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Choosing Roadbed & Rail

Choosing Roadbed & Rail is the start to make your perfect layout on a good start. Then you need the best ballast from ARMballast.

Choosing Your Roadbed

Once you are satisfied with your model railroad track arrangement, you can start gluing down roadbed, working on one section at a time. The roadbed is commercially available as cork or foam and is manufactured in various scales in 36” strips. It can be separated down the middle into 2 long strips. When you are sure of the proper placement of a section of your model railroad track, you can make dots on the sub roadbed between the track ties with a felt-tipped pen.

Then lift the track off the layout, and glue down one of the ½ strips with the inner edge lined up along the dots. (The beveled edge of the strip is the outer edge.) Then glue the other half of the strip lining it up along the inner edge of the first ½ strip. After you’ve glued down 1 or 2 sections of roadbed, you can then set the track back down on top of the roadbed.

Choosing roadbed base

Modelers use plywood on home layouts, as well as foam for portable layouts, both work well. Under the track, some use laminate flooring underlay. This paper-based product is cheaper than homasote, cuts easily with a knife, and is about ballast thickness for HO. Lay it right across the track area and then cut it to the correct profile after the track has been laid. It is not affected by soaking with dilute PVA for gluing ballast. This has shown to have no effect when soaked in water. Seal the top surface with cheap acrylic varnish as I find it holds spikes better.

You also have many choices for your roadbed. Some tracks, like Bachmann EZ Track, comes with an attached roadbed which you can mount directly to your sub roadbed. Other manufacturers offer similar products. You can use Homasote. This a time-honored way to build a layout but there are misgivings about it. Homasote expands and contracts quite a bit as seasonal humidity levels change. That can make for major problems with your track because the metal rails and plastic ties move very little. Cork is much more dimensionally stable, inexpensive, and easy to use. I suggest that you give cork some serious consideration. There is a similar plastic product (expanded vinyl). Modelers who have used expanded vinyl wallpaper have found it to be exceedingly easy-to-use, attractive, and durable.

Roll-out Sticky Roadbed

There’s also a roll-out sticky roadbed. It’s relatively thin so it won’t look like high iron but it will hold itself and your track in place. You can get away without ballasting (the rock, cinders, etc. which holds the track in place on 12 inches to the foot railroads) some model railroad tracks, like cork or the ones which already have plastic ballast or something just for children who won’t care as long as the trains go at light speed. However, you MUST ballast the sticky stuff because anything else which touches it will stick to it and that will lead to a cruddy-looking railroad. The other ways of doing roadbed (plastic, cork, homasote) should be ballasted for appearance. Yes, that applies to the roadbed attached trackage, too.

Choosing Roadbed & Rail

Choosing Rail – Track

A question that always comes up first is – What type of model train track should I use? There are several different brands and sizes available. Mostly what you use is a personal preference. One thing to remember is that the size of the rails is reported as the code. For example, the code 83 model railroad track has larger rails than the code 55 track. The smaller rails are often used for branch lines and the larger codes are for mainlines. This is often the way they appear in the prototype (real life), so you can simulate that on your layout if you wish.

A caveat to this is that you have to make sure that when you make the transition between different codes on the same layout, you have to line up the rails properly so there won’t be any derailments. You may have to use small pieces of wood underneath the railroad ties on the adjoining end of the code 55 track so that the rails of the code 55 track will line up properly with those of the code 83 track. Also, another point to remember is that sometimes branch lines may not have much roadbed, if any, under the track while mainlines almost always do.

The model railroad track is sold as sectional track, i.e., small sections of either straight track or curved track that come in 2-3 different standard radii, or as flex track, a very flexible 3 ft piece of track that can be curved to whatever radius you want. Sectional track, but not flex-track, can also be purchased with roadbed attached. Some model tracks have more realistic appearing railroad ties than others

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Many brands have black ties that are far apart. These are probably less realistic than the ones that are brown or gray and are closer together. Of course, hand-laid track ties are probably the most realistic. Also, the ties can always be painted to look more realistic. Varying the shade of color of the ties is always more realistic than having them all be exactly the same color. This would be tedious and probably not really that noticeable in the smaller scales, but it would make more of a difference in the larger scales.

Modelers generally use the sectional track for the most part (without the attached roadbed) in places where the straight track is required, and when curves with the standard radii are needed. However, flex-track is better if you need curves with nonstandard radii, or if you are making s-shaped curves. Many model railroaders use flex-track for the whole layout except for the turnouts. One note of caution when making s-shaped curves is that you should always have at least one car-length of straight track between the 2 curves. Otherwise, you will likely have derailments.

