What is a Model Railway?

This article first appeared in the January/February 1990 issue of AMRA's 'Journal'.
By Steve Chapman.

Many of the people who know nothing about model railways look on those who do as "boys playing trains". These people cannot see the difference between the young boy with his toy train set laid out on the floor and the serious modeller. The difference is not an obvious one and many people involved in the model railway scene also seem to be unable to tell the difference. Some modellers end up with a train set like layout when they meant to build a model railway.

So what is the difference between a model railway and a train set and what must a modeller do to ensure that he ends up with the sort of layout that he wants? To answer this question we need to consider the various aspects of a Model Railway and see how they differ from the corresponding aspects of the train set.


There are various types of Model Railway. There is the continuous run where one or more tracks forms a continuous circuit around which a train can run without ever reaching the end of the track. This circuit may be an oval (figure one) a looped eight (figure two) a dogbone (figure three) or some more convoluted arrangement of loops given enough space to fit them in.

figure one - continuous run
figure two - looped eight
figure three - dogbone

There is the end to loop where a train leaves from the end of the track goes around the loop and eventually arrives back where it started from. To go any further the train needs to be reversed. The two ends of the loop may join together immediately (figure four) may run parallel (figure five) or may each follow their own path only coming back together just before the end (figure six).

figure four - single line to loop
figure five - double line to loop
figure six - station straight to loop

There is the end to end where a train leaving one end must stop when it reaches the other end and reverse in order to run back to the end that it started from (figure seven).

figure seven - end to end

There are complex layouts which incorporate more than one of these types of run.

A train set on the other hand is usually only of the continuous run oval type. For the most part then we can say that if the track: arrangement is not based primarily on the oval type then the layout is at least part way toward being a model railway rather than a train set. This does not mean that all continuous run ovals are only train sets to distinguish the difference we must look at other aspects of the layout.


A layout may be built in a number of different ways. It may be solid top where a piece of flat board is fixed to a frame and the track and everything else is fixed down onto the top of the board (figure eight). Occasionally small sections are cut from the board to allow parts of the scenery to go below track level and grades and raised tracks are done by fixing another piece of flat board above the main board on blocks (figure nine).

figure eight - solid top
figure nine - solid top with raised trac k

A layout may be of open top construction where the flat board is only placed where the tracks are to go and is raised to the height required by blocks fixed directly to the frame (figure ten). The holes left between track work when using this construction method are filled in with a scenic base which can as easily go below track level as it can go above.

figure ten - open top

L-Girder construction is an alternative method of open top construction for fixed layouts which uses less timber than the conventional frame type construction but is not moveable (figure eleven).

figure eleven - L Girder

A train set begins by being set out on the floor or on a table. Eventually however the train set will be placed on a board. This board is usually of the solid top type of construction. We can therefore say that a layout using open top or L-Girder construction is part way toward being a model railway. Not all solid top layouts are train sets so we still haven't come up with a clear-cut difference.


I have already mentioned that L-girder is only able to be used for fixed layouts so let's next consider what types of layouts that we can have when we consider this aspect. The first type obviously is the fixed layout where the layout is constructed in a fixed location and can only be moved by partly or fully demolishing the layout. A layout of this type is often fixed to the walls of the room in which it is located instead of having legs at the back: (figure twelve).

figure twelve - fixed layout

A layout where the board joins have been ignored and track and scenery laid without provision for separating the boards also falls into this category.

The next type of layout is the transportable layout. This is a layout made up of one or more boards which are fairly large in size. At least two people are required to lift each board in order to transport the layout from one place to another. A layout of this type may be shifted in order to clean the room when moving or to take it to an exhibition but normally it remains in the one place and can not be readily packed away between operating sessions.

Portable layouts are built on smaller boards which are easily handled by one person and can be packed away between use. This type of layout is ideal for use when there is no permanent site for the layout.

Modular layouts are similar in construction to portable ones except that with a modular layout the various modules that make up the layout (each consisting of one or more boards) may be assembled in a different order each time that the layout is brought out for operation.

The train set on a board usually falls into the transportable category but is sometimes fixed or portable. This aspect of model railways can therefore give us a further indication of the difference but still provides us with no clear-cut boundary line.


Let us now move on to considering the track on the layout. It used to be that you could tell the difference between a model railway and a train set by the type of track used model railways used scale hand-built track while train sets used vastly over scale tinplate.

The situation today is not quite so straightforward. Track today comes in four varieties. These are set-track, flexible track, track built from kits, and scratch-built. All four of these types can be just as much to scale and can look just as realistic as each other.

The main area of difference between a model railway and a train set today with regard to track is not which type of track is used but more how the track is used - the track plan of the layout. The minimum radius used for curves and turnouts on a model railway is usually greater than is used with a train set. Yes sharp curves can have their place on a model railway but they are usually hidden away behind the scenes and in places where the sharper radius will not be so obvious. A train set on the other hand usually uses set-track with its sharp radius curves out in plain view.


The next aspect to consider is the type of models that are to be run on the layout. Ready-to-run models are those which can be purchased taken home checked to ensure that their wheels are to gauge and then placed on the track and run. These models are used on both model railways and train sets but the train set owner is less likely to check the gauge and hence more likely to have derailments. Kit-built models are available for locomotives rolling stock and scenic structures (buildings etc). They provide a ready source of additional models of items which may not be available in ready-to-run form. With the train set this type of model is usually restricted to scenic structures.

Kit-bashed and proprietary-bashed models form another source of different models for the model railway. A ready-to-run model or a kit is modified to make it into something different from what it was originally intended to be. Minor variations between models in the same class can be relatively easily produced. With more effort something completely different from anything available in ready-to-run or kit form may be produced.

