Indoor or Outdoor Large Scale Railroads?

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I started construction of my first serious Large Scale model railroad in the newly constructed basement of my mountain cabin in April of 1994 although I had several simple flat layouts as test cases starting from about 1990. In Sept 1996, I started an outdoor version in the backyard of my home in southern California. It's now mid 2006 and I've had more than a decade of experience discovering the ups and downs of building both indoors and outdoors. This page is an attempt to summarize my experiences so that others may learn from them as well.

The bottom line is that there is no obviously best place to build a model railroad. Most smaller scale model railroads are built indoors simply because the small stuff cannot handle the outdoor environment. HO and N scales are small enough so that some remote degree of realism of scale is possible indoors. With large scale, prototypical curves are simply not possible unless you are building over your indoor polo field. Large Scale trains are marginally big enough to handle the outdoor environment where some form of scale realism is almost realizable so a choice might present itself.

Do I build indoors or out?

For many people, there might be little choice. There may be no room in one place or the other so that only one path is available. Others may have a choice. Where they build will have serious impacts on what they can build and how much work it takes to maintain the railroad. Still others may go completely overboard and be totally unreasonable by doing both.

Either way, large scale railroads are usually constrained by space. Often some serious and protracted negotiations are necessary to secure sufficient area for the right of way. Once rights are secured, the trend to pack trackwork everywhere needs to be avoided. There needs to be room for scenery and passage for the 1:1 scale people that will enjoy the railroad. Minimal trackage in any given field of view is good, this is the way that real railroads are viewed except in some exceptional areas of big cities.

GIRR overgrownFor a lot of reasons, I had left my trains alone for more than two years. An outdoor railroad that is not continually maintained will soon succumb to the forces of nature, as did mine. The ivy has grown over and through much of the trackwork, the sun has disintegrated a significant number of Aristo tie strips and the weather in general has caused a short trestle in the foreground to come unglued. My kids have destroyed the trackwork leading to the garage, it'll have to be entirely replaced. As the GIRR is rehabilitated, I expect that I'll find a lot more stuff that has simply fallen apart.

nibbled fruitIn contrast, the GIRR Mountain Division is virtually unscathed. This is the extent of degradation that I found after two full years without a single train movement. A mouse had chewed up all of the plastic fruit in these baskets. The track didn't even need cleaning.

Indoor Vs. Outdoor
Characteristic Indoor Outdoor
Prototype Selection Pro


Wider selection of larger prototypes allowed by larger radius curves


Reduced selection of prototypes

Tighter radius curves limit prototypes to narrow gauge, mining, logging and streetcars


Rail Code Pro

Practical to use smaller code rail to allow better looking trackwork



"Standard" code 332 rail looks WAY too big, but at least it is sturdy

Harsher outdoor environment argues for heavy code 332 rail, code 250 can work but is harder to maintain

Available Area Pro


Usually larger area available, allows wider curves, larger separation between scenes, less dense trackwork

Sometimes a sloped area that is not otherwise very useful can be used for right of way set into the slope.


Usually restrained area argues for tight radius curves, tendency to put too much trackwork too close

Easily can consume an entire room or more, but if a basement, garage or attic is available, may not result in lost living space.

Area consumed by the railroad is pretty much lost to uses other than gardening

General Maintenance Pro

Much lower




Much higher, itemized below

Track Cleaning Pro

Yearly, maybe less frequently when using all metal wheels

None unless battery power is used where dirty track will actually provide better traction.



Serious impact when using track power, train length power pickups can significantly improve reliability

Even with battery power, large grit, leaves, twigs and other debris need to be cleaned off the track

Foliage Pro

Simulated foliage requires little maintenance

If properly selected, natural foliage can be very attractive


Good looking artificial foliage is either expensive to buy or time consuming to make in the large quantities required

Weeding, pruning and trimming

Irrigation and removal of dead foliage

Water Features Pro

Simulated water features require little maintenance

Natural water features are practical and can be visually attractive

Active water features can produce pleasing sounds


Real water features are impractical due to leakage and humidity issues

Water features of any kind are fairly high maintenance

Weather Pro

No "off season" if the enclosure is adequately insulated, heated or cooled

Running trains outdoors in good or acceptable weather can be very pleasant


Less time spent outdoors

Summer heat, winter cold, rain, wind and snow can restrict train time

Weather Damage Pro

"Normal" bad weather is no problem as long as the enclosing building holds up



none unless the conditions are so bad that the building is damaged

Weather damage is a fact of outdoor life, it will happen, sometimes seriously

Floods, hurricanes, tornados, toppled trees, lightening can totally destroy a railroad.

Track Height Pro

Usually set high so that the layout is near eye level.

Storage sometimes available under the layout

Don't have to bend as much to reach the railroad (really important for those with bad backs)

Usually set at ground level but can be raised on a terrace or other structures

Trains are further from the eye allowing lower levels of detail on rolling stock, locomotives and structures


Trains can be "in your face", lack of details shows up more

Bending and kneeling to work on the railroad or rerail trains can be hard on the back and knees.

With the track at ground level, you will find yourself at ground level quite a lot. As one gets older, getting up from the ground gets harder. Think about this one.

Scenery Construction Pro

Pretty much any kind of scenery desired can be simulated

Nature can do some of the work

Water features are possible and can be very attractive


Good looking scenery requires some significant level of artistic skill

Scenery construction can be very time consuming

Water features must be simulated

More limited selection of materials available that will withstand the environment

Security Pro

Better, the whole railroad can be locked up




Whatever is left outdoors is subject to vandalism

Gardening Pro


Those that like gardening and trains can have it both ways


Live plants on an indoor railroad are impractical

Can be a chore if you don't particularly like gardening

Animals Pro

Fewer animals to deal with



Mice and spiders can still be a bother

Cats can knock over trains and scenery

All manner of wild animals can invade, from moose to mice.

Larger and burrowing animals can do considerable damage

Train Storage Pro

Trains can be stored right on the layout




Trains must be stored indoors or they will not survive long

Considerable time and effort to bring out and put away trains unless a track leads to indoor storage where entire trains can be brought out at once.

Electrical Issues Pro

Conventional low voltage wiring practical

110 VAC equipment can just be plugged in to an available conventional outlet although GFI is preferred




Low voltage wiring must be buried to hide it, often special wire required

110 VAC equipment must be protected from the weather and connect to GFI outlets

In almost every case, either indoor or outdoor has a decided advantage, few characteristics share the same attributes. To make your own decision, you will need to pick the characteristics that are most important to you and then accept the rest.

For example, if you just have to run a Hudson followed by a long string of heavyweights, then an indoor layout will just not do the job (unless you've actually got that indoor polo field with an attic...). If you want to run streetcars or model logging, then you can do either. If you've got a truly brown thumb, then maybe staying indoors would work better but gardeners will naturally be drawn outdoors. If you live in a bad neighborhood or your property is not well secured then maybe indoors would work better. In either case, you will need to do some kind of construction work, so if you are not good with tools, then maybe you keep your plans indoor or outdoor very simple.

The most important thing is to think long and hard about what is likely to happen in your environment and plan around the worst of the problems.

If I had this decision to make again, I'd be torn. Indoors is clearly better from a stability and maintainance point of view. Outdoors is clearly better for the much greater flexibility in selection of equipment point of view. The final decision would have to be based the area available.

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© 2006-2008 George Schreyer
Created Aug 5, 2006
Last Updated March 31, 2008