Strategic track planning


Track planning and articles about track planning usually focus on what could be called the “tactical” aspects, which is mostly the placement of turnouts. In order to create a model railroad that is satisfying to operate, it is just as important to look at a couple of strategic aspects, which influence the track plan. As a matter of fact, a clear-cut strategy can partly determine the track plan and make track planning much easier.

Ways of operation

Model railroads can offer three different ways of operation:

  1. Running trains – what we see the prototype doing most of the time, and what many model railroaders aim to do. Disadvantages: Requires lots of space and gets boring quickly.
  2. Switching industries – often considered to be what model railroad operations should be about. Disadvantages: Requires expensive turnouts, can become repetitive, complex track arrangements that are more challenging can become tedious in the long run. Requires paperwork of some kind.
  3. Assembling trains – yard work. Disadvantages: Requires a relatively large amount of turnouts, can become repetitive if traffic patters generate little variety. Requires paperwork.

No single way of operation is perfect in my opinion. Only shuffling cars back and forth between industries can become just as boring as watching trains run in circles. Combining several ways of operation (having all three is of course the best, but requires quite a bit of space) can prevent boredom, if the traffic streams are right.

Traffic streams

You should consider where your railroad lies in relation to the rest of the rail network. The resulting traffic streams you have on your model railroad determine where trains come from and go to, and where they interchange cars. The simplest traffic stream is a a line that connects to other lines only outside of the modeled part – trains on the railroad have no reason to exchange cars, so even with industries, cars just move back and forth as they only have two possible destinations. Only a few trains and small stations are the logical result.

The first strategy to make your model railroad interesting is thus having several intersecting lines on the modeled part of your railroad. Each intersection gives a reason for interchanging cars and passengers, and thus for trains to stop and do some work. Routing cars over different lines also prevents repetitiveness in switching industries and assembling trains. Even having just one modeled station can then make for an operationally intensive railroad.


Once you have decided on traffic streams, you can create a timetable. Consider the trains that could run on each of the lines (slow and fast passenger trains, through-freights and locals). Let them meet at station and exchange cars or passengers. Lines that begin and end at a modeled station are also the start- and endpoint for trains.

Locale & era

An important choice is always the locale and era in which you set your model railroad. Most importantly, it defines the rolling stock you can plausibly use. The transition era is popular because it allows for running both steam and diesel (and electrics in Europe), but it has other advantages, too. Trains were shorter, stopped more often, and switched even small industries. The locale also affects the scenery you will have, the industries present on the layout, and thus the freight cars and carloads.

Signature scenes

This aspect is actually closely connected to the Locale & era. Many people can name one or more “signature scenes” they want to recreate on their model railroad – a certain bridge, street running, mountains. A certain signature scene may in fact determine your locale and era, and it will have an impact on your track plan.


Most operationally focused model railroads have several industries that generate traffic. They are not necessary – having just a busy station can work, too, but you lose one of the three ways of operation. Plausible industries are partly determined by your locale & era – mines in coal country, saw mills in forested areas. Certain industries (freight houses, small factories) can be used almost anywhere.

Your industry choices have a major impact on the freight cars that will run on your model railroad. Choose them wisely in order to produce variety. Think how they connect to the traffic streams on your railroad and thus all the rail lines that come together on your railroad. You want to produce traffic for all of them.


None of the aspects covered here required you to draw a track plan and place turnouts – as a matter of fact, you should instead draw a map of a rail network with rail lines and stations, modeled and unmodeled. Once you’ve made the strategic choices described here, detailed track planning will be much easier, and it’s more likely that the resulting railroad will be fun to operate.