Bill’s 15×17 Lionel layout

Bill’s been in touch with his Lionel model railroad:

“Al: I have been enjoying your daily emails for a number of years.

Many of your contributors have much better train layouts and more realistic landscapes than I do and they certainly have nothing to learn from me. Nevertheless I think that there are a group of model train enthusiasts who might benefit from my story.

In 1950 when I was 11 years old I received a much sought after Lionel 027 starter train set. Our family had no space for a permanent layout so I assembled and disassembled it many times. After I was married I sometimes set up a layout around the Christmas tree to entertain our children, but I took it down after the Holidays.

When my grandchildren were young I set up the train set at Christmas again. The second Christmas with grandchildren I put the layout on a couple of 4×8 sheets of plywood supported by saw horses in a spare room in the basement and added some rudimentary scenery.

For Christmas in 2007 my children (who always find it difficult to buy me presents) recognized my interest and bought me a new Lionel model railroad, the Polar Express set with Fastrack. For a while I had a mixed layout with part tubular track and part Fastrack. But the trains ran a lot better on the Fastrack and over time I replaced all of the tubular track.

The layout expanded until it filled the 15 x 17 foot basement room. I sometimes regret not taking the opportunity to switch to HO gauge so that I would have room for more train equipment.

Lionel track plan

Above is a SCARM diagram of my current Fastrack layout. I run two LionChief trains and occasionally a third conventional Lionel train. The layout is not meant to represent any particular time or place. The scenery however is typical of the sandstone cliffs in the Yellowstone Valley, where I live.

Although it is not clear from the diagram there are three tunnels, indicated with blue track, and the bottom left section is a level above the rest. The tunnel on the right is actually in a closet. (The closet door is open in Figure 02.)

Lionel model railroad

Lionel model railroad bridge

U shape track plan Lionel model railroad

I have wired the sidings in the closet with Azatrax’s D2X Exhibit controller with infrared sensors so that without human input two trains can run alternately in opposite directions around the upper loop.

Most of the scenery is carved from 2 inch sheets of insulating foam. The sheets of foam are supported by a simple framework as shown in Figure 05. No attempt has been made to conceal the line between layers of foam in many places, as it is meant to represent the layers of sediment in the sandstone cliffs. I found the best tool to carve the foam is a drywall saw, with a Shop-Vac handy to control the mess. (See the saw in Figure 06, next to the waterfall). The carved foam is painted and sprinkled with Woodland Scenics turf.

bench for model railrod

cliff rock face model railway

On the mountain side, the left side of the track diagram, the trees are mostly pine. They were meant to be table decorations. I purchased them in an after Christmas sale at Hobby Lobby. The deciduous trees are home-made … twigs from sage brush with bits of foam glued on (also from Woodland Scenics).

A few of the structures are Plasticville kits but most are scratch-built from 3/16 inch foam poster board covered with printouts from Evans Model Builder computer software. Most of the structures are lighted. I cut up strings of battery powered Christmas lights and use 3 AA batteries to power the lights. The asphalt roadway is cut from asphalt shingles left over from my recently repaired house roof.

Lionel model railroad tunel entrance

cliff rockface

Lionel house

Lionel house

model railroad shop

model railroad loading bay

Lionel gas station

model train cafe

In order to provide more track power than the Lionel CW80 transformers I acquired with my LionChief train sets, I recently purchased an MTH Z1000 transformer from a local hobby shop. When I was in the hobby shop the other day I mentioned that the Z1000 was working fine. The salesman said “Lionel model railroads make you feel like a kid again, don’t they?” I think it was a rhetorical question, but I answered, ‘Yes!’


A huge thank you to Bill! It’s great to see a Lionel model railroad.

I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I did. Not only is it a wonderful layout, the narrative behind it makes this hobby what it is.

That’s all this time folks. Please do leave a comment below, and keep ’em coming.

I leave you with this thought – if today is the day you stop dreaming and start doing, the Beginner’s Guide is here



PS Latest ebay cheat sheet is here.

17 Responses to Bill’s 15×17 Lionel layout

  1. Christophe MERCEY says:

    Great job indeed! I am interested in knowing the dimensions of the track parts, I mean brand et model (like Märklin, track C for example).
    Best regards

  2. Stephen Hill says:

    Bill , that is an awesome layout , good job . I like that it’s not over crowded and busy , you can see the train go round . I like it .

