To design a model railroad, decide if you want to model a real-life railroad, called a prototype model, or invent a freelance design. A prototype model may require compressing some elements of the design, such as the distance between towns, in order to fit the model railroad in the available space. A freelance design allows you to create a railroad specifically for your space and can incorporate fictional elements, but can be harder to plan.
Though prototype model builders can follow the original as closely or as loosely as they want, some feel that they must copy the real-life railroad as faithfully as possible. Many beginners choose to attempt a freelance design, but they must learn from scratch how to create a layout that operates correctly, which requires research and trial and error. A hybrid approach borrows elements from real-world examples, such as a functional track plan, and combines them with fictional elements or buildings and trains from other places and eras.
Prototype, freelance and hybrid designers can benefit from the layout design element method when planning their railroad. Layout design elements include towns, rail yards, factories, coal yards and scenery. Model builders pick the design elements most important to them and combine them with track plans using design software or paper and pencil.