That thorny perennial subject, “armchair modellers” (I have been here before!), has cropped up on the Model Railroad Hobbyist forum. I have copied my response directly:

I watched a film recently. I felt that the script was weak, the direction poor and the acting wooden. I have never been involved in producing a film or video. Does that make my opinion invalid?

I have been involved in amateur theatre in various forms, although not for many years. Am I “allowed”, therefore, to comment on plays?

I used to play the guitar, and have even appeared on stage in a couple of bands, Does that qualify me to be a music critic? Does that make my opinions somehow more valid than a non-musician, but less valid that a professional musician?

Surely we don’t need to have “qualifications” to be able to express an opinion about our hobby? Yes, if one has never made anything, then it is hard to credibly tell someone else how to do it, but to comment on how good something is, or to suggest an idea of how a problem may be solved, surely that is nothing more than taking an active interest?

I’ll accept the opinion anyone who has an interest in the hobby, a brain, and thoughtful respect for the opinions of others. I might disagree with it. I might not even be interested in it. As long as it is clear whether it is the voice of personal experience, a reference to someone else’s successful technique, or an untried idea, then who cares whether it came from a workbench or an armchair?

There is enough division and bitterness in the world already. Do we really need to bring it into a hobby, our avenue of escape from the outside world?

But, horror of horrors, I am writing this on a tablet, sat in my armchair. Ah well, that at least qualifies me to comment on this topic…


Why raise an issue that isn’t there?

Over on his blog, Mike Cougill has been raising some interesting points about the diverse range of activities available to those who are interested in our hobby, and the similarly diverse level of involvement that enthusiasts can enjoy. Indeed, I would go so far as to include those with a “passive” level of engagement – you know, the so-called “armchair modellers” and indeed armchair critics.
So what, then, am I to make about the latest issue of the Model Railway Journal? I picked this up and saw that the “lead”/layout article was about Tony Wright’s “Little Bytham” (which is not far from where I live). Tony is an excellent modeller who knows what he wants from his hobby, and unlike all too many of us has set about arranging his life to achieve it. The results are impressive. I say that as someone who has no desire to in anyway approach what he has done (it simply doesn’t float my boat) and who looks at the photos and can see that the track is 00 and not EM or P4. Not a choice I would have made, personally, but Tony has built up a large collection of engines and rolling stock over the years, and as he was happy with 00 to begin with, and remains happy with it, he hasn’t changed. His train set, his choices, and he is happy to live with the compromises he has made in order to achieve his objectives. The track is well laid, and to reasonably fine standards in terms of clearances, and looks good, and by his own account it runs well. An LNER P2 (passenger train Mikado) with 13 coaches on can replicate the prototype’s performance by running through at a scale 90 miles per hour. Good. That means he has achieved his objective.
So why the cheap jibe that he hasn’t seen a P4 (4mm scale, 18.83mm track gauge) model do the same? Maybe such a layout doesn’t exist, but as long-standing readers of MRJ will know, Chris Pendlenton’s LNER A1 “heavy” pacific can reverse a rake of coaches through a crossover at speed, and with the elegance and grace only possible with fine track and wheel standards combined with sophisticated springing. Surely that’s a bigger test, but more importantly, doesn’t it just reflect the different choices made by another excellent modeller?

Cameo Layouts

My good friend Paul Marshall-Potter has written a very good review of the latest release from Wild Swan Publications, and I refer you to his review if you want a bit more detail, but all I will say on that is if you like the picture on the back of the book, then this is for you.

