw a full size layout. Ensure you are taping them together “to scale.”
When taping paper sections together, you can measure across several pieces of paper to check the overlap at the edges. In other words, if the distance of that yard ladder is 2.52 feet on your layout, measure across all the papers taped together to make sure it’s 2.52 feet in real life while you are taping it all together.
Set up your drawing coordinate system on your bench work.  Simply make an X and Y axis baseline on the bench work. Use one of your main bench edges (or the walls of the room) as the baseline. Draw this in your drawing (if its not there already). Now whenever you use a printout or coordinates to locate something on the bench work, keep “checking in” to the baseline to make sure you haven’t slipped something by a small amount.

Some basic tips for drawing railroad layouts are offered in this article. These guidelines can be used for any scale layout, I’ve used HO because it’s very popular, and the scale I am most familiar with myself. If you are modeling at a different scale, I have several articles outlined the exact details them, in my Tips For Model Railroaders.

The first step in planning your model train layout is to know what scale you are going to work at, and what the overall dimensions of your layout will be. Sketch some rough ideas on paper to get a feel for what you want and how it will work in the amount of space you have.

For more great tips on setting up your model railroad, just fill in your name and email and I’ll send them to you. As an added bonus, you get my detailed report on using DCC to control your trains. 

A good idea is to establish minimum dimensions for your layout such as the minimum curve radii, switch turnout angles and maximum grades. The rolling stock you want to use, and methods of operation, help determine these design elements of your layout. If you are running short trains with just a few cars and engines, then 18″ minimum radius curves will work fine. On the other hand, for larger and longer, you may need curves of 30″ radius or larger (HO scale).

What is the maximum grade you can use?  A 4 or 5 percent grade is rare in prototype railroads but you may need it in your model due to the amount of space you have. If you are planning for one track to cross over another, you must have enough length of track to rise 3″ to 4″ (HO scale) without getting too steep for your models. (Note – prototype railroads rarely go above a 3 percent grade. If you want your model to be completely accurate, then you will also be limited to this amount of grade.)

Model Railroad Clearances

Take extra care when one track comes close to another. Ensure that there is enough clearance for two trains to pass, otherwise the cars will collide and derail. This is especially critical at curves. When the railroad car is on a curve, the ends go over the track width. And, the middle of the car is forced to the inside of the track.

The longer your rolling stock, the more offset you need between curves. You can check this visually by placing your longest and shortest rolling stock on a section of curved track to see the overlap. Set two sections side by side, place your longest locomotive or rolling stock in them, and see for yourself.

Layout Drawing Techniques

A simple way to draw your ideas of a railroad layout is to begin by drawing all the outside dimensions or fixed objects (such as the outline of the room, posts, etc.). Once these fixed objects are located on the drawing, then fill in around them with the track.

Draw in the important scenery, buildings, roads, etc. If you are replicating some real place, work from maps, or perhaps even measurements you took on a scouting visit! Many modelers fine they have to “compress” space, leaving out some of the longer distances, so they can get it all in. That’s fine.

Locate the major curves of your layout next. You know which corners will have a 90 degree turn on the layout. Place a circle in this corner drawn to the radius that you think you need. Place circular arcs in all the corners of the main line. You will connect the circles with your main lines later.

Then select where any switching yards and sidings will be. Using your plan you can try different locations, unless your plan is replicating some real place.

Once the important curves, yards and other objects have been drawn in, begin connecting curves with straight lines. You may want to use broad curves to connect different areas on the layout (instead of straight lines). You can always make adjustments later.

Then draw in any sidings, off the straight track. Just “rough in” the switch at first, until you know exactly where you want it.

Make a simple three dimension drawing (X, Y, Z) to ensure that grades and crossovers are adequate. Begin by locating the portion of your plan which will be the minimum elevation. This can be the lowest part of the table top, the floor or any other arbitrary point you like. The main thing is to make it easy to measure from.

Use your three dimensional drawing to check the clearance at bridges for the train to pass under. Make sure that the grade produced by creating a rise at a bridge is not too steep for your train. A 4 percent grade is about the steepest most models can climb. Leave enough clearance at the bridge for the thickness of the bridge, the height of the cars and the height of the rails and ballasting. In HO scale this requires from 3 to 4 inches of clearance.

