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Learning from Model Train Layouts – Part 2

(Written by Mark H. Avery)

In Learning From Model Train Layouts – Part 1, we discussed some basic tips and tricks LEGO train fans can learn from traditional model train layouts. And now that we covered the basics, let’s talk about some of the finishing touches. You’ve built or bought tables. You’ve laid your tracks and/or placed your roads. You’ve built all the LEGO Creator Modular Buildings (or all you could afford) and placed them on your layout. You’ve added a few additional houses and stores, maybe some from the LEGO Creator, LEGO City, or LEGO Friends lines. Is your layout complete? Not by a long shot. Here are some additional pointers LEGO builders might learn from model railroaders…


  • Greenery. In the real world, there’s greenery all around us, so if we want to make our layout realistic, we should add some vegetation. There are precast LEGO trees and bushes we can use. And there are also trees, especially palm trees, that one could easily build themselves. Then there are the intricate trees experienced LEGO fans build that we can learn from. Vary the colors a little, or at least mix shades of green. Use the tan and brown bushes as well to add variety.
  • And then there are flowers. There is place for the old three-pronged flowers as well as the newer single pronged flowers.
  • Attach greenery to the sides of buildings to simulate growing ivy.
  • Consider mini-buildings: bus stop shelters, coffee stands, newspaper kiosks, etc. all give the feeling of a real life city.
  • Fire hydrants, streetlights, traffic lights, mailboxes, and garbage cans all have their place on the streets. People notice and appreciate little details like that when they look at your city. The new LEGO X-tra building packs can help with this. Road signs also have an important place. There are lots of signs that can easily be downloaded from the internet, printed out, and added to your city. There are some railroad modelers who even put trash (i.e. tiny pieces of paper) around their layout to make it look more lifelike.
  • Don’t feel the necessity to use authentic names for everything. Name stores, restaurants, and even streets after your kids, grandkids, and friends.
  • You’ll find humorous company names both in your travels and on the internet. Some ‘jokes’ have been around for years. “Dewey, Cheathim and Howe” is an old standard. So is the “Lowe Quality Manufacturing Company”. The 2019 MTH Rail King catalog includes buildings named “Jurassic Pork Bar-B-Que”, “Frying Nemo’s Fish & Chips”, “The Codfather Fish House”, “Dirty Hoe Garden Center”, and “Bada Bing Bail Bonds”, among others.
  • Google real signs or make your own on a computer. Sometimes a sign such as ‘Condo for rent’ is enough to add some interest.
  • Billboards along the road and on top of buildings are another idea.
  • The same model (or LEGO set) can be built in a different color than the original and can have its own place on the layout. There are real city blocks that have 5-10 identical houses. But each one is painted a different color or has different style (or color) windows and doors, or had a porch added, or has different trees or plants in the yard, or has a different type of fence, or… you get the idea.
  • There are always more details to add. And because we are dealing with LEGO, not a model railroad, it’s very easy to move things around on a regular basis.


  • Some modelers claim that you can never have enough figures on a model railroad. I’m not convinced of that, but effective scenes depend on how you place the mini-figures. Have them interact with each other. Have two or three people talking, some carrying packages or briefcases, a person waiting for a bus, some walking into and out of buildings, a person pointing to a distant feature – all will draw viewers into your scenes.
  • LEGO motorcycles, bicycles, and even skateboards add some action. A row of 3-4 bicycles riding along the shoulder of a road or parked in a rack is interesting.
  • Figures can be whimsical as well. Take advantage of LEGO superheroes. A Superman and/or Batman on top of a LEGO building is fine – but ten of them probably aren’t.
  • Animals add another element to your layout. The obvious are cats and dogs. But there are also LEGO frogs and snakes. A farm or zoo gives lots of possibilities for adding LEGO animals. Put a shark or crocodile in your waterway! There are several types of LEGO birds – both precast and built from pieces. A bird (or owl) in a tree will catch a viewer’s attention.
  • Think of little mini scenes or vignettes. The obvious ones can often be enough. A fireman coaxing a cat down a tree, a man changing a tire, a policeman pulling over a car… (a topic for a separate article). Look at the recent LEGO City People Packs, which are built on mini-scenes; a man fishing, another painting a fence, another pushing a baby carriage. Most people don’t just stand there.
  • Delivery trucks stopped by some of the houses, a pickup truck at a loading dock, or a taxi waiting at a train station are other ideas.
  • Garbage trucks making pickups and sweeper trucks clearing streets fit into almost any town.
  • Workers filling in potholes offer many possibilities. A few fences, traffic cones, wheelbarrows, and a pile of dirt add to the scene. So does a policeman directing traffic.
  • A worker on a scaffold hanging from a tall building is always an eye catcher.
  • LEGO has made several travel trailers over the years. You can also modify them or build your own. A campsite near a body of water or in the park is a nice focal point. Add a couple of campfires and you have a scene.
  • Consider water scenes, very typical on model railroads. Beaches, docks, marinas have all been released by LEGO or you can make your own. Again, be sure to add people and various kinds of boats.


