Five BIG Layout Mistakes...that made me destroy my train layout!

The train room is quiet now: No scenery, no track, no buildings...no trains.  As many of you know, the plan to start over has been on my mind for quite some time.   I've shared a few of the reasons why I was increasingly unhappy with Quinntopia (version 4 being the 'nail in the coffin' so to speak).  The short answer is that I was greedy...I expanded a lot faster than I should have, took short cuts that I should not have taken and tried to do too much.

To be honest, a lot of it worked out okay, and as I look at some of the photos now of the former layout, I do go....'wait...why did I tear it down?'!  However, in order to ensure that the record is clear, I decided to simply put out the four main mistakes or decisions that I made that ultimately (and maybe in conjunction with others) led to me being less and less dissastisfied with the layout.  I will start with number four and work through the the number one reason I had to change the layout:

# 5 --- NUMBER FIVE --- #5

When I put in my tram line back in 2009/2010, Kato's Unitram system was not yet released or available.  I used the tight radius tracks from Tomix (which are fine) and I also used a plastic material for streets ( called 'sintra', the reason was to avoid the common challenge of plaster around the track). Unfortunately, the track needed constant cleaning so that the very light weight tram's could run on the track.  In addition, cleaning this track was difficult because....
....there was a ton of detail on the streets! 
Yes, the cars can be easily moved, but the street lights? Under constant threat of GIANT hand with a track cleaner wiping out a $10-$15 street light? What a pain!  Yeah, I agree, it looks nice, but operations were bad and maintenance was a nightmare.  I think Unitram will solve some of these issues, and next time (if there is a next time!) I probably won't run tram lines where its hard to clean!

# 4 --- NUMBER FOUR --- #4

It's not so much that I had too much track/not enough scenery, its more a result of the fact that my layout was basically one addition after another (Quinntopia version 4 was added on to version 3, which was added on from version 2, etc... you get the picture).   This is not the worst thing necessarily, but it did ultimately mean that my track plan resembled the 'light cycles' game from Tron - but with Unitrack!
So I had a nice long 'main line' but my two other lines were sort of confined within the outside line. Maybe not the worst thing, but everything was pretty much single track.  Hello? I'm modeling TGV's and Shinkansen's and I have single track lines?

# 3 ---- NUMBER THREE ---- #3

Yeah, the terminal looked great.  But as far as how easy/practical/convenient/fun it was to move trains in and out of this terminal?  Not fun.  They went through a maze of switches on basically a long curve and I would have a derailment or power loss each time.
Again, it looks great! But getting trains in/out of that terminal was a pain! I think if I had chosen different switches (I still think the Minitrix R4 Polarized-frog switches I used for the 'throat' aren't too bad, but I won't be using them next time) I might have had different results.  I think a complicating factor is that all the tracks sheer off the right in the below photo - creating what is in effect a lot of turnouts on a large curve.  Bad news.
# 2 ---- NUMBER TWO ---- #2

Below is the ugly interior of my control panel. It looked nice from the outside and (believe it or not) it did work well enough! But I hated the mess! I avoided showing much of the wiring mess in any of the photos I ever posted, so the below is sort of a secret of the spaghetti of wiring that I had set up. Honestly, it was just depressing.

# 1  ---- NUMBER ONE ---- #1

The below schematic shows the expansion I call 'Quinntopia Version 4' in Yellow.  While this yellow expansion section allowed me to have a nice long-running main line, a huge terminal with storage space for long TGV's and Shinkansen (yeah...see above!) it also took something away: Room for people.
Now, I'm not entirely an idiot...I did try to ensure that the areaa between the yellow expansion area and the older 'green' layout section had a good 30" of walking space.  This area was the best spot to observe the layout - you would be surrounded on three sides by the layout when you were in this little U-shaped spot.  But it felt claustrophobic.  Only one person could ever really be there at any one time.  You could watch the layout from other spots, but they are even more 'tight' or from an 'end' angle that doesn't show as much.  

I just did not like the 'feel' much when I went into my train room.  It felt 'crowded'.

It took a while, but I realized I missed my smaller layout (see below for the original size)- but it was far more 'comfortable' in the sense that there was plenty of room to watch and wander around. 
So I think keeping the 'human element' (a "Feng Shui' of train layouts?) is important.  My next layout will be smaller but I think (and hope) I'll enjoy it more because you won't feel so over-whelmed by it.

So that's it!  Like I said, most of this is about going too big, too fast.  I don't regret it as it gives me new ideas and (I hope) smarter ideas on how to make the next version much more enjoyable and easier to maintain!


  1. The top picture could be the start of a Detroit layout.

  2. Hah! Yes, it does (or did!)! I actually have thought about modeling a post-apocalyptic urban landscape like Walking Dead or Escape from New York or....Detroit!

