Ideas for Building Modular
Model Railroad Layouts.

Building a modular train layout that is portable and flexible is a design challenge for many clubs and home-based modellers. Bill Payne of our Nottawasaga Model Railroad Club tackled the problem and created such a terrific modular concept that we are often asked for a detailed explanation when we attend regional shows.

>Our modular units are designed to:

  • Roll on wheels
  • Allow for height adjustment
  • Be easily lifted and carried by several people
  • Stand up to heavy use and abuse
  • Interconnect with our other modules

 Our modules are not designed to interconnect to modular HOTrak railroads but we are extending the layout to connect with free-mo sections. Ours are designed to fit our specific trackplan.

The modules are sized to fit side by side and end to end in a 6 x 12 foot trailer. The inside dimensions accommodate either 24 or 30 inch modules. Our basic height from the floor is 48 inches. Most modules are just shy of 6 feet long.  We have a 2-foot module that is used for some show arrangements of the trackplan. The end modules are constructed to form a balloon to take a 30 inch radius. It's a typical dogbone plan without a reverse loop connection.

Construction specifications for the carriers are:

  • 1/2" plywood for the sides with open areas for handholds and to reduce weight
  • One end closed (optional)
  • Modules slide in from the open end
  • Wooden rails are spaced roughly 12 inches apart to allow for scenery and buildings (this can vary)
  • Modules lock to the carrier with dowels, clamps and a wedge joint (see below)

    Here's a side view.

  • Each carrier is on free-rolling castors 

These castor wheels are attached to a 2" x 6" pine cross piece.

  • The plywood sides rest on the cross piece for support.

On the right is the view from an open end. The modules slide in on the rails. Each carrier can carry three modules with clearance for some scenery.  Tall buildings are moved separately and fit over styrofoam blocks glued to the module base.

trailer hitch plugs for modular model railroadsTrailer hitch plugs for connectors

C-clamps lock modular sections into position. The carriers can be raised with shims. Two  1-inch dowels are used to align adjacent modules. We use standard 4-wire trailer hitch plugs for easy and foolproof electrical connection.

adjustable foot for modular railroadInexpensive adjustable foot bolt

The floating modules use 2" x 2" pine legs set in pockets. They have adjustable feet. The feet are made with 5/16" x 3" bolts screwed through a 1 1/2" ABS plastic end cap. These are secured with a nut that allows adjustment of the height. This idea came from one of the model railroad magazines.

modular layout adjustable leg with foot boltAdjustable modular leg

This is the adjustable foot bolt.  It is often necessary to adjust the height at train shows. These make adjustment quick and easy. They're also inexpensive to make.

track joiner for modular model railroadsDrop-in track joiners

The track is connected between modules in a novel way.  One and a half inch lengths of 20 gauge wire are soldered at all rail ends of 6" Code 100 prefab track. These just drop into place where the track at the end of the modules is set back 3 inches.

If your horizontal alignment is not true, these will pop up. This makes sure trains will run across properly. Once in awhile we have to add rail joiners. The best laid plans and all that... .

module edge alignmentModule edge alignment

A wedge-shaped end piece is attached to a module end with matching numbers. This assures vertical alignment.

levelling adjacent modulesChecking the level of adjacent modules

Here's the method developed by member Bill Payne that will help you level modules should you ever need to do so, for example, at a train show. The rail joiners will pop up if the track isn't levelled correctly at the joints.

A piece of string is stretched over two 3" high blocks of wood resting on the rail tops at each end of the modules. When the string just touches the top of the blocks  you know the alignment is true from end to end of the layout. A standard level is also used.

Cut several pieces of wood that are the same height like these scrap pieces of wall molding. Fasten a string to a nail or screw under one end of the connected modules. Fasten the other end of the string in the same way to the other end making sure the string is reasonably tight. 

Then take two more identical pieces and slide them along under the string. The string should just brush the tops. When it does along the entire length of the connected modules they are all level lengthwise.  We use an ordinary carpenter's level to check across the short side (width) of the modules.  

