The Control Panel.

This article first appeared in the May/June 1992 issue of AMRA's 'Journal'.
By Steve J Chapman.

A model railway has many parts and for those modellers who enjoy running trains one of the most important parts is the control panel. This rather useful item is not often given much consideration when building a layout. It is often just thrown together once the layout has been wired so as to get trains moving as quickly as possible.

The type of control panel that a layout uses doesn't only affect the professional appearance of a layout (or its lack) but can also affect the ease with which the layout can be run both by regular operators and the occasional visitor.

Let us consider various types and styles of control panel. We can consider their advantages and disadvantages, and perhaps determine the suitability of the various possibilities for use on your layout.


The first thing to consider with a control panel is its location. This will in part be determined by the method that you are intending to use for turnout operation, whether the layout is intended for home or exhibition use, and whether it is fixed, transportable, or portable.

Will the panel go on the front or back of the layout? Will it hang under the layout or sit on top of the board? Does it have to be able to be moved to different locations depending on whether you are operating at home or at an exhibition? The answers to each of these questions will have an affect on the suitability of different types of control panel.

The method that you use for operating the turnouts on your layout will also have an impact on the suitability of the various panel designs. If turnouts are not remotely operated at all or are mechanically linked to the nearest place on the appropriate side of the layout then the operator will need to have a control panel that allows for his moving along the layout to operate the turnouts. Mechanically operated turnouts that are linked to a single lever-frame (or other single operating position) may also have an impact on panel design. Perhaps a similar frame for the rest of the layout switches might be suitable.

Electrical operation of turnouts makes for greater flexibility in control panel location but means that a larger number of electrical switches will be required on the panel. These switches can be of a variety of types. If single solenoid point motors are used then simple on/off switches of one type or another will be required. The more common double solenoid motors require a momentary pulse which can be supplied by using momentary contact switches, push buttons, probe and stud (where a probe attached to the end of a lead is touched to a stud to fire the motor), or a double stud system (where no lead is required and the probe is used to link the two studs). Which of these methods is to be used will also effect the suitability of the various types of panel.


Next let us consider four different styles of control panel and where each type is most appropriate.

With some forms of mechanical turnout control a formal control panel as such may be totally unsuitable. Where it is necessary to be able to walk up and down the layout to operate the turnouts it may be more appropriate to also provide the power and signal switches along he edge of the board as well. Various types of switches sold for train set use can be readily adapted for this use or alternatively ordinary switches can be built into the board with little effort. It will be fairly obvious which switch operates what with this type of control because all of the switches are directly in front of (or behind) whatever it is that they operate. When several controls are placed closely together the individual functions can be made clearer by labelling the switches.

The simplest actual control panel that you can build and attach to your layout is the flat vertical panel (see figure one). This panel is a plain flat board with a frame around the edge to give it depth. This panel can either be hung under the layout (perhaps bracing it against a leg of the layout) or attached to the backscene. The switches are set into the front of the panel and the frame provides protection for the wiring within the panel. An optional board attached to the back of the frame using hinges will provide further protection for the wiring while still allowing access to the wiring for modification and fault finding. This type of control panel has the advantage that it takes up little horizontal space and therefore it is easy to find room for it. A disadvantage is that unless the panel is at a reasonable height then it will be more difficult to determine which switch operates what. Once you get the panel to a reasonable height to see the switches clearly it will probably be blocking part of your view of the layout.

flat vertical panel

The next type of control panel is the flat horizontal panel( figure two). This panel is identical in construction to the previous panel except for the method by which it is attached to the layout (if it is attached). If there is enough free space on the baseboard then this type of panel can be set flush into the board or placed flat on top of the board. Alternatively a frame can be built over part of the non scenic part of the layout and the control panel built into the top of this. If insufficient space can be found on the layout itself but sufficient space exists next to the layout then a freestanding panel can be built. The advantages that this form of control panel have include the switches being more visible and easier to locate than on a vertical panel and also with a freestanding panel the ease by which the panel can be relocated to a different part of the layout. There is also less chance of something accidentally catching on the switches as they do not project horizontally beyond the board. The main disadvantage is that more space is required unless the panel is placed over a section of non-scenic track work in which case access to that section of track is reduced.

flat horizontal panel

The final style of control panel to be considered is the angled panel (figure three). This type of panel is more complicated to construct and combines the advantages and disadvantages of the other types of panel that we have considered. An angled panel can be placed in any of the locations that we have discussed for vertical and horizontal panels. Where substituted for a vertical panel it has the additional disadvantage of projecting into the operating area whereas substituting it for a horizontal panel has the advantage that a reduced the amount of space is required for the same amount of panel surface. The major advantage of the angled panel is visibility, the switches on an angled panel are far easier to see than on either a vertical or horizontal panel.

