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

Welcome to the N Gauge Model Railroading tutorial.

"Many model railroaders ignore, in the rush to fill a newly acquired space with railroad, that it is very easy to end up with a monstrosity that does nothing but sit there, angering family members and consuming time, effort, and money with little return on the investment.

Biting off more than you can chew is one real danger that should be contemplated seriously. Think about all, the structures that would have to be scratch built and the motive power and rolling stock. Then think about "real life." You know the part of life away from model railroading where you have to look after three VERY energetic children and attend to all those other interests and commitments.

You may decided that you simply didn't have the resources - and perhaps to a large extent the desire - to build a huge layout.

I've also seen far too many railroads that are nothing more than sticks and some grandiose schemes and hand waving showing of "what will be."

If you're contemplating construction of a large railroad I highly recommend taking the time to think the project through. Be honest about the time, effort, and money you'll have to commit in order to end up with a finished railroad.

If you think you can pull it off then go for it but don't hesitate to opt for a smaller layout. Building a small layout is better than doing nothing at all. And an operational, well-scenicked small layout beats a basement full of lumber in my book."

Marty McGuirk
Associate Editor


Not every one has the space to build a basement empire or even a standard 4’ x 8’ table, as the growing popularity of N Gauge shows. Conversely many people starting in N think that a 4’ x 8’ HO plan will fit into 2’ x 4’ in N. By the time they find out that it can’t they have already spent a lot of time, and money, and are justifiably disillusioned with the whole hobby. This Layout plan is a compromise between the two at 3’ x 5’. It was designed from the start as a tool to lead the beginner into the hobby, with a manageable and interesting layout. Only you can say if I have succeeded.

Though the document centers on an N Scale (1:160) layout, the information on wiring & operations that it contains will also be useful to HO Scale (1:87) and other molders. So even if you are not interested in N Scale feel free to read it and pass comment.

This is a preliminary release of the document, and I would welcome your feedback at caroper@iafrica.com

The main focus, at this time, is on track planning and operations. The details of construction and scenery will be added later as the project expands. Like wise, the only graphics at this stage are GIF images of the track plan. I will be adding photographs, a full glossary and " hints and tips" as the project grows.

I retain the copyright on this work and reserve the sole right to publish the material, text and track plan. It is a work in progress and will be updated often. If you wish to follow this project, especially if you wish to build it, bookmark this page and let me know how you get on. Your feed back can only help others who try to build it later.

Thank you for dropping by and I hope you enjoy the tutorial.

Chris Roper.

Hout Bay, South Africa.

Version 1 Release 9 Wednesday, September 15, 1999


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. 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.

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 so that we can feed power to the track. When you have everything down, and laying square, you may pin the track to the foam to stop it from slipping. I find that ordinary straight sowing 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" straights 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, then add the additional pieces of track, again taking care to align the joints properly.

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.


Building a layout for operations

In practice you need to have at least two passing sidings (more if possible) on a layout if you wish to run two trains. It follows that the length of your passing sidings determines the length of the trains that you can run. This is so that at least one train is "in the clear" whilst the other one passes on "the main". The sidings should also be separated by at least one train length of main line, for the best in operating fun. Fig 4 shows how we achieve this on our plan.

You will notice that the sidings are not of equal length, and that one section of "Main Line" is shorter than ether of the sidings. This is one of the concessions that often have to be made in layout design. The reasons will become clearer as the layout plan expands, but for now we can see that the shortest siding can hold a Locomotive, five cars and a Caboose (Guards Van). This is based on the principal that we will use small Locomotives (because of the small radius curves) and 40’ American style rolling stock. British and European modellers will get longer trains due to the smaller rolling stock that they use locally.

Electrical Considerations

Let’s go ahead and build it, but before we do we need to make a major decision as to the future of our model railroad. Are we going to use DCC (Digital Command Control) or "cab control" wiring for our project? This subject can be, and has been, debated at length but the bottom line is cost versus complexity. Don’t panic – I said that we were going to learn some new skills, and basic wiring is one of them. Don’t let it put you off, if you can’t follow what I describe here ask a friend with some electrical knowledge to help you, or find one of the many excellent books on the subject, such as Easy Model Railroad Wiring by Andy Sperandeo, Published by Kalmbach – ISBN: 0-89024-349-2.

