John's Jottings

As overheard at a model railway club, somewhere in Cheshire, and jotted down by John Millington. The names and locations have been changed, but these stories are based on true conversations.

Archived editions (1-77, see nav-bar at the top of the page) were originally published via the Cheshire Railway Modellers website, but from December 2012, issue 78, the Jottings can be found here in blog form.

John Millington is a nom de plume. The author's true identity is disguised to enable him to continue collecting material for the articles.

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141. Food for Thought - March 2018

Posted on February 28, 2018 at 4:20 PM

A few of us went as visitors to a show in Merle. We’d not been there very long when an argument broke out between a steward and the operators of one of the layouts. Shortly afterwards, the team packed up their layout and left, obviously disgruntled about something.

Later we found out that the refreshment people had told the organiser that even though it was still mid-morning they were running short of food. He had decided to reduce the meal ticket allocation to every layout. This triggered the early departure of that one team. It was undesirable but understandable. Other teams thought of following their example.

Over lunch-time, some layouts shut down completely as their operators went out into the village to find sustenance. Some were away for over an hour, with hastily created ‘Gone to Lunch’ signs put up, while others covered their layout with dustsheets. The paying public thought this was a poor do.

“It’s a charity event,” the organiser explained. “We can’t be giving free meals to everybody.”

“But you didn’t tell us in advance,” the exhibitors told him most forcefully. “Your questionnaire specifically asked for the number of operators and if they’d any special dietary requirements. That implies that we’d all be fed. If that wasn’t going to be the case, then surely you should have warned us in plenty of time?”

“You can always buy something to eat from the refreshment room,” he responded with great insensitivity. “There’s still a few things left.” That really upset the visiting exhibitors.

“We appreciate that you have a problem with judging the amount of food you require, and you wish to minimise costs, but arbitrarily withholding meal tickets is unfair,” one of the exhibitors told the organiser. “Some of us have done charity events where we were told quite clearly in the initial invitation that we’d have to provide our own lunches. And as charity shows, we accepted that. But we knew before we set out and came prepared.” However, the organiser couldn’t see he’d done anything that should upset his invited guest exhibitors.

This brought to mind the catering problem at other shows we’d attended in one capacity or another. At one, meal vouchers were given out, but the number distributed was not passed on to those serving the meals. They kept selling food to all and sundry. Exhibitors turning up after 12-30 were told there was only a limited range of food still available and they should have come earlier to make sure of a full meal. The servers seemed to have no idea about how operating teams stagger their mealtimes so as to keep layouts running.

And then there was a show where every exhibitor was given a voucher worth a generous seven pounds to use at the venue’s own catering facilities. Hot savouries were served in the restaurant, with nothing costing more than five pounds, while sandwiches and hot sweets were available in a snack bar on another floor. The problem was that no change was given for a £7 voucher, or the remaining credit of £2 indicated in any way. The venue was making a clear profit of at least £2 on every first course they served. We hoped the organisers realised they were being ripped off.

An army marches on its stomach,” our chairman commented. “Making sure you troops know when they are next being fed is important for maintaining morale. And if they’re not being fed, then they must be told that well in advance. Doesn’t the same apply to the volunteers who operate the layouts? And we all agreed they did. We also agreed we’ll politely decline any further invitation we might get from Merle.

140. Now Top That - February 2018

Posted on February 1, 2018 at 10:10 AM

While at the Plonkton show, we heard of two of their members who were both competent craftsmen and excellent modellers. They brought their latest creation to each monthly meeting. There was great rivalry between them – a case of now-top-that. Each was striving to outdo the other in terms of difficulty of subject, accuracy of representation, and quality of finish. But above all, they were competing on the ingenuity of design.

It seems that early on there had been carriages and wagons with all doors opening. Then came locos with cosmetic motion visible between the frames, quickly followed by locos with full moving motion. Shortly afterwards there was a mechanism that moved the reversing crank before the loco set off in the opposite direction. This was topped by a loco that could be made to spin its wheels as if it had lost its footing on wet or greasy rails, with full accompaniment of rapid chuffs, closing of the regulator, blowing sand and then the regulator gently opening again.