  • Trains are certainly an important addition to a LEGO city. But I personally think most LEGO fans should either have few trains in their city, or a LEGO train layout with just a few buildings. Trying to have the best of both worlds seems much, if you don’t have sufficient space. One of the main criticisms I read of model train layouts is that to much is crowded into a given space. (I’m guilty of that.)
  • Standard advice is to pick a time period and location. The most popular timeframe for model trains is 1940-1960, the transition era when both diesel and steam trains operated. I’m not aware of any steam engine train sets currently being sold by LEGO. Alternatively, you can model the modern era and have your steam trains operate as a tourist attraction, like in the #71044 LEGO Disney Train and Station set.
  • Trains have their own requirements for street accessories. Crossing arms and crossing signals are obvious. There are both railroaders and LEGO train fans who have electrified both (the old 9-volt LEGO train system had such capabilities).
  • Trains should not be placed parallel to the edge of the layout.
  • Do you want a single track or two parallel tracks with trains going in opposite directions? The latter takes up much space for most of us.
  • Long passing tracks and sidings are important, but also space intensive.
  • Ballast for the tracks. Model railroaders traditionally glue down their ballast. The ballast on a main line is thicker, higher, and a different color than ballast on a siding.
  • Train signals on the side of and above tracks are important. So are various electrical cabinets that line some tracks. Additional spare tracks and railroad ties are stored along some tracks. The old gray individual LEGO tracks might serve that function well.
  • Trains often have various trackside buildings. Elevated grade crossings (crossing towers) might be trackside – even if long abandoned. So are small shacks for workers and equipment.
  • Different elevations of the base allow for construction of rail (or road) bridges and can allow for one track to pass over another. There are important limits on how steeply a train can climb.
  • There are train related buildings. Every few years, LEGO issues a new passenger train station. Freight equipment has been included in some recent train sets, but not as stand-alone sets.
  • Trains need servicing facilities. Some model railroaders have created layouts that are almost exclusively train yards. Diesel trains need a repair building and a place to refill. Steam engines need more: a water tower, coal bins, sand boxes, and a place to empty ashes from the engine. It can be very space intensive, but you should make an attempt for at least a small servicing yard.
  • Yard scenery might include old ties, small barrels, fences, an old car (perhaps without tires), and miscellaneous junk.
  • A cooling tower, for example, can have a gondola parked nearby, ‘coal’ scattered on the ground, and a minifigure with a shovel trying to clean up.
  • Most model railroads have staging yards, either in view or hidden. A large train yard is a good place to show off your LEGO train collection.


  • Rule number one for running trains is to give your LEGO train a reason to exist. Pick up passengers and take them someplace (off the layout). The same with freight. Good model railroads have staging areas, sceniced or not.
  • Continuous running of trains in a loop is fine. One could just sit and admire as the trains pass through the city. Alternatively, trains can run “point-to-point” across the layout from one hidden yard to another.
  • Ideally, you should not be able to watch the train make a complete loop. That means the train disappears behind buildings or goes into a tunnel and comes out at the other end.
  • As previously mentioned, people waiting on train platforms, perhaps looking down the track for their train, and cars waiting at track crossings both add to the layout.
  • Individual train car length is connected to the size of a track radius. Given that LEGO tracks (except for the flex tracks) only come in one radius, we should stay away from train cars that are very long. The overhangs as trains round curves do not look very realistic.


  • Flatcars and gondolas often look better when loaded. Pipes, triangular beams, motors, large gears, or industrial electrical components are all examples of loads that are relatively easy to build out of LEGO. Other possibilities include small trucks, tractors, and generators. You can use LEGO ‘chain’ to tie them down.
  • Maintenance of way (MOW) or work trains add some extra element. They could just be parked on the side or can have workers actually adding or repairing tracks.
  • There are already LEGO freight cars carrying logs. Consider a flatcar with pipes or lumber.
  • Take an open hopper, fill much of it with crumbled newspapers, and then cover the paper with round or square 1×1 black plates. A load of coal!
  • One could take a LEGO DUPLO block (or a piece of wood) cover it with a ‘tarp,’ and attach it to a flatcar as a load.
  • Freight cars should be serving specific industries, with relevant cars parked on sidings alongside the industry.
  • Consider sending an old-fashioned handcar out on your tracks, or parked by a siding.
  • A separate trolley on its own tracks adds interest. (You can add one that goes back and forth across the front of your layout.)