This is a very good book, well written and well presented, but the examples used do reflect Iain’s definition of what constitutes a “cameo layout” (must have wings, proscenium arch, high backscene and be mounted at least 56″ or so from the floor) which is OK – it is his book, after all – but it also draws rather narrowly from his circle of contacts for examples, so some interesting examples and ideas (such as Maurice Hopper’s “St. Juliot’s” and “Tresparrett Wharf” aren’t mentioned (being ultra-portable, they have low backscenes and minimal wings), and neither is the East Yorkshire Finescale Group’s “St. Minions“, which is a prime example of how effective a small cameo layout can be. Iain also appears to be behind many North American modellers when it comes to backscenes: Mike Confalone’s amazing success with photographic prints (which appeared in print nearly ten years ago) seems to have passed him by…

Those points aside, it is a good read with lots of ideas, and worth buying. Iain Rice and Wild Swan at their best.

Buy it!

Swanning About…

Well, part one of the annual year-end festival is more or less over, and I must admit to having availed myself of the armchair and a good book or two, which is where I come in.

I was delighted to see an advert for a new Wild Swan Publications book on operation, for it has been written by Martin Nield and I have always enjoyed reading his articles about his P4 layout, “Eccleston”. And the price was reasonable, too. Unfortunately, I felt that the book stopped short of being a useful addition to the modeller’s bookshelf, and I think that is a reflection of the price (rather than the price being a reflection of the book). Why? In short, it is too superficial, and I felt slightly patronised at times. A slightly bigger book, with more pages and which recognised the self-selecting nature of the likely readership (finescale railway modellers – i.e. those who want to get things as authentic as possible) would have been a lot more. To be fair to Martin, what follows is feedback that he should have received at the editing phase, and reflects on the publisher/editor, and is not directed towards him.

I’ll take the latter point first. Chapters are split into what the prototype did, and what the modeller can do. So far so good. But early on, the author takes a step back and says that this is not a book which dictates to you how you should operate your own model railway. But if you are interested in authentic operation of a UK steam era (and early diesel, for that matter – into the 1980s and beyond in some places) then that is precisely why you would buy the book: to find out how the real railway operated, so that you can learn how to interpret the rules and practices, and see an example worked out before you. This tentative tone creeps in now and then, and made me feel like I was a child with tender feelings who must not be hurt.

Superficial? There needs to be more depth, even if it is of specific examples as applied by Martin to his excellent layout (which I was aware is still a work in progress, as indeed the author does point out). This also leads to some sketchiness of important details.

As he is familiar with the prototype, Martin generally draws on inspiration from the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, and in particular from some of its branch lines. As he remarks in the text, it was a very “busy” railway with a lot of traffic and many of the branchlines were built with double track, allowing for separation of up and down trains and therefore a more intensive service, and also removing the need for single line operating procedures which were so common on other railway’s branches. Examples are provided of some such termini, together with the trackplan for his own layout. You can see the various influences at play, but this is an area where someone like Iain Rice would have drawn in the particular features that went into the creation of a very plausible model.

The LYR double track branches of the size under consideration were typically arranged with but a single platform face, usually, but not exclusively, on the left hand side of arriving trains. Arriving trains would have no “facing turnouts” and departing trains would have a single facing point lock to traverse, to gain the correct running road. Horwich was an exception to this, with a facing crossover traversed by arriving trains, and a facing point lock required for trains setting off. The railway was not averse to using slip crossings (single and double) and tandem/3-way turnouts. Many of the branchlines were not very long compared with many railways (they were serving a relatively densely populated part of the country) and the LYR long had a practice of concentrating its engine facilities at major depots. Thus, many lines had no engine shed or no turntable, or if they did have them, they were closed or removed, in the case of sheds often prior to the 20th century and for turntables either then or during the 1930s by the LMS. These are all very defining characteristics of a LYR branch terminus: ignoring the obvious exceptions (there are always some!) it probably had the most stylised track layouts for its branches. No two perfectly identical, yet all obviously belonging to a single company.