Building Your Layout

Once you have drawn a perfect layout, you will still have to build it. During construction, you may adjust for errors in the drawing when you build the layout. You want your drawing to be accurate, but sometime close is good enough!

Some modelers make a full size drawing and trace through the paper or lay the track on top of the paper. This could be impractical for you, if it’s a large layout. You must be careful if you are printing out many pieces of small paper to draw a full size layout. Ensure you are taping them together “to scale.”

When taping paper sections together, you can measure across several pieces of paper to check the overlap at the edges. In other words, if the distance of that yard ladder is 2.52 feet on your layout, measure across all the papers taped together to make sure it’s 2.52 feet in real life while you are taping it all together.

Set up your drawing coordinate system on your bench work.  Simply make an X and Y axis baseline on the bench work. Use one of your main bench edges (or the walls of the room) as the baseline. Draw this in your drawing (if its not there already). Now whenever you use a printout or coordinates to locate something on the bench work, keep “checking in” to the baseline to make sure you haven’t slipped something by a small amount.

Like this article? I’ve also written a two part article about model train benchwork and scenery.

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Small HO Train Layouts

I found these great videos of some small HO train layouts.

I have more general guidelines for HO train layouts here, and another article with specifics of laying HO track here.

Small HO Train Layouts

Here’s a video with an excellent and detailed discussion of the thought process behind a 5′ x 18″ switch yard.

For great tips on setting up your model railroad, just fill in your name and email and I’ll send them to you. As an added bonus, you get my detailed report on using DCC to control your trains. 

This video is of the 5′ x 18″ switch yard in action.

Here are some good tips of a work in progress. It’s a 4×8 layout, I put it here for the tips.

If you have some other suggestions for videos to add to this page about small HO train layouts, leave them in the comments.

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How To Convert Your Model Railroad Setup From DC to Digital Command Control

DCC is short for “Digital Command Control” and is a modern method of controlling a model train setup which may include multiple locomotives, operational scenery such as drawbridges, reversing sections and more. DCC operates using pulsed electrical signals which have digital information encoded onto them and a decoder is required on the operating equipment in order to respond appropriately to the commands from the operator.

Want the full scoop on how to convert from DC to DCC? I’m offering a 10 page report with all the details, just register for my mini-course using the subscription form to the right and you will get instant access!

Using DCC, the operation of multiple locomotives can be independently controlled including their speed and direction, along with their features such as headlights and smoke generators. Such advanced control using an analog (DC) system entails additional, completely independent and highly complex power schemes to control multiple locomotives independently.

Another advantage of DCC over DC would be that the control of all components of the model train setup is integrated. Just a single command station with an included or independent throttle can control the entire setup, which makes the control much simpler. An analog system would need multiple controllers and switches which makes the control of large setups complicated. DCC can also help in making locomotives behave more realistically. A locomotive decoder can be programmed to slow down and speed up gradually, mimicking the real live motion of the prototype.

Converting from DC to DCC

If you have an analog set and want to get the advantages of DCC without buying a complete DCC set, there are some changes that you can make to your existing equipment, along with purchasing some new components.

Track Wiring Changes

The first thing to be done is wire your layout correctly for DCC power boosters. If you have a small layout, with perhaps one or two power wires distributed around your tracks, you may be able to use a single DCC power booster for the whole layout. If this is the case, you would just connect the power outputs of the booster to all the feeds of your layout.

If your layout is large, and you have separate sections for power (also known as the home-run method of wiring), your layout is ready for DCC power. For each section (also known as “blocks”), you will need a power booster, just connect each booster to each block, and you are ready to go. With DCC, these sections are referred to as “power districts.”

If your layout is large and you are using the common-rail method of wiring, where one rail is continuous throughout the layout, you will have to modify the layout to have separate sections (as in the home-run method described above). Once you have separate power districts, you then can connect each district to it’s own DCC power booster.

