How to add realism and life to your model railway – a tip from award winning layouts

Addnig Movement To A Model RailwayIf you ever look at your railway and think there’s something missing, this is for you.

This is just a quick tip, I may revisit the idea in a longer form in future, but it’s so good I want to cover it without further delay.

On with the tip. It actually relies on a bit of mental trickery but we’ll come to that in a minute.

Scour your railway and pick out scenes where, if it was real, objects would be moving through the air.

Imagine for a second that the giant hand that occasionally comes down to prod stuck trains were to sprinkle life-giving pixie dust over your layout and if came to life where might things be in motion and in particular moving through the air?

Possible scenarios include smoke from an engine house chimney or ballast / coal falling from a loading conveyer. In less industrial vista’s, a plane in flight, a ball being kicked or goods falling off a lorry would also all work.

Now recreate the scene, capturing the movement in the air – frozen mid flight – in your model.

Although the techniques for creating the models for this is beyond the scope of this post none are too difficult. In the above examples, tease sone cotton wool apart for smoke and to create falling ballast, or goods, build a vertical ‘stream’ of the objects from the ground up. Add some glue, position the items and repeat adding successive layers on the top until you reach the height required. To suspend individual objects – a plane or ball – either hang them from the ceiling using transparent fishing line or use thin jewelry wire to elevate them from the ground.

Such scenes add vitality and interest, with the frozen movement pulling the viewer in.  They create dynamism that is otherwise missing from our small static models.

But they’re often found in big award winning layouts and adding them to your layout will make your railway far more lifelike and interesting.

Take a look at the photograph with this post. It’s a diorama’s set in the award winning model railway at Miniature Wunderland Hamburg. The team there know their stuff and how to make a model railway that grabs the attention and keeps it. In this short, look at the coal loader near by the Blue van towards the bottom left of the picture. See how the falling coal is frozen in mid air. Dozens of such frozen movement sketches are found across their layout and add to the realism, vitality and life of their amazing railways.

But Why Does It Work

“Here’s the sciencey bit”

Modelling objects frozen in mid air gives the impression of life because the brain expects things in mid air to be moving. The human brain and eye are wired for motion and when they see’s something that should be moving but isn’t the brain fills in the gaps, adding motion it expects.

When there then isn’t the motion it expects, our brain can’t help but stop, evaluate it’s inputs and reconsider. Such scenes force us to stop and focus.

It works because the optical processing parts of the brain see movement, adding realism to our models, and then when there isn’t movement pulls us in to check what’s going on, keeping the viewer interested. It’s a double win for the model maker.

MRE Note: For a fascinating background on optical illusions, see Brainblogger.

Have fun, and let me know what moments in time you freeze.

> 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.
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 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,

Add Comment

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.