N Scale Layout #4 (2007) - The Ultimate Roundy-Rounder


It's been my experience that most model railroads fall into a couple of basic categories- "Switching" vs "Continuous Operations", and "Table Top" vs "Around The Room". And the most common layout design (at least amongst ambitious amateurs such as myself) seems to be the "Spaghetti Bowl" - basically an amalgam of "table top", "continuous operations" with a bit of "switching" thrown in for good measure. I'd say that all of my layouts to date have been of the Spaghetti Bowl ilk. In fact, I'd say that the first 4' X 8' section I built for my "N Scale Layout #1" was pretty much the very avatar of Spaghetti Bowldom - namely, a bunch of sidings (and accompanying structures and roads) all tangled up inside of two continuous ovals of track, and all sitting atop a large, rectangular base.

Mmmm... Spaghetti, anyone?

The irony of all of these spaghetti bowls is that, at heart, I've always been a "continuous operations" kind of guy. I rarely perform any switching on my layouts, and pretty much the only reason I've ever designed switching into a layout at all is that I always thought a table top layout simply looked better with something going on, track-wise, above and beyond the mainlines. Basically I felt a sense of obligation to run track everywhere it could run, as opposed to trying to model something realistic or something that I would actually use. I'm a well-documented roundy-rounder and about the only purpose all those industrial sidings ever served was to provide a place for me to plunk down buildings and to scenically park stray freight cars and locomotives. Maybe some day I'll become an operations guy and be able to appreciate the finer points of a nicely designed switching layout, but at least for now, the only thing that floats my model railroading boat (opertionally speaking) is to watch long trains run around in circles.

I just recently finished my "Flat & Industrial" layout (yet another Spaghetti Bowl), and have begun pondering what I want to do for my next one. And what I've come to realize is that I'm getting a bit tired of the whole big bowl o' pasta thing. In particular, I'm a bit fed up with the nonsensical hodge-podge of track, buildings and (especially) roads that you wind up with at the center of these rectangular layouts. Everything is driven by the oval mains within which the sidings are placed, and everything tends to wind up at funny angles, odd elevations and so forth. Completely unlike the world that prototypical railroads inhabit, where we tend to lay everything out in grids.

And aesthetics aside, the sheer effort and expense of trying to fill all that empty space inside the mains gets to be a bit burdensome after a while. Buying and assembling building after building (twenty-some dollars apiece, on average), not to mention never-to-be-used turnouts ($10-$20 apiece), vehicles ($5-$10 apiece), people ($1-$2 apiece) and all the rest of the expensive little bits and pieces that go into a layout started making F&I feel like something of a bottomless pit - I kept shoveling the stuff on, and it kept swallowing it up. And at some point, I started asking myself, what is the point of all of this? It's not like adding more and more stuff is increasing my enjoyment of the layout to any great degree. And what it is doing is eating a big hole in my bank account.

Flat, Industrial Spaghetti

So, after a while I got to thinking that what I really want is a relatively shallow "around the room" layout - one where the entire layout is focused on the foreground mainlines (mainlines that are simple, parallel and not looping and twisting all over the place), where the buildings are few, orderly, parallel to the track, and butted up against a backdrop, and where most of the really tedious crap (roads, parking lots, etc) are presumed to live somewhere other than the layout (IE, "in the background").

Now that's what I'm talkin' about!

Next, I got to thinking that if I really did go down this route, I could, track-wise, pretty much eschew everything but mainline. And if I built something similar in size to F&I, I could run one hell of a lot of mainline track - like maybe even four separate loops! Holy crap, four trains running all at the same time? Pass the smelling salts Gertrude, I'm about to get a case of the vapors!

OK, I still don't have a room where I can build a real "around the room" layout. Whatever layout I build is still going to have to reside on top of my pool table. So, I guess the pool table becomes my room and that's what I'm going to have to build "around"- making use of backdrops to block off the dreaded rectangular center (and leaving it blessedly unoccupied by anything).