  3. I love the fact that you are listing all these. Seriously, most things you seem read about layouts usually is "I spent 10 years working on it, planned it from the start, everything went fine".

    However, at the risk of repeating myself: there is no mistake number 2.
    Switches don't require wiring, or really only up to the DCC switch decoder, usually a few inches away.
    Maybe you don't like switching areas, that's fine....but are you sure you didn't under evaluate the fun just because you went all 1980's on yourself ? ;-)

  4. Pierre - you are quite right! In fact, as you point out, my knowledge of electricity (at least as far as switches go) is totally based on 1980's technology! I will definitely reduce the number of switches (and ensure none on are on any type of curve or be part of a longer arc)next time and either just stick with manual throw or look into the DCC/servo style options that you refer to! Thanks for the correction/reminder!

  5. Thanks for sharing the mistakes so that others could learn from you and not repeat the same.

    Probably some suggestions for you, starting with:
    No. 5: if I were to do a tram or light rail line, I would make it static. Just like all the vehicles on the road, the tram would be part of static street scene.

    No. 4: tie to No. 1, you could plan for a full layout but build in parts. I have conceptualised my layout as how I would like it to look and operate but to spend time to build part by part (module by module)

    No. 3: dead-end terminal (Kopfbahnhof) is common in Germany and most part of Europe. In fact that was the best part of your layout (besides the skyscrapers of course) together with the Berlin Hbf-style building. I hope you have that in your next layout but with neo-classical building.

    The station throat is definitely a challenge even in real-life. I salute the people at the CTC controlling the trains in and out of that throat.

    I think you have 2-3 tracks going in and out of the station; thus, creating a bottleneck. You could use double slip (more expensive) turnout but this would reduce the no. of turnouts and space.

    No. 2: per Pierre's advice. I will send out a link on how to make the wiring neater :D

    I would bought lots of terminal blocks, which I will use to link track and accessory busses and from which the track and accessory feeders will tap the power from. I hope this method will simplify my wiring and most important allow me to troubleshoot in the event of a short circuit or no power.

    No. 1: for N-scale I find 30-50 wide bring lots of space for modelling plus you could easily reach the other side. The other option is to have double decker where the bottom level serves as staging yard or round-around track.

  6. Jerry,

    Re: points 1-4, when you build your next layout, you should really consider what you want the trains to be doing and how that would look in real life. I.e. do you want to model passenger traffic from A to B to C, etc., or you do want an excerpt of a busy main line (perhaps with a station or two along the way), where a wide variety of trains move through (from an underground depot that represents the rest of the world). When I look at your old layout from a purely operational perspective, I see a lot of loops that could get a bit boring after a while, as well as a lot of switches that don't necessarily have an operational justification. On the other hand some other elements of the layout were missing essential components found IRL. E.g., a terminus should have some storage tracks where you can park trains and locos that are not being used. The shunting of coaches and switching of locomotives really is what makes a terminus fun, operationally speaking.

    Re: No.5: did you consider the Tomix track cleaning car/vacuum?

  7. LUX Modellbau has two products for N-scale - track vacuum cleaner wagon (http://www.lux-modellbau.de/pdf_de/N_Staub.pdf) and track sander wagon (http://www.lux-modellbau.de/pdf_de/N_SchlW.pdf)

  8. Thanks for all the great ideas! I'll try and cover most of them...

    Tram line - static like cars: yes, but if i do a tram line I would probably use Kato unitram, or ....no tram line at all and see if I can animate the cars themselves with the Faller kit or the Tomix one....

    A module based approach: Yes, I am going to do something like this - probably not as nice as yours, but along those lines!

    Terminal station - I agree it was an impressive feature - it is now in the hands of someone else though! My next station will be more along the lines of the Hamburg or real Berlin style where the trains go all the way through! :-)

    Switches and wires - the one thing I am interested in, but not sure if I have the patience or skill to create, is an 'automated' computer-controlled DCC layout. Fewer switches, but those switches have a more useful purpose than just for storage!

    Vision for the future: What I am interested in next is somewhat seen in my first layout. One of the most interesting parts to me was where I had two tracks running through a 'trench' in the midst of the city....this sort of congested / urban environment with all these tracks winding around/through it is something I want. When I watch European or Japanese videos of high speed trains approaching stations in major cities, this is the look/feel I want. Lots of track, buildings, and gritty urban graffiti. I am even considering a 'tree free' layout as a concept, but will probably compromise!
    As I mentioned, my old layout was several concentric circles of single track lines.

    Tomix cleaning car: Yep! Have one and use it! I found you still need to manually clean a lot of frogs/points that the Tomix cleaning discs don't touch though, but its a great tool!