  3. Rob McCrain says:

    It is a wonderful layout, Bill. There is nothing wrong with your scenery, it is just right for the layout style. It is, of course, the enjoyment factor that is most important and I can see the delight in the children’s eyes when they see your layout in action. Nice going, keep up the good work, Rob McCrain

  4. Patrick Andrew Talley says:

    Don’t sell yourself short. This is an awesome layout. Please do a video of the trains running…

  5. Jim Curtis says:

    I love O gauge,. This is a great example of it.
    Very well done. Not crowded. Let’s see more Lionel layouts.

  6. Kevin McArdle says:


  7. Georg Zaky says:

    Your layout is super and a joy to behold. The Polar express is such a kick as it chugs & howls across the country side- ” Tickets Please”.
    This is the one hobby that you do for yourself but the family gets to enjoy also, especially the grand kids.
    Keep working on this because its never done.
    Through the closet- what a hoot!

  8. Ken Nelson says:

    Hi Bill;

    I really like the BIG SCALE; and in your case the huge layout. I have a similar story except with American Flyer. I think the kids like it as it’s not fragile and easy to see. I have a number of operating accessories, and they are a labor of love to keep operating. Well done!


  9. Richard H Chapple Sr says:

    This is a wonderful layout Bill. Loads of fun to operate this one.
    I like your layout plan that adds a lot of interest. Never a boring moment on this layout.
    There are so many wonderful layouts, many of which have to have please do not touch signs and with good reason too, not a negative, my N scale layout is a no touchy please layout. But your layout opens the door for all to nicely touch, experience, run, enjoy, and let your imagination run wild for all ages.
    For me at least, my minds eye can easily fill in any missing details, correct any out of scale items, dismiss the 3rd rail, while enjoying hefty reliable equipment able to withstand a lot of action.
    Now I have a good neighbor and friend that has a fantastic HO layout where he recreates an area of a real railroad and every detail on the equipment is there and exact to the prototype, has hand laid track, he has done a wonderful job as well and it is a joy to see and watch and to operate as well.
    Model railroading is the best of all worlds, I really enjoy everybody’s model railroading efforts and their willingness to share what they are doing no matter where they are in their model railroading journey..
    Wow Bill, you make me want to tear up my huge N scale layout and put out all my Lionel trains. I have the Polar Express, and the Hogwhort Express also.
    Thank you Al for posting Bill’s layout.

  10. Tom Kelleher TJK says:

    Terrific job Bill, the layout looks great. I also have a Lionel O Gauge layout that Al was nice enough to post back a month or so ago. We also have Fastrack and although the “Critics” refrain from the usage of the 3 rail…….those of us who are in it for sharing the fun with our grandchildren must at times have to take a shot in the chin from the truly talented crafts persons who are more intricate with their layouts, I get it. Lots of talent presented Bill…….carry on my friend.

  11. Kevin says:

    Nice – I don’t have quite the O space but enjoy it too. I tried using roof shingles but found it messy. I had some nonslip stair tread (stick on) that worked better for roadways. Nice to have stuff around to redeploy. Grandaughter (2.5 yo) at airport at end of last visit – “Enjoy playing with your trains, Opa..”..

  12. Mr Ron from south Mississippi says:

    Lionel layouts generally don’t look good due to their tight radius curves and few ties, but this one looks great.

  13. John Holloway says:

    Wonderful layout. Not crowded and nice radius on the curves. You have accomplished the old ten pounds in a five pound bag and it looks great. Just the nudge I needed to get back downstairs and change some things. Well done and keep up the good work. I look forward to seeing more O gauge layouts – both three rail and two rail.

  14. Frank says:

    It’s true you can have “more” with HO scale, but you have nice buildings and houses and your scenery is top notch as well.

    Quality and details are every bit as good as “lots of stuff” if not often better. Besides those large locomotives and cars are special… they’re just cool.

    Frank in Orlando

  15. Matison says:

    The mystery of my missing drywall saw has been solved. I had been misusing and overworking my drywall saw, and it disappeared one day. Now it is obvious that it hopped a train to Yellowstone, and is seen posing in one of your pictures. Bad saw!

  16. Chris Sylvester says:

    That’s a Great job on your layout!!!!! Thank you or sharing the photos!

  17. Bob B says:

    Bill that’s a great layout! I’m envious of the size of the room yo have available. Ok had an 8×12’ Lionel until I had to dismantle it . It was great to be able to run my prewar and postwar sets there . Best…BB

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