Offbeat Internet

3rail O-scale Trains

3rail O-scale trains come in three varieties: First, there are highly detailed full scale model trains, that are comparable to those typically found in HO or N scale. An example of scratchbuilt versions are the trains that ran on the layout of the famous modeler John H. Armstrong. An example of ready-to-run versions are the Lionel Signature series of models. Second, there are the semi-scale toy trains designed for "Hi-Railers" (people who build highly detailed, but often fragile, scale scenery models for their semi-scale toy trains) and "Toy Train Enthusiasts" (people who use cleanable semi-scale scenery, that functions similar to stage props... the scenery merely inferring the scene in which the semi-scale toy train actors perform). Examples of these are the MTH RailKing series of semi-scale toy trains. Third, there are the kids toys, often referred to as O27, which make no pretense of being anything but toys. Examples of these are old Marx toy trains on an Addams Family style layout.

Trackwork and Railway Structures - c.1926 (*.pdf book) = a prototype railroading textbook, chock full of information useful to a model layout builder
All About Subways - c.1938 (*.pdf book) = photobook showing all aspects of underground railway construction, from planning to completion
Caltrain Commuter Timetable - c.2016 (*.pdf) = an example of prototype train scheduling on a modern commuter railway
Commuter Rail Station Guidelines and Standards - c.2007 (*.pdf) = how Metra designs their commuter stations

This webpage is dedicated to the "Toy Train Enthusiast", who operates their miniature railroad in a manner that gives their semi-scale toy trains a transportation purpose (whether a real-world duplication, something imaginarily believable, or a combination of both). Never allow yourself to be bullied by snobs who will try to make you believe that a layout with 3 rails is not a real model railroad. The pioneer modelers were almost all O-scale modelers using a 3rd rail pickup, and many 3-rail R-T-R models being sold today even exceed the quality of equivalent HO and N scale models. Always keep in mind that this is a hobby that is intended to be FUN. There are no fine-scale police who will come knocking on your door if you decide to add the occasional Plasticville structure, or if you run some Lionel space age cars on your layout. If the overall layout functions as a legitimate model of a purposeful rail transportation system, you have achieved your goal!

Relative O-Scale Boxcar Size

Notice: With the lengthening of passenger cars by 3-rail manufacturers from 14, to 16, and now 18+ inches, the typical home layout will have to do some serious selective compression of passenger train lengths. I recommend that you target Commuter trains to be only 1 car long, Intercity trains to be only 2 cars long, and Long Distance trains to be only 3 cars long. Avoid the temptation of ever adding more than two additional cars beyond these target recommendations to any passenger carrying train (because typical layout spur lengths are 14.5" minimum and 70" maximum)!
If you do need/desire longer trains, divide the train into "sections" that are pulled convoy-style with their own locomotive. For further compression, eliminate Observation cars from scheduled trains completely (like the real railroads did), only attach Diners to a train on an "as-needed" basis (many cars, such as Superdome streamliner cars, include a Cafe area), and only attach dedicated "baggage" cars to local trains (Long Distance head-end cars can be run together in their own separate Express train).

Choices in rolling stock (*.pdf)
~ Locomotives (*.pdf)
~ Cabooses (*.pdf)
AAR Freight Car Codes (*.pdf)
AAR Reporting Marks (*.pdf)
Locomotive Duty Selection Matrix (*.pdf) = a simplified ranking table for choosing an appropriate locomotive to haul a model-length train

Layout Vision Development (*.pdf)
~ Imagineering what I see (*.pdf)
Early Autumn 1982 (*.pdf) = a wonderful era alternative to the overmodeled 1955

Inspirational O-scale Urban Layouts (MP4 videos)

[buildable in 3-rail] What a great little RR!
Triple-track commuter train excitement
Tunneling through urban canyons
Passenger trains look so much better on gentle curves
A pleasant switching layout on a small shelf
3-rail transfer table in action
Even toy trains can perform realistic switching
MOW keeps the railroad rolling
Multiple switchers can work separately on the same shelf

