Archive page 1 - Issues 1 to 30
1. On Good Exhibitions
Most of us had been to the Salchester Show the last weekend, so it was not surprising that during a lull in modelling we got round to discussing what makes a good exhibition layout. Graham's comment that it was all to do with trackwork was met with disdain.
"Locomotives are the key. Lots of them and plenty of movement," rejoined Adrian. "That's what people want to see."
"That's only partly true," said Fred. "Accurate locos are great crowd-pleasers. But not ones that keep coming off the rails." This was a little dig at Adrian. It's quite an event if any of his get from one end of the layout to the other without manual intervention. Only Adrian could build a loco with one driving wheel of a different spoke pattern from the other five … and not notice it!
"That just makes my point," Graham observed. "You've got to have good track and reliable running. And that requires care and takes time." And he should know. His station throat slip complex is a masterpiece. We've never seen a loco stall when going through it, even at a crawl.
"But what about the setting?" asked Felicity. "Perfect track on flat boards is pretty uninteresting. What I like to see is a believable scenario and an appropriate landscape."
"What do you mean 'scenario'?" Dan asked. He's not too knowledgeable is our Dan.
"It's the year and the season," Felicity responded. "It's the part of the country, the traffic that the railway was built to carry and the people it served." Felicity is very much into the 'people' side of railway modelling.
"That's very true," said Nigel. The LMR layout he's building is set in the western Peak District in the spring of 1956. And don't we all know it! Nigel can go on and on about the western Peak District in the spring of 1956. He's got the train register from Claygate South Box, the Goods Agent's Journal from Whitedale, the Loco Roster from Tunlow, the meteorological records for Buxton, and photo albums galore.
"But a scenario stifles creativity and limits operation," observed Jim. Jim's operations are noted for being extraordinarily creative. He'll happily run a train of bogie oil tankers behind a Caley Single simply because they are all nice models.
In the end we decided that there were five ingredients to a successful layout intended for public viewing: believable scenario, realistic scenery, reliable running, prototypical operation and a stimulating presentation. But it was also agreed that what you did in the privacy of your own railway room was your own affair, even running bogie tankers behind a Caley Single.
However, there was further agreement that what makes an exhibition successful was more than just quality layouts. It was things like the signage, the way you were greeted at the pay desk, stewards who knew where the traders and toilets were, refreshments at reasonable prices and helpful exhibitors that really made a show enjoyable. And the Salchester club had done well on all counts.
We'd had a useful discussion, but our 'lull' had merged into 'clear up time'.
"I hope you are actually going to build something next week," commented the chairman. "You need to put these ideas into practice." Who would disagree with that?
"It's no joke," he rebuked. "What use is 'come back later' to a chap in a hurry?"
"I had the same thing happen at the Bromcaster Show," said Nigel. "And it was only whether a loco was a super-detailed Bachmann or Hornby. You'd have thought they'd have known that since they were running it."
It was agreed that though most operators are friendly, some are unhelpful, and a few rudely ignorant. OK, not knowing about something highly technical is understandable, but it would be reasonable for operators to be familiar with the locos and stock being run or be able to find out quickly.
"But you can't expect every operator to know everything about every item," complained Dan. And we all agreed with that too.
Various solutions were suggested. One was explanatory text across the front of the layout. But those that are provided are difficult to read under exhibition conditions.
Another was a full-time answerer of questions put on a chair at the front of the layout, leaving those at the back to concentrate on operating. But only someone like Graham could remember everything about a layout, the locos and stock, and he is essential round the back to keep operations running smoothly.
"You could write it all out in a book," Jim suggested.
"It would require a big book," observed Adrian. "I'm not going to stop the trains just to go leafing through hundreds of pages."
"Exactly," continued Fred. "It could be an A5 loose-leaf handbook. A page for each building, loco, wagon, and so on, logically ordered, so we can find the right page quickly."
"That's what I've done for the LMR in the western Peak District in the spring of 1956," volunteered Nigel. "I've got all the information on file." And don't we know it! Nigel can go on and on about the western Peak District in the spring of 1956!
"We only need the essentials," Fred suggested. "Bought, kit- or scratch-built, manufacturer, modifications, source of components, and a little about the usage and history of the prototype. That's what we usually get asked about."
A couple of weeks later, Fred showed us a handbook that he'd started for his own layout. We took turns to read it. It was all there: basic facts, systematically laid out, with the odd additional comment about the model or the prototype. Nigel thought there wasn't enough detail. Adrian was in such a rush that didn't realise that there was a helpful index. And Dan was a bit mystified, but then he always is.
One thing we all agreed. Fred has a terrible sense of humour. Who but him would inform us that a badly running well-wagon is known as an unwell wagon! That sort of comment is really no joke, even to a chap that's not in a hurry.
"You don't have to repeat the jokes," advised the chairman. Who could disagree with that?
As layout manager, Fred got fed up with their carping and decided to act. He asked them which bits they were going to do.
"I'm not going to do anything. You aim for too high a standard," Paul retorted. "So much care is totally unnecessary."
Fred was most upset, though he tried not to show it. It was the first time in his life that he had been criticised for attempting to achieve high quality. Not for actually achieving perfection, you understand, but just for aiming high. In retrospect he took it as a back-handed compliment.
"I was asked to oversee an exhibition layout," he replied. "Delivering quality is implicit and adherence to standards is essential, especially where rails, wheels and couplings are concerned. If you want poor design, sloppy workmanship and unreliable running then I'm not going to put the layout before the public."
"I don't think Paul means technical standards," interjected Felicity. "Isn't it the level of detail you're talking about?
"Yes," Peter agreed, "I do mean detail. Look Fred, you use four, five or six colours to paint bricks when surely just one or two are quite enough."
"But his brickwork looks magnificent," said Bill. "Not only each individual building, but there's a harmonious colour palette across the whole layout. The buildings belong together."
"Consistency in style is so important to making the scenery believable," added Felicity. "If each building is coloured and detailed without reference to the others, then it just looks like a random collection of separate models rather than a miniature version of the real world."
"OK, high track standards to let the trains run," retorted Paul, "but not for the scenery."
"Would you accept a new car with one door a slightly different shade from the rest?" Fred enquired sarcastically. "Of course, we'll assume that it runs perfectly."
