What is the best model railway track plan?

What is the best model railway track plan?


Model railways is a very personal hobby, not only in terms of what era & location to model but also in terms of the track plan. Several factors influence the type of track plan that best suits you and in this article, we'll take a look at each one and how to use them to make the best decision for your layout.

The most important thing to remember is that there is no one "best" model railway track plan. The choice largely depends on these three factors:

  • personal preference - are you most interested in running trains or in building the scenery & landscape
  • available space - if you have a large shed, garage, basement or loft at your disposal, your options will be completely different to someone with a single shelf in a spare room
  • desired operation of the layout - do you want to watch long trains running continuously or do you prefer shunting and more complicated operations

Table of Contents

  • End-to-end model railway layouts
  • Continuous run model railway layouts
  • Which model railway track plan is best for you?
  • Where do we go from here?
  • Model Railway Planning Tools & Software

End-to-end model railway layouts:

An end-to-end layout is a linear layout track plan where trains run back and forth between two terminal points. This type of layout can be a good choice for those with limited space, such as small spare rooms, the corner of a bedroom etc, as the layout can be set up along a wall or in a smaller area. They're also great for viewing as the layout depth is restricted. Another benefit is that with end-to-end layouts generally being much more compact than continuous run, circular layouts, there's also a much higher chance of the layout being completed. You're maybe thinking that's an odd comment but we've lost count of the number of part-complete continuous run layouts we've seen being ripped up and sold or scrapped. Why? Because the owner lost interest part, ran out of funds part way through the build, or just completely underestimated the sheer amount of time and effort needed to see the layout through to completion. It's heartbreaking to see this happen. 

A smaller, end-to-end layout can cost considerably less and takes much less time to complete: they require much less track and there's a lot less room for buildings so it's much easier to keep on top of the costs.

End-to-end layouts tend to focus on a small vignette of real life too, such as a rural branch line with a couple of sidings, a traction maintenance depot or an engine shed. Other popular locations are scrapyards, quarries & mines. All make for great operational interest & have plenty of scope for scenic detailing.

Baseboards for end-to-end layouts are much smaller and often modular in nature, meaning they can be stored in boxes or in cupboards when not in use. There are a variety of off-the-shelf modular baseboards, or micro layout baseboards, which are perfect for the job and will get you up and running very quickly. With this type of baseboard, no advanced woodworking skills are necessary making them great for beginners and experienced modellers alike.

Continuous run model railway layouts:

A continuous run layout, on the other hand, features a loop, or several loops of track that allow trains to run continuously around the layout. This type of layout is more suitable for those who want to run longer, uninterrupted and often scale-length trains or for those who want to operate a more prototypical railway with a continuous flow of freight & passenger traffic.  This type of layout requires much more space to accommodate the loops, but it also allows for more intricate track configurations and scenic elements such as large viaducts & suspension bridges, coastal scenes and large stations.

The satisfaction of seeing long trains running continuously is an important part of these layouts. It's very therapeutic indeed!

Baseboards for continuous run layouts are as a result, much larger and will need to be much more sturdy than for a micro layout or end-to-end layout. The baseboard surface needs to be made from a suitably sturdy material such as 9mm plywood, and it will require a considerable amount of support too in the form of a solid wood underframe and support legs.

Modular baseboards for larger layouts are available off the shelf, but these can be quite costly.

Which model railway track plan is best for you?

Ultimately, the choice between end-to-end and continuous-run layouts comes down to personal preference and your goals for the layout. Some railway modellers may even choose to combine elements of both types of layouts in a hybrid design if the space is available. The important thing is to try not to take on too bigger a project if you have limited funds or time. Otherwise, there's a real possibility of boredom kicking in or funds running dry before much progress has been made.