I will work on the basis that you chose the cheaper option of cab control wiring, and will be using Atlas Selectors to control the blocks. If you use toggle switches instead then I will assume you have a suitable book to help you along. You can always add DCC later if you wish.

Assuming that you purchased the parts needed for the double track plan, all we need in addition are a few electrical components. We will need another 8 terminal rail joiners (your soldering should be improving by now), 16 insulated rail joiners and two Atlas selectors OR 6 x DPDT (Double Pole Double Throw) Switches.

You will notice that the plan is split into six separate ‘Blocks’ or sections. Each block is electrically isolated from the next, and the operator uses switches to connect his controller to the block that he requires to move in to. Build the new layout by rearranging the track and aligning each piece as before, but this time include the insulated rail joiners, in place of the metal ones, wherever the track changes colour on the plan. Make sure that each "block" has a pair of terminal joiners, one red (or use a different colour for each block if you can) and one black (common should always the same colour), and wire them up to the Atlas Selectors according to the instruction sheet.

If you are using DPDT switches instead of selectors then wire them up according to the book that you are using, but don’t bother about a control panel yet, just mount the switches in any convenient manner, we can build our panel later.

Finished – well done. That was not as hard as it sounds (I hope) and we have now learnt a lesson in wiring that will probably make you an expert in most clubs.

Is all that effort worth it?

You bet - we now have even more possibilities than before. We can still let a train orbit the layout if the mood takes us, or we can have up to three trains on the layout, two in the sidings and one moving, but the real fun begins when two people with two controllers operate at the same time. We can then have two trains running, in the same or opposite directions, meeting and passing each other as they go. Remember to look out for the turnout positions and always be ready to take the siding. This is just like the real thing, so it takes teamwork and co-ordination to avoid a collision. A "cornfield meet" as it is called in railroad lingo.

But more importantly, you have completed the most difficult part of building a layout. We now have the basic mainline and wiring for a model railroad that can provide countless hours of operating fun for two or more people.

A reason to run trains

As much fun as it is to operate two trains (and if you have been building as we go I am sure you have spent a good few minuets doing that so far), we still need a reason for our trains to run. It would also be nice if we could do something other than watch the trains roll past, especially when we wish to operate the layout alone.

Trains have only one purpose in life, and that is to move goods and passengers from one place to another. No plan could be considered complete unless we represent this traffic. For this reason we need "Spurs" or industry tracks, where we can pickup and drop off cars. Fig 5 shows our plan with 4 such spurs added.

We will need another three Right Hand standard Turnouts part # 2703, another Left Hand Standard Turnout part # 2702, two Full section 11" Radius Part # 2520, two 5" straights part # 2501 and one 2 ˝" Straight part # 6509a.

Assemble the track as before, following the plan, and remember to ensure that the insulated rail joiners are still wherever the track changes colour on the plan. The feeder wires should be ok as they are, but make sure that each block has only one feed (pair of wires), and that the feed is on the main line and not the spur track.

Congratulations, our plan has come of age and can now be called a layout.


Naming the spurs

Railways ship or carry a large assortment of goods and materials in an equally large assortment of cars, and it will not take long before the modeler has an equally diverse assortment of rolling stock in his/her collection.

It makes sense, therefor, to have industries that can use the maximum verity in rolling stock, without stretching the imagination to the limits. It would make little sense to ship oil in boxcars or chicken feed in tankers for instance. (But there is a saying in the hobby that you can find a prototype for anything, so don’t be too surprised if someone proves me wrong). It is important to match the industry type to the cars that are shipped or received by that industry. Many hours can be spent trying to select industries and car types to achieve a reasonable balance on a model railroad or "pike", but there are three places in real life that can conceivably ship or receive any type of car. Look at the plan again and read the labels next to the spurs.


Very few railroads are self-contained entities; most of them have one or more connections to another railroad. These connections are called Interchanges and consist of one or more tracks that can be accessed by both of the connecting railroads. In this way cars can be swapped between the two roads without blocking either roads main line. On a model railway the interchange serves three important purposes.

