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My HO Model Railroad Layout

Anthony enjoys spending time in the workshop, kitchen, garden, and out fishing. Many of his DIY projects are featured in his yard.

Pennsy #7006 leads a local freight past a small yard on my HO model railroad

Pennsy #7006 leads a local freight past a small yard on my HO model railroad

Growing Up With Model Trains

I got my first model train set for Christmas from my grandfather. I remember going over to my grandparents' house one Christmas morning. There on the dining table was an HO scale model train set. I was captivated by the little Reading steam engine pulling a short string of freight cars up, over, and around the figure 8-shaped track layout.

Back home, the train track was tacked to a sheet of plywood. There wasn't any room in our house to set up a permanent layout, so my trains were designated as holiday decorations and only set up under the tree for Christmas. After the holidays, I carefully wrapped up the engine and each of the freight cars and buildings before packing them into a cardboard box for storage in the attic. The painted plywood with the tracks still attached was leaned on edge against the back wall of the garage.

Every year as the holidays approached, my grandfather took me to the local hobby shop on a model train shopping spree. I really looked forward to this annual trip with Pop, and he would let me pick out a new building kit, some foliage trees, maybe a switch with a few pieces of train track, or a new freight car. Over the years and with all of the annual additions, my seasonal model railroad began to look pretty good. And it was fun to run the trains for a few weeks before returning the plywood layout to storage.

Then when I hit my teens, I lost interest in the trains. Instead of making the annual appearance under the tree, the box of trains was pushed further back into the attic.

A 2-8-2 steamer rounds the bend on the dual track mainline. The engine house is off one of the branch lines.

A 2-8-2 steamer rounds the bend on the dual track mainline. The engine house is off one of the branch lines.

My HO Model Train Layout

Fast-forward a few years to a growing family in a new house with a big open basement. I thought about those model trains again and how much fun it would be for me and kids to set up those old trains again. I pictured the engine pulling a line of box cars through a little town on a freshly painted sheet of plywood. So on a visit back to my parent's house, I rescued the old box of model trains from the attic and packed it into the back of the van.

Back home in the basement, my enthusiasm quickly turned to disappointment. My treasure of trains was little more than a pile of cracked and broken plastic. Nearly every freight car was chipped or broken, and missing couplers or wheels. The model buildings were cracked with missing windows and separated roofs. Details like chimneys, fence posts and window shutters were gone.

#9630 eases past the freight house and team track spur.

#9630 eases past the freight house and team track spur.

The cure for my railroading blues was a quick trip to the local hobby shop along with some online shopping. New silver-railed track replaced the twisted old brass rails. Before long, a shiny new Pennsylvania diesel engine was pulling a string of colorful boxcars and a Pennsy caboose around an oval of track. We added a few switches to give the train a couple of choices to make on its trip around and around the loop of track. A few more turnouts created sidings to park another new engine and several more new cars. We were model railroading!

The Plywood Central was a lot of fun. The kids loved running the trains, setting up the buildings, and moving around a growing number of scale model cars, pedestrians, farm animals and woodland creatures. It is quite surprising how much HO train track and how many different track configurations you can create in a 4x8 space. As the mood hit me or if I wanted to send the trains in another direction, I pulled up track and moved it around. Single loop, double loop, crossovers and passing sidings—the trackwork on the layout changed several times.

ATJ Machinery is one of the scratch built structures on my small railroad

ATJ Machinery is one of the scratch built structures on my small railroad

Building a Model Railroad Layout

A new room addition—including a new basement extension—opened up a new and bigger opportunity for a model railroad. All of the fiddling with the track plans on the Plywood Central taught me what I liked about running trains and just as importantly, what I didn't like. I drew up a track plan on shelves that wrapped along the walls and all of the way around the room. Two loops of mainline track provided lots of room to run trains, with two trains running simultaneously on the parallel loops. A removable bridge spans the doorway while the trains are running. When it's not needed, the bridge is taken down and stored.

The width of the layout shelf varies in different locations around the room. Along one wall where the track sneaks out of sight behind some cabinets, the shelf is barely 5" wide with just enough room for two parallel tracks. In other areas, the shelf widens out for buildings and scenery, sidings and passing tracks, and a small staging yard for extra cars.

GP9 #7002 slowly passes the grade crossing into town.

GP9 #7002 slowly passes the grade crossing into town.

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The primary design goal centered around running two trains simultaneously. The scenery is basic and simple by most model railroader's standards, but it looks good and it's complete all of the way around. There's a small town with a station where the mainline branches off.

Beyond the Main Street and across the ally, several industrial buildings line the track spurs. I salvaged a few of the pieces from my original childhood train set, Replacing wheels, trucks and couplers to give new life to a few of the old broken boxcars. A little glue and fresh paint, and some of the relic buildings fit in among the newer kits and scratch-built model buildings.

The railroad runs well and looks good. I enjoy running and watching the trains, and it brings a smile to see the old cars back on the track and on the move. I think my grandfather is smiling too.

LDA Gravel Co. is the largest customer on the layout.

LDA Gravel Co. is the largest customer on the layout.

The largest industry on my new model railroad is the sand and gravel company, tucked into a corner and between two large hills that provide the raw materials to the gravel processing plant. Low gondola cars and larger drop-bottom hoppers are filled with gravel and sand, then picked up by a passing freight train for delivery to some far off customer. Empty cars are dropped back off on the return trip, ready to be filled again.

The LDA Sand & Gravel processing plant was built from a plastic kit. After a little paint, buildings and conveyors were tucked into the inside corner of the layout. Small buildings, dump trucks, construction equipment and other little details were added to complete the scene. The result is a unique building that was built from an inexpensive kit.

