Does a Layout Need a Station?

This article first appeared in the May/June 1989 issue of AMRA's 'Journal'.
By Steve Chapman.

Almost every model railway, whether it was designed or just grew, has one or more stations. There are a few exceptions to this, and it is the intention of this article to demonstrate that a layout without a station may in some cases be an alternative worth considering. It may then be possible to fit an acceptable layout into a far smaller space than was considered necessary when you thought that you needed a station.

What is a station? This question perhaps needs to be answered first so that we can then determine what is not a station, but might be considered interesting enough to model in place of a station.

When many people think of a station they think of the passenger platforms first. The platforms are the most obvious part of the station to the public because that is where you must go in order to catch a train. This leads to many modellers' first mistake; they start to think that the platforms are the station, or at least that they are the most part of it. These modellers determine the length of their station as being the length of their platforms and therefore don't have a true idea of how much space a station really takes up.

The correct way of determining the size of a station is to take the distance from the outermost home signal to the most advanced starting signal. These signals define the station limits and everything within these limits can be considered to be part of the station. Also the station limits need not be at the same point on each of the tracks through the station in the same way that some stations have their platforms offset from one another.

It has been suggested on a number of occasions that a typical small station is between two and five times the length of the platforms. Therefore if we were intending to build a layout having a station capable of properly catering for an eight-car train in HO, then we would require platforms of about 7' to 8' long and the station would be somewhere between 14' and 40' in length. A station capable of taking a scale length train thus turns out to be a very big thing.

There are a number of solutions to this problem. The one that most modellers choose is to reduce the train length and compress the station. They perhaps build a station for a five-car train that is 10' long where special complex track formations are included to give direct access into parts of the station that would normally be accessed by shunting backwards and forwards within the station limits. Alternatively, they have an arrangement where a train shunting at one station is using the platform road at the next station when it shunts forward far enough to clear the points at the station at which it is shunting.

There is another solution to the problem of how much space a scale length station takes up. If your layout doesn't have a station, then YOU don't have the problem of selectively compressing the station in order to get it to fit.

The question then arises of what to put in the layout in place of a station. Plain track running through countryside scenery is what most people think of when they think of a layout from which all stations have been removed, and for some modellers for whom construction of scenery is the most important thing, this may present a practical alternative.

Most modellers enjoy running trains, and a layout that has just plain track running through scenery is not much different operationally from the basic train set. Their requirements are for something that has a little more operational interest than this, but how can we add interesting operation without adding a station.

One way to do this is to add part of a station. As we determined before, a station is a big thing, but if we only include part of a station, then perhaps we can fit something which is reasonably to scale into a layout of moderate size. In fact it may even be possible to build a layout that consists entirely of one part of a station with the possibility of building further parts of the station should additional space become available.

A good example of a part of a station that can be built as a stand alone layout is what used to be called the Motive Power Depot (MPD). Most railway modellers like collecting locomotives and many find that the layouts that they build will not allow them to have all of their locomotives on the track at once. A layout that consists of only an MPD or perhaps an MPD plus main line will give far more room to hold all of those 'spare' locomotives than a conventional layout would.

For people who like shunting, what better than a stand alone goods yard. Far more goods yard can be fitted into a board if the other components of the station are left out, thus making the yard look far more like the major marshalling point that you would perhaps like it to be. A layout of this type also provides an obvious setting for all of those goods wagons that you like so much but which would have swamped a conventional layout.

For the person who likes passenger coaches, a carriage depot with a large train shed where complete passenger trains minus loco can be stored away would make an unusual but interesting layout. Many large stations where trains terminate have some sort of storage facility for passenger trains when they are not required. Without having to take up space with the other parts of the station. a reasonable sized carriage storage facility could be built.

Any of the above parts of a station could be built as a stand alone layout. Many people though seem to prefer layouts with a continuous run. The solution here is to model your main line and attach whichever part of the station that you choose to it in an appropriate way. The main line can then disappear under a road bridge at one end of the layout with the rest of the station imagined to be beyond the bridge. An alternative which would suit the person who likes all types of rolling stock is based on this solution. Your model can be designed to represent the approaches at one end of the station being laid out to scale and modelling as far along the station as you have room to fit into the available space; a road bridge can cross the station at an appropriate position to act as a scenic break and the rest of the station is then imagined to be beyond the bridge.

Of course, it is also possible to build an interesting model railway which doesn't even have part of a station.

Imagine that your line is at the top of a hill up which it is necessary to double head trains. you can then model the appropriate tracks required to break the extra locos off the train and send them back down the hill. This would not be a full MPD as that would usually be at the bottom of the hill, but a few tracks might be required to hold locomotives until a gap in the timetable permits them to return down the hill. Just think of the operational interest that you will get from sticking an extra loco on the front of every 'ascending' train in the fiddle yard and taking it back off and sending it back while on the layout proper. This also gives a reason for having all those extra locos that you couldn't resist buying.

What about modelling the interchange tracks between two main lines. Even if you don't have the space to model both main lines as continuous runs, you can still build an effective model of this type, provided that each main line disappears off stage into a sufficiently large fiddle yard to be capable of remarshalling trains. A layout of this type would have several advantages which include -

  1. an obvious excuse for locomotives belonging to two companies;
  2. again a need for all those extra locomotives, and
  3. a reason for quite a few goods wagons.

The fiddle yard(s) can always be shared between the supposedly separate lines.

An industrial feature such as a coal mine, dockyard, or any other sort of industry could also form the basis of an interesting layout, A layout of this type would suit a person who likes shunting goods wagons and who perhaps likes collecting odd locomotives which he could repaint into supposed private company livery. Also a perfect excuse for running small steam locomotives and modern diesels on the same layout since the steamers could be privately owned and operated by the industry itself.

If sufficient space to model worthwhile industrial sidings is unavailable, then an alternative would be to model interchange sidings where company locomotives pick up wagons going to the industrial area that the 'real railway' locomotives have dropped off and vice versa for wagons coming from the industry. An arrangement of this type would be similar to, but less complex than the interchange between main lines.

Layouts of the types described are particularly suited to the modular layout approach. A group of modellers get together and each builds a layout along the lines of the ideas presented above. These layouts are designed modular fashion so as to permit them to be connected together. Modular layouts of this type allow for construction of quite complex track plans. If each member of the group were to build a different part of a station and they were designed to be hooked together, then a rather major station (perhaps taking up quite a lot of space) could be assembled. Alternatively, a number of small industrial layouts could be hooked together to form a large industrial area with perhaps a set of interchange tracks hooking it into the main line (may be at the major station that another group of friends put together).

The result of this type of modular set up is that by modelling a part of the feature each as separate modules rather than compressing to get the whole thing into one is that a true scale representation of some typical railway feature can be presented in a space typically used to display a number of greatly compressed (and therefore not so realistic looking) versions of the same thing.

There are many more possibilities for model railway layouts which do not have a complete (although usually dramatically compressed) station. So next time that you decide to start planning that new layout, stop and think, 'Do I really want to build a layout that is just the same as everybody else's, or will I dare to be different and build one without a station?'.

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Copyright Stephen Chapman