Category Archives: Layout Design

Layout Design Techniques and How To

Take a ride on an epic LEGO garden railway.

Varda Elentári Furrer recently shared a fun video of their LEGO garden railway on Facebook. A camera was placed in front of the train to give us an incredible view from the engineer’s seat.

They layout is expansive and packed full of incredible detail. Varda’s excellent models include railcars, bridges, buildings, signals, and more. Everything is expertly crafted in a scale which appears to be close to G-scale.

While Varda’s MOCs are beautiful, the natural landscaping brings this layout to another level. If we didn’t know any better, we would guess Varda must be one of the gardeners at LEGOland. It really looks that good.

4DBrix Announces a Game Changer

Tom Lowa at 4DBrix has worked continuously to bring new innovations to the Lego train hobby for some time now. Using their own on-site 3D printer, they’ve been making things like remote switch mechanisms and modular switch tracks, as well as a lot of monorail components, if you’re into that kind of thing. More recently, however, there has been two new additions to the 4DBrix online store that really gives them some good reputation.

If you missed it or haven’t seen it yet, I don’t blame you. It hasn’t been “officially” announced by 4DBrix yet, but rest assured it IS listed on their site. Enter the “Ultimate Railroader” series. Aside from a clever name, this is 4DBrix’s play at getting into a more serious scale Lego railroading market. Currently, the only two products in this line are nearly the same, but different enough to make someone want one of each (or more). Tom has listed R148 crossovers, in both right-hand single crossover and double crossover configurations, on his website. He was also kind enough to send us a set of the double crossover to review, which will be the main point of this article.

Continue reading 4DBrix Announces a Game Changer

DIY Tracks – What The Others Already Did

After Glenn Holland showed the types of curved tracks that are currently available on the aftermarket and what can be expected, I thought it could be interesting as well to tell about the ways how to make your own track. Some if it is from before the ME Models era, some of it actually is a bit younger.

In any way,  it shows our community is far more versatile and creative than one might sometimes think, even back in the days when the 9V system limited us to 1 radius, 1 type of switch and 1 type of straights.

Seeing how much there is out there nowadays, I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list. So, if you have any additions, feel free to add them in the comments.

Continue reading DIY Tracks – What The Others Already Did

Curved Track – What’s available, and what to Expect

I was recently contacted by a newer member of the LEGO Train community asking for information on the various types of curve tracks used in PennLUG. My response was a lengthy email, which has been adapted to fit an article format, and will be the content of this article.

Before I begin, I should briefly touch on some of the standards for LEGO track configurations. More information can be found on Michael Gale’s Standard spacing practices for most layouts (including my own PennLUG) use a 16-stud spacing between the centerlines of two parallel tracks. There are two main reasons for this standard. One, it was set by LEGO, when they produced the 9-volt switch tracks. Using a turnout, a return curve, and an extra length of straight track, you get two even and parallel tracks. Two, this yields a convenient way to build track: two lines evenly spaced on one baseplate.

Two parallel tracks and a standard LEGO turnout demonstrating the 16 stud centerline distance.
Every LEGO train enthusiast has probably, at some point, owned a loop of standard LEGO track. Any number of straight sections closed off by the small curve tracks you’d find in any 9-volt of Power Functions set. These tracks are known as “R40”,  as they have a radius of 40 studs.

Continue reading Curved Track – What’s available, and what to Expect

Battery Powered vs. Track Powered

Young and new recruits to the LEGO train scene will never have known anything other than the current generation of power functions. Battery packs coupled with infrared receivers and remote controls, each taking up precious space in your build. However, it didn’t used to be this way. The previous generation of trains (ignoring the aborted RC train theme) used metal rails to directly power the motors. Both generations had their own advantages and disadvantages, which I will attempt to shed some light on. In a follow up article, I will go over some advanced applications of each, and hybrids that combine the best of both technologies.

Batteries take up space. In my eye, this is Power Function’s main drawback. Additionally, the current generation Infrared (IR) Receiver is quite large and the sensor on it needs to be visible from outside the locomotive for the signal to reach it.

IR Receiver with the shell removed. Why is this thing so big?

