Evolution of a N Gauge - 3' x 5' Layout for the absolute beginner

Introducing the concept

Most People begin in this hobby with a train set and a loop of track. Many hours can be spent learning how the track fits together, how to get power to the track and, ultimately, watching a train run round the loop.

Fig 1 below is one such loop, built entirely from Atlas Set Track or the equivalent, and it forms the basis of our layout.

This Tutorial is as a step by step guide. It will take the beginner from this basic loop, to a fully operating model railroad, in small easy steps. Along the way we will, gradually, be adding complexity and learning about the hobby of Model Railroading. The beginner is encouraged to build the layout as we go along, so that the lessons learnt have a practical as well as theoretical basis. It also means that we can start running trains right from the start, which is, after all, our reason for wanting a layout.

As the plan develops we will reach several points at which the builder may say "this is all I need for now". If that is the case for you then build to that point and enjoy your layout. You can always come back to the tutorial and expand your layout as your time, recourses and interests allow. The most important thing is to do each stage properly, with patience and care, and not be afraid to remove and redo sections of track or scenery as your skills and interests develop.

Running our first train

Most people tend to start by laying the set track pieces directly on the floor. This is not really a good idea, as it is bad for your equipment and things can easily get broken or lost. So the first task of this project is to build a suitable foundation for our layout.

Several books and articles are available on this subject, and I will leave it up to the reader to find the methods that best suite his or her requirements and talents. For the sake of this tutorial we will assume a one inch sheet of foam laminated to a 3’ x 5’ sheet of ply wood or other rigid base, as the final table top (Benchwork) on which to build our layout.

After you have the benchwork completed we can begin to lay our track and get some trains moving. The 1" foam is fairly rigid and will be adequate on its own, placed on a suitable table top, to follow the first few sections of the tutorial, so even if you haven’t built the benchwork yet, lets move on. The parts lists I will be using will be for Atlas Set Track, but you may follow along with other brands of track if you wish, just make sure they fit as intended.

Initially you will need: 18 x 5" Straight sections Part # 2501, 12 x Full section 11" Radius Part # 2520 and two terminal rail joiners (one red and one black). Terminal Rail Joiners are normal metal rail joiners but with wires soldered to the underside. They are used to connect power from the power pack (controller) to the rails. If you are handy with a soldering iron you can make your own. Soldering is a skill that you will need to acquire before long any way, so this could be a good place to start.

The symbol on the diagram is three Atlas Bridges, which will be used as we begin to add scenery to our layout. You may substitute 5" straight pieces for now and add the bridges later, or you can use them from the start and cut out the foam underneath (but only if your foam is permanently secured to a rigid base).

Lay the track pieces on the table top, in the arrangement shown in Fig 1. Being careful that the pieces are correctly aligned, vertically and horizontally, and that they fit together tightly with no gaps. Don’t force any thing, if it doesn’t fit right first time find out why. Only correctly laid track will ensure trouble free operation of your trains.

Replace the rail joiners of one of the straight pieces with the terminal joiners, described above, so that we can feed power to the track. When you have everything down, and lying square, you may pin the track to the foam to stop it from slipping. I find that ordinary straight sewing pins work well. Do NOT permanently glue the track down at this time, we will be making many changes as we go through the tutorial.

Hook the power pack (Controller) up to the wires, plug it in, place a locomotive on the track, turn the knob and if all is well the loco will move. Add some cars (wagons) and enjoy watching your train as it rolls round the loop.

Several important lessons can be learned from this basic loop, which will ensure many enjoyable hours of trouble free railroading later. Most important are that you have clean track, your track joints align properly, you have adequate power feeders and that the direction of travel is correct. We will consider each of these in more detail, as they are the most common problems facing model railroaders.

Running more than one Train

By now the bug has bitten and the beginner will probably buy another loco and more cars (wagons) to run. This is when the first real problem arises. If both trains are placed on the same track at the same time, one train will eventually catch the other one.

The "prototype" solution is a passing siding, so that the faster train can overtake the slower one. But with only one controller (Power Pack), because the power is to the track not the train, we end up with one train sitting in the siding whilst the other one runs. Then by throwing the Turnouts (Points) we can hold the first train whilst the second train runs.

Go ahead and try it. You will need one Left Hand Standard Turnout (Points) part # 2702, one Right Hand standard Turnout part # 2703, two full section 19" radius curves part # 2526, Three additional 5" straight tracks part # 2501 and Three Full section 9 3/4" radius curves Part # 2510.

Lift the two straight sections and drop in the turnouts as shown in the plan. The two 19" radius curves are attached to the diverging (i.e. Curved) route of the turnouts, so as to swing the track parallel with the main. The inside curve, consisting of 3 pieces of 9 3/4" radius, is then formed from the lower of the two turnouts, and the straight pieces from the upper, again taking care to align the joints properly.

Finished? Good. Now place one train on each track and make sure that the turnouts are both set (aligned) for the same route (track). Turn on the power and let a train circle the loop. Stop it where it started, throw the turnouts to the other route and let the second train roll.

In model railway terminology this arrangement is known as a staging track. It is a very useful tool for operations on large layouts but not very useful to us as beginners. We can still have some fun with it though. Hide the staging track with some books or off cuts of foam and amaze your family and friends by having one train disappear and another one re appear in the same or opposite direction. Take a good look at published track plans and see if you can understand how their staging now works.

So what do we do next?

One solution is to double track the lay out, which is to have two parallel tracks, each with its own controller (fig 2 below). If you wish to build this layout to test it then go ahead. You will need another Left Hand Standard Turnout part # 2702, another Right Hand standard Turnout part # 2703, 11 additional 5" straights part # 2501, six Full section 9 3/4" radius curves Part # 2510 two more terminal rail joiners, and, of course, a second controller.

If you have a friend who also has a train set it may be a good idea to pool your recourses at this stage. That way you can share the initial cost (as the two train sets contain the most expensive parts), help each other acquire skills by discussing what you learn and most importantly operate the layout together, as it is more fun with two operators.

As before, follow the plan being careful to align the new track pieces as you do so. Connect the new terminal rail joiners to the inner loop and let the trains roll.

Notice the arrangement of the turnouts between the two tracks. When turnouts face each other in this manner it is known as a "crossover", because it allows the train to cross over from one track to the other and back. Unless you are using DCC (Digital command Control – see later section) the crossovers will provide us little or no benefit in this plan, as they could cause a short circuit if you are not sufficiently clued up on electronics. So feel free to leave them out if you wish.

Running trains on the loop

It is normal in double track "territory" that trains on each track move in opposite directions. In America the anti-clockwise train would normally run on the outside track and the clockwise train on the inner track (this is known as right hand running). In Britain and Europe this would be reversed.

Although this is the quickest answer to the problem of running two trains, we still end up with the earlier situation of watching the trains run round in circles.

For many people, however, this is all they really want from the hobby, and if you are so inclined then enjoy it, you now have a working layout. All you need to add is the scenery of your choice and you can spend many happy hours watching your trains.

But what about the others who, rather than watch, would like to actually drive their trains? If this thought interests you, then welcome to the world of model railroading. From here the path is steep and the choices many, but the rewards are tremendous. You will start to learn many new skills and along the way make many new friends in the process.


Previous PageIndexNext Page

Copyright © 1999 – C. A. Roper

No part of this text or plan may be reproduced, in part or whole, other than as an aid to building a layout for your personal use, without the express permission of the author. For information or to give feed back contact caroper@iafrica.com.