  1. it is a source of cars that have destinations (receivers) but not origins (shippers) on our railroad.
  2. it is a destination for cars that have a shipper but not a receiver on our layout and
  3. it gives the impression that our layout is a small part of a vast transportation network.

The upper left spur serves this purpose on our layout.

Team Track:

Not all industries that ship or receive by rail have spur tracks directly into their premises. This could be due to economy, geography or simply because the quantities shipped don’t warrant it. But these customers still need access to the tracks, to load or unload the cars that contain their cargoes. These "public" tracks are used by many different shippers and receivers and as such can be the destination of almost any car type, ether full or empty. It is a good idea, in fact, to include such a track in each town on a layout. They use little space and add lots to realistic operation.

The upper right spur is our team track.

Port / Harbour:

Another useful industry to model is the port or harbour. This is where the rails meet the sea (or maybe a river) and cargoes are transhipped, usually for international trade. So what do we get in return? Well for one thing we are no longer just part of a vast transportation network, we are now part of a global transportation network. We can receive bananas from Africa and send them Television sets in return. The possibilities for loads to and from the port are virtually limitless. The down side of course is that your railroad must be located near the sea. It would stretch the imagination beyond belief if you modelled a port in the Nevada dessert say. The other consideration is that ships or barges must have access to the quayside. In our case it justifies the large bridge at the bottom of our plan. (The bridge is also the reason why the second siding is so short – another compromise in order to get better operations).

Introduction to Operations

Sure, it is only a simple layout, but it has all the elements that make up an operating railroad. We can run a train or two with a purpose for doing so, picking up and dropping off cars as we go just like real life. Try it for awhile, running your train in both directions and "switch" the spurs as you go.

Here are some examples to get you started, by picking up a boxcar from the Interchange Track.


If our train is moving clockwise round the loop, the interchange track is a "trailing point".

In order to pickup the car and keep our train in order, we need to place the new car between the last car in the train and the caboose. How do we achieve this? First we need to drop, that is uncouple and leave, our caboose. Then we run the rest of the train forwards to clear the turnout.

We stop our train and "throw" the turnout for the Interchange track, then we back the train into the interchange. Keeping several cars attached to the locomotive, like this, in order to perform a pickup is known as using a "handle". Some times you may just use the locomotive on its own, it depends on where in the train you need the new car to be placed as well as any possible track restrictions, as enforced by the railroads engineering department.

Having coupled to the new car we now pull forwards to clear the turnout, and realign it for the "Main". Whenever you use a turnout, you must always stop and realign it after use, or the next train along will derail or head into the spur, with potentially disasters consequences. You sure wouldn’t keep your job on the railroad for long if you were negligent.

Back the train slowly up to the caboose and re couple it, remember that there are people in there and you don’t want to hit it so hard that they sue you for whiplash.

Congratulations, you have picked up your first car, test the brakes and slowly pull away, taking up the slack before you accelerate your train.

But what if we were traveling in the other direction?

In this instance the interchange track is referred to as a "facing point", and in order to pick up the car we need to get our locomotive to the other end of the train. How do we achieve this?

First, uncouple the train and leave it, on the main, clear of "both" turnouts. Then run the locomotive forwards, past the turnout for the passing siding, stop the locomotive, throw the turnout for the siding and back the locomotive round the passing track.

When parallel with the train, stop again and make sure that both of the turnouts you are about to use (the team track and the main) are correctly aligned for your passage. The team track should be but the main not. Throw the turnout and continue backing into the main past the turnout. Realign it for the main and slowly move forward to couple up to the caboose.

This is known as a "run-around move" and you have found another reason for the passing sidings, they are also called "runaround tracks".

Take another look at some published plans, all those sidings that are too short to hold a train now make sense. As long as it can hold one car, the locomotive can use it as a runaround to switch "Facing point" spurs, or to get the car behind the locomotive where it belongs.

Now use the whole train as a handle to pickup the boxcar. Remember to align the turnout to the interchange track first, you don’t want to derail your whole train, on only your second job, now do you?

