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

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 Allen’s Timesaver. I will call it "Port Allen".

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 Allen 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 Allen Turn we called her."

The A&PA has come to life.

Some notes on efficient operation

Here are a few pointers to help you switch your layout more efficiently. Remember that these are not hard and fast rules, the situation at the time will dictate the true switching order, but they are a good way to start.

  1. Pick-up any cars that are waiting for collection at your industries, before spotting the cars that you have to deliver. If you try to set out the cars in your train before you do the pick-ups the spots may already be full. Conversely, if you pick up first, you'll have more empty spots available saving you from having to go back and work an industry again when there is room.
  2. Spot any off-spot cars that arrived previously, before spotting the newly arrived cars. That is any cars that were delivered by a previous train, but not put in the right place. After pulling the loads, these cars are then spotted.
  3. Work trailing point industries before facing point ones in same area. If you work the trailing point industries first, if you find you need to run around some of the cars you picked up you can run-around those cars at the same time as you run around the cars for the facing point set-outs.
  4. Work industries at the far end of a multiple industry spur first. If you set out and pick up from the industry closest to the switch and then discover you have to set out at an industry further down that same spur, you will have to move the previously set-out cars again. If there are several industries on the spur it is common to do a "grand pull" followed by a "grand push". That is pull all the cars from the spur, sort them on another track and mix in the new set-outs in the process, then push all the cars back onto the track in one cut.
  5. If you need to move cars that are on spot but not ready for collection do so, but put them back whilst you remember where they came from.

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………

Due to pressures of work and the encroaching millenium (I work in the computer industry as a consultant), I have not had as much time to devote to this project as I would have liked, over the past two months. Please be patient, the project will continue. I will be posting at least one update per month to the web site, whilst regular discussions and updates will be posted to the n_tutorial mailing list. Please join the list, the details are on the Index page.

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.


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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.