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Model Railway Shelf Layouts

(Auther "Dave777" Forum Member)



Shelf layouts are an alternative to the more traditional ‘oval’ or ‘continuous run’ layout (typified by the track from a train set) and are ideal for those with only a limited amount of space to dedicate to a model railway. If you haven’t got room for an oval layout then this is a way to still experience the enjoyment of building a model railway and to arrive at something that is interesting to operate.

Model Railway Shelf Layout

Since shelf layouts are typically small they do present some problems for the modeller, but equally the small size produces many advantages. Perhaps the most obvious 'problem' is that there is no continuous run or loop of track, which means you won't be able to sit back and let the trains go round for any great length of time. But since operating a layout is part of the appeal the shelf layout actually presents an increase in this aspect - individual train movements are completed relatively quickly and so you can get on with the next one straight away. In short, operation on a shelf layout is much more intense than on a loop since you don't have to wait for the train to go any great distance before it reaches its destination! For many people the opportunity to get away from the loop of track is also a big advantage as it removes the 'train set' aspect and the layout starts to take on the form of a 'model of a railway'. Layouts that include a loop of track frequently also have a tunnel as the modeller attempts to disguise the nature of the layout, and curves are usually much sharper than they are on the real thing thus further destroying the illusion. With a shelf layout there is little need to try and 'hide' any particular design aspect and the lack of curves means there is typically an increase in the overall realism.

As the overall size is smaller a shelf layout can be fitted in where a looped circuit would never be able to fit, and using folding baseboards a shelf layout can be packed away easily when not in use. This reduction in size also means that shelf layouts are quicker to build since (in theory!) there's less modelling to carry out (results are thus quicker too), and the use of less materials means the cost of construction is usually cheaper too. Mention of cost brings us onto another advantage, namely the smaller amount of trackwork and rolling stock required. Since there is a finite amount of space for track and the resulting layout will only be able to handle a certain amount of stock there's less cost associated with these two aspects (which are typically the two biggest costs when building a model railway). Should additional funds become available at a later date the somewhat modular nature of the design allows for relatively easy expansion once the layout is complete.

So apart from the lack of a loop are there any other perceived disadvantages? It's probably worth mentioning an aspect that becomes more apparent the smaller the shelf layout becomes, and that's it's bias towards steam-era modelling. Modern rolling stock is much larger than it's steam era equivalent, from the locos to the coaches through to much of the freight wagons. It's perfectly possible to reproduce a modern scene on a shelf layout, but as the size of the layout decreases there's little doubt that the suitability of the site for this purpose becomes less, whereas a 'believable' steam era layout can be constructed on virtually any size. A modern Class 66 pulling three wagons can look a little odd as the loco is as long as the train, whereas a small steam tank locomotive pulling the same train looks perfectly acceptable (even if it is more a reproduction of 'how we remember it' rather than 'how it actually was' !). Apart from the shunter classes such as the 08 there are no small diesel or electric locomotives (certainly nothing like the proliferation of steam tank locos), so if you are modelling on a small site it may be worth considering a steam era layout.

 Model Railway Shelf Layout - Class 59 pulling 3 45t tankers

 Model Railway Shelf Layout - Hornby tanke engine pulling mixed freight

Shelf layouts are a genuine alternative to looped or continuous run plans - the increase in realism and operating potential, combined with the shorter construction time, smaller space requirements and reduction in overall costs, means you can quicker and relatively cheaply construct a model railway that is to a high standard and which is interesting to operate. 

Shelf layout design is usually based on one particular type of plan – the terminus-to-fiddleyard layout. Although it’s perfectly possible to build a layout without a fiddleyard they have become a very common feature on model railways and represent an extremely useful method of achieving believable and interesting operating.

So what is a fiddle yard? On the full size railway a train would leave a station and travel several miles before arriving at another station. On a model we simply don't have the room to recreate the miles of line or indeed the other station, so we model one station and then use the fiddleyard to represent the rest of the railway system. Essentially it gives our trains somewhere to go when they leave the model world we have created. If you imagine a stage with actors as the model, then the fiddleyard would be the wings where the actors prepare to go on. We prepare our train in the fiddleyard and then move it 'on-stage' onto the model. It's name is either derived from the idea that lots of 'fiddling about' takes place or because to represent the rest of the railway system in this way is 'a fiddle', or cheat. Fiddleyards aren't just restricted to shelf layouts as many continuous run layouts also include them, but for shelf layouts they are an essential part of the overall design. Indeed most shelf layouts are based on the 'terminus-to-fiddleyard' concept using a terminus station as the model and a fiddleyard as the destination or 'off-stage'. It's this terminus-to-fiddleyard concept that we will be chiefly looking at here.

