One of the “Holy Grails” of model railroading is to find the perfect track plan and build the perfect layout. I have chased this dream for years in N, HO, S, O, and G scales, including the narrow gauges for most. I have built about 35 layouts for myself and for/with friends, indoors and outdoors, and I have even built small ones for sale at the local hobby shop.
Of these 35, a large number were never finished! I’m sure that a number of you have been through the same thing. Yes, I’ve heard the same story that you have that “a good layout is never done,” but that’s not what I mean.
I’ve spent hours looking at magazines and track planning books. When computers came along, I tried track planning software. I’ve drawn layouts on paper and even tried to lay them out with sectional track on a blank sheet of plywood. I’ve made most of the mistakes one can make, and on the next layout, I find there are more to make!
I have built fairly basic ovals, point to point switching layouts, two levels with grades, small layouts, and large layouts. I have gone to many home layouts to see what others had done, or were doing, and found them with the same problems that I faced.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as the “Perfect Layout!” And as proof, let me tell you about some things I have learned NOT to do in planning and building a layout.
The first thing the typical model train guy is faced with is that “I don’t have enough space to build a nice layout.” We’ve all been there, the thinking that “if we just had a little more” (or a LOT more) we’d be fine. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but size isn’t the problem.
I have built garden railways that took up a good sized portion of back yards and there is NEVER enough space! I helped a friend lay out and build a massive garden railway which took up an entire LARGE back and side yard. Had his wife not stopped him, the entire home would have been completely surrounded by track!
I spent about a year helping another guy build his HO “basement filling empire” and all we got done was all the bench work and most of the track down before the project began to slow down. After running trains on the finished trackage, we discovered a number of flaws in the plan and eventually the progress ground to a halt.
Worse yet, Chuck had started with a branchline logging and mining theme for the layout, but had changed interests during construction to heavy mainline operations! The winding single track layout was unsuitable for this of course.
I have visited a few home layouts that were literally a “Monster in the Basement” because the semi finished but operating layout took so much time to maintain that there was no time left to finish or run it!
And so, the number one lesson is that the huge layout is NOT the “Perfect Layout!” Too expensive to build in time and money, too much maintenance, and because of this it becomes an object of dread to work on rather than a fun hobby, it never gets done.
At the other extreme is the Micro Layout. These are very small but highly detailed little railroads, which are cheap and quick to build, and require little time to maintain. If you get tired of one layout theme or track plan, you build another Micro Layout to a different theme!
But they’re not the “Perfect Layout” either! Because of the small size, track curvature is very tight and you have to use small locos and cars. Sorry, no modern Husky Stacks, or even large steam locos and long passenger cars here.
The closest thing I’ve seen to “perfect” was an old buddy’s HO Home Modular Layout. It started with four corner modules with fairly generic scenery in 1991, and then expanded for years with straight modules. As his interests changed, new modules were built to that interest. He would even rearrange all the modules from time to time to change the way the layout operated.
When he tired of a certain module, he’d swap it out for a new one. The entire layout grew and shrunk as he changed modules and overall shape from square, to rectangle, and back again. Not long before he died in 2006, he was “rediscovering” a few of the older modules and swapping them back into the layout!
So is there really a “Perfect Layout?” Heck no! And there never will be! But there’s always the dream.