And then there was the BSK, with a guard that, on digital command, opened his door, stepped onto the platform, looked along the train, waved his flag, then went back inside and closed his door as the train pulled out of the station. Now that’s something you don’t see at every exhibition you attend.

This was countered by an old-style 0-6-0 tender loco with an open cab. On the footplate, the fireman would ply his shovel between coal-plate and the fire-box. But he wasn’t toiling all the time. You had to wait to see it. And if you listened carefully, you could hear the scrape of the coal on the shovel and the clank as the fire-box door opened and closed.

But neither of the pair ever built layouts. They didn’t exhibit at shows, or ever enter competitions. They weren’t concerned what the other club members thought of their work. They weren’t even bothered if nobody else saw it.

As soon as one arrived he’d rapidly scan the room. Was his rival present? What had he brought this time? Where’d he put it? Then he’d quietly put his latest masterpiece where the other might spot it. Later each would examine the other’s model, whispering admiring comments, while desperately seeking out the smallest imperfection, the merest deviation from dimensional exactitude, highlighting the minutest blemish, questioning the slightest hesitation in free-movement. This intense but private rivalry had become an obsession that consumed most of the pair’s free time, yet in all other respects they remained the best of friends.

Gradually, the other members of the club realised what was happening. They, too, began to anticipate the arrival of the latest master-work and marvel at what was presented. However, some members were put off by this succession of ever-rising levels of excellence. They felt as though their own commendable and worthy efforts were of no value.

“It is always a problem,” Fred said. “There’s a conflict between, on the one hand, encouraging people to take up our hobby and then go on to raise their levels of skill, while on the other hand, celebrating excellence and holding it up to others as an aspirational goal.”

“There are some people who are perfectly happy producing mediocre models,” our chairman observed. “But if it brings them happiness and fulfilment, who are we to condemn them? What concerns me is those who are dissatisfied with their poor models and get frustrated that they aren’t improving.” We agreed that was an issue we really ought to address.

139. Modelling Fraud - January 2018

Posted on December 31, 2017 at 5:40 AM

There was disquiet at the Whirtleborough show. Words like ‘unfair’, ‘cheat’ and ‘fraud’ were said. It was after one of the awards went to a beautiful layout that ran faultlessly. But after the presentation, it transpired that the exhibitor had commissioned various people to build the baseboards, the track, the buildings and scenery, the electrics, the locos and most of the rolling stock. All he’d done was co-ordinate the project, sign a vast number of large cheques, and fill out the exhibitor’s questionnaire. Should he have really won?

“Of course” said Bill. “It was his layout. He gets the prize on behalf of the team.”

“But the team was made up entirely of hired hands,” Graham commented dismissively. “They’ve already got their rewards - in cash. He didn’t do any of the work himself.”

There was also concern over the winner in the scratch-built loco class. There were suspicions that all the entrant had done was adding details, like crew, fire irons, coal and lamps.

By contrast, the chap who came second had explained quite clearly on the accompanying label that he’d built the loco through to the primer stage. He listed the parts he’d bought in. He even named the professional who had done the painting, lettering and lining.”

“But how can you be sure?” Jim asked. “You can’t just call the winner a fraud. You need evidence. Is there definite proof?”

“He never talks about what he’s building. He never asks for advice. We’ve never seen him work on any model at club meeting,” one club member commented. “And he refuses point-blank to man a demo table at our show.”

“But some people prefer to work at home, where it’s quiet and they’ve got all the tools, materials and reference books they require readily to hand,” Fred suggested. “Not everybody likes other people gawping at them while they do delicate and detailed work.”

“And you can get distracted by people who want you to talk to them – to explain what you’re doing and why,” Paul added, once again revealing his experience-through-ignorance.

“They sometimes have the same sort of allegations at flower shows,” Jane responded. “Did the chap actually grow it himself, or was in bought a few days before-hand? To deal with this situation, some horticultural societies reserve the right to inspect the gardens and allotments of exhibitors in the run-up to a show, just to see what the gardener has actually got in his soil. Honourable competitors usually have no problem with this, provided the inspectors don’t reveal their cultural techniques to their rivals.”

