The PennLUG Lines: Planning a LEGO Train, Club Layout

With Elroy’s articles on Matson’s Landing, and the A/D Track concept, as well as the the Track Geometry article, it seems we have a bit of a theme running right now with train layout design. I too am working on some layout planning, but unlike Elroy’s smaller, personal layout, I’m working on layout designs for my club, PennLUG. And since this is a different kind of beast from a home layout, I thought it would be great to illustrate all the planing that goes into a train layout like ours.

PennLUG Lines logo, based on Reading RR logo.

Planning the PennLUG Lines

Some of you may be familiar with PennLUG’s style of LEGO® train layouts. But for the benefit of those new to us, I will give a bit of background.

PennLUG is not a club dedicated solely to LEGO trains, we have members covering all LEGO themes, but we are fortunate to have several very talented, like minded, train and city builders in the group who have worked to make our train layouts a stand out feature from our club. Over the past several years we have taken the concept of a scale LEGO train layout, a layout governed by a set scale, in our case roughly 1:46th or about 8 wide isn trains, and an intent on creating a homogeneous look for the layout, and we have run with it. Where as many club train layouts are a collection of individual models, arranged in a train layout like way, with track tying them together, we wanted to blur the lines, and create our layout as if it were one huge model built by a single artist. A layout where every thing fits together with everything else around it, and your eye could transition from train, to building, to landscape and not see any breaks in continuity. And then we take the detail and crank it up to 11.

Inside the PennLUG roundhouse. We admit, we may be a little obsessed.

Now as you may be imagining, this kind of layout, especially a club layout with many builders involved, and under the added complication of being moved from show to show, is a big undertaking. It is, and it takes a lot of long term planing to do this. Our layout generally does not change drastically from show to show. Rather it tends to evolve over time as we add new features, and rework or replace old ones. We don’t plan for an individual show as much as we plan for the whole of the coming year. And while our layout style does lock us into some basic configurations, we do our best to maintain as much modularity as we can to allow for changes to the plan to better suit each event.

I’m the head layout architect for the club, meaning I’m the one usually laying out the plans for the train layout, but with a healthy dose of input from the rest of the club on what we should be doing. All our layouts are planned in BlueBrick. It’s a very versatile LEGO train planing tool, with an excellent starting parts pallet that can be expanded with parts from others or your own parts you make. Usually for a show I produce three separate plans. The first is the table plan, figure 1. PennLUG uses our own tables and some of them use shorter or taller legs to achieve different desired table heights. These altered hight tables are color coded so we know where they will go in the layout at set up time.

fig. 1 BW 2016 table plan.

The next plan is the overall layout plan, figure 2. This is the one that lays out where all the major buildings, landscape features and track should go. Structures on our plans are usually represented in tan (unless otherwise noted), Green represents any general landscape areas, and gray is typically heavily ballasted track areas like our rail yard.

fig. 2 BW 2016 Main Plan

The final plan I will make for a show is our Yard plan, fig. 3. Our rail yard is made up of several larger modules (Roundhouse, engine terminal, etc.) tied together with our smaller ballasted yard track sections. This plan lays out where all the yard fixtures need to go. We’ve made up custom BluBrick parts to represent our yard track in planing.

fig. 3 BW 2016 Yard Plan

We also have several fixed plans for our regular modules (curves, yard areas, etc.) that remain the same from show to show.

A tour of our proposed 2017 plans

PennLUG yard layout section under construction

So now that you know what we do, and how we do it, let’s take a closer look at where our club is going in the future with our train layouts. And right now you find PennLUG at  a possibly major turning point. Our last big show was 2 months ago, we’ve had 2 smaller displays set up for the December Holidays that are now done, and we would normally being hastily getting ready for our next big show right about now in January. But due to scheduling conflicts between the promoter and the venue, that show is not happening this year, and our next train display is not until the end of April. And while I’m a bit sad about that, the January show was my hometown one, and a lot of fun, it does give us an opportunity. Since we have 4 months between shows, we can concentrate on revamping the layout instead of prepping for the next event. And so this may be our chance to kind of reset the direction of our train layout for the foreseeable future. Normally at this point we would be thinking about evolutionary steps for the coming year, now we have a bit more room to think revolutionary steps. Lets start out by looking at what a typical PennLUG layout looked like in 2016, see figure 4.

fig. 4 PennLUG’s 2016 Philly Brick Fest layout.

