David Barrow’s vision

David Barrow discusses his model railway with a visitor during the self-guided layout tour for The Austin Eagle 2018 convention.

If you’ve been around the hobby for any length of time, you know of David Barrow – especially if you have any interested in layout design. I obviously do have an interest, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit David’s model railway during The Austin Eagle – the 2018 convention held by the Lone Star Region of the NMRA in the greater Austin TX area earlier this month.

David emerged in the 1980s with a number of articles featuring his proto-freelanced Cat Mountain & Santa Fe Railroad – a layout that would go on to become highly influential in the hobby over the past three decades. Perhaps more than any other layout, David’s CM&SF promoted the benefits of a linear, once-through-the-scene, walk-around layout. If you Google “David Barrow layout plan” you will find – in addition to plans for his own layout – many plans by others that clearly demonstrate Barrow’s influence.

The upper yard at Lubbock, Texas on the right with Posey across the aisle.

Beyond the layout, the room in which it is located demonstrated the design advantages of narrow peninsulas with scenes on each side divided by a backdrop. With its barren West Texas setting, the layout also proved that it is possible to effectively model wide open flat spaces – a lesson that many people are now applying to other settings such as the Prairies.

Burris at left, with the lower yard at Lubbock on the right.

David also introduced many hobbyists to the idea of presenting the layout in a space that minimizes distractions – for example, by eliminating clutter under the benchwork and paying attention to things like valances and lighting. (Rather than delve on this too much here, I encourage you to read what Lance Mindheim wrote about his visit to Barrow’s layout in 2013. Pay particular attention to the quote from John Pawson on minimalism.)

David also taught many of us that staging yards did not have to be hidden on a subterranean level or behind a backdrop – that, in fact, it was advantageous to leave them exposed (albeit in a space away from the main layout) for both ease of operation and maintenance.

The benefits of visible staging, on display.
A wall along the left edge of the photo visually separates the staging area from the rest of the layout space, with door openings at each end.

In addition to his home layout, David is the architect behind The South Plains District – a project layout he built for Model Railroader magazine and documented in a series that ran in the September-December 1996 issues. This series is among those frequently cited by modellers as inspirational.


But David is also known for creating a bit of a tempest in a teapot back in 2004, when he revealed via the pages of Model Railroad Planning magazine that he’d torn out his traditional, scenicked, version of the CM&SF and replaced it with a sectional switching layout built on bare plywood, with no ballast or scenery and ofttimes just mockups for key structures.

Many who were fans of his work felt betrayed by this new, minimalist direction – one that emphasized operation by minimizing, or eliminating, any elements that did not directly support that. (Remember that quote from John Pawson? That’s what’s happening here.) His current layout backs off from the switching district theme in favour of mainline running (see plan, below). But as the photos in this post show, he’s maintained the minimalist aesthetic he introduced in 2004.

Plan of the current layout. Staging is in a separate space at the right.

I was intrigued – I wanted to know whether the minimalism did, in fact, focus one on operation or whether it was actually a distraction. So David’s layout was a must-see stop on the self-guided layout tour.


The visit did not disappoint. I must admit that David’s approach is not one I would take. I like scenery and structures – not only for the construction challenges they present but also for the context they provide. This is just a personal view, but I found the lack of structures somewhat disorienting – like looking at a schematic of a railway instead of the railway itself.

As an example, I’ve spent some time pondering a layout based on the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway – an interurban line in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. I’ve collected a lot of material on this line, including official railway track diagrams and vintage photos. The image below shows two ways of looking at one of my favourite locations – Ontario Street in St. Catharines:

CNR track diagram versus a 1951 photo of switching operations on Ontario Street.

The track diagram is a lot like David’s layout: It shows me what was there, and what I need to model from an operational perspective. But the photo places everything in context. The vehicles, the utility poles, the stores and restaurants on the the right – none of that is required to switch the auto plant that is the reason for this piece of trackage. But for me, it adds so much to the context that I cannot imagine modelling this scene without it.

To be fair, I did not participate in an operating session on this layout (that was not an option). Perhaps I would have a different feeling about the importance of context if I had. But I would be surprised if I did.

Regardless, I was very glad to see David’s layout – and I believe his thinking is an important contribution to the hobby. But for me, the important lesson was in confirming that this is not the approach for me. That’s as important, I think, as visiting a layout that reinforces one’s preferences.


In addition to his HO layout, David has more recently dabbled in O scale, with a shelf switching layout built in a room adjacent to his crew lounge.

This layout models the same prototype (AT&SF) and exhibits the same aesthetic as his HO layout – something I found rather curious. I would’ve been tempted to use a change of scale to explore a different prototype or region of the country (or even of the world) – but, again, that’s a personal preference.

Thank you, David, for opening your layout to the tour. I’m really glad I made the time to visit!

Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and amateur shepherd, training a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

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