“On real railways, it is standard practice for locomotives and rolling stock carry makers’ plates,” our chairman remarked. “Most other artists, like painters and sculptors and potters, sign their work, unless they are ashamed of it. Even for repairs, watch and clock-makers discreetly engrave their monograms and job numbers somewhere. Gas technicians and electricians are required to sign and date a logbook for each attendance.

I wonder,” he mused, “if models should also be signed, dated and numbered by their actual builder?”

“I know of one model railway where every building carries the name of its builders,” our chairman observed. “For demountable buildings, it’s on the underside. For fixed buildings, it’s on the back, or on the underside of the roof. For some components the names will only be seen when the model is taken apart. But the club encourages each contributing member to acknowledge their work and be recognised in this way.”

138. The Magic Locomotive - December 2017

Posted on November 30, 2017 at 5:40 AM

Just before Christmas, Fred and Jane visited a model railway exhibition. This one was billed as a family show. And indeed there were many families there, with lots of layouts for them to drive, shunt, works signals, etc.

In the centre of the main room there was a carpet on the floor, surrounded by a low sectional plastic fence. Two ovals of G-scale track had been laid on the carpet, each with loops and sidings. Two youngsters were sitting on the floor, engrossed on driving the trains. Other children were working the points, uncoupling locos, and loading and unloading animals and freight from the wagons, all under the guidance of two supervisors. Everybody was having a great time.

“The carpet indicates a special area,” one of the supervisors explained to Fred and Jane. “The supervisors insist on no running and encourage the kiddies to sit down. The fence prevents toddlers and adults from just walking across.”

“It seems to work pretty well,” Jane commented. “A clever bit of psychology.”

When some parents heard the cost of G-scale locos and rolling stock they got really worried about damage, but the supervisors assured them that there had been none in all the years they’d been staging that exhibit.

“We insist on good behaviour,” Jane was told. “It starts with the very first child of the day. Once the norm has been set, the rest usually follow suit. Any child - or parent for that matter - that misbehaves is immediately asked to go outside the fence.”

There was much excitement when another exhibitor stepped onto the carpet and placed a second loco on the inner oval. At first it followed the freight train, maintaining a respectable distance behind it. The young driver reduced the speed of his train, and the new loco slowed. The child speeded up his train. The following loco accelerated. The train was stopped. The follower stopped. The kiddie was convinced he was now controlling both locos, even if the response of the new one was delayed.

He set his train in motion once more. The light engine now went the other way round the circuit. There was consternation amongst those on and off the carpet. A head -on crash seemed inevitable. But the errant loco reversed just in time, and sped round the oval, quickly catching up with the guard’s van at the rear of the goods train. This totally mystified drivers and audience alike.

What they did not realise was that the new loco was battery powered and radio-controlled. Its driver was standing some distance away, with his throttle hidden behind his back. He was grinning broadly.

The supervisor called for a point to be changed. The loco went into the siding. The point was put back to the main line. The train continued around the oval, while the magic loco poottled backwards and forwards along the siding, its speed and direction bearing no relationship to the setting on the track-side controller.

There was no buffer stop at the end of the siding. The wayward loco rolled off the end of the track. One of the children went to put it back on the rails. But it sped across the carpet, escaping her grasp. It stopped just short of the track on the other side of the circuit.

At this point, the radio operator strode onto the carpet, and wagged his finger at it. “You naughty locomotive,” he scolded. The engine made a few whistles. He picked it up and took it away. “You’re going back in your box,” he announced, amid much laughter.

“Comedy is a component frequently missing from model railway shows,” our chairman observed. “It’s not appropriate for every layout, or even every show. But don’t you think it is an important component of shows aimed at families?”