"No way," Paul retorted. "Quality Control should have spotted it before it left the factory."
"Then why should the quality control for the colouring of a model railway be any different?" Fred snapped.
"Do I detect a case of the two E's?" enquired Graham. "Some modellers are Embarrassed they can't create buildings like the acknowledged masters. Some become Envious that anybody can build models like that. Denying that quality matters is just their way of rationalising their impatience, incompetence, inability to improve, unwillingness to try, ….."
Sensing rising tempers, the chairman quickly intervened. "It's fitness-for-purpose that really matters," he advised. "If it does the job, then it's good enough. The quality of modelling and running that you accept at home is up to you. It's a different matter when you exhibit. The public has paid good money to get in and they expect high quality. Displaying layouts built by folk that aspire to the mediocre is a form of insult that does nothing to enhance the status of the hobby." Now who could disagree with that?
4. On talking to the public
The other week, Fred and his wife Jane were recounting their recent visit to the Skelham show. They'd found it most unfriendly event.
"The exhibitors totally ignored us," Jane explained. "They cowered behind the back scenes or just kept their eyes on their trains. No conversation. No eye contact. No recognition that we were even there."
"It was as if the entire show was put on so that they could operate the layouts," Fred added. "The visiting public was a irrelevance."
"For many of them, it's the only chance they get," Peter apologised on their behalf. "Especially the larger club layouts. They've got to concentrate on what they are doing."
"Didn't they have any familiarisation, training or rehearsal sessions?" Bill enquired, but nobody took up the point.
"I saw something similar at the Salchester embroidery show," Felicity commented. "Stall holders who engaged the audience were making sales. The reticent ones didn't. I don't know how some of them sold enough to cover their expenses."
"But we're not selling anything," retorted Paul, "so the comparison's invalid."
"But we are in the selling business," Felicity insisted. "At exhibitions, we're selling railway modelling as a wonderful hobby. So we've got to be pro-active when dealing with our audience."
"Not all of us are outgoing types," Nigel complained. "You can't expect me to talk to the public." There was an outburst of laughter. Nigel looked puzzled. We all knew that as soon as someone, anybody, even a total stranger, mentioned anything about the Peak District or the 1950s, we could be sure that Nigel would launch forth on his favourite subject. However, it was not so much a gentle conversation, more a one-sided torrent of information.
"Some years ago I saw a chap operating a very simple rural terminus at the Dewcliffe Show," said Bill. "Low-level baseboard, minimal backscene, no proscenium. He explained in simple terms what was going on. Talked about how real railwaymen ordered wagons in a train and shunted them with minimal to-ing a fro-ing. He involved the audience by asking them what they thought was going to happen next and why, following prototype practice. Held their attention far longer than some of the highly detailed layouts. Many were reluctant to move on. He really knew how to work an audience."
"But that's just showmanship," retorted Paul.
"Exactly," exclaimed Fred. "What's wrong with that? It's showmanship that distinguishes an excellent layout from a good one."
"Just pandering to the ignorant," Peter scoffed.
"Not everybody is an expert," observed Graham. "It's understanding what audiences want. Entertaining them. Educating them. Making them want to come back year after year."
"It shows that we're sensible, rational, articulate human beings not just a bunch of boring anoraks," Bill added. "The hobby needs all the positive image it can get."
"That's what we want," commented the chairman. "Lots of satisfied customers who'll come again next year. They might even take up the hobby and join us." And who could disagree with that?
5. On loads
There was a heated disagreement about loads the other week. Bill insisted that on the club layout all visible loads should removable.
"Those coal wagons come into the yard full and must leave empty," he insisted, "otherwise it isn't prototypical."
"But we haven't got time to fiddle with lots of bits and pieces," rejoined Adrian.
"Did you see the children's layout at the Whirtleborough Show?" asked Felicity. "Nothing special, just an oval of track, a central backscene, and a station with a siding on each side. The kids were loading livestock, boxes and crates, taking them to the other station and unloading them. They were having a whale of time."
"You mean loading and unloading was part of the fun," asked an incredulous Dan.
"Yes," Felicity replied. "Lots of people don't realise that this is what happens in the real world. It's good public education."
"We could make freight-handling a feature rather than a chore," Jim suggested. Perhaps he thought that would justify bogie tank wagons being pulled by his Caley Single.
"That's what railways were built for," announced Graham, as if he were the only person with that insight. "It's something that the builders and operators of model railways often ignore."
"Exactly," Fred responded. "Each type of wagon should carry an appropriate load, just like the real thing."
"Wouldn't it be more like the real thing if each type of load had an appropriate wagon?" Graham enquired "After all, it was the freight being offered that dictated the types and design of wagons."
"Which ever way round, it would need lots of loads," retorted Adrian. "Cost a fortune."
"Not necessarily," advised Graham. "As a rule-of-thumb and roughly speaking, only half the wagons are loaded at any one time. If loads are passed quickly between fiddle yards, you don't need as many as there are wagons of each type. As far as cost is concerned, many loads can be made from scrap, like bits of sprue, plastic off-cuts, remains of brass frets, lolly and rocket sticks. That sort of thing. You've just got to keep your eyes open and use a little lateral thinking."
"I've collected information about the loads that went through the western Peak District in the spring of 1956," Nigel volunteered. Nigel has lot of information about the western Peak District in the spring of 1956. And don't we all know it!
"But removable loads can't be properly chained or roped down," complained Fred. "That's not prototypical."
"But it's a matter of compromise," Bill argued. "Which is more noticeable - a load that comes into a goods yard and unrealistically leaves on the same wagon, or a few ropes missing?"
But before we came to blows, the Chairman steeped in. With a knowing smile he offered a compromise. Open wagons that might stop in the yard would have removable loads, while through traffic and covered vans would have theirs permanently in place. Who could disagree with that?
6. On Exhibition Performance
Following our visit to the Barton Bridge show, we got round to talking about the different styles in which layouts are presented at exhibitions. We went over all the usual ground - baseboard height, backscene, proscenium and operator position. We agreed that each permutation of options had its advantages and disadvantages. And then our discussion moved to non-layout aspects.
