This page covers layout lighting in general terms, providing an overview. For more specific discussion of light itself, the color, quality and intensity that may be desired, see the Quality of Light page. And for a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of specific lighting systems, see the Lighting Fixtures page. Finally, for specifics about how I lit my model railroad, see the Lighting the Layout sub-section of Sumida Crossing. I’ve tried a number of different approaches to lighting model railroads over the years, and expect to try more in the future. Lighting is one of those things that, done wrong, can undo much of the value of other work, and yet there is no single “right” way to light a model railroad.
Model railroads are usually lit to imply some form of daylight. Some layouts may have provision for an additional “nighttime” level of lighting, but that’s not very common, and it would almost always be in addition to daylight-lighting. The reasons for this are two-fold: first, because we like to look at our trains, and second because operating in darkened rooms where you can’t see labels, or fine detail, is quite difficult. Imaging trying to couple onto a car on a siding when you can’t tell if the couplers have engaged or not.
A certain minimum level of lighting is required of the room in which the layout is located, so that people can find things and won’t walk into obstructions, or each other. Different, and generally brighter light is required where the operators need to read signs, including labels on control panels and, if the layout use is operations-based, paperwork for trains. The actual illumination of the trains and scenery itself may have yet a third set of requirements, with brighter light needed to illuminate “scenes” or places where operators need to focus on precision activities, or perhaps a more uniform overall lighting intensity to mimic real-world lights.
Two other needs for lighting exist, although they are most often met with specialized portable lights: construction work and photography. Construction needs very bright light, often in places not normally well-lit such as the underside of benchwork. I’ve used a portable high-intensity halogen task light for this for a number of years now. Photography is another area. Layout lights are usually too dim, and often of poor “color” for photographic needs, and professional photographers, and some amateurs, will bring their own lighting systems when photographing a model railroad.
Kinds of Lights
Turning to the specific case of lighting the room and the layout within it, there are several different types of lights typically used. Most common is probably the fluorescent tube fixture, either in a suspended-ceiling fixture where the lights are recessed above the ceiling, or in a fixture mounted to a lighting valence directly above the track. The valence approach is necessary for multi-level layouts, and has the advantage of putting the light closer to the track and model scenery, so the light is more effective (the scene is brighter for a given quantity of lights). Track lighting, meaning individual “floodlight” fixtures that are attached to a ceiling-mounted track that supplies electricity are another common type (which can use incandescent bulbs, halogen bulbs, or compact fluorescent bulbs). These are beneficial for illuminating scenes, but can produce uneven light, and you need a lot of them to match the level of illumination from fluorescent tubes. Finally, incandescent lights, perhaps mounted in recessed ceiling fixtures, can also be used, although these probably provide the least amount of light, and are less flexible of arrangement than track lighting.
Color and Intensity
Lights have color, from the “warm” light of an incandescent bulb (2700K) to the harsh blue light of a “daylight” (5000K or higher) fluorescent there are a number of different colors that can be chosen, and the choice is highly subjective. What looks “good” to one person may look very wrong to another. While “daylight” might seem an appropriate color, and some modelers swear by it, I’ve always found such lights to be too blue, preferring the still-bluish but much warmer “cool white” color of light (which is a general term that can mean a number of different colors, actually; I prefer about 4000K).
There’s a psychological dimension to this as well: we tend to interpret redder lights as “warm” and bluer lights as “cold” (and this is often reflected in names), and there’s a tendency to relax in warmer lighting, and be more focused in bluer lighting (one reason offices tend to use “cool” fluorescent lights).
Intensity is subjective: what is reasonable for one person may be too bright or too dim for another. However there are some general guidelines on levels of illumination for various tasks, like reading or working with small details over an extended period. This topic is covered in more depth on the Qualities of Light page.
Conventional Wisdom and Change
For many years now, the conventional approach to lighting large layouts has involved use of fluorescent tubes mounted directly above the layout in a “valence”, with some other lighting system used to add light in the rest of the room. That’s still a good approach, perhaps even the best. But LED lights, which bring similar quality of light to the better fluorescent lights, and potentially superior economic and environmental attributes are changing the world of lighting, and eventually that will impact model railroads. To some extent, it already has.
As of 2014 when I first wrote this page, LED lighting was still be too expensive to make sense on a model railroad under most conditions, but as of 2016 inexpensive high-quality room-lighting based on LEDs is now fairly common, and continuing to improve. Because LEDs are more easily used in “bulb” arrangements than in “tube” designs, this may have profound implications for how we light model railroad layouts, although tube-shaped lights still have an advantage in providing uniform light, without “hot spots”. On the other hand, there are some rectangular “area” type LED-based lights, presently still highly expensive and aimed at office environments, which could overtake both bulbs and tubes as the preferred lighting, with the right price, shape and color-of-light.
And just because most people prefer fluorescents today, does not mean that they’re the best solution in every instance. Some modelers prefer other kinds, for one reason or another.