135. The Underground - September 2017

Posted on October 31, 2017 at 6:05 AM

There was one layout at the Catfield show that was of an ingenious double-deck design. The visible portion depicted a rural junction station. The lines in each direction curved and dropped to the lower level, where there was a complex of junctions and storage loops, all hidden from view of both public and operators. Some trains would disappear into the tunnel at the Edinburgh end, to re-appear some time later as the return working. Other trains, like loaded coal wagons would only run in the Up direction, while others only in the Down.

How all this was achieved remained a mystery to the visitors, and also, it would seem, to most of the operators, who often had no idea what trains were where, in which direction they were facing, or where they might emerge. Frequently, whole chunks of the countryside were lifted up so that the operators could locate trains.

And to complicate matters, the track was of such a poor quality that trains did not always follow their intended routes - one portion might be on one path, while the rest was attempting to take a different way through pointwork. The stock had to be re-railed. The need for repeated scenery shifting did not seem to upset the operators one little bit. On the positive side, it did give the public a chance to see the underground lines.

Furthermore, some locos were poor runners and would stall at inconvenient subterranean places. Some of the rolling-stock had dodgy couplings and trains divided en route. Each time this happened, the offending item was either turned round or repositioned in the train. Only when the problem persisted would the offender be removed and a replacement found.

This all suggested that the layout, locos and stock had never been exhaustively tested at exhibition intensity back in the clubroom. Or if they had, there was neither critical assessment of performance, nor effective remedial work resulting. Indeed, one operator commented about a particular loco “It does that every time.” This begged the question: should it, or the entire layout, have ever been taken to an exhibition in the first place?

Felicity commented that there was a similar problem in a needlework club of which she was a member. Some items were definitely of exhibition quality. However, other items had not been washed or pressed since the sewing had been completed. Pictures were not correctly tensioned over their stretchers, or mounted square in their frames. Even some of the frames had scuff marks and scratches.

“We can’t hang that in public,” one of the club leaders was heard to say when they were setting up an exhibition. The needlewoman was most upset at this condemnation of her handiwork. If she had taken the trouble to create this work of art, it deserved to be shown.

“But we have to maintain a high standard of workmanship,” she was told. “If we’re expecting the public to visit our exhibitions in the future, then there must be no second-rate work on display. If there is tat, then they won’t come again and nobody will be able to make any sales.” Felicity told us the poor needlewoman was so incensed that she snatched all her entries and stormed out, never to attend another meeting.

“It’s always a problem when amateurs’ work goes on public exhibition,” our chairman commented. “It’s a difficult balance between providing encouragement through public display, and ensuring quality to ensure the public’s continued approval. If strict standards are being applied, then these should be set out well in advance. And guidance must be freely given to help everybody achieve the highest levels of presentation. The sad thing is, not everybody will accept such advice.” We all looked at Adrian, our resident bodger, and agreed wholeheartedly.

137. A Pile of Paperwork - November 2017

Posted on October 31, 2017 at 5:55 AM

Have you seen all this?” our secretary had asked a couple of months ago as he spread out a whole sheaf of papers on the table. “This has all come from the organiser of the Salchester show.” We leafed through them and took our pick.

“This sheet is about meals and overnight accommodation arrangements,” Ken announced. “It wants to know who is vegetarian, vegan, or allergic to milk, gluten, nuts, and so on.”

“This one’s all to do with the rules and regulations concerning the use of mains electrical power,” Adrian reported.

“My sheet covers the unloading, car parking and loading procedures,” Nigel told us. “It’ll all be under the control of stewards with yellow bibs and radios.”

“I’ve got the fire, emergency and evacuation procedures. They even give the wording of the public announcements that will be made to alert us to problems, but yet not alarm the public.”

“This one’s about name badges, security passes, and access routes.”

“Here’s the site map and the recommended route through the local road system that avoids planned roadworks at the nearby motorway junction. That’s thoughtful of them.”

“This is a poster for us to put up. And a request form for leaflets and advance tickets.”