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Model Railroad Cars

Model Railroad Cars includes freight cars, passenger cars, maintenance of way cars, cabooses, and cable cars.


A “Car” is just about anything that runs on rails. This includes

  1. freight cars
  2. passenger cars
  3. maintenance of way cars (including equipment such as cranes)
  4. cabooses
  5. cable cars
  6. unpowered (dummy) locomotives, etc.

Everyone knows that a railroad takes cars from one place to another.  But why?  Well, to deliver cars to industries and manufacturing plants.  But why?  So those industries can have the supplies they need to make the products they make, and also to ship the finished products to places that need them.  That is why we put buildings and industries on our layouts that have sidings next to them.  We all know these things, right?  But how many of us realize how this is actually done.  Sure, we make up trains with cars and take them to our sidings and drop them off, picking up other cars as we go.  But so far, we have no real purpose in mind. 

We are just doing it because we are so-o-o bored with running trains in circles. True operations are more fun with two or more people.  One person runs one train while the other person runs another train.  A computer program like RailOp, Pro-Track, Ship-It, or JMRI Ops makes running by yourself more interesting. Because the computer picks the cars for the train. Picks what cars are to be set out before the train departs.  It is no longer a matter of getting the train to the industry. Then asking yourself “what cars do I want to set out here”.  The Manifest tells you, and you have to work the puzzle with your locomotive to get them there.  If the tracks are in place for good operations, solving the puzzle is easy.  If the tracks are not there, the puzzle becomes harder, but can still be done.

Model Railroad Cars - ARMballast


If you’re new to model railroad operation you may not be familiar with the basic switching moves for picking up and setting out cars and assembling trains.

Trailing, facing, and running around: “Trailing point” turnouts and spur tracks are those you can back an engine and cars into from your current direction of travel­. “Facing point” turnouts and spurs are those your engine can head into without changing direction. You can easily pull a car from a facing point spur using the engine’s front coupler. But it comes out in front of the ­engine. Cars behind the engine can’t be put into the facing point spur without a momentum maneuver called a “drop” or a “flying switch”. That’s impractical with small-scale model trains.

Skip the runaround:

Running around can be time-consuming. Crews on the big roads prefer to avoid it if they can. Besides the momentum tricks that we can’t copy (and which now are generally prohibited by rule). You can avoid running around by only working trailing point spurs. If local trains work in both directions on a given line. They might do only trailing-point work. They leave cars for facing-point spurs on ­double-ended storage tracks for the ­other ­local to pick up and set out. This was a common practice in the steam era.

The long shove: Rookies may still be challenged when cars have to be placed at two or more spots along a single spur. There may be several different industries. Or several spots at one large plant, but the task is the same in either case. Here’s a plan that usually works; First, line up the cars to be set out in the order in which they’re to be placed on the spur – any convenient spur lets you sort a string of cars into any desired order. Then keep those cars to be set out next to the engine while you pull all the cars from the spur and set them over with the rest of the train.


Real railroads move cars, people, and goods from Point A to Point B. So why do many model train layouts make them run endlessly in circles? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the view of a passing train. But if you want to increase your railroad’s action, the easiest way is with operations that match the prototype. Waybills are forms used on railroads to help route each car from its point of origin to its destination. They ensure that the loaded car will arrive safely in the right place at the right time and be handled properly along the way.

Good railroad operations also mean getting the empty car to its next loading point as quickly as possible. Picking up, moving, sorting, and delivering thousands of cars from hundreds of shippers is a daunting task. Railroads employ armies of workers to not only move the cars but track them and coordinate operations for the most efficient shipments. Fortunately, model layouts are much smaller, the destinations fewer, and the customers less demanding than the prototypes.

Even though there may not be a profit to be had by improving your operations, replicating the prototype processes of moving cars with a purpose can add a lot of fun to your layout. In order to keep this work fun, most model waybill systems are designed to replicate prototypical car movement with the least amount of paperwork possible. There are several systems out there, and even some commercially printed forms that you can purchase and use. Others have developed their own methods. Whether you use prepackaged forms or come up with your own, adding a waybill system to your layout will revolutionize the way you look at the hobby.

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Model Railroad Passenger Cars

Model Railroad Passenger Sleepers Coach Articulated Dining and Lounge Cars are rolling stock that is designed to carry passengers.

