HO scale layouts for small spaces

I often get asked about HO scale layouts for small spaces – this one is very small indeed, it’s actually in the ‘crawl space’ in Rick’s house.


Thank you for your always engaging posts and emails which have been a great support in getting back into model railroading once again.

I set up an HO set when the boys were very young while we were in the military. But with a lot of moving around and kids getting older, the trains sat in storage for over 30 years until this past Christmas.

Having grown up with a Lionel O Scale train set around the Christmas tree every year, we finally purchased a Polar Express set for our tree this past Christmas.

Seeing the reaction of our young grandkids finally got the fire going again to set up our own set that the kids of all ages could enjoy.

Unfortunately, the only space we have left for year round use is in the crawl space that only has a 40” clearance from floor to ceiling. After spending last winter clearing out the space, I took a corner and began building.

The entire setup is literally assembled on my hands and knees! I first built a 4×8 HO layout’ table on 6 sets of casters so I could move it around while building and for maintenance.

I used foam board for nearly all the foundation and hills which I find is easy to work with and mold. I forwarded a few pictures of the progress leading up to the finished (for now) setting. The left wall behind the tunnel is temporary so I can expand beyond the tunnel.

The train yard represents the rich train history here in the Chicago, Illinois area here in the states.

The two engines in the middle are both over 35 years old and do not work so I set up an homage to the Illinois Train Museum in nearby Union, Illinois that has quite a collection of engines and cars from many different eras.

You can see I made good use of your print-outs for the residential area including the sound wall between it and the park to the right of the table.

The park represents several areas where I run and bike to stay in shape to keep up with active grandkids!

You tips and ideas along with the downloaded printouts made it easy to stay motivated based on what others have shared with your community.

I am now working on the landscaping, ballasting the tracks and expanding the yard to include container cranes and additional construction as well as an overhead walkway to get from the residential area to the park. As many have said, it is really never finished.

Thanks again for what you do for this community of enthusiasts!


HO scale layouts for small spaces

HO scale layouts for small spaces

HO 4x8

4x8 HO scale

HO scale layouts for small spaces

4x8 HO mountains

A big thanks to Ricks because HO scale layouts for small spaces is something that a fair few ask about. Having a small space shouldn’t put you off, you’ll still enjoy it.

And now on to a question that keep popping up im my inbox – so I thought it a good idea to publish. Please post your answers in the form at the bottom of the page:

“Hi Alastair. I have problem which one of your contributers may be able to help with.

My layout is not digital but has three separate tracks each one having its own power supply, all goes well apart from one track which will run for about half it’s distance then it runs out of power, switch it off for a few minutes and off it will run, again for a short time, very annoying.

I have checked all connections, all flitch plates, made sure all track is clean and that my locomotive wheels are clean.

The other two tracks continue to run fine no problems at all and yes they are all fed from the same supply. I have also changed the transformer to no avail.

Help please


A huge thanks to Rick. It’s great to see a 4×8 HO layout – it takes a lot of determination to make a layout like that in a 40″ space too. Good to see he’s using the print out scenery for his tunnel too.

And who can help Ray?

That’s all for this time, folks.

Please do keep ’em coming.

Don’t forget the Beginner’s Guide is here if you want to join in rather just lurk.



PS Latest ebay cheat sheet is here

28 Responses to HO scale layouts for small spaces

  1. Mike Street says:

    Great use of limited space Rick, an inspiration to folks without acres of room .
    As for Ray’s problem could be short circuit between two of your power supplies if they are not isolated from each other by track breaks or switches, because if you are using modern controllers they will cut out with short circuits but reset themselves after a minute or so. Or obviously just be bad connection in track, difficult to say without seeing it happening.
    Cheers Mike S

  2. Fred Driver says:

    I guess he is a lot younger than me to do it on hands and knees. Well done.

  3. Peter Barrett says:

    Ray’s voltage problems….
    Hi Ray
    You don’t mention how large your train circuit is but I’m assuming it’s big so one of the problems with supplying voltage to a large circuit is the voltage will drop the further away from the train controller/transformer the train travels.
    If you ever raced slot cars then you will have noticed the cars would be faster the nearer they got to the power connector.
    A solution to the problem would be to simply run a pair of wires from the transformer track connector side to the farthest point on the other side making sure of course the polarity is round the right way.
    Also make sure the blades on all your switches/points are clean too.
    Hope this helps.
    Stay safe. Play trains.

  4. Robert Brady says:

    To Ray, There’s no drop in power away from my switch and i have the same speed control.Mines 8×7,same tracks also one terminal track. P40 pulling 8 coaches.
    The Critic

  5. Robert Brady says:

    Good job rick.It will be in your blood to expand. guarantee.
    The Critic

  6. Joe says:

    Determination above and beyond the call. My lower back and knees are screaming out in pain just looking at the pictures. This would be a wonderful layout even without the challenges to see it built. Very impressive, great solutions to cover the issues of space, and a testimony to forbearance and hard work. This is how greatness is achieved. I am sending a copy of this post to the laziest millennial on the planet….my grandson. This 327 lb, 6’ 5” expert in wasting time and money has informed his grandfather, who is a pilot that he is going to be a navel aviator. Yes, he is sailing his boat on the river deNile.