Trying to incorporate the AAA/AA battery pack and the IR Receiver into a model is often very tricky, especially when working with 6 or 7 stud wide models. Additionally, batteries need to be recharged or replaced after several hours, so the battery pack needs to be accessible or removable.  When running for many consecutive hours at a convention, swapping batteries becomes a chore. For home use, it is not such a big deal. The IR receiver also has difficulty reaching more than a few feet when there aren’t any walls or ceiling to reflect the light off of. On the other hand, the IR receiver and battery boxes are still currently in production, which means they’re cheap.

PF track Vs. 9V track

Track power has always been my preference and I’ve iterated through several generations of electrical systems searching for the best configuration. LEGO’s classic 9V train controller is simple, turn the knob and your locomotive starts to move. The biggest limiting factors are being limited to metal equipped track and the original 9V train motor, (meaning no double crossovers). Additionally, laying out certain track geometries will cause short circuits. Also, once your loop gets to a certain length, additional power hookups are required so as to avoid slow downs. Of course, the main drawback is price. Expanding or building a new 9V layout is very costly. 9V straight track hasn’t been manufactured in almost 10 years and averages $3.50 each used and $5.50 new on the aftermarket. Original 9V train motors average $35 each used and $75 new.  Many clubs still use 9V systems, and with ME Models finally shipping their metal track, will continue to do so for years to come.

Things start to get interesting when you get rid of LEGO’s speed controller and start substituting your own electronics. Swap in the third party Bluetooth controlled SBrick in lieu of the IR receiver and not only save space, but also gain control range, gain 2 more channels for a total of 4, and lose the line of sight requirement.

In addition to being gigantic, the output power per channel is low.
2 Channel PF IR Receiver3rd party SBrick, approx 8x available power output in a smaller footprint


Get rid of the LEGO 9V train controller and use constant track power to feed a Bluetooth motor controller. No batteries! Or better yet, use batteries and track power together: constant track power feeding a Bluetooth motor controller, with batteries for backup. With such a system, a track powered locomotive can continue through double crossovers, over draw bridges, maintain consistent speeds through spotty connections on dirty track, or possibly even charge itself. With the track providing power most of the time, the batteries will rarely need to be recharged.

Read about my experiments in hybrid systems in depth in my next article.

Getting to work on the Lewiston Branch

Don’t mind the mess on the floor.

I’m making slow and steady progress on the layout.  I want to get the basic terrain, track, and ballast down so I can start operating the layout as quickly as possible.  After that I can worry about landscaping, buildings, and other details.  This will help me stay motivated to completion, because what’s the point of having the trains if we can’t play with them?


Examples of basic MILS rails modules used by NELTC


I participate in a club that uses the Modular Integrated Landscaping System (MILS) for rapidly assembling layouts at shows.  In addition to making layouts a snap [1], the modules also provide some depth to the terrain and provide ways to hide wiring.  We have some general guidelines for incorporating rails into the modules, similar to the PennLUG baseplate standard, though differing in that we always want half a baseplate between the viewing edge and mainline. 


I’m diverging slightly from the standard ballast profile of the club guidelines because looking at historical photos of the yard, the tracks ran at ground level.  Yet, I need to maintain the same rail height for club layout compatibility. That means the ground level ends up being twice as high as the MILS standard and each of these modules ends up consuming twice as many bricks.  I can already see the payoff with the canal that runs through the yard and the extra brick of height gives the right feeling of depth. 

[1]       see what I did there?

Taking it to the next level – Corfe Castle Station

After the previous post on Ararat 1972 and Cale’s piece on Brick Model Railroading as such, I think the pieces are now set for the next installment in the series of inspiring layouts: Corfe Castle Station by Carl Greatrix. Lately, Carl has been the guy who has brought you the Caterham Seven and a lot of the visuals in the recent Lego games, but next to this, he is also a real trainhead and a lover of Scale Modelling. With the Corfe Castle Station layout, he had decided to fuse both of these to create an unique layout.