The common features, and how they influenced the design of Eccleston, are worthy of more print, showing the commonalities and how proper study of a prototype railway pays dividends in creating something believable if not modelling an actual location. Furthermore, this leads to more interesting insight into prototypical operations and hence could have avoided a clanger being dropped by the author, for he laments the lack of carriage sidings for the specific storage of passenger train stock, meaning that his passenger trains have to arrive, run round, and depart to free up the only available road for arriving trains. Lets be clear about this. Carriage sidings exist for the storage of passenger rated rolling stock, to get them out of the way of regular services. They will only be provided if the regular services would suffer in their absence. So they proliferated at holiday resorts: Blackpool Talbot St. (now Blackpool North) had an array of sidings for storing arriving stock from excursion trains, enabling more to be accepted at the station and also allowing for any required attention, such as emptying rubbish bins. They are also found near major depots, and sometimes on small branchlines if there is limited space elsewhere at the station, or because the branchline was built by a small independent company, who wanted somewhere to store and protect their capital investment (such as at Watlington, on the GWR). The LYR by the time of Martin’s layout had long established that  it was more flexible and more economical for branch trains to start and end their working days at a major station/depot (sometimes beyond the junction with the mainline) and if the engine wasn’t kept at the station overnight, then there would be no need to keep the carriages at the terminus, even if left at the platform face, and definitely no need for specific storage. No, a real railway would simply place carriages from an arriving passenger train out of the way in the goods yard until the platform was free of other operations. Indeed, Martin has a perfectly suitable siding, next to the run-round loop, on his layout, as  was present (based on the photograph reproduced in the book) at Horwich, but which is not in his sketch of the station layout. I am further mystified as there is a picture taken at an exhibition in 2014 which clearly shows this happening!

A couple of other points. The working timetable (WTT) for the Holmfirth branch is illustrated and dissected. Unfortunately, footnotes appear only below the departures from Holmfirth, not the arrivals, and it is hard to get a view of the balancing movement, as indeed Martin points out with respect to a through coach. We know where is is going, but not where it came from (presumably the same place) or when it arrived. Would it not have been better to have used a more complete example, either a different period or a different line?

More importantly, there is an explanation of the use of block instruments, bell-signals and single line working tokens, but they would benefit from a couple of paragraphs explain the correct procedure for their combined use. This only needs to be a simple example, between two cabins: one for the model station, and the other for the fiddle yard. Once these basics are understood, then it is a case of “pass it on” down the line.

As I said, the book sadly brushes the surface – which it does set out to do – but does not go quite deep enough. I agree with the recommendation to find out more about a particular line of interest to you, and to consult some of the standard works on British signalling practice (although do be careful, as some written for modellers by modellers – even those who spent 3 years firing on the footplate – are prone to errors of interpretation). If the book had gone just a bit further, if it had not been written from a position of wishing to avoid offending the reader by adopting a “finescale” stance, then the standard works on signalling would not be required. As it stands, I fell more inclined to recommend “British Railway Signalling” by Kichenside and Williams instead, despite it being a rather technical piece.

Disappointing: it could have been the perfect guide to how a real railway worked. If you still want something which is too superficial, it does have some nice pictures.

Interestingly, I also had a copy of Wild Swan’s new book by Gerry Beale on the Bridport Branch. Apart from the typical aversion to anything beyond the briefest of mentions of the post-steam history of the line, this is a lovely, warm work.

It also includes an aerial shot of Bridport station, complete with a spare set of coaches standing on a siding in the goods yard…

Is your goal really a gaol?

There is a perception that model railways, unlike other modelling hobbies (with the possible exception of slot-car racing and its more recent digital descendants) is not so much about individual models, as about layouts. It is true that many engines are modelled in their own right, and put on display shelves, and the same is true once in a while for carriages and wagons, but generally speaking, if you are modelling railways, then you need a layout because, well, it will have a railway on it.