So, that's it. At this point I think I have enough fresh ideas to get started on N Scale Layout #4. To wit:

- All mainlines, and preferably four of them (three at a minimum). And should space become available for some kind of run-through industrial siding, then sure, why not? But, no dead-ends. The way I picture it is two sets of oval double-track mains running over-and-under, front-to-back. I foresee the front of the layout being 18"-24" deep with a backdrop that curves around on either end to the back side. The middle of the layout will be wide open, with the side backdrops crossing over the back side of the layout and merging into a rear backdrop (with tunnels for the trains to transition from the front to the back, right through the backdrops)- the latter bit because the layout is still going to have a "front" side for viewing, and I don't want my trains to be hidden from view half the time. It sounds pretty wild I guess, and I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it, but stick with me, we'll see how it goes.

- I have no idea what shape the structures and industries might ultimately take, but there's going to be a whole hell of a lot of "low profile" (IE, backdrop-affixed) ones. And for sure one of my goals is to try to avoid recycling structures that I've used on previous layouts. I don't see much point in going down roads I've visited before (if at all possible, anyway). Generally speaking, I envision the edges of a small town (complete with passenger station and some freight handling structures) along the front of the layout, and then some sort of large industry along the backside (depending on what's available and what will fit). I've actually been kicking around the idea of trying to model the local NSP coal power plant, so that's one possibility.

- Lights, lights and more lights. In addition to major league roundy-round operations, my other main goal on this layout is to explore lighting as a major theme. I have zero experience in this area and have no idea how I'm going to do it (yet), but I want every blessed building, streetlight, traffic light, signal and whatever else to be lit like a Christmas tree.

- I originally thought I might give the Atlas Code 55 track a try, but on second thought I think I'm going to stick with the old Code 80 stuff. I hate to mess around with anything that might lead to my trains running less reliably. And if nothing else, I'll be able to save a bit of money by making use of all of the track I had left over from F&I. I am going to introduce flex track into the mix, though. I doubt I'd be able to create all of the tandem curves I have planned using the sectional stuff. So there, see? I'm not as much of a whimp as you thought two seconds ago.

- No grades. I have an awful lot of locomotives that I've never been able to make much use of because they suck on grades (even 2% ones). So, for a change of pace, I'm going to build this layout without so much as a single grade. One pair of mains is going to run on the base of the layout and the other pair is going to be raised up 2", so I'll still have multiple elevations - but I don't plan on having the pairs ever meet, and hence no need for grades.

- More thorough track wiring. I don't think I wired up enough feeders on F&I when I first put down the track, and consequently wound up having to retrofit a lot of extra wiring along the way. I don't plan on making the same mistake twice though, so each loop will have three sets of wires at a minimum.

- Tunnels and bridges. This layout is going to look pretty boring if it's just a bunch of trains running around in circles, so I figure judicious use of tunnels and bridges to break up the monotony is a must. Fortunately, I've pretty much gotten over my fear of tunnels now that I've been introduced to the wonders of "access panels" (wow, what a concept).

- Minimal turnouts. With no yards or major industries to worry about, I should be able to minimize the number of turnouts needed to run the railroad. I figure I'll need four for each mainline pair (to allow switching from one main to the other), for a total of 8, and then possibly 2-4 more if I decide to add an industrial siding or two. And that should be it.

- Pink foam on top of an open wooden frame. As I started adding more and more wiring to F&I, it became obvious that trying to run it all along the underside of the foam base (and held in in place with duct tape) was a bit lame. So, for this layout, I'm going to build a rectangular wooden frame with 2X4's and glue the foam base to the top of that. It pains me to add all of that extra weight to the layout, but it'll give me needed space in which to run (and mount) all of the wiring- and all in a less chaotic fashion. Plus, the frame will raise the base sufficiently above the surface of the pool table, allowing me to go with a single layer of foam for the base (as opposed to F&I, where I had to assemble variously sized pieces of white foam in order to raise the base of the layout up to the level of the table rails). So, this time I'll be able to go with the sturdier pink foam instead of that messy white-beaded stuff.

So, away we go. Next stop, Home Depot.

This project has turned into quite a monster, so at this point I'm going to break the narrative up into a few chunks just to keep things somewhat manageable:

Track & Buildings

Roads & Lighting

Scenery, Detailing & Beyond the Beyond

Bill of Lading




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