Operations on a model layout

How to Run a Model Railroad - c.1944 (*.pdf book) = the definitive guide for operating your model railroad just like the real railroads operate
Layout Design for Operations (*.pdf)
Introduction to Model Railroad Operations (*.pdf)
Freight Train Operation and Model Car Forwarding Methods (*.pdf)
Ideas for Prototypical Layout Operation (*.pdf)
Modeling and Operating with Track Scales (*.pdf) = a primary way that railroads earn revenue
Signal Placement for Model Railroads (*.pdf)

Illustrative examples of prototype practices and modeling ideas (MP4 videos)

Simple planning ideas that can make a small layout more satisfying
Consider double track on small layouts to alleviate congestion
Drop Leaf Staging {similar idea as on oldtime rollaway typewriter tables}
The type of non-railroad buildings on your layout are very important
Big locations can be believably modeled using only a minimal amount of scenery
A potential destination for otherwise retired private wooden reefers on an Amtrak era layout
Passenger trains can sometimes be a major form of traffic through crowded business districts
Beginners Guide to model Passenger Cars {eliminate curves where possible, and always strive to avoid tight curves}
Passenger operations on a layout can include a mix of train types
Modern passenger trains do not all have to be Amtrak trains
While bridges can be used to access platforms, tunnels allow unobstructed overheads {the angled sheds cover stairs, and the square sheds cover elevators}
Freight yards are a waste of layout space, as freight can be sorted without a dedicated yard
The various types of switching moves
How to handle those high or wide loads {a factor common with toy rollingstock}
Maintenance Of Way injects unique challenges
Diesel engine and car shops can share the same building
RIP tracks would be a good theme for a micro layout
Let the fuel come to the diesel engine {probable on a military base}
Peacetime military trains really exist {and could even be routed through passenger stations}
All about tank cars

Priority traffic ideas

Presidential Travel by Train (*.pdf)
Reefer Operations (*.pdf)
Trailer Train (*.pdf)

Modelers consider O-31 to be the absolute minimum curvature allowable on a layout, and curves this sharp should be limited to tracks intended only for cars fifty scale feet and under. The recommended minimum curvature for a crossover is O-42, and this is also the preferred minimum curvature for longer cars (such as passenger equipment). Spiral easements should be used whenever possible with any curves tighter than O-54 (such as an O-54 turnout into an O-42 sectional track segment).

Railworthy Industries (*.pdf)
Background Buildings Using Your Computer and the Internet (*.pdf)

Notice: Although trackwork and building footprints in the *.scarm trackplans on this webpage are drawn to scale, the building and accessory graphics are rendered in simple block-form without any detail. Many buildings and accessories were dimensioned upon plastic toy train structures, but for superior results, larger custom PaperCraft buildings are recommended.

First Class traffic ideas:
(using toy-train structures)

Example of a modern commuter station

The Passenger Train Oriented Layout (*.pdf)
Modeling Passenger Operations (*.pdf)
Layout Design with a Passenger Train Emphasis (*.pdf)
Modeling Passenger Servicing Facilities (*.pdf)
Passenger Terminals and Servicing Facilities (*.pdf)
Platform Vehicles (*.pdf)


O-scale Commissary Track Diner (*.pdf) - commissary track
~ Diner (*.scarm)


O-scale Switcher Pocket Switcher (*.pdf) - switcher pocket
~ Switcher (*.scarm)


O-scale Sleeper Setout Track Sleeper (*.pdf) - sleeper setout track
~ Sleeper (*.scarm)

U.S. Mail

O-scale Mail Car Track Mail (*.pdf) - mail car track
~ Mail (*.scarm)

Urban trackside industry ideas:

Example of durable minimalist scenery

As can be seen in the above photo, the flat lands "Toy Train Enthusiast" can construct functional industry buildings (and ground covering) that are esthetic, while remaining durable and easy to clean. Space savings can be realized through shaping benchwork, placing industries as building flats against a wall (ideally garnished with some color highlights and protrusions), and using selective compression that infers large building size while keeping the model compact. Take advantage of incorporating variable structure heights whenever possible.

