Category Archives: Literary Criticism

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…

Bad advice

What follows is a review of two recent publications, that promise more than they actually deliver. One is something I would have bought out of interest, the other I bought out of curiosity. I leave you to work out which was which. It won’t be difficult.

Wise fellow that he is, Mike Cougill refuses to comment on others’ layout plans. I used to think this was odd given that I think he has a finely honed ability to strip plans back to the essentials, but he is quite right: these things are personal.

Not being quite as wise as he, I am inclined to make the occasional comment, but more via a question. E.g. “What are you trying to achieve?” or a question linked to a statement, “You said in your preamble that you wanted to create a rural scene. Given that, do you think that you might have too much track?” Now, there is a certain irony in this as I have a reputation in certain circles for churning out plans by the dozen hundred, but actually I have simply been searching for something which ticked my own personal boxes. In amongst that check list has always been something which is plausible, realistic, and not too cramped. If a plan has too much squashed into the space, or cannot be operated in an authentic way, then it goes out of the window. (As it happens, I have recently had some success in trying to squeeze quarts into pint pots, and who knows, after a nearly 20 year hiatus since I started the last one, I may soon start on another layout.) To that end, about 10 years ago I invested in a copy of Templot (back when you paid a small fee for it) and spent time learning how to use what is a very sophisticated piece of software. One of the first things you learn from using it is that sketches on a piece of paper are often rather too optimistic. The second thing you learn is that help comes via the extremely effective user forum. The third thing you learn is pretty much like the first, in that plans published in the modelling press (magazines and books) are also optimistic about what you can fit into a space: only trust a plan which shows something which has been built!

Be that as it may, I am still fascinated by track plans, and how the layout of the track is deployed to represent railway operations in a given space – I am also all in favour of viewing the track plan as just part of the bigger picture, as espoused by Iain Rice. So I made a couple of spontaneous purchases: the “BRM Guide to Trackplans and Layout Design” and the “Hornby Magazine Design Manual – Volume One”. They have differences, they have similarities, and they both have defects.

Firstly, the major difference is that the BRM Guide is essentially a series of layout designs from past issues of the magazine, with some accompanying text written by the BRM staff. (Presumably this avoids any royalty payments to the original authors.) The HM Manual has a variety of plans, some of which are based on layouts that have been constructed in the past, and some of which are planning suggestions. I use that phrase as I have seen it used in self-defence by one of the contributors to Hornby Magazine, when his layout plan was criticised on a forum as being unbuildable. So, the BRM plans are proven. Some of the HM plans are proven: many are not.

Similarities next. Both magazines are pitched at the right market, I would say: people moving beyond the train set, if you like. Quite possibly, the Hornby Magazine Manual is more closely targeted at beginners than the BRM Guide. There is no real point aiming at the finescale market: this market is smaller, and more likely to design it for themselves or turn to other established works aimed specifically towards them – the aforesaid Iain Rice’s works come to mind, but also Barry Norman’s two lovely oeuvres, as his Scenic Modelling book does have a very interesting appendix on layout design. This is all fine and dandy, and both magazines tend to play safe and talk about traditional (heavy, cumbersome and crude but effective) benchwork/baseboards, and also about ready to lay track. This is understandable as building your own requires its own works. The BRM Guide has many layouts within it which have obviously used homemade track, and makes brief, passing reference to it but sticks with SMP plastic based point kits and PCB alternatives: no mention is made of the plastic chairs which have been on the market for nearly 30 years. Not so the examples in the Hornby Magazine, where moving from set track to flex-track is seen as a major step. (It was for me, too. But I wasn’t even 10 when my father – more interested in puppetry than model railways, truth be told – introduced me to flexible track. I remember this vividly because in my excitement I sat on the track and bent it beyond use!)