To help you make the decision, here are some questions that we highly recommend you should ask yourself when choosing a model railway track plan:

  1. What era am I modelling, and how will that influence my choice of track plan?
    Both steam era and modern image mainlines running scale-length passenger trains will need a lot of space to accommodate the sweeping curves high-speed trains need. Steam and diesel shunting layouts will take up a lot less room.
  2. What geographic location am I modelling, and how can I incorporate elements of that location into my track plan?
    Is your chosen location an urban, city scene with imposing buildings & detailed street scenes, or a quiet, sleepy rural scene?
  3. What type of trains will I be running, and how can my track plan accommodate those trains?
    A small rural steam-era branch line running small passenger & freight trains will need much less space than a mainline running high-speed scale-length steam or diesel trains passenger trains.
  4. Do I want a continuous run layout or an end-to-end layout, and how will that impact my track plan design?
    If you want to be able to set trains running and watch them flying along the mainline, maybe with DCC sound giving all the atmosphere of the real railways, then the continuous run is for you. If you prefer shunting wagons back and forth and more complex operations, then a shorter end-to-end layout is going to be a much better choice.
  5. How much space do I have available for my layout, and how can I maximize that space with my track plan?
    If you have a large loft, shed or garage at your disposal, the world is your oyster. If you're confined to a single wall of a spare room, the choice has probably been made for you. But don't let it put you off or stifle your creativity. A quick google search for Micro Layouts will bring up an endless amount of inspiration.
  6. What is my budget for track and other layout materials, and how can I create an effective track plan within that budget?
    While it's possible to keep costs down a bit by using second-hand track, you're going to need several times more track for a continuous run layout over an end-to-end layout. It's worth having a look at model railway track planning software like AnyRail which can help you put together a complete track parts list which speeds up pricing & budget calculations. Points & crossovers in particular soon make the cost spiral!
  7. What kind of scenery and structures do I want to incorporate into my layout, and how can my track plan support those elements?
    Smaller end-to-end layouts have a lot less room on the baseboard to accommodate large buildings, but there are a wide array of low-relief buildings and ultra-low-relief buildings on the market which take up very little space at the back of a layout, but still give the feeling of the layout being located right in the heart of a busy city for example.
  8. What kind of operations do I want to include in my layout, and how can my track plan facilitate those operations?
    If you love driving trains as opposed to just watching them run, an end-to-end layout will probably be the better choice. Trying to perform complex shunting manoeuvres on a large layout will often require more complex control systems. If the controller is located at the opposite end to the sidings you could find yourself walking back and forth several times just to perform a simple operation.
  9. How can I make sure that my track plan allows for the smooth operation of my trains, including curves, grades, and clearances?
    Long trains can be heavy too, so any gradients will need to be long and gradual, requiring much more space than a layout that all sits on the same level. The same applies to curves. High-speed trains such as Mallard or a modern Pendolino are going to need longer sweeping curves compared to a Sprinter or a small Pannier tank hauling a few open wagons.
  10. How can I incorporate interesting elements like sidings, yards, and other features into my track plan to create a more dynamic and engaging layout?
    Sidings can be incorporated into any layout, but it all depends on whether they will be used primarily for storage for as part of the day-to-day layout operation. If you're simply hauling out long trains to run around your mainline then the proximity of your controller to the sidings is much less important than if you're going to be shunting wagons back and forth to build particular configurations for complex freight operations. If you're going to be doing a mix of both, it's important to start thinking about how you'll control your trains and whether you'll need to invest in a wireless controller so you can move around the layout as required rather than being tied to the spot. The new Hornby HM7000 for example uses an App and Bluetooth to control your layout via an App and Bluetooth giving you complete freedom to move around the layout.

Where do we go from here?

It's all up to you now really… it's time to get your thinking cap on and decide which way you'd like to go. Think about the space you have available, the era you're modelling and the location.  And most importantly your budget. It's worth spending some time sketching things out, and looking at photos of real locations online and in books to get a firm idea of what you're aiming for before you start ploughing money into a project. Once you have a firm idea of all of these things, you'll be able to get stuck in, with minimal risk of making the wrong decision and spending money on the wrong things.

For more guidance on choosing a baseboard for your layout, please see our article on how to choose a model railway baseboard.

Model Railway Planning Tools & Software

  • Trax Track Planning Software - Free
  • Scarm - Track planning software with a huge database of parts & accessories
  • Anyrail - It's not free but it's probably the best model railway track planning software out there
  • Free Track Plans - A large website with lots of free model railway track plans
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Interesting article, thanks. Note, the Hornby HM7000 hyperlink maybe doesn't work?

Thanks @Jeff... that one slipped through the net!