In theory there is no limit to how small you can make a shelf layout. Take an N gauge loco with one wagon, nail a 6 inch piece of track to a board and hey presto, the train goes back and forth and it's a model railway! Realistically however there are some parameters which determine just how small you can make the completed layout. The most obvious one is choosing the scale to model - OO gauge or 4mm is the most popular gauge in the UK (all Hornby models are this scale). N gauge, or 2mm, is also very popular, although the range of rolling stock and accessories is smaller. At half the size of OO gauge however a N gauge layout takes up much less room, so if you're really tight for space I would recommend a look at N gauge as you can fit an amazing amount of layout into a very small space, but the size of the models means the scale is not best suited to younger modellers. Going the other way there's O gauge or 7mm, but here the amount of available off-the-shelf items becomes much less and costs for individual items rise significantly, and the amount of space required increases dramatically. There are other scales of course (try searching for Z gauge or LGB) but since this is a site for new railway modellers we're going to assume you're using OO as it's the most popular scale.

There are other factors that will determine how small your shelf layout can be though, and it's here that we have to look at a few essential design elements.

Primarily there are two main factors that will determine the length of your layout - the runaround loop and the fiddleyard. Although it's possible to construct a terminus-to-fiddleyard layout without a runaround loop I personally believe it's an essential for interesting operating practice, and as we shall see later it's operating interest that is the key thing to keep in mind with a shelf layout. The runaround loop lets you run a train into a station, uncouple the locomotive, move the loco around the train (or 'runaround' the train) and then recouple onto the back so that it's ready to depart for the return journey. For passenger services you could remove this requirement by using a DMU or railcar, but for freight trains the ability to runaround a train is a big bonus for shunting operations. So while you could build a plan without the runaround loop I'm going to assume it will be included. This now means that we have our first determination of the size of the layout. In order to be able to runaround the train it must be possible to fit the train entirely within the loop itself, so let's assume that we'll be running a two coach passenger train. Measuring the two coaches will give us our first dimension in determining the size of the layout.

Secondly we need to be able to fit the locomotive itself into the headshunt off the runaround loop. Remember that we need to keep the points clear so that they can be changed to allow the runaround movement to take place so the loco has to fit entirely within the headshunt. This is where the size of the loco will play a determining factor in the size of the layout - obviously a Class 66 diesel will require more room than a steam tank loco.

Finally we need to be able to fit this train into the fiddleyard itself. Again the train needs to be able to fit entirely within the fiddleyard so as to be completely 'out of sight'.

Armed with these three dimensions we can start to draw up our plan and the space we're going to need. Here I've used some generic boxes to represent the loco and coaches - your choice of rolling stock will determine the exact length. All I'm illustrating here is the process of determining the minimum size the layout needs to be.

 Model Railway Shelf Layout

So now that we have some basic dimensions we can start to think about how to plan out the various elements we want. Assuming you're modelling a terminus-to-fiddleyard  layout there are three basic ideas you can employ. Just before we examine them I should take a small detour here to cover two quick issues. You shouldn't actually need to do that much 'fiddling' in your fiddleyard - typically the only thing you'll need to do is to pick the loco off one end and move it to the other so that the train is ready to run out again into the station. So while access to the fiddleyard is important it's not as if you'll need to do a great deal in here. Secondly since some of your stock will be held in the fiddleyard many people like to continue to have it 'on display' and not hidden away. Go to a model railway exhibition and you'll see both approaches - some operators have their fiddleyards open to the public so that their rolling stock can be viewed at all times, whereas others like to hide the fiddleyard so that the emphasis is on the 'modelled' part of the layout and trains are able to make more of an entrance when they run out. If you're planning to exhibit your layout this is an aspect you may need to think about, but if your layout is never going to leave home and you're the only one who will ever see it then it's probably less of a concern. However, there's little doubt that even in the home an open fiddleyard can be unattractive and (perhaps more disappointingly) take the viewer's eye away from the modelled part of the layout. At the very least you could paint the baseboard in the fiddleyard a dark grey colour so as to tone it down somewhat and dull the visual impact.

