Track Planning Software Choices

When I started in the hobby the only way to draw a track plan was to do it by hand with a pencil, eraser, ruler, and geometry set. For years I used the "all gauges track planning template" in the back of Kalmbach's book 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders by veteran model railroader Linn Westcott. I would use tracing paper over the template. I still have the soft-covered book. It has some great plans from small shelf layouts to 4' X 8' layouts all the way up to basement-sized pikes. There are also some great appendices with planning information.

One of the advantages of using the template was the quick learning curve! Everyone knows how to trace with a pencil.

Now we have a plethora of track planning software, but the learning curve can be steep. A familiarity with computer-assisted-drawing (CAD) software is certainly an asset.

The first track planning software I used was "Design Your Own Railroad" on "The Train Pak" CD by Abracadata. Then I 'graduated' to CADRail. I still use CADRail and have even used it to draw a backyard deck. As it is essentially a CAD program you are not limited to using it for model railroad planning.

Because CADRail (and other programs) employ layers, it is possible to keep benchwork, track, wiring and scenery on different layers to keep everything organized. Many of the programs have libraries of turnouts, other trackwork, scenery items and sometimes, electrical symbols. Or you can draw your own turnouts. A handy use of the layers is to make sure you don't have benchwork cross members interfering with turnout controls like a hanging Tortoise machine. There is usually a way of adding text, too.

It's still a good idea to lay out your trackwork on the floor, on top of the plywood, or on a big sheet of brown paper. Translating the computer drawing into reality doesn't always work out the way you plan.

Below are some of the other track planning software packages available. I don't have experience with all of them so you're on your own. The free Atlas software is really for their brand of track. Most of the software is for a PC. The only Mac software I know about is RailModeller. I do most of my computer work, including this website, on a Mac. However, I still do track planning on a Windows 2000 equipped PC. That's also where my copy of Trainz resides.

  • Abracadata: The Train Pak (costs. Includes Train Engineer. Windows/DOS program)
  • Atlas: Right Track Software (free)
  • El Dorado Software: 3rd Planit (costs. Alternative to CADRail)
  • Sandia Sofware: CADRail (costs. The one I use)
  • AnyRail: AnyRailModelspoor (free trial. Have never tried it)
  • XTrackCAD Model RR Track Planning (Have no experience. Comments suggest a steep learning curve unless you know CAD)
  • Mac Rail Soft: Rail Modeller (shareware, free trial. For MAC. I have tried this one)

There may be other track planning software programs out there, but I haven't come across them. You can find all these easily through Google so I haven't put the web addresses here. You can use the Custom Search feature in my right hand column.

One major advantage of using track planning software is that you have a permanent record on your computer and can make changes as your layout develops. I use CADRail to keep track of all the wiring on the signals we're installing on my Utopia Northern layout so that I know which color-coded wire goes to which signal head in which block. I'm sure you can think of other uses and they don't have to be to scale or on the same drawing. The image below was drawn for me in the Microsoft Paint program by fellow NMRC club member, Martin Alborough. This is another alternative if you don't need a CAD-type scale drawing. Good luck with your planning.

UNRR track diagram.
The narrow gauge switchback from
Collings Woods towards North Point is not shown.
HO track diagram

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