Introduction to model railways

Welcome to our beginners guide to model railways, where we aim to explain a little bit about the different terms you may come across on our site, which provides an overview as to many of the products that are now available on the market and may be unfamiliar to you if you are coming back to modelling after a long break.  To the right is my first layout, Christmas 1977, when I was 5 years old - built by my grandfather, with a trackplan straight out of the Cyril Freezer book.  Note the vinyl LP of "Saturday Night Fever" in the background!

When starting a new model railway, the following things need to be taken into account.  This article may seem quite long, but it's better to get it right first time than fail miserably and give up!

Model railway items come in a number of different sizes, known as 'scales' (referring to their 1:whatever ratio to the real thing), each with their own positives and negatives.  When starting a model railway, one of the most important decisions you can make is the scale that you model in.  The two most popular scales in the UK are N gauge (1:148 scale - 2mm/1ft) and OO gauge (1:76 scale - 4mm/1ft).  Both are very well supported by the model trade, with a variety of manufacturers offering almost everything you can think of that can be used 'straight out of the box' - or the bits to enable you to build your own.

OO gauge (4mm/1ft or 1:76) is probably the most well-supported model railway gauge in the UK, and certainly the most popular.  For many years the market leader was Hornby, and perhaps through the TV adverts in the 1970s and 1980s featuring Bernard Cribbins will be famililar to many.  Bachmann and Heljan are also major players in OO gauge stock.  There are several 'budget ranges' available, which sacrifice some of the smaller details, but can be great for the younger modeller as they can withstand more rough handling.  One of the downsides of OO gauge over N gauge is that it takes much more space up - a simple oval can require 6ft x 4ft.

N gauge (2mm/1ft or 1:148) is becoming increasingly popular in the UK, particularly as our houses become smaller - although some incredibly well designed layouts cram a ridiculous amount into a tiny space!  However, the smaller and more delicate nature of N gauge does mean that it can be more fiddly to work in (particularly if you are young, or elderly) but it is great if you prefer the "trains running through scenery" scenario rather than lots of shunting.  In years gone by, N gauge was seen as a bit of a 'poor relation' due to its inferior qualities but modern N gauge items are very good and comparable in quality to OO gauge despite its tiny size.  Graham Farish are the largest supplier of N gauge stock although Peco do a nice range of wagons.  There are several slightly different overseas variants of N gauge but all use the same track which is 9mm between rails.

There are other scales , such as 3mm or TT scale (1/100 - 3mm//1ft), OO-9 (1/76, the same as OO gauge but using N gauge - 9mm - track to represent 2ft "narrow gauge" track) and the larger O gauge (1:43.5 - 7mm/1ft) which some may be familiar with as the original pre-war "tinplate" trains although a more modern finescale version of O gauge exists, but in these scales the range of 'ready to run' items is much smaller (or even non existant)and generally the domain of more advanced modellers who are comfortable, or prefer, working from kits or scratchbuilding - where you make almost everything 'from scratch' using basic materials such as plasticard sheet..Variant scales such as P4 and EM, which are very finescale variants of OO gauge, and S7 (finescale 7mm, O gauge) exist using more accurate wider track requiring all stock to be rewheeled and/or converted, and built to a much higher standard of detail than the average layout.  HO scale (1:87 3.5mm/1ft) is the standard scale for most american or continental model railways, and many items made to HO scale can be used perfectly well on a OO gauge layout, particularly if you want to use a little 'forced perspective' to make your layout look larger than it actually is.

Hornby and Peco "OO track" is actually HO scale track with16.5mm between the rails, coming out as an underscale 4ft 1 1/2" (UK standard gauge track is 4ft 8 1/2") in OO scale, although the models built to run on them are to 4mm/1ft.  OO gauge is historically rather a bodge job but it is so entrenched in British modelling that it is unlikely to ever disappear and be replaced by more accurate HO stock to run on it, or ready to run P4 or EM and track.  There's plenty on the internet if you want to read up about the history of why in the UK we model to this 'uniquely compromise' scale.

