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When designing layouts, there is a series of questions that need to be asked prior to starting any plan. These questions include, “Are you going to model a prototype?” And if so, “What do you like about the prototype?” Many modelers have a favorite prototype railroad, but their answers to these questions vary widely, ranging from, “I like the colors of the freight cars,” or “The new paint scheme on the engines is cool,” to the more common answers, “It’s the railroad my father or grandfather worked for,” or “It’s the railroad I grew up next to.” Some answers are more operations specific, such as, “I like coal hauling,” or, “I like passenger trains.” These answers give the designer insight into the modeler’s wants and thought process.

The first four answers have a common theme and have the element of emotion attached to them. The last two are more “operational” answers, with emotions probably playing a secondary role.

There’s nothing wrong with “liking a color scheme” or “wanting to model the railroad your grandfather worked for” or “what you remember from growing up.” But from a track planning perspective, liking specific types of railroads for emotional reasons isn’t very helpful.  Liking a railroad because it’s big into coal hauling operations, however, is much more meaningful.

A designer’s job is twofold:  

  1. Design a layout that the modeler likes,

  2. and Make the design “believable.”


Why Believability Needs to Trump Emotions
Liking coal-hauling railroads can have elements of emotion tied to it as well.  For example, if you are seriously into coaling hauling, seeing a long string of loaded coal hoppers snaking their way through the mountains of West Virginia can elicit strong emotions.

Unfortunately, many modelers have trouble setting aside the emotional reasons to focus on the serious questions about building their dream layout.  The first is, “Do you have the resources to build your dream layout?”  And the second is, “Do you have the space required to construct the layout of your dreams?”  For the most part, these should be non-emotional questions; but many times they elicit emotional answers.  The most common of these is, “But it is what I like,” or “It’s really what I want.”

What the modeler should be asking his or her self is, “Can I successfully build a model railroad representing what I like or want?” and, “When completed, will the layout have a look and feel of believability?”

The designer’s job is to create a great track plan that operates as designed and is believable. Sometimes, the modeler has problems getting over the emotional hurdles that drew him or her into the hobby in the first place.  More than once, I’ve been told, “You’re the expert; figure it out!”  Most designers are very good at what they do, but performing miracles is not part of their expertise.

Many times, making a track plan believable means telling the modeler that he or she cannot have everything he or she wants.  Many modelers have unrealistic expectations about what can be built within a given amount of space. 

Unrealistic expectations lead directly to non-believable and unrealistic model railroads.  Many in today’s younger generations want double-track mainlines, the ability to run modern equipment, mountain scenes with lots of track elevation changes, large inter-modal operations, and so on. If the designer tries to give the modeler even a little bit of each “want” and the available space isn’t there, even the best track plan will not be believable.  Never let emotions trump believability!


What about the “Pure” Prototype Modeler?
I define the “pure” prototype modeler as the “no-compromise” modeler.  For the no-compromise modeler, believability and accuracy are everything. They will spend countless hours, days, months, and sometimes even years researching their favorite railroad.  Many times, they’ll know more about the prototype than half of the people working for the prototype railroad.

Designing track plans for this small, but a very determined group of individuals can be just as challenging as designing for the modeler who is basing all his or her wants on emotions.

For the no-compromise modeler, emotions still play a role.  These people know exactly what they want because they have invested years getting ready to build their dream layout. 

I’ve seen cases in which the no-compromise modeler never completes his or her dream layout. Such modelers have trouble making choices; they know that they can’t have it all, but because of the amount information they have absorbed, it is very hard for them to leave something out.  The term “paralysis by analysis” could apply to them.  In these instances, “pure believability” can be a serious constraint.

The Emotions Modeler vs. Pure Prototype Modeler
From a track planning perspective, designing for these two, very different types of modelers can be extremely challenging.  The person who likes a specific railroad because his or her grandfather worked for the railroad probably isn’t that interested in how many or exactly what kinds of industries are present, or whether the industries are located in specific towns.  Instead, they usually will listen to the designer and go with his or her recommendations. 

On the other hand, the pure prototype, no-compromise modeler – having spent years studying the prototype – knows not only what industries were in which towns, but they can tell you on which side of the mainline the industry was located and how many tracks led into said industry.

I have found the emotions modeler easier to design for, whereas, the pure prototype modeler always wants to know the reasons why this or that is not being included. 

Google and Google Earth
Two decades ago, if you wanted to be a serious designer, you literally needed a library of reference books. Back then, the designer had to rely on reference books, going to the public library, or subscribing to numerous railroad publications.

Today, Google and Google Earth have changed the way designers approach their job.  Research is a lot easier and less stressful, but not necessarily less time-consuming.  If I need information on a specific railroad or subject, I type a few words into Google search, and instantly I’ll have thousands of hits. The problem is that there is so much information – both good and bad – that the designer still can spend hours filtering out the irrelevant information.

