A Railroad with Relevance

Layout Design Process

Written By: Alan - Jan• 24•11

After a year of doddlin’ and noodlin’ I have arrived at what I believe to be the final track plan for the LK&O. See it here.

What seemed so simple at the onset turned out to be an utterly complex problem solving exercise. And a tremendous learning adventure as well. Layout a track plan. Sounds so simple doesn’t it? I thought so too. And so I began. You don’t know what you don’t know was clearly in effect. But the learning came fast. Too fast to absorb at times. Armed with Adobe Illustrator for drawing and the Internet for reference I scratched out the earliest designs. Following a popular book by MRR legend John Armstrong “Track Planning for Realistic Operation” the most basic form was a loop of track. That was stretched into a dog bone shape. Next, the dog bone was folded over itself. Twist this shape around the walls of the room, add a few sidings for industry, and presto, a track plan.Wrong!

John Armstrong’s book is a wealth of solid design information but, as I found out, there is more to it. True the trains would operate on my earliest track plans but did they really address the real reason the LK&O is being built? Did the track plans convey the sense of being at the actual locations? Would the track plans provide for interesting and realistic operation? The answer was no, not well. The plans may have been technically correct per Mr. Armstrong’s book but they didn’t wow me with the sense of being there. Plus, the comments received from the model railroad forums suggested much work was left to be done. A new approach was called for.

There are 3 major vignettes on the LK&O – Brittain Yard, Lapeer at Saginaw St., and Kitzmiller. Instead of thinking about a cohesive whole I instead focused on each of the primary locations in isolation. Task number one – determine the LDE’s (Layout Design Elements) of each scene.

Brittain Yard:

  1. Curved yard tracks
  2. Yard throat general shape and appearance
  3. Turntable, roundhouse, diesel service structures and their relative position to each other
  4. AC&Y Spur 4 (only spur from the yard on the prototype)


  1. Track configuration
  2. Lapeer Grain
  3. Mainline passing siding
  4. Saginaw street crossing the tracks


  1. The Potomac river
  2. Tracks following the river
  3. Roads and buildings in Kitzmiller
  4. The mountain

One by one I made countless individual drawings of each location until I was satisfied I had captured the essence of each and the LDE’s were reasonably faithful to the originals. At least faithful enough to be recognizable on the layout. Next, I placed each individual arrangement one at a time on my proposed bench-work moving it around from spot to spot until I found the areas where it fit well. Once I had identified the possible locations for each I then began trying the various combinations of the three vignettes on the bench-work. Eventually, I settled in on the combination that best fit the Druthers and looked like a workable track plan could be formulated. The whole adventure felt like solving a Rubik’s cube puzzle. Breaking it down into individual locations instead of trying to work with the whole from the onset made the process much more manageable. It was quite the enjoyable mental exercise.

The second major change in approach was to abandon Illustrator in favor of actual track plan software – XTrack CAD. This change greatly simplified getting the track components’ configurations right. With a click of the mouse I could do what previously had taken 20 minutes to do in Illustrator because the track geometry was automatic in XTrack. It was relatively straightforward from this point to arrange track through each vignette connecting all into a cohesive model railroad. A few grade calculations, radius adjustments, and siding length checks led me to the final design. Just as a double check I have employed the services of a professional layout designer – Byron Henderson of LayoutVision. For a small fee Byron will review my plan for flaws and comment before I begin construction. The review is scheduled for 07 Feb. Following that the bench-work construction will begin. I can’t wait!


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  1. Steve Green says:

    How did you import the illustrator plan into Xtrack? I have a complete room size layout in an old CAD program and would like to put it in Xtrack to clean up with actual, defined components.

  2. alan says:

    I did not import the Illustrator files into Xtrack. I manually recreated them in Xtrack.

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