Scratch-built models are those which have been created entirely or mostly from scratch. The layout owner conceives of something which he would like to have for his model railway but is unavailable in ready-to-run or kit form. He therefore obtains all of the basic materials and makes up the model himself.

The standard of detail in models that can be purchased today is such that for many people the standard of shop bought items is higher than they feel that they can do for themselves (which may or may not be true). A model railway cannot therefore be distinguished from the train set on the basis that only ready-to-run rolling stock is used.


When we consider all of the above aspects of a layout we find that there is no one aspect that can be used to determine whether a layout is a model railway or a train set. Even taking all of the aspects discussed so far together there is still an overlap between model railways and train sets. There is no clear cut boundary between a model railway and a train set with regard to the physical aspects of the layout although some layouts quite obviously fall into one category or the other. No wonder some people have trouble telling the difference. So how can we tell the difference ? Let's try a different approach.


The purpose in building a layout can have a great effect on whether a model railway or a train set is built. If the purpose is to play trains or to enable your children to play trains then the train set is the ideal solution. A train set layout can be assembled in a much shorter time than a model railway for a lot less money and will fit in a relatively small space.

Another purpose in building a layout may be that of the collector. There are a number of people whose main interest in model railways whose main interest is the collection of old Hornby Dublo tinplate or Marklin to give just two examples. These people may also find that the train set approach suits their purpose.

There are people whose main interest is to scratch-build locomotives. These people are not necessarily interested in the rest of the railway scene but require somewhere to test their locomotives. Again a train set like setup may be the solution.

The beginner who has yet to obtain any real knowledge or experience of how to build a model railway usually begins with a train set-like setup which he uses to experiment with. He uses this to gain knowledge and experience. He can decide to tear down and rebuild over without it costing him a great deal of money and time. Eventually he may find that he has moved on and that it is a model railway that he is building and not a train set.


The train set has its place. It satisfies the needs of many people whose interests lay in areas where a model railway layout is not needed. There is nothing wrong with this and these people get as much enjoyment out of the hobby with their train set as others do with their model railway.


There are other areas of interest where a model railway becomes a requirement rather than an option. When your interest lies in model railway construction and/or operation then a train set type of system just wont do.

The first stage of building a model railway is PLANNING. A train set may be built and grow to suit the desires and needs of the owner but a model railway must be planned.

There are many aspects of a model railway that need to be planned properly BEFORE construction of the layout commences. Some of these have already been discussed. What type of model railway is to be built (continuous run end to loop end to end)? Will it be fixed transportable1 portable or modular construction? Will it be solid top, open top, or L-Girder construction? What type of track will be used?

There are other aspects that also need to be considered before construction commences and it is working out your answers to these questions that really determines what type of model railway that you will build.

Which prototype will your layout be based on? Will your layout be a model of a specific location ? Will the layout be based on the practices of a specific railway company? Or do you intend (after careful study of various prototype railways) to invent your own freelance system?

What period is the layout meant to represent? Is it a specific day? week? year? Is the period more general (say a ten year period)? What models are available for your prototype in ready-to-run or kit form? Will you need to kit-bash or scratch-build? Is there enough ready-to-run to get you started ? Do you feel confident that you can handle the amount of scratch-building necessary to achieve your goals?

Will the layout be a main line route? a secondary line route? a branch line? an industrial line? Main line doesn't necessarily mean double (or triple etc) track: some main line routes had single track did yours?


Is your main area of interest construction or operation? This is the key factor in determining what type of model railway is built. If interest does not lie in one of these two areas (and most of us are interested in one or both of these) then it is very probable that a train set layout will be built. Only if there is sufficient interest in model railway construction and/or operation will a model railway layout result.

The actual layout that results will depend on which of these areas is the area of major interest. If construction is the main interest then perhaps the layout will end up with a continuous run oval but other aspects will clearly indicate that the layout is a model railway rather than a train set. Many of the structures used for the scenery will be modified kits or scratch-built. Attempts will have been made to make the scenery look realistic even if the builder lacks the necessary skills to build things for himself and must rely on kits for most of his buildings. The modeller who enjoys building model railways will usually attempt to make his layout look like a model railway. He will usually avoid sharp radius curves and will only use solid top baseboards when there is a reason for it.

On the other hand if operation is the major interest then the layout may end up on a solid top board using train set style sharp radius curves in order to fit as much operating potential into the available space as possible and using entirely ready-to-run rolling stock and kit built buildings (if it has scenery at all). It is this type of layout where it becomes hardest to tell the difference. Two people could build almost identical layouts one who only wants to play trains the other who wants to operate a model railway. It would then be impossible to tell whether they were train sets or model railways just by looking at them when no trains are running. The task would be much easier when you see the layouts operating. The person who enjoys model railway operation will be running trains with a purpose. Each train would go from one point to another if it circled the mainline a number of times then it would always be the same number of times to represent the distance between the two end points of his railway. There would always be something happening on the layout as the various trains were moved purposefully between the various parts of the layout. At an exhibition there may be a commentary or a printed timetable but even where there is not you would be able to ask-the operator what is happening and he would be able to tell you. Of course there are some modellers who are interested in both construction and operation. There is usually little doubt when looking at their layouts particularly when the trains are running that what you are looking at is a model railway.


There is nothing wrong with the train set. If it suits your purpose to have a train set good 1uck to you. Those modellers who would like to build a model railway but always seem to end up with a train set like layout should consider the things mentioned in this article. If you sit down before you start building your layout and consider all of the aspects mentioned above then no matter what your level of experience or ability you will be one step closer to achieving your objective. The key to building a model railway is to plan BEFORE you start. Consider all of the alternatives so as to choose the arrangement that best suits your needs. You may discover new things as you build the layout that require minor changes to what you intended but the basic arrangement will remain unchanged and you will be far happier with the result.

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Copyright Stephen Chapman