Corfe Castle Station – the eye-catcher and starting point of the layout
The (almost finished) layout at STEAM 2011

The first thing that you notice when looking at Corfe Castle Station is that it follows a typical “British” approach. At least, that’s how it looks like for me after having read so many British Model Railroading Magazines (like Railway Modeller) when I was young. This means that we are looking at two mainline tracks and a siding, with a station as the main visual element. In fact, it’s just a very big diorama. The layout is an oval of which more than half is the fiddle yard and thus not part of the diorama. So, just as with Ararat 1972, there is no large yard where you can show off your trains. However, it does have two continuous loops which are ideal to show of your trains in high speed!

Overview of the layout – Two ovals and a fiddle yard.

What sets this layout apart of most other Lego Railway layouts is the design choices he makes: instead of using studs everywhere, Carl uses Scale Modelling techniques for making roads, gravel and mountains. This means that not everything in this layout is made out of Lego! The effect works surprisingly well. Instead of looking like a layout made of Lego, this is a layout that uses Lego as one of its mediums.

An example of combining Lego with scale modeling techniques

It becomes even more interesting when inserting his trains. This is because Carl, unlike most Lego Train builders, tries to use as little selective compression as possible. The result are models that are so accurate, that they don’t even look out of place in an actual O-scale layout.

Carl’s trains in an O-scale layout. Not part of Corfe Castle, but too nice not to show.

As said, the layout not only uses Lego. Carl was nice enough to keep a diary over at Flickr in which he shows how he designed the whole layout.  This gives us the great possibility to dive a bit deeper into the layout and the way how it’s build.

Continue reading Taking it to the next level – Corfe Castle Station

Lewiston Branch: Layout Plan

Continued from The Lewiston Branch in L-Gauge: Introduction

My next challenge was turning 7.5 miles of branchline into a realistic, operating, achievable layout plan.  As with any era-specific model railroading project, I started with my historical references.  In this case, primarily the Robertson and Davis’ book Grand Trunk 713 and the Lewiston Branch, but also Grand Trunk Heritage by Philip R. Hastings and Grand Trunk in New England by Jeff Holt.  These were filled with images of trains operating in various points along the line and gave me ideas for the “scenes” I wanted to model along the line.  Most of the line and places I want to model from the 1950s are still here today and I could turn to Bing to help me out.

1. Danville Jct. 2. Lewiston Jct. 3. Littlefields Crossing 4. MEC Overpass 5. Auburn Depot and Androscoggin River Bridge 6. Lewiston Yard

I was able to identify 6 scenes that appeared in historical photographs and I think really captured the essence of the line.  The idea is that any observer familiar with the branch could look at these places arranged together and identify the railroad I was trying to model without any explanation. I’m trying to keep the layout achievable, so for the near future I’m going to focus on the following two scenes:

Littlefields Crossing

Aerial view of Littlefields Crossing in Auburn, ME

The branch crosses a 120’ truss bridge over the Little Androscoggin river.  In the early 1900s until the 1930s an electric tram service, the Portland Interurban Line, crossed the Grand Trunk tracks and over a stone arch spanning the river.  The line was abandoned and a truss road bridge erected next to it, however the stone arch of the Portland Interurban is still there today and is used to carry pipes over the river.

If anyone knows a good technique to model an 80-stud wide stone arch like this, I’m all ears.

StreetView of the Littlefield’s Crossing bridge from Hotel Rd. The vegetation in the foreground is the stone arch of the Portland Interurban.

The Lewiston Yard

1. Lewiston Depot 2. Swift Meat Packing Plant 3. Freight Shed 4. Store House (Platform?) 5. Enginehouse 6. Armour and Company Meat Packing Plant 7. Freight Transfer Platform 8. Freight Transfer Platform 9. Hall and Knight Hardware Company Shed 10. Shed 11. Cross and Company Grain Mill 12. Max Millar Scrap Company 13. JB Skinner Coal Shed and Trestle 14. US Bobbin Company Shed 15. Oil Tanks 16. Lewiston Handle Company

As you can see from the yard diagram I’ve reproduced on the Bing map, the Lewiston yard was full of industries and operating potential.  It could be (and may very well turn out to be) a layout in itself.  There’s plenty of demand for all sorts of rolling stock whether its boxcars, refers at the meat packing plants, gondolas at the scrap company, tankers for the oil tanks, or hoppers at the coal trestle and engine shed. Within the yard the focal points are the enginehouse at the center and the depot at the east end.  A canal bisects the yard providing a visual break and some varying elevation in an otherwise flat surface. 