Pull the train back to clear the turnout, stop and realign it to the main.

Push the train forwards again, it makes no difference how far, as long as you clear the turnouts that are needed for the runaround.

Runaround your train again, remembering to stop and align the turnouts back to the main after you use them.

Back onto the train slowly. Your conductor has probably brewed a pot of coffee, on the caboose stove, whilst you completed the runaround move. He won’t be happy if you spill it for him.

Perform your brake test, take up the slack, and move on to your next destination.

Practice what you have learned here, and try picking up and dropping off more than one car at a time.

Another trick that you have to learn is how to turn your whole train around, such that the cars stay where they are but the locomotive and caboose swap places. Can you work it out? You will have to work it out before you get your engineers ticket, have fun, you are on your own.

Putting order into chaos

After a while you may begin to tire of picking up and dropping of cars at random. If that is the case we need to add some purpose to our operations. Real Railroads do this with computers and large numbers of employees, who decide what needs to be moved from where to where and when. What we need to do is condense this vast organization into a simple form that we can use. Many methods have been developed over the years and three have become very popular:

Tab on car

In this scheme each car on the railroad has a tab placed on it, normally a drawing pin or thumbtack, which is colour coded and has a number or letter printed on it. The colour represents the town and the number represents the "spot" in that town. The operator then looks at the cars in his train and delivers them according to the tabs. If he finds a car in one town with the wrong tab he will pickup that car and take it to the correct town.

Car card and waybill

By far the most popular method is the car card and waybill. In this method each car has an envelope or pouch called a car card. This card contains information about that particular car, such as type – boxcar, owner – Great Northern, Number – GN11875 etc. Before each operating session every car card will be assigned a waybill, a piece of paper placed into the pouch, with information on it such as:

To: Port
From: Interchange
Contents: Empty

This instructs the first operator to take this car from the interchange track to the port where it will be loaded with goods. When the car gets there the waybill is turned over to reveal another set of instructions such as:

To: Team track
From: Port
Contents: Bananas

This instructs the second operator, or whoever is the next person to arrive at the port, to pick up this car and take it to the team track.

This is the most flexible and most realistic method of operating a layout, but it is the most time consuming to initially set-up.

Switch list

The switch list method of operation is the closest to the way real railroads operate. Operators are given a list of cars that are in his train and instructions as to where he must take them. It will also list any additional cars that he has to pickup on the way. This method works well on a layout like ours, but may cause too much paperwork on a larger model railroad.

A typical Switch list for our layout would be:

Car Number
Car Type




Scrap Metal


Team Track
Canned Food






Scrap Metal


Tank Car


Diesel Oil 

This list would instruct your train to go to the interchange track to pickup a boxcar and a gondola then proceed to the team track and pickup a boxcar. Now we have a train (make sure that the cars are between the loco and caboose) proceed to the port and "Spot" a boxcar and the gondola – one to be loaded and the other to be emptied - and pick up the tank car. Reassemble your train and return to the interchange to deliver the boxcar and the tank car.

Obviously you will have to substitute car numbers from your own collection, but go ahead and try it. It is fun to add mileage by insisting on two laps of the loop between each stop (i.e. between the interchange and the team track) so that it feels like the towns are further apart. This is your first taste of realistic operations, what do you think? Now go ahead and draw up some more switch lists so that you and your friend can operate together, trying to complete your assigned tasks without getting into each other way.

Lets spend some time learning how to use what we have. Feel free to operate this layout for as long as you want. You and a friend can have many hours of fun running trains and exchanging cars. In fact, many people will be happy with this layout just as it is, so go ahead, put in some roadbed and add some scenery. But don’t permanently secure the track or put down ballast just yet.

When you are ready for more operational challenges come back here, and we will continue to develop the possibilities.


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 continues 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 Allan. 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 continues running on the loop. What’s 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.

Let’s 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 ˝" straights, two insulated joiners, one DPDT switch (if you are not using Atlas selectors) and 10 terminal joiners.

Ten terminal joiners? Don’t panic, this is not just a test of your soldering skills and it isn’t 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 ˝" 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 – 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 don’t have room for a 3’ x 5’ 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.

