Searching for the Words

The experience of working long hours at my job has given me the ability to reflect on what I want my model railroad to be.

When I am at work, it becomes clear that my layout’s primary reason for being is to provide an effective form of recreation.


Fun to operate ... but what’s missing?

For me personally, in order for the layout to be fun it must run. Operating it needs to be reliable and interesting. My layout succeeds at this point, almost to a fault.

But there is still a lot left to do on the layout. The experience of running it suffers from a lack of scenery and structures. As I consider how to proceed with construction of scenery and structures, I again keep in mind how those aspects of the project need to increase the layout’s effectiveness as a form of recreation.

Scenery and structures require visualizing and planning in three dimensions. I am terrible at pre-visualizing three dimensional objects. I have to actually observe something that already exists in order to determine whether it “works” or not. In trying to define the aspects of scenery that works, I recall the many miles of backroads I have driven in West Virginia. Of all the beautiful scenery I have seen, a few places stand out as being somehow above and beyond the others. Dolly Sods, the West Fork of the Greenbrier, Gandy Creek in the Seneca backcountry, are different in a way I struggle to define.



In my limited vocabulary for describing a landscape, I can only say that these areas remind me of a park, or have a garden quality to them. They have a variety of form, texture, line, and color that are laid out in a way to maximize visual impact. They look “planned” to me, and the difference between these areas and the vast monolithic ridges of uniform tree cover is a distinction I can make even before I could articulate the difference.

My layout will not be strictly scenery. It will also depict industrial sites strung together by the thin, rusty path of the railroad. When thinking about the interaction between scenery and structures, I thought of particular industrial sites that I have visited regularly over the years.



Interesting industrial sites are full of strong graphic lines and bold contrasts bordering on abstraction. The same compositional elements as landscape in a different arrangement. I personally do not make a strong distinction between the two. Visiting either is a lot of fun.

I approached friends in the Richmond area who are excellent gardeners for assistance in designing the landscape for my layout. I soon realized that a model of a garden is definitely not a garden. The long term planning priorities of constant change and maintenance that are critical to planning a real garden do not apply to my model railroad.

I began a relentless internet search, revising my terminology and reading endless information about planting, building paths, installing lighting, none of which was what I was really searching for. Finally I came across a reference to the book Timeless Landscape Design by Mary Palmer Dargan and Hugh Graham Dargan. The reader reviews of the book included repeated complaints that the book contained very little practical information about specific plants. This complaint convinced me that Timeless Landscape Design was what I needed.

The book is about terminology used to describe the nebulous distinctions that make a landscape “work”. I find myself looking at the photos of landscape and garden elements, trying to determine what aspect of design the picture is illustrating before reading the caption. The planning process is laid out in a logical progression, breaking landscape design into four main parts. I find it easy to transpose almost every aspect of landscape design covered in the book to scenery and structure design for my model railroad.

Searching for a resource like Timeless Landscape Design in the genre of model railroad reference material was pointless. While American modelers don’t seem to see the point, British modelers are building layouts that exhibit a lot of attention being given to landscape design. I find myself snooping around on their blogs and websites more and more, and have enjoyed my subscription to Narrow Gauge & Industrial Railway Modelling.