The process for designing a model railroad layout seems pretty straightforward. The idea is to work out a design that meets your particular needs and aspirations within the context of available layout space, your skills, time, and money. I also want to affirm that you will need to consider competing priorities for time (the needs of your work, family and friends) and for money (it is a hobby after all).

In nearly all model railway/model railroad magazines there are descriptions and photos of layouts. Most of these descriptions will at least have a paragraph or two on how the owner decided what the layout design requirements were and how the final track plan came into being. I have hinted previously about some of the features of the prototype that I liked and wanted to incorporate in a model railroad design. In the US, reference is often made to layout planner John Armstrong’s “givens” and “druthers”. Givens are what you have to have for the layout (space, your chosen scale, type of control system, etc.) and druthers are what you’d like to (realistically) have for the model railroad (e.g. rural industries, interchange, number of stations, yards more important than scenery, etc.).

Whatever the terminology and processes used for decision-making, it is very likely that modellers begin their quest for their “perfect” layout design with a series of doodles which progress to sketches and then to a scaled-out plan. In my case, it was no different.

While the previous blog posts may have given the impression that my thought process about prototype and location was relatively straightforward, it wasn’t. Considerable time and research was required to give me sufficient understanding for what I wanted within the parameters of the layout’s physical location. Doodles and sketches became part of that process; testing new ideas or discarding others. As such, my sketches therefore reflect the fact that I was combining my knowledge about the prototype and aspirations for the model railroad at different points in time over the past few years. In addition, I looked at hundreds of layout plans from my collection of model railroad magazines (and the very handy Model Railroader track plan database) and also some prototype yard drawings. I will go into detail about this research in another blog post.

I made literally hundreds of sketches, many with just a few alterations and different operating options. Except for early sketches, the general configuration of a double-deck around-the-room design remained constant. Some of my earliest sketches included a helix in the central peninsula area but I gave up on that idea pretty quickly.That being the case, I had to use a grade to move between decks. I couldn’t get sufficient length to have a big gap between decks, one on top of the other. I compromised with a deck separation of 8″ (203mm) with a stepped-out deck design (i.e. the lower deck is in front of, and not under, the upper deck). I have operated on layouts in Australia with that design and it never bothered me that the two decks were arranged this way.

Nearly all my sketches just show the main lines (DME and BN) without detail for the yards in each town. I keep the layout plan for each town separate and then I mock up the design on the baseboard with track to better visualise how things look in reality. I make adjustments at this stage.

I will just show a few examples of some layout design sketches I made to illustrate the point that playing around with track designs is both necessary and exceedingly helpful to get to a “final” plan. I haven’t included any of the “back-of-the-envelope” type sketches but they were important in developing different ideas. Please note that the first sketch shows the garage doors at the top of the page while the other sketches have the garage doors at the bottom of the pages. You can refer to the previous blog post with the diagram there showing the dimensions of the garage and the position of the side door.




The last sketch here made it to a scaled diagram, albeit the diagram above is more scaled sketch than detailed plan. You will note that turnouts and the individual town yard plans are not included in these sketches. As I mentioned, I like to get the general design for the main lines on paper first, working out the town yards individually, before putting the two elements together with the track unfixed on the baseboard.  Suffice to say, the final sketch above has been modified several times on paper and on the layout itself. When I get some time, I will redraw the plan as close to what the layout now looks like and put it up on the blog.

I should also admit that between the time I drew that last sketch illustrated above (a few months ago) and when I finally got around to putting track down on the baseboard to see how it all looked, I did experience a crisis of confidence where I thought it all didn’t work! I spent another month or so looking at other design options, including alternative DME routes (e.g. starting the line from Brookings, South Dakota, and heading east to Marshall, Minnesota). In the end, I finalised the positioning of the towns and continued with the plan for a double-deck layout going around the walls of the garage with a central peninsula. Most of the changes with this configuration have been in the detail and relate to improving the layout’s operational potential without too many worrying compromises. Two significant alterations to the paper designs shown here related to changes in the placement of the grades between lower and upper decks, and the positioning of my staging yard, all worth a future blog post in itself.

Let me conclude this post by saying that the “final” design on paper continued to have several iterations after I put track down (unfixed) on the baseboard. I really needed this physical 3D perspective to make sense of everything. I looked at different positions of turnouts, sidings and spurs, but the main line pretty much remained the same. Other people may have been able to achieve the same result with greater precision on paper or by using model railroad layout design computer software like AnyRail or 3rd PlanIt. For me, the iterative process worked best because I find it difficult to visualise things straight from a detailed diagram – I need to see the real thing! Whatever method you prefer, in the end you will eventually succeed in the transition from paper (or computer screen) to baseboard from where further adjustments can be made.


Layout location

I have posted already about some of the considerations regarding the choice of prototype and geography that have formed the context for the model railroad. Before I go any further, I should also set the scene for the actual location of the model railroad at home.