A passenger car is a piece of railway rolling stock that is designed to carry passengers. Up until about the end of the 19th century, most passenger cars were constructed of wood. The first passenger trains did not travel very far. But they were able to haul many more passengers for a longer distance than any wagons pulled by horses. As railways were first constructed in England, so too were the first passenger cars. One of the early coach designs was the “Stanhope”. It featured a roof and small holes in the floor for drainage when it rained. It had separate compartments for different classes of travel. The only problem with this design is that the passengers were expected to stand for their entire trip. The first passenger cars in the United States resembled stagecoaches. They were short, often less than 10 ft (3.05 m) long, and had two axles.

The 1930’s Model Railroad Passenger Cars

Many American passenger trains, particularly the long-distance ones. They included a car at the end of the train called an observation car. Until about the 1930s, these had an open-air platform at the rear, the “observation platform”. These evolved into the closed-end car, usually with a rounded end which was still called an “observation car”. The interiors of observation cars varied. Many had special chairs and tables. The end platforms of all passenger cars changed around the turn of the 20th century. Older cars had open platforms between cars.

Passengers would enter and leave a car through a door at the end of the car which led to a narrow platform. Steps on either side of the platform were used for getting on or off the train. One might hope from one car platform to another. Later cars had enclosed platforms called vestibules which together with gangway connections allowed passengers not only to enter and exit the train protected from the elements. Also to move more easily between cars with the same protection.


Starting in the 1950s, the passenger travel market declined in North America, though there was growth in commuter rail. Private intercity passenger service in the U.S. mostly ended with the creation of Amtrak in 1971. Amtrak took over equipment and stations from most of the railroads in the U.S. with intercity service. Amtrak began to push the development of U.S.-designed passenger equipment even when the market demand didn’t support it. Ordering a number of new passenger locomotive and car types in the 1980s and 1990s. However, by the year 2000 Amtrak went to European manufacturers for the Amtrak Cascades (Talgo) and Acela Express trains, their premier services. These trains use new designs and are made to operate as coherent “trainsets”.


TYPES of Model Railroad Passenger Cars


The coach is the most basic type of passenger car, also sometimes referred to as “chair cars”. In one variant, an “open coach” has a central aisle; the car’s interior is often filled with row upon row of seats as in a passenger airliner. Other arrangements of the “open” type are also found, including seats around tables. Seats facing the aisle (often found on mass transit trains since they increase standing room for rush hour), and variations of all three.


Often called “sleepers” or “Pullman cars” (after the main American operator), these cars provide sleeping arrangements for passengers traveling at night. Early models were divided into sections, where coach seating converted at night into semi-private berths. More modern interiors are normally partitioned into separate bedroom compartments for passengers.

Articulated car

Articulated cars have a number of advantages. They save on the total number of wheels and trucks, reducing costs and maintenance expenses. Further, movement between cars is safer and easier than with traditional designs. Finally, it is possible to implement tilting schemes such as the Talgo design which allows the train to lean into curves.

Dining cars

A dining car (or diner) is used to serve meals to the passengers. Its interior may be split with a portion of the interior partitioned off for a galley, which is off-limits to passengers. A narrow hallway is left between the galley and one sidewall of the car for passengers to use. The remainder of the interior is laid out with tables and chairs to look like a long, narrow restaurant dining room. There is special personnel to perform waitstaff and kitchen duties.

Lounge Cars

Lounge cars carry a bar and public seating. They usually have benches, armchairs, or large swiveling chairs along the sides of the car. They often have small tables for drinks or maybe large enough to play cards. Some lounge cars include small pianos and are staffed by contracted musicians to entertain the passengers.

Self-propelled cars

These vehicles usually carry motive power in each individual unit. Trams, light rail vehicles, and subways have been widely constructed in urban areas throughout the world since the late 19th century.

Passenger Cars For Your Layout

Most of the cars may tell you they can go around 22-inch radius curves but experts recommend nothing less than 24 inches because the cars overhang the track by a little bit that the rails actually stick out beyond the edge of the car which creates clearance problems in your layout and also gives a ‘funny’ look to your layout. It will create conditions that you will never see on a track in the real world.

If you have a small layout with tight curves, running passenger cars can be difficult and therefore try to use the broadest curves possible especially if you are running long equipment such as long passenger or freight cars. Keep in mind that some of the long-distance trains can be 11 to 13 cars long plus they may have some the locomotives and therefore If you are running a small layout and you want passenger service, you may want to look into an RDC or run a mixed train with a combine.

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Design Model Railroad Layout starts by choosing a scale track for operating trains. Your layout size is what every you can get away with.

A layout in model railroading is a diorama containing scale track for operating trains. The scale of a layout varies from the size of shelves to design that occupy entire rooms. Once you’ve decided to begin designing your model railroad layout. It becomes important that you first develop a plan on how to proceed.