This leads to some interesting consequences. For those who are concerned with the overall layout, then they are happy with the overall composition, and indeed may simply want a setting on which to run model trains. If you pick up the “mainstream” magazines, you will see examples of this, each with varying degrees of realism. But for many, a layout is the ultimate goal, and if space is not available for one, then maybe a micro-layout (less than 4 square feet in area) can be built for a shelf somewhere, or stock acquired, assembled and built towards that future date when maybe the kids leave home and a large room becomes free. The example above, East Lynn, is a rare exception to this rule. It was built for exhibition purposes, and everything you see in the photo was built by one man (Trevor Nunn), mostly from scratch. So here’s a thought. 

Maybe a layout is the ultimate gaol, not the ultimate goal we are often led to believe?

This thought came to me – and sorry about that terrible play on words (which came about serendipitously* by a typing error on “ultimate goal”) when I was reviewing some of my modelling activities of late. And before you ask what activities they may be, let me answer the point for you: not much to show for the past 10 years or so. This has partly been due to the usual matters of growing family, growing job demands, etc, all leading to growing tiredness, but let’s be honest. That is just an excuse. I have spent plenty of time in front of the television, a computer, or just doing not much in an armchair. I have had time, and sometimes I quite possibly had the energy, but a kind of ennui has crept in, and it is all because of one thing: a layout. 

Yes, a layout: supposedly what railway modelling is all about. 

I had one, twenty years ago. I gave it to a friend for him to use as a test track to try out S scale, because I couldn’t be bothered to rebuild it and it seemed a shame to throw it on the tip (at 10′ long, it exceeded my available space by 18″, so it wasn’t set up at home). He did rebuild it – the station platform, the bank at the back of the layout and the baseboard surfaces on the original station boards are all that remains of the original creation – often using the materials carefully taken up. This was particularly true of track components, and one or two structures such as the goods shed. The layout, now called “Llanfair“, is still going – you can see it at Swindon on September 10/11 – but the (re)builder died just before Christmas. My idea had been to build a simple layout (all of 4 turnouts!) on which to run some second hand rolling stock (one engine, 9 wagons and a brake van) until I had built engines and stock more inclined to my then core modelling interests. As an idea it was fine, but I tried out some techniques with track building that were different to my usual order of construction, and not all of them worked out for the best. Unfortunately, whilst in hindsight this was obvious within 20 minutes of starting to lay the track, I stupidly persevered and had no end of trouble. (I followed the advice of a good friend, who always laid his sleepers and ballast at the same time. It worked well for him, but not for me. I used too much glue, sleepers moved around, and Woodlands Scenics fine cinders ballast got under some sleepers, creating an uneven base. I should add here that there is nothing wrong with the technique nor the materials, just my application of them. My usual method is to get the track down, tweaked, tested and wired before any thoughts of ballasting come along.) 

So, for twenty years I have attempted to come up with a layout design which worked for me. I did, in fact, do this very quickly and even got as far as making the baseboards and cutting, staining and laying all of the sleepers and timbers, when I discovered that I had made a mistake in the construction of the light weight boards. I was using 6mm ply, with cross bracing, etc. That was fine, but when I laid the tops, I put them on concave rather than convex, so rather than the middle being pulled down to the longitudinal strut I had thoughtfully included, the middle pushed this strut downwards whilst the glue set – white glue is a pretty good lubricant until it has set. When I came to lay the rails, I found that there was a peak at each baseboard joint. That was a week’s vacation wasted! It was almost certainly recoverable, but in truth, I was having second thoughts about it. To run a reasonable service, it needed far more engines and coaches than I had. (I haven’t mentioned wagons as building these is always a pleasure.) I found the prospect of a layout and all the stock I had to build daunting, so I kicked a few ideas about, tried out a wagon or two in “Scale 7”, and built an open wagon to 1:32 scale. Of course, some would simply see this as a set of projects within a larger plan, but 15 years ago, I was 15 years younger and didn’t want to wait until I was in my 50s to have all that! (Instead of which I have a lot less to my name than if I had got on with it, of course.) But it is these wagons that I want to talk about. 