This is pretty much how our layouts have looked for the past 2 years. We have a significant rail yard area we’ve been developing, we have our city area off to the left of the main layout, we have our vineyard corner, and commercial areas in the usual spots, and then things like my Red Lion module get tucked in where ever they can fit.

You will notice that we have 2 complete loops of track, and one almost complete. This third loop has been in the works for a while, but we have not had the chance to finish it due to other distractions. Our main goal with the three loops is to have the inner two as our main line. This is where we want to have two trains running continuously at shows. The 3rd outer loop is what we are calling our local line. It will serve a dual purpose. It can run trains continuously like the two main lines, or it can be used for more enhanced switching operations, as all our sidings and industries are concentrated on this track. So we could have a local freight train leave our rail yard, stop at all the sidings and industries along the way to switch out cars, and return to the yard with the new cars.

One of our big goals for 2017 is finishing this 3rd loop. We also want to fix some problem areas of the layout, and prepare ourselves for some potentially big projects coming down the road.

fig. 5 2017 PennLUG Lines layout proposal

What you see here in figure 5, is a collection of basic layout concepts/modules that we hope will be the basis for PennLUG train layouts going forward. I’ll give a brief overview of them before getting into detail on each one.

  • 1. City – This is our downtown. All our city buildings fit into this section arranged in blocks, much as you would find a real city. There are no trains looping around here, but we do have trolley/tram line running through the streets.
  • 2. Corner no.1- Our first corner module, integrated into our roundhouse area.
  • 3. Our proposed Forest Corner – Construction in planning stage.
  • 4. Our prososed new Corner 3 – Formerly our vineyard corner.
  • 5. Wye Corner – Our fourth corner module, integrated into our rail yard and wye.
  • 6. Intermediate Corner 3 proposal – Our stepping stone to constructing the forest corner.
  • 7. Lancaster Station – Massive future passenger station expansion project.
  • 8. Engine Service Area – Our existing roundhouse and locomotive service terminal.
  • Rail Yard – Our freight car storage yard, and industrial backdrop area.

Some of these areas like the rail yard are already existing and will only see minor changes. Some such as the city are existing but have more substantial upgrades planned. And others like Lancaster Station are completely new. Now will move on to each in more detail.

Revised City Layout
fig. 6 PennLUG City 2017 Plan

Our city is patterned after any generic real life city you might imagine. It has buildings arranged in blocks, with a grid work of streets, and downtown, commercial, and industrial districts. As stated earlier we use tan in our plans to represent buildings and green for landscaped areas. When creating a plan for a show, we normally only place a few major sections in the city ahead of time. The placement of all smaller individual buildings is usually decided at set up time. Our master city planner Rob Bender is pretty good with getting everything grouped together for the best looking city scene.

As seen in figure 6, we also have a trolley/tram line running through our streets. The street sections themselves are brick built (see fig.7) to allow greater flexibility and detail, as well as the embedded track, than could be achieved with standard road baseplates. Here are some of the major components that go into our city and streets from fig. 6.

  • S1 – 3 way intersection with trolley line type 2. Used at the end of a city street section.
  • S2 – Street with trolley line and alleyway entrance. Used when we want to create an alleyway between buildings.
  • S3 – Straight Street with trolley line.
  • S4 – Straight Street with trolley line and intersection stop. Used on ends of an intersection.
  • S5 – 3 way intersection with trolley line type 1.
  • S6 – 4 way intersection with trolley line.
  • S7 – Street end section with trolley line and parking area. Used at the end of a city street section.
  • S8 – Parking area. Used to create off street parking area
  • S9  and S10 – Alley straight and 1/2 straight sections.
  • S11 – 3 way intersection type 1 with trolley line curve.
  • S12 – 4 way intersection with trolley line curve and crossing.
  • T1 – New Trolley Park. End stop for trolley line.
  • T2 – New Industrial siding area. Creates potential for freight traffic through the steet railway line.
  • T3 – New Trolley Car Barn. This is where the trolleys originate from, and also a potential freight traffic generator.
  • GS1 and GS2 – My two gas station models. Since these use custom street sections, I’ve set them up on the plan as separate major components.
fig. 7 PennLUG brick built street modules.

So the major changes seen in fig. 6 compared to fig. 4 are the additions of more trolley line components. Getting our trolley line back up and running (it’s been down since we started upgrading our streets) is a goal for us in 2017. The addition of the Industrial Siding Area (T2) and Trolley Park (T1), will give us greater flexibility and variety in running the line. The new car barn (T3) will be set up to increase the number of trolleys we can run and will be easier to set up.