An important part of designing your model railroad is decision making and best belief. There are several choices to make when designing your model railroad. Do you want to freelance the railroad or copy a prototype?  What kinds of equipment (locomotives and cars) do you want to run?  You may want to add your own rules like what you want the height of the layout to be. How wide the aisles should be if you have aisles. You may want to make sure that all areas of the railroad have easy access. So you’re not having to break your back bending over or stand on a ladder or scaffolding to reach the farther sections of your track and scenery. 


If you are creating this railroad by yourself, you may want to start with a small layout and add to it later gradually.  Or, you could plan for a large model railroad layout, but then just build and complete small sections of it at a time.  Or, get all the track and trains up and running and then approach the scenery gradually.  You have to realize at the outset that if you are planning a large, room-sized layout, and if you still have to earn a living out in the real world, which means you may not have a lot of time to work on it, your model railroad may take a few years to “complete”.

Once you have answered these basic questions, then you can begin with your layout. Next is the track plan. You can either use a track plan that has been published or design your own original plan. Whichever it is, always keep the theme and function as well as the end goal of your railroad in mind as you draw out your plans. Ensure that the model railroad layout room is a nice place for you to work and in good conditions of lighting, air-conditioning, and absence of pests and critters.


Building Designer Model Railroad Layout

Listed below is a step-by-step guide on how to design your own model railroad layout:

1-Build the Benchwork

There is a lot of ways to build your benchwork. Ensure not to build too big of a railroad in limited space. Space is ideal in railroading. You should be able to move around your layout comfortably. Also step back to have a good view and to appreciate your work. You can cover the area under the benchwork with a curtain or with sliding panels.

Make a Backdrop

Your backdrop could be a blue wall in the background. Or you could buy a backdrop scene or even paint one. Ensure that it blends in with your theme. Pictures of your layout should not show your workshop or the cluttered storage area under the layout.

Make a Backdrop

your backdrop could be a blue wall in the background. Or you could buy a backdrop scene or even paint one. Ensure that it blends in with your theme. Pictures of your layout should not show your workshop or the cluttered storage area under the layout.

Draw or loosely layout your track on the benchwork

Visualize where you want your rivers, roads, mountains, and structures to be and mark them on your layout surface. Make cardboard mockups for future structures.

Build the Terrain

Begin to build your terrain and once you’ve got this in place. You can start fastening down the roadbed and track.

Start Laying Track

Make sure you put easements into the curves. Be careful about S-curves, make sure you have enough clearance and radius on your curves to accommodate the longest passenger cars you will be running. Especially if 2 passenger trains will be running close to each other on a double-track curve.  You will need to be thinking about where you will need rail gaps to prevent short circuits for reversing loops and to make isolated blocks if you are going to be wiring for DC.  Make sure the track sections are lined up well at the joints to prevent derailments.

Test and retest your track after laying each section. Solder rail joints where you need to, but not all of them – especially not turnouts in case you need to replace one.  Make sure your turnouts are installed on flat areas only – never on inclines.  Test and retest the turnouts to be sure they work properly and don’t cause derailments.  Use a metal file that was needed to smooth ridges that may cause a wheel to jump or hangup.  Use a track gauge appropriate for your scale to be sure the rails are the right distance apart in all areas.  If you are going to use uncoupling devices, you should know where they will be needed as you put down your track. So you can install them as you go.


now attach feeder wires at every three feet to the bottom or outside of the rails. Many railroaders say this should be done every 6 to 10 feet but this should work just fine as long as the rail-joints are tight. Choose whether to use DC or DCC power and wire. Wiring remote turnouts for your railroad can be a very tedious and difficult task, because there’s a lot of them to do on a large layout. Make a control panel that you will be proud of and that is organized well enough that running your trains will be easy.  Take your time on this.  If you can’t operate your railroad well, you won’t be happy with it.


now it’s time to ass the scenery. This is what makes your model railroad layout realistic. Running trains through forests, valleys, over river trestles, and across mountains, through cities, plains, farmland, and other types of landscapes is really what makes your railroad come alive.  It’s definitely part of the “awesome” factor of any model railroad.  You can do a little at a time, in the beginning, just to give a flavor of the basic scenery and then come back and finish it in greater detail later as you have time. Don’t forget to add roads.  Create little mini-scenes in different sections of your layout to make things interesting.  Add a little humor to your scenes when you can.

Add structures

As time progresses, add structures. Designing model kits can be tedious and time-consuming but also very rewarding if you take your time to do them right. If you have a need for a building for which there is no kit, you may want to consider kitbashing or scratch building your model.  Make sure the structures you have chosen are appropriate for the era, locale, and theme. Pick your industries so that they make sense for the railroad in transporting goods from one place to another.

