Planning vs. Design

A successful model railroad plan (notice I didn’t say design) is one that ultimately puts the hobbyist in a position where they are consistently spending hobby hours engaged in a manner they find satisfying.  Researching, building, operating, photographing all qualify. (Sorry, random long term kit accumulation and excessive chat forum participation doesn’t).

The person who spends many satisfying hours building a replica of the freight house near their childhood home is just as successfully immersed as the person who spends an equal number of hours joyfully building a model of a star wars set behind an old west ghost town.  The person who spends hours at the archives playing sleuth is just as engaged as the structure builder.  The problem is that far too few people engage in any of these activities with enough consistency that it could be called a hobby.  That’s the sad part.  Often the individual, desperately in need of an outside activity, tries to jump in the pool and flounders about only to leave in frustration not having found the diversion they craved.

The culprit?  Lack of a viable plan.  Notice I used the word plan and not design. The terms planning and design are generally used interchangeably and synonymously when, in fact, they are two quite different things.  Design is more tactical in nature concerned with track and bench work arrangements.  Planning is more strategic, more important, and needs to happen before a design can be started.  Poorly planned layouts and approaches to the hobby are a larger reason people struggle than poor layout designs.    If you don’t have the right overall strategy the tactics become irrelevant.

Why don’t we plan?  There are several reasons. We are ignorant of the need to do so.  If we are aware of the need we don’t understand the importance.  If we do understand the importance we don’t know how to do it because we don’t know what the central issues are.   Finally, we don’t like to plan because it requires self examination which typically is harder than drawing a track plan.

So, what are some of the key aspects of planning?  In general it’s coming up with an approach that tips the odds of success overwhelmingly in your favor.  (Remember our definition of success above).   A good plan energizes you enough that you want to spend a few hours a week engaged in the hobby over a period of years.


Key questions are:

  • What aspect(s) of the hobby do I truly enjoy the most.
  • What resources can I, without question, consistently bring to the hobby.  By resources I specifically mean time, energy, and commitment.  Lack of awareness of energy levels, available time, and commitment are probably the the largest stumbling blocks to being a successful participant in the hobby.
  • If I build a layout, how will I interact with it?  Will my satisfaction come from being an operator, railfan, or simply the joy and satisfaction of building things. Maybe having a miniature copy of a place and time you find truly appealing is your motivation.
  • What is my commitment to self awareness to find something that truly interests me.   If the overall theme is “just something with bridges, tunnels, a coal mine and pier” is that what truly interests you or are you just settling?
  • What is my attention span for a given theme?  If you only want the layout to last several years that’s fine as long as you acknowledge it.
  • If your primary interest is operations, what type of operations?
  • Do you even need a layout?  If one’s primary and sole interest is building rolling stock or structures you are certainly a dyed in the wool model railroader assuming you do actually build the kits.  If so, perhaps a display case, diorama, or module is a better fit.


A successful plan will leave you with accurate answers as to:

  • The size of the layout
  • It’s complexity
  • The desired elements
  • The layout theme

If you can’t realistically answer questions as to your core interests, resources, and how you plan to interact with the layout you aren’t ready to pick up a pencil and start drawing track plans.