O gauge train layout – years of trial and error

Michael’s 11×27 O gauge train layout represents two years of trial and error. We all learn the hard way…

“Alastair –

I decided to share the progress I’ve made on my railroad which I started exactly two years ago.

I had just retired and my mother suggested “why don’t you set up your train?” Great idea!, I’ve been wanting to do that for years.

To be clear, what my mother was referring to was an O gauge train layout Lionel 736 train set that my grandfather had given me when I was four or five years old. More than fifty years later, after many years in storage, moving from house to house, it was time to resurrect the set.

I immediately started building a layout and acquiring more trains. I wish I had also looked at the Beginners Guide. I think it would have saved me some headaches.

But all has turned out OK, and even after reading tons of building advice, I think there is no substitute for actually trying the build, seeing how it works, debugging it, and changing what’s required to make the silly thing run.

I had some goals for this layout:

– Run multiple trains on long runs.
– Have great scenery of mountains and forests.
– Be able to easily reverse the trains.
– Have ample yards for storing multiple trains and additional rolling stock, and
– Work only with vintage Lionel steam engines and Lionel rolling stock (in other words, circa 50’s and 60’s conventional).

I decided to concentrate on A.T.S.F and Denver & Rio Grande roads as these were predominate in the Rocky Mountain west.

I did get all newer fastrack track – I didn’t want to mess with the old tubular track. I added 18 gauge wire directly to the metal tabs under the fastrack to minimize voltage drops. Easy to do although a bit time consuming, and much easier to undo than soldering.

Pic 1 September, the initial table I built and a test layout. The table was 7 x 26 ft. The table is built with deck screws (which are easy to back out and do not strip in the event a change is needed).

Pic 2 December, I decided to have two levels with connecting incline.

I was working to a the following powerpoint sketch: the upper level is in red and the incline connecting upper and lower levels is the heavy dashed line.

O gauge train layout track plan

(All images are clickable)

I began serious testing with this configuration. By February, trains were running but there were also serious problems. The initial inclines were too steep for my vintage trains, and I came to realize that the extensive lower level tracks would be impossible to easily access once mountainous scenery was installed. See the video 1. I ran the trains constantly to debug everything.

I realized I needed a better design tool than powerpoint drawings and trial and error track assembly. I started using SCARM for my track design.

Suffice it to say I went through multiple different design updates through 2017 using SCARM. Build a little and test a lot. The biggest and most useful addition was a wye and a small yard. I also slightly extended the dimensions of the original table. I finally settled on and completed building the following track plan in spring.

O gauge train layout expanded track plan

This track plan for my O gauge layout is 11×27 feet in size. The upper level is depicted in yellow, the mainline of the lower level in purple, the single much longer 1.5% grade in orange. The light blue spurs and sidings on the lower level are individually powered as are the pair of sidings on the upper level.

There are parking areas for six full length trains, although only two can be running at any given time. Both the upper and lower level include a reversing loop plus the wye and yard to reverse the trains. The lower reversing loop is under the large mountain on the layout. The design comprises of a little over 2.4 scale miles of track.

Right now I have basic scenery installed everywhere and the trains run well. The only really tricky scenery element involved the removable sections on the mountain (used to access the reversing loop and tunnel area). I have only a single structure installed: a branch-line water tank. With the basic scenery installed, in the next construction phases I will be concentrating on adding steam and mining related structures to build out this little world.

I am going to take some time to get the building elements right so they make sense and work together.

O scale track layout

O scale layout

O scale layout

Upper level mountain, forest, water tank.

O gauge layout tunnel

Tunnel under mountain

O scale rear view

O scale

The reversing loop under the mountain is accessed using three removable sections. The sections are held on with cabinet magnets.

O gauge curves

Three trains in the yard sidings and spurs

O scale

Long view down the back of the layout looking toward the second tunnel entrance and the mountain

O scale lionel 736

The original Lionel 736 from my grandfather – the tender currently with a reproduction shell



And Michael has sent in a video too:

Latest ebay cheat sheet is here. Still updated every day (please have a look and tell me what I should add).

A huge thanks to Michael. What a write up. I love the way he describes how he got the track plan just right before he got busy on the scenery.

I think he’s done excellent post and I hope you enjoyed his O gauge train layout as much as I did.

If you’re after more O scale’s, Lawrence’s is here.

And here’s Cary’s.

The Beginner’s Guide Michael talks about in his narrative is here by the way.



