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Paper and pencil serve many designers best, but if you just gotta CAD ...
These are my personal opinions only -- your mileage may vary! I have no commercial ties with any of these developers of model railroad layout design CAD except that I own registered copies of 3rd PlanIt and CADRail. For the balance I made use of free demos.
After many years struggling with CADRail, I moved to 3rdPlanIt and find it relatively more user-friendly. The later releases of CADRail may be easier to use than the releases I struggled with ... I gave up at Version 6. I found that 3rd PlanIt was a bit more consistent with my expectations of Windows software with an overlay of CAD human interface. The CADRail human interface (up to v6, at least) seemed like a harder-core CAD implementation and I was personally just never as comfortable with it. 

Many people use general CAD programs (such as AutoCAD) for layout design and that may work reasonably well if one is familiar with them. The downside is that you will probably need to create your own libraries of turnouts and other track components. Further, if you are not careful in the creation of templates it can be easy to place commercial track components in unbuildable configurations, such as turnouts too close to one another. Model railroad-specific layout design CAD software avoids many of these issues.

3rdPlanIt and CADRail are probably the most popular, but nearly all the programs offer a free trial copy with varying degrees of functionality. If you are serious about buying a CAD system, that's doubtless the best way to go ... but it will take some time to evaluate multiple packages.

Any of the model railroad CAD programs have a substantial learning curve and for a one-time job you might be better off with paper, pencil, and templates. I personally believe that paper and pencil are better for many designers than CAD, especially in the early design stages when creativity is more important than precision.

Here's the list alphabetically with a couple of (personal) comments for each. In my opinion, 3rdPlanIt, CADRail, and XTrkCAD are the strongest, but specific people with particular needs may find one of the others a good choice.

3D Railroad Concept And Design
Windows. I found this an idiosyncratic little program, although it was a little easier for me to make 3d features work than with some of the others. (The original developer, Abracadata, seems to have gone out of business and the link above leads to a self-described software "liquidator").

3rd PlanIt
User-supported site (designs, tips, downloads)
Windows. As noted, I like this one the best, but I don't make much use of the terrain or 3d features. There are quirks and the documentation lags product development at times. This is somewhat compensated for by an active user group on Yahoo that is pretty helpful. New in 2007 is a support site run by the developer.
Good selection of track libraries and a lot of additional libraries, buildings, and rolling stock have been placed in the public domain by users. Software to provide standards-based CAD file export (.dxf and .dwg) is an extra cost item (about ten bucks), although .jpg exports are included with the base program.

With the recent release of Version 8, the developer has shown a lot of responsiveness to user issues and in my opinion this bodes well for 3rd PlanIt.

YahooGroups site
Windows. In some ways, this seems the most sophisticated to me, but the user interface always strikes me as quirky. I have not given it a close look since v6 and it's now on v9, so my comments should be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps the largest active user base, so good opportunities for exchanging plans with others. Many users seem satisfied with CADRail, though the learning curve is high as with all full-featured layout CAD programs.

If one is comfortable with the user interface, CADRail is also an excellent choice, in my opinion.

Empire Express

YahooGroups site (though it appears not to be active)
Macintosh. I love my Mac, but features-wise this offering does not compare well with the best. Some of the other programs claim to work on a Virtual PC on the Mac, but I have not made them work successfully on my G3. Still, if you only have a Mac and you want layout design software, it's worth checking out the demo. (And RailModeller, below). I have ended up relegating my Layout Design work to the PC, but those even more loyal to the Mac than I may want to try Empire Express.
User group bulletin boards sponsored on RailModeller's site:
Macintosh. I have not yet had a chance to demo this software, but since it appears to be the only full-featured MRR CAD software for the Mac, I am including it in this list. I expect to demo the software soon and will add more comments at that time.
No specific groups, although topics are discussed on the Atlas forums
Windows. This program is free to download from atlas. Free has its own virtues, but I find this program to be very underpowered compared to CADRail and 3rdPlanIt. For most people, the time they spend to learn the program is by far the biggest investment in CAD, so despite the fact that this one is free, I think most people will find the fact that it supports only Atlas track too limiting. In addition, I find the method of manipulating flextrack especially difficult vs. the more fully-featured programs. This product is based on the commercial
Winrail software. I have not evaluated WInrail per se, it seems to offer a good selection of Mrklin libraries that some other programs lack.
No group discussion site that I could find.
Windows. Sectional track primarily, but good selection of O scale libraries lacking from some other programs.

Unoffical users Yahoo group
Windows and LINUX. XTrkCAD has a strong set of features and the platform flexibility of LINUX, but does not seem to have the promotional strength (relative) of 3rd PlanIt and CADRail. XTrkCAD has moved to an open source model. What this means in terms of support and future enhancements is not clear from the information on the website, but may be interesting for those working in a LINUX environment. I do think that anyone who is serious about model RR CAD should definitely look at XTrkCAD along with the better-known choices, with the caveat that product updates and enhancements may not be forthcoming in the future.
A final thought when considering any program ...

Many of these packages are written, sold and supported by vary small companies or individuals. The risk of some of these small developers going out of business is real. Good advice is to save versions of your trackplan to standard file formats such as .jpg, .dxf, and .dwg. And back-up your files to CD or other media often. (You do make back-ups, right?)

Another risk to consider is that developers may change file formats and in the process obsolete track plan files developed in earlier versions. Even if you are happy with the program you have chosen, it pays to check in with their users groups or official website occasionally so you'll be aware of any such changes.
Copyright 2004-07 by Byron Henderson
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