Where will my layout live?
Finding a home for your layout is probably the most challenging aspect of planning a model railway as everything you do will be constrained by the space you have available.  It is often said that "I have no space for a model railway" but the reality is that they either haven't thought about it enough yet, or simply want to build something larger than the space allowed to them.  Of course, many are tempted to put something temporarily together on the kitchen table or on the living room carpet but this is not really a long term solution - repeated assembly/disassembly of track pieces will make the fishplates (the small joiners on the end of pieces of track) come loose resulting in intermittent electrical problems.  Additionally, fluff  or pet hair on the carpet can get into delicate loco mechanisms and put additional strain on the motors eventually causing burnouts.

The 'perfect solution' is a model railway permanently attached to a board of some description, and there are essentially two options of how to build this - a permanent layout, or a portable layout.   There is no real right or wrong answer as it will depend on our personal circumstances and living arrangements - but before you can start to even think about designing a model railway you need to think about its home.  The space available to you will dictate just how large your model railway empire can be- but don't forget that you will need to have access to get round at least two sides of the layout (or a hole in the middle) and for the door to open (unless you can make the door open outwards) plus access to a window, radiator, boiler cupboard and any other things that the room may contain.  Most people can only reach 2-3ft maximum so you shouldn't really have any boards wider than that unless you have access from both sides, then of course you have the problem of getting them in (and perhaps out) of the room.

Permanent layouts, as the name suggests, have a dedicated location where the layout can be permanently assembled and obviously have the advantage of being able to be left where they are and used at any time.  However, this does mean that the space will otherwise be unusable by other members of the family so some negotiations and a lot of compromise may be required. 

A garage is often a good space for a layout but decide whether you still want to use it to store the car in - which may restrict your layout to a thin shelf around the walls and a removeable section across the door, together with the associated hassle of having to move it - but if you want to make it a permanent layout home, painting the walls, adding some decent lighting and laying a carpet (like the "under construction" layout shown right), can however make a big difference.  However, you will need to deal with the question of where will the bicycles, lawnmower and other assorted 'stuff' be stored? 

A loft can be a very tempting option as it can often be the largest space available in a home, do not be tempted to just lay down a few floorboards up there, run an extension lead up through the hatch, and start building a layout as many modern ceilings aren't designed to carry much more than a few boxes of old photos, board games and a plastic christmas tree (not to mention roof joists getting in the way).  Seek the advice of professionals, who will be able to advise you on the options but you are likely to be talking several thousands of pounds.  Without proper ventilation and heating you will find it freezing in the winter, and so hot in the summer your track may buckle and trains begin to melt.

A shed - if you have the space for a large one - is a good option but you will also come acros the same hot/cold problems as with a loft.  Also, you will need to consider adding extra security such as grills over the windows and additional padlocks, plus security lights, to stop them from being too vulnerable.

A room somewhere in the house is usually the preferred option, but not always one that is available to all of us.  Remember a simple oval of track in OO gauge will require about 6ft x 4ft so in a typical boxroom you will be barely able to open the door once you have a smallest of layouts in there.

If you are lucky enough, a garden railway may be an option, but these require a different set of construction techniques beyond the scope of this article.  However, many of the other options remain the same.

Portable layouts are designed and built to be assembled/disassembled easily, and moved around as necessary, often stored between operating sessions. They are perhaps harder to build - but a lot more convenient.  They are usually constructed in sections - 4ft x 2ft is a common (and convenient) board size with sundeala, mdf or ply as a top and some kind of framework.  Often they are held together using bolts or overcentre clamps and patternmakers dowels for alignment, with legs or trestles.  Obviously you still need the size of the layout to be available somewhere in the house - or if you are happy to work on one or two boards at a time within the house but not fully assemble it.  In this way, a room may also be useable otherwise, for example as a spare bedroom when guests are staying simply by dismantling the layout and putting the boards up against the wall.  Many people prefer portable layouts as this means they can be taken to exhibitions and enjoyed by others and, of course, they are much easier to take with you should you move house at some point in the future. 