“They want a full Risk Assessment for the layout, its transport, erection, operation and dismantling,” Jane said, holding up a substantial booklet. “It requires details of heavy items, solvents, soldering irons, items that might case someone to trip, burn their hand, and so on. They want to know what steps we’re taking to minimise the chance of an accident and what procedures we’ll have in place to mitigate the ill-effects should an incident occur. We’ve to present it completed to the organisers on arrival at the venue.”

Fred subsequently completed our Risk Assessment in the most meticulous detail. However, after the exhibition he was scathing about the process.

“After all that work, I don’t think anybody read it,” he complained.

“How do you be sure?” Nigel asked.

“Amongst the hazards I identified was the likelihood of shock experienced by youngsters when the pipe at the bottom of the trench in the roadworks cameo squirts water at them. There was no response.”

“Perhaps they don’t worry if kids get wet,” Felicity suggested with a smile. “Maybe it’s the only bath they get all year.”

“For one of the responses I included the phrase ‘or alternative, as required by the show managers.’

“They were obviously happy with what you had proposed,” Jim suggested.

“For the layout of the power cables, I gave two alternatives, asking which they preferred. I assumed that some official would come round to discuss it, but nobody did.”

“I had a chat with the show manager on the Sunday,” Fred continued. “He said that it’s only every five years that the show’s insurers insisted on full Risk Assessment documentation. None of the show officials are actually expected to look at the paperwork.”

“That’s stupid,” Paul commented. And for once we agreed with him wholeheartedly.

“Isn’t it’s always a good idea to do some form of Risk Assessment?” our chairman countered. “It helps to ensure that lax and potentially dangerous practices do not become the accepted norm.” And we had to agree with that as well. We’ll see what we actually do.

136. The Doubtful Daisy-chain - October 2017

Posted on October 1, 2017 at 6:00 AM

On arrival at the Wraybury show with our layout, we found that no electrical cables had been laid out, even though setting up was well under way.

“You’ll find a socket somewhere over there,” one of the organisers said, with a gesture that was wide enough to encompass most of the known universe. “You all have your own way of setting out cables, so we’re letting you get on with it.”

We erected the layout and ran out our cables. Then Ken took the plug end of our heavy-duty extension lead and went in search of a socket. He soon reported back that he’d plugged it into a bank of socket two layouts away, and it would soon be live.

In the meantime, the operators of the layout on the other side had asked if they could plug into our multi-gang socket. Of course they could. And the layout next to them daisy-chained from their power supply. But as opening time rapidly approached, not a single layout had any power to carry out the essential tests of their electrical systems.

Another of the organisers wandered by. “When’s the electricity coming on?” we asked him. He didn’t know, but said he’d sort it out.

He traced the cables right round the exhibition hall. Eventually he reached the end plug. “I’ll soon have you all connected,” he shouted triumphantly. “I’ve just got to find a socket.” He hunted round and found one underneath a layout. “Power going on,” he cried out. “Have fun!” We waited, and waited, but nothing came live. The chap disappeared.

Out came the test equipment. The continuity of the wires within the cables was frantically investigated. The integrity of fuses was examined. Plugs were opened up to check that all wires were firmly screwed into the correct terminals.

Then the hunt for the missing electricity really started. We sent out two search parties. One set off clockwise, the other anti-clockwise. Between them they traced the sequence of connections from under one layout to under its neighbouring layout. The two search parties drew ever closer to each other, but on the other side of the hall. Eventually they met at a micro-layout.

“Where’s your power supply,” they asked the operator.

“Dunno,” he replied. “I’m battery-powered. There’s this cable passing underneath.”

In desperation, a plug was pulled out from a socket. Having checked that the socket was dead, one probe of the test meter was held against the earth pin of the plug and the other pushed into the earth aperture of the socket. The meter bleeped unhealthily. But it bleeped. The same thing happened with the neutral and live.

“We have continuity right round the hall,” Ken announced. “But at no point is any of it actually connected to the mains.” There was laughter amongst the exhibitors.

By now the organisers were wondering why no locos were running, no display lights were on, and no sounds were coming from the DCC layouts. Then the penny dropped. There was a frantic search for some additional extension cables, and an even more frenetic hunt for the building’s own wall sockets. Eventually the great circular daisy-chain was divided into sections, and each connected to a live outlet. The layouts sprung into life just as the doors opened and the public streamed in.