Explanation: Trackside Industry Ideas (*.pdf)

O-scale turnouts are expensive, which is why children will rarely own more than two. Because adults often also cannot afford all the turnouts they desire, these idea scenes were designed to demonstrate what could be accomplished using only a minimum number of turnouts. To avoid monotony, each of these scenes were also designed to look visually distinctive from each other, especially in regards to the associated track side building shapes and placement. Although these scenes incorporate only one industry, a further turnout savings could be realized if two industries shared the same spur.


O-scale Transloading facility Transloading facility that unloads and holds autos for dealer pickup - (destination)
[ideally a second spur would service the opposite side of the platform]
Automotive-1 (*.pdf)
~ Automotive-1 (*.scarm)

O-scale Injection molding autopart manufacturing plant Injection molding autopart manufacturing plant - (origin)
Automotive-2 (*.pdf)
~ Automotive-2 (*.scarm)


O-scale Historic bottling plant Historic bottling plant - (origin)
Breweries-1 (*.pdf)
~ Breweries-1 (*.scarm)


O-scale Concrete ready-mix plant Concrete ready-mix plant - (destination)
Cement-1 (*.pdf)
~ Cement-1 (*.scarm)

Coal Customers

O-scale Powerhouse Powerhouse - (destination)
Coal-1 (*.pdf)
~ Coal-1 (*.scarm)

O-scale Heating coal dealer Heating coal dealer - (destination)
Coal-2 (*.pdf)
~ Coal-2 (*.scarm)


Related:: The Architecture of Grain Elevators (*.pdf)
O-scale Lakeside rail-to-ship corn collection elevator Lakeside rail-to-ship corn collection elevator - (destination)
Grain-1 (*.pdf)
~ Grain-1 (*.scarm)

Iron Ore

O-scale Steel plant orecar overflow holding track Steel plant orecar overflow holding track - (destination)
Ore-1 (*.pdf)
~ Ore-1 (*.scarm)


O-scale Cold-storage meat warehouse Cold-storage meat warehouse - (destination)
Livestock-1 (*.pdf)
~ Livestock-1 (*.scarm)

O-scale Trackside livestock water sprayer Trackside livestock water sprayer - (passthrough)
Livestock-2 (*.pdf)
~ Livestock-2 (*.scarm)


O-scale Lumber yard Lumber yard - (destination)
Lumber-1 (*.pdf)
~ Lumber-1 (*.scarm)

O-scale Custom furniture maker Custom furniture maker - (origin)
Lumber-2 (*.pdf)
~ Lumber-2 (*.scarm)

Milk and Dairy Traffic

O-scale Offline creamery milk transloading platform Offline creamery milk transloading platform - (destination)
Milk-1 (*.pdf)
~ Milk-1 (*.scarm)

Package and LCL Traffic

O-scale Express depot Express depot - (origin)
Package-1 (*.pdf)
~ Package-1 (*.scarm)

O-scale Flower wholesaler Flower wholesaler - (destination)
Package-2 (*.pdf)
~ Package-2 (*.scarm)

O-scale Freight house Freight house - (origin)
Package-3 (*.pdf)
~ Package-3 (*.scarm)


O-scale City newspaper City newspaper - (destination)
Paper-1 (*.pdf)
~ Paper-1 (*.scarm)


O-scale Internal combustion engine fuel dealer Internal combustion engine fuel dealer - (destination)
Petroleum-1 (*.pdf)
~ Petroleum-1 (*.scarm)

O-scale Heating oil dealer Heating oil dealer - (destination)
Petroleum-2 (*.pdf)
~ Petroleum-2 (*.scarm)


O-scale Produce broker Produce broker - (destination)
[ideally a third spur would service the opposite side of the upper tarmac]
Produce-1 (*.pdf)
~ Produce-1 (*.scarm)