angled panel


The next thing to consider with your control panel design is controller location. Three controller locations are possible. These are

  1. a fixed controller built into the panel (figure four),
  2. a free standing controller which can sit on a ledge built into the panel (figure five), be built into the layout separately from the panel, or be placed on any clear space on the layout or separate table, and
  3. a handheld controller which plugs into the panel (figure six) or anywhere else on the layout that you consider to be suitable. In this situation the transformer will usually be located separately either on the floor or under the layout.
controller built in
controller alongside
handheld controller

You are not restricted to using only one of these controller arrangements unless of course you only have one controller. A layout having three controllers could have one built into the panel, one freestanding, and one handheld. Which type(s) of controllers that you are using and where you decide to locate them will affect the construction of the control panel and also possibly its weight if heavy transformers are to be contained within the panel.


The final consideration in control panel design is the layout of the switches. The way in which you arrange the switches on the panel will determine how easy the panel is to construct and also how easy it will be for the occasional visitor to locate the switch that they are looking for.

One arrangement which involves a little more effort in construction is to include a track diagram on the panel with the switches positioned in the diagram in places which reflect the switches use (figure seven). This has the advantage of making it easier to locate the right switch. The disadvantages of this design are that the diagram will need to be large enough to fit all of the switches making for a larger panel than would otherwise be necessary, also any changes that you make to the track layout will also require corresponding changes to be made to the panel.

switches in track plan

A solution to part of this problem is to separate the switches from the diagram on the same panel (figure eight). Here we have a labelled track diagram in the upper part of the panel and correspondingly labelled switches in nice neat rows in the lower part of the panel. The diagram can be smaller because you only need space for some identifying label not the switch itself, changes to the track plan will require cosmetic changes to the diagram and will not affect the switch locations at all. Having the switches in nice evenly spaced rows makes the panel easier to construct and helps avoid having a tangled mess of wires on the back of the panel. The disadvantage of this system over the previous one is that the switch to perform a particular function is not as easy to locate as when it is on the diagram itself.

switches below track plan

A hybrid of these two systems is possible when the probe and stud method of turnout control is used. The switches for track, signals etc are placed in nice neat rows beneath the diagram and the point studs are placed in the diagram itself. The advantages and disadvantages of this design fall somewhere between the first two.

The next stage beyond having the diagram and switches on separate parts of the panel is to remove the diagram from the panel completely (figure nine). Having a separate diagram makes the control panel itself much smaller. Also the same control panel provided that it contains sufficient switches can be used for other layouts that you build provided that you wire the connectors appropriately. If the track layout changes then only the diagram needs to be altered. This design has only two disadvantages, the function of each switch is less obvious than with the previous systems making it harder to learn to operate the layout using a panel of this type, and the diagram being separate from the panel could get misplaced.

switches and separate track plan


So now you have your panel built and all that remains to be done is to link it up to the layout.

If the panel is to be permanently in one place then it can be attached using bolts or screws. The wires between the panel and the layout should go through a terminal block having either screw or soldered connectors so as to allow for the removal of the control panel when adjustments need to be made.

Removable panels can be attached with bolts or split hinges, or can simply be hooked or placed in position. In this case some sort of plug and socket arrangement should be used to attach the panel to the layout.


The actual design and construction of the control panel (or panels if you decide to have more than one on the layout) does not depend on any aspect of the layout itself other than those already mentioned. Any of the types of control panel, types of controller, and switch arrangements can be used in constructing the control panel for any layout. Each panel design has advantages and disadvantages some of which you may only discover after you have built the panel and started to use it.

The best way to chose the type of control panel that best suits you is to try a number of different types. The easiest way to do this is to find a model railway that uses a type of control panel that you are interested in and try it out (after asking the layout owners permission of course). If you don't get this opportunity to try a style of control panel that you are particularly interested in then build one for your layout and see how it compares with the one that you are using now. If you can't afford the extra switches to build an extra panel and don't want to pull your current panel apart then wait until you build your next layout and try it then. Of course if your layout is using more than one panel and you are undecided as to the style that suits you best build each panel using a different style and see how they compare.


The right control panel can make the operation of your model railway much easier, adding greatly to your enjoyment. With the wrong panel it can be such a chore to determine how to carry out certain operations that you don't get the full potential out of your layout. If you're not getting as much out of operating your layout as you would like then think about the control panel. Changing it could make all the difference.

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Copyright Stephen Chapman