Leafing through the pages of a notebook I found some sketches of a little model railway layout I had on my mind a while ago. In terms of place, I had a vision of the sort of place that was only barely nimble enough to stay one stride ahead of a future that had already overtaken most of its neighbours.


The simple layout plan consists of partial models of only three structures and a small amount of track. It can be “operated” by adding a staging area to each end. It isn’t the plan that fired my imagination but more the presentation of it that I still find rather attractive.


The entire layout should be built inside a shadow box. Rather than simply opening up the front completely, I wanted to use silhouettes based on the shape of the grain elevators to control the view into the scene. The colours on the layout would be golds and greens in the scenery and browns in the structures. A fading blue sky leads off across the background, far enough that “you could watch your dog running away for days”. The entire front fascia, including those structure silhouettes, is treated with the same finish. Something without texture and perhaps the whole face is painted grey. Grey for the way it doesn’t take away from the scene and further frames it as it each peeks around edges. When trains are moving, their movement isn’t always fully on display and we have to look around and in between those elevators to see the train. Perhaps an operating session isn’t made more “interesting” by adding more car moves but by exploring the different views of the train as it goes about its business?

The layout has its own integral lighting rig providing more than enough light to very comfortably see what you are doing while operating the layout. In between operating sessions this same light frames those silhouettes – even from across the room it’s easy to see what this scene is about: grain.


Just as the front of the box is cut out to create silhouette views of the grain elevators I played with ideas to similarly frame the view down the line and along the layout. An old tree growing by the station softens the left line of the frame and the right side might use the gable end profile from a grain bin. Peering down the line, our view is framed by the station and the rail-side of the elevators. Again, the hope is to create something that controls your view of the scene and relate it from the same perspectives that we’d enjoy if we were actually there.

In real life, a place like this wouldn’t have a train running every single time that I was there and neither would the layout. I wanted to play with a concept that used the layout fascia as more than just a rectangular picture frame. A fascia that was as interesting as the work it presents.

Categories: How I think

10 replies

  1. Morley? A Vinyl Cafe fan?

  2. Wow, I love posts like this. I spent last weekend reading Chis Nevard’s posts, and he would heartily approve. This reminds me more than just a bit of a Richmond, Indiana factory micro layout that Mike Cougill posited a year or so ago.

    Your sketches and theirs address the problem of bounded spaces. Is your view of a layout contained within a bounded space or are you continually disrupted by what’s behind it, what’s at either end, what’s above it, what’s below it? This has been on my mind a lot since I got home from the Amherst show, where much good modeling and satisfying operation was lost in a sea of distraction. Layout for which this was not true really stood out for me.

    4×8 is the worst possible scenario for spatial authenticity, and this may account as much for our dissatisfaction with such layouts as their roundy-round track. The larger question is how well bounded spaces can be scaled.

    • Thank you

      I credit RMWeb’s bcnpete directly with changing my opinion of how to use the envelope of the railway layout’s overall form. The more I look at his work the less satisfied I am by my own and the typical approach we use – the greater model railroading “we”. In terms of layout planning, my thoughts these days centre on the envelope surrounding the layout. Furthermore, I want to look around things and be teased by a model railroad that hints at what lies beyond if I just lean my head this way…

      If the layout is mounted in a living room within the home can we create something in a different shape than either of the two current stalwarts: the box or the shelf?

      I don’t pretend to have done anything revolutionary here but this plan was something that came to me as an option to explore the question further. I think it stems out into two branches:

      1. How can we create a model railroad that is a more visually pleasing overall form? This goes beyond anything in the scene to the overall visual mass of the layout. If the layout were a house I’m talking about the view from the street and getting away from the model railroad planning typical obsession with how the dining room chairs are arranged.

      2. How can we move the viewer around the scene instead of letting him decide where to stand when he looks at our work?

  3. Based on the elevation view in your second sketch, there are interesting possibilities for playing with the positive and negative shapes of the front fascia. I like the potential of what you’re proposing with this design.


    • I agree.

      I view the layout working as a shadow play like the classic Chinese puppet show. Granted, this elegance is partially undermined by the colour and texture of the elements from the layout behind the fascia.

      As you note, there is some opportunity in how elements are positioned to play with their form and the way they peek around each other not totally unlike the way I wanted to relate to the scene.

      I don’t plan on building this layout but it represents a direction for my design and what I want to achieve – which sort of spells a future for my current project.


  4. Reminds me of a diorama featured in RMC Mar 1996 that I have more than once been tempted to build.


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