Some of the most interesting things you can depict with a great degree of realism on your model railroad layout is the way you can render roads, ground and rail crossings. Since most people use rail crossings as a point of reference, (it’s where most of us see trains close up for the first time) they hold more of an interest. Let’s look at some of the ways you can make life-like ground, roads and crossings.
Let’s cover basic ground a little first. First know that no ground is ever completely flat. Even the most pristine golf course has many undulations that lend character, depth and variety to the surface. You can use products like ground foam, available from your local hobby shop to depict many sorts of top soils. You can also use plaster and other ground making products. Whatever medium you use, be sure to have an eye toward the natural slope of your layout. In other words, if you’re modeling ground near a river or stream, its slope and lushness may be much different than at other spots in your layout. Also be careful how you model your grass. Unless you have a railway running through Pebble Beach, it’s doubtful that the grass will all be one height, color and density. Look at the wild grasslands next to real railways, and you’ll notice a great deal of variety.
Take care with your colors. While nature can indeed deliver some amazing palettes, most of the time the colors you see are well blended, and make perfect sense. The most intense, "bright" colors seem to be associated with many man-made objects. Nature comes with its own weathering, and it’s up to us to duplicate that system as well as we can. Winds flow, dust flies, and leaves fall, all of which lends a hand in dimming the sheen you might otherwise expect.
Also be sure to vary the texture of your ground. Some areas will be lush, some sandy, and others rocky. All of that depends on the area you’re attempting to depict, and the local ground you will typically find there.
Modeling roads is similar, but with a few more things to think about. First, decide exactly what type of road it is: a country dirt lane, an asphalt or concrete road, or if an older town scene, quite possibly a brick road. Consider the width of the road, and just what type of vehicles would be using it. Each will obviously have its own special needs and materials, but there are some common guidelines for all roads to bear in mind.
Most roads, because they must not be collectors of water, are crowned in the middle; that is, they are a slight bit higher in the center of the road to allow water to run off to the sides. Drainage is accomplished on the sides of the road, either by a drainage ditch, culverts and gutters. While you don’t necessarily model all these, (and in fact they are often missing in real life!) you can an in fact, can add a lot of realism to a scene by including them. Be aware of textures, colors and if you need to model a bit of collected water to give it an added dose of realism.
The actual roads can be made from several types of materials, probably the best of which is molding plaster. You’ll probably get the best results by constructing your roads similar to how the road is built in real life: that is by first building a sub-roadbed, and then add the top surface, and subsequently finishing the road with the kind of detail you’re trying to simulate. Be sure not to set your plaster too close to your rails, as any expansion in your plaster and you’re looking at a possible train wreck! Use a pliable material just next to the tracks, such as balsa wood, that can handle a little expansion and contraction.
Texture the road surface as you would find in real life, whether the top level is simply a dirt surface, (you CAN use actual dirt) or painted in the colors representing the concrete or asphalt. (Asphalt roads are typically not totally black, but a flat gray-black, and more gray as they age.) Brick streets and roads are a little more tricky to get real, but when done well are quite stunning. Don’t forget details like ruts, potholes, and manhole covers.
Rail crossings are a focal point in your layout, and should be well-thought out. Since it will be getting much attention, you should take care to stick as close to prototype as you can. There are many types of crossings: gravel, timber, asphalt, rubber. The type you’re modeling will have its own specific set of needs, and that will dictate how you should proceed. Most rail crossings are slightly raised from the ground around them, so bear that in mind. Use as many pictures as you can to create the exact crossing you have in your head. Be very careful to secure the tracks into your sub-roadbed on the crossing itself, and to be sure to allow plenty of room for the wheel flanges to pass through. If you mold a "concrete" or "asphalt" crossing with plaster, you can carve in room for the rails with a flat file. Use the aforementioned ground materials to fill in and around your crossing, and be sure to "dirty" it up a bit, as the trains tend to make these crossings a bit untidy. Make sure to leave space and plan for all the appropriate signal lights, signs and crossing barriers if any are to be used.
Creating a realistic ground, whether it is a crossing, a road or merely open space requires some forethought and careful planning. When you get it right, however, you’ll have them dazzled by the verisimilitude your layout brings to the table. Make sure and take the time to do it well!