How to start a model railway - all you need to know
1) Choose the right scaleThe first step in starting model train layouts is choosing the right scale.
2) Plan your layout
You have to decide whether to model a real railway or to create your own imaginary railway world. Trying to recreate a real-life railway is very difficult and requires a lot of detailed planning.
If you are new to modelling then it is probably best to start with an imaginary world, which will give you more freedom in your design.
Choosing the time period for your model railways
Pre-war railways were often luxurious, with beautiful stations and locomotives. The big four railway companies in the UK were:
- The Great Western Railway - GWR
- The London Midland and Scottish Railway - LMS
- The London North Eastern Railway - LNER
- The Southern Railway - SR
British Railways Era
Modelling the British Rail era can be a lot of fun, but it's important to get the details right if you want your model railway to look realistic. Here are some tips on how to do that:
- Choose the right locomotive liveries for your chosen period
- BR Green
- BR Blue with a large Logo
- Choose the correct rolling stock
- Mk1 coaches prior to 1964
- Mk2 Coaches until withdrawal from 1975
- Mk3 coaches were built from 1975 to 1988
- British rail during the 1950s and 60s were often grimy compared to the pre-war period
Today with the advent of privatised rail transport in the UK you have fleets of modern multiple units in an array of liveries, together with refurbished and re-liveried BR era Diesel's hauling freight.
With rail touring companies also operating steam-hauled excursions your model layout can still feature mainline steam and Mk2 1/2 coaches as long as the locomotive still survives.
Modelling preserved lines allows virtually any combination and PECO have produced this excellent guide to modelling heritage railways.
The size and shape of your baseboard
When it comes to model train sets, the size of the baseboard is one of the most important decisions you'll make. The wrong size can hamper your ability to create the layout you want, while the right size will give you plenty of flexibility. So how do you choose the right size?
There are a few things to consider:
- the amount of space you have available
- the scale you have decided to work in
- whether you want an 'end to end layout' or a continuous circuit
- how are you going to access the track to clean and maintain it
- what is the minimum radius of the curves in your scale?
- what happens if you move? will you take the railway with you?
Once you've decided on the size of your baseboard, you can start planning the layout itself.
A track plan is a drawing that shows the layout of your railway, and it's an essential part of planning a new layout. It doesn't have to be complicated - a simple sketch will do. But it should include all the elements you want to include in your layout, such as:
- the position of the tracks
- the location of points
- the location of the controller
- basic buildings, platforms, and yards.
Tracking plan books remain popular, such as the PECO track plans book, and software for planning model layouts is also available.
There are a number of websites available, including
If like me you find it easier to plan with real bits of track you can get templates of track from PECO and I personally build the baseboard before I order any track.
3) Building the Baseboard
Building a baseboard is not as hard as it may seem. In fact, with a little planning and preparation, you can have your model railways baseboard ready in no time at all.
From your planning stage, you already know the finished size and shape you want to end up with.
I strongly suggest that you build the finished board from sections no bigger than 1200mm x 600mm - this size of timber sheet is widely available and easily transportable.
Here are the steps you need to take:
- Choose your timber (MDF sheet 12mm thick, Plywood 12mm thick, batons 18mm x 25mm)
- Gather your tools such as a cordless drill, wood clamps, PVA, wood screws, drills, screwdriver bits, saws
- Cut the sheet material to size if required, then cut batons to suit
- Glue and clamp the batons in place, they should form a simple ladder or H shape - caution - try not to put a stretcher-bar where you might need a point motor
- Once the glue is dry drill a pilot hole from the top, then screw the sheet to the batons
- Drill the long edge batons so that they can be screwed to the stretcher bars.
- On a flat surface lay the sections board side down, clamping them in place. Then drill accurate holes for snugly fitting nuts and bolts that will hold the sections in place.
To support the boards you can make your own legs, use shelf brackets, or do what I do and use commercial breakfast bar legs that screw into metal brackets.
4) Collect the necessary supplies and track to build a model railway
You will need the following:
- Track - either fixed rigid sections of track or lengths of flexible track
- Rail joiners - insulated and nickel silver)
- Points (sometimes called turnouts or switches)
- Point Motors, Point power supply, point switches (unless you intend to set the route manually for all your trains)
- Track pins
- Electrical hookup wire
- Track power connectors (or a good quality soldering iron and solder)
- Small hand drill and pilot drill for pins
- Razor saw for cutting flexible track
- Hole saws
- 3mm drill
5) Assemble the track
Now you have the track, materials and tools to hand it is time to start physically building your first layout.
