How To Toy Train Layouts 8 guidelines for handicap accessible toy train layouts

8 guidelines for handicap accessible toy train layouts

By Peter H. Riddle | June 9, 2024

Ways to accommodate less mobile modelers and visitors

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Model railroading — in any scale — can be a challenging hobby for people with disabilities, whether caused by illness, accident, or age. In addition, visitors who use a wheelchair or walker may find it difficult to view distant points on a large layout. The pike shown here was built with such limitations in mind.

overview of model train layout; handicap accessible toy train layouts
1. Upon entering the layout room, a person in a wheelchair has an eye-level view of the entire railroad. Wide aisles and a relatively low table height are ideal for seated viewers. Peter Riddle photo

Physical access

drawing of layout room
Peter Riddle illustration

If possible, the train room should have at least one entry without stairs. As seen in the drawing (Figure A) and visible at right in Photo 1, a ground level door leads in directly from outdoors. The interior doorway (upper right in the drawing) connects to the basement, accessed by a flight of stairs. If that were the only way to reach the trains, an electric stair lift would be needed.

Table height

Most modelers construct their layouts at a fairly high level, perhaps 4 feet above the floor, for easy viewing when standing and adequate headroom underneath while working on the wiring. I placed the surface just 31 inches high to provide good visibility for wheelchair-bound observers and operators. Admittedly, this limited clearance makes sitting on the floor beneath the tables uncomfortable, so I installed most of the wiring while lying on my back on a wheeled garage dolly. For disabled builders, another solution would be to place all wiring on the top surface, to be hidden by scenery.

Table construction

Modelers with limited physical capabilities should build their tables as lightweight as possible. The 4-foot by 8-foot tables shown here are constructed from 2-foot by 8-foot, 2”-thick dense foam insulation panels, glued side by side. The framing is made from 1-foot by 3-foot pine boards and mounted on folding legs (one is partially visible in Photo 1). These tables are sturdy but easily moved and are big enough to allow loops of track with curve diameters ranging from 0-27 to 0-42. The 16-foot-long train yard consists of two foam insulation panels laid end to end.

part of model train layout with wheelchair in background
2. This high-level view of Table One shows the town at left and part of the farm at right. At upper left, trains depart from this area via a bridge over a canal to enter the lakeside park (top center) before entering the train yard. The 4-foot width of Table One allows a disabled modeler to reach the entire layout from a wheelchair, as almost everything is no more than 30 inches from the edge. Wide aisles (upper right, showing wheelchair) are essential to both construction and viewing for the disabled. Peter Riddle photo

Wider aisles

Walkers and most wheelchairs can navigate through spaces at least 32 inches wide, but a full 3 feet is better, especially with corners to negotiate as shown in Figure A and Photo 2. An unobstructed, smooth-surfaced floor is desirable. Every point on the layout should be within easy reach, no more than 30 inches from the edge. In general, aisles should be arranged so that observers can approach the tables from at least three sides. The 8-foot trestle bridge (right in Figure A, and visible in the background of Photo 1) can be lifted out for easier access to the ends of the train yard and Table Two.

scene on model train layout with swimming pool
3. Scenes of everyday life, such as swimmers in the lakeside park at the opposite end of the bridge from Table One (Figure A, top center) should be reasonably near the aisles for close examination. The New Haven Alco locomotives leaving the train yard are traversing manually operated switches, which must also be easy to reach. Peter Riddle photo


train yard on model train layout
4. The 2-foot-wide table along the wall is an ideal location for a train yard, with everything easy to reach from the aisle. From left to right, a Lionel No. 2056 Hudson is backing into a passing siding to allow the Santa Fe Alcos in blue and yellow freight colors to deadhead along the main line, approaching the 8-foot trestle bridge leading to the industrial area (Figure A, right). A Santa Fe Warbonnet passenger train waits on the adjacent stub siding, next to a Canadian National freight mogul and a Lionel No. 2055 Hudson passenger locomotive. In the distance, a CN Dayliner is entering the shop for routine maintenance. Peter Riddle photo

Physical access to trains and accessories

All parts of a 4-foot-wide table may be reached by a seated person from one side or another. As shown in Figure A (top) and Photos 3 and 4, the railroad yard is adjacent to a wall, and was therefore kept to a width of 2 feet since it can’t be reached from the opposite side. For economy and simplicity of wiring, all six turnouts in this area are manually operated and 18 inches or less from the edge. The Lionel FasTrack switches used on this layout, both remote control and manual, are automatically non-derailing. During operating sessions with friends, a dispatcher may be stationed at the yard to manage access to the various sidings. This is an ideal assignment for someone in a wheelchair.

part of model train layout with accessories
5. This photo, taken at eye level from wheelchair height, shows the industrial area on Table Two near the end of the 8-foot bridge. Action accessories should be easy to see and reach, in case of spilled freight that must be cleaned up. In the case of accessories farther from the edge of the table, such as the big log loader (top center), both sides may be reached from the front and back aisles (Figure A, lower right). Peter Riddle photo

Location of accessories

Action accessories are easiest to enjoy and operate when located close to the edge of the layout. This is especially true of such units as the No. 362 barrel ramp in Photo 5 that often requires hands-on attention to keep the barrels moving smoothly. Some accessories are less prone to needing attention, such as the No. 164 log loader at center. Its larger size makes it easier to see from a greater distance, although at only 18 inches from the aisle in front, it is within reach. It is also accessible from the aisle behind the table.


close up of model train controls and model train with log car
6. Controls for trackside accessories may be mounted on the side of the layout, rather than at the main control panel. This allows persons in wheelchairs to be close enough to watch the action while they operate them. Peter Riddle photo

As shown in Photo 1, the majority of controls for switches, lights, uncoupling ramp, etc., are logically grouped near the transformers, but in some cases, it may be more sensible to locate them on the side of the layout near to their related accessories. The push buttons, slide switch, and unload-uncouple box shown in Photo 6 are placed where an operator may watch the accessories, such as this log dump car, at close range as they operate them. If placed beside the transformer, these controls would have been too far away.

scene on model train layout with bridge
7. At the opposite end of the Industrial area (the left end of Table Two in Figure A), the main line exits via a Lionel bascule bridge. Because there are aisles on at least three sides of each of the main tables, close-up inspection of detailed modeling is easy for everyone, disabled or not. Peter Riddle photo

Maintaining interest

Persons in wheelchairs have one distinct advantage over the rest of us: they are at an ideal level to enjoy closeup viewing. They deserve a wide variety of scenic details to capture their interest.Small details that might be lost or overlooked in a conventional large layout stand out when seen close to eye level.

Read more

ADA Standards for Accessible Design

Modeling with a disability


city scene on model train layout
8. The commercial area of Table Three contains highly detailed buildings, operating traffic signals, a milk delivery platform (to supply the ice cream shop at center) and crossing gates and signals to provide action. Details to attract attention include a fishing boat in the canal that is about to pass beneath the raised bridge, patrons leaving the diner (top, center left), customers entering the nearby IGA grocery store, and a patient dalmatian near the firehouse, hoping for some action. Visitors in wheelchairs will be more likely to notice such things than those who are standing. Peter Riddle photo


overhead scene on model train layout: handicap accessible toy train layouts
9. The residential area of Table Three contains a depot, a school with an animated playground, and multiple scenes involving vehicles: a traffic cop ticketing a Porsche driver, a workman loading a pickup truck, and firemen conducting a drill. The remains of snow from a late spring storm may be seen on the roofs and melting in some yards. Peter Riddle photo
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