Some creativity may be required - for example a 'shelf style' layout from fiddle yard to terminus around three sides of a room may only need to be 12-18 inches deep at most and give enough space for a reasonable layout, and some simple shelving units such as those available in flat-pack form underneath the layout can provide some useful storage space, with a simple fabric 'curtain' from the layout to the floor to cover them this can turn any layout into a pleasing-to-the-eye room feature which can make it acceptable even in well-used rooms. Perhaps there is an alcove or similar that lends itself to readily adaption to a layout space (and who needs that bookcase anyway...?)  Alternatively a helix at each end, enabling a "double decker" layout, with the scenic surface on top and storage sidings underneath will enable you to maximise the space.  But don't be over-ambitious and try to cram too much in or be too complicated particularly in the early days.  Thinking 'outside of the box' and some clever woodworking may also allow you to use a layout that is hinged and lies flush up against the wall when not in use - or even by using pulleys and a hoist can be lifted into the roof space of a garage and lowered to rest on some legs or trestles when the car is out of the way.  Alternatively something built on castors that can slide under a bed when not in use may be an option - or buy a 'bunk bed' and instead of putting a mattress on the lower level, turn it into a baseboard and build a layout on it!

Your baseboards - however you make them - are absolutely vital to a good model railway, like the foundations of a house. Poorly constructed boards will result in poor running and ultimately frustration.  Ensure you use quality wood, that is straight and without kinks or bends, and that all joints are square.  The materials you use will be dependent on your circumstances but if you are planning portability you will need to find a good balance between lightweight and robust - either sundeala board or 6mm ply for the top surface are usually adequate with either 2" x 1" or 12mm ply sides.  Believe me, you won't want to use inch thick chipboard if you're going to move the boards very often!  One other overlooked point with board size is getting to your location, particularly if you are building the boards outside in a garage or shed.  If your woodworking skills are average or worse (like me) you may wish to look into getting boards professionally built for you - remember that we offer this service for local customers.

Finally, many of us have built large boards somewhere convenient like out in the garage, only to find they can't physically be gotten up the stairs and round the corner at the top, or through the loft hatch.  Don't be that plum. 

Styles of layout design
Once you have decided on a scale and a location for your layout (which will of course define the space you have available to you - and don't forget to leave space for things like opening doors) , the next thing you need to think about is what you want to feature on your layout.  It's very tempting to rush out, buy loads of track and trains, but never really be satisfied as you didn't spend time thinking it through and then despondancy and boredom set in.  Time spent researching options (and visiting local exhibitions) can pay dividends for inspiration. 

Do you want several large ovals where you can just watch the trains go by (often known as a 'roundy roundy') with a mainline station, or perhaps model a small terminus layout on an 'end to end' style - with one end representing the 'rest of the world' as a non-scenic couple of sidings known as a 'fiddle yard'.  Perhaps you prefer town to open country, or you'd like to have some shunting so you'll need some sidings to represent some industries where you can have trains passing on the main line whilst you move some wagons around in the yard. Some attempt to reproduce real life locations to scale accuracy (although a typical small terminus may take 20-30ft to do this), or something "loosely based on the spirit of" a real location, or go entirely freelance and create something that follows prototypical practice but has no real life equivalent - or simply follow the "Ibisi Rail" concept (I Built It So I'll Run Anything I Like). There are many thousands of options of track plans that can be found on the internet, from tiny "shelf layouts" through to things that need a small barn to house - or you may prefer to look at some of the books of track plans that are available such as the Cyril Freezer range available through Peco.  Again, local model exhibitions or even joining your local club can be very helpful at this point.   See what plans fit the space you have available, and you may want to take some aspects of several plans to make your own unique design - some of the best layouts feature different parts from a variety of locations put together to make a coherent and realistic plan. 

