Build a Portable Model Railroad

  • 01 of 04

    A Model Railroad That Moves

    track plan
    Thanks to its compact size, the switching on this portable layout is more challenging than it appears. The heavy line down the center represents the hinged joint between the two sides of this portable railroad. ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    No space for a permanent layout? Constantly moving? Off to college? Or maybe you're looking for a way to share the hobby with others.

    Sometimes the model railroad that moves us moves with us. A portable model railroad can be a great way to take your hobby on the road. And a railroad doesn't have to be huge to offer big rewards.

    You don't need to have continuous running options to have hours of fun on a model railroad. In fact, not being able to run the train endlessly in circles, but thinking about its every move and job is a great way to lengthen your modeling enjoyment. This shelf-style layout represents a typical city industrial district and provides a lot of operations in a relatively small space. One half of the railroad contains four different industries, with a small "fiddle yard" on the other.

    Although the "mainline" on this railroad between the yard and industries is only nine inches long, you could easily stretch this plan into a larger shelf-style layout around the walls of the room to provide a longer run and even more industrial switching action.

    A small train of only a locomotive and two cars can keep you occupied for quite a while on this deceptively simple railroad.

    Layout at a Glance

    • Scale: HO
    • Size: 10"x90" (folds in half to 45" length for transport and storage)
    • Minimum Curve: 18" radius
    • Minimum Switch: No. 4
    • Maximum Grade: none


    This track plan is designed around standard track sections, but you could also substitute flex track. You could use track with an integrated roadbed, or conventional tracks. A large sheet of foam or cork (see the insulation or flooring section in your home store) would be a good substitute for cork roadbed here, providing a good work surface and noise reduction.

    For sectional track, here are the pieces you'll need:

    1. 18" radius 1/3 curve - 2
    2. No. 4 Switch, Left - 7
    3. No. 4 Switch, Right - 1
    4. 12.5 degree crossing - 1
    5. 9" Straight - 13
    6. 6" Straight - 1
    7. 3" Straight - 3
    8. 1.25" Straight - 2
    9. Rerailer (9" straight) - 2

    Note that on a complex plan like this, even if you decide to stick with sectional track, you may find it easier--and cheaper--to use standard size pieces and simply custom-cut them to length using a motor tool or a pair of rail-cutters (available at most hobby shops). This will give you the exact fit you want without having to try and match up a bunch of small pieces.

    Continue to 2 of 4 below.
  • 02 of 04

    Building the Platform

    portable layout
    The model railroad folds in half for easy storage and transport. Equipment can even be boxed and stored inside for more space savings. ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    The basic benchwork for this platform is simply two small boxes connected by hinges at the center. Of course, you could easily modify the construction plan to make this a permanent set up, or increase the dimensions if you have room.

    The two boxes are built using an open-grid benchwork. Assemble the four sides, two 45" long and two 10" long, from 1x2's or make your own boards from 3/4" plywood. Corners can be mitered for added strength, or use a simple butt-joint.

    Use 1/2" plywood for the tops. Fasten everything with carpenters glue and screws.

    For a more finished appearance, paint the edges and top of the platform.


    To join, secure, and carry the railroad, you'll need just a few pieces of standard hardware. You'll be able to find these items in several styles and finishes at any home store.

    Attach a pair of hinges along the bottom at the center "ends" of the two boxes.

    Attach a pair of trunk clasps to the other to lock the box when traveling or storing.

    To make the railroad easier to carry, attach a handle to one of the long edges.

    Continue to 3 of 4 below.
  • 03 of 04

    Track, Power, and Scenery

    With operations and portability the top priority on this layout, scenery can be kept to a minimum. You could make it as elaborate as you like however. ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.


    This track plan is designed around standard code 100 track sections. Whether you use integrated roadbed, another form of track bed, or simply tack the track directly to the plywood is all up to you.

    You can substitute flex track for some sections. You will need to make cuts in at least two pieces of track where they meet the hinged edges of the platform. Using a pair of "rerailer" tracks here provides a better alignment for trains crossing the gap.

    Switches are all close enough to the operator that manual switch throws could be used to cut costs and simplify construction.


    As the entire railroad would be one operational block, conventional or DCC systems could both be used to power the line. As seen in the photos, a small power pack from a train set was screwed directly to the platform near the center.

    A DCC system would allow you to easily add a second locomotive to make your own operations easier and the tethered throttles could be easily unplugged and stored inside the box for transport.

    A power bus with feeders to the many sidings will allow reliable operations through the many switches. Leave enough slack in the wires around the hinges. The number of feeders you install is up to you, but at least one pair on each of the three long tracks of the yard and industrial section would minimize voltage drop issues.

    Scenery and Structures

    As a portable layout, scenery is a bit of a challenge. If your interest is primarily in operation, and you move the layout frequently, then minimal scenery may work best. Simply ballasting the track and adding some ground cover will go a long way towards providing a finished look without adding much weight or any delicate parts.

    If you do choose to add structures, background buildings will work well. You could use kits as-is, or do some kitbashing to fit and make the most of materials. Walthers, DPM, Pikestuff, and others make many industry kits that can be easily modified for these scenes and stretched along the backdrop. You could, of course, substitute buildings to model different customers or from other manufacturers.

    Continue to 4 of 4 below.
  • 04 of 04

    Equipment and Operations

    It only takes a few cars to fill this small railroad and make operations a fun challenge. ©2012 Ryan C Kunkle, licensed to, Inc.

    This layout is perfect for small power. The very short tail track at the end of the run-around (only six inches) will put some limits on what you can use. Small industrial engines like "Dockside" tank engines or steam switchers, 44-ton diesels or even something as large as an SW1500 in a more modern era would be appropriate motive power.

    Freight cars would depend on the era and industries you choose. Although the space is tight, 50-foot cars would have no difficulties navigating the curves. Choosing different industries would allow a variety of boxcars, tanks, gondolas, flatcars, etc.

    With sidings branching off in different directions, switching even a two-car train could take a while. A run around track is also included, but you'll have to plan ahead due to the diamond.

    Uncoupling magnets could be added, but given the small size of the operation and the many places you'll want to separate cars, you may be better off using a hand tool.


    The operating plan is fairly simple. The session starts with the locomotive picking up a train from one of the three yard tracks. One, two or at most a three-car train will be typical.

    The train then proceeds across the layout to the industrial spurs. Here the inbound cars must be spotted on the correct siding. There are four industries that can be worked, on the upper track, left and right of the switch, on the center track at the left end, and on the lower track on the right. What these businesses are and what types of cars they use is up to you.

    In addition to setting off the inbound cars, outbound cars must also be gathered. And any cars that you have to move to access the sidings will need to be put back.

    The train then returns to the yard and the cars are spotted for the next session.

    There are several ways you could move cars about the layout. You could use a car-forwarding card system to set up operating moves. One destination would be an industry on the layout, with the next being an offline location. The three yard tracks could represent three different offline destinations or connections.

    By varying the outbound destinations, cars will go to different tracks each time. This means that each session will start with a different combination of cars.

    You could also just as easily make up your own rules as you go along, or literally, roll the dice to determine your next combination of moves. Either way, this "simple" layout is going to provide lots of interesting challenges as you navigate the tight clearances and serve your customers.