“Does it not go to demonstrate,” our chairman wondered, “that every aspect of an exhibition should be planned, and those plans put into operation? When it comes to something as critical as the power supply, nothing should be left either to chance or for exhibitors to sort out for themselves piece-meal. Yes, there will always be deviations from any plan, but there must be an effective plan to begin with.” We all agreed with him. It remains to be seen whether the organisers get their act together in time for next year’s show.

134. Strictly Not Entertaining - August 2017

Posted on July 31, 2017 at 2:40 PM

It’s not often that dance and model railways appear in the same sentence, but it happened last week. We’d been discussing Plonkton’s new layout – a beautifully-modelled grand terminus set in a county town. But it didn’t hold an audience for long.

At first we couldn’t work out why. But then it dawned. A passenger train came in, the loco was changed, and the train left. A freight would arrive, shunt and depart. The full potential of the track plan was never exploited. There was seldom more than one active loco at a time, even though there was the potential for at least three, perhaps four, or even five.

“It was rather like the excitement generated by a football match where only one player is allowed onto the field at a time,” Bill suggested with a smile.

Next door there was a simple single-line rural terminus. Again it was worked one train at a time. But the next train arrived before the previous one departed, so there was always something happening, or obviously about to happen.

“It’s a matter of choreography,” Jane explained.

“Choreography!” Peter exploded. “Running a model railway’s got nothing to do with dancing.”

“It’s all a matter of movements,” she calmly went on, “linking them together to form a flowing storyline, to create patterns that are logical, aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and satisfying to the intellect.”

Now ‘intellect’ or ‘aesthetics’ are not something that we associate with Peter, and he duly showed his philistine side. “Model railways are only there to represent the real thing.”

“But having the next train arrive before the previous one has departed is representing the real thing,” Graham pointed out. “The arriving driver has to surrender the single-line token to the signalman, who insert it into his token instrument and exchanges ‘Train out of section’ bell codes with the other box. Then he has to offer the train that’s ready to depart to that box, and when accepted, withdraw the token and give it to the driver.”

“What a palaver,” Paul commented. “Surely the arriving driver has just to hand over the token to the driver of the departing train.”

“But that’s not the procedure adopted by most railways to ensure safe working,” Fred admonished him. “If you’re insisting on prototype practice, then surely you should mimic full-size practice, even if only in your imagination.”

“The thing is,” Graham added. “The operator held the attention of visitors by explaining all this to his audience. Would you have done that?”

“Of course not,” Paul replied. “That’s just showmanship. I’d stick with one train at a time.”

“There should be a very long wait while one train goes all the way to the next box, before the next train comes all the way back,” our chairman commented. “So would be long periods with nothing moving for the audience to see. How boring.” And most of us agreed. But it remains to be seen if we can actually implement multi-train choreography when we operate our layouts at shows.

133. Get It Write - July 2017

Posted on July 1, 2017 at 1:45 PM

At the Dewcliffe show, the newly-appointed Editor of the Regional Federation Newsletter had a small stall and was making himself known. He was trying to meet as many officers from as many clubs as he could and persuade them to write short reports about what the clubs were up to and their future plans.

“Your predecessor always mucked up our contributions,” was a common complaint. “Some were so garbled that they were unintelligible,” another person said. “That’s why we don’t send them in very often.”

“I’m determined that all information is relevant and presented in as unambiguous way as possible,” the Editor assured them. To assist the clubs, he provided two sheets of paper. The first was a checklist for information about shows and other events: name of organiser, name, address and postcode of the venue, and so on. There were even sections for public transport details, local car parks and their charges.

“We know what to include,” one indignant show secretary complained. “I find it offensive to be presented with such a sheet. It implies I’m stupid and can’t write in English.”

“If I give one to everybody, then nobody has any excuse to miss out vital information,” the Editor replied. The complainant was not appeased.