O-scale Dimensional stone wholesaler Dimensional stone wholesaler - (destination)
Quarries-1 (*.pdf)
~ Quarries-1 (*.scarm)

Seasonal Canning Factories

O-scale Can factory Can factory - (origin)
Canning-1 (*.pdf)
~ Canning-1 (*.scarm)

Team Tracks and Transloading

O-scale Wharfside gantry crane Wharfside gantry crane - (origin/destination)
Transloading-1 (*.pdf)
~ Transloading-1 (*.scarm)

O-scale Metal recycler Metal recycler - (origin)
Transloading-2 (*.pdf)
~ Transloading-2 (*.scarm)

Trailers and Containers

O-scale Intermodal track Intermodal track - (origin)
Trailers-1 (*.pdf)
~ Trailers-1 (*.scarm)

Waterfront Operations

O-scale Navy pier Navy pier - (destination)
Waterfront-1 (*.pdf)
~ Waterfront-1 (*.scarm)

Layouts for different types of rooms

Wiring Handbook for Toy Trains (*.pdf book)
Digital Command System User's Guide (*.pdf book)
DIY Electronic E Unit (*.pdf) = it can replace an electromechanical unit, or allow a DC locomotive to run on AC

It is recommended that track power be used almost exclusively for powering locomotive motors. The power draining DC whistle in postwar Lionel locomotives is a major layout wiring hindrance, and should therefore be disconnected whenever possible (Lionel produced identical trackside whistles that can be used in their place).

To reduce electrical load, caboose and passenger car lighting should be disconnected, or replaced with flicker-free LEDs. The costly digital-sound generating electronics in modern locomotives are a common point of failure, and the tiny speakers required to be used are only capable of producing squawking low-fidelity sound. Therefore it is strongly encouraged that any onboard digital sound effects always be turned OFF!

Semi-trailer Wall Layout:

This transportable truck trailer wall layout is for the urban environment Operating Enthusiast, and combines ideas from all the little modules described on this page...

O-scale Truck Trailer Dogbone Shelf Layout
O-scale Truck Trailer Dogbone Shelf 3dView
Shelf (*.pdf) - a dogbone wall layout only 42 inches deep, featuring three distinct passenger stations
~ Shelf (*.scarm)

Apartment Wall Layout:

Related: Military Rail Opeations (*.pdf)

Peacetime military base rail yard for deliveries, rolling stock storage, and assembling of convoy trains...

O-scale Military Base Layout O-scale Military Base Layout 3dView
O-scale Military Base Layout shortened
Military Base Layout (*.pdf) - a tiny but spacious shelf layout (requiring an additional lead track), serving your munitions and hospital car trains
~ Military Base Layout (*.scarm)

Note that troop cars in your convoy used to transport peacetime soldiers from their base to a distant training area (including the command post lounge car) would most likely not be owned outright by the military, and would instead be a mixed assortment of leased diners and passenger cars no longer suitable for commercial use, which thrillingly retain their various owners colorful markings.

Recreation Room Layout:

Related: Atlas Track FAQs (*.pdf)

Freestanding standard-O layout for toy train enjoyment...

O-scale Playtime Layout O-scale Playtime Layout 3dView
O-scale Playtime Layout widened
Playtime Layout (*.pdf) - a 5'x7' continuous run oval layout on which to play with your fantasy cars, operating accessories, and O-27 sized passenger equipment
~ Playtime Layout (*.scarm)

Note that just because this is a toy train layout, it doesn't mean that you can't do real railroading. For example, you could spot a dining car on the short outer loop interchange spur. When the passenger train comes by, it can split its train, add the diner into the train's middle, then recombine and continue on its way.

Bed Room Layout:

Extensive diesel locomotive and passenger car servicing facilities are possible in a small square space...

