Anyone Want to Run a Railway?

by Stephen Siddle

Like Phil Parker, I’m also a member of the 3mm Society, although unlike Phil I’m a completely inactive one (a veil is best drawn over that padded envelope stuffed with wagon kits in the cupboard — probably a veil of dust). I read the magazine, that’s all, and the latest issue arrived just on Brian Roper’s copy date, with some splendid photos of Brian and Phil Parker’s new Flockburgh layout.

It also contained an Editorial. (Magazines usually do). This noted that there had been a discussion on the 3mm e-group on classic layouts, and that someone had mentioned a layout called Lydney which went back to the days when TT was a commercial scale. It quoted one contributor: “The thing about Lydney, in it’s final form, was that it had the feel of a railway system, rather than just a bit of railway. .. It had main lines, branch lines, avoiding lines, freight yards, marshalling yards, and sidings of all sorts. It may not have been fine scale but it was crafted with a lot of skill. I’d like to see someone else have a go at railway complexes, rather than just bits of railway”

To which John Sutton, the editor, added the comment, “It’s hard to disagree with that but a combination of small modern houses, an increasingly taste for the encyclopaedically detailed and the knowledge that individuals are unlikely to live long enough to finish the big layouts of their dreams has led modellers in most scales to settle for minimum space layouts, some of them twigs rather than branches. Nothing wrong with that, of course, or with huge oval club tail-chasers… would be good to look at a model railway and get the feel of a railway system. It might just be a good time to ditch fiddle yards and storage sidings and reconsider a scheme now cobwebby and unfashionable, the end to end layout…; a complete and self-contained railway system”.

My first reaction was that if I were going to build something like that, I wouldn’t do it in 3mm. I’d do it in 00. These days 3mm is a specialist, hand-built, craftsman scale and the work involved in building a big system in it would be crippling. On the other hand 00, our main commercial scale with more trade support than all the other scales put together, would be the obvious choice. If you are going to lay 200 yards’ length of run, it helps if you don’t have to build every inch and point of it.

My second reaction was that we really don’t see this kind of thing in Britain, and there should be more of it. The only examples I can recall in recent years of people attempting to model a railway system or a route, rather than a snapshot of a location, or a cameo or diorama of part of one, are David Jenkinson’s Little Long Drag and to a lesser extent his Kendal branch, the Tone Vale layout which featured in MRJ some years ago, possibly Roy Jackson’s Retford project, and going back a few years arguably Peter Denny’s Buckingham Branch. There was also a large N gauge Settle & Carlisle layout featured in BRM a year or so back and I believe Jas Millham’s S gauge Yaxbury branch forms a fairly extensive system in his loft, representing the entire branch. Oddly most of these are EM, which in this context seems like working with one arm tied behind your back whilst wearing a ball and chain.

This sort of big permanent system, designed to be worked by a team replicating real railway operations, is the meat and drink of the hobby in the US and elsewhere, the sort of layout to which most modellers there ultimately aspire. Each year Model Railroader publishes a planning special: in 2004 it featured 15 layout projects, only one of which (a 4’ x 8’ starter project in 5) was smaller than 20’ x 30’. Why are large permanent layouts now almost completely unknown in Britain? (That N gauge S&C layout was built in Canada).

In one respect I disagree with John Sutton. I don’t think space is the key. I don’t have that kind of space and a lot
of people are similarly restricted, but I don’t believe that nobody at all in Britain has access to that kind of area. There are British layouts 30’ x 20’ or larger — in fact big mainline tailchasers like Tebay, Stoke, Charwelton, Tonbridge West Yard, and Deepcar routinely hit those kind of dimensions, and some of those are privately owned layouts. The real reasons why we don’t see big systems in Britain are firstly the finescale ethos that says only small ultra-detailed layouts with every grass blade modelled are worthwhile, and secondly the dominance of the exhibition. We have come to believe that a layout that can’t be exhibited is a poor layout: we even speak of layouts being “of exhibition quality”. And exhibitions throttle operation. Every time someone suggests in print that it would be nice to portray realistic railway operations, we get the righteous letter to the editor saying this must not be allowed because the kiddies and the casual visitor would get bored, and the paying punter at the show must have his money’s worth. But must model railways always be a spectator sport for a paying audience and never a participatory activity? Not even between consenting adults in private?

Suppose, then, we think about an American style big layout on a British subject. The first problem is the sudden mental blankness: we have neglected this sort of thing so long we don’t know where to begin, and I can only offer ideas to start discussion. Obviously it will be a permanent layout, and you would be committing to a 7-10 year project. Reasonable confidence you are not going to move in the medium term is essential, and so is a bit of modelling experience, a small layout safely under your belt perhaps. It might make an attractive retirement project for a modeller approaching retirement, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to someone already well into retirement:this looks like a game for those between 35 and 65.