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Resurrection of a Mantua Mikado

This was purchased brand new as a kit about thirty years ago. It was an operational disappointment because the tender brass wheels got dirty with one trip around the layout. Lucky for it, I came across nickel silver wheels for the tender and now it works like a charm. The fake coal load was cut out of the tender so I could fill it with real coal from my Campbell operating coal tower. Three ounces of lead in the rear of the tender improved the wheel to track conductivity. Towing 14 steam era reefer’s is now a piece of cake. Pieces and parts arrived from a company called, yardbird classic trains to trick out this engine like the late John Allen’s engine #42


While I was waiting for some parts to come in, I scratch built a tool rack for the ash pit. Durango Press (JL Innovative Design) makes this as a kit, but I learned to make most of my own parts to build it. The fake cast on piping from the sand dome and “cast on” sand dome was ground away from the boiler. That big tank in front of the boiler was scratch built. Half of the cab window was cut out for the fireman to stick his arm out. The Westinghouse pilot, Berkshire sand dome, whistle, jewel markers, new brass bell, and other piping details have been installed. Most of the parts were from a basic detail kit that includes details for the Mikado “long haul” tender. The foreground track host the ash pit and wash rack. I used the “N” scale 1031 Black cinder, 1151 Basalt ballast, and 1011 Red Cinder ballast mixed for the effect of mining stamp sand at the left-center of the picture. It looked like this for thirty years and ran poorly besides lacking detail.

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The near siding track is called the “Oil Track” where the petroleum tanks and warehouses are serviced by rail and then trucks on this side. There is only about 8″ of depth to work with and there must be a narrow service road included in the foreground. The storage tanks are by Campbell Scale Models and tanker transport bodies from Sheepscot. The far spur is called “Suydam Siding” with the Swift meatpacking plant at this end. It still needs a cattle pen for unloading those fattened steers. All this will take a while as much scratch building must be done and I have to haul and crush rock for a few days.

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TRAIN ORDERS for El Capitan

A creative thinking station agent can now become a real trickster and raise havoc with the engineers. This was how train crews and agents communicated before the railroads had radios. Such is the case with 1939 El Capitan powered with a “shovel nosed ” E unit and new streamlined cars. The high level all chair cars came latter. Our train order rack has three places to string orders. The bottom is for Brakemen, middle for Conductors and the top for Engineers. I used a piece of cigarette paper tied with thread and attached it to the wye. This could be done with the other lower two but why. They all can be swung out or in as their independent to each other. When an engineer sees orders swung out for hand pickup, the agent has a situation card in a rack on the edge of the layout for him to read. It could read something like this. “Prepare to stop at New River Bridge as track crew is at work”. As a station agent, and you don’t have orders, swing the arm in.

This is a project you have to make for yourself as I don’t think any manufacture has one to sell. A little brass tubing, wire and lamp shade is all you need. The platform and steps were made with wood scraps and Campbell stair stringers.

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JL Innovative Design makes this car dealership kit that fits the era of my other structures on the layout. The model makes a medium-size structure that will have to wait until I make room for it on the layout.

The base for the structure was made of 1/4″ Masonite and I carved in the sidewalks and curbs. I added the banners just like someone did in a picture found on their web site photo gallery. When the photographer took the picture, he was unaware of the dog marking his territory on the fire hydrant. The signs focus on better with this shot so you can see what they look like. The sidewalks were painted with Floquile lettering gray and weathered with thinned grimy black. Yellow Carpenter glue was brushed on the driveway and our #1030 Asphalt Paving powder sprinkled on.

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From the Kalmbach book published in 1965 and reprinted several times including the 1973 edition that I have. The first section describes a background of various bridges for railroads and highway overpasses. The text with pictures covers simple wood trestles to the Santa Fe steel arch bridge over Canyon Diablo (Devils Canyon) in Arizona. Part two has eighteen building and structure projects with plans from a tiny passenger station, single unit engine house, engine service structures, on-line railroad buildings, and industries. I have to build a few of them over the years even though my models may be altered a bit from the original drawings.


The article was written by Lloyd Giebner and he states that his model is a replica of the first unit the Santa Fe built in Wichita KS. The unit was built as an experiment using conventional over the road truck trailers on modified flat cars. Mr. Giebner had a second article for building a modern l.c.l. freight house. I changed the style of the building but kept the overall size about the same. 1/4″ foam core artboard is used for the structure and then painted with acrylics. Parapet walls are covered with strips of cardboard to hide the foam board edge.