Our biggest hurdle to getting the trolleys running again is the control set up. Our trolley line in set up as a point to point operation. Originally this ran via an NXT. There would be two trolleys running, each assigned to a stall in the car barn with the line set up for 9v. The NXT would power up the track, sending the first trolley down the line. Once the trolley reached the designated stoping point, the NXT would cut power, wait a few seconds, reverse power, and the trolley would return to the car barn. When the first trolley returned to the barn, the NXT would cut power again, then it would turn a motor to switch the turnout for the second stall in the barn. The NXT again would power the rail, and the second trolley would make the same trip as the first. When trolley 2 returned to the stall, the switch would be thrown again, and the whole cycle would start over again with trolley 1.


This worked pretty well except for one item, the stop point at the other end of the line from the car barn. No NXT cables are long enough to put a censor at that end. So we had to rely on timing to cut the power at the right moment. But 9v motors can vary a lot in speed as they warm up, so that stop was always a moving target. There was no reliable way to get the trolley to stop at an exact point. And also no way to add reliable stopping points mid run. Lastly, the NXT sensors are huge in mini fig scale, hiding them is a difficult problem. Solving these problems is my main focus for the City this year.

Our Rail Yard
fig. 8 PennLUG’s 2017 Rail Yard Plan.

I’m not going to get into all the little details for how our rail yard is set up, that I’ll save for it’s own future article. Our rail yard however will be mostly unchanged for 2017. We’ve already done a huge amount of upgrading to it with our 2015 Roundhouse expansion, and 2016 Freight Yard Expansion. Most of what we want to do this year is fine tuning details and operation. We would like to add a few more industrial facades along our backdrop area, but the ones we have now fill the area reasonably well so it’s not a main priority. One item we do hope to add though is the Reefer Icing Dock.

Santa Fe Railroad refrigerator car icing dock, Needles, CA

We already have a small icing dock in the Vineyard corner (corner no.3) area, but it’s only capable of servicing two cars. This new dock (item 10 in fig.8) will be capable of servicing 10 cars total (5 per side) and will be much easier to spot reefer cars at. Most Icing docks were placed close to the main line so that whole trains could be quickly pulled in and iced, reducing down time. Ours will be set up so that we could do this as well making for some interesting options while running trains.

Forest Corner/Intermediate Corner no.2
fig. 9 Newly proposed Forest corner.

The Forrest Corner is something we’ve been talking about adding to our layout for a while now in PennLUG. We are a club from the US state of Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania means Penn’s Woods after all. We have quite a bit of wooded area, and hilly terrain in the state. If you were to look at our layouts, you might think we were from Kansas, all flat, few trees, and mostly grass. So getting a bit more of the PA geography into our layouts will be nice.

Our current corner no.2 is the oldest corner on our layout and long over due for replacement. Building this new conner will also finally complete the last part of our third loop, referred to earlier. The tunnel and rock cuts along the main line will add much dramatic scenery to our layout, and combined with a forest of trees will add a lot to the vertical hight. The third line meanders a bit adding more variety and we add future expandability to the layout with the branch line, item 6 in fig. 9.

fig. 10 PennLUG Intermediate Corner no.2

The Forrest corner will be a big project, and may not be finished right away. So to fill in as an intermediate step we have the proposal in fig. 10. This step mainly focuses on laying all the ballasted track work for the new forrest corner. All the major track components are there and will get us running quickly. From here we can move on to building the more intricate hillsides.

New Corner no.3
fig. 11 PennLUG’s New Corner No.3

Our current vineyard corner (outlined in red in fig. 11) is beautiful, but is starting show it’s age. The major components are as follows.

  • V1 – Fruit Packer and Icing Dock
  • V2 – Vineyard Siding
  • V3 – Vineyard
  • V4 – Airfield
  • V5 – Bottling Works
  • V6 – Double track Bridge

Built by a single builder, Josh Sanders, and quite large in size, it can be difficult for any one else to set up and pack away. When it’s all together it looks amazing, but with Josh and his wife starting a new family (puppy and new baby boy), it’s going to be unlikely he will have much time to participate in shows, or upgrade some of the more troublesome areas. It’s also been around in some form since 2013.

Vineyard on display at Brickworld 2016.

So we are considering retiring this corner in 2017 and going back to basics for corner no.3, see bottom of fig.11. As you can see most of the existing landscape and structures have been striped away, leaving only the basic track components. These will be much more flexible for us in the interim while we work on other layout sections, and brainstorm on a replacement for the Vineyard corner. One area we do hope to keep though is the Fruit Packing Warehouse and Icing Dock. This was a relatively new addition. It fills the small area inside corner no.3 well, and ties in nicely to other projects we have planned.