  7. Robert Brady says:

    Ray i had the same problem.I ran the train till it stopped on it’s own.marked the spot then ran in reverse till it stopped again from other direction .All tracks between the dead area i change out . walla train works fine.In your SPARE TIME GO OVER THOSE TRACKS YOU REMOVED AND GO OVER WITH A FINE TOOTH COMB.Throw away the one causing the trouble unless it can be fixed.
    The Critic

  8. Bob Schildgen says:

    Ray, without a schematic it is hard to find your problem.. What you described as a slow power failure is most likely a short and an overheating problem. First try swapping power supplies to isolate is it the supply. A bad power supply would cause this problem. second, look for wiring shorts or opens between tracks, especially in the section which stalls out. Also look for problems if any of the tracks connect together. I suggest purchasing a multimeter to assist you in finding the problem. Your interest will help you learn how to use this device. Publish more track layout information and maybe we can help further. Good Luck,

  9. Jonathan says:

    Ray, you did not mention so I’m not sure whether you wired your DC track every 6 feet at a minimum. Certainly makes for a lot of connections but those trains won’t make it all the way around at an even speed unless you do this, especially if you’re pulling a lot of cars.

    Running all DC HO, the most complicated, difficult issue to figure out (which ended up to be incredibly simple), was when I was running my trains using all vintage railcars. Back 50/60 years or more companies saved money I guess by not using all metal wheels. There was one plastic and one metal wheel on each axle. Well on this one coal car of mine, one of the trucks got turned around so that the plastic wheel on the front axle was on the right rail and the plastic wheel on the back was on the left so it did not allow for the flow of power. So the train literally would not run if that one coal car was attached to it. Of course since then, any vintage cars I get I replace all the wheels and couplers so I have consistency running throughout. That one really baffled me. Not being an electrician I’m sure someone can word this better than I did.

  10. Rick you are the man!!!!
    Great layout I love your story what determation your grand kids are very blessed
    to have you to share our hobby with them
    Your number one fan in florida

  11. george zaky says:

    I couldnt imagine me bending all that time. God Bless you
    Without more info you are describing a minor short that usually occurs at a turnout or crossing. The transformer power shuts down, resets in time and runs again until the short happens again. The train wheels cause the short at the turnout, pass the spot, and so allows the system to reset and run again. If it was a constant short the system would not run at all. A poor track or connection should not cause a reset scenario but could cause headaches by demanding more amps. As per the Critic trouble shoot the track and please let us know more.
    George from NY

  12. Ben Olson says:

    Rick, you have proven that all challenges can be met through ingenuity, planning, and hard work. I’ll bet the grand kids love this layout. Great job!

    Ray, as for the power problem, I would suggest the same as Robert Brady. My guess is that it’s likely a problem in the track, so using the troubleshooting method Robert outlined here should work for you, Good luck!

  13. Al, thanks again for the data. RE: Rick and 40 inches of crawl space. My hats off
    to his determination! When I was young( 80 now) and we had a space problem,
    we put in what we called a Michigan basement where you dug in a room, inside
    the house supports with enough headroom to do whatever. The biggest problem
    was getting rid of the dirt. Al, keep doing what you do, you will never know how
    much influence you have on the hobby!!!!!…..RJL

  14. Ken from Albany NY says:

    You should get a mechanic’s creeper – or 2.
    You can mount a chair (without legs) on one so you can sit in comfort while you run trains. And make a platform on the other to lay on. This will free up your hands and save your knees. Let your imagination run as to what you can do with it.

  15. Gary M from Long Island says:

    Rick……. great job…… I especially like the box you built as part of the panel……. that’s a great ideal for organizing the wiring. How does your back feel with all that bending…….when I go under my layout, my back lets me know how old I am.

  16. Kurt Schreiber says:

    Having had track voltage issues in the past (they always seem to occur on the “far” side of the layout), I took to soldering every track joint. The connectors serve to hold the rails in close proximity to one another for the soldering work. Nickle silver rail is the ONLY way to go. The solder soaks right into the joints and unless you are actually looking for it, you will never notice.

    Cleanliness is next to Tesla! A wire brush, solvent and compressed air before soldering assures excellent electrical paths. Never again will paint from weathering the rails enter a connector and flub ya up!

    If you are using power routing turnouts, sometimes you can introduce polarity issues. i.e. one side of the turnout rail polarity is different from the polarity of the next section of rail (on the other side of the turnout). A DC voltmeter is the only tool for determining these issues or perhaps an indicator light with diode.

    Patience, a meter, a plan and a sheet of paper depicting a schematic you can make notes on will be invaluable.
    Good Luck!