We also secure them together with dowels and C-clamps. The dowels help make the process quicker but you can do without them and just use the C-clamps.

model railroad module frameModule frame

The module layout tops are built in open grid fashion. They can take either 2" foam or solid cookie-cutter plywood subroadbed. 

Our standard practice is to use white glue and staple with a nailer for rigidity. We use drywall screws when we don't staple. 

module carriers in transport trailerLoaded module in club's trailer

Here's a picture showing the modules being transported in our trailer to the Holland Centre, Ontario train show September 21, 2008.

The next picture shows a module transporter being rolled down the ramps from the trailer. The entire railroad layout is carried in the two transporters.

unloading modules from trailer

This is a view of the modules set up at the Holland Centre train show. That's member Bill Payne busy leveling the modules.

modules set up

This top view gives a good idea of the dogbone shape of the layout. You're looking down the length of the layout modules set up at a train show at the fairgrounds in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.

modules top view

There are more pictures of our layout and others on the Holland Centre page within  "train photos".

modular railroad setupModular railroad set up in Barrie
model railroad module setupThe club layout set up at the Barrie show

On the left is the layout set up in the Bradford Greenhouses where the 2008 Barrie Show was held. Left to right are members Barry Ruse, John Carruthers and the late Max Watts.

The photo on the right is looking over John Carruther's shoulder from the village end of the layout. The modular railroad is now controlled by Digitrax DCC. Electrically the layout mainline is divided in half, end to end with a booster for the second half.  

Because we like to let kids run the trains at shows we've kept the controls simple. They catch on quickly.

modular layout modulesRunning trains at the Barrie Show

The next picture shows Bill Payne beside a yard controller. Behind him is Barry ruse with John Carruthers operating the mainline.

We've made a number of changes since these photos were taken. A new module has been built for the middle of the layout that allows trains to reverse direction. Other track modifications have also been made so that the layout is now double-tracked.  There's more information on the NMR club page.

That's the basic story. This has worked well for us for a number of years. We tried building a carrier so the modules could be slipped in from the side instead of from the end. It was too unstable and the ends bowed. Sometimes good ideas don't pan out. 

If you'd like some ideas of how to transport your rolling stock to shows or other friends' layouts, there are some examples of  model train carrying cases on a separate page.

Look for us if you're ever attending train shows in the Barrie-Collingwood-Midland area two hours north of Toronto, Canada. Better yet, drop by to see us Monday night when we work on the layout at Bygone Days in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada. 

More reasons to go modular

  • Do you think you'll ever move?
  • Do you need to share space in an apartment or condo?
  • Would you like to change scenes or track arrangements?
  • Is model railroad photography your primary motivation? 
  • Will this be a diorama for model train display purposes?

It's a rare model railroader that never has to move. Cutting permanent layouts into pieces is never a happy occasion. Not only do you end up destroying the work you've spent countless hours on, the layout never seems to fit the new space you try to squeeze it into. 

I know, I've done this several times. What's worse is splicing together all the wiring you had to cut apart. There's a reason that many modular layouts are constructed in dimensions of 24" to 30" width, less than 8' long and 12" to 16" high: doorways! Take into consideration that you have to carry the module up or down stairs. Many basement staircases have a 90 degree turn in the middle or there isn't a lot of room at the bottom to turn sideways. 

Whether you're building a rowboat or a model railroad module you need to check how much room you have to negotiate the passage.   I can remember cutting a hole in the drywall because I needed that extra two inches. Very frustrating. Just because you're tight for space doesn't mean you can't have a model railroad. 

There have been lots of ingenious solutions for tight spaces. Layouts can roll under beds or be constructed as a "murphy bed" that hinges from the wall. In garages the layout can be suspended from the ceiling on pulleys or parts can fold down when the car is parked in the driveway.

Even if you do not plan to take your modular layout to a train show, you still retain the ability to interconnect the modules in various combinations as long as you are careful when planning where the tracks terminate at the ends. This is where the  free-mo concept mentioned above really helps.

Modular "domino" trackplanning

Another method of building a model railroad is to design it as modular "dominoes". This method allows you to do much of the construction at your workbench and then connect the modules end to end or side by side. 

