How to Build a Multi-Level Train Table

By Sean Kotz ; Updated April 12, 2017
Adding elevation to your layout may include a combination of bridges, tunnels and landscape features.

If you have graduated from ovals and basic turnouts on your model railway, the next step is to create some elevated tracks and terrain. This can be a combination of bridges, ramped trackways, and exposed or hidden inclines. You must consider the point of view of the observer and train operators when adding height to a layout, as well as the available space. Since each layout space is different, it is important to get a sense of the principles involved so you can modify as necessary.

Adding Elevation to a Layout

Adding elevation to your layout may include a combination of bridges, tunnels and landscape features.

Measure the available area before you begin.

Calculate the distance of track needed based on the slope grade and height of the elevation. Slope grades should not exceed 4 percent and are calculated by dividing the height by the length. One hundred inches of track per 1 percent grade per 1 inch of height is generally needed. Thus, a 4-inch peak from a 1 percent grade would require 400 inches of track and at 2 percent would require 200 inches of track.

Mark the areas of elevation on your layout board with a marker, including space for surrounding landscaping. For example, if you are building hills or mountains, account for the outer edges on your board as well as the track line and any bridge structures.

Mark and cut the bottom layer of elevated foam first, then proceed to subsequent layers in stages as it suits the track grade.

Screw the foam together to hold it in place to test the position of the parts.

Cut the slope out of the foam layers with a foam knife or hobby knife to create transitions from piece to piece.

Glue and screw down the base foam to the layout board once you are satisfied with the position.

Apply layers of crumpled newspaper to areas between the foam layers to add natural landscape shapes and tape down with masking tape.

Lay cork rail bed in place along the track line temporarily with masking tape, followed by the track line with a few rail nails.

Apply power leads to the track and test the grade to make sure your locomotives can pull up the hill, making adjustments if necessary.

Glue down the cork and fully secure the track when satisfied with the track line.

Apply plaster wrap to the landscape to smooth out the surfaces.

Things Needed

  • Tape measure
  • Permanent marker
  • Model railroad landscaping foam or extruded insulation foam
  • Foam knife or hobby knife with long blades
  • Drywall screws of various lengths
  • Phillips-head screwdriver
  • White glue
  • Newspaper
  • Masking tape
  • Cork rail-bed strips
  • Model railroad track
  • Rail nails
  • Plaster wraps

Tip

Begin with a good track plan. Many magazines and books can help you find or create one.

Most elevated features will be in the background of the layout with slopes rising along the sides of the layout, or hidden behind landscapes or false walls. This allows for better viewing.

Commercially pre-cut grades are available and save time and energy.

Do not put a turnout on a grade or near the bottom of a grade as it will cause derailments.

Bridges are another form of elevated track and can be graded and supported with commercially available structures.

Test clearances if you have tracks that run under elevated structures like bridges by running boxcars and engines through the passageway before finalizing the track.

Test your track with a full train of cars just to make sure the engine can handle the grade before finalizing.

About the Author

Sean Kotz has been writing professionally since 1988 and is a regular columnist for the Roanoke Times. He has also written for the Blue Ridge Business Journal, The Roanoker, 50 Plus, and Prehistoric Times, among others. He holds a Master of Arts in literature from Virginia Tech.