Research began on the exhibit by watching visitors interact with the previous model railroad. Observational studies provided developers and designers insight into how visitors interact with a miniature railroad. They found that children liked to follow the train as it moved around the track. They also noted that it was difficult for our guests to see into the middle of the layout, making it hard to see all the action.
The design and development team then continued their research by taking an 11-day train trip across the country. They knew Chicago was "hub" for railroading in the United States, so it seemed logical to make it a trip between Chicago and another major city. At first Los Angeles was explored, but Seattle offered more picturesque scenery, and the benefit of being able to explain and explore intermodal harbor operations.
The team decided that the main theme of the exhibit would be the various ways that trains are used to haul materials. The stories they told in the layout would be elements of that theme: how trains haul passengers, grain and raw materials; and how trains are part of a larger, intermodal network of transportation systems.