The “Lifetime” Layout vs the “Sustainable layout”

Have you read the term “lifetime” layout in some of the model railroad magazines. I have seen this quite often. The idea of a lifetime layout came to my mind recently. It has been several weeks since I have had a chance to work on “Slow Train Down South”. Why you ask. Well other things going on in life such as children’s baseball and softball games, cub scout and brownie events, etc. I am certain that I am not the only person who has limited modeling time at times. So how does this tie in with a “lifetime layout”? Well, yes I know, at this rate it could take a lifetime to build “Slow Train Down South”. But no, this is not what I mean by a lifetime layout. My understanding of a lifetime layout is the one that is the “capstone” of model railroads in one’s life. The one that someone has always wanted, but never had the time, resources, or space to build. “Slow Train” is a learning experience layout, more like a sustainable model railroad than a lifetime model railroad.

The crew of "Slow Train Down South" showing off their work
The crew of “Slow Train Down South” showing off their work

Sustainable, a word one thinks of more along the lines of  agriculture, is really the type of model railroad we are building. A quick Goggle search leads one to the fact that Sustainable is an adjective and means, among several definitions,  “Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” I would like to propose the sustainable model railroad. A sustainable layout is a project that can experience some downtime and some time of progress. It can be more than a physical model railroad, it is the armchair part of learning about a prototype or developing a freelance railroad. It is doing field work and collecting information about a location, a freight car, locomotive etc. It is about developing friendships. It is about learning new skills and improving “old ones.” It is about operating a model in the fashion that you the operator chose. It is a layout that sustains your involvement in a hobby.

Ours is not an O scale monster completely filling a 30 ft by 60 ft area, the “lifetime layout”. Instead, our current model railroad is a multi-module plus staging yard railroad. It can serve as a teaching tool for a third grader to learn how to measure her fractions. It can be used as an art project to learn how to use chalks and acrylic paints. It can be used by a first grader to make railroad ties like the ones he sees on walks along the old railroads. It can be used by me to practice new methods for tracklaying, scenery, and prototype operations for a fictional narrow gauge railroad. It can sustain our interests for years.

Graham along the "York", a 4-4-0 that belongs to "Steam into History" in New Freedom, PA
Graham along the “York”, a 4-4-0 that belongs to “Steam into History” in New Freedom, PA

4 thoughts on “The “Lifetime” Layout vs the “Sustainable layout”

  1. Hi Matt:
    Very well thought-out and presented. I would only add that the traditional “Lifetime” layout assumes that one can predict the future: That one will, at some point, acquire a huge space plus the free time and disposable income to fill it with model railway.
    I would argue that nobody can predict whether all the requirements will align, and that rather than planning for a “Lifetime” layout that may or may never happen, hobbyists would do better to plan for a layout that fits their present space/time/financial situation, and start building it TODAY.

    1. Trevor,

      Thank you for the kinds words! I agree with you. Having designed and built my house, planned for a large basement area dedicated for trains. Family and other space obligations changed all of that! We still have a nice space, but like yours it is a difficult area to work in. Having a modular layout gives us the opportunity to create something that the kids and I can build and learn from. Sort of Free-Mo in the basement.


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