How to Expand a Train Set Into a Model Railroad

  • 01 of 06

    Starting With a Train Set

    train set
    The Spruce / Ryan C. Kunkle

    Ask most model railroaders where they started in the hobby and they'll recall their first train set with fond memory. It seems innocent enough—an oval of track, a transformer, a locomotive, and a few cars. But little by little these sets can grow into a hobby that fills a lifetime (and in some cases a rather large space) with learning and enjoyment.

    While you're dreaming big, start by getting down the basics of assembling your first train set. No matter where your hobby goes from here, understanding how to assemble the track, hook up the wires, run and troubleshoot your trains all comes back to these basics.

    If your oval track is leaving you wanting for something more, head to your local hobby shop or the internet and start looking at all of the extra track, trains, and accessories available to add to your set. If you don't have a store near you, start with the website of the company that made your set. For most companies, these sets are just part of a much larger product line. You'll also likely find some good tips on getting started, pre-packaged "expansion sets" of the track, maybe even sample track plans. You aren't stuck with just one company, however. Mixing trains from different brands along with other accessories is usually not an issue at all.

    Great model railroads don't just happen overnight. Add a little at a time and don't be afraid to make changes or even a few mistakes along the way.

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  • 02 of 06

    Your First Platform

    The Spruce / Ryan C. Kunkle

    Many manufacturers offer track which allows you to build a layout right on the floor without any problems. This is great for your first set and when experimenting with some different track plans as you get started, but as your plans get more complicated and especially as you start adding buildings and other scenery, you're going to want a more proper platform.

    The size and shape of your platform will depend on the track design you want to create but also on the space you have available. There are many good potential locations to build your model railroad in your home.

    A four-feet by eight-feet sheet of plywood is a common starting point for most train platforms. You can start with a full sheet of plywood on a simple support structure. You can also go with an "open grid" style platform for more scenic potential. As you're just getting started, the blank slate of a full sheet of plywood can be very helpful in working through different plans and ideas. You can always come back later and build something larger, differently shaped or even multiple levels later. Your first platform doesn't have to be your last.

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  • 03 of 06

    Track Plans for Added Operation

    track plan
    The Spruce / Ryan C. Kunkle

    The oval of track that comes with most sets is enough to get the train running but offers little in the way of excitement. You can add interest to your track plan two different ways: add more twists and turns or add new routes and spur tracks with switches.

    The track plan shown here offers a good look at simple operating expansions and it can be used across many different train scales. 

    The fun gained by giving your train a more dynamic path to follow is obvious. The challenge with these plans is often finding the right sizes of the premade track to fit the odd spaces as the geometry gets more complex. There are plenty of good starter four-feet by eight-feet track plans to start your thinking. If lots of curves are your thing, you might find flex track an easier and even more affordable method.

    Adding short sidings for spotting cars usually doesn't cause many track-laying headaches but the benefits can be less obvious. Here the added operation is gained by switching: having to stop the train, couple and uncouple cars, make forward and reverse movements and throw switches to set out and pick up cars. Giving the train, and yourself, something to do as it runs around the layout can provide a longer run than just making a larger loop.

    If you enjoy this switching, you may discover that you don't really need a "loop" at all. Just switching cars back and forth can provide hours of enjoyment and opens up a different style of layout designs that can fit in a smaller, narrow space.

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  • 04 of 06

    Building Kits

    completed store
    The Spruce / Ryan C. Kunkle

    Much of what we need to build a railroad is available and ready to use today. You can do a lot with these trains, buildings, and accessories taken right from the box, but you'll be missing out on a big part of the fun of the hobby if you never try your hand at building something yourself.

    Kits come in many sizes and levels of difficulty. From the most basic to craftsman level, the basics of assembly are the same. Learn these basics and you can master any kit.

    Beyond the basics, there are special tips that can help with kits of different materials. Wood, plastic, metal, resins, even cardstock are all common materials. This group of kit-building tips can help as you explore different options.

    As you get more comfortable, you'll be able to go beyond the instructions and customize your models to make them truly your own. From buildings to boxcars, your layout will start to take on a unique character and personality.

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  • 05 of 06


    model train scenery
    The Spruce / Ryan C. Kunkle

    Looking at the beautiful completed scenes in model magazines and online can be very inspiring and intimidating if you've never built a layout. Yes, there is a certain degree of artistry in modeling, but with the many products available to help, excellent results are within anyone's reach.

    For your first platform, keep it simple. Start with just adding some basic ground cover to the plywood. Nothing transforms the look of the layout faster and you'll be mastering the same basic gluing techniques you'll be using for years.

    Keeping it flat and simple for a while will allow you to move track and buildings around to find the design that works best for you. Then you can start adding mountains, rivers,​ and roads—whatever you'd like to complete your vision.

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  • 06 of 06

    Never Finished

    MR Days
    The Spruce / Ryan C. Kunkle

    A model railroad is never finished. You'll always be finding one more thing to add, change, or fix. That's part of the fun of it. As you set up your first platform, you're going to learn a lot about the hobby and also about what parts you like best.

    If you take it all apart and start over, your next platform will certainly be better as you learn from the successes and mistakes. No matter what size, style or scale, a successful model railroad is the one that makes you happy.

    This is only the beginning. You'll still have a lot to learn about power and control systems, new modeling techniques and materials to try, and even the amazing world of prototype railroading. If you stumble along the way, find tips to help maintain your modeling momentum. Enjoy the journey; just like a train ride and there are more to look forward to than the final destination.