A good supply of high quality RTR is also essential: you are not going to get far if you need to spend years of your life building complex loco kits. In the last 5 years, this has become available. Anyone interested in the LMS/LMR can now call on the Hornby Black 5, 8F, Fowler 2-6-4T and Stanier coaches, the Bachmann Crab, Jinty, WD, Ivatt 4MT and 2MT tank, Standard 5, Standard 4 tank, Fairburn 2-6-4T Mkls, and possibly the 08. For the LNER/ER the list is shorter and slightly less state of the art, but nearly all the mainline coaches you could need are available from Hornby and Bachmann, as well as classes Al, A3, A4, Vl, V2, K3, J39, J72, J94, WD, Drewry shunter and Deltic; and Hornby have done the Southern proud with MN, Spain Can, Ql, Terrier and a forthcoming EMU, Bachmann chipping in with the N mogul and Bullied coaches. The picture on the wagon front is good too, with 16T minerals, scale P0 wagons, plenty of vans and excellent kits from the likes of Parkside to plug. All of this is detailed, accurate and can run (and run well) as just it comes.

So how can we use it? A first observation is that big American layouts don’t simply run round the walls. A key design concept is the “peninsular”, a broad projection into the centre of the room to take a long loop of line doubling back on itself. This is normally scenic on both sides, with a central, double-sided backscene dividing the two scenes (Think of the meanders of a river). This means a horseshoe curve at one end, which under British conditions is likely to be in the 2’6” —3’6 bracket.

Again, this points strongly to 00, not EM or P4. It also has implications for the choice of prototype. The East Lincolnshire line — flat as a pancake and straight as an arrow for a dozen miles at a time — is never going to work. On the other hand the Woodhead route or the Waverley route, once-famous main lines through rugged country on sinuous curves (with an accompanying 60-70mph line limit!) start to look promising. Not only is there obvious scope for a large scale scenic spectacular of the sort the Americans are rather good at, disguising the curves and getting the line off-stage from one scenic area to another, perhaps under a bridge or tunnel, is much less of a problem. A depiction of the eastern part of the MSW electrification from Woodhead Tunnel east (the Americans depict whole Sub-Districts, not single stations), maybe centred on Penistone as the major traffic location, would be spectacular. Or if the overhead frightens you, how about the Waverley route from Hawick south through Riccarton Jnc and Newcastleton with A3s and V2s fighting the grades through the desolate hills on Anglo-Scottish expresses and long fitted freights from Kingmoor to Millerhill?

This raises the critical factor of train length. If you are going to build a big multi-location system under British conditions, where 40’ x 20’ is jaw-droppingly big and some stock and maybe some track will need to be kit-or scratchbuilt to round out your RTR collection, really long trains are ruled out. You cannot squeeze in several mainline locations if you are trying to run 14 coach formations or 70 wagon freights. I would suggest seven Mkls and a 4-6-0 as a workable maximum express train, and the prototype chosen needs to suit this; so the WCML, ECML, and Paddington-Penzance are excluded. On the other hand this would suit the GC very nicely (there are photos of Marylebone expresses in the Twenties formed of an Atlantic and five coaches), and the Midland, with its multiple route structure and “little and often” traffic philosophy, looks another plausible candidate. Does the Nottingham-Oakham-Corby-Kettering route have any potential? And while the WCML may be precluded, the Chester and Holyhead is another matter: a Royal Scot with seven on might look a plausible Irish Mail and the rest of the trains could be shorter. (Most people will find a 20 wagon freight pretty imposing.) The Withered Arm west of Exeter is another obvious candidate where romance, scenery, and short main line trains are to be met

There is another possibility. Long single track routes through wild country appeal to the Americans but we are not averse to them ourselves. The West Highland has been modelled almost to death — but how about modelling the whole Mallaig extension, and a section south from Fort William? Most of the locos, all the coaches and a good deal of the wagons are available for a layout set at any time during the second half of the 20th century. There are other candidates, too, many of them famous routes: the Cambrian main line and Cambrian Coast, the Somerset and Dorset, the M&GNJR, and most of the Highland all spring to mind. Could one put a representation of the western part of the M&GNJR in a 35’ x 20’ room? A seven coach holiday express might be a compromise but it is hardly an outrageous one. Nor is the space and time commitment required by such a project incredible .A recent MRJ featured a 32’ x 3’ P4 layout based on one M&GN wayside station, which took well over a decade to build and where other people were responsible for the stock. Surely we can be less inefficient in design and more productive in modelling effort by using 00? (That Bachmann 4MT looks very nice.)

I’m not suggesting this approach is for most people, nor that exhibition layouts are at all likely to dwindle in numbers. But I struggle to accept that there is something about the British Isles which makes this large-scale operational approach to the hobby, so fruitful elsewhere, not even worth discussing. Valuable as finescale and the exhibition circuit are, could it be that we are missing out on something?

This article was first published in the Autumn 2005 Double O Gauge Association Journal
All Material copyright the Double O Gauge Association 2005