One key thing is to balance stations and storage tracks (which may be off scene).  There's no point having a station that can handle ten carriage express trains if your longest storage siding can only hold four carriages.    Don't be tempted to fill every available square inch with a piece of track - often "less is more", and just like the real thing, pointwork is expensive so aim to use as few as practically possible but ensure that you can get to and from all lines to all station platforms, in and out of sidings et.  Of course, your little plastic people won't mind that they are stuck waiting for ten minutes for their train to get into the platform, but in the aim of trying to operate realistically, it is good to avoid blocking main lines for shunting moves - you may need to add in some loops and headshunts, for example, to make sidings more useable.

Free computer software such as XTrackCAD enable you to play around to see what you can get to fit - then print out a handy parts list!  If you are making a portable layout ensure that you don't have any points crossing board joints as they are very difficult to cut up.  You may have a favourite railway company or time period that you want to model, which may influence your design - a 1950's model of a station will have far more complex track and pointwork than its modern rationalised equivalent, for example.

There is no shame in starting out simple - either with a basic start set and an oval of track - and then expanding or rebuilding it as your skills and confidence develop.  Hornby, for example, offer a "track mat" which is essentially a printed base that has a track plan on it, and then by starting out with a simple oval and buying expansion packs A, B, C etc as time allows enable you to expand your layout.  Probably 90% of railway modellers started out in a similar way.  Remember that, each time you expand or rebuild, most of what you currently have can be carefully removed and reused on your new layout.

Although it can be very tempting, particularly in the early stages, don't be too ambitious.  It's better to start with a simple oval on a 6ft x 4ft board, and complete it, than to build something the size of Clapham Junction that takes so long to lay the track you get bored before the first train has ever run, and give up. There's plenty of years left to build that 'layout of a lifetime'!

You may also wish to give some thought to the amount of operators required to make any plan useable.  It's all well and good having that dream four track main line with 10 platform station (and having the space to build it) - but will you be able to operate it to your satisfaction on your own?  There are of course options such as computer control (see the section on "control types") but conversely I see no point in building a fully automated model railway as the whole point is to operate - why let a computer have all the fun‽  You may well have a friend or family member who is willing to come and 'play trains' on a regular basis (and possibly even share the costs) which will allow a more complex layout to be operated.  From experience most people can handle two trains moving at the same time, some can handle a third, but few can manage more than that.  It is, of course, possible to get the best of both worlds and partly automate a layout, using either a computer or some electronic units to stop and start trains whilst you operate the rest of the layout - a self-contained branch line with an electronic shuttle unit, for example, allows there to be some movement whilst you have one train running round and round on a main line and you use the second controller to shunt the goods yard.

Choosing stock
Whatever you choose to design, you are of course going to need something to run on your layout.  Obviously this may be factored around your choice of operating company/geographical location and era.  There are two extremes here - you will get one type of person who wants to be historically accurate to the minutest degree and will buy only the exact items that ran on that tuesday afternoon timetable in summer 1928, detailing weathering and renumbering as required, then the other type of person who buys anything and everything because they like the look of it.  Neither is right or wrong, and most people tend to settle somewhere in the middle after a few years.  But just randomly buying things that you like can become quite expensive!  It pays to do some research and to at least try to match your locos and stock together, or to try and stick to a vague time period or specific company.  In OO gauge your three main manufacturers are Hornby, Bachmann and Heljan, and in N gauge you are generally limited to the Graham Farish range with a good range of wagons from Peco.

Of course, there is a good second hand market for good condition model railway items, so those 'impulse purchases' can always be sold on to release funds to purchase more appropriate new stock.

What are my options on track
There are two types of track available on the market - setrack and streamline.  Both Hornby and Peco sell setrack ranges which, as the name suggests, are fixed sections of straight and curved track, and a range of pointwork which tend to be unrealistically tight but enables you to get a lot into the space available.  Much of the geometry and angles of Hornby and Peco's ranges are compatible allowing you to mix and match the ranges.  However, most modern trains are designed to negotiate a minimum of 'radius 2' curves - radius 1 is only really suitable for small 0-6-0 wheelbase locos and low speeds.

