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Compact Modules fit Ops to a "T"

Engaging model operations in less than eight square feet

One of the several new interesting modular model railroad concepts to come out recently is T-TRAK. Basic T-TRAK modules are nominally 12 1/8" wide by 8 ¼" deep and are intended to be used on a folding banquet table or similar surface -- there are no legs. T-TRAK modules have two N scale main lines and typically use Kato Unitrack. The self-locking nature of the Kato sections is what holds the modules together on the tabletop.

One would think that the small size of an individual module limits the amount of operation, but it is also permissible to build larger modules by using multiple of the 12 1/8" increment (minus some allowance for the slight track overhang).

One of my clients has limited space in his condominium, but does have storage in his single-car garage in the form of a shelf extending over the front of his car. He had a couple of T-TRAK corner modules on hand that he had inherited from a friend. My client asked if a couple of quad length straight modules might be the basis for an interesting operating layout that could be stored in the garage along with a folding table or two (also on hand). We decided to use the "deep" module option offered in the T-TRAK specification to create two quad modules, each 12 1/4" deep by 48 11/16" long.

One of my favorite configurations for an operating layout is a combination of a small yard and an industry. This offers a variety of tasks in a reasonably compact space. Since my client lives in Southern California, I thought an interesting inspiration might be the rail-served Budweiser brewery in Van Nuys. (… that, and he also likes beer!)

In real life, the brewery is a huge facility (photo at right), served by a Southern Pacific (now UP) local working from the nearby GEMCO yard. (For reference, real-life conductor Mike Osborne wrote about the brewery in the Layout Design SIG's Layout Design News # 20, Summer 1998 based on his experience in working the job). Obviously we couldn't model every track on the modules, but I thought we might be able to add operating interest by designating different "spots" on some tracks.

N scale brewery switching layout T_TRAK N scale
Budweiser Van Nuys model railroad switching layout

The Budweiser brewery in Van Nuys, CA is huge – but its operations may be replicated in a very small space!

One of the challenges with this project was that he wanted to be able to use the modules in different configurations: as part of a larger T-TRAK set-up at train shows; with the one or both of the existing T-TRAK corners; and ideally, simply connected end to end. (In the last two configurations, one of the modules is flipped from the normal "mains in the front" orientation … this provides the flexibility of switching leads for operation, see below).

The design that resulted used a mix of Kato Unitrack components on the mainlines and flextrack in other locations. Unitrack could be used throughout, but the exact track placement would change slightly. One module contains the small yard; the other module hosts the brewery. When connected end-to-end or with the existing corners, switching leads are formed for the yard and brewery by the dual mainlines, allowing the yard and the industry to be operated independently and simultaneously. Crossovers between the mainlines form run-arounds and "pockets" for interchange between the two sections. The crossovers are also handy when the modules are connected into a larger layout (but see caution below).


Sharp-eyed readers might notice that the industry tracks could have been a little longer if they had all been arranged to branch off in the same direction. I decided to forego this to add the interest of one "facing point" move that requires a runaround.


At the client's request, I maintained the 33 millimeter track-to-track spacing called for by the T-TRAK "alternate" standard (used on his "inherited" corners), even though this required the use of #4 turnouts in the crossovers. So far this has not been a problem in low-speed switching, but my first recommendation to him was to broaden the track-to-track spacing to accommodate #6 turnouts. This would have required bringing the tracks back to the T-TRAK spacing with a gentle S-curve at the end of each module, at the ends of the module set, or in separate adapter modules. He elected to go with the tighter crossovers instead, did some "tuning" of the #4s, and finds performance acceptable, but I would have preferred the broader spacing and #6 crossovers.

Model railroad switching sure spots brewery T-TRAK modules

When switching the brewery, operators must take care to place cars in the proper "spot order". The diagram above explains one scheme for determining where the various commodities are to be placed. Car cards and waybills generate the car movement. The yard operator must also organize cars into "eastbound" and "westbound" blocks for imagined pick ups by through trains. In real life, the brewery receives a lot of grain, so those tracks could be more extensive on the model. But my client had only a few covered hoppers and many more box cars and reefers, so this works OK for now.


These two modules have been built and partially scenicked. The owner reports that his small operating crew is having a great time and some have been talking about building modules of their own for possible interconnection to the layout. Most times, the modules have been operated simply in the long end-to-end configuration.


When it's time for the group to gather, the car is backed out and parked on the street nearby. Modules, boxes of rolling stock, and DCC gear are lifted down from the storage bay. Within a few minutes, everything is set up on the folding table(s) and operations begin. If and when additional modules are built, the group may simply add more inexpensive folding tables to support them.


This has turned out to be a great way for a "zero permanent space" model railroader to build some modules that are fun to operate on their own and can be part of a larger system built by friends or as part of a train show or meet. And of course, a similar concept could be used as the basis for a fixed shelf layout.


Puzzled about how to include prototype inspiration and operating potential in a model railroad for a small space? Have you got eight square feet? If you'd like help in designing an engaging operating layout large or small, please contact me.

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