Which comes first...Yard or Mainline

NJ Devil's fan's picture

Recently, I was asked my input from a co-worker about model trains. He wanted to start building a "train layout" for his kids and needed to know where to start. He knew that I was a modeler and came to me for some advice. After doing his research (basically, asking the kids what they wanted) it was decided that he (they) wanted to run modern era trains in HO Scale. OK, great he said, lets get started with the design. It was during the design phase that we came upon the stumbling block. And it really made me wonder how many of us have had the same situation arise.

His kids wanted to run trains, but he liked the way I described and talked about yard operations. He needed to have both. He wanted a 2 track mainline to run trains (1 for each kid...they did not like to share), an a seperate yard for him, all connected together in the middle. Anyone modeling HO can tell you that modern era equipment, like auto racks and stack trains, takes up a whole bunch of real estate...err..benchwork.

The problem came when we tried to come up with a trackplan to fit this in. He has a decent size room (15' x 20') for a HO scale layout. He shares that room with his wife who has workout equipment in the center of the room. We decided that a "around the wall" concept would work best keeping out of each others way.

But how to start the design? Do we start with the yard and work our way out making dad happy? Or start with the mailine and see what's left for a yard, making the kids happy? He was not at all concerned with "prototype" operation so this made it easier to plan.

For the record, dad's idea was put in place...because, as he said, "he was paying for it" and you can't argue with that no matter how old you are. I can tell you that was a unique way starting a model railroad that I never really thought of before. It was so much easier working out from both ends of the yard, instead of trying to fit the yard in at the end. I know proper planning can solve this, but some of us just take the "let's see what happens" attitude and go with it. Face it, we can plan and plan and plan all we want, but all of us at some point just want to get started and work out the problems as we go along, right?

To us, in theory,  it was easier to build the yard with all the tracks and switches first, then connect the mainline loops at each end. It's much easier to cut or move 1 piece of mainline track (flex track) that it would have been to move or cut switches. So we completed the yard and made sure everything worked before starting out to finish  main #1. (I wonder if this was how the early railroad pioneers felt?)

Everything is progressing fine at this time. In addition, by completing the yard first, we also found that the kids had "fun" playing in the yard. They liked moving the locomotive between the different tracks. They even took turns ruuning the engine while the other brother "flipped" the buttons to switch the tracks. That kind of gives a whole new meaning to "playing in the yard".

I guess, in the end, everyone wins. Dad is spending time with his kids and sharing this hobby with them.

This made me wonder how many of us have had this same issue? It's a very basic question, which comes first the yard or the main? Let's see how many different answers we get for that.


Chicken or egg

I have always thought the best way is to lay mainline track first, including all the turnouts on the main.  Once that track is solid, then move on to sidings, yards, spurs and branch line tracks.

Either way, having a well thought out track plan for your space is a good idea, I think.

His kids wanted to run trains, but he liked the way I described and talked about yard operations. He needed to have both.

He was not at all concerned with "prototype" operation so this made it easier to plan.

These two statements seem to me to be a bit of a contradiction.  If he is interested in yard operations won't he need a somewhat prototypical yard design to have satisfying yard operations?  Similarly, where the mainline enters the yard would need to follow prototypical designs to be functional, not?

I'm no expert!  Just joining in and hoping to learn from the discussion! [grin]

Blue, I remember one of my biggest disappointments with a

Model Railroader article was a feature they did on the Los Angeles Junction a few years ago.  I was subscribing to the mag at the time, and in one issue they were touting a switching layout on the LAJ next month.  I had decided to model the LAJ, and could hardly wait for that issue to arrive.  When the issue arrived, I skipped over everything to go to the LAJ article.  The switching layout consisted of a large circle of track with yards on two sides and a third yard on a peninsula, and one or two industrial spurs!

To call it a "switching layout" unless your idea of switching is limited to playing  yard master, was a total misnomer. 

I think laying out a major yard first might be a good way to design a layout.  For one thing, the yard is probably going to be the single biggest "real estate hog" on the layout, so locating it first tells you two things.  #1 How much space you will need for your yard.  #2 How much space you will have left over for the mainline and industries.  The answers to those two questions will go a long way in determining whether your yard is too big for the layout, or if the layout is too big for the yard.

ChrisNH's picture


I take the approach advocated by Tony Koester of using Layout Design Elements. These would be your areas of interest. The Yard. Towns which could include sidings and spurs. You work those out and figure out how to arrange them in your room. Once you got that done, the squiggly bits connecting them become the mainline..

So my succint answer would be to design your yard, figure out where it is going to go in your space.. then connect it with the rest of the layout with track that becomes the mainline..

Besides the usual books on the subject, the Model Railcast recently had an episode devoted to yard design:


I would download this RIGHT NOW since they will archive the shows and they become unavailable after a few weeks of being up.


“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.”           My modest progress Blog

Egg or Chicken?

Hmm...I see what you mean guys but shouldn't the "well thought out track plan" tell you if your yard is going to fit the space?

In the past I have always wanted to get some track in place and run a train...even if it's just in a big circle or back and forth.  Maybe I've been doing things backwards.  No surprise there, LOL!

Downloading the railcast show you linked Chris.

Edit:  I listened to #104 and it's a hit.  I'll be listening to it again.