Wiring of your model layout can be complex and a full guide is the subject of another article, however, for the purposes of testing our new track here are a few helpful tips:
- For loops that join back on themselves, you will need to isolate both ends of the loop where they join the wide end of the point.
- crossovers should be left "straight-through"
- Passing loops should have both points set for the loop or both points set for the mainline
- Power fed through points to branch lines or loops is normally connected at the "toe" or narrow end of a point. This can be from the preceding length of the track.
When joining pieces of the track keep both bits flat and make sure the rail joiners grip the rail rather than slide under it.
Start laying track one section at a time, starting with the bits that have to be accurately positioned such as points, junctions and crossovers.
Note - We have a link to our article all about model railway points at the end of this article
If you are using the rigid track you may find it helpful to lay out all the pieces before fixing them down. This will allow you to check everything will fit the available space.
Lay the straight sections out on the baseboard and use a pencil to mark where you need to make any cuts. Cut the track with a fine-toothed saw, such as a razor saw.
Using a hacksaw or Dremel to cut the track will leave the rails with burrs that will need filing before you can fit the rail joiners.
When using a length of flexible track you might find it easier to connect one end to the preceding track and secure one end of the flexible track with a single track pin. Then gently flex the track to the desired shape and fix it where necessary to retain its position.
It is normal for the rails to be unequal lengths at one end, these must be trimmed level before laying the next piece of track.
Once you have laid your track you can test it with temporary wiring to each section from a controller and a simple loco.
The maximum recommended gradient is 1 in 33, always test gradients before finally fixing down the track.
Do not glue any track down or ballast any track until you are sure that each point works and you have tested the complete layout.
5) How to control your model railways trains
The choice of train control seems to be a much more complex affair now than in the past – especially since digital control is now mainstream.
If you prefer the straightforward use of a variable voltage to control the speed, switches to change direction and electrics you can check with a simple lamp or meter then analogue control is best for you.
If you want to take advantage of train sound effects, directional lighting, control multiple locos on the same track, or even use computer control, then the DCC systems are the way to go.
However, when first testing your model railway with freshly laid track a simple DC controller with a DC locomotive is my first choice.
You really must run your layout using your chosen controller until you are confident everything works as expected before ballasting and adding scenery.
Analogue control uses a variable voltage between 0v (stopped) and 12v (full speed), and reversing the polarity of the track connection reverses the direction the train travels in.
The DCC System varies between simple and complex. DCC controls are now available as handheld controllers or as apps on smartphones and tablets.
Many modellers were initially reluctant to attempt DCC but decided to go ahead and now will not consider returning to analogue control.
The ability to control multiple trains, uninterrupted lighting and sound are only a few of the benefits of DCC operation.
For anyone starting the hobby afresh today then DCC makes the most sense to future proof your investment.
Adding scenery to your model railway is a great way to further immerse yourself in the hobby, and can also be a lot of fun.
When choosing scenery, it's important to
- keep the scale of your trains and layout in mind
- choose scenery that complements the era and theme of your railway
- make sure the scenery is durable and easy to work with
Once you've chosen the right scenery for your model railway, you can start adding it to your layout.
The best way to do this is to build up the landscape with layers of foam board or card and then cover the landscape with two or three layers of plaster cloth.
Paint and decorate the scenery to your liking, you can also use new developments such as static grass. Add trees, bushes, and other plants to add extra height and variation to the model countryside.
Add railway buildings, signals, other buildings, people, and animals
You might recall building a Plastic Airfix kit or Card Super Quick kit as a child.
Currently, the choice of available buildings has increased dramatically.
Some manufacturers now offer finished buildings and structures constructed from resin. The ready-for-use building is nicely detailed and pre-painted.
8) Adding extra trains and accessories
Once you have completed the baseboards, laid the track, tested your controllers, and added your scenery and buildings you are ready to enjoy your layout.
One of the great things about this hobby is that layouts can be as simple or complex as you want them to be.
If you’re just starting out with your first model train, it’s a good idea to keep things simple and add locomotives and rolling stock gradually as your budget allows.
However, if you have more experience in the hobby, you might want to add extra accessories such as working lights to your models, sounds, and detailed parts to your trains and buildings.
We hope that this information has clarified some of the confusion surrounding building your first model railway layout.
Model railway building is a great hobby which can last a lifetime. Getting the detail right can be time consuming, take your time and use the right tools.
If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to help you get started.