Coffee Tables

Sooner or later, the idea comes to most model railroader’s mind. “I’ll make a coffee table layout for my trains”. It is possible to do so.

If done right, a coffee table train layout is a great way to highlight your model railroad hobby to visitors while provided a useful piece of furniture for your living room or den.  If done poorly, the coffee table layout is an ugly, unreliable nuisance that makes your spouse twitchy every time they look at it.  So, you want to do this right, and here are some ideas and thoughts about the subject.

  • Keep it simple
  • Keep it reliable
  • Keep it accessible
  • Use a command control system
  • Know your limitations

Keeping it Simple

A civil engineer friend who worked in the track department of a major railroad was also a model railroader. He had layouts over the years, but always swore that his “retirement railroad” would be all track and no turnouts. He had a point, for turnouts on the railroad are as difficult to maintain as turnouts on model railroads. Each turnout represents a derailment opportunity, and on model railroads, an opportunity for electrical problems.

Of course, my friend chickened out when it came time to build his S-Scale Georgia Railroad, a project which brings him mostly fun, because it is the turnouts that make a railroad interesting. That said, the coffee table is not likely to be a place for complicated track work. Each turnout does represent an opportunity for mayhem.

Handled properly, even a simple oval of track can be interesting.  There are artistic tricks such as overhead bridges that visually “interrupt” the view of a moving train, making it appear to be traveling further than it really is.  The idea is conceal the fact that the coffee table train is just chasing its tail.

Keeping it Reliable

Because the typical coffee table layout is an enclosed system, you want your trains and track to be a reliable as possible. There are inexpensive locomotives in the marketplace that are not a good choice for a coffee table railroad. The same holds true for, for lack of a better word, cheap track.

There are reliable brands of track switches (such as Peco) that will make your coffee table railroad more reliable. There are reliable brands of locomotives, such as Kato and Atlas. 

Before they even get onto the coffee table layout, they should be thoroughly tested and lubricated. If you don’t know how to lubricate a model locomotive, learn, because you will be doing it more often than on a typical model railroad because you’ll be running it more often.

Likewise, anticipate in your design the fact that you will be cleaning track more often, too.  In part, the lubrication causes the problem, but it is better to have a locomotive that might have been over lubricated rather than a burnt out locomotive that never saw oil in the first place.

Ease of Access

I’ve seen model railroads situated in the bars of public taverns, and what eventually happens to them is sad. One such bar was a place called Uncle Sam’s in Atlanta.  It had 0-27 Gauge trains running the length of the bar. The other place was located in the Georgia Railroad’s former depot in Decatur, Georgia; it was N-Scale. Granted, both were located in smoky places filled with massively inebriated people, but what finally killed both of them was that it was very difficult to access the trains for maintenance such as track cleaning and lubrication of the locomotives. The same will prove true in a private home if this is not done right.

Use a Command Control System

If most coffee tables are to be relatively simple railroads, using command control would appear to be unnecessary.  The whole selling point of command control is that it lets you operate a railroad with large numbers of locomotives and solenoid devices.  Yet, the advanced locomotive decoder also offers load compensation, or back EMF. What this means is that the command control throttle tells a locomotive to operate at a certain speed setting and the locomotive’s mobile decoder handles that by adjusting the motor voltage to meet that speed setting. In other words, with the load compensation compensation feature, a train will operate very smoothly in a coffee table environment, even when going uphill or downhill.

In the “analog” environment, you had to either constantly handle train speed by turning the throttle up and down as necessary, not exactly what the coffee table model railroad is supposed to be.  The alternative was to put electronic devices on the uphill and downhill sections so that the train speed was relatively the same in the different areas of the railroad.  Please see the “6631 Braking Resistance Unit” to see an example of this approach.

A command control system also allows you to control a number of solenoid devices remotely, yet have very few wires running between the coffee table layout and a control panel, which is typically located in a drawer in the coffee table.

Command control is complicated on one hand, yet it also potentially simplifies the wiring and operation of any model railroad.

Know Your Limitations

This is perhaps the most difficult to acknowledge. Doing a simple model railroad on a table is a potentially complicated project. You need to know how to install the track, wire the track up for operation, build the structures, make the scenery and have it all work together. Putting this all into a coffee table is even more of a challenge.  So, as you contemplate a coffee table model railroad, know that this will be a challenging project.  At the same time, these pages should help you know that this can be done.  It just requires some forethought and planning.

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