NJ Devil's fan's picture

He, and the kids, were just

He, and the kids, were just happy to see a train running around the room. I asked him about trying to model a certain prototype (CSX) seeing how the kids like to watch the trains roll by here in Utica. His answer was short and sweet: "as long as it runs, it works for me" To be honest with you, it was quite easy to plan and was put together without many problems. The only "problem" we really encountered was the "more" factor. He wanted to keep on adding those #6 switches to the yard. He wanted "more" yard tracks. He had to "settle" for those #4's instead. Boy, putting an autorack through a #4 is a "cross your fingers experience" to say the least. Planning would have told us that.

For the most part, with the amount of track we had, it was one of the easier projects I've ever done. It was all done with the Atlas code 100 track The local hobby shop had a great supply of this stuff and gave him a good deal on the track. He still, though, can't get the hang of the flex track. "Why does one end always have to move" he asks? Does anyone remember the flex track that stayed after you flexed it? Anyway, we just started at the point where we thought the most amount of trouble would be (yard turnouts) and worked out to where we wanted the mains to exit and enter. We let the main lines "fall where they may" trying to judge the best radius for those auto racks. It was easier to adjust the curves as we went along. It worked! Some curves are tighter than others but we achieved the "flowing" appeal of the curve. It does not look as if the train is being thrown into the curves, like sectional track. It has a good appearance. We left some of the joints unsoldered at some locations in case he wants to add some sidings or industries at a later time. It short...it was fun to put together. He, nor his kids lost interest due to complicated wiring or tracklaying. It was up and running in a short amount of time. With it actually running, they all have ideas on how to add to the project. I guess it's easier to imagine looking at the real thing instead of looking at a drawing.

On a lighter note, one of his sons refers to the yard as "the parking lot". Kids, gotta lov'em.

Ahhhhh the simplicity of model railroading!

Still a NJ Devil's Fan!!!!! 
NJ Devil's fan's picture

CP and StL&H

Hey Blue I have a question for you seeing you are a CP fan. I have been away from the railroad for over 5 yaers now. When I was working for NYS&W, we interchanged with the CP (formerly D&H) at Binghamton, NY. At one time CP also owned the St. Lawrence and Hudson. What ever happenend to the St.L&H? Are they around. I don't here much about that road anymore.

Still a NJ Devil's Fan!!!!! 
joef's picture

Layout design is iterative

I'm amazed at how confusing people can make layout design, getting all wrapped around the axle regarding what "comes first". Design the yard first or design the main first, it doesn't really matter - and then once you have them both in place, you will generally find you need to go back and adjust the design of the other part - maybe several times back and forth.

If they're referring to the yard as the "parking lot" then it's clear they don't know how a real yard is used. Every track has a purpose in a real rail yard, and unless the yard truly is just a storage yard, the goal of a real railroad yard is to resort the cars according to their destinatations and get them out of the yard and on their way as expeditiously as possible.

You can think of a real railroad yard a bit like the post office. Each car is like each letter - the goal is not storage - the goal is to get the letters on their way to their destination. Same with a rail yard, and each line on a railyard track plan has a purpose.

If you're trying to design a railroad yard and you can't tell me what each track's purpose is and you want to realistically operate your yard, then I maintain you don't have enough operating experience yet. If you want to design a railroad yard for more than just a place to store trains you're not running, then get yourself invited to a realistic op session and volunteer to help switch the yard.

Once you've switched a few railroad yards, you will become *very aware* of what every track in the yard is for - and you will also know the shortcomings of various yard designs - and they all have their trade-offs.

Joe Fugate
Publisher, Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine

Joe Fugate's HO Siskiyou Line

CP Fan

Steve wrote:

Hey Blue I have a question for you seeing you are a CP fan. I have been away from the railroad for over 5 yaers now. When I was working for NYS&W, we interchanged with the CP (formerly D&H) at Binghamton, NY. At one time CP also owned the St. Lawrence and Hudson. What ever happenend to the St.L&H? Are they around. I don't here much about that road anymore.

Hey Steve,

I'm not a CP "officianado" by any stretch of the imagination and my focus is more on Western Canada than Eastern.  I Google'd the ST. Lawrence & Hudson and found this information on wikipedia;

On January 1, 2001 the SL&H assets were transferred back to CPR ownership and the SL&H was dissolved.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of the wiki info of course.


Just listening to Craig using the Post Office analogy on the Railcast! [grin]

NJ Devil's fan's picture

slow down Joe;

The "people" we are refering to here are newcomers to the hobby who dont want to be bothered with cumbersome details. They just want to get started in this hobby We were all beginners once. To get "wrapped up" in this debate is only showing how different all of us are. Being on the railroad for almost 20 years I CAN tell you what a yard track is for. Being a modeler for 40 years I can tell you my opionion of yard functions. There IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY to do this. It's your way. Yours may be different than mine but we all end up with the same result...a model railroad that we built and are proud of.

As for the " letter in the post office" remark about the railcars....good one! I prefer the FedEx letter though, it will get there sooner!

Still a NJ Devil's Fan!!!!! 
NJ Devil's fan's picture

thanks Blue

Thanks for the lead Blue...I'll look into it

Still a NJ Devil's Fan!!!!! 

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