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

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 variety 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, let’s take a quick look at these methods:

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 can 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 method of operating a layout, and whilst time consuming to initially setup, provides a self-correcting method of car routing. Planning and setting up a car card system can, however, be fun and gives the layout builder and his operators a much greater understanding of the layout. We will return to this method later when the complexity of our operations warrants it.

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 (GN11875) and a gondola (NS7700) then proceed to the team track and pickup a boxcar (PRR3985). Now we have a train (make sure that the cars are between the loco and caboose) proceed to the port and "Spot" the boxcar and the gondola – one to be loaded and the other to be emptied - and pick up the tank car (DRX207). 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 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.


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Copyright © 1999-2000 – 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.