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…


4 thoughts on “Swanning About…

  1. renegourley

    ‘…if it had not been written from a position of wishing to avoid offending the reader by adopting a “finescale” stance…’

    I wonder why so many authors (or to your point, perhaps editors) choose this path? Why is finescale seen as elitist, when so many finescale modellers are simply struggling to accomplish the best they can? Why, for that matter, is elitism something to be avoided?

    1. Simon Post author

      There is nothing “elitist” about wanting to improve. There may be a small number of “modellers” who wish to create an exclusive club, but I have never met any. Finescale is nothings to be ashamed about, just as there is nothing elitist about a sportsman (or woman) wanting to win gold at the Olympics.
      There is a massive difference between being part of an elite (based on achievements) and being elitist.

        1. Simon Post author

          There is a fine balance between trying to join the elite, and being elitist – in words as well as thoughts and actions!

          Happy New Year, René.


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