John's Jottings

151. Festina Lente - January 2019

Posted on January 1, 2019 at 1:00 PM

While at the Skelham club’s recent show, we heard some of the history of a layout they were exhibiting. It seems that it had been started several years previously, but the original team had hit snags and lost interest. Progress had stalled at the track and bare boards stage. After languishing in their store room for some time, a trio of new members got it out and decided they would complete it. So work resumed.

It wasn’t long before ballast was down and scenery was planned for viewing from three sides, with the storage sidings hidden away on the fourth. It was then that they realised they’d never be able to hand-work the points by leaning over the planned townscape, so they had to flood the ballast with near-boiling water to release enough of the track to be able to lift it for operating rods to be installed. Then they made good the ballast.

This challenge overcome, scenery developed at quite a pace. One of the team was a dab hand at constructing cardboard building kits, and each week several more appeared. They were installed on a stepped base that cantilevered over the fiddle yard at the rear. The rise between successive rows of buildings was steeper than Anfield’s Kop, but cleverly disguised by using half-, quarter- and low- relief buildings interspersed with trees. It was brought to life by cars, lorries, buses, cats, dogs, dustbins, and numerous little cameos of workmen plying their trades. The overall townscape was most effective. It gave the impression that the town was much bigger than the baseboard would allow.

Then came the triumphant announcement: “This layout is now complete.” There was great satisfaction amongst both builders and other club members as they admired the finished project. Even the original team were pleased with the outcome. It wasn’t quite what they had envisioned. It was definitely far more imaginative and impressive.

One of the club’s older members was invited to have a drive. He made up a longish freight train and set it to circle clockwise on the lower level. It looked good from all angles as it made its way round. After several circuits of the board, he halted it at the back and manually exchanged the loco and brake van. It looked equally impressive running anticlockwise.

But the fellow saw there was a major flaw with the basic design. In the anticlockwise direction, freight trains that circulated on the lower level could only enter the rear storage tracks by running past the exit from the fiddle yard out onto the scenic section, and then reversing into the holding sidings. This somewhat spoilt the operational magic.

Within an hour of the start of the Completion Celebrations, track was being lifted to accommodate an additional storage siding, one that could be entered via a point at the opposite end to the fiddle yard throat. So much for it being a Completed Layout!

Later running sessions revealed numerous places where trains derailed or uncoupled, requiring more lifting and re-fixing of track and ballast. One bridge, set at the start of a curve, had to have an abutment severely cut back to allow bogie coaches to pass. All this remediation work was hampered by the presence of landforms, roads and other scenery. Some months later, frustration led to a whole new double fiddle yard being added at right angles to the layout to permit easy entry and exit of trains regardless of their direction of running.

“Does this not go to show the importance of thorough planning and exhaustive testing?” our chairman commented. “Shouldn’t a wide range of locos and stock be run for prolonged periods by several operators, as if at an exhibition, before ballast or any other scenic work is fixed to the baseboard? No amount of brilliant scenic detail will improve ill-thought-out track plans, or compensate for badly-laid track.” We all expressed agreement with our chairman, but it remains to be seen if certain of our club members actually learn from this story and follow his council of wise experience.

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