A Pennsy caboose disappears into a tunnel. The large mountain was easy to make from foam board.

A Pennsy caboose disappears into a tunnel. The large mountain was easy to make from foam board.

How to Build Realistic Model Railroad Scenery

Designing and creating scenery is one of the most enjoyable aspects of model railroading. Some modelers strive to recreate actual locations in miniature (either past or present) while other just like to make nice looking scenes. The scenery on my railroad is set in the late 1950s or early 1960s to capture the flavor of a small farming community. Railroad traffic serving this small community is starting to decline as trucks and highways begin to move more raw materials and finished goods to more customers faster and cheaper and with more flexibility than the railroads. Passenger traffic is also down at the railroad depot as more travelers take to the road in their own cars.

Designing and building the scenery is really quite easy and a lot of fun. I used a mixture of commercial products including ground foam in several colors along with small twigs and tiny stones to create the natural scenes. The scenery formula comes straight from Dave Frary's book How to Build Realistic Model Railroad Scenery: cover an area with inexpensive latex paint in a natural color and while the paint is wet, sprinkle on a layer of coarse ground foam. After the paint dries, sprinkle on additional layers of finer ground colored foam, held in place with diluted white glue. The results look good and the possibilities for creating realistic scenery is limited only by your imagination.

Like most model railroads, mine is not complete and there is always more details that I can add as time and inspiration allows.

Take a Ride on the World's Largest HO Model Railroad!

Questions & Answers

Question: How wide is your table to be able to run two train routes side by side?

Answer: My layout is built as a shelf layout. At its narrowest point, the shelf is just 7" wide. This gives me enough room for the two-track mainline along with a little bit of scenery on either side of the track.

Question: Is it safe to run DCC and DC locomotives together?

Answer: While it is possible to run a DC and DDC decoder equipped locomotive together at the same time on the same DC powered track, it is not advisable. The decoder will not work since it isn't receiving any DCC signaling. However, it is not advisable to run a DC loco on a DCC powered track because the engine motor may be damaged from overheating.

© 2012 Anthony Altorenna

Tell us about our model train layout:

Jim Romandy on January 05, 2020:

My entire upstairs room is "Milwaukee Road Lines West Electrified". Since 1975 my avocation was to accomplish the goals and true railroad dream of the once desired success of this famous route.

Unfortunately, as real history took a turn to the demise of the Electrified Line, those hopes never materialized in the real world.

Oh, but I did make it happen. 30 years ago I continued the dream of a CTC ( Centralized Traffic Control ) Lines West. From first to a 3rd generation of computer control ( Processing -3 ), I've incorporated touch screen applications to interlocking & switch control., along with digital throttlepacks. (Note: no Dcc controls added to the antique locomotives.)

If you grow with the hobby, no matter what aspect you approach, the success will return utmost personal rewards. I can attest to that, for the one recent winter season that a box of brass was on the kitchen table and had built the E82 Steeple Cab Milwaukee Road.

Wish fullfilment~

J.D.Romandy /

Systems Signal Designer


Christine and Peter Broster from Tywyn Wales UK on October 27, 2019:

A man after my own heart. My layout is an English variation on your railroad but otherwise very similar. I love my model railway and enjoyed reading about the railroad that you have made.


bohica96 on August 18, 2012:

Beautiful lens. I miss the model trains of my youth.

wondering-tharpe on August 18, 2012:

if you ever want to give away a collection i will gladly take it as I love trains and have passed that love on to all my grandchildren. I have always longed to have a model train set up but lack of funds has stopped that. I thank you for the wonderful lens and i have been to the setups in Dallas area. Nice to see Plano included in your lense.

sentanta lm on August 17, 2012:

i don't have a layout - but maybe for my boys during the holidays

vecchios-sicilian on August 15, 2012:

I have a set of Pre War Lionels, HUGH tin with seats inside the cars. I need to get them apraised. Nice lens.

deckdesign on August 14, 2012:

Thanks for putting together all of the photos and information. I had a model train when I was a kid and this brought back a lot of good memories.

William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on August 13, 2012:

Love it. I have a 50+ year old O gauge Lionel train set - get it out for the grandkids from time to time... super memories! ;-) Thanks for the reminders! ;-)

xriotdotbiz lm on August 13, 2012:

Loved my Lionel as a child!

allenwebstarme on August 13, 2012:

What an excellent crafty work done by you guys so impressive, video are amazing.

JoshK47 on August 13, 2012:

I was always fascinated by model trains when I was a kid. Even today, I'm impressed by the intricate work some people put into their tiny towns. :)

nicks44 on August 13, 2012:

I am not an expert, although my parents work at the railroad company, but I always liked watching these mini-trains in action! Just simply amazing!

suzy-t on August 13, 2012:

This brings back lots of memories. I grew up with four brothers and they built a nice layout in the basement...Congrats on the purple star and home page. Well deserved. Blessed...

Deadicated LM on August 12, 2012:

Congratulations on being on the Featured Page, I love this Lens; there's an art to model trains; where I live in the Bronx the Botanical Gardens has a famous Holiday Train Show which features famous New York buildings made of Natural Materials.

robertzimmerman2 on August 12, 2012:

I want to do N Gauge but I do not have the time, money or space. At least I got to see it here!

pawpaw911 on August 12, 2012:

Very cool set up. I too had a train set as a boy. On the first morning, I think my dad played with it more than I did.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on August 09, 2012:

I think that trains have a funny way of getting deep into your heart. I grew up listening to trains whistling past our house and in my new community I also can hear them when it is a quiet night. You brought back a lot of memories with your images of the train sets and layouts.

anonymous on July 24, 2012:

Enviable work... Would love to build model rail roads, but I am too lazy for that! I do enjoy looking at nice works created by others! :)

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