The layout is in the double-car garage. Unfortunately, we don’t have basements in Australia like in many parts of the US – mind you, we generally don’t have to experience a Minnesota winter either! The garage space for the layout can be seen in the diagram below.


The garage was initially just a single garage that was extended with a second car space down the side. You can see in the diagram that a (brick) wall runs down the centre of the garage and this was originally the side wall for the single car garage. The garage was also extended outward which is why the centre wall falls short of the garage doors. This turned out to be fortuitous because there is sufficient room at this end for the model railroad and space for an aisle.

The centre brick wall is no longer required for the roof but it does hold up a false ceiling on the left hand side which I use for storage, albeit the roof cavity gets incredibly hot in summer.  I have put in a ceiling on the right hand side and front of the garage, which is higher than the on the left, as it is attached to the bottom of the roof joists. The side wall on the left is insulated which helps moderate temperature as this side wall gets the full sun for most of the afternoon. I have also insulated the roof space, however, there is a gap around the false ceiling that needs to be permanently enclosed (I am just using cardboard at the moment) to effectively keep out the heat.

I also bought two lengths of insulation strip for the tops of the garage roll-a-doors to prevent incoming air and dust from getting into the train room. This material is essentially a length of aluminium with thick bristles to draught-proof (draft-proof for Americans) the gap between the top of the roll-a-door and the frame of the garage doors. These two insulation strips made a huge difference in keeping out the cold air when it was installed at the end of winter.

The garage has ceiling-mounted fluorescent lighting but it is insufficient for the layout. I need to put in additional overhead lighting but can make-do for the time being. The debate about T5 and T8 fluorescent lighting (and cost) is one I am still working my way through.

The way the double-garage is structured gives a pretty good indication of how a likely model railroad design might work with the space. As I don’t have to keep a car in the garage, I have the option to use all available space. The only caveat is that I still need to find room for my hardware items, lawnmower, and gardening tools and chemicals. Nevertheless, an around-the-walls design with a central peninsula is the most obvious plan and this is in fact what I have done.

I hope to go over the actual design plan in the next blog post.

Location – prototype and model

In my previous blog post, I outlined how my interest in the Dakota Minnesota & Eastern (DME) originated and why I found this prototype sufficiently engaging to want to model it. This blog post will explain some of the important considerations in deciding the location and route upon which the model railroad has come to be based.

Firstly, I should explain that the DME came into being in 1986 after taking over former Chicago & North Western (CNW) track between Rapid City (South Dakota) in the west and Winona (Minnesota) in the East. Ten years later the CNW sold the Colony (Wyoming) to Crawford (Nebraska) via Rapid City (SD) line to the DME. The CNW also initially provided all of the rolling stock and some of the locomotives. As such, the CNW was inextricably linked with the formation and direction of the DME post-1986. I will go into more detail about this another time. The image below shows the DME route map. Note that this route map includes the Iowa Chicago & Eastern which was established by the DME in 2002 and is thus outside the planned time period for the model railroad.


For the model railroad, I did not want to accurately copy a specific prototype location on the DME. I wanted to have some flexibility in what I modelled according to my skills, the information available, and my operational needs. I did want the model railroad to have a similar flavour to the prototype – after all, I did want a representation of the DME in model form (what I call prototype impressionism).

As the CNW was the former owner of the DME line between Rapid City and Winona, I decided to get a better understanding of CNW railroad lines in South Dakota and Minnesota. I purchased the SPV publication – “Comprehensive Railroad Atlas – Dakotas & Minnesota” – an invaluable resource showing a complete history of railroad lines on maps throughout those three US states. Please note that the link to the SPV site given here does not allow for purchases from the USA and Canada but the site does redirect you to a sister site for people in those countries. The SPV atlas showed me all the railroad lines in the area I was interested in. I narrowed down some options before doing additional research to find a suitable location and route.

I wanted to maintain a west-east orientation for the route on the model railroad since this was in keeping with the main line of the prototype. The line had to be a former CNW line. The line had to have several towns (initially five was the number I had in mind) to allow for adequate timetabling and operational interest. The towns should be based on real towns, albeit I was happy to create “combination towns” if that fitted the overall plan. I wanted to have a number of key industries served by the DME on the model railroad but these industries had to be believable in context. I also wanted to have an interchange, preferably with the Burlington Northern as I have always had an interest in this railroad from early model railroad days.

The route I chose was the former CNW line from Marshall (MN) in the west to Evan (MN) in the east. At Evan the line branched; southeast to join the DME main line at Redwood Junction just west of Sleepy Eye, and northwest to Redwood Falls by the Minnesota River. I figured I might be able to create some possibilities with offsite staging for the line to Redwood Falls. The map below shows Minnesota railroad routes as at 2013 (which means the DME is now owned by the Canadian Pacific) and shows the relevant DME main line (orange), the Twin Cities-Sioux City line of the Burlington Northern (green) and the (formerly abandoned) Marshall to Evan and Redwood Falls route in red.