"What really annoys me is the behaviour of some of those behind the layouts," said Felicity. "Things like T-shirts with risqué slogans. If parents have to worry about what their children might see blazoned across some youth's chest, then they'll think twice about coming to another show."
"What gets me is operators looking so miserable," added Nigel. "It gives the impression that they're bored. And if that's the case, then why should visitors be interested in their layout? If they aren't enthusiastic, why exhibit?" And just for once he did not mention the western Peak District in the spring of 1956!
Backstage visitors distracting operators and disrupting the action was Graham's choice for condemnation, while Jim nominated off-duty operators ostentatiously reading the paper or noisily munching crisps and biscuits.
"But they're all irrelevant," chided Paul. "Nothing to do with running trains."
"No matter how well the trains run, if what goes on behind the layout distracts people from watching them, then surely it does matter," Bill insisted.
"So you want hidden operators, do you?" Paul demanded.
"Oh no, not necessarily" Bill responded. "Just ones that appreciate that their role is more than just flicking switches and twiddling control knobs. They're ambassadors for the hobby and should act accordingly."
"Professionally?" Nigel suggested.
"But we're not paid," Peter snapped. "Visitors to shows must recognise that we are all volunteers and make allowances."
"That's not an excuse for sloppiness and slapdash in presentation or operation" Felicity retorted. "It's a matter of attitude. Remember that harbour layout? One of the operators must have taken about fifty moves to carry out a simple six-wagon shunt. From what he said he obviously thought it was quite an achievement. There were far better ways to shunt the stock. So why was he so pleased? I guess he and his fellow club members just couldn't care about the quality of their performance. Very unprofessional."
"Quality of performance!" Paul exclaimed "That's management-speak, not part of a hobby. You'll be wanting all operators to have certificates for sartorial elegance and manual competence."
"Exactly," said Fred. "And why not? Some operating teams already do this. It's all a matter of standards. If we want our hobby to be taken seriously then quality of presentation matters. What you wear, how you behave and your dealings with the audience are just as important as your model-making, driving skill and prowess at shunting."
"I think Fred's point is worth considering," interrupted the chairman. Who could disagree with that?
“It had looked so good in the magazine article, but the shed was totally black,” he complained, “and the station wasn’t much better. Most disappointing. It was like watching one of those tv plays where everything takes place at night. More like listening to the radio.”
“But that’s how it was in 1948,” explained Paul. For his age, he remembers such things surprisingly well.
“Exactly,” agreed Fred, who had a far better chance of recalling it because, unlike Paul, he had had at least been born before the year in question. “All that dust, ash and soot made engine sheds particularly grimy places.”
“But things were really difficult to see,” Adrian insisted, “even though there was plenty of light. It looked as thought they’d hurriedly sprayed the entire layout with coal-black paint.” We all smiled, as Adrian is well known a modeller for whom impatience wins over finesse.
“It’s all to do with the perception of colour,” Felicity suggested. “Colour changes with viewing distance.”
“Rubbish!” snorted Peter. “Coal is always black.”
“Not all the time,” Felicity replied. “When it’s in your hand, it is indeed black. If it’s dust, then it’s matt black. If it’s in lumps, then some of the faces catch the light and are shiny. So that adds some white to the overall colour.”
“White coal?” exclaimed an incredulous Dan. “Never heard of white coal! Is it smokeless?”
“Reflected light gives it a just-off black shade,” Felicity continued. “It’s not even dark grey. But a distant pile of coal certainly isn’t pure black. I usually add a tiny touch of khaki drab just to take the edge off.”
“There’s nothing so realistic as real coal in a loco’s tender,” Paul insisted.
“Except that it sticks out,” Felicity asserted. “Its colour says ‘You’re close enough to touch me’ whereas the arm’s length plus that is normal viewing distance represents a hundred feet or more, especially in the smaller scales. There’s a visual conflict between the distance of the coal and the bunker or wagon it’s supposed to be in.”
“Sheds are still filthy places,” Paul insisted. “If they are going to be modelled realistically they should be dark.”
“It’s not just a matter of scale distances,” said Graham. “There’s another aspect. Do you remember taking photographs with film? To get a good photograph, like those in the article, you adjust the aperture and shutter speed to take into account the lighting conditions. If the photo were underexposed, then you couldn’t get much detail. Since our eyes work in real time, we can’t use the time exposures trick to harvest enough light from dull subjects to see the detail. So I think you have to adjust the intensity of the colours we paint our models to match the sensitivity of our eyes at normal viewing distance.”
As he took Dan home after the meeting, the chairman had great difficulty explaining that white coal didn’t really exist, unless you were an artist. And who would disagree with that?
8. What type of show visitor are you?
“Some will totally ignore you,” he commented, “while others think you should stop the trains and give them your undivided attention for half an hour.”
We quickly divided the visiting public into six types. The appreciative made us feel good, even if they weren’t very knowledgeable. We respected the truly knowledgeable. They were often the most polite and encouraging, gently proffering, if we wanted it, information, suggestions and advice in ways that neither caused offence nor belittled the accomplishments of the builders and operators.
The inquisitive didn’t want to listen to the answers whereas the enquiring did most carefully. The meddlesome were simply an annoyance, always trying to help by imparting unnecessary advice, straightening fencing that was intentionally built as broken, and spontaneously attempting to re-rail stock that had not come off the track.
And then there were the critical – the loud-mouthed, opinionated, self-appointed arbiters of accuracy and excellence. Graham recounted an exchange he overheard at the Wraybury show.
“That locomotive never ran with a close-riveted tender,” announced one spectator, pleased that his eagle eye and encyclopaedic knowledge were being put to full and very public use.
“So what?” asked the owner. “We don’t have a problem.”
“I do. Tender’s wrong.”
“I’ve got a smooth-running railway in a believable landscape,” the owner responded “It’s operated in a prototypical manner, a consistent level of detail with no major anachronisms. Isn’t that good enough for you?”
“But that loco has an incorrect tender,” insisted the critic. “I’ve studied the whole class. I know what I’m talking about. I’ve not come here to see rubbish masquerading as an accurate model of a railway.”
“If you don’t like it, then go to another layout,” retorted the operator, finding difficulty in containing himself.
“I’ve not paid to come here just to be insulted,” was the swift retort.