And now, the defects. Here there are a number of similarities. There are errors in the selection of photographs (I am not sure why there is a photo of Albion metal works purporting to be the signal box at East Lynn), in the text (guys, we might be in the digital age, but you still need to read the proofs) and worst of all, in the published track plans. Both publications have errors in matters such as the placing of slips on diamond crossings: in the case of the BRM guide, this can be seen by comparing the photographs of the finished layout with the trackplan but in the case of the HM Manual, this will only be seen whilst looking at the trackplan, or worse still, discovered once construction has commenced (if built as drawn, then Padstow would be unworkable, for example, but there are numerous such examples). It is also clear that the BRM plans have been “lifted” straight out of the original magazine articles, as the hidden sidings on “Borchester Market” remain hidden, although the exit points from the main layout are given reference letters which are not used any further. In the case of the HM Guide, many of the “plans” really are suggestions – although drawn for 00, they might work well in the designated space in N gauge, but even there the paintwork might be rather tight. (I would love to see a model of Hawkhurst in 00, using say Peco track, which fitted into the allocated space.) Use of basic, simple software such as Anyrail would have provided a check on the feasibility of the plans (I have never used this, but am aware that it is one of many products out there). The output from the software could have also been used as the basis for the layout artwork. Indeed, the plans – together with a shopping list – could have been made available as a download.

And then there is the indication of signalling on the plans. Which is worse? No signalling, or incorrect signalling? I can see what HM are trying to do, by supposedly showing the rear view of signals for one direction of traffic. Unfortunately, the arms are coloured for the front view (red with a white band, as opposed to white with a black band), so they look a touch odd. OK, I worked out what they were doing, but then again I have had an interest in proper signalling for over a third of a century. What hope a new recruit to the hobby? Also, whilst it is perfectly normal to have two equal height arms on a bracketed signal post, serving as platform starters, both would be “stop” signals (red arm, red or green lights) the combination of one “stop” signal and one “distant” in this situation is frankly fantasy. I also have a dislike of personal opinion, for example that terminal layouts are limited in their operation, expressed authoritatively as it it were a fact. True, you don’t get to see an express running at speed, but not everyone wants that. For many, the operations at a steam age terminal in the UK are truly fascinating.

But the shame of it is that some of the ideas in the Hornby Magazine Manual really are very good, and very thought provoking. Some of the plans are full of great ideas, too – if suffering somewhat from optimism over turnout length and radii in a few places. Some of those ideas, particularly those presented in the “Main Line” section, would make for a cracking “exhibition layout” for a club, or indeed a dedicated individual. Let’s take design I. How about two unconnected lines on separate levels? The upper one is double track, served by a small number of storage loops, and consists of plain track in the visible section. A procession of trains at different speeds can pass by on this level. The lower level is also double track, but has platforms set against loops (so that express trains can run straight through, and freight trains can be halted to allow stopping passenger trains to overtake them) and also a local goods yard and a local industry (say a gas works, or chemical works.) Within a standard UK garage, a really interesting layout could be created, and modifications made to various features to reflect different eras: a modern setting might see the local goods yard used for the civil engineering department, or as a car park, but the chemical works could be going from strength to strength, and the through passenger lines might have been removed – maybe even one of the platforms rebuilt against the previous through line, and the loop removed to allow this. Showing how the plan could be changed to reflect eras would surely have been a really interesting and illuminating piece for the beginner?

So, what can I say? If you like looking at layout plans, then you may as well go ahead and spend the equivalent of 3 or 4 pints of beer buying both. If you are looking for inspiration from layout plans that actually work, then buy the BRM Guide but be wary to check photographic evidence against the drawings. If you are in the early stages of the hobby (in which case, I suspect that you are not reading this anyway!) then the BRM Guide to Trackplans and Layout Design might help by showing you a variety of layouts in a variety of scales and sizes, and open your eyes to what could be achieved now, and in the long run. But the faults and errors of the Hornby Magazine Design Manual – Volume One make me think that its intended audience would be well advised to avoid it, as by their very nature the lack of experience needed to sort the wheat from the chaff, and the hyperbole from reality, will simply not be there. I hope subsequent volumes are more thought out, and more practical.

I am sorry, but newcomers, beginners, etc, need to be given simple, sound advice about the options open to them. I really don’t think that anyone is helped by bad advice, even those who can spot it. This isn’t “elitist“, by the way. I just happen to think that if a publication is aimed at helping people to get more involved with and more out of the hobby, then it really does need to be, well, helpful. Leaders (and almost by definition, claiming to be “Britain’s Fastest Growing Model Railway Magazine” suggests that such a position is being assumed) need to lead.