So bearing in mind the issues of accessibility and presentation, the first basic design is to simply have the fiddleyard at one end of the layout, as this allows for easy access for any 'fiddling' and there's a very clear definition between the scenic and 'off-stage' areas. The disadvantage is that fiddleyards are typically bare boards with track nailed to it so can look a little ugly and with this design the fiddleyard is very much on show.

Model Railway Shelf Layout

The second approach is to hide the fiddleyard behind a backscene or buildings. This has the twin advantages of looking more presentable while allowing for some additional modelling to take place in front of the fiddleyard. The disadvantage is that accessibility is reduced since you have to lean over the backscene to gain access. This is very much the 'classic' terminus-to-fiddleyard design however and it allows maximum modelling in the given space while hiding away the ugly fiddleyard.

Model Railway Shelf Layout

The third approach is probably the least employed but has one distinct advantage. Here the fiddle yard is accessed via a kick-back arrangement. You move the train 'off stage' and then after changing the points move it back into the fiddle yard proper. It's more complicated to operate but the big advantage on a small layout is that any shunting that takes place in the station can use the kick-back part to move the loco and wagons around - with the above two designs you ideally need to leave a road in the fiddle yard clear at all times to allow you to shunt stuff. The disadvantage (apart from the added operating complication) is that it eats into the overall width of the layout - if you've a narrow site for the layout it's not the best choice.

Model Railway Shelf Layout

So what I'm going to do here is to show an example of the second type (with the fiddleyard hidden behind a backscene) so that we can examine some of the development of a layout. The basic principles can be applied to either of the other two designs, and the concepts described here can be applied to either a steam-era or diesel operated line - where there are differences in approaches required I'll make sure to mention them. The objective with this exercise is to show how to go about designing such a scheme while keeping several things in mind, namely how to determine the overall length of the plan, how to make sure the layout 'works', how to build in operating interest and finally some tweaks to save space.

Okay, let's assume we want to run loco hauled two-coach passenger trains - this sets the length of our runaround loop and fiddle yard as already discussed.

Model Railway Shelf Layout

Let's add the platform and an additional line in the fiddle yard. Note how we've now got two sidings in the fiddleyard and it's grown slightly in size because now we have a point. In order to be able to use the second fiddleyard siding we don't want the two coach train to stop over the points - it has to fit entirely within the siding.  I'm also going to hide the fiddleyard behind a backscene (essentially a piece of wood or stiff card) so it's out of sight. So now we have something like this:

 Model Railway Shelf Layout

I could have the runaround loop set up slightly differently so that it looks like this, but the problem here is that you can't run a freight training directly into the lower side of the runaround loop.

 Model Railway Shelf Layout

All trains have to run into the platform road first (so you can't leave a passenger train idling in the station) and in order to get wagons into the siding marked A you have to run them into the platform road, then backshunt into the area infront of the fiddleyard, and then backshunt again along the lower side of the runaround loop. So that means you need to keep the platform road, the siding in front of the fiddleyard and the lower side of the runaround loop all free in order to get just a single wagon into the siding marked A. So if we keep in mind the need to make the layout 'work', by simply switching the points around we have a much better setup.

Now in front of the fiddleyard we have a big space that we can utilise for some interesting freight workings, so I'm going to place a couple of sidings. In order to add in some operating interest I’ve made one of them a kickback siding – this means that in order to get wagons into siding B we have to either keep siding C clear or take wagons out of it first (another way to build in an operating ‘challenge’ is to use the same siding for more than one use. The first half could serve a factory and the second half a milk depot – in order to shunt wagons to the milk depot the factory wagons have to be removed first, or the wagons have to be shunted into the siding in the right order)

Model Railway Shelf Layout

Now since we’ve got some space over the other side of the platform we can add in another siding to give us some more operating interest. And why not include a small spur off of this (again a kickback setup so that we might have to clear out siding D first) which we’ll employ for loco storage. On a steam setup this would be a coaling stage, for a diesel setting it would be a refuelling point. Finally I've added an extra siding across the bottom of the layout. So that gives us a reasonably completed layout that looks something like this. Note how I’ve labelled the last two sidings E and F.