To help write reports on activities there was a Style Sheet. This gave instructions on font and size, line length and spacing, gaps between paragraphs, indents, the use of punctuation marks, when to use italics and capital letters, accepted abbreviations, and so on.

“This is going to put a lot of people off,” one chap protested. “Having to keep referring to your Style Sheet will disrupt writers in their lines of thought. Plain stultifying.”

“Write what you like while the inspiration is there,” the Editor suggested. “Then go through and check that each requirement has been met.”

“Haven’t got time for all that palaver,” he was told. “That’s your job, anyway.”

“It’s such a chore having to sub-edit contributions before I can even check grammar and spelling, and then make sure it all flows and makes sense. Would you like to become a sub-editor?” The Editor’s invitation was declined.

“You’re just too fastidious,” he was told. “This is a hobby, not a profession.”

“But if you don’t want your reports garbled, then make sure they are of a high standard to start with, and that they follow the guidance given in the Style Sheet,” the Editor commented. “I’m always delighted when one comes in that doesn’t need to be changed.”

“I’ve seen a professional style guide,” our chairman informed us, when we discussed editorship back at club. “It ran to over fifty pages, with numerous examples: things like lists of hyphenated and non-hyphenated words in common use. Its application meant that publications were consistent: they reinforced the company brand, as one might put it.

“It also showed that the writers and the company respected their readers. They considered them sufficiently important to make sure they got everything right.” And we agreed he’d got a good point there.

132. Spelling It Out - June 2017

Posted on June 1, 2017 at 3:40 AM

We’d been at the Catfields show. One exhibitor obviously had a thing about pre-grouping covered vans. On his ‘historical’ layout he’d got examples from most of the railway companies in the British Isles, each proudly displaying its company’s livery and lettering.

While the owner was on his lunch break, his understudy started to form up short groups of vans. When he saw the owner re-enter the hall, he marshalled the vans into a single train in a departure road. The owner was surprised to see an all-van train, but agreed that it was an operational possibility. His friend sped off for his lunch.


The owner set the train in motion. As it emerged from the siding onto the main line, the audience began to titter, and point, and snigger. The owner couldn’t understand why. Then the audience got out their phones and cameras, started taking pictures, and laughed even louder. This was followed by lots of phone calls to their friends: “You must see this.”


The mystified owner could stand it no longer. He asked the cause of all this interest and excitement. There was a roar as the audience realised that he hadn’t the foggiest idea as to the source of their merriment.


“Look at what the vans spell,” the audience told him. He looked along the line of vans, but could see nothing amiss – just the initial letters of each owing company.


“Stop the train. Come round the front,” the audience told him. The wagons had been so ordered that, from the audience’s point of view, their company initials spelt out a very risqué message, far too crude and cruel to be reported here. The poor owner was most embarrassed.


He returned to the back and realised that though he and his audience were seeing exactly the same letters, they weren’t in the same order on the two sides of the train. His side wasn’t even the reverse of their side. Prove it to yourself with, for example, two letters on each of two vans, that together make up a four letter word.


He hurried the train into the fiddle yard and dispersed the wagons to the stock shelves, making sure that they no longer formed rude words. Once normal service was restored, the audience dissipated. But details of the incident had spread though the exhibition halls. For the rest of the day, visitors came over to see for themselves, but were disappointed to find that every combination of wagons had been carefully scrutinised before dispatch, and any that yielded dubious sequences of letters were separated.


We recognised that the friend had pulled off a very clever prank. It took considerable imagination to realise that livery letters could be assembled into words, and mental dexterity to form them into a message, especially as the precise sequence of letters on one side of the train is not the same on the other. We wondered if this could only happen with the great number of companies that were around before 1923. On the train home we tried our hands at making words, polite or impolite, from livery lettering.


“It’s not often that literary censorship is a desirable attribute for an operator,” our chairman commented with a grin. “I wonder how many times words have appeared previously on that model, on other models, and in real life without anybody noticing.”


The rest of us also contemplated what happened to his friend when he returned from his lunch. We all agreed he’d have to face the wrath of the owner at some time.