The domino idea came from David Barrow whose model railroad is the HO scale Cat Mountain and Santa Fe. It is based on the Ntrak 2 x 4-foot modular concept. As David explained in a Model Railroader article in September 1999, it's a "...method of arranging benchwork sections end to end to automatically form a walkaround linear trackplan."

A clever module within a module concept was proposed by Robert Schleicher in his book  Building your next model railroad. Robert called his idea miniature "Scene Sites". 

This idea can be particularly useful to avoid boredom if you have a small model train layout. The concept involves dropping in different structures and backdrops or complete dioramas in a small space. For example, line a 12" by 18" hole in the benchwork along the right-of-way with supports that make it easy to lift scenes in and out. 

You could build the scenes on 2" foam to keep them lightweight. The track arrangement can stay the same or vary somewhat. You build different structures to fit the area and keep these scenes on shelves beneath your layout. When the mood strikes you, you change the scenes.

Think of the "Scene Sites" as a time machine. The structures can suggest different eras: a cattle pen in 1920, a tannery in 1930, a small feed dealer in 1950, the same feed dealer with an expanded operation in 1960, a whistle stop passenger station with a siding overgrown with weeds in 1970, a loading platform for farm machinery in 1980; a propane dealer in 1990, etc.

Now you can build freight cars that represent different eras and have an excuse for owning and running both steam engines and diesel locomotives from other railroads you like.

The beauty of small scenes

Building small scenes provides an opportunity to do historical research, hone skills with different building materials, try out scenery ideas and backdrops, and experiment with operations. 

You can even enter your masterpieces into contests at train conventions and then put them to work on your railroad when you get home. Right under your award certificate, of course! 

The beauty of this approach is that you are limited only by your imagination. When you're tired of one scene, pack all the rolling stock away in "Train-Tote" corrugated boxes with dividers or make your own out of plastic containers and foam inserts. 

If your desire is to take model train photos, you can take these "Scene Site" dioramas outside so that you can benefit from natural light and real nature backdrops. 

Robert's books are some of the favorites in my collection. He put forward some novel ideas to help build a better and more interesting model railroad. 

This book was published in 1986 by Eastwood Publishing Company, Denver, Colorado. ISBN number: 0-9612692-2-7.   

A permanent layout on a flatbed trailer

modular layout on a flatbed trailerModular layout on a flatbed trailer

Another local train club has mounted its travelling layout as a single module on a flatbed trailer. Here's a picture of the wheels and skirt of the trailer at the Brampton, Ontario train show, October, 2008. The trailer forms part of a permanent layout. Other pictures of their layout can be seen on the Brampton train show page.

Photos of our NMRC traveling
train show layout

Nottawasaga Model Railroad Club (NMRC) member, Bill Payne, took these pictures of our club layout set up at a train show. Click on the photos for a larger view.

train show HO scale village curve train show HO scale layout 1 model railroad modular layout mine module
model railroad modular layout ore cars model railroad modular layout freight house model railroad HO scale layout center bridge module

Photos of a linear switching
modular HO layout

Below are photos of a modular, self-contained, linear HO scale model railroad that was displayed at the Bracebridge, Ontario train show, 2008.

Nottawasaga Model Railroad Club (NMRC) member, Bill Payne, took these pictures to illustrate what can be accomplished in a small space. He has taken most of the pictures looking down so you can see the track layout. Some of it includes track in pavement that is very well done. Note also the backdrop construction. 

his would be a lot of fun switching cars in and out for a few leisurely hours. It was a big hit at the train show.

One of the definitive guides to building benchwork is the book by Linn Westcott.

More train pictures, both model and prototype, can be accessed from my Train Photos Overview page.

model railroad modular layout 1a model railroad modular layout 1b model railroad modular layout 1c
model railroad modular layout 1d model railroad modular layout 1e model railroad modular layout 1f
model railroad modular layout 1g model railroad modular layout 1h model railroad modular layout 1i
model railroad modular layout 1j model railroad modular layout 1k

Return from "modular" layouts to Benchwork

Return from "modular" layouts to my Home Page

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