“I’ll refund your admission,” said the exhibitor, “then I can insult you as much as I want.” The critic was taken aback. He was even more shocked when another visitor quietly pointed out a classic photo of the loco on a nearby display. The tender attached to it was indeed close-riveted.
“Some folk are very appreciative of the effort that has gone into creating the layout,” Felicity responded. “It’s great when they say ‘Thank you. Very good layout,’ and ‘This is most interesting.’ It gives me a great buzz.”
“A few words of praise never came amiss,” observed the chairman. “Perhaps we should all say something positive to the operators before we leave any layout. Let’s try it at the next show we go to, shall we?” And who could disagree with that?
George had been a loyal, kind and thoughtful member of the club since it was founded until his death about a year ago. He never had a layout of his own, but was always willing to lend a hand, be it construction, exhibiting, providing advice and encouragement, or simply making the tea. He was a true craftsman and most members treasured something that George had built specially for them.
We knew that George had a collection of model railway items. There were raw materials, components and an extensive collection of tools. But it was only as we unpacked the larger boxes that we realised its extent and quality.
“Hey, look at this!” exclaimed Fred, as he opened a pristine Bassett-Lowke box to reveal a mint 20 volt Gauge 1 locomotive, complete with instructions and guarantee. This’ll be worth a pretty penny.” We now realised that, as well as being an excellent practical modeller, George had been an astute collector and secret connoisseur.
“I don’t think Alice has the slightest idea of what he had or its value,” Ken commented. “As far a she was concerned, model railways were just toys that gave lots of pleasure but were worth nothing. She wants them to go to a good home where they will be put to use. She told me that George derived great happiness from his membership of the club and she wants to give us something in return.”
While some of us were grateful for Alice’s generosity and lost in admiration of the vintage models, Peter and Paul were furtively stashing away items before the rest of us had had a chance to examine them.
“We want them for our layouts,” they explained sheepishly.
“Of course,” said the treasurer. “But first we must make a list, and estimate their value. Then we’ll decide which will be retained for club use and the rest can be offered for sale.” It was agreed that we’d we put out the magazines at shows, giving them away to good homes in exchange for a donation to our favourite charity.
But then we started thinking the other way round – about what will happen to our own models.
“I remember having to take down a layout,” Graham observed. “It was supposed to be dismantle-able, but we couldn’t see how it came to pieces. In the end we had to rip it apart. We started finding bolts hidden underneath easily removable huts, ballast bins and little scenic feature like that. Only then could we see how the whole layout was intended to split into sections. But the damage was done. We recovered what we could, but …” And he sighed.
“What a pity there wasn’t a book of instructions to help you dismantle and re-assemble it,” Fred commented.
“Yes indeed,” the chairman observed. “Perhaps we should leave our survivors a clearly marked file. Nothing elaborate. Just guidance as to the most precious items and who to contact for advice on their value and sale.” Who could disagree with that?
10. What Does It Cost?
The other week we got round to talking about the cost of railway modelling. The initial hypothesis was that while four millimetre and smaller scales was affordable, seven mil and above were far too costly for most modellers.
“I was near an 0-gauge trader at last year’s Salchester show,” Paul announced, hoping to clinch the argument. “A guy handed over four and a half grand. And all he got was a small tank loco and three six-wheel coaches. Now that’s expensive.”
“But consider the ratio of volumes,” suggested Graham. “The 0-gauge model is just over five times the bulk of a 00 model.”
“How do you get that?” Paul enquired in a how-dare-you-contradict-me tone.
“It’s seven cubed, divided by four cubed,” Graham answered. “Three hundred and forty-three divided by sixty-four.” Graham can do such calculations in his head, so we took his word for it.
“Take the costs,” he continued. “For 00, a typical wagon kit will cost you about a fiver. For 0, it’ll be twenty-five pounds. And there’s usually far more detail provided as standard. I’d say it was very good value.”
“You can only fit two standard wagons in a foot of 0-gauge siding, but you’ll need at least three for 00,” Bill added. “So you don’t need as many to fill up a baseboard.”
“But the locos are expensive, even the kits are more than five times their 00-gauge equivalent,” Peter observed. “Ready-to-run, it’s thousands, as Paul said.”
“I know a chap who models in 0-gauge,” said Ken. “He thinks nothing of spending three fifty on the bits for a loco.”
“Fine if you’ve got that sort of cash,” Adrian said.
“Well, yes and no,” Ken continued. “His locos cost three pounds and fifty pence.”
“You what?” Adrian gasped. “How does he do that?”
“He uses second-hand 00 mechanisms and re-gauges them,” was the explanation. “Then he builds up the body from plasticard and scrap.”
“They can’t be much good,” Peter sneered.
“They aren’t super-detailed, but they are accurate representations of the chosen prototypes,” Ken continued. “And they run well. They run very well. And they’re tough. So tough that the chap is quite happy for the public to drive his trains at exhibitions.”
“That’s more than some people do,” someone commented quietly. Peter is always telling people how to run their models railways but hasn’t got his own layout running yet.
“What about the costs of other hobbies?” Fred asked. “What’s the price of a pint?
“About one-fifty,” was the reply.
“So two pints three times a week costs four-fifty a year. And what do you get?”
“Happy times, a small hangover and a big beer-belly?” Graham suggested.
“Model trains last for years and give far more pleasure to many more people,” said Fred.
“Of course,” said the chairman. “That’s why it’s such a great hobby.” And who would disagree with that?
11. Visiting the Colonel
Ken was telling us about his holiday. He’d been to stay with his sister-in-law, her husband and family, in a part of the country that was beautiful but totally devoid of active railways. Even the former infrastructure had been totally destroyed. We expressed our collective sympathy.
“Phil said that I’d had been invited to meet the Colonel. I feared we were in for an evening with some twittering old fool, but he had a model railway,” Ken continued with growing excitement, “and it was fantastic. I’ve never seen anything like it. Two main line termini, suburban stations, county town, junctions and rural branches. The scenery was basic but adequate. The stock wasn’t super-detailed but it ran reliably. The whole layout was great to operate.”
“Sounds expensive,” observed Peter, who may not have actually started to buy anything for his model of Granary-St-Mary.
“Too big to maintain,” suggested Paul, who apparently can’t even get his one-platform modern image branch line to work.