    Whew! I know there are some more questions I did not respond to, but I think I covered most!

  9. One of my big disappointments with my current layout is your #4. Despite the best intentions, I painted myself into the same corner due to wanting to do more than my space really supported.

    I've been thinking about a new layout, in part because of that, but in reading your post, I realized that the plans I had running through my head were likely to run afoul of your #1 problem: too much table, too little aisle.

    Darn, time for more thought. Very useful post. Thanks.

  10. Tram line: there are limited choices of trams in N-scale esp. when you want a more modern looking tram. Besides Kato, I found this German company producing a modern N-scale tram (http://www.hoedl-linie8.de/index.php?seite=produktauswahl&kategorie=3) You might want to consider.

    The other alternative is to source from Shapeways, if any modellers make 3D print of body shells.

    Through station: Minitrix has that expensive Hamburg station model. Berlin Hbf elevated tracks would be nice addition on your new layout. Plus, it has undergroud tracks too. Thus, you could model double tracks entering a congested city/suburb via city tunnel/trench and arriving at your Berliner Hbf underground platforms and departing else from there.

    On my germaN160 layout, I will have an S-Bahn underground station below the main railway station. The underground station will be modelled after one of the new Leipzig City Tunnel stations.

    Cleaning car: Besides Tomix, LUX (my post 6/23/14, 12:58 PM) has a vacuum cleaner and a track sander/grinder car. The sander/grinder car would be interested to remove dirt from rail head and the vacuum cleaner car picks up the bits - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqNA5tvTU7g

  11. I found a better video of the sander/grinder and vacuum cleaner cars in N-scale https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHpWVGRtXWk

  12. Takling if track cleaners, I just posted a review of 2 of them on DigiTrainWorld: http://www.digitrainworld.com/2014/06/lux-modellbau-tomix-n-track-cleaning-car/
    Suffice to say, the Tomix is not my favorite.

    Jerry, as for an automated layout, you'll find many people out there willing to give you ideas or tips (including myself). Just remember that you don't need to reduce the number of switches if you've got a computer. In fact, quite the opposite: more switches = more possibilities, all handled by the computer anyway.
    As for "automated" traffic, just remember it's not a black or white choice. Any good software out there will be 100% at your service, but only if you want it. I like the idea, for example, of having the computer handling a "background traffic" (like shuttles or schedules) to keep the layout alive; while myself driving some trains manually (with a throttle on my iPhone or iPad) or half-manually (tell the computer to drive the train from A to B).

    There are worlds of possibilities, and just remember: with a full DCC layout and a good software, you can always go back to manual anytime. The opposite isn't true, you've seen this... Happy planning!

  13. I hope not to finish mine ever, probably I will take your same decision and destroy it to make a better one after the experience shows the DOs and DONTs.
    Next one will be even more impressive for sure!!!!

  14. Jerry! Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!

    I can only speak for myself, but you have been a genuine inspiration. Your buildings are spectacularly designed and detailed. Your layout was impressive, beautiful, and well executed.

    Since I am neither a prototyper or long term builder, given that my layouts only last a year (usually, the current one is exceeding a year probably because I haven't finished it yet), I can only imagine the effort that was required to create Quinntopia. But certainly there must have been overwhelming joy despite some painful moments of frustration or complexity.

    It is heartwarming to read that you do intend to continue with your modeling efforts and will certainly be checking in periodically.

    All the best!

  15. Thanks Richard for the kind words! I am stilling thinking about what I really want from my next layout. I realized its an interesting problem in my case as I have so many cool buildings and stuff that I want to re-use, and yet I want something a bit different? Of course, its nothing a super-large basement or 'train room' couldn't fix, but that is not something in the cards for me (or most of us), so the mental process of priorities versus compromises continues! Thanks for your kind words!

  16. Oh, one more:

    I never use my roundhouse/turntable. It's just not reliable enough. It looks pretty but given what I know now I'd rather have my $400 back. Overall, I think my layout succeeds where it endeavours to be rural and it gives the track space. Where it's too dense, too packed with yards and switches and sidings it's least reliable, least attractive, and in practice, least functional.

  17. Wow, now I can think of nothing but my mistakes!

    Tunnels are trouble. Derailments happen, and eventually they happen in your tunnel. Also, try cleaning the rails in there...

    Under table runs are even worse. When I first started I had switches under the table to form a hidden staging yard! A great idea on paper, a terrible one in practice. Murphy's law knows no mercy. You know how handy a yard you can't see or reach is?.... Yep.

  18. Jaggy, those are GREAT examples of awesome layout ideas....that lead to massive headaches! I have contemplated long tunnels, hidden staging yards and all that stuff...fortunately I had enough mistakes to fix that I never had time to get any more great ideas!