The secret to model railroading with two young ones is a compilation of items:
1- Blitzing - Luckily the layout benchwork was all complete mostly before my son was born in November 2012. A good portion of track was down as well, but up till last week I was still adding in customer sidings and making slight track change. Even if this was not the case a one day blitz to install simple benchwork with foam on top could have you running trains within a day. Additionally building benchwork in sections would allow you to expand as time is available.
2- Late Nights - A great deal of time spent on the layout is in the evenings between 830pm to 1230am after the kids go to bed. The entire week up to the ops session consisted of being up till 1230am, a little intense doing it every night. Other times I can work on things while my son plays on the floor while i work on the layout. I try to get 3 nights in a week, sometimes more on the weekends versus weekdays but it varies...
3- Contract out work - any custom detailing, painting, decaling, weathering, and Sound install is contracted out to two guys who have been doing work with me for many years. There is a cost sure but based on limited time it is deemed worth it. I have begun completing my own sound installs as my skills have improved, but it is a ratio of 2:1 for every two I contract out, I do one in house.
4- Commercial Products - use commercial track, turnouts, scenery products, kitbash commercial structures, and suitcase connectors for bus wiring. Make it easy on yourself, getting buried in these items will greatly reduce your overall layout time.
5- Simplicity - My benchwork, wiring, and trackwork are all very simple making its install very expedient
6- Making Every Second Count - if its 15 minutes that is enough time to do any number of small projects. In the past I would only work in large time blocks and waste a lot of time, now any bit of time you gotta take and run with it
7- Planning List - I create a project list and categorize by time length so when I have the free time I can jump in and work on something, versus looking or getting the items needed which wastes time. Additionally each month I take a little time to outline the main projects I want to work on whether it be ballasting a small portion, build an industry, or install sound into an engine. Be realistic and choose one or maybe two if they are simple to complete.
8- Expectations - things happen and you may not get in the layout room for maybe a few weeks, it is only a hobby the sooner I realized this the more I take it in stride and do not sweat it. Family is much more important than a model train.
9- Spousal Balance - take care of the family, then house and time will present itself. My wife has always known me to be a model railroading guy even when we dated in college. She understands and values the skills and hobby that I enjoy as a passion. So when I have free time I am usually in my layout room versus sporting events, railfanning, or even operating on other layouts... Its about the balance, I prefer to play all of my cards on getting my layout where it needs to be. Get her involved on making decisions based on overall layout visual appeal in scenes, industry planning, and scenery. Sometimes we as the modeler get stuck in making these decisions and having an outsider say “I like this versus that” gets us out of that rut and gets them involved just enough to know they are appreciated and progress isbeing made.
10- Spousal Reciprocation - if you get time to work on it, make sure she knows you appreciate it and reciprocate by letting her go have a girls night, getting the kids bathed, shopping, or just relax to read a book.
11- Family Involvement - Make progress and share the success with your family. I use operating my trains as a way to help my son with his counting, colors, and recognition of objects like tank car, boxcar. Take the family to the hobby shop or train show. On the way back get a bite to eat, ice cream, or stop somewhere for the wife to shop. This goes a long way. As my son does get older I plan to roster Thomas The Tank in HO scale for his enjoyment.
12- Continuous Running Loop - best thing I have installed on upper and lower levels are two continuous loops so I can run trains for the family to enjoy. Not to mention I can put a train on the loop and let it run for hours getting the engines break in time and go about my business in the house periodically checking in. Non-modelers want to see trains run, not operate.
13- Family Help - If your father or father in law lives close and likes doing projects get him involved to help build the benchwork and basics. This can help double your efforts in the limited time you have.