Does your railway track lie flat on its landscape? If you answered yes, your model railway is wrong.
Okay, let’s clarify that.
The track, of course, should be as level as possible but this doesn’t mean the surrounding landscape should also be flat.
Landscapes aren’t flat and if you follow any railway line for even a short distance you’ll quickly notice that the railway cuts through hills or is raised up on embankments, which I’ve written about here, to keep the track level as the surrounding landscape rises and falls.
So while your model railway track lies flat it’ll look artificial if the ground on which it sits is also flat.
What’s needed is to make the ground under and around the track rise and fall running through cuttings and embankments to make it look just like real railways even though it’s actually sitting on a flat surface of your baseboard.
I wrote in depth about embankments on the previous link so for now let’s see how to make cuttings in 5 easy steps.
1) Lay The Track
Place the track on the baseboard according to your track plan and secure it down (pins or PVA). I won’t dwell on this as I’ve covered track laying before, suffice to say, normal rules apply and don’t ballast yet.
2) Create The Hills
Cuttings are gaps cut into low-lying hills through which the trains can pass so the next step is to make some hills either side of the track.
For polystyrene, cut the foam into the shapes you want for the outline of the hill and glue it in place with good old white wood glue. (I’ve covered making hills here in a lot more details here).
Build the hills on either side of the track but leave enough clearance between the track for your widest train to pass (the loading gauge).
A simple trick to help with keeping the gap between track and hills wide enough is to Sellotape a pencil to the side of your widest rolling stock and run it up the track so a line is drawn on the baseboard. Then keep the hills outside of this line.
Actually, make the gap in the hills further apart than the pencil line. This is to allow walls, bushes, and rock fall (to be added) and yet still not encroach on the track.
For HO/OO scale, I’d start approx. an inch beyond the line, for N gauge half an inch should be okay.
Yes, I learned this the hard way and once had to rip up a whole hill section because I’d put it too close to the track for the bushes to then fit. You can imagine my frustration!
When building the hills keep the side facing the track (where the cutting will be) flat and smooth.
This flat section is to provide a surface on which to fix the retaining wall and needs to be only as high as the side of the hill that lies perpendicular to the track — the wall being there to prevent rocks and soil from falling onto the track. If your hill slopes gently down to the track with only a few feet (at 1:1 scale) directly abutting the track your model wall doesn’t need to be as high so the flat section would need only be maybe a third of an inch high for OO scale.
Extra: Hill Construction
When making the two sides of the hill (on either side of the track) remember that they would have been a single hill before the excavation for the track was made. As such they should mirror the shape and height of their opposite half.
In many cases, the cutting would have been carved through the slope of a hill, so one side of the hill would be lower than the other but the angle of the slope should be roughly the same across the two.
You can see this in the photograph of one of my cuttings at the top of this article. The two sides reflect each other, with the side closest to the camera continuing the downslope of the furthest away side. This is for hills that slope, obviously, the shape of the hill is completely up to you and if another formation was used you wouldn’t stick to this. I did it simply because it matches the landscape being built at the time.
3) Make the cutting walls
With the track laid and the structure of the hills through which it cuts in place, we can start on the walls themselves.
To recap, the walls were built by engineers laying the track to prevent soil, spoil and rocks from the hills falling onto the track. Retaining walls were built to keep the hillside in place and were made from building materials of the time or that which could be easily sourced locally. As such, the finish of your walls should be to the scale of your layout and in a similar material to other buildings you have nearby.
To create the walls I use paper cards and my preferred option is the embossed brick card from Noch. Being embossed this has a depth that gives a more realistic look. Alternatively, brick paper in different scales and styles is commonly available. Paperbrick.co.uk and texturelib are both good sources.
You could also find a picture of a suitable wall on the Internet (Google Images would be my first starting place), load them into an image editor such as Photoshop and scale them to the right size before printing.
Once you’ve sourced an appropriate brick or stone paper card, cut it to size and shape and paint the top edges and sides a dark brown to hide the inner colour of the paper or card.
When cutting, take a look at pictures of real-life cutting walls (again Google Images is a great source) and notice how the cutting walls end. They rarely finish squarely, more often having a stepped end or even missing bricks that have fallen away over the years.
Depending on what the hills are made from, PVA glue will usually hold the paper/card to the hill base material (remember the reference to keeping the edges of hills flat?). For paper/card walls I also use track pins to secure them in place while the glue dries. (If you look carefully there’s a track pin still in place in the top picture).
Note: Not all cuttings have retaining walls, some are just simple slopes down to the track. If this is your preference you can obviously ignore the above. Alternatively, some retaining walls are just exposed rock or made of wood or other material (concrete etc). For these the above remains the same, just change the material printed on the card.
4) Add weeds/vegetation
Take a look at any of the cutting photographs on Google Images and you’ll see the plants and vegetation of the hills creep onto and through the walls.
Use your preferred bushes and position them so they overlap from the hills to the brickwork. The overlap is important as it not only looks natural but also covers up any ugly gap between your wall material and the hillside.
5) Finish with trackside decoration
Finally, I some slimy green colour paint on the base of the wall and ground where a drainage ditch would most likely have run and place a few small bushes in the corners (being careful to leave clearance for the rolling stock) and add ballast to the track.
Finally, I like to top off with ballast near the wall with mud and sand colour paints and a small amount of painted scatter to simulate rock falling from the hills at the foot of the walls.
If the retaining walls are on the approach to a tunnel I also apply a dry coat of soot-black paint around the upper sections of the walls where smoke from the steam locos would have built up. This is a just personal preference as my layouts capture the decay and dirt of steam-era industrial operations in the area I’m modelling at present.
That’s it: cutting construction complete.
Now just finish off the hills with static grass (how to lay static grass) or your preferred surface material and you’re done.
Using these 5 simple steps, it’s easier than you might think to make cuttings and give our N, HO or OO gauge model railway a cool landscape feature.
> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.