The Ten Commandments of Model Railroad Yard Design

Written by Elroy Davis on Aug 16, 2009 in - 0 Comments

The Ten Commandments of Model Railroad Yard Design by Craig Bisgeier is one of my favorite webpages concerning model railroading. Mr. Bisgeier is modeling the Housatonic Railroad in HO scale, and...


Wait a minute, did he just say “HO scale”? I thought this was a blog dedicated to LEGO trains?


It is. This is a perfect case of something that L-gaugers can learn from more traditional scale modelers. In this case, layout design. Many of us belong to clubs that display train layouts to the public. Some of us may have our own personal layout at home. Either way, the Ten Commandments of Yard Design are good to keep in mind if you have any interest in building a classification type yard to display your trains, and if you have interest in switching trains in a realistic manner.


The Ten Commandments are pretty simple.  Below is a quick overview and explanation of how they fit with LEGO train layouts.


1 – Thou Shalt Not Foul The Main

In other words, don't stop a train or leave cars on your main running track. The idea behind this being that another train could come along at any moment and crash into whatever is stopped.  This is especially true for those who are running RC or Power Functions trains, where more than one train may be running on the same line.


2 – Thou Shalt Provide A Dedicated Lead Track

A lead track is basically a track that allows a locomotive to get to any of your rail-yard tracks without needing to go to another track first. On his site, Mr. Bisgeier describes the yard as a rake, with the yard tracks being the fingers of the rake, and the lead being the handle.


3 – Thou Shalt Not Foul The Yard Lead

Just like your main track, your lead track could be in use at any time. Blocking it with a locomotive or cars could either slow down the process of switching up trains, or potentially cause a crash.


4 – Thou Shalt Use Arrival / Departure Tracks

Arrival and Departure tracks are sidings off from the main track that allow a train to stop without fouling the main. In other words, this is where your train can pull over safely without causing any trouble for any other trains. Trains on these tracks can then have cars added or removed without interrupting operations on the main track.


5 – Thou Shalt Provide a Caboose Track

If you are displaying modern trains (at least in the U.S.) you probably won't have a caboose, but if you do, having a dedicated track for it means you won't have to move freight cars in order to add it to you train.


6 – Thou Shalt Provide a Run-around

What happens when the car you want to add to your train is sitting behind another car? You have two options: Pick it up by hand (not very realistic), or provide a run-around track. A run-around allows you to pull the blocking car out of the way, where your locomotive can then “run-around” behind it to get to the car you need.


7 – Thou Shalt Be Able to Reach Everything

There are cases where you just can't avoid picking up a locomotive or set of cars. Derailments, crashes, and pieces falling off for example. In these cases, it is best to design your layout so that you can physically reach all of the tracks easily.


8 – Thou Shalt Provide Auxiliary Yard Tracks

Auxiliary Yard Tracks are generally tracks that are dedicated to functions such as repairing or cleaning cars, storing work cars, and so on. Auxiliary tracks add a bit of realism to a layout.  For a LEGO layout, these might be good spots to build vignette type scenes such as workers washing down a boxcar, or minifigs repairing a locomotive boiler.


9 – Thou Shalt Not Overcrowd The Yard

Overcrowding your rail-yard makes it difficult, if not impossible, to switch cars out without physically lifting them off the tracks. Always try to leave some empty space in your yard so that you have someplace to move cars to when you begin switching operations.


10 – Thou Shalt Make It Easy To Run

This is a good guideline to keep in mind for any layout, but especially those being displayed at public events. If you need to leave the layout for any reason, can someone else easily move trains around while you're away?


“Okay,” you're saying, “These all sound great for a large layout. But what if I just have a simple layout?”


I think several of the commandments (they really should be called guidelines) still apply. Mainly, numbers 1 and 4. Even if your layout is just an oval, try to add a siding to be used as an arrival/departure track. That way, you can build up a train on that track while another is running on your main track. This works even if you are creating a train by pulling cars off a shelf and adding them to your track by hand. Once your new train is ready, you can throw the switches, move the new train onto your main track, and move the old one onto the siding to be put back into storage. Also keep in mind 7 and 9. No matter the size of your layout, all tracks should be easy to reach in case of problems. Keeping the layout from becoming overcrowded helps to eliminate some of those problems, as you'll have more room to maneuver. Finally, number 10 should always apply. If the layout is too difficult to run, you'll either always have to run it yourself, or be available should questions arise from those who are trying to run it for you.


I would recommend that anyone with an interest in layout design, especially yard layouts, read through The Ten Commandments of Model Railroad Yard Design page on Craig Bisgeier's Housatonic site. While you're there, check out the rest of his site. Even though it's not LEGO, some of the photos may inspire ideas for new brick builds in the future.


Yard Design Example

About the Author


Elroy Davis lives in southern Vermont with his wife and two daughters. In addition to LEGO trains, his hobbies include board gaming, war-game terrain building, mask-making, photography, and, most recently, scratch-building traditional skin-on-frame kayaks. When not creating things, he spends his free time learning how to create things.


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