O-scale Spare Bedroom Layout O-scale Spare Bedroom Layout 3dView
Bedroom (*.pdf) - a small 10' square walk-in bedroom layout, accommodating full-scale passenger equipment and featuring a transfer table
~ Bedroom (*.scarm)

Although for variety this layout uses MTH ScaleTrax, you can substitute Atlas 21st Century Track. The span connecting the two sides is a good location for an arch-under bridge.

Garage Wall Layout:

Passenger-only operations don't have to be dull. There's a lot of action taking place in this compact coach yard...

O-scale Garage Wall Coach Yard Layout O-scale Garage Wall Coach Yard 3dView
Garage Wall Layout (*.pdf) - a short 13' wall layout, featuring a full service passenger coach yard and an express depot (staging track can be extended with a drop leaf)
~ Garage Wall Layout (*.scarm)

Dining Room Layout:

A busy walk-in layout for a pair of local passenger train enthusiasts...

O-scale Diningroom Layout O-scale Diningroom Layout 3dView
Diningroom (*.pdf) - a compact diningroom layout featuring frequent commuter train action amongst urban freight switching
~ Diningroom (*.scarm)

Alternative O-scale Diningroom Layout Alternative O-scale Diningroom Layout 3dView
Movements (*.xls) - How passenger equipment might move on this layout during an operating session
~ Enlarged (*.scarm) --- A slightly enlarged variant with one extra turnout, that adds an even gentler curve into the station and considerably more rollingstock parking

Alternative unfolded to fit on a shelf Alternative unfolded to fit on a shelf 3dView
Rollingstock (*.pdf) - Rollingstock need suggestions for each industry on this layout
~ Unfolded (*.scarm) --- Keeping track lengths unaltered, if the enlarged variant is unfolded it will fit on a L-shaped shelf (and as such has potential as a portable module set)

Portable module ideas:
(using toy-train structures)

Example of 3-rail modules under construction

A Gentle Guide to the Free-mo Standards (*.pdf)
~ Possible O-scale Tinplate Module Standards (*.pdf)

Here are examples of purpose oriented portable layout modules (using a interior door as their base), which attempt to maximize play value (animated accessories and cars are encouraged) with a minimal number of turnouts. These examples highlight ways you can create justifiable destinations for even uncommon and odd-ball cars. Modules are popular in England, where micro-layouts made from as little as one module (along with a short staging track) often forms a modelers entire layout.

Single panel

O-scale compound ladder Ladder (*.pdf) - compound ladder
~ Ladder (*.scarm)

O-scale double-ended staging yard Staging (*.pdf) - double-ended staging yard
~ Staging (*.scarm)

Article: Designing small shelf Layouts for operating fun (*.pdf)

Note that the Military Base Layout could also be also be a module, if the Storage Track is modified to be a Main Line (add a turnout)

O-scale air express transloading Airfield (*.pdf) - air express transloading
~ Airfield (*.scarm)

O-scale antiquated urban light industry Bygone (*.pdf) - antiquated urban light industry
~ Bygone (*.scarm)

O-scale fantasy suburban rescue services Emergency (*.pdf) - fantasy suburban rescue services
~ Emergency (*.scarm)

O-scale fantasy missile proving ground Missiles (*.pdf) - fantasy missile proving ground
~ Missiles (*.scarm)

O-scale rural coal mining Mountain (*.pdf) - rural coal mining
~ Mountain (*.scarm)

Multiple panel

O-scale return loop passenger facility Action Station (*.pdf) - an entire passenger facility on a four-panel return loop
~ Action Station (*.scarm)


Some example sources for FREE downloadable PaperCraft buildings


Miscellaneous Resources

SCARM - "Simple Computer Aided Railway Modeller" software download website - (still Win2k compatible)
~ SCARM forum
KCS 3rd Subdivision - (great resource for operation ideas)
TrainLife - An archive of Model Train magazine scans
Video about photogenic Dioramas
Micro Passenger Layouts - (be sure to examine the other parts of this website for additional micro layout ideas)
History, Concepts, and Operation of Small Layouts
O-Scale Model Railroad Layout Directory