Bill’s 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 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

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.

lionel model railroad

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 rockface

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 “Model trains 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!

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.

29 Responses to Bill’s Lionel model railroad

  1. Frank Goodman says:

    What you have is called F U N. Great job.

  2. Ron Schultz says:

    I like it . the “closet ” tunnel is a suburb idea . and he can enjoy his train before and after Christmas . track inspectors can “walk the tunnel”.

  3. Bill Holt says:

    awesome story Bill, neat layout

  4. Rube Simon says:

    Congrats, Bill. Great story!

  5. Really nice layout with lots of info. I always thought about using xmas lights for lighting, I think its a great idea and not to complicated, Plus I’ve always said to use insulating foam for mountains and tunnels then trim with a saw. When doing this wear rubber gloves. it is very messy and sticky. I use chicken wire and news paper
    ( wet the paper first and let dry) to make a frame for the foam to form to. then trim after drying. Good job Bill! Farmer AL

  6. Eric says:

    Fantastic work Bill, love the rocks and waterfall, quite an impressive spread you have there, This is what real modelling is all about, building what you like, how you like it, it’s all about pleasing yourself. Keep up the good work.
    Eric (Leeds) UK.

  7. NJ Mark says:

    You are very modest. Your layout is wonderful! You show great creativity in creating the rock layers and it can only inspire! Cheers! NJ Mark

  8. James Uhlig says:

    Great job, enjoyed the article, grand kids must be in awe. The FUN is only half of it.

  9. george zaky says:

    Nice job. Please include some videos of running trains and a little more info on the Azatrak controller.
    George from NY

  10. Gary O'Connor says:

    Hey Bill, you have done a great job. I have just moved and am about to build my trainset in a shed that is 9 metres X 6 metres and I’ll be tickled pink if my layout turns out to be half as good as yours. Great Job.
    Gary from Australia

  11. Bill Wick says:

    I wish I was a the stage Bill is at he has many years on me as far as experience goes. He makes it sound easy, I know it’s not.
    I received my new Zephyr and LNWI control last week. I am working on rolloung stock , locos and buildings. I have 4 older DC locos from an earlier attempt and 3 DCC locos with no sound such I also intend to upgrade. I am hooked on paper models. Your friends video got me started, not only are they a low cost alternative, they speak to my two great grandson imagination and ingenuity. We purchased several gondola cars on line and made paper containers for them.
    We do not have any track laid yet still planning, Your web site and all the contributors are an inspiration. Thank you for doing this.

  12. Patrick A Talley says:

    The only thing to make this better would be a video…

  13. Allen Wortman says:

    Great layout. Enjoyed the pictures & and looking at the scenery. Amazing. Post a video would be great.
    Allen in CA

  14. Jim says:

    Nice. You’ve done a great job of modeling, especially the rock formations. Thanks for sharing.

    Jim AZ

  15. steve joyce says:

    loved it. Very impressive

  16. I wish I had the money to go back to HO sometimes but I have to much invested In N scale to do that now !
    I love what you have built whit the O27 it looks as real as life !

  17. David A. Massimi says:

    Bill, it looks like a great layout that most certainly provides lot of fun for ALL the children young and old ! I hope you are able to enjoy it for MANY YEARS !
    Dave, in NY

  18. Scott Frey says:

    Absolutely love the track plan, Bill! Its not complicated, yet has plenty of passing sidings & reverse loops to let you do all kinds of switching trains out unseen if you want, plus able to get them in different directions to keep things interesting! And love the scenery job you have done and , as you say, it fits with the theme you were inteding!! Great job and hope to see a video soon of the trains running, being swapped out in the hidden passing sidings, and swicthing back and forth on the reversing loops! Bring it on, my friend!! 🙂 -Scott-

  19. Gary Manganiello says:

    Bill….. Great story that I think many of us can relate to…I know I can……..I only hope my layout can be as impressive as yours ( I am still in the beginning stages of my layout which is HO scale). Great scenery and lots of color. Love the closet.

    Gary M

  20. Bill Wilson says:

    I too thought the closet idea a “superb” one. However, my wife was not too pleased when she discovered that I had cut a whole in the wall for the tunnel entrance to the closet.

    The Azatrack controller comes with two pairs of infrared sensors. I mounted both pairs at an angle across the tracks, one pair at one end on the outside siding and the other at the other end of the inside siding. When the controller is switched on and it detects a train say on the outside track it stops the train and starts a second train waiting on the inside track going the opposite direction. The switches are wired so that the second train returns to the same track it left. It is stopped when the other detector “sees” it and after a few seconds the first train is started again, and so on.

    Perhaps I will try a movie of the trains running but it will be a new experience for me so I don’t expect you’ll see a video for a while.

    Thanks for your generous comments.


  21. Bill Wilson says:

    It wasn’t a “whole”wall, only a hole in the wall.


  22. Peter MacGregor says:

    Bill, you grossly understate your abilities to model. I am in awe of your practical skills, and with using insulating foam board. I too am an avid 3 rail “O” gauge fan, but my persuasion is with the Swiss “Buco” system, although I do have a small collection of Lionel, Williams, and RailKing loco’s that I love dearly.
    I only wish my layout was half as interesting as yours.
    Peter on the Gold Coast in sunny Queensland, Australia.

  23. Wayne says:

    Bill, I really love the layout, fantastic work

  24. Cary Bcb says:

    Are you kidding Bill, You are way too modest. Your O scale layout out is amazing. Thanks for sharing your story. What you have built is awesome

    Cary B

  25. Fantastic story and very impressive layout.
    As to those with regrets about not changing to HO scale… Each scale has its own strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages. N gauge has an advantage with what can be put in minimum space. The disadvantage comes with older eyes and its lack of mass. O scale has the mass but eats space at a voracious rate. Lionel O gauge is in many ways its own world — One it share with American Flyer — Toy trains are flat out fun! There is fun in Lionel and American Flyer that is considerably attenuated in scale train modeling.
    All that said: If I had a bit more space than I do, and if I was more open to starting over… Given that I model American style short line railroading, I would strongly consider choosing S scale as the compromise between HO and O scales.

  26. woww great layout Bill
    funnz a million for you and the grandkids
    keep em runnin fellas
    stjohn in long beach calif

  27. C.J. May II says:


  28. Hi Bill
    It’s finally nice to see some O scale layouts especially with Lionel fast track, I am afraid it doesn’t seem to be as popular over her in the UK.
    I have 10 Lionel legacy locomotives but only run two at a time due to my lack of space, I your layout is awesome thank you for sharing.
    I really must get down to taking more photos of the layout in my summerhouse, it’s very simple by comparison to others and yours.
    Keep up the great work.

    Essex UK.

  29. Daniel Nemsdale says:

    I think your layout is great, Can you tell me more about the DX2 exhibit controller.
    I think that is something I would like to add to a three rail layout I am building.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Dan N
    Northfield NJ

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