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Choosing a Prototype and Plan - Denver and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge

An Introduction to the About.com Project Layout


DRGW excursion

An excursion train filled with railfans crosses one of the many steel trestles on the Rio Grande narrow gauge. The combination of scenery and equipment is a natural for modeling.

Thomas T. Taber III collection, Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, PHMC used with permission

Deciding on a prototype and track plan can be one of the most difficult choices you'll make when starting a model railroad. The good news is that there are no universal right or wrong answers. Build what works for you. The bad news is that there are no universal right or wrong answers. The decision is yours alone.

If you're having trouble deciding, perhaps the thought process that led to the project layout for About.com will help guide your thinking. You could build this railroad exactly as you see it, but chances are you won't. Your answers to these guiding questions may be very different. As long as the railroad you end up with is one you want, it will be a success.

A Little Background

Soon after signing on with About.com for this webpage, I knew I wanted to build a project model railroad from start to finish for the site. Why? Despite having a large layout already in progress at home that can and does provide lots of inspiration and writing material, my home layout is not exactly what you would call a starter set.

Not only is a project of that size intimidating, it does not progress quickly. I figure it will take lifetime to complete (as most model railroads do.) If you're looking for advice, you probaby don't want to wait that long.

Besides, my model railroad is just that...my model railroad. By using that as the basis for all of my advice here, I could easily lead you to think that my way is the best or only way. Certainly not. So the site needed something of its own...although admittedly as its builder a large amount of me will show through in here as well.

Lastly, while this may seem crazy, I needed a break from my own model railroad to try something new. Taking a break from model trains by building a model train layout? Hey, its no more strange than working on your first model railroad to get away from the stress of a job at a railroad museum. In other words, I'm building this because I want to, not just for the web.

So while I may have some goals and constraints that won't apply to you, this project layout is not unlike any that you may be starting in your own home.

Primary Goals

Before getting started, here is a quick list of the primary goals for this layout. Having this list not only helped me choose a prototype and scale, it keeps me on track during construction when other temptations come along.

  1. Keep It Simple. This layout needs to go together quickly and cheaply for a variety of reasons. It should represent an achievable layout, but not sacrifice quality.
  2. Portable. This layout will probably find itself traveling to shows and conventions to help promote the hobby and the website. It needs to fit in the back of a standard pick up truck and be light enough to move by myself or with the help of one friend if necessary.
  3. Continuous Running. Since it will be a display piece, continuous running trumps complex operations on this layout.
  4. Character. Simple doesn't mean boring. I want a project that will grab your attention and make you want to follow along.
  5. Photography. Since the layout will be featured a lot on the site, good photo angles and images are important.
  6. Something New. To keep my enthusiasm high, and to put myself in the right mindset to write, this layout needs to be something completely different from anything I've done before. In other words, this is a beginner's layout by a "beginner."

Setting the Parameters

With my mindset in place, let's take a look at what I felt were the working parameters for this layout. These are among the first questions you'll want to answer when starting your own design.


My initial plan was use a standard interior door as the footprint for the layout. Many articles have been written on using doors as a starting point for a train table. While that wouldn't work for my particular needs, at least I could keep the dimensions...roughly 36 inches by 84 inches.

As plans progressed however, that goal of compact size began to get in the way of another primary goal, photography. Specifically, the trains I intended to use might negotiate the curves required, but they wouldn't look good doing it. You can build this railroad in 3 feet by 7 feet, but i chose to take advantage of a little extra space and go to another standard: 4 feet by 8 feet.

Track Plan

With public display and simple construction in mind, the track plan needed to be simple and offer continuous running. It doesn't get much more basic than an oval. By using flex track and adding some additional curves to fit the scenic contours, the oval can have more than enough character. The track will also be level, although scenery above and below the right-of-way will give the impression of grades. A single spur on one side will provide some interest and maybe even some limited operation.

Control System

Even though the track plan is simple and the railroad will only run one train at time, a DCC control system is a must. Why? If this railroad ever were to expand, the capacity would be there. More immediately, DCC will take full advantage of sound and other effects. Finally, it will serve as a good platform for DCC discussions for the website.

Scale and Gauge

I've built railroads in just about any scale imaginable, but still wanted to try something new. I've always wanted to try narrow gauge, why not now?

Narrow gauge, specifically HOn3, would satisfy all of the primary requirements for size, novelty, and espescially character. Small trains behind steam locomotives winding their way through mountains and gorges would be just the break from a 1990's heavy eastern mainline that I need and hopefully the inspiration you're looking for. For more on the prototype, read on.

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