DCC Equipment

“Decoder’s” are devices which can respond to the command signals that are on transmitted on the tracks. Each decoder has a unique “address,” so the operator can use one command station to control a large variety of components (as long as they have a decoder associated with them). For example, each locomotive will have it’s own decoder and unique address, so running multiple locomotives becomes very simple. Station signals, locomotive steam, operating switches and couplers is all easily accomplished, because each one is uniquely addressed in the system. Another way to look at DCC is as if it were a computer network. There is one “server” which issues commands, and many “clients” which can be thought of as simple computers that each only respond to commands that are addressed to them.

Decoders will have to be installed on each locomotive, and on any other device where you want to be able to control it from the command station.

A “DCC Power Booster” is needed for each power district on the track. If you have a simple layout, not sectioned off, then you can start with one power booster. The booster is connected to the Command station, and superimposes the digital commands issued from it, onto the power signal which is connected to the tracks.

The “command station” is where the throttle and other controls are found, and is how the operator determines what the trains and other components will be doing at any given time.

You can also purchase a command station and throttle separately, and you can purchase combination units that include throttle, command station and power booster in one package.

Putting it all together

If you want maximum control over every component in your model train setup, switching to DCC would be a very wise decision. Along with that if you started out with a basic, single train setup and now are planning to expand your setup to include more components, sticking with analog would be a disadvantage as there would be much more work needed in the form of creating new independent circuits for additional locomotives.

With some planning and homework, you can get into DCC and expand your model train hobby with great ease and have more fun.

Want the full scoop on how to convert from DC to DCC? I’m offering a 10 page report with all the details, just register for my mini-course using the subscription form to the right and you will instantly get access to it!

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Post-War Lionel Trains

The era of post-war Lionel trains starts from 1945, after the end of World War II. Production of the Lionel model trains started late that year after a gap of over three years. Within two years the production was brought up to full scale and a pretty large lineup of post-war Lionel trains was established.

Change in color schemes

One of the biggest changes in the post-war Lionel trains was that the color scheme was no longer modeled to be bright and colorful but instead an emphasis was placed on realism as compared to the models’ real-life counterpart. This scheme increased the sales of Lionel trains to enthusiasts, who previously had ignored Lionel’s models as they were very unrealistic and targeted at kids. Lionel also started selling localized models which were painted and designed to exactly copy the outer shell of the real life local trains.

New Features

The most important new feature that was introduced in the post-war Lionel trains was smoke capability. Production of smoke was achieved by using a special kind of oil or placing a tablet in the smokestack of the train. This led to grey vapors emerging from the train when it ran, increasing the realistic look of the train set. Nearly all models of the post-war Lionel trains had this feature. The only exceptions were the budget models. Another new feature of post-war Lionel trains was that the O gauge was used almost exclusively instead of the variety of gauges that were used in the Lionel trains before the war, for example, the proprietary Wide gauge.

Construction Set For Hobbiests

In the post-war era Lionel introduced a new construction set. This was a train set which had to be built by the hobbiest. Although such sets existed much earlier, they always needed tools like screws and bolts to create the track. Lionel’s construction was different as it did not need any tools for creating a rail setup. It used rubber grommets which retained specially designed aircraft rivets. This set was extremely popular, with several variations introduced in the market with different train models available.

The train tracks were a source of criticism. The beams used in them were made of hollow metal and would easily deform if somebody stood on them, rendering that portion useless.

The Company’s Post-war Icon Train

The train that was considered an icon of the company, and in general the icon of that era, was a model of the EMD F3 in a “Santa Fe War Bonnet” paint scheme. This model of the train was called the Lionel 2333 diesel locomotive and was introduced in 1948. It can be said without argument that this particular model was the most popular post-war Lionel train and it has immense collector value even today.

More Popular Locomotives From Lionel

Lionel went on to model many popular prototype locomotives. The GP-7 The Milwaukee Road was produced as the No. 2338, the Burlingon Route No. 2328 and the Pennsylvania No. 2028, which was a no-frills unit.

Another locomotive of interest is the NW-2 Switcher. Produces in “O” Gauge No. 622 and than in O27 Gauge version No. 6220 both were outfitted with electronic coil couplers and a bell.

The Trainmaster was a large, and some have said the best running locomotive produced by Lionel. It had dual worm-drive motors, allowing it to out-pull most other locomotives. This model began production in 1954.

Lionel continues to this day to model and produce a wide variety of locomotives and train equipment to suit the needs of the hobbiest.

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