Simple track plans are OK for a little bit, but it can get boring pretty quick. With a few simple additions, you can make your layout far more interesting.
Trains primarily pickup and deliver goods. Whether it's hauling coal from a mine to a power plant, refrigerators from a factory to a distribution center or carrying army tanks from one army base to another, trains are the backbone of the world's freight business. Adding a couple of industries or more to your layout gives you ways of simulating the everyday tasks that the majority of the worlds trains undertake each day.
The particular industries you should add to your layout should relate to each other. For example, if you choose a mine, you need somewhere for that ore to go. If you choose a factory, you need somewhere for those products to go.
If your trains include some passenger cars, those passengers need a place to get on and off the train. Even from the earliest days, trains hauled passengers and while they experienced a significant decline in the second half of the 20th century, local commuter rails and scenic railroads have seen a substantial resurgence in the last few decades.
If space allows, it's good to add a place to park the locomotives and cars that aren't currently parked at an industry or being driven around the layout. This provides realism, but it also makes your life a little easier so that you don't have to pack up the extras when not in use.
The disadvantage is that yards take up quite a bit of space. They also require the use of numerous track switches, which can be rather expensive.
Roads and Crossings
Railroads travel through the real world and it adds a dose of realism to make your model railroad seem like it's passing through the real world as well. One easy way to add this realism is by having roads and vehicles and crossings where those roads cross over your tracks.
Add a couple of crossings and add a car or two waiting to cross. If you want to get really fancy, there are products that allow you to put in real working crossing gates that will lower when your train approaches and have flashing lights and bell effects.
Model railroads are most effective when you aren't trying to cram every available inch with tracks. This is really a situation where less is more. Leave space that you can add other scenery to. And there are quite a few options to fill that space and add more realism.
Villages and City Blocks
Your layout will feel more lifelike if parts of it feel lived in. You don't have to recreate entire cities, or even villages, but adding a few buildings and houses, a playground, a baseball diamond, a grocery store, a gas station or a few things like that will make your world feel really lived in. It gives the feeling that you're on the edge of a greater world.
Another thing you can do is if your layout is along the wall, make use of the back wall to place more lived in effects. You can use a combination of various effects to give the impression of a deeper city space. For example, you can use a building front that's only a half-inch or inch deep on the wall. You can add a painted backdrop on the wall. Or you can also add printed images of buildings, hills, streets or anything else. The best effects use a combination of all three.
Grass, Fields, Trees
A great way to inexpensively add a real world feel to your layout is to add grass, trees and fields of flowers or weeds. Pre-made (or mostly pre-made) trees are easy and quick adds. Grass, shrubs and weeds are also quick and easy adds to make a space feel alive. Farm fields make for easy space fillers, especially if your layout is focused more on rural areas.
Hills and Mountains
Your layout doesn't have to be flat. A common practice is to use foam, plaster and/or real rocks to create hills, mountains, rocks and cliffs on a layout. This gives a layout depth and life. And if you put a tunnel or two through a mountain or a bridge across the gorge between two hills, it is often one of my favorite parts of a layout.
And like cities, by no means do you need to include an entire mountain. Just the hint is enough to give the feeling of real terrain. A little really does go a long way.
Abandoned and Crossing Track
A couple other ways of adding some realism is to add abandoned track or intersections with other "railroads". Abandoned tracks give the feeling of the passage of time. It makes your layout feel like it's a real world location that has been in operation long enough to grow and change with the times.
Crossing track is where you put in a track that crosses over the track on your layout, but isn't actually in use on your layout. Generally it's a track that runs from the front edge of the framework to the backdrop where it disappears. Or it can be a track that connects to yours via a switch, but doesn't actually go anywhere except to the edge of the board or the backdrop. It's enough to give the feel that your layout is a part of a much bigger world.
In the end, it's the little touches the give life to your layout and will give you enjoyment for years to come. And the best part of all is that a layout is a perpetually growing entity. You don't have to do it all at once. A little at a time is all it takes. And if something doesn't work out the way you like, then you can change it. It's something to occupy your mind and hands whenever you want. Next up I'll talk about the theme for your layout.