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

Adding a challenge to the layout

As we have already discovered, switching the sidings on our layout can be great fun, in fact many people enjoy switching more than they do running the train around the layout. Many great model railroads consist of only a switching district, with no provision for continuous running at all. Switching layouts are often set up as a game, with the tracks as the playing field and the cars as the playing pieces. The object of the game is to complete the required task (i.e. move and spot the cars) in the least number of moves or the shortest possible time.

The most popular of these switching puzzles was designed by one of the great pioneers of model railroading, the late John Allen. He called his track plan the "Timesaver", although many in the hobby call it the "time waster" because of all the hours spent trying to solve the infinite number of switching problems it can pose.

If we incorporate this "Timesaver" into our layout we get the best of all worlds, Simple switching on the main line, complex switching in the timesaver and continuous running on the loop. Whatís more, we can switch the Timesaver at the same time as a friend is switching the main and swap cars between the two "players" by placing them on the lower passing track, or designating one of the tracks in the port as an interchange. Such a scenario is very common in the real world, where a large industry would have its own switching Locomotive and track and would exchange loads and empties with a nearby railroad.

Letís add this capability to our layout. You will need one left hand turnout, 5 x right hand turnouts, 12 x 5" straights, two full section 19" radius curves, three 2 Ĺ" straights, two insulated joiners, one DPDT switch (if you are not using Atlas selectors) and 10 terminal joiners.

Ten terminal joiners? Donít panic, this is not just a test of your soldering skills and it isnít an electrical nightmare.

Take a look at the Timesaver Track. Because of the complexity of the track, no single power feed could access all of the tracks at once. We still operate it as a single block, however, so only one additional switch is needed to control the whole arrangement. Here is how we build it. Replace the 5" straight in the passing siding with one of the right hand turnouts. Place the insulated joiners on the diverging leg so that the Timesaver is isolated from the rest of the layout. Add a 5" straight and a 19" curve. Replace the rail joiners from a 2 Ĺ" straight with two terminal joiners and connect it to the 19" curve, finish the spur with a 5" straight.

Next, build the timesaver, you will find it easier to put the timesaver tracks together as a unit and then attach it to the spur we have just built. Finally connect the remaining terminal joiners, in pairs, to the four legs of the timesaver. You can now wire each feeder in parallel and connect the resulting leads up to your switch or selector in the same way as the rest of the blocks. Simple Ė well may be not, but it is worth the effort just to be able to operate the time saver. In fact, if you have been reading along but donít have room for a 3í x 5í layout, it is worth noting that the Timesaver can be built in less than 43" x 6" and will make an excellent layout on its own.

The challenge of the Timesaver track arrangement is in trying to move cars from the back spur, to the main line and back expeditiously when you only have room for the engine and one car at the end of the middle spur. Resist lengthening the spur tracks to fill the available space, as it becomes just a jumble of spurs with a run-around in the middle. To do so, defeats the object. This track arrangement does a great job of teaching switchmen to plan their moves ahead.

Operating and the Timesaver

We have already said that you can operate the timesaver as a switching puzzle, and I am sure that you will spend a lot of time doing just that. Either challenging friends to beat your best time, or just having fun practicing whilst our favorite Passenger Train (the Pink Foam Express) orbits on the main line. But how do we include it into an operating session?

We have 4 spurs available that can serve industries in our timesaver. We could place four or five small structures next to the track and say that it is an industrial park. Because of the lack of space, they would have to be very small industries indeed, hardly able to justify rail service. So what else can we do with it?

Instead of many small industries, we can model part of a larger industry, how we do this visually will be covered later, but operationally our Timesaver represents the Shipping and Receiving area of a large plant. When we selected our earlier industries we did so to justify the maximum variety of rolling stock, so lets do that again. The industry you select will largely depend on where you choose to locate your railroad and what era you wish to represent, but for the sake of this tutorial, lets say it is a food processing plant.

With such an industry we can justify: - Stock Cars (and of course Stock pens), Boxcars or Hoppers of grain, refrigerated cars (reefers) of dressed meat, Boxcars of processed food, Hopper cars of coal for the boilers, flat cars of equipment for the plant. Our list could go on, note down any ideas you may have, but I think you get my point. Although we drastically reduce the number of industries on our pike, we greatly improve the viability and operating interest, after all many short line Railroads had only one major customer.

An origin for your trains

If you have come this far you have, hopefully, spent many enjoyable hours building your layout and operating your trains, but one thing is still missing. We have nowhere for the trains to come from or to end up after a days switching. Locomotives need fuel and maintenance, train crews need a place to get on and off, we need a place to store our excess rolling stock and most importantly of all, a place to sort out the cars that make up a train.

What we need is a yard. Fig 7 shows how our layout accommodates this:

Letís go ahead and build it.

We will need 4 x Right hand turnouts, 4 x Left hand Turnouts, 20 x 5" straights, 3 x 2 1/2" straights, one 5/8" straight, 2 x 11" curves, 10 insulated rail joiners and 10 terminal joiners.

Pay particular attention to the placing of the insulated rail joiners as you build the yard lead, as we are converting the old siding into three blocks whilst the Yard is also a block. Build the yard tracks separately and then attach them to the turnout off the yard lead. In particular, note the short length of 5/8" track at the start of the yard. This track must have insulated joiners were it connects to the siding, and power feeders where it connects to the Yard. Connect two pairs of terminal joiners such that the yard and the tail of the "switchback" (the spur to the left of the yard tracks) are connected in parallel. Then use the Insulated joiners and the other terminal joiners as before, to isolate the different blocks.