41 Responses to O gauge train layout – years of trial and error

  1. Rob says:

    Good idea using magnets to hold the take-off panel to those metal brackets.

  2. Rich says:

    Outstanding. Impressive planning. Thank you for the opportunity to view.

  3. Rod Mackay says:

    Superb, really shows the benefit of trying out a track plan, even if it’s just on paper, to see if it’s going to make you happy before committing yourself. I’ve done several trials with curve radii and trains climbing gradients just using temporary track eg up a plank on a pile of books, to check a plan, well worth it and fun too.

  4. Robert Brady says:

    Everything is excellent and beautiful with the exception of the fact the trains have a middle rail (Lionel) not a fan. They could have changed there concept after all these years but chose not to.Guess they have a sufficient fan base.

  5. nice to see the big trains , bit expensive these days though here in the UK …Dangerous dave

  6. NJ Mark says:

    Really great layout and the scenery is looking fine! You are fortunate to have the space to install such a large layout. Cheers! NJ Mark

  7. June says:

    lucky you, to have such great space! You have done a wonderful job with the layout and I will be using your movie to do some of my scenery details.

  8. Bob says:

    Stunning,I wish I had his skill and patience.

  9. STEVE COTTLE says:


  10. george zaky says:

    Great job
    now the time consuming building of towns, streets and people stuff.
    All the best

  11. Bill Holt says:

    GOOD JOB !! Ido like the inclines, good idea with the magnets. Nothing wrong with Lionel 3 rail.

  12. Awesome layout. Love it.

  13. Wm Althaus says:

    Absolutely a beautiful layout!

    Bill in Virginia

  14. LEE SULKOWSKI says:

    Finally showing O scale trains

  15. Charlie Wray says:

    Impressive and inspirational thanks for posting .I have layout I am working on that is 4 4×8 tables and one of those tables ,I have has two levels in one 4×8 area .The lower level is for an underground subway station.I hope I get more done this winter.The trains are mostly 3 rail Lionel and M TH subway set I inherited from a friend.Always enjoy this site Allister Thanks Charlie across the pond in W Va

  16. Bob from Michigan says:

    Great job planning first to find out what works and what doesn’t! And the landscaping is awesome. Sure wish I hadn’t told my dad with youthful shortsightedness, ‘Go ahead and sell my Lionel, I have no room for it(at that time)! Ugh, what a mistake that was! Although, currently Lionel and now MTH are currently out of my budget anyway! Happily into N scale.

  17. Bob says:

    I am 73 and I too have my first Lionel on display. I love the way you presented the story and I am glad your grandfather knew what he was doing giving you such a precious gift

  18. Dan Hulitt says:


    Aren’t you glad you listened to your mother? I certainly am. Very well done and thought out layout, it reminds me just a little of the O gauge layout of my youth. Good idea on the magnets as I will need to have an access hatch for my mountain, just in case the inevitable happens. Very good work!

    MN Dan

  19. Christine says:

    Super cool set up.

  20. The only thing I would add is you need to insulate your track from sound.

  21. Tom Cannon says:

    Beautiful job of using vintage Lionel trains in a more realistic display than just under a Christmas tree. In my youth I had an American Flyer set but sold it when I was in high school to pursue HO gauge then I found girls. Tried to repurchase the American Flyer set without success. Thank goodness your grandfather and you did not get rid of the Lionel set. Love what you did with the layout and scenery it looks very nice. No complaints about the third rail it is what it is. Model railroading is not always about precision or replication, it is about enjoyment. Enjoy and railroad on!!!

  22. Gerry says:


    I am highly impressed with your layout! Are your running on DCS or simply conventional?


  23. Allan J Jelinek says:

    Wow I Love it

  24. Jim Grundy says:

    Great job Michael…I personally like the Lionel 3 rail the best and like you, have ll my trains from the late 40’s through the early 60’s. I hope to set up a layout similar to yours soon…

  25. Peter MacGregor says:

    Just love your “Lionel” O Gauge trains and layout. I too was given an “O” gauge train set as a kid back in 1954… but it was a Swiss “Buco” train set that my parents kept till I got married in the early 1970’s. My mother said I should store it at my place now, and we kept moving the various boxes around every time we moved house. That was until 2005 when my wife wanted to see this train set we had been carting around all these years. Got it out of the boxes, set up the brass three rail track on the dining room floor, connected the Swiss transformer, and away it ran after all those years in storage. I too now have set-up a huge layout in my third garage using many more parts purchased through E-bay. Keep up the good work as I am an “O” gauge fanatic, and I look forward to your next installment. Peter in sunny Queensland, Australia

  26. Dan says:

    Am I the only one who doesn’t know what SCARM is? I would be interested in any information you can give me on it. I haven’t had time to watch the video yet so if you talk about it there I haven’t heard it yet. Great layout and I like the amount of space you have to utilize. Thanks for sharing.