The original Evan to Marshall line was abandoned by the CNW in 1977 so I had almost ten years to when the DME started and another ten years to my preferred time period (1995-96). This would provide sufficient time for new industries to come into being along my proposed route to give the operational interest I required.

However, I was worried that a branch line west from Evan still might not be sufficient to develop the kind of industries I wanted to cover for the model railroad. In addition, I thought that a branch line would not really be able to generate enough trains for a decent operating session on the model railroad. Traffic density is always a problem for model railroads but I knew I needed more than just a branch line over this distance for it all to make sense.

While the Evan to Marshall line was real (up to 1977), I fictionalised that the line kept going west, through Marshall and onto Brookings (South Dakota). Brookings is on the DME main line and is an important DME railroad centre. The prototype railroad, so my story goes, is from Brookings to Evan via Marshall in what I called the “DME Marshall Deviation”. I will explain the fictionalised history in an upcoming blog post. Suffice to say, I now had more traffic and operating potential for the model railroad with this route.

In choosing the route, I also considered the likely industries that could have developed had the line been real and had the line been part of the original CNW sale to the DME in 1986. When considering these industries, I considered the production (inputs and outputs), markets, and transportation aspects to better understand the possibility of these industries existing if my fictional history had come to pass. For real railroad-served towns like Marshall, I have tried to get an understanding of the industries (both rail served or otherwise) to find potential operating opportunities on the model railroad.  As I quite liked the economic geography aspect, this scenario-setting was particularly important and interesting. The research took (and continues to take) considerable time but it has been an enjoyable part of the process.

The route and the locations for the model railroad were now established.

Why the DME?

One of the questions I regularly get asked is why I model the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern (DME) Railroad. After all, I live in Australia and have traditionally modelled Australian prototype model railways. The beginning and initial journey are outlined here.

A few years ago I was browsing the bookshelves of the ARHS Bookshop at Central Station in Sydney. Purely by chance, I came across a book on Midwest US railroads that I thought looked pretty interesting; probably because of the photos more than anything else. The book was called Regional Railroads of the Midwest by Steve Glischinski. In that book was a chapter on the DME Railroad. For some reason, this granger railroad took my imagination above all others in the rest of the book. I was now half-bitten by the DME bug.

Not long after I purchased the Glischinski book I discovered a DVD on the DME at the Canberra Model Railway Exhibition. The DVD from Plets Express was called “DME: Dakota Minnesota and Eastern”. Naturally, I purchased the DVD and have watched it countless times since. I also bought another book, Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern: A modern granger railroad by Andy Cummings and Jerry Huddleston. The books and the DVD were the main drivers in my initial interest in the DME and the research and travel I have done since.

In tandem with this early discovery about the DME was my general dissatisfaction with modelling New South Wales Railways (NSWR). On the one hand, I was worried about not meeting the “required” standard for modelling NSWR as rivet counters and critics abound. On the other hand, I was developing an interest in railroad operations. More specifically, I was really interested in the representation of prototype practice in model railway operation, sparked no doubt from reading about model railroad operation in Model Railroader and some of the Kalmbach books on model railroad operation authored by Tony Koester. In addition, Allen McClelland’s V&O story (Railroad Model Craftsman) in book and DVD (Pentrex) also reinforced my desire to focus on operation within the context of a “good enough” model railroad. For me, the variety of industries and operational potential of modelling a US prototype railroad had genuine appeal.

Modelling the DME, as I explained in my talk at the NMRA Australasia Region Convention in September, came to fruition based on a combination of the following characteristics:

• Majority of loco fleet included two of my favourite US locomotives: SD40-2s and GP9s (other loco types included SD 40s, GP38s and GP40s, SD 9s and SD10s.
• Blue and gold colour scheme (some variation in the blue colour, and the two different types of lettering in favoured modelling period)
• Good variety of rolling stock, but with a preponderance of grain cars which I like
• Block unit trains (ethanol) and also mixed freight trains
• Low track speed in most parts (10-25mph) which increases the time for train movement between towns
• 1995/96 time period (good variety, and options with BN/BNSF)
• Mainly agricultural produce
• Small towns but can still have big industries
• No lineside signals
• I wanted a relatively obscure US prototype, but one that had good options for model railroad equipment. I can use CNW freight cars and the locomotives are common types produced commercially
• I wanted to be able to get sufficient information and do research on the railroad to get a good appreciation of the character and flavour of the prototype without necessarily becoming a rivet-counting expert. And the only way to do this was to find a prototype that initiated some interest and start the hunt for information to see if the prototype matches what I wanted out of a prototype-inspired model railroad.