The spur on the upper right, off the yard "ladder" is the loco service track. It is divided into two short blocks so that we can have two locomotives parked here for servicing at the same time. The end of the yard lead must also be able hold a parked loco. There are several possible ways to wire such a track, but all we require is that the power can be turned off to isolate the loco.

Now that we have a yard to improve our operations, what does it do? Read on, the real adventure is about to begin.

Advanced Operations

Before we learn how to operate our yard, lets learn some of the terminology.

Each part of a yard has a name and a purpose. Even though our yard is relatively small, compared to some layouts, it must still perform the same functions and, therefor, must contain the same tracks. In our case some tracks serve more than one purpose in order to achieve this.

So what are these tracks called and what do they do?

Arrival / Departure track:

As the name implies, these are the tracks that are used to bring trains into and out of the yard. Ideally, especially in a busy yard, the arrival and departure tracks should be separate from the main line, so as not to interfere with through trains, and also be accessible from the yard lead. Larger yards may have several such tracks to expedite the traffic.

It is also desirable to include a crossover between the main and the arrival/departure tracks to further improve flexibly. I have left it out here, as the track is too short, but feel free to include it in your version.

Yard Lead

The yard lead is the busiest and most important track in any yard. It is the domain of the "yard switcher", a locomotive assigned to the task of making up and breaking down trains. The Yard lead must have direct access to all the other yard tracks, in order to make the work of the switcher as efficient as possible. It is also important that the yard lead be separate from the Main line, so that the switcher does not have to stop work each time a train passes through the town.

Classification tracks

The classification tracks are where most of the work is performed. There are as many ways to use these tracks as there are "Yard Masters", (the person in charge of a yard). But the basic function is the same; they contain partial trains that are being made up for a particular destination. They may be referred to as "east bound", "west Bound" etc. Or they could be referred to by a destination, such as: "Allen", "Armstrong", etc. One thing that they do not do is store cars! Cars in storage are not earning their keep; to a yardmaster an empty yard is an efficient yard.

Storage Tracks

Unfortunately for the railroads, but fortunately for us, not all cars on a railroad are revenue-earning cars and such rolling stock must have somewhere to be stored. Examples of non-revenue stock include maintenance of way cars and wreck trains. Both of which make good scratch building projects, so it is nice to have a place on the layout to show them off.

Storage tracks are also useful for cars that need running repairs, in which case the track is normally called a RIP (Repair In Place) Track.

A third use for this track would be as a place to store your caboose between trips.

Ladder track

The "ladder track" or "Yard Ladder" is the backbone of the yard, and must be clear at all times. Any obstruction on this track and the whole yard comes to a halt. This is the track, consisting mainly of turnouts, which feeds all the other tracks in the yard.


The runaround track in the yard is very important, as it allows the "Yard Switcher" to get to the other side of a group of cars, without having to use the main line. You will find it most useful when you try to spot cars in the "switch back".

Loco Service / Ready Track

Between their runs, locomotives need to be cleaned, serviced and refueled ready for the next run. In normal practice an efficient yard will always have a loco ready to go (hence the ready track) before the next loco comes in for service. Most modelers also canít resist buying more locomotives, so we have provided a place to park two where they can be seen, even when they are not running.

Loco Pocket

A loco Pocket is somewhere to, temporarily, park a locomotive, so that the track is clear for other uses. In our case we have a pocket at the end of the yard lead so that we can park the yard switcher whilst the "Road Power" uses the yard lead to get between the "ready track" and the "arrival / departure" track.

Switch Back

The switchback is not officially part of the yard, but it is included here and on many other model railroads, because of the switching interest that it adds. The switch back is separated into two parts; the lead track, and the tail track. The loco will pull the cars to be switched into the lead track, past the turnout, then back the train into the tail track to perform its work. We can justify several industries on these tracks, as we will see later.

Operating our yard.

As I mentioned earlier, the function of the yard is to breakdown and make up trains, so letís have a look at a sample train.

Our first train has just arrived on the Arrival/departure track and the switcher is sitting in the pocket waiting for the train. It is the switcherís job to sort out the cars and make up a new train.

The Road power cuts off from the train enters the yard and moves to the service track. This leaves the yard lead clear for the switcher to get to work.

The ultimate destination of the cars will be determined by your switch list, or car card system, so letís assume that cars 2&3 are destined for the port, car 1 for the interchange and car 4 for the team track. We also have three cars waiting in the yard to be delivered to the interchange. How do we handle this work?

Lets start by designating classification track 1 (the one with three cars in it) to represent all cars bound for Armstrong, and track two for all cars bound for Allen.

The switcher runs forward and "cuts" car 1 out of the train, pulls it back and pushes it into track 1, with the other three cars for the interchange. Next the switcher moves back to the train and cuts cars 2&3. This cut is delivered to classification track 2. The switcher runs back to the train to pickup car 4 and the caboose.

It pushes the caboose into the storage track and cuts off. Whilst the yard crew begins servicing the caboose (coal for the stove, water for the crew etc.) the switcher can pull car 4 back into the lead and spot it on the team track.

Half of the job is complete; we have broken down the arriving train. Next we need to makeup the "Transfer Run", a train to take our cars to the interchange.

First the switcher will collect the caboose and park it on the Arrival/Departure track. Next it will pull the four cars from track one and, carefully, attach them to the caboose. The switcher then returns to the "pocket" and waits.

At this point the "road power" pulls out of the ready track and couples to the train, performs a break test, and when ready, slowly backs the train into the main line, ready to depart for the interchange.

This is a simple example and as your knowledge of operations grows, you will be able to refine it further, as the above will draw much criticism from seasoned operators. But it will get you started.


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Copyright © 1999-2000 Ė 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.