“It was started by the Colonel’s father in the fifties,” Ken explained. “It’s been modified, upgraded and expanded a bit at a time ever since. The Colonel’s son is going to continue the family tradition.”
“How boring,” Paul observed. “The same layout for over fifty years.”
“There were signal boxes that worked the signals,” Ken continued, ignoring the comment. “That’s quite unusual for a model railway. They were all connected by bells, block instruments and phones. There was even a District Controller who phoned through wanting reports on the progress of trains and issuing orders.
“No scope for initiative then?” Jim said. “Simply following instructions doesn’t require any imagination.”
“Plenty of scope for both imagination and initiative,” Ken countered. “Each signalman had to decide how he was going to solve, in a prototypical manner, the problems caused by conflicting train paths, especially when trains were running out of course.”
“There was the Colonel’s usual band of operators. They knew what they were doing. I just about managed to control a station on the branch line, but only with lots of help from the regulars. There was a timetable. We had to make sure the passenger trains made their booked connections and that vans and milk tanks were correctly attached and detached. The wagons went between specified goods yard and factory sidings carrying designated loads, just like the real thing.”
“Exactly,” Fred observed. “Isn’t that what modelling railways is all about? Trying to recreate in miniature the workings of a real railway.”
“By the end of the evening I was exhausted but elated,” Ken reflected. “Great camaraderie. I can well see why the other chaps are so keen to attend. Some of them had travelled thirty miles or more to be there. And then they had another thirty or more to get back home. An absolutely marvellous experience.”
“It just goes to show,” said the chairman, “that a model doesn’t have to be fully scenic or super-detailed to provide challenging, enjoyable and worthwhile operation. Perhaps we should adopt the same principles ourselves.” Now who could disagree with that?
12. Are you a secret modeller?
Ken has a theory that the our village is full of secret railway modellers. He’s spotted clues. The Ratio box hiding in a bin bag. A short length of flexible sleepering lying in mud. A show programme secreted in the waste paper skip. Other club members had also noted similar signs of model railways. None of these are from children toys.
“The magazines don’t stay on the newsagent’s shelf for very long,” volunteered Peter. “Somebody must be buying them. And it’s not just us.”
“They ought to make themselves known,” announced Paul. We laughed. He keeps his railway totally under wraps. No club member has ever seen his layout or even a single item intended for it. It’s so secret we’re not even sure that it exists.
“It’s almost as if they didn’t want folks to know about their hobby,” Jim suggested.
“Exactly,” Fred agreed. “It’s always been like that. I’ve got magazines from the early part of last century where authors only used pseudonyms. They were afraid that if their identity were revealed, they would be ridiculed by their friends, ostracised by their neighbours and thought unsuitable for promotion by their employers.”
“It’s not like that now,” said Nigel. “I don’t mind who knows I’m a modeller. I’ll discuss railways with anybody.” We all smiled. Nigel talks to everybody about railways, especially if it is modelling the western Peak District in the spring of 1956.
“I think we should be proud of what we do,” Graham added. “We’re maintaining a rich and honourable heritage, practising and developing a range of crafts. Why, supplying its needs is a major cottage industry.”
“Perhaps we should keep watch at the newsagents,” Dan suggested. “Stage a stake-out on the days they’re published.” The rest of us laughed. Can you imagine any of us looking unobtrusive while peering round the carousel of picture postcards?
“We should expose the closet railway modellers,” added Adrian, warming to the idea. “Circulate lists and things.”
“What, ‘outing’ them, like homosexuals were during the seventies and eighties?” Felicity asked.
“In the long run, that’s meant that people now accept a range of sexual orientations as being unremarkable,” Jim observed. “People should treat railway modelling as just another normal hobby.”
“If you can have festivals like Gay Pride why not festivals of Railway Modelling Pride?” Bill suggested.
“We do,” Nigel exclaimed. “They’re called exhibitions.”
“Ah, but the press always take the line that we’re just big boys playing with children’s toys, rather than practising a serious artistic craft,” Ken commented. “The way they portray us is so far from the truth and it gives the hobby a poor image.”
“Changing public attitudes is a slow process,” the chairman advised. “The best we can do is to keep our ears open, talk sensibly to those that want to listen, invite along anybody that shows an interest, and make them welcome when they come to an exhibition or a club meeting.” And who could disagree with that?
13. Getting Trained
Graham was trying to enlarge the operating team for the club’s 4mm scale layout, but was receiving no support from some club members.
“I’m not going to operate that layout,” said Paul. “You’ve made the control panel far too complicated.”
“It’s not complicated,” Graham retorted. “It’s just that there are lots of switches. If you want it simpler, then you’ll be limited to just one locomotive on the entire system at any one time. That’s going to be really boring to drive and doesn’t make best use of the track. It’ll be rather like Peter’s railway.”
“I’ve gone for practical simplicity, “ Peter retorted defensively, “whereas you’ve made the control panel unnecessarily confusing.”
“From what I’ve heard, your layout is so simple that it’s just a single line to a single platform,” Jim chided. “It’d turn-off the public if you ever exhibited it.” This really upset Peter.
“If you think on-off and two-way centre-off switches are complicated, then how come you manage to drive your car?” Graham continued. “It’s got switches, knobs and push-buttons all over the dashboard. And then there are at least six functions on just one of the arms behind the steering wheel.”
“They’re all necessary,” Paul insisted. “It’s what’s expected of a top-of-the-range model.”
“How many do you use frequently?” Bill enquired.
“Not many,” was Paul’s reply, “but they’re all needed at one time or another.”
“Then think of the club layout as a high specification model,” Jim suggested. ”Some switches are used frequently, but they’re all needed at one time or another to provide prototypical operation and the flexibility to entertain the audience.”
“Your car and the layout both use twelve volts DC and many colours of wire,” Adrian joined in. “The critical difference is that your car has only one engine, whereas on the layout several can be controlled at the same.”
“I don’t think it’s that easy,” observed Felicity. “It’s a matter of familiarity. I hate changing to a new car because the switches are not in the same places.”
“But when you get a new car, you get to know where they are, don’t you?” Paul asked.
“Well, yes,” Felicity agreed, “over time, for most of them.”