 Model Railway Shelf Layout

(click on image to enlarge)

With sidings labelled all the way down to F that means we’ve got 6 separate locations to shunt wagons if we want to – not bad at all. So how do we take this plan and develop it into a model railway?  I’m not going to assign all my sidings here because it’s really up to you to decide what kinds of facilities you want to model and what rolling stock you’d like to run, but to illustrate the kind of thinking involved I’m going to say I want to model an oil refinery and because I like the look of container wagons I want to run some of them as well. So that means we’ll be running oil tanker wagons and container wagons, and will be needing an oil refinery and some sort of container loading/unloading facility. I’ll also use a little trick and use one of the other sidings for a factory but won’t specifically decide what the factory actually produces, as this will give me an excuse to run a variety of wagons without having to give a reason for the factory to need that particular kind of product! Basically I’ve simply decided that it’s a factory siding and will make up my mind later on what wagons I’m going to serve it with once I’ve had a look through the catalogue to decide which ones I like.

Model Railway Shelf Layout

I’ve decided to use both sidings C and E for the container unloading facility (you could of course employ these sidings for separate uses). On a steam railway this might be used as a coal yard and/or cattle dock. I’ve also put in a couple of oil storage tanks on the loco spur at the back – this then gives us an excuse to run a special oil tanker to refuel these tanks (more shunting possibilities), although in reality tanks this small would probably be filled by a road tanker. Again on a steam era layout you’d replace this with a coal wagon, but the principle of running an extra wagon and thus increasing the operating interest is the same.

Note how I’ve only modelled the front face of the factory – this is called low relief modelling. Instead of re-creating the entire factory we only use one side so as to give the impression that there’s a bigger factory. On our model the factory is only a couple of centimetres deep. So now we’re actually fairly close to a completed design. Just about the last thing to do is to hide the entrance to the fiddleyard. You could of course simply leave it so that trains go behind the backscene but it looks a little odd and unrealistic, so I’m going to use a road overbridge to hide the entrance a bit more.

Model Railway Shelf Layout

And that’s just about it – a complete terminus-to-fiddleyard design. On this you could run a two coach passenger train, at least 3 different types of wagons (and more likely 4 or 5) and there’s excellent potential for lots of shunting and working out a sequence of moves. There's still some space over the back of the layout, behind the platform - you could squeeze in an extra siding here but in order to 'balance' the layout perhaps some scenic work would be better - backs of houses or a street leading to the station building, for example. I mentioned earlier that you can assign whatever industries you want to various sidings, and or course you can alter the track plan if required. Here I’ve shown an alternative that changes the town/urban feel of the plan to a more country setting and adds a quarry instead. I’ve also replaced the road overbridge with a tunnel entrance – it’s not exactly true to life (the quarry is mining into the tunnel where the railway is for starters, not exactly safe!) but we only have a small area so need to cram things in a bit.

Model Railway Shelf Layout

(click on image to enlarge)

The concept of cramming things in is worth examining a little more closely as there are a few little tweaks you can apply to save space and cut down on the overall size of the layout. I’ve already mentioned the use of low relief buildings, but there’s nothing to stop you using a low relief platform if you’ve only got a very narrow site. You can also move the pointwork for the fiddleyard so it’s under the road overbridge to shave a couple of useful 5-6cm off the overall length. What if you want to model a loco shed but don’t have the room? Well why not model this is low relief too and leave the engine standing outside but suggest that the loco facilities are more extensive? Here's a plan that incorporates all these ideas:

Model Railway Shelf Layout

(click on image to enlarge)

And before we leave space saving ideas it’s worth mentioning a change to the runaround loop, although this does go against something I said earlier. You could save a fair amount of space by changing the location of the runaround loop so that it forms the main bulk of the layout. Now obviously this is getting into the realms of serious space saving as this does impact on the overall operability of the plan – you need to keep the platform road clear in order to gain access to the rest of the layout – but this then asks the question ‘Why keep the platform?’. If you’re happy to ditch passenger services altogether and go for a freight only line then this is a reasonably viable option. The problem is that this is getting very close to the simplest you can make a layout while still maintaining operating interest. I’ve managed to squeeze in four sidings, but they aren’t very long. However, you could probably make a layout like this in N gauge in a space as small as 60cm x 10cm (2’ x 0.3’). That’s a very compact layout by any standards.