There are a number of lesser considerations that should not be ignored when considering how to light a layout, beyond mere operational of functional needs.
It may seem like an odd consideration, but there are health effects from light. It’s a well-established fact that the human body is adjusted to a roughly 24-hour day/night cycle, but that this can be altered. One of the things that can alter it is exposure to bright light with a strong bluish component that makes the body think that it is mid-day (e.g., bright fluorescent lighting with a “daylight” spectra). Resetting the body’s clock late in the day can disrupt sleep rhythms and have other effects, so bright, bluish room lighting should be avoided in the evening. Since most of us work on or operate layouts in the evening, this suggests that “daylight” color lights should be avoided.
I’m not saying that using bright “daylight” lights will cause sleeplessness for you, or anyone specific. Individuals react differently. But it is something to consider, and yet another reason I’ll avoid that type of light for my layout room.
Cost is an important consideration. The better lighting sources usually come at a higher cost for initial construction (the fixture needed) and may have higher costs for bulbs, depending on the specific needs there in terms of color or size/shape. Incandescent bulbs produce excellent color, and do so using inexpensive fixtures and bulbs. And if cost were the only consideration, they’d be the obvious choice. It isn’t, and they aren’t, but where cost is a stringent requirement, they should still be considered. One downside, though, is that they’re lower in total light output than fluorescent tubes, unless you add significantly more fixtures (and thus cost), so the savings may not be as large as they seem.
Efficiency and Heat
For light, efficiency refers to the ability to turn power (watts) into light (lumens of visible light). Incandescent and halogen lights are fairly inefficient: only about 2-3% of the power produces useful light, the rest goes directly to heat (and a bit to ultraviolet light). Older fluorescent fixtures were better, around 9%, but the newest fluorescent lights and fixtures are even more so, around 12% for the best Compact Fluorescent bulbs, and 15% for T8 tubes. T5 tube lights are slightly better yet, although this comes at a price. LEDs are also fairly efficient, but they do waste some power in heat, and in lighting applications they aren’t significantly better than modern fluorescent bulbs and a bit worse than the best tube fluorescents, around 8-12%. However, in theory LEDs could produce efficiencies at least double what they do today, so future versions may well surpass fluorescents.
Since layout lighting isn’t on for many hours in a month (typically) the cost of power is less of an issue than the need for total power and the waste heat produced. For example, the track lighting I originally used for layout lighting, if I’d continued using incandescent halogen bulbs, would have required about 1,200 watts. That’s as much as a blow-dryer or toaster, and approaches the limit of a 15-Amp circuit breaker. This may be welcome in a chill winter basement, but it’s usually going to make the room far warmer than will be comfortable. Using CFLs cut that to 336 Watts. This is yet another reason to avoid incandescent lighting.
The pigments that form colors are chemical compounds that will break down, causing the color to fade over time. While heat can accelerate this (heat will accelerate almost any chemical process) the real villain here is ultraviolet light (UV). Ultraviolet is, as the name suggests, light beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum. This is light the human eye can’t see, but it is very “energetic” light, which interacts with chemical compounds and can cause them to break down more quickly. Incandescent lights produce very little ultraviolet (some halogens produce more), and LEDs none (well, usually), but both natural daylight and raw fluorescent light contain a lot of it.
Models (both trains and structures) on model railroads are not designed for outdoor use, with the exception of “garden railroad” equipment in larger scales. Thus the pigments used to color them are susceptible to fading due to UV exposure, although I’ve read that the paint pigments are fairly robust. The same is also true of photographs used for backdrops, signs, or other purposes, and for ink-jet printed signs and decals. UV is to be avoided.
However, UV is fairly easy to combat. First, keep the layout away from windows. Second, use light sources that don’t produce it (i.e., use incandescent or halogen lights) or take steps to mitigate any that is produced. Fluorescent lights naturally produce UV, but most of this is blocked by the bulb itself, being converted into visible light. Older tube bulbs had a problem in that the ends of the tubes were not coated, and UV would escape there. This is less of an issue today, but some still escapes. CFLs that have exposed tubes, rather than a frosted outer surface, have also had problems in recent years. The solution here is to encapsulate the fluorescent light in a plastic diffuser, which will absorb most of the stray UV that makes it out of the bulb, or to use frosted CFLs.
Some LED bulbs use a UV-based approach similar to fluorescent lights, in which a UV LED illuminates a phosphorescent coating that absorbs the UV and produces visible light. These carry the risk of UV leakage, and so that’s an issue to be aware of.
Halogen lights do produce a small amount of UV, and there are special low-UV versions for color-critical environments (like museums), but for the most part the amount of UV produced by a halogen bulb is much less likely to cause any noticeable problem given the usual limited duration of exposure (unless you leave the lights on all the time) and the low levels present.
All UV can be blocked if the bulb is placed in a fixture with a plastic diffuser over it (more common with tube fluorescents than other bulbs), as plastic absorbs UV. This will, however, reduce the intensity of the light.