The track plan.

The 1st draft layout plan in BlueBrick

I opted to make Littlefield’s crossing my westernmost scene instead of the Androscoggin River Bridge.  The Androscoggin River Bridge is about 360 feet long which works out to be 9 baseplates at this scale.  Building the bridge and the river itself would be a pretty significant undertaking, and in my opinion not as visually interesting as some of the other scenes on the line.  I felt like the truss at Littlefields could convey the impression of a bridge at the west end of the yard, but also serve the purposes of representing a scene further down the line.  I’m going to try to put the track and roads at an angle like builder MTM-MD does with some of his creations to make the scene more interesting. 

The yard itself I’ve applied a generous amount of selective compression.  I have an 8-foot long banquet table to use, which pretty much decided how much space I have for the yard.  Full 1:48 scale, the yard would be a good 25 baseplates in length, and I’d guess maybe 10-12 deep, which while super accurate is highly impractical for my basement (and my marriage!)  The structures will be compressed to about 75-80% scale size which allows them to both fit in this smaller space and saves my budget for the project whilst still creating the impression of being full scale.  The northern sidings with their various industries will have to be represented by some short 1-2 car sidings and façade structures.

One shortcoming with this plan is the track is squeezed so tightly that the northern bay where the locomotive would park will have to be non-functional.  This won’t impact switching operations though.  The other shortcoming is that this uses R40 switches which aren’t very realistic looking and may give my 713 model some problems.  Given the price of printed R014s and my space currently available, I figured this could wait for another day.

The Lewiston Depot today. The signage painted on the brick in the early 20th century is still visible.

In the end though, I have 7 spots for switching cars, a spot for the combine, and plenty of space for building up the return train to Lewiston.  The basement is cleaned up (mostly.) and the tables are in place.  Now it’s time to hit the brick.

Prague Main Railway Station, a Diorama

Railway Stations are massive things, definitely in the scales we as Lego Trainheads are building. A great example is Cale’s post about the PennLUG Lines, which shows that a Main Railway station easily rivals with its Staging Yard when it comes to size. However, that doesn’t mean you should not try building one. And thanks to The Lego Company (TLC), there is now a great example you can visit, as long as you are willing to travel to Kladno, Czech Republic. More specifically, we are talking about a model of Praha hlavní nádraží, the main Railway Station of Prague.

Praha Hl.N.

Thanks to a link shared on the Lego Train Fan Club page over at Facebook which caught my eye, I started to do some more research to find out as much as I could about this Diorama. There is a good reason for that: Having lived in Prague for two years and being in that station on almost weekly basis, it’s very close to me. Everything that makes Praha Hl.N. the station I love is there: The old station building, the Magistrala (the highway in front of the Railway Station), the new railway station and its interior (visible in front of the highway), the metro, and the actual double canopy above the tracks.

It turns out it’s not only a great model, but it even has running trains (one Shunter, one Main Line Locomotive which is about to couple with a rake of Intercity coaches, and a Metro!), moving elevators, lights… You name it, it’s there!

Continue reading Prague Main Railway Station, a Diorama

The Lewiston Branch in L-Gauge: Introduction

Much like Elroy, a scant 50 miles from me on the other side of the green mountains, I’m a huge fan of incorporating realistic railroad operations in minimal space with my Lego trains.  Our influences are the same, Model Railroader and the old Railroad Model Craftsman magazines, the late Carl Arendt’s micro layouts website, and the Trevor Marshall’s Port Rowan in S Scale blog.  I’ve built a number of L-Gauge operating layouts over the years such as my freelanced Port Lego – North Bay, an Inglenook based on the BR Railfreight Distribution of the 80s, and even a tiny switching layout based on modern Claremont and Concord Railway operations in Claremont, NH. 

Continue reading The Lewiston Branch in L-Gauge: Introduction