Do it Yourself: Model Train Layout

A model train layout, or pike, is the set-up that model railroaders build to run their trains on. It can be any size but is often built on a theme. This may revolve around specific industries like farming, logging or coal, or a specific era, like the Civil War. What ever theme you choose, your railroad should have a purpose, giving your trains a specific destination.

Planning Your First Pike

When you begin planning your first pike, keep it simple, recommends Gil Paust in his book "Model Railroading: How to Plan, Build, and Maintain Your Trains and Pikes." Start with an oval track and two turnouts for a siding. A turnout is a section of track that allows a train to turn off the main line. A siding is track off the main line where a slower train can go to let a faster train pass. Keep the land flat at first. Once you have more experience you may add bridges, hills, culverts, streams and more track. Lay it all out on paper first.


Model Train Layout

For your first model train layout, a 4-foot-by-8-foot piece of plywood will suffice for the support. Place it on a card table or old kitchen table. Lay another piece of plywood on top to form the base. The base should be a couple of inches larger then the support. Next glue several sheets of insulating extruded foam together and glue them to the top of the plywood. You will eventually be able to cut the foam to form rivers, valleys and hills.

Lay out your track. Keep in mind that there are several different sizes and brands of model railroad track. The size is represented by a code number. The higher the number, the larger the rails. Larger rails are usually used for mainlines and smaller rails for branch lines. It is necessary to line up rails properly when connecting different size rails to avoid derailing your model train.

Model railroad track comes in small sections of straight or curved track, which is sectional track, and in 3-foot sections of flexible track called flextrack, which can be curved as desired. When laying your track work in sections, change the layout if necessary. When you place your turnout, make sure you can reach the manual ground throw switches. If finances allow, consider a remote control switch, especially if your space is limited. Turnouts come in different sizes also. Turnouts in sizes of #6 and higher take up more space, but are smoother to operate. They are more suitable for long engines and passenger cars. Turnabouts that are shorter, like the #4, are easier to install in a small space, but have sharper turnoff angles, making them more suitable for shorter engines and freight cars.

Once the track has been laid, start adding scenery. This will include railroad stations if you have a specific theme, or industries and the appropriate buildings. This may also include roads, bridges, mountains, rivers, tunnels, trees, bushes, farms and towns. Any or all of which may be added a piece at a time. When you are satisfied with your model train layout, you can start gluing down roadbed underneath the sections of track where it is needed, and connect the tracks on top of it with rail joiners.


Once you have set up your model railroad layout, you will want to run your trains on it. A simple power pack is usually supplied with most train sets. It is sufficient for your first basic pike. Just make sure the correct wire is hooked up to the correct terminal. As your layout grows, and you add more trains and lighted accessories, you will need to learn a few advanced wiring techniques. A good resource to learn these techniques is Paul Newitt's "A Beginner's Guide to Creative Effects for your Model Railroad."