Figure 1.  Track plan overview.
Figure 2.  The hidden staging yard shown within the track plan.
Figure 3 (below left).  Burlington, VT (Imagery ©2018 Google, Map Data ©2018 Google).  Figure 4 (below right).  Rutland, VT (Imagery ©2018 Google, Map Data ©2018 Google).
Figure 5.  Middlebury, VT (Imagery ©2018 Google, Map Data ©2018 Google).

Designing for Believability:  An Example

Recently, a modeler contacted me to design a track plan based on the Vermont Railway.  The modeler was relatively new to the hobby and wanted to model the area near where he lives.  He had specific “givens” regarding towns and the industries.  But he wasn’t sure how to incorporate these “givens” into a successful layout design.  After a couple of phone calls and numerous emails, I spent the next few hours researching the area in general and the Vermont Railway in particular.  Because the layout was being designed based on a prototype, the modeler also wanted the layout to operate like the prototype.  In other words, make the design believable.



The modeler wanted the layout to represent the area in such a way that, when visitors familiar with the area entered the room and walked the layout, scenes would be recognizable.  To make things even more challenging, the available space I had to work with measured approximately 12' x 14', or approximately 170 square feet.



Prior to starting the design process, we needed to decide which industries would be included and which would get left out.  We settled on one town and six industries.  There simply was not enough room for multiple towns if we wanted to keep the design believable.



We then tried to arrange the industries in some geographical order to match their real-world counterparts, to enhance the believability factor.  This also proved to be impossible; certain industries did not fit the available space on the track plan.  Using “modeler’s license,” we decided it was more important to include a good representation of the industries and make geographical locations a secondary concern.  In the end, this proved to be a good decision.


The rest of this article will discuss the final version of this track plan and include a series of images and comments, taking the reader on a visual/textual tour of the Vermont Railway between Burlington and Rutland, VT.



Track Plan Overview

As seen in Figure 1, the design is a simple around-the-room, center-peninsula plan, with a lift-out at the entrance to the room.  As stated earlier, the room measures approximately 12' x 14', or approximately 170 square feet.


Because the modeler wanted the ability to do prototypical operations, I included a four-track staging yard (see Figure 2).  There was not enough space for a helix, therefore the staging needed to be on the same level as the rest of the layout.  I suggested using an 18" to 24" high view block (the blue line in Figure 2) to divide staging from the rest of the layout.


The plan depicts the Vermont Railway between Burlington, VT (Figure 3) and Rutland, VT (Figure 4).  As designed, the plan has only one town, Middlebury, VT (Figure 5).  However, there are numerous small towns between Burlington and Rutland, so serious “selective compression” was necessary.  Even though Middlebury is the only town on the plan, it plays a major role in the overall operations and believability of the design.


There are six industries on the layout.  Four of the six represent actual industries located along the Vermont Railway between Burlington and Rutland.  Two other industries were added to fill space and give the owner some additional locations to switch cars.  The color coding on the turnouts (see Figure 1, above) is simply a way of easily identifying different types of turnouts while building the layout.


Even though the modeler wanted prototypical operations, he also wanted the ability to railfan.  This was accomplished by including a single track running in front of the staging yard.

Figure 6.  A map of the Vermont Railway system. Map courtesy of  Vermont Rail System.
Figure 7.  Hoosick Junction, NY (Imagery ©2018 Google, Map Data ©2018 Google).
Figure 8.  Salt storage complex in Shelburne, VT shown within the track plan.
Figure 9.  Champlain Valley Creamery (Imagery ©2018 Google, Map Data ©2018 Google).
Figure 10.  Champlain Valley Creamery shown within the track plan.
Figure 11 (above left).  Blue Seal Feed (Imagery ©2018 Google, Map Data ©2018 Google). Figure 12 (above right).  Blue Seal Feed street view (Image Capture: August 2012, Map Data ©2018 Google).
Figure 13 (below left).  Blue Seal Feed shown within the track plan. Figure 14 (below right).  Rail-to-road aggregate transfer shown within the track plan.

Vermont Railway Overview

As shown in Figure 6, the Vermont Railway is a north-south route from Burlington, VT to Hoosick Junction, NY (see Figure 7), where it connects to the Pan Am Southern.  Hoosick Junction literally is nothing more than a junction.  The modeled portion of the layout runs from Burlington, VT to Rutland, VT.


Burlington VT and Rutland, VT (Hidden Staging)

It was decided that Burlington and Rutland would be the two terminal points on the layout, represented by hidden staging (see Figure 2, above).


Hidden staging is made up of four tracks.  This will allow eight trains to run during an operating session.  Trains traveling onto the layout from the left-hand side of the plan are northbound trains coming from Rutland and heading to Burlington; trains entering the layout from the right-hand side of the plan are traveling southbound, from Burlington to Rutland.  During operating sessions, four trains can operate in and out of the two Burlington staging tracks, and four trains can operate in and out of the two Rutland staging tracks.