I decided that for a variety of reasons (principally the lack of the easy mental arithmetic I was used to with S scale, I mean, 7mm to a foot? What does that make a scale inch? 23 thou? Oh come on. 1:43.4527… Oh dear. No logic to this) that having built a couple of “quick, cheap and simple” wagons to Scale 7 standards, it was not what I was looking for. And they weren’t as quick, cheap or simple as I thought. Once I had provided compensation, sprung buffers (on the kit which had plastic mouldings only) interior detail, and filled the gaps in the corners, I realised I had saved little time using the kits over starting from scratch, which was another disincentive. 

So I turned to gauge 1, or at least, to the 1:32 variant of it. (And a note to the NMRA: this is not “G scale”. G scale is – or was – clearly understood as models of metre gauge prototypes to a scale of 1:22.5 or thereabouts running on Gauge 1 track. Everyone in the world – including the USA – knew and understood this. Apart from the NMRA.) Linearly, this is twice the size of S, but actually 8 times the volume, so models have real presence, as the placing of an S scale body inside a gauge one body (identical prototypes) makes clear. 

Like many, I was drawn to the scale on seeing some of Fred Phipp’s wonderful Gauge 1 diesel engine kits (and made a start on one – I got as far as fitting all the grilles, using superglue which I cannot abide. A few years later they fell out! I used too much glue.) 

I decided to model British Rail in the “early blue” era, where the corporate image was asserting itself, but the railway was still shaking off practices handed down almost since the days of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway 140 earlier. With thoughts of a small “shunty plank” I decided to start on a wagon, to get a feel for the scale. Using mostly styrene sheet, with a few castings, it progressed in fits and starts. Basic body up on its wheels fairly quickly, then the underframe details. I couldn’t get wheels to the published “finescale” standards at the time, so I turned down some rather coarser wheels to true scale dimensions. Then nothing much for several months, then I added the ironwork details and representations of bolt heads on both ends and one side. Then nothing for another 9 months. Finally I finished it off – it took all of 45 minutes, I think, and started painting it. Undercoat of acrylic red for the most part, white for the interior, then Humbrol paints: 113 for the body, matt black 33 for the underframes, and some 0 scale decals for the lettering, courtesy of my father-in-law. 

Then the weathering started. This was nothing more than a series of washes, again Humbrol, using the body colour, a dark grey (“tarmac”, I think) and on the unpainted wooden interior, a couple of washes of a cream colour to make the wood pale rather than white, and one of a red, to add a little warmth. The final wash was some “Metalcote” gunmetal over the whole thing. This brought out the relief detail, and also meant that some final dry-brushing would burnish the finish. At the time, Barry Norman lived relatively near, and a small group of S Scale MRS modellers used to meet up for a curry every so often, and he happened to see it, took it away for some pictures, and I was surprised to see it given prominence in MRJ issue 160. 

I also amended some of the omissions and errors (couldn’t do much about the fact that the model was shorter than it should have been and the wheelbase was off-centre!) on a recently introduced RTR model. The white bits are the additions, and you can’t see all of them! 

In the end, I made a new underframe for it, but it was never finished as I wondered what was the point in in all this when it was still shorter than it should have been: 

I also built an excellent new kit for a “private owner” coal wagon – the painted model presented in MRJ issue 175 was not my work, but that of the talented Adrian Marks. This was made clear when submitting the photos (the unfinished model photos were of my work), but my request for a correction was never put into print. 

So, what of the gauge 1 layout? Well, it isn’t going to happen. But I built a small display stand for the wagon, using a piece of ¾” board and a few materials. That is it: 100 square inches of layout! And the great thing is, that’s all it needs to be.

This has made me realise that once in a while, building a single item in another scale may be enough to lift any clouds of indecision (analysis-paralysis over layouts) and it can stand as a model in its own right: there doesn’t have to be more. 


* So look it up, including the etymology. That goes for all those who mis-use it, too!