Confessions of a Mediocre Model Railroader
by Ulrich Abramowski

Ever since I started out in the hobby of model railroading 48 years ago, I wanted to have one of those basement-filling train empires with big yards, sweeping curves and rolling hills.

In all those years of building various layouts, I never even came close to fulfilling this dream. I prepared many a plan, but when it finally came to starting to build one, I got second thoughts on it.

There were various reasons for this reluctance to start working on my dream layout, the lesser reasons being lack of space and funds. It took me a while to find out, that I was shunning away from tackling a project that would require 10 or more years to complete. I doubt that I´d have the energy to go through such an extensive project, before losing or changing my interest in it. I did build a number of smaller layouts, from dioramas to shelf switchers and little roundy-rounders. I learned a lot building these layouts, not only honing my skills, but also finding out about my limitations. Unfortunately, there are many limitations I encountered, the sum of them truly disqualifying me as an expert and making me into what I am – a mediocre model railroader.

Having realized that, I knew I´d be excluded from the elite in this hobby, a thought which immobilized me a little while. I sold the layout I had built and went on a 10 year hiatus from the hobby.

In the meantime, life got in the way of any model railroading activity. We lost our house and had to move into a small, two bedroom apartment. Our budget barely sustains a basic life, with little room for any extras. Model railroading was definitively off the list. The spare bedroom acts as an office, the laundry room and our guest room, when our son comes visiting us from college. No room for a permanent layout, no funds for anything that would meet my interest. Was I condemned to arm-chairing the rest of my life?

With plenty of time at hand, I searched the web for ideas on how to have a come back into model railroading with literally no space for a layout and very, very limited funds for the hobby. It was like squaring a circle – whatever the idea was, my limited budget would not go with it. Only by chance, I came across a picture of Kato´s D51 498, a superb model which sells for a price much less than any European prototype. I was amazed by its detail, and out of a frenzy I ordered it in Japan. A few weeks later, it arrived, but now I had a nice looking loco with no place to give it a work-out. I dug deeper into the subject of modeling Japanese prototype, which finally led me to the idea of building T-Track modules. A closer look revealed, that building the boxes was too expensive for me, and required power tools I don´t have any more. I also did not like the rigid geometry of the track arrangements, so that idea was shelved again. But the bug had bitten!

A few weeks later, I came across the home page of a model railroader in Japan, who has adopted the basic T-Track design, but in a much simpler execution. Here was a way to do something without those power tools I was missing and something a lot less messy and intrusive! Was this the answer to my questions? Well, it did not solve the issue of the sort of rigid geometry, but this was a toad I had to swallow if I were to stay in the hobby.

The following weekend saw a trip to our local home improvement store where I bought a few pieces of plywood, already cut to the size I needed.

The following picture shows all what you need to build a module box:

Fools rush in, so the first module was I built was a bridge module. The box was turned upside down to form a cradle, and Styrofoam was shaped using a hot wire cutter to form the basic landscape.

As I did not like the plastic look of the track, I spray-painted it in a dark brown color with a rattle can, and added N scale granite ballast to improve the looks of it. The result was amazing. To finish the module, I painted the terrain in a dark brown color, using acrylic paint from our home improvement store. Adding clump foliag from Woodland Scenic and talus from our local children´s playground was a weekend´s job. Some weathering and the addition of two catenary poles finished the module.

I have started to work on the modules in May 2011 and have finished three modules so far.

To say the least, I was amazed with the result of my effort! It just gave me the right push to continue, gradually developing the modules into a layout, which will be put up on a narrow shelf along the wall.

Next was a tunnel portal and hillside with a retaining wall.

Next was a module showing a grade crossing.

All together, they now form a very nice display.

Currently, I am working on my fourth module, which is supposed to be the scenic highlight of my little layout.

A few pieces of plywood,

put together to form a box,

Basic lanscape added:


And some gardening action:

The module is far from being finished, I need to reshape the contour of the upper edge, add catenary poles, a contraption to prevent branches and twigs from falling onto the track at the short tunnel. I am also pondering to add a waterfall.

… Which I did. Reshaping the upper edge and adding the waterfall really improved the looks of this module.

Facts & Findings and a Lesson Learned
Building a layout consisting of mini-modules is a simple, but efficient and inexpensive way to build your model railroad empire. It does not require any expensive tools or a high degree of skills to build a realistic looking layout. You can easily grow an already existing layout by adding a few more modules. The somewhat rigid and simple track geometry can be disguised with breathtaking scenery. You will find sufficient place for a layout in nearly any room. Moving the layout is no issue at all. Building the modules is not really messy and your layout will always have a finished look.

Is ther a flip side? Yes, there is. The system does not allow for sweeping curves, big yards and is limited to N scale. The modules either need a table or a shelf to be put on.

I am having great fun in building the modules, in fact, more fun than I expected to have. The results I have so far achieved keep me motivated to continue down this track. The lesson I learned is that the fun in our hobby does not depend on the size of the layout you are building – so watch out, there will be more to come from me!

I´d like to thank the fellow Japanese model railroader who introduced me to this fantastic way of building a beautiful layout.

You can visit his home page for more information at this link:

Hamburg, Germany, Aug. 3rd, 2011


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