While there are certainly differences between model railroads and LEGO train layouts, AFOLs (Adult-Fans-of-LEGO) should try to take advantage of whatever they can learn from those who work on their railroads. Modelers often take the position that their railroads are never done. Maybe that’s a view that AFOLs should take as well.

Finally, the ultimate lesson from model railroad builders is that there’s always room to grow. Just as you buy more LEGO sets and more pieces, you should always be reading, looking at videos, visiting LEGO displays – and most importantly, just have fun.

I hope both the first and second part of this article gave you helpful pointers when working on your own LEGO city layout. What do you think? Do you use any of the suggestions mentioned above already? Are there any challenges you face with your own LEGO layouts? As always, I’d love to read what you have to say about the topic, so feel free to share and discuss in the comment section below!

And you might also like to check out my previous posts:

{ 17 comments… add one }
  • DavidH October 24, 2019, 12:13 PM

    Thank you for this list. I also enjoyed the previous article. I especially like train layouts when the trains go into tunnels, under bridges, or underground. They are not easy to build and take a lot of bricks, but they make the layout really come alive. And yes, greenery is important too. And people.

    • Mark H. Avery October 25, 2019, 9:26 AM

      Thank you.
      I think the tunnel “answer” is to build the tunnel out of wood, with a Lego baseplate(s) on top and one column of Lego bricks on the outside of the wood. Then only the tunnel portal(s) are Lego intensive.

  • Peter October 24, 2019, 12:34 PM

    This article makes me want to get into trains so much. But I’m afraid of the financial commitment. And I’m not sure if I should invest in power functions or get the new powered up system. I can’t afford the old 9v system at all.

    • Mark H. Avery October 25, 2019, 9:28 AM

      I’d start with the newest system, just because I assume everything in coming years will be based on that.

  • supermario October 24, 2019, 3:13 PM

    Why do you say that trains should not be placed parallel with the edge of the layout? I’m just curious.

    • The Zen Cabbage October 24, 2019, 7:34 PM

      I second this question. Every layout I’ve ever seen – be it model or LEGO – has trains running parallel to the edge of the layout. It’s the most economical use of space and allows viewers to get closer to the action. Please explain your rationale behind this recommendation.

      • Mark H. Avery October 25, 2019, 9:35 AM

        It’s not “my” recommendation, but what I’ve read. I’m referring to 4 x 8 or similar layouts, not around the wall or shelf layouts where you have no choice.
        I believe the rationale is that it helps the layout appear both bigger and more natural. Picture setting up a standard oval of track on an 4 x 8 layout and then rotating it by 10 or 15 degrees before you lock it in place.
        It does not keep viewers away from the action, but it might make the oval slightly smaller. Remember that Lego road and base plates are all squares, where model train roads can go off in any direction.

  • Emperor P. October 24, 2019, 3:42 PM

    The information is very helpful. Thank you. I hope one day I can set up a display following all these guidelines. I wish Lego had big train displays at their stores. I would love to check them out!

  • Tito October 24, 2019, 4:05 PM

    From personal experience with model trains, I agree with most of these points. Not all of them translate to lego well (most afols will not use non-lego in their mocs), but everything else makes a lot of sense.

  • Martin October 24, 2019, 4:10 PM

    One big difference between traditional models trains and Lego trains is that Lego trains always have some toyish features. Lego colors, shapes, the plants, the people, they are all clearly plastic toys. Traditional train layouts try to be as realistic as possible. So Lego layouts always have an added level of playfulness. This could be kept to a minimum, or it could be exaggerated.

    • Mark H. Avery October 25, 2019, 9:39 AM

      There are model train layouts that aim to be very realistic and other “toy train” layouts which have the toy look with oversized crossing lights and other not-to-scale accessories.

  • LEGOJeff October 24, 2019, 4:39 PM

    A very well researched and explained list. I don’t have a large enough display to implement them all, but I appreciate the effort. Building a LEGO city is almost as hard as planning a real city! Ha-ha! 😀

    • Mark H. Avery October 25, 2019, 9:40 AM

      Much thanks for the complement.

  • Håkan October 24, 2019, 6:08 PM
  • Jonathan P Giese October 24, 2019, 9:37 PM

    With regard to the current unavailability of steam engines, I think you might be forgetting the Hogwarts Express. I just checked to see if it hadn’t sold out, and as far as I can tell it is still in stock.

    • Mark H. Avery October 25, 2019, 9:42 AM

      You are correct.
      There are also older steam trains available on eBay, etc.

  • Rivka October 28, 2019, 5:25 PM

    Always an interesting read. Thank you for another great post!

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