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How much layout do you need?

The North Local arrives in Marietta to switch the industries located there. Working this one switch job is more than enough layout for many of my operators.

Having adequate space for a layout is an issue that many model railroaders face. What if you want to build a layout and are living in an apartment, can you still build a small layout that is satisfying to operate and allow you to enjoy the hobby? Absolutely! While you may not be able to run long trains, or have high speed passenger operations, you can build a small switching layout that will offer hours of operating fun.

On my current Georgia Northeastern Railroad layout, many times for an operating session I only operate the North Local, which switches the industries in Marietta up to Dow Chemical. The Local starts out in staging switching the cars in the yard to assemble its train. Once that is done, the crew departs the yard and arrives in Marietta. There is no complex track arrangement in Marietta, just a couple of facing and trailing point industries and a run around track that makes working all the industries possible. Typically the crew will pick up and set out six to eight cars. Working only this small part of my layout I can have over an hour operating session.

I began to consider how small of a layout could I design that would offer plenty of realistic switching in a reasonably compact space. I decided to design a couple of layouts that would fit in a standard bedroom or living room and not take up much space in the room. I settled on a 10’ X 1’ benchwork footprint as most model railroaders could find a space of that size in their house or apartment. The layout could be placed on top of a shelving unit or placed on shelf brackets depending on the needs of the owner.

While it is a hard concept to grasp, you need to keep a small layout relatively simple and not try to cram too much into the limited space you have. Don’t make the switching overly complicated, it will be challenging enough with the limited space. Keeping these points in mind, I set to work developing the track plans. One of the two track plans is centered on a small industrial area with three industries, the second track plan is for a paper mill industry.

When operating the three industry plan, the crew would start out their day picking up the locomotive in front of the yard office. From there they would pick up the inbound cars from the interchange track. The assumption is that another local train set out the cars on the interchange track during the night and the crew will now have to block the cars into the proper order for switching using the small yard. Next, the crew would work the industries pulling and setting out cars as required. The fertilizer industry is spot specific so some extra work might be necessary to re-spot cars not ready for pickup. Once the crew has finished all their switching they will need to block the cars for pickup on the interchange track. Using a random draw method to determine the destination of the cars, the cars going north should be blocked together while those going south would be grouped in a separate block. I predict that switching this layout will take over an hour when operating realistically.

The paper mill plan is based on a prototype paper mill, but highly compressed from these typically very large industries. While it is a compact plan, it does have all the car types and spots needed at this type of industry. Similar to the three industry plan, cars are staged on the layout with the industry switch crew picking them up from the interchange track. The crew would have to use the two interchange tracks to block their cars for the industry spots. The long tail track on the right side of the plan makes getting into the siding for baled and rolled pulp much easier. Once all the outbound cars are picked up from the industry spots, the crew can block them for the local to be picked up from the interchange track. Crews will have to plan their moves to prevent getting blocked in by cars on the interchange tracks.

Recently, a few of my friends have been designing small switching layouts that fit along one wall of their layout room. These layouts have a lot of operations and are very realistic in their track plan design. Just because you don’t have a large basement does not mean you can’t enjoy building a layout. I hope this blog has inspired you to consider building a small layout in the space you have. If you decide to build one of my plans let me know how it works out. Don’t put off your dreams of building a layout, build something now and enjoy it no matter what space you have.

Until next time, stay safe and keep model railroading.

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Hi Tom: Good information and suggestions for the many folks that want to operate a model railroad but have limited space. Well written! Mike

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Both of these, as on your own layout, could be enhanced by a staging module on one or both ends, to assemble the incoming train and receive the outgoing. And act as fiddle yards with trays or drawers of cae=rs for swapping.

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Thomas Klimoski
Thomas Klimoski
01 oct 2021
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Hi Roger T, Yes you are correct these plans could easily be expanded on each end or only on one end to accommodate more staging. I wanted to draw these two plans up to show that even with very limited space you could have a nice layout with plenty of operations. Hopefully these plans will inspire someone to build a layout rather than waiting for the "perfect space".

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