“Exactly,” said Fred. “Over time. People who operate at exhibitions must make the time to learn the layout before hand. It’s rather like learning to drive a car. We all take at least twenty hours to acquire the basic skills and much longer to become truly competent. Even changing from one vehicle to another takes time. It annoys me when folk turn up to operate at shows and they aren’t familiar with the controls or the operating procedures because they haven’t bothered to practise them.”
“Would it be a good idea if we had regular training sessions for the exhibition teams and those who want to join them?” the chairman asked. We all agreed ... But it remains to be seen how many will turn up and take rehearsals seriously.
14. Train Simulation
Nigel popped into the club-room last week. We hadn’t seen him for several weeks and were beginning to wonder why. He explained that he’d been spending too much time driving a railway simulation on his computer to do any serious modelling.
“It’s great,” he enthused. “I can drive a train along the Midland line from Derby to Manchester Central.” The rest of us smiled. The railways of the Peak District are his speciality, especially in the spring of 1956. “There’s only one thing wrong with it,” he continued. “I can’t get it to do a single train in …”
“… the spring of 1956,” we all chanted in chorus, and fell about laughing.
“How did you know that?” he asked, highly puzzled. And we laughed even more.
“Ah, but is computer simulation really railway modelling?” Adrian asked. “Will it take over from laying track, creating scenery and building locomotives?”
“I doubt it,” was Jim’s reply. “Think of all those car rally video games. They haven’t stopped youths from wanting to learning to drive and then racing round like maniacs.”
“But can they service their cars, diagnose faults and cure them?” Bill asked. “Can they recognise problems from changes in engine noise. Could they build a kit car?”
We agreed that one of the many pleasures of railway modelling was the physical process of converting raw materials, components and kits into three-dimensional rolling stock, realistic buildings and believable landscape.
“You can’t do that with a computer,” Ken pointed out. “Unlike virtual reality, what you’ve built doesn’t disappear when you switch off.”
“It’s just a different medium with which to create an illusion of reality,” Felicity suggested. “Instead of metal, plastic and electrons you use hardware, software and electrons.”
“Exactly,” Fred said. “But if you only drive the simulation, then it’s operating without building. Just playing with somebody else’s train set. Now the really constructive part is writing the computer program. That’s not a task any of us can do.”
“It’s a bit like using a cab-view from a model” Graham commented. “Has anybody tried driving a train with simulated inertia when only watching the screen?”
We’d all seen cab-view monitors at exhibitions but nobody had practical experience of controlling one of these layouts. We guessed that driving from the cab was probably harder than it appeared, especially getting the train to stop in exactly the right place.
“I don’t think computer simulations or cab-tv are at all relevant to real railway modelling,” Paul announced dogmatically. “A complete waste of time and money. I see no point in trying them.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” the chairman cautioned. “I think they both have their place. After I tried a simulation, I really appreciated the expertise of the drivers who do it for real and it made me think about how I should drive my model locos in a more prototypical way. And I hope you’ll agree, that’s only a good thing.”
15. The quality of shows.
It had been a busy weekend for shows. Club members had a choice of four in the region. Some had been to all of them. And there had been a lot of news and gossip passed on.
“Did you know the Plonkton lot won’t visit any model railway show that isn’t run by a genuine model railway club, let alone exhibit at one,” Bill observed.
“Ah,” Fred said. “They’re worried that non-specialist organisers will put on sub-standard shows that give the public wrong ideas of what modern railway modelling is all about.”
“That’s quite true,” Jim commented. “I once went to a show organised on behalf of a youth club. There was some dire stuff. I overheard one operator boasting to another that they’d actually got the bottom circuit running. It seems the layout had been in a garden shed for the previous seven years and was covered in cobwebs when they brought it in. I could see that they hadn’t got rid of all the spiders. They were the only things that moved on the upper level. Now that really does give railway modelling a bad name.”
“But not all non-club shows are rubbish,” countered Ken. “Think of the show at Nether Hamblins. The chap that runs it is no railway modeller, but he visits dozens of shows each year and recognises a good layout when he sees one. He’s never booked a duff layout yet. That’s why his shows are popular and raise so much money for charity.”
“Nether Hamblins is a great show,” Graham agreed. “It’s hard to get in, it’s so packed. And I’ve been to some club shows that were pathetic.”
“So what should we do about these poor shows?” Paul asked. “These are the ones that let the hobby down, give us a poor public image.”
“Let’s get the Plonkton club to exhibit one their superb layouts,” Peter suggested, “then the these amateur organisers will see what a quality layout really is.”
“But would they recognise one if they saw it?” Felicity asked. “Who would take the time to explain the difference between good and bad exhibits.”
“Would the organisers want to listen in the first place? They might even be offended,” cautioned Bill.
“But it might raise public expectations,” Paul suggested. “That would put pressure on the organisers of sub-standard shows.”
“There’s a code of practice for 0-gauge kits,” Peter observed. “Perhaps there should be one for model railway shows. Organisers of non-compliant shows wouldn’t get the seal of approval.”
“Ah!” exclaimed Adrian. “Can we expect calls from Trading Standards officers, surprise visits by the Model Railway Inspectorate, raids the miniature Gestapo?”
“Shouldn’t the Regional Federation do more?” Paul suggested. “ Circulate explanations for organisers, sponsors, exhibitors and visiting public on what constitutes good practice. Put up posters at shows. Write to editors of local papers. That sort of stuff.”
“I don’t think it really matter who organises shows” the chairman mused, “provided they have quality exhibits that are well presented.” It’s up to us to compliment good shows and tactfully suggest improvements to the organisers of poor ones.” Now who could disagree with that?
16. Extending The Layout
Last week, the 00-group were basking in their successful trip to the Mucklesworth exhibition. They proudly displayed their trophy for ‘Best in Show’ and gleefully listed the well-known layouts that they had beaten.
“We’ve now got plans to extend the layout,” Adrian excitedly announced.
“Oh, dear,” commented Graham. “That could spoil a good display that is rightly popular with the public.”
“It’ll make it more like a real railway,” Adrian retorted. “Bring it closer to scale length.”
