Layout Design

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

What shape should your model railway be? How wide should the boards be? How high should it be? How can you store it when its not in use?

These are important questions that need to be answered before you can get very far with planning a model railway. These aspects of the physical design of your layout need to be carefully thought out before you put pencil to paper sketching out possible track plans. If you don't do this you will still be able to build your model railway, but you may not have achieved as much as you might have done had you given these aspects a little more thought.


Let's begin by considering the shape of the layout. This aspect of layout design depends on the space available for the layout. If you have a large space available for your model railway then you will have a large choice of possible shapes. A smaller space may rule out some shapes but a proper consideration may find a shape more suitable than first thought.

Two styles of layout shapes are possible. A layout can have an enclosed operating area or it can have a walk around design.

An enclosed operating area has disadvantages in that it will either be necessary to duck under a baseboard to reach the operating area or alternatively have a lifting section. In the first case getting in and out is awkward while in the second all trains must stop whenever anyone wants to go in or out. This style of layout has the advantage for continuous run layouts of not requiring a baseboard wide enough to contain a 180 degree curve. A selection of layout shapes using this style are shown in figure one.

enclosed operating area designs
Figure one

A walk around design is much easier for access. It is extremely convenient for operation and viewing. However unless an end to end track plan is envisaged there will need to be at least two points on the layout where the baseboard will need to be wide enough to take a 180 degree curve. This makes this style unsuitable for continuous runs in larger scales. A selection of layout shapes of this style are shown in figure two.

walk around designs
Figure two

A variety of other layout shapes can be derived by combining or altering those shown.

By carefully considering the possible shapes for your layout, it may be possible to fit in a permanent layout where you thought that only a portable one was possible by taking advantage of areas that a plain rectangular shape would have wasted.


The wider the baseboards of your model railway, the more track, buildings and scenery that can be fitted onto the board. However the width of a baseboard is not only determined by the space available and what you want to put on it. How far you can reach when constructing and operating the layout also has a bearing on how wide the baseboard should be.

All track work, particularly turnouts, should be within easy reach from the baseboard edge. If you have a track that is out of reach and a train derails there then you will have to climb across the layout to reach the train or alternatively hook something onto the train and drag it to where you can reach. In either case something is likely to get damaged.

Lift out sections of scenery can provide ready access to the back of the board during construction. It is not so convenient if you have to remove a lift out section because a bogie on one of your trains has derailed. This is particularly inappropriate when you have visitors viewing the layout.

Freestanding baseboards, not against a wall, can be reached from both sides. If it is easy to get from one side to the other then you only have to be able to reach halfway across the board. A freestanding board can therefore be twice as wide as on against a wall.

As a general rule it is best not to have track more than three feet (90cm) or turnouts more than two feet (60cm) from the edge of the layout. These distances need to be reduced for a layout high off the floor and can be increased for one low down.

Another consideration regarding what a suitable width for your baseboard is applies particularly to portable and transportable layouts. A narrow board is much easier to transport than a wider board. Also significant is the width of an ordinary doorway. A board will need to be tipped if it is too wide to go through a door increasing the possibility of damage.


Aisle width is also an important consideration. Any operating space or viewing area in which two or more people are normally expected needs to be wide enough for two people to comfortably pass one another. This means a minimum of three feet (90cm) across the operating space and four feet (120cm) is preferable.

An access way or operating space for a single operator needs to be wide enough for a person to walk normally. Twenty inches (50cm) should be considered a minimum for this while two foot (60cm) is preferred.

A space that is only used when track cleaning or recovering a derailed train can be narrower than access ways and operating/viewing areas. The minimum that should be considered is one foot (30cm) which will mean that you will have to move sideways to get in or out.

This space for aisles will also need to be taken into account in determining the baseboard width. A narrower aisle will restrict your mobility and you may not be able to reach across the board as far. Also space required for aisles is not available for baseboards. The minimum aisle width will determine your maximum baseboard width at various points on the layout and also therefore help determine the suitability or otherwise of the chosen layout shape for the available area.


The ideal height from the viewpoint of viewing the layout once it is built is eye level. If you are looking at a layout where the baseboard is set just fractionally below eye level then you are looking side on to the model the same way as you have a side on view of the full sized railways rather than the overhead view that you get when the board is set at a lower level. This overhead view can only be duplicated for the prototype by use of a helicopter or light plane. Just what exactly eye level is depends on your height and whether you intend to operate from a sitting or standing position. The eye level of your potential (standing) audience also needs to be taken into account. A number of studies have shown that the smallest members of the audience who are old enough to appreciate the layout will have an eye level of about four feet (120cm). Also worth considering is the fact that a high stool will bring the eye level of a seated operator up closer to the eye level of a standing audience and low platforms or chairs can be provided for the smaller members of the audience to stand on.

The ideal height from the viewpoint of operation depends on whether the layout is to be operated from the back or the front of the layout. In either case the height needs to be such as to allow the operator to reach across to rerail a train on the most distant track. This will normally require that the layout be lower than is ideal for viewing unless a stool or chair is available for the operator to stand on when necessary.

Other considerations regarding the correct height of the layout include

  1. Windows in the railway room. You don't want the layout at a height where it will block the window and cut out all of the light.
  2. Access to the centre of the layout for layouts having a central operating position. The higher the baseboard the easier it is to duck under and the less need there is for a lift up section.
  3. Ease of construction. The details (track, scenery, etc) on the top of the board are easier to build if the layout is at a lower height. The details (wiring etc) under the board are easier to install if the baseboard is higher. This is not such a problem with portable baseboards.
  4. Stability. The higher the baseboard height, the less stable that the layout will be and the more cross members will be required to hold the layout solidly in place.
  5. If building a model railway in the roof or some other place where the walls are not vertical then the space available for the layout will also depend on the height at which it is to be built.

Consideration of all of these factors will help you to determine the appropriate height for your layout.


A permanent layout is only possible if you have sufficient space available that is not required for some other purpose. In many cases the space required by the erected layout just isn't available all of the time. Some form of portable or partly portable layout is then the only solution.

A portable layout is going to spend more time packed away than it is in its fully erected state. Therefore it makes sense before you start building it to consider how you are going to store the layout. It is possible to design the leg frameworks for a portable layout in such a way that they can also be used in a different arrangement for storing the boards. Alternatively a framework can be built between the legs of a slightly larger than normal baseboard into which the other baseboards can be stacked for storage.

A semi-permanent layout may be able to be built into the top of a piece of furniture such as a table or bookcase. A fold-down cover conceals the board when not in use. If built into the top of cupboards there may also be the possibility of storing the rest of the layout in the cupboard itself.

A permanent layout in its own room is not subject to the same storage problems as for portable and semi-permanent layouts. There are still a number of aspects of layout storage that need to be considered even for a permanent layout. Depending on its location it will be subject to a certain amount of dust. A portable layout is dismantled every so often allowing the dust to fall from the layout. Not so with a permanent layout and it may be worthwhile considering building dust covers for the layout. These dust covers will need to rest on the edge of the board thus affecting the way in which these edges will need to be designed.


Simple consideration of these basic design factors can have an effect on the convenience of your model railway and the more convenient that the railway is, the more you will enjoy it. It may be too late to consider all of these factors in connection with your current model railway but some things may be able to be altered without too much inconvenience and you can always make use of this information in designing its replacement.

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Copyright Stephen Chapman