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 verity 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:

Let’s 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 them 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.

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 "Allan", "Armstrong", etc. One thing that they do not do is store cars! Cars in storage are not earning their keep, to a yard master 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 can’t 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.

The Name of the Game

We have almost everything needed to start running realistic operating sessions on our layout, but operations won’t be too stimulating if we are just switching on the "3' x 5' Layout for the absolute beginner" or the "Pink Foam Central". What we need is a name for our Railroad and the towns that it serves. You can, of course, call your version anything you wish – it is yours after all, but for the sake of the tutorial I get to choose.


If we unfold our plan into a straight line (also called a schematic diagram) it looks like two towns connected by a (very short) main line, and for all practical purposes this is how it will be operated. So we need to name the towns first. Our town containing the harbour is easy, as the major feature is John Allan’s Timesaver. I will call it "Port Allan".

Another Pioneer and respected leader in our hobby is John Armstrong. John has written several books on Track Planning and I, like many others, have been strongly influenced by his ideas. In his honor, therefor, I will name the other town "Armstrong". So what do we call the pike – no not the two Johns - how about the "Armstrong & Port Allan Railroad" or A&PA for short.

We are nearly there but we still need to know more – Where are we in space and time?

We have already determined that we can’t be in the desert, because of the Port. It follows then that we can’t be in the Rockies, or any other mountain range for that matter, as Ports tend to work better at sea level. So we must be on the coast somewhere. Seeing as I live in Hout Bay – South Africa – a small fishing village on the Atlantic, the only thing I have in common with America is that Ocean. So we must be on the East Coast. I personally prefer the scenery of the Northeast so we will settle (pun intended, I am British) on the Northeast coast.

We know where, now we need to know when. A layout of this size is limited, by tight radius curves, to only the smallest of rolling stock and motive power. And as this is meant to be a layout for beginners it also makes sense to use diesel power, as the models are more forgiving than small steamers ( and we have no room to turn them anyway), so we will say it is the early days of diesel power. Pick a year, 1957 will do (the year of my birth) and we are all set.

This may be a frivolous attempt at coming up with a name and location, but many people have difficulty deciding on a name, time and place. This short fall only really becomes a problem when they begin to operate the layout as if it really existed. There is another, perhaps more valid reason, for selecting a place and time – Focus. If your layout has focus you can save a lot of money by only buying equipment that fits your theme. In our case that means no piggyback or well cars, and no SD40SX – but they probably couldn’t handle our small radius curves anyhow. Researching what you can and can’t run is actually quite a lot of fun and in the long run will improve your modeling.

Hint: look at the small lettering on the side of your cars and find the word "BLT". Two numbers, such as 8 - 56 will follow it. This is the month and year that the car was shipped new from the builder.

If you don’t run anything built after your selected year the overall authenticity of your layout will be improved. It is also useful as a weathering guide, the older the car the more you should weather it and visa-versa.

You may also find it useful to try and locate your railroad on a geographical survey map. This will help you fit it in better with the real world, particularly the connecting roads. But in this case we only have one interchange so we can choose almost any eastern road (that existed in 1957) as our connection. So I choose the PRR, the Pennsylvania.

"‘Twas a crisp autumn morn back in ‘57,
a cold mist lingered in the creek,
we pulled our train out of Armstrong yard,
the Port Allan Turn we called her."

The A&PA has come to life.


Expanding our Layout

This Layout has served us well, and it could be many years before we have detailed all the scenes and mastered all of the nuances of operation, but the time will come, sooner or later, when we want more. This layout was, after all, only intended as a stepping stone on the path to model railroading. We all hope that eventually we can buy that basement, that barn or that abandoned missile silo, so that we have the room to build our dream layout. It is a natural goal and an admirable target, but what do we do with our old layout?

We Keep It - of course.

If we only have room to add a staging yard (do this as soon as possible) and maybe another town, or we finally have room for a basement empire, the plan below shows how we can extend the tracks into a new layout.


To be continued………

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.

This is a work in progress and will continue to be updated.

Version 1 Release 9 Wednesday, September 15, 1999