More Than A Track Plan

On Design

The internet and hobby press are full of resources on layout design and track plans, but I want to make the distinction here again for readers as the two are, and should be, treated as separate.

A track plan - the arrangement of rails which will carry your models - is just one component of a robust layout design. It feeds from the design and the thought that goes in to developing that design.
Yet more often than not it is track planning that we like to tackle first, probably because it lets us begin to imagine operating our trains.

Layout design, on the other hand, is less definitive. Good layout design requires us to consider and incorporate individually complex elements and blend them in to something which will give us satisfaction. It requires us to think about what we really want to get out of a layout project; to be realistic about our time, resources, skills and what challenges we want; it means making sacrifices and compromises. Most of all, layout design requires systems thinking: for a good design, you must be aware of and consider all of the factors at play and use your creativity to integrate them. It is vague, only limited by imagination, and for that reason ethereal. No wonder then that track planning can be more instantly gratifying.

In undertaking the process, a good layout design should lead you to a good track plan - maybe even a great one. Not being considerate in layout design however can ruin your layout, even if you come up with a good track plan.

For example, that track plan for your main yard might handle the planned traffic levels perfectly, but it will be frustrating to operate if reach-in is poor, or the aisles are so narrow crews can't work in them, or the track level is too high, for instance.

Without going on too long about it here, if you really want to contemplate design more I urge you to check out (and join!) the Layout Design SIG (Special Interest Group). Even if you aren't facing the task of design right now, the SIG offers us a continual font of new ideas, techniques, and lessons learned on what makes good design.

In addition to the LDSIG, I would encourage you to check out Lance Mindheim and Byron Henderson, who both have wonderfully insightful things to say on the subject and who are two of the most innovative, professional (yes, you can get paid to do it) layout designers around right now.

The Design for North Point Street
With all that said, I have spent the better part of the last twelve months on iterations of the design for North Point Street, and the last few months specifically refining the track plan.

My primary goals for this layout:
1. Challenge my hobby skills (e.g.: new scale, fine scale, hand-laid track, detailed urban scenery).
2. Create an interesting to operate and achievable (to finish) layout - more on Achievable Layouts from the great Trevor Marshall.
3. Replicate the feel of the State Belt RR of California in the post-WWII era ("feel" is perhaps subjective, but important).

The first of these goals is relatively straightforward and accomplished with the selection of scale and prototype.

The other two depend upon a successful layout design and are not necessarily inclusive of each other.

Other design considerations which I wanted to address include:
- aesthetics which complement the modern, minimalist decor of the spare room/office hosting the layout
- portability so the layout can be taken to shows to demonstrate proto:48 and prototype operations
- accessibility and ergonomics for the most frequent crew: a 70 year old and his 7 year old grandson (and consideration of what accessibility will mean for both over the next decade or so).

With that, here's the track plan oops, I mean layout design, as it stands today.
Next post I will dive in to the elements in a bit of detail.

(Click on the plan above for larger image).


  1. Your research and time are certainly paying off, the layout is capturing the character of the spur. This layout can keep 1-2 operators very busy! I'm not sure exactly what part of the post-WWII era you plan to model, but given possible traffic density and the space you have, two things stand out.

    Are you planning any staging to the left of Stauffer Chemical, representing the spur's entry off of Embarcadero? In researching and planning a 1903-period layout of the same area (ending at Powell as it did back then) then need for staging, at a minimum a train-length cassette, seemed critical to the operations. Your era may have been far busier and the staging could help based on traffic in and out of the 10 or so industries.

    The second question is related to the trackage into the Cannery, which you've prototypically had swing off of, and then cross, the "main" into the Cannery. On the maps this is a really interesting set of trackage, but in looking at the plan I wonder if it may be a complex construction that could become a maintenance headache. With 10 other switching spots is it could be omitted if operations is the key item. But you lose the look, so maybe the track is there, but dead so it's a scenic item and frees you from a lot of initial and ongoing work.

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks you for those observations and feedback. Yes, staging is always a top priority for me, but in this case the layout abuts a wall to the adjoining room. I am pondering adding a cassette there to stage trains off of the layout - if the required holes through the wall can be negotiated with the landlord. Otherwise ops will begin with the "train" already pulled down the main track, and end when it is ready to return to the Embarcadero.

      The Cannery track is just too unique to pass up. I will very likely do as you suggest though and make the turnout at the front edge a dummy, along with the closest track which comes off of it (through the straight route of the switch). That led to a short spur for the cannery warehouse, while the diverging route is the main track continuing on down Beach street.

      Would love to see more on your layout plan and research!



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