The HO scale model train is the popular model train scale in most of the world as it provides a balance between detail, cost, and space efficiency. Its 16.5 mm track gauge allows modelers to utilize a smaller space without compromising on fine detail. Modelers can create elaborate track layouts within a limited room space. Given the HO scale model train popularity, there is a wide selection of cost effective equipment and scenery on the market.
But even given these advantages with the HO scale, the key to a successfully layout for model trains is proper benchwork and effective track planning.
What Is Benchwork and Why Do I Care?
The foundation or structure of the model railroad layout is referred to as the benchwork. While many beginner track start out on the floor, the desire to move the layout up to a bench quickly becomes apparent. A common starting point for benchwork is the standard 4' x 8' sheet of plywood found in hardware stores. But consider 30 x 60 sections screwed together. Now the sections can be disassembled and moved through standard doorways. A 30 section allows for easy reach from the front. And sections can be arranged around the perimeter of a space or around the walls for broader curves and longer track sections. Another reason to consider sections is to support different elevations.
Good model railroad benchwork is modular, relatively lightweight, and easy to work with. For benchtops, avoid dense, heavy materials such as particle board, homasote, or OSB (oriented-stranded board).
Another factor to consider for realism is the height of the layout. With model trains, tracks set waist high or chest high are easier to work with and add realism.
Effective Track Planning
Track planning is about prioritizing the features you want and then laying out a plan that meets your goals. A goal is to balancing realism with available space while adding features of interest. Some features to consider include the following:
Continuous Operation. Real trains don't run in circles, but it's a great advantage to having the option to run a train continuously in a small space.
Switching. Add switching to your continuous loop for variety.
Point-to-Point Operation. For realism and to make operations more interesting, consider some point-to-point track.
Turnouts. Consider siding, passing, facing-point, and stub-end. A stub-end near the edge of the bench makes it easier to park and move equipment to storage.
Changes in Elevation. But keep grades preferably at 2%. Remember that grade is the rise over the run (a 2 inch rise over 100 inches is 2%).
Landscaping. Allow real estate to add realistic landscaping.
In summary, good benchwork and effective track planning will pay off immeasurably with your HO scale model train layout. For best results, start with the planning and then move to building. Identify your priorities, consider alternatives, get external feedback, and create your designs before you start nailing, and you'll be pleased with the results.