Model Railway Shelf Layout

Before we leave terminus-to-fiddleyard design behind and take a quick look at larger shelf layouts I just want to mention a few related points. A lot of small layouts use the concept of a ‘shunting puzzle’. This is something that was first built over 50 years ago and has been slowly refined and developed since (although the basic idea hasn’t changed at all). There’s already an excellent explanation of how the concept works online here at Model Railway Shunting Puzzles so there’s little point in recreating it again, but if you keep in mind the rules around siding length and the basic three-siding plan it’s easy to see how this could be incorporated into a terminus-to-fiddleyard design with ease (in front of the fiddleyard is the most obvious place). This would then give you a very interesting layout to operate, combining both the ‘shunting puzzle’ and the more traditional passenger workings in a single plan.

Finally I just need to mention about rolling stock – you can make use of passenger services such as DMUs and railcars such as those used on the GWR (and into BR use). Both of these are currently available in OO and N gauge. These negate the need for a runaround loop, and while you’ll still ideally need one for the freight workings is does mean you may be able to reduce the length of the runaround loop accordingly. If the passenger train was the longest train you were planning to run then in turn can also shrink the fiddleyard as well. Another little tip is to avoid the use of brake vans. Although extremely common they just take up an extra wagon ‘slot’ in a compact layout where space is at a premium so it’s worth ditching them altogether. Also try to avoid the use of longer freight stock such as the modern 100 ton tankers. Using three 45 ton tankers not only makes for a more realistic looking train but increases the operating potential too – that’s three wagons to shunt not just one (one could be in a different livery and requires shunting to a different siding, for example).

Model Railway Shelf Layout - Class 59 pulling 100t tanker

Model Railway Shelf Layout - Class 59 pulling 3 45t tankers

Lastly remember that typically we’re modelling a small, local line and not a mainline into a big city. Large express locomotives, HST units and unusual rolling stock such as breakdown cranes or weedkilling trains are pretty much out unless you’re modelling some sort of service or storage yard. This is a compact terminus, so the stock needs to be accordingly compact too!

What if you have a much larger space to utilise but it still needs to be a shelf layout? I’m not going to go into the same depth of detail again but will give a few ideas to think about. For starters one change is that with a longer and/or wider site you can start thinking about running more mainline-based services. With room to fit in longer platforms and a longer fiddleyard we can start thinking about running express trains, HST units and longer freight traffic (such as the modern block hopper trains). It also means that the basic terminus-to-fiddleyard concept can be changed completely as you can have a station-to-station plan, or even a through station in the middle with fiddleyards at each end (and obviously variations on this theme – a fiddleyard-to-throughstation-to-terminus design). And we no longer have to stick to just a single track – double track now becomes a possibility, allowing simultaneous operation of more than one train and by more than one operator.

You can also stick with the small terminus branch line as well and simply expand the scenic elements. Instead of leaving the station and running straight into the fiddleyard a longer layout will let the train run through a stretch of open countryside (or if urban settings are your preference, past backs of houses or industrial units). Perhaps one of the best schemes is to stay with the fiddleyard behind a backscene and instead of including some sidings in front of it have another station instead. This then allows you to operate trains from station to station as well as in and out of the fiddleyard.

It may be possible to expand a shelf layout along more than one wall, and L or even U shaped shelf layouts can then be considered. Both of these actually have a distinct advantage – with a ‘straight’ shelf layout the station and fiddleyard are at opposite ends of the layout, whereas by careful positioning (of station, fiddleyard and operator!) both of these can be within reach at the same time with a L or U shaped plan. Essentially you are bending the layout around yourself, although obviously this only applies up to a certain size (you couldn’t apply this thinking to a U shaped layout around a 3 metre square room – it’s going to be a long reach between the different parts of the layout).

Obviously some of the advantages of the small shelf layout are starting to be lost on these larger schemes as the cost of track and possibly rolling stock, and the cost and time for construction, will increase. But a larger space does open up all sorts of possibilities.

In conclusion, if you've not got room for a continuous run or looped plan, consider a shelf layout. Interesting operation, interesting modelling subjects, an increase in realism and with the added advantages of a potentially lower overall cost and shortening of construction time.

 

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