Lancaster Station
PennLUG Lancaster Train Station Plan

With our rail yard and freight operations almost sorted out, we need to turn our attention to the passenger side of our train fleet. Previously our passenger equipment has had no dedicated place on our layout, leaving it to clutter up our freight yard. That limits freight yard operation and isn’t ideal for displaying our passenger fleet. So we need a train station to better fit our passenger trains. We needed one large enough to fit our longest trains, comfortably at a platform, while still maintaining a relatively manageable size, and we wanted to model a real station that is local to the southeastern Pennsylvania area. Lancaster Station fit’s the bill.

Former Pennsylvania RR, now Amtrak train station.

This is certainly no small project. A lot of what we are doing with layout planning in 2017 is geared toward being ready to add this to the layout in the future. It takes up a lot of room with a total length of over 20ft, but our passenger trains are not small either so the length is needed. The station itself is not too large, a majority of the station layout is mostly devoted to track. But it’s still a very big project, and with that will come some big costs. Funding such a large project is going to be the biggest challenge. If we can find a way to do that though, this project will be a real jewel in our layout.

As PennLUG continues to re-develop our train layout in 2017 I will be  writing regular updates here on Brick Model Railroader. I hope to give you, our readers, a glimpse behind all the work that we put into our display, and some insight as to why we do what we do.

16 thoughts on “The PennLUG Lines: Planning a LEGO Train, Club Layout”

  1. Wow, PennLug. I’ve seen some full-sized railroads that weren’t ran that efficiently, or with such an eye towards future planning. Amazing little organization you got yourself built up there in Pennsy, Cale. Just wished I didn’t live a state and a half away from you all.

  2. Hello guys. I’m Pedro from PLUG (Portuguese LUG) and several members of our group have asked me to translate this great work of yours to our language. I’m here because I thought maybe you guys have some Portuguese/Brazilian or even Spanish audience and may have interest in having that translated version to share too. Just tell me something! And congratulations on your work, I could never imagine doing something like this!

    1. Hello Pedro. Thank you for help to spread BMR to a wider audience. We love hearing about new fans from around the world. I’m not sure how we can handle translations on our site yet, but this is something we will definitely look into. In the meantime feel free to help translate our articles for any friends who ask.

  3. Thanks for the very detailed article.

    Years ago I based my city and trains layout on the PennLug standard for ballasted track and brick build roads with trolley.

    The design you guys have developed has been great and has worked really well. I built my own custom tables as well, I use a rack system to transport the layout on its custom tables.

    My tables use the same idea of removable legs as your club has, just that I use steel legs instead.

    How does your club transport the layout, do you have them on the tables or are they in boxes separate from the tables?

  4. A very interesting article. From Barcelona, Catalonia, we will follow with attention the evolution of your circuit.

    Perhaps, one day we can also have a train circuit, although insurance it will not be as spectacular as the Pennlug Lines.

    1. Hello Ostman

      I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the article and my club’s layout. Our layouts are the product of 10 years of evolution. Any club could do what we do with work and good planing. I hope to see what your group can do some day.

  5. I really need to see your whole layout in person sometime. Do you have a schedule for the year as to what shows you are doing? Need to make plans!

    Perhaps this will be covered later but is your your layout all 9v (metal) track? if not, do you use any ME Models curves? Petty sure I saw somewhere that you guys modify your switches. Will there be a “how to” sometime (if not already posted someplace).

    (And pace yourself! It’s a marathon, not a sprint!)

    1. Hi Scott

      You can usually find out about events we’re going to have our train layout on display at, through our web site and our Facebook page.

      Our two inner loops are almost all 9v. We did try to maintain 9v compatibility for several years, but none of the train builders in the club guid 9v anymore except for the trolley line. So at least one plastic section has crept in.

      The outer 3rd loop has been plastic from the start. We do use some ME Models curves certain areas. And yes we do have modified switches in our layout. I’m sure we will cover track modification at some point, but for now you can get an idea of some basics from this presentation given by OnDrew Hartigan at Brickworld 2011.

  6. Hi, Cale

    I have read that you have some problems with your tram control system city.

    We have been using a different system with fabulous results: Viessmann pendelzugsteuerung 5214.

    It is very easy to use, and can be as long as you want. And instead of a big position sensor, you must only make a cut in the track.

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