“But scale length isn’t always a good thing,” Graham continued. “It depends what you do within that additional length.” He explained that as layouts increase in size, so it takes longer for a train to leave the fiddle yard, traverse the scenic section and re-enter its fiddle track. This can make for a boring performance for the viewing public, though the operators don't recognise this as they are involved full-time in driving the train for the whole circuit.
“There are ways round that,” Paul interjected. “The following train can leave the fiddle yard once the previous one is in public view. That gives a rapid succession of trains.”
“And no end of a head-ache for the operators endeavouring to maintain that intensity of traffic hour after hour,” Bill cautioned.
“There are better ways to keep thing moving in front of the public,” Fred counselled. Someone suggested quadruple tracks and another a station with shunting.
“That’s two ways,” Fred replied. “What about loops to hold slower trains while a faster ones overtakes them? A slower train can set off as soon as the previous one is back in the fiddle yard. Because the faster train is out of sight, it doesn’t seem odd that the slower one pulls away well before the one in front could be expected to have safely passed the next signal box. And because it’s accelerating only slowly, there is plenty of time for the fiddle-yard operators to deal with both trains.”
“It’ll be best if the extension has features that generates additional traffic,” Graham advised, “rather than just increasing the length of plain track between the station and the scenic break.”
“Nothing of operational excitement ever happens between the distant signal and the outer home,” Jim agreed, forgetting that present day railways aren’t always semaphore signalled. “It’s just a length of track that trains have to cover.”
“It’s rather like a tv drama,” Graham observed. “The key incidents follow each other fairly quickly, with the long periods between them either totally ignored or taken up with a different story-line. Isn’t this how we should build and operate our models? A long layout requires several centres of operational interest if it is to satisfy the public.”
Before things got too heated, the chairman intervened. He pointed out that any proposal would have to go before the committee and be approved at the AGM. “Audience interest is an important consideration in any layout intended for public exhibition. Let’s see what the 00-team come up with and then judge it on its merits.” And everybody agreed with that.
17. Involving the public.
A few weeks ago, we got round to talking about the opportunities for people to become actively involved when they visited a model railway exhibition.
“Adults don’t want to get involved” was Peter’s instant opinion. “They are unsure of their own competence and afraid of making fools of themselves in public.” The rest of us smiled. Peter often tells us what we should do, but hasn’t yet got the courage to do it himself on his Granary-St-Mary layout.
“Some layout presenters are very good at involving the public,” Bill observed. “I once saw a guy with a simple shunting layout. He explained how and why shunting was carried out and invited children and their parents to join in by working the point levers. His stentorian tones carried and it wasn’t long before every exhibitor in the entire hall knew he was working the audience for all he was worth.”
“ ‘Alex pull on your lever, Chloe push, Mum push’, he would call out as he directed operations. And periodically there were cheers and applause when families got all the wagons in the correct sidings. One wag suggested that with all this ‘Mum push’ stuff, it sounded a bit like a maternity ward.”
“Though some of the serious exhibitors didn’t like it,” Bill continued, “he was certainly getting whole families interested, involved and hence excited in railway operations. As the purists tut-tutted, perhaps it was they who should have considered how effective they were at convincing any generation that this hobby is for them.”
“I’ve seen a layout that represents the terminus of a light railway,” Jane commented. “There with a succession of mixed trains to reverse, drop off incoming wagons and pick up others. There was work for two visitors, one as driver and the other as signalman. People were having a wonderful time, under the strict guidance of the presenter. While shunting proceeded, he explained railway operations, such as why the vacuum-braked coach had to be next to the locomotive and the purpose of the guard’s van at the rear of the train. Many in his audience left with a much improved understanding of real railways.”
“Some youngsters are better operators than adults,” was Fred’s contribution. “I saw one layout where a lad of about nine or ten was directing operations. The other operators, some many times his age, were obeying his instructions. Their conversations showed that they were treating him as an equal, at least as far as running trains were concerned. I thought it was a lovely situation.”
“But will he stay as a modeller?” Paul asked, dismissively.
“Who knows,” Felicity replied, “and does it matter really? The happy memory of time spent working as a successful team will remain with him for many years. Whatever hobbies he has later in life, I bet he’ll grow up with a far more positive attitude towards co-operation and the older generations than the standard estate hoodie.”
“The best shows for me are the ones where I finish up helping to work a layout,” Ken observed.
“Isn’t that what shows are all about?” the chairman enquired. “Engaging with the public. If we want our great hobby to have a future, public involvement has to be designed-in, not an after-thought or just left to chance. ” And who could disagree with that?
18. Are you consistent?
The other week we got round to talking about presentation. Fred had been describing an 0-gauge layout at the Carters Barr show. It had been built by a chap widely respected for his practical skill and excellent articles on the construction of prize-winning locomotives.
“The locos were of museum quality,” Fred enthused. “They were immaculate. Each was transported in a custom-built velvet-lined box and only handled with gloves. The coaches were OK, but the goods wagons were scruffy. Many had bits missing. Not surprising really, as they were kept loose in a dilapidated cardboard box.”
“The track-work had the merest scattering of ballast,” Jane said, continuing the theme of censure. “Grass was simply lumps of day-glow green foam, and the backscene was just a gaudy daub. I couldn’t believe it was all built by the same person.”
“No consistency of standard,” Fred concluded. “Great pity. Great pity.”
“But not everybody can be good at all aspects of the hobby,” Paul said, providing a defence.
“He should have got an artist to do it for him,” was Peter’s remedy.
“Perhaps he wants it to be his layout,” Bill suggested, “all his own work, rather than a team effort.”
“I’ve no problem with that,” Paul continued.
“But why inflict layouts with really sub-standard aspects on the public?” Jane asked. “If his only interest is in locomotives, why not run them on bare track?”
“The track-bed could be a neutral colour, the sky too,” Fred suggested. “Both could be shades that set of the locos to best advantage, rather than having attention diverted by crude and garish scenery.”
“But is bare track a model railway? “ Bill asked.
“Perhaps not,” Fred agreed, “but then again, perhaps it is. It’s like art. Sketches by the masters are not completed paintings, but they can beautiful, instructive and inspirational. Some command high prices. Surely a display of moving locomotives can be viewed in the same way. After all, its just one stage up from display cases of competition models, and we’ve no problem with them. At least it proves the quality of running, rather than the possibility that the model is just a good paint job on a duff body.”