Middlebury, VT

The town of Middlebury, VT (see Figure 5, above) was positioned on the plan approximately halfway between Burlington and Rutland staging.  If you refer to the Vermont Railway system map (see Figure 6, above), you will notice that Middlebury does sit approximately halfway between Burlington and Rutland; this was a bonus and added a remarkable amount of believability to the layout.  Anytime you can depict the real world accurately, the believability factor is increased.


Middlebury contains a small yard.  This yard plays a major role in the overall operations of the layout:  freight trains coming from Burlington or Rutland will drop off and pick up cars in Middlebury.


Local trains will distribute the cars to the various (on-layout) industries.  I have included a small engine servicing facility in Middlebury.  This lends believability to the fact that Middlebury is an important location on the Vermont Railway.


Salt Plant (Shelburne, VT)

This industry is not placed on the plan in a  geographically correct position (see Figure 8).  Shelburne, VT is located just a few miles south of central Burlington.  As southbound trains leave Burlington, they travel through Shelburne.  I had to take modeler’s license and locate the salt plant at a geographical location different than in the real world.


The plant is relatively new, so there were no Google Earth photos of the plant when the track plan was being designed.  Fortunately, the modeler was able to send me a newspaper article describing the operation of the plant.  This was very helpful in designing the industry and maintaining the believability factor.


Champlain Valley Creamery (Vergennes, VT)

Using Google Earth, I was able to find an overhead view of a company called Champlain Valley Creamery (see Figure 9).  From the aerial view, it looks as though the creamery has been out of business for several years, but I felt this would be a good industry to include based on the region and the believability factor.  I opted to specify the Walthers Citrus Packers structure (#933-2926) to represent the facility (see Figure 10).  The modeler will modify the structure making it into a creamery.


Blue Seal Feeds (Brandon, VT)

Blue Seal Feeds is located in Brandon, VT, which is geographically south of Middlebury.  As shown in Figures 13 and 14, Blue Seal Feeds is a large complex.  Based on the track plan configuration, there was no room to include the industry south of Middlebury.  Again taking modeler’s license, we decided the industry was important enough to include anyway.  So, we placed it north of Middlebury, on the opposite side of the peninsula view block.  On that side of the peninsula, we wanted an industry that would dominate the scene, and this filled the bill.


To represent the complex, I elected to use the Pikestuff Milton A. Corp. (#104) and the Walthers Grain Bins (#933-2937), as shown in Figure 13.  The Pikestuff building was a perfect fit and is a good representation of one of the larger industries on the Vermont Railway.  The overall scene is believable.


Rail-to-Road Aggregate Transfer

A rail-to-road aggregate transfer industry was not part of our original list, but we decided to include it.  On the north side of the peninsula, we had enough space for a small, one-spur industry. The rail-to-road aggregate transfer seemed like a good fit, plus it provided an additional industry without affecting the other industries.  As far as I know, there was no prototype.  I used the Walthers Rail-to-Road Aggregate Transfer (#933-4036), as shown in Figure 14.


OMYA Marble Plant (Florence, VT)

OMYA is a marble quarry, located in Florence, VT.  The plant mills and purifies marble to produce finely ground calcium carbonate.  It probably is one of the largest, rail-serviced industries in Vermont.  If you use Google Earth to search for Florence, VT, you easily will find the plant (see Figures 15 and 16); a short distance to its north is a large open-pit mine.  The plant and open pit were many times too large to fit the space we had.  We decided to include as large a structure as would fit into the available space and represent the rest of the plant using photo backdrops.


The Walthers Valley Cement Plant (#933-3098) was chosen to represent the facility, and it will be modified to fit the space (see Figure 17).  With the use of photo backdrops, I think the scene will be easily recognizable and believable.


Figure 15 (above left).  OMYA Marble Mill (Imagery ©2018 Google, Map Data ©2018 Google).  Figure 16 (above right).  OMYA Marble Mill street view (Image Capture: April 2012, ©2018 Google).
Figure 17.  OMYA Marble Mill shown within the track plan.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we have dealt with a relatively small track plan; but because the modeler wanted to accurately represent an area with which he is familiar, it took time and effort to do the proper research, and hard decisions had to be made on what to include and what to leave out.


Overall, I feel, we reached a good balance, providing the modeler with a layout design he will find fun to build and fun to operate.  Most importantly, we created a believable product.



About the Author


Bill Beranek - The Track Planner has over forty years in the model railroading hobby.  Bill enjoys golfing, traveling, and of course designing “prototypical operations” focused track plans.  He has been a member of a local 135+ member model railroad club since 2003 and has served twice as the club’s president, twice as a board member, and is currently serving as the club’s treasurer.


Bill is currently working on his latest triple-deck HO scale layout depicting the SP&S (Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway) in southern Washington and the OTL (Oregon Trunk Line) on the upper level in northern Oregon in the mid-50s. 


You can find out more about Bill—The Track Planner at

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