Peco make the 'streamline' range which consists of several different types of points - small medium and large - which offer a much wider variety of track configurations but do take up more space.  Rather than straight and curved sections, streamline uses flexible track, which can be curved to your needs.  It is recommended that you use the Peco track spacer and Tracksetta gauges to ensure correct spacing to avoid trains hitting each other or derailing on too-tight curves. 

Peco also make 'standard' and 'finescale' streamline ranges (known as code 100 and code 75 in OO gauge, and code 80 and code 55 in N gauge respectively)  The number refers to the height (in thousandths of an inch) of the rail, so the standard (100/80) are more robust and great for smaller hands, and particularly if you are looking at a portable layout) and the finescale ranges (75/55) are, as the name suggests, more finer looking and more realistic.  However, it's not a good idea to mix the two standards as they do look slightly different.  Almost all of the 'finescale' track pieces are available in 'standard' as well.

One key thing to look for with pointwork is what is known as the frog - the V part where the two routes intersect.  Two types are available - insulfrog and electrofrog.  Insulfrog are easier to use as they can be used 'as is' but the V is usually plastic to help prevent short circuits as trains cross from one rail to another.  The downside is that this loss of electrical pickup may cause more of a problem on dirty track, dirty wheels, or shorter wheelbase locos.  Electrofrog consists of fully metal V parts ensuring electrical continuity but do require a little more complex wiring and a switch to change the frog polarity - but full instructions are provided in the box.  Again, it is best to try and stick to one or the other rather than mixing.  Don't forget you will also need metal and plastic fishplates to join the track together (particularly if you are using streamline - but it's always good to have spares, and make sure you buy the right type) and track pins to fix the track to your boards.

Control types
There are two options for controlling your layout - analogue or digital, also known as DCC.  There is one main difference between the two styles - with analogue, you are controlling a DC voltage to the track and by using isolating sections, providing power to the loco.  With DCC, there is a constant 16v AC on all track (isolating sections not required although normal electrical rules apply regarding short circuits) and a small 'chip' inside each loco, which has its own unique address, provides power to the motor according to the speed setting. As there is a constant voltage to the track additional functions like lights and sound can be installed.  Both Hornby and Bachmann produce starter digital sets, and other manufacturers are available. There is also the option of 'computer control' on some systems where you can use a laptop or even a tablet to operate some or all of your railway automatically  Whether you choose traditional DC or digital control, there are a variety of options available to you that are best discussed in specialist forums, but there is no one "best system" as we all have our own preferences.

Whatever you do as a control option, ensure all your track is laid and tested before doing any scenic work - but there's no harm in setting up an oval of track on the kitchen table and having an occasional play in the meantime!

Once you have tested all your track as working, you can start turning it into a model world.  There is a wide range of scenic items available from Woodland Scenics to ballast and lay down grass, fields, roads and trees.  You can buy "ready to plant" buildings from Hornby's Scaledale range or Bachmann, or you may wish to tackle some of the kits from the Wills or Metcalfe ranges.  The world is, literally, your oyster although I don't believe anyone makes ready to plant oyster beds - you may have to be creative and make your own...

... and finally...
One thing that many - even some of the best - modellers will say is that they are never totally satisfied with their layouts.  There will almost always be something you could have done better, or a building that never quite looks right, or that additional crossover that you wish you'd designed in.  As your skills and confidence develop, and you read about things in magazines or our newsletter, you will find yourself trying new techniques, new products and stretching yourself that little bit extra.   But there will always be things that aren't available "ready to use" and you will have to try a kit, or using something like the Wills sheets of brickwork, to modify or create something that will be unique to you.  Even something as simple as repainting the woodwork on a building can personalise your building to your layout.  Don't be afraid to try something new - the worst that can happen is you've probably wasted a few quid but even the worst disasters can usually be salvaged in some manner - a badly built house kit can be turned into a derelict property by boarding up the windows (using some thin sheet balsa wood to represent ply sheets) and gluing some scenic items to cover the bodge to represent ivy or some other plant growing up the side of it.

You will never get tired of adding detail - cars, road markings, more realistic looking trees, people and other little cameo scenes that really bring a layout to life, and turn it from a 'train set' into a 'model railway'. 

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