“Then there are the people who only build layouts,” Felicity observed. “They’re not that bothered about running them. They’re happiest when doing the scenic details.”
“And what about those rich folk who have everything build to commission,” Paul asked, with a touch of disdain. “Are they true railway modellers, or just people who like to have a model railway?”
“If what they have had built and the way they operate their system follow prototype practice,” Ken answered, “then as far as I’m concerned, they’re true railway modellers.”
“People can concentrate on whatever ever aspects of railway modelling most pleases them,” the chairman observed, “but I think it would be a good idea if they though carefully about how best to display their efforts when showing them in public.” Now who could disagree with that?
19. Trains for Children
There were mutterings the last week about the lack of recruits to railway modelling. Several reasons were suggested. But the general impression given by shows featured highly in the ensuing conversation.
“We’ve got to catch them young,” Bill advised. “But some show organisers seem determined to frighten youngsters away. They book layouts that are far too high for children to see what’s happening. There are no steps or viewing platforms. Then there are the ones where there’s nobody explaining what’s going on in terms the youngsters can understand. And above all, they don’t have anything for them to do.”
“Quite true,” Felicity joined in. “I once saw a layout billed as ‘Thomas for the Children.’ But it was heavily protected behind a security barrier and plastered with stern ‘DON’T TOUCH’ signs. What a way to kill youngsters’ interest and enthusiasm!”
“But children are a nuisance,” Paul retorted. “They can’t keep their hands to themselves. Always putting their sticky fingers on the track, grabbing locos, breaking signals and grubbing up the scenic dressing.”
“Is it because the parents haven’t explained how to behave at an exhibition?” Jim asked.
“I’m sure it’s because most just want to join in,” Felicity replied. “Perhaps a Code of Visitor Conduct should be displayed, or a statement in the programme about exhibition etiquette.”
“We bought a family ticket at Fenleigh St Michael,” Jane reported, but the show wasn’t very family-friendly. On their Thomas layout, our grandson recognised Henry. He was the only loco on view and hadn’t moved for some time. ‘Choo-choo move,’ he called out. But the operator didn’t respond. He then said quite clearly ‘Choo-choo move. Henry move, now. Please.’ But again the operator declined to say or do anything. An opportunity to interact with the audience was lost.”
“Some youngsters are quite knowledgeable,” Fred observed, “even really young ones. I remember another Thomas layout. A little chap, perhaps only three or four years old, asked the operator where Bertie the Bus was.”
“We don’t do road transport,” was the dismissive answer when the operator finally responded to the young enthusiast’s repeated question. It’s not as if Bertie was irrelevant. He was introduced by Rev Awdry quite early in his series of books and has a key role in several of the stories.
“The lad was visibly confused, if not upset, by the operator’s attitude,” Jane added. “He could so easily have given a more positive answer. If only the operator had asked whether they should have a Bertie the Bus on the layout and why he was important.”
“Perhaps there should be layouts clearly set up for kids to operate,” Bill suggested. “If they are happy, then Mum will be pleased it was a family trip. She might even countenance Dad spending some money on a family project. But if the kids are bored, Mum will get agitated and want to be off. Dad won’t have a chance really look at the displays, so he feels frustrated. He won’t have time to buy anything, so the traders will have lost sales. And the family might not attend that or any other show again.”
“We’d better see what we can do at our show,” the chairman observed. And everybody agreed, though it remains to be seen whether this can be translated into opportunities for participation and changes in operator attitude.
20. When Modelling Is Done
Bill seemed quite down when he came into the clubroom the other week. We though he’d suffered bereavement. He just moped about, not showing his usual enthusiasm for anything that was going on.
It took us some time to discover the cause. It was nothing to do with the family. His wife, kids and parents were all in excellent health. It wasn’t work either. He’d just been put in charge of a prestige project, and he’d got a pay-rise to go with it.
“I’ve just completed the last building for my permanent layout at home,” he finally admitted “There’s nothing else left to do.”
“There’s always little details to add,” Felicity suggested, as she tried to jolly him along. “All those people, dogs and cats, sheep and cows, cars and lorries, just caught momentarily resting from their busy lives.” She’s able to add those subtle magic touches that animate a layout, lifts it from the formulaic mundane, and make it a joy to examine closely.
“You’ll be able to concentrate on operation,” Nigel suggested. “Now, I’ve go lots of information about train movements across the …”
“… Western Peak District in May 1956,” we all intoned in chorus before he could finish. While we laughed, Nigel repeated what we had just said, with a puzzled look on his face. He still hasn’t worked out how we know his pet topic of conversation.
“What about a pair of scratch-built 21s,” Graham’s suggested. “They’d be most appropriate for your line. There’s no kit so it’ll take you years to complete them.”
“You’ll have time to build a factory for the club layout,” Ken observed. “We’ve never got enough willing hands, especially for the big buildings.”
“There’ll be no excuse not to finish fitting out the club-room,” Peter joked. But he never seems to have time to start anything, never mind actually complete a task.
“You’ll be able to write articles about it for the magazines,” muttered Paul. He’s always telling people how to do things, though we’ve never seen anything of the stock or layout on which he puts into practice his great fund of knowledge and advice.
“You could do an exhibition quickie,” Adrian advised. We know his ‘quickie’ layouts. They grow rapidly and develop a multitude of problems even faster. We’ve learnt never to have any in our show. Adrian means well, but they’re a series of disasters. Poor chap.
“Fancy being club secretary?” Jim offered. “You’ll be able to set a record for promptness in replying to the club’s invitation to exhibit.” The bane of our secretary is the exhibitor who delays accepting until the last moment, in spite of repeated phone calls, sending reminders and enclosing SAEs.
“To be without a layout under construction is a truly dismal situation,” said Fred, feigning sympathy. “You could always convert it to P4!”
It was Jane who came up with the most sensible suggestion. “You should get out more. Go and look at real railways, both network and preserved. Take the family. You’ll soon find something to inspire you.”
“That’s always relevant to good modelling,” the chairman observed. And we all agreed with him.
22. Believable backscenes?
23. Oddities On Wheels
25. How long is a train?
26. Talking Rubbish
28. Family layouts
29. A load of odd loads