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5 Track Planning Books That Belong in Your Model Railroad Library

The author has been enjoying model trains for decades and enjoys helping others with his hobby and introducing newbies to it.

Copyright © 2020 by Aurelio Locsin

Copyright © 2020 by Aurelio Locsin

Are you a beginning model railroader looking for ideas for your first layout? Or are you a veteran in the hobby who wants to expand your current empire? In either case, books on track plans deliver inspiration and practical advice. Here are five from my collection that deserve a place in your model railroad library.

1. 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders

An excellent place to start exploring the subject is at 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders by the late Linn H. Westcott. The former Model Railroader editor was elected to the Pioneers of Model Railroading in 1996 and, among other innovations, pioneered L-girder benchwork and zip texturing.

The 72 pages of plans show a wide range of possibilities in N, HO, S, and O.

  • The 1’x4’ Apple Valley Junction (HO) packs four switches in a bookshelf.
  • The Tremont and Cambridge RR squeezes a yard, turntable, roundhouse and a continuous run on a 4’ x 8’ HO table.
  • The estate-sized 53’ x 60’ Eureka and Golden Gate RR (HO) includes a lounge with a fireplace, a second-floor control station, and spotlights shining from a curved sky-like ceiling. It’s clearly a fantasy meant for hobbyists with million-dollar budgets.
  • I particularly like the five layouts devoted to trolleys, which are usually never showcased in track plan books. The Golden Key Route is a basement-sized example that replicates the lines that used to run around San Francisco bay.

The Plan Index in the rear shows the measurements of every layout in all the popular scales. But it does cheat a little by saying that you have to calculate the N-scale measurement by diving the HO versions in two, rather than actually showing the N measurements.

This book has been in print continuously since its release in 1956, so you’ll easily find used copies at model railroad swap meets for a buck or two.

2. 8 Realistic Track Plans for Small Switching Layouts

Prolific author Lance Mindheim is well-known for his realistic modern layouts that emphasize operations over dense trackage. In the 51-page 8 Realistic Track Plans for Small Switching Layouts, he goes over HO examples that would fit on the shelves of a typical 11’ x 8’ bedroom with benchwork no wider than 18 inches. His plans take into account that such rooms also have a door and a closet.

Eras range from the 1940s to the present although all his ideas incorporate current trends such as eye-level mounting, staging cassettes, and the use of shelf brackets for mounting and foam core for the scenery base. Every track plan chapter includes colored pictures of prototype examples to inspire, if you ever get around to building the layout.

My favorite layouts include:

  • The New York Dock Railway, which relies on a removable car float to bring news cars in and out of the scene,
  • And the Prairie Branch Line, which has two small-town passenger stations, grain elevators, crop fields, a bridge, and numerous industries.

As much as I like this work, it does use larger-than-average type and plenty of white space, and looks self-published, which accounts for the higher-than-average price for what you get. The book would probably have fewer pages if with regular-sized fonts and page layouts.

3. Small, Smart & Practical Track Plans

I first encountered one of Iain Rice’s books way back in 1990. At the time, the British penchant for highly detailed and exhibition-ready small layouts hadn’t reached American shores. So I was blown away by his track plans and meticulous black-and-white drawings of shelf layouts that could fit on one wall of a room.

Iain has since translated his UK know-how into several Model Railroader books and articles for American HO enthusiasts. My favorite is the Small, Smart & Practical Track Plans.

  • Its first three chapters covers designing and building layouts.
  • The rest of the 80 pages detail 15 plans complete with colored line drawings of each layout in 2D and 3D. Settings include a big city terminal, a short line on a shelf, and a logging layout split by a bed.
  • My favorites are three 1’x4’ industrial switching layouts that include an oil depot, a power plant by a river, and a yard.
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This book has long been out of print but often shows up at swap meets or on Amazon.

Copyright © 2020 by Aurelio Locsin

Copyright © 2020 by Aurelio Locsin

4. Track Planning for Realistic Operation

The great John Armstrong went to the Great Layout in the Sky back in 2004. However, the ideas and innovations developed by the Dean of Track Planning are still in common use today. His considerable wisdom is distilled in Track Planning for Realistic Operation, now in its Third Edition. But since this 104-page tome has been in print since 1963, you’ll often find it for just a few dollars at model railroading events.

Be forewarned that this is no browse-it-when-you’re-bored book. It demands careful reading because it is packed with text, diagrams, track plans, and photos that detail the theory and practice of track planning. You’ll get plenty of excellent information on dealing with curves, spacing for switches, and designing for reliability. The book is particularly useful for those planning large layouts in basements, garages, or club rooms.

To ensure that his ideas apply to multiple scales, John uses the squares method to illustrate his track plans:

  • In HO, each side of the square measures 22 inches for sharp curves or 34 inches for broad curves.
  • In O, each side measures 42 inches for sharp curves or 64 inches for broad curves.

A 2x4-square track plan can then equal 4’ x 8’ in HO or 8’x15’ in O.

5. Small Layout Scrapbook

With O-scale plans in a space no bigger than a pizza box, the 64-page Small Layout Scrapbook proves that you can build a model railroad anywhere. Its author, the late Carl Arendt, should be dubbed the Dean of Micro-Layouts for his devotion to the smallest of layouts. The 100 examples range from a circle of track for those who like to watch trains run to switching puzzles that provide plenty of operations.

I especially like the layouts that fit in a portable box and are displayed through a frame like a work of art. These wonders can be set up anywhere, including model railroad shows.

  • The 39 x8 -inch Peek’s Pike is designed for beginners with only two switches. Its polish comes from a backdrop of printed buildings.
  • The 39 x 12-in Petey’s Sawmill presents a beautifully detailed and fully-automated logging facility that also uses only two switches.

If you can't get enough of Carl's collection, you can check out over 1,000 examples more at his website. Unfortunately, since his death, the website has only been maintained sporadically.

Can You Recommend Any Track Planning Books?

Would you like to recommend your favorite track planning books? Then please put the name of the book and the author as well as a small description about it in the Comments below.

© 2020 Aurelio Locsin


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 05, 2020:

All of these books sound great for model train enthusiasts. I have never personally seen a micro-layout like the one described in the last book. It would be fun to view one someday.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 03, 2020:

My father collected model railways most of his life. The goal was a layout in the loft, which he never completed. He would have found these books useful. I struggle to reassemble my grandson's Thomas the Tank Engine track layout.

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