I’ve had a passing interest in model railways since I was about four. One of my earliest memories was visiting a great-uncle, and being taken to an army parade (which I recall as being dreadfully dull, given that 95% of the parade consisted of trucks, and there were far too few tanks for my liking). On returning to his house, he gave me a brochure for Lima Trains.
I must have spent weeks of my life poring over that brochure – from the engines, to the coaches and trucks, and special carriages. But my favourite section was the example track layouts at the back – I dreamed of of making a layout of my own one day.
Fast forward a few decades, and I now know that I’ll probably never make a layout, or have any significant model train holdings apart from the few that my dad passed down to me. But I still enjoy a look at them every now and then. And there are few places better than the Warley National Model Railway Exhibition, which takes place at the NEC in Birmingham each year. This year was the second time that I’d been, but the first that I wasn’t somewhat hampered by having to cater to the conflicting desires of the womenfolk in the family. It was just Alex & me, able to wander around for hours, marvelling at the layouts. The result was that I picked up a lot more on the detail that goes into these things.
The layouts vary significantly, of course – some are tiny, done in Z- or N-gauge, and some are huge, covering up to 70 or 80m². Some are there just to showcase the trains, and don’t have any particular rationale behind the track. Most, though, model a particular section of a real railway. Broadwater Junction, perhaps, or Dovedale Valley. Quite a few pick a station, and model it exactly. As an example, one had photographs displayed showing what the station used to look like in the 50s, before it was closed post-Beecham. The model was an exact replica of the real thing, down to the tufts of grass, the ducks on the river, and the paint on the railings. Speaking of paint, it provided a bit of light relief, while demonstrating the level of obsessive detail the real pundits are willing to go to. Here’s a photo of a booklet which tells you exactly how to paint everything at or near a station.
Similarly, there are booklets on train timetables (yes, some layouts go to the trouble of getting their trains running on the same timetables as would have been the case in real life).
As another example of detailed modelling, there was one of the station in the Welsh town of Corris which I found particularly impressive. For starters, the cottages been built of actual stone, using minature ‘bricks’. Then, some houses that had extensions added had had these built on in a different style, so that the two sets of brickwork could be seen. The photo below (execrable in quality, unfortunately), shows what I mean. The dedication to exactitude required to even consider doing something like this is a feat in itself.
I also love the characters involved. These are people who are passionate about their hobby, and generally love talking about it. They’ve usually spent vast amounts of money, and even more time, painstakingly building up their model over many years. There’s always a conversation on the go when you walk up to a stand. More often than not, it’s some technical detail about exactly what type of track, what system, or which class of locomotive they’re using. Occasionally it’ll be about some level of detail that could be made more precise. Most conversations are animated, enthusiastic, and engaging. But inevitably, you’ll find the occasional obsessed recluse, who’ll sit at his controller, pausing only to stroke his impressive beard, and just control his trains without noticing what’s going on around him. He might, however, be persuaded to converse with you if you point out that you’ve realised that he’s running the trains on his model of Stanhope Station on the revised timetable that was in effect during January of 1953, when engineering works on the northern section of the Weardale Railway meant that the regular Bishop Auckland to Wearhead trains had a revised schedule, but you noticed that the 12:15 to Wearhead left two minutes late, and was that the actual time of departure on one of the days in January, or did he just lose track of the time?
Being someone interested in technology means that there’s an aspect of this which is becoming more interesting these days. The systems used to control the trains and the points are becoming more and more complex. My set at home has an analogue controller, allowing for forward/backward movement, graded from 0 to 5 each way. It only controls one locomotive (fortunately, I have two controllers, so can have two running at once). The Hornby stand at Warley had about 20m2 of layout, with all trains and points controlled by the software running on a laptop. Each loco was individually controllable – could be stopped, started, and have speed controlled (to an exact scale speed, not just a graded scale between Max and Min). There was a sound chip in most of the locos, which allowed for a whistle when appropriate (general rule on when whistles are appropriate: if you’re in doubt, blow the whistle), as well as the sound of the steam engine itself (adjusted, naturally, for the speed). There’s also a fake smoke generator, so that you can control when (and how much) smoke comes out the funnel (allowing for more when the engine is under strain, for example). The software is so intriguing, that I’d be tempted to get it without having trains to play with, just to imagine being in control of the world. But then, Transport Tycoon Deluxe does something similar (sadly, without the whistles), so I guess there’s no need.
Sometimes, a fresh idea emerges. The layout pictured below is an example – it’s a track in a box. The hinges are hidden on a hill and inside the house (the roof shifts so that it is hidden when folded out). There’s a tiny little track, just enough for a particularly remarkable engine. That’s no electric engine – it’s actually powered by a little paraffin-burning flame, which heats up (check on this if possible). In an engine less than two inches long, and about an inch high, that’s a phenomenal level of engineering. As you’d expect given the price – the owner paid £650 for it in 2000. When he spoke of it, you could see the sheer exuberant joy in his eyes of having the privelege of owning such a fantastic piece of machinery.
However, amazing though that is, even that starts to wear a bit thin after you’ve seen 40 or 50 of these. Which has been my experience of model railways up to now – they’re fantastic in small doses, but fatigue sets in after 4 hours, and one has had enough. This time, though, I saw a layout which completely redefines the genre (as they say in the movies). It was small, and contained in a theatre-like box, about 1m cubed. It was a model of a mountain tramway, but with depth built in, so that the journey started right at the front at the station, and ended at the back of the box with the tram disappearing out of sight. The genius of it, though, was that the tram got smaller and smaller as it moved further away. It started as guage O, moved from left to right, and disappeared into a tunnel. When it emerged a little bit further back, it was moving right to left, but as guage OO. It moved behind a rock, and when it emerged, moving left to right, it was further away, and had transformed into guage N. And yes, there was a final stage after a zig-zag in the track where a guage Z model had its moment in the sun.
The setup is childishly simple – four short pieces of track, with an engine that moves back and forward from end to end on each. But the use of different guages, and distance from the viewer, combined with (as usual) an impeccable level of detail, made it absolutely superb. The crowning glory for me was the model of a little boy playing with his own toy train in the foreground, which, naturally, worked as well. It wasn’t so much a model railway layout, as a piece of theatre, telling a story. If you ever get the chance to see it, I’d highly recommend it. It’s called BA Bodil. Throughout the day, there was a crowd of people peering over shoulders to try and get a glimpse. No other layout garnered that level of enthusiasm. Even the few women at the show were enthralled.