  17. Bill from the USA.
    Most of our homes in New Mexico are One Story Flat Roof and built on concrete slabs with no basement as the ground is soft dirt or sand to have a basement. To keep from having to repair the roof leaks every time a heavy rain or hail storm hits, I had a pitched roof built over the flat roof and I gained some “train space” in the process!
    Anyway, if there is a Harbor Freight Store near you, they have two types of shop stools to get around when working under cars and under low ceilings and you can also carry some tools with you on the tray the wheels are attached to.. I’m 81 and can’t get up and down much, and the stools were an answer when I had to work with G gauge Circus Train at Train Shows down on the ground and with On30 trains in the “new attic” with the low overhead!
    As for the “short problem”; I would tend to agree with George Z. Except … You can;t have power crossed anywhere! Feed power to the “point side” of the switch or turnout and then continue the leads on to the other of the turnout, beyond the dead point, The “Frog” on the Turnout should be isolated too! If the same wires are used, basically to the same rails further on, then there should be no dead spot or short. If there is a short then you have crossed wires from one rail across to the other rail or if the train, when it is on the other side goes the opposite direction that it did going into that section of track; then the wires are reversed. A diagram of the track would sure be a help though.
    Plastic wheels don’t solve the problem. They HIDE the problem! Plastic wheels create a bigger problem though of their own…they collect dirt and crud that just dirties up the track. Using all metal wheels is the only way to run a railroad and don’t let anyone ever tell you different!

  18. Lee Hirsch says:

    Rick, you must love your grandkids very much! If you consider the Michigan basement, please contact a professional to make sure there is not a high water table beneath your home (which may have been the reason for the crawl space, not economics?).
    Ray, have you run ALL your engines on the bad track? Is it only some of them that stall? Is it always at a switch? If so, they may have too long a wheelbase. Something else to check, disconnect the wall power to the two good lines, and see how it works then. Also, is any scenery, or glue, interfering with your electrical flow? Is there a slight dip or rise in the track? If it is not all your engines, maybe some motors are overheating? Need some maintenance? It’s going to be something you say OMG! to, don’t you know! Good luck. Lee

  19. Probably your circuit breaker cutting out when the power pack overheats due to too much draw.

  20. Barry from Oz says:

    Ray, I would say it is a heat problem. Could be faulty solder joints, or, a failing component. A good test is to start swapping out pieces of equipment, till you find the culprit.

  21. Will in NM says:

    Rick, That’s a nice looking layout you’ve managed to create in such a cramped space. Putting it on casters was a brilliant idea. I don’t think my back and knees would survive working in only 40 inches of height. I just started a 4 x 8 test layout but I, luckily, have an 8 foot ceiling so no crawling around on hand and knees.

    to William Luxford: Southwest desert soil does not preclude building basements. It’s just easier and cheaper to build one-story slab-on-grade homes. My Dad built a home in Phoenix with a 1500 sq ft. full basement 60 years ago. Basements in the southwest actually make a lot of sense. One foot below ground the temperature stays 70 degrees year round. I built my first train layout in that basement and eventually moved my bedroom down there. When it was 110 degrees outside, it was still nice an cool down in the basement.

  22. Thats a great story and a great idea Rick ,and it is not easy to do after your pass
    25 and I am just past 70 my self and under stand the pain you would have doing it in an 8′ high room !
    I do not have any better info for you than what the others hav given here but they all seem to have that problem the same as i and a lot of other people like us so
    it would be nice more when you gey more done. and keep up the good work Alistairr a lot of us would miss your great info you pass on to all of us !
    Be well and stay safe all !!
    George in Pa.

  23. Thats a great story and a great idea Rick ,and it is not easy to do after your pass
    25 and I am just past 70 my self and under stand the pain you would have doing it in an 8′ high room !
    I do not have any better info for you than what the others hav given here but they all seem to have that problem the same as i and a lot of other people like us so
    it would be nice more when you get more done. and keep up the good work Alistairr a lot of us would miss your great info you pass on to all of us !
    Be well and stay safe all !!
    George in Pa.

  24. Chris Sylvester says:

    Very nice layout I like it thank you for sharing ! CHRIS

  25. Terry Miller says:

    Well I guess we all can now go to Ricks!. Of all the attics in all the houses, in all the world we have to pick his.

  26. Rick says:

    Check your power pack. Take one that the trains run well and hook it up to that track if the train runs all the way without stopping you found your problem. I had the same problem. Don’t throw your power pack away the accessory side may still be good for lights etc.

  27. Kelvin Bland says:

    Ray, when you find the problem please tell us what it was otherwise it will be like reading a “who done it?” with the last page missing. Cheers Kelvin

  28. Rob McCrain says:

    Ray, is it part of the track or just one section? To solve it you will need to keep narrowing it down. It could be a cross short between two transformers through the track. Be sure they are completely isolated. Good luck, Rob McCrain.

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