So you’re ready to build s model railroad.. No doubt, you’ve been motivated by a grand, sprawling model in a railroading magazine or on line. A minor problem with magazines and online articles is that they only highlight what a hobbyist has done well. The articles are about what looks good and what works well. No one wants to write about their failures or their grandiose plans that didn’t work out. But everyone makes mistakes. That’s why pencils have erasers and electronics have RESET buttons. Those people who don’t learn from their mistakes (or more preferably, the mistakes of someone else), are doomed to make those same mistakes. So here’s an idea: learn from the mistakes of others so you know what to avoid.

I’m going to break the paradigm. I’m going to reveal the five biggest mistakes I made while building my layout so you can avoid doing the same.

#1 – “Big” Problems

My first mistake was to plan too much at once. Because I work in O scale, my layout has to be large: The Mossy Creek and Greasy Rock Railroad is twelve feet by twenty feet. I planned how I would fill what I thought was an unending expanse of bench work. I determined I would have two cities, two rail yards, a city park, a river crossing, a farm scene, a factory, a school yard, a saw mill, a hospital, and more.

When working in the larger scales, like S, O, or G, real estate is at a premium. As I built up my layout section by section, I soon found out there was no way all these large scenes would fit. My only solution was to eliminate some scenes (I eliminated the hospital and a rail yard) and reduce size of buildings. Three-story houses are now two story houses, and some businesses are no more than four inches deep. It took years of rearranging and eliminating buildings and accessories before I was satisfied.

As I built, I learned a better method of planning is to limit the number of large buildings and concentrate on several smaller scenes that add interest. My depot/station was massive. It took up an area 12 inches deep and 30 inches long, and it wasn’t that interesting. At the other end of the scale, my layout has a farmer’s market, a policeman doing a traffic stop, a public swimming pool, and children lined up for the ice cream truck. These scenes add lots of visual interest, yet each occupies less than a 6×6-inch area.

#2 – Two Loops or Not Two Loops

My second mistake was leaving out a second loop for two-train continuous operation. I never intended to run two trains at once. I decided early on that I wanted to be able to easily reach every part of my layout, so I built a folded dog bone with a four-foot loop on each end with a narrow three-foot depth in the middle. The problem with the narrow section is it would look bad to run four tracks side-by-side. So I relinquished an inner/outer loop arrangement and ran a single main line through the three foot section, with a passing siding in the loop at each end of the layout. This turned out to be a regrettable decision.

I like to show off my trains, and I assumed switching cars between sidings would be fun for my visitors. But when visitors come over, they are intimidated by the layout. They don’t want to accidentally break anything. After some encouragement, they will agree to try, but will only operate no more than one train at a time, and prefer the controls were just GO and STOP. They’re content to just watch the trains run. And the more trains there are flying around the track, with lights shining and obnoxious-smelling smoke billowing out the stack, the more they enjoy it. So here’s the tough question I had to answer: Is my layout built mainly for my pleasure, or was I more concerned with sharing my hobby with others? If you enjoy sharing your hobby with others, you’ll have to make sure your layout will appeal to others and that means two continuous loops. Three loops: even better.

#3 – An Unintended Change of Direction

Although my first two mistakes were due to choice, this one surprised me. I have two dumping stations on my layout, a Lionel #397 coal loader and a Lionel #97 coal elevator. The coal loader is located on the front side of the loop where it can be seen close up by visitors. The coal elevator is on the back side of the loop, juxtaposed against a mountainous backdrop. The problem is, I can’t load at one station and dump at the other because they are located on different sides of the loop. An ore car oriented to dump to the inside of the loop can dump into the coal loader, but when parked at the coal elevator, the dump car faces away from the dump bin. Unfortunately, the only solution is to either mount the coaling station “backwards,” facing away from visitors, or locate both accessories on the same side of the loop. My third mistake was not operating the layout before permanently mounting the features.

#4 – Being Sir Save-a-Lot

My fourth mistake was buying on the cheap. When I planned my layout, I envisioned two main yard facilities. The yards at the each end of the layout would have three sidings and a crossover between them to allow for wide variations of switching fun. That was the plan. But instead of purchasing the reliable and popular Ross Custom Switches, or Lionel #022 turnouts, I bought the less expensive Lionel #1122. What a nightmare. Regular track voltage wouldn’t supply enough “umph” to throw the turnouts. I had to disassemble each unit, cut and solder wires, and rivet the bottom plates back on to make them work with constant voltage. Now I find that engines and cars with deep wheel flanges bobble over the turnouts with a terrible sound. Over time, many of them have failed and my layout has bee down while I hunt for and customize new turnouts. I ended up purchasing the more reliable #022 turnouts, but much to my chagrin, they have a different radius and will require reworking the entire track.

#5 – Hey Buddy, Have You Got a Light?

My fifth mistake was failing to standardize construction. One of the characteristics of an interesting layout is the use of lights. Engine head lights, lighted passenger cars, and buildings with lighted interiors all add another dimension to a layout. I have nineteen buildings on my layout that have lights. In addition, I have several lighted signs and street lamps as well. I soon found I was using a lot of lights. But instead of standardizing the lighting, I put in whatever bulb I had available, in whatever socket it required, and hard wired it to the main power feed.

Now five years later, I find I need to remove buildings to clean them, work around them, or change the bulbs. Each time, I have to cut wires and re-splice them. Then I have to find or purchase a bulb to fit. As a result, repair time takes much longer and the wires to temperamental accessories are getting very short. I also find that when I replace a bulb, I sometimes have to replace the socket as well. And because the bulbs are all different types, some burn brighter than others. It’s a jumbled up mess.

Now each time I remove a building for maintenance, I retrofit it from a stockpile of parts purchased from an electronics supply website. From now on, every building gets the same 24-volt bulb in a standard bayonet base connected to the main feeder with quick-disconnect crimp terminals. Future maintenance will be quicker and easier.

So Build It Better from the Start

If I could do it all over (and someday I may), I will learn from experience and not make these same mistakes. I will keep everything small and rely on multiple “mini-scenes” to add interest. I will have both loops and sidings for entertaining both operators and visitors. I will test-run the operations before I start to permanently position items. I will not compromise on quality to save a buck on critical items, and I will standardize construction so that replacement and repair is not so time consuming. These things done, I can get back to the original purpose of this hobby – having fun.

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