How To Save Your Railway From Being A Track Only Tragedy

track tragedy-model railwayIt’s all too easy to start building a model railway with great intentions but then get stuck, never to get beyond the track-laying stage. The trains are left to trundle around a circuit devoid of scenery, buildings and landscape. Here’s what I do to save my railways from this fate.

It nearly happened to me. A little while ago I took a short break from model railways and then wanted to get back to my model building. I had a wonderful dream of building a grand model railway and it was going to be awesome.

I rushed out and picked up a Hornby Flying Scotsman starter pack, some extra track and a few extra trains. Lovingly and carefully I put it together on the floor of the spare room. And there it stayed.

Over time I added more tracks and the occasional extra wagon and passenger car but it never progressed from there. Other priorities come up, other things pull on your time. The railway just sat there.

My grand design became a track-only tragedy. It’s a sad yet very common fate for many railways.

Luckily for my railways, I pushed beyond this stage and have since got my mojo back and gone on to build many more railways.

If you’re stuck with track-land, here are six pointers to move you on.

Make It Real

One of the biggest challenges of building a model railway – as opposed to just having a collection of tracks – is having the motivation to keep at it. Sure it’s a lot of fun and I learn something new with every railway but it also takes time, effort and focus and so it’s easy to get distracted and not finish a layout.

There are lots of motivational strategies available but what I used – and have found most helpful – was having a compelling vision of what “my model railway” would look like when finished and by creating a picture I make my railways real before I’ve even started them.

And it’s not just a vague mental image I create but an actual picture with lots of details to bring it to life. Without this, I’d just keep skirting around the edges so to speak and I never become more than just some track on the floor.

So before I start on a new layout I first create a picture of how it will look when finished.

I create a picture board (a collage of smaller pictures) showing not just the track plan – this is also worked out as part of this phase – with images from the Internet of the buildings, people, vehicles, scenes and landscape that co-exists with the track. The more pictures and more detail the more real my creation seems and the more inspired I am to finish it.

Extra: I keep this in a loose-leaf file along with other reference material, wiring diagrams and notes about my layout as it progresses. 

I then use this picture board with motivational techniques — such as setting myself goals with fixed dates to complete the main parts shown on the picture board and to-do lists of quick tasks that I can carry out whenever I have a spare five minutes to keep up the momentum — and look at it frequently to stay energised. Doing so reminds me of what I’m building and how great it’ll look and keeps me on track.

Lay The Foundations

When first deciding to build a model railway it’s all too easy to rush out to buy a train set and then it’s only natural to want to try it out on a table or even floor.

But hold on!

Even with a picture board and goals, once you set up the track it can just sit there. Or if it’s been put together in a temporary location and put away after it might never see the light of day again.

Instead, get a baseboard first.

You can get a train set as well but just get the baseboard first.

The baseboard is the foundation of the rest of your railway. Get it and the rest of the railway will fall into place.

Having the baseboard in place first has three big wins.

  • Firstly, baseboards make building everything else much, much, easier. It solves so many problems that you’d otherwise struggle with.
  • Secondly, it pushes you to get the railway built. The blank board is a great motivator to get on and lay the track, hills, grass etc and everything else needed to cover up that horrible bare wood.
  • Thirdly, having a baseboard takes away a lot of the reasons for procrastination.

With the baseboard taken care of, there’s no reason not to tackle laying the track and electrics and then the ballast. With the baseboard, there’s a surface on which to build the hills, tunnels and roads etc. The grass can be put down and before too long there’s a model railway taking shape.

Without the baseboard and all these things can be put off and you just have some track.

Plan the build – set goals

With a vision board of how the railway will look and a baseboard to put it all on, it’s then a matter of getting around to building and creating the layout.

Rather than leaving this to chance, however, I break the construction of the layout down into 6 goals and objectives and work on these one at a time.

The typical construction plan for one of my layouts would be:

  • Build hills and the other large terrain structures
  • Fit track and electrics
  • Roads
  • Apply the ballast
  • Buildings followed by scenery fine detail work
  • Scenes, Signs and People

Note: sometimes the available budget doesn’t allow for all the parts needed for a particular stage to be acquired at once. In this case, I try to get the parts vital to a stage and follow up with the other parts later.

In the case of the track, for example, I’d get the track parts that will be connected to the electrics and point motors done and drop in the remainder when possible. This isn’t ideal, it goes against a lesson a I learnt a long time ago – but it’s necessary sometimes.

What you do and in what sequence is a personal choice, the above steps and sequence is just my preference. Some people prefer to put the track and electrics down first for example. But the important thing is to have a plan as this focuses your effort and as you can the layout develops and come alive.

Follow these steps, keep focused and don’t get demotivated or lost. Model railways can be a lifelong hobby but like anything that takes time and is worth doing, it takes effort so keep at it. In a few years, your railway will be a triumph, not a tragedy.

A final, personal, note: I spend a LOT of time testing, photographing, writing and often wrecking my own layouts researching techniques for these articles and don’t charge a penny for them. If this article is useful to you or helpful, please add a comment to say so, it gives me encouragement to continue. Thanks and happy modelling,  Andy

Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of 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.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.
  1. Good advice. I decided to get back into model trains, and bought a large lot of locomotives, rolling stock, track, building kits, etc., at a bargain price from the widow of an old fellow who collected all the parts, but never got around to building the layout before succumbing to cancer and dying.

    It saddened me to see all the stuff he’d collected, over so many years, but never got to see working together. I won’t make that mistake, and completely endorse your thoughts here.


  2. Im new to the hobby as of a month or two ago, and after inheriting my dads old set of OO gauge track awith a few engines and rolling stock i decided to give it a go. This website has been an extremely valuable tool for what could have been a very daunting prospect. The links especially, hints, tips, pitfalls to avoid and cost saving techniques are all very inspiring and i cant wait to get going properly with my first ever layout. Thank you.

  3. Hi Andy. I’m getting ready to return to railway modelling after many years away. Have some very old n gauge but thinking of going across to oo for many of the reasons as mentioned in your other article (thank you).
    Where do you stand on sundealer board? I used this years ago. May not even be available now. Recall it being somewhat expensive but a good surface to pin to or cut as needed.

    • Hi Richard, Sundella is still around (and I’ve used it before) although plywood or even insulating foam is now the preferred option for most modellers. What size layout do you have in mind? Best wishes, Andy

  4. I sort of have the opposite issue, my layout is more of a diorama that happens to have a train in it. I enjoy building the building and scenery, not to say I don’t enjoy the trains, but I enjoy the building of stuff more, so that what tends to get done.

  5. I do appreciate your free advice to other hobbyists like myself. I can appreciate the time you put into taking the photographs and sharing your experiences. In the brief time that I have “tapped” into the model railroad community, I notice “we” are a supportive group of men/women who enjoy-are passionate about this hobby and want to share it with others. This hobby is a great “stress reliever” from the day to day grind. (Fortunately, I am retired!) So, again I say “thanks”.

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