  27. james says:

    looks real good

  28. Greg Nies says:

    Not a computer whiz. But also would like more info on “SCRAM”
    Enjoy the input from the readers hopefully will get my childhood layout —PLUS. Up and running soon
    Thank you
    Greg N

  29. Michael says:

    Thanks for all the great comments.

    SCARM can be found at https://www.scarm.info/index.php – it was a free beta version when I started using it – now has a very modest fee, Big time saver if your track plan is the least bit complicated. I’m sure there are many other similar software packages out there.

    In answer to another question: everything is operated using conventional control mode.

    — Michael

  30. Jack Stables says:

    So nice to see O gage. Great job. Was ready to bail and go the HO route. Not anymore. Same situation as you. My 2025 steamer (my first set from my dad in 1948) was saved and only ran around the Christmas tree for the last 60 years was saved. It gets better. Early 60s. Gave away all the other Lionel that I had acquired as my layout grew through the 50s. Became a Christmas present for the boys of a fella who worked in the shipping department where I worked. I was in my early 20s. No big loss, I thought. My Sante Fe AB, C&O switcher, lots of cars,track,switches,transformers, plasticville, gang car, ect.
    It gets better yet. My sister in-law shows up one afternoon in 2013 with a trunk full of boxes marked “Nicks Trains”. Nick had passed about 10 years earlier. I opened the first box.All the rolling stock wrapped in newspaper. I picked up the first, it was heavy. I unwrapped it slowly. Yep, it was a Sante Fe dual motor A unit. The second a dummy A. Whoa. Has since been restored professionally. Have since acquired a B unit with modern sound, a C&O switcher along with passenger cars, more freight cars and a bunch more stuff. Kinda got hooked again. Oh, and by the way, one of Nicks boxes had a ZW transformer and a bunch of track and switches in it. Talk about Blessings. Well, I guess it’s time for a layout plan and heading for the lumber yard. A “BIG THANK YOU” for the INSPERATION and to Al for creating this Family. Jack —Fremont, Indiana, USA

  31. Gerry says:

    Thanks for the reply to my control question…

  32. yeeeeowwwow
    now THAT is one great lookin layout
    well done and excellent detail
    keep em runnin fellas
    stjohn in long beach calif

  33. Steve says:

    Makes me more looking forward to retirement!
    Beautiful layout!

  34. Dana Jipson says:

    Excellent layout and using fastrack . would you please explain to me how you attached the wire to the fastrack without soldering. I’m currently soldering all of the fastrack together with short pieces of wire between each section of track . again excellent layout you constructed. a response would be very much appreciated. Dana

  35. Paul Case says:

    Is the only reason to run the trains so fast just to prove that they stay on the track?

  36. Bill McCourt says:

    Beautiful job on your mountain scene. Keep up the great work!

  37. Gerry Keffer says:

    Very impressive, great use of space!

  38. jack masarie says:

    Grrrrrreat !!!!!
    Jack Shellaque in NC

  39. Marklin ed says:

    Mike sad to say, I don’t know what happen to my Lionel trains. It was great to see that old transformer. Fabulous layout, wishing you many hours of running the trains

  40. David W. Pittsfield MA says:

    This has to be one of the best O-gauge layouts that I have seen.
    Very thoughtful plan and scenery is great. I also love the simplicity of wiring the Lionel type track with the center rail. No issues with polarity on reversing loops.
    Outstanding work.

  41. Will in NM says:

    Great O scale layout! Using the fastrack 3-rail was a wise choice. It’s easy to forget the middle rail is even there. For those who dislike 3-rail track, there are prototypes for it and it definitely simplifies reverse loop and wye wiring.

    My only complaint is the zig-zag tracks in photo #8. No railroad would do such a thing without some physical barrier that necessitated such an arrangement. It looks like a potential derailment site as well. It’s your railroad, so you can do what you want. If you like zigizagging tracks, that’s your perogative. Enjoy!

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