Mike Cougill’s recent post on the positive impact of removing track from his layout has led to some interesting debate, as well as a stunning photo. It has, as usual, got me thinking, and thinking about the opportunities different scales offer for different types of authenticity. I may be repeating some of several previous posts, but the threads are drawing together, and who knows, I may spend less time thinking and more time modelling soon?

The late Don Boreham, who was an inveterate and excellent narrow gauge modeller as well as long time secretary to the Model Railway Club in London, wrote in his book on Narrow Gauge Modelling that “perhaps the best scale to use is the largest one has space for”.

I like that phrase as it is rather subtle. Does it mean we should all work in 1:32, for example?

Not at all, but it does suggest that 1:32 is great for modellers who are interested in modelling items of rolling stock, rather than operations. Similarly, if one is driven to recreate the impression of trains in the landscape, then a smaller scale is indicated. In the first case, a coach or locomotive is the defining feature of modelling. In the latter case, the defining feature is train, or perhaps even train-in-landscape.

I personally find smaller scale layouts more impressive if they are placed in a relatively large space. It’s not that I am not impressed nor interested in the quality of fine detail and engineering in N gauge, for example, it’s simply that what impresses me is a train moving smoothly and deliberately through the scene: without quality engineering applied to mechanisms, there is no realism.

With larger scales, the individual models become the focus and there may not even be a scenic setting – being pulled by a model steam engine on an outdoor elevated track, the realism is about the authenticity of the motive power, the smell, the sounds, and the engineering. But again, a well engineered model will run well and be more authentic. Sorry to some of the “live steam” guys, but slip-eccentric valve gear requiring a manual push to set it doesn’t really do a lot for me.

I personally think that 1:32 is about as small as the “model engineering” approach can go, and also about as large as the “modeller” can go. In between, we have a continuum from Z scale up to 1 scale, maybe even larger for narrow gauge (15mm scale on 45mm gauge track, for example). Anyone with a large basement and an inclination to replicating operations will obviously find 00/H0 or possibly N ideally suited to their needs, as they require a large number and variety of robust models. The realism here is about authentically replicating a number of “railroad jobs”.

I think S possibly chose me, rather than the other way round, but it is the largest scale I can fit into my available space, and I like making things, so it suits me very well. (I have tried other scales, but always return to S.) Mike has a bit more space than I, and obviously derives great enjoyment from modelling the fine details, so 1:48 suits him well. If I had more space, maybe I would model in a larger scale, too: what I want is to build models to a high level of detail, and then to move them about in a purposeful manner, replicating real railway movements and operations. I need sufficient space for a layout of a station or a yard, tempered with the largest size models I can get into that space.

The interesting thing, of course, is that to be effective, all of these approaches require reliable engineering as anything else destroys the realism, but as the scale gets bigger (in terms of the model size, rather than the number used!) the focus begins to shift from quantity of operation to quality of operation. This does not make either of these “better” than the other, merely reflects the preferences of the individual. Rather than work against a sped-up clock to get a train rapidly sorted and on its way, I want to concentrate on the individual stages involved in coupling up: approach slowly, stop short, inch up, connect pipes (if required), pull back and place with other vehicles. I wouldn’t have time to model these niceties if working a large sorting yard against the clock: maximum use would be made of automatic coupling facilities: engines would still approach carefully, but they would not stop in advance of coupling up, nor would they pause for pipe connections to be made and (if necessary) automatic brakes tested. I am more interested in the operation of a train, than operating trains. Others differ – and wouldn’t life be boring if they didn’t?

Where anyone sits, is entirely up to them, as is where they judge the competing aims and advantages of different scale to meet and overlap, but I put it to you that unless you have the right balance and blend, you will be unhappy in your modelling.

If you are, then very good.