Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Ten things I hate about model railways (mostly "N")

  1. Diesel depot layouts.  Almost always post-privatisation, seldom modelled on a real location.  Fifteen brightly coloured RTR diesels with DCC sound, farting and fizzing away like sitting on a train next to someone wearing headphones.  Cold bluish white LEDs glittering bright enough to give you a headache.  Depot layouts have now been done to death, just like GWR branch termini were in the 1970s. No more, please.

  1. Kato Unitrack.  For: robust and well made, reliable, ultra easy to use, ready-ballasted, huge range. Against: looks about as realistic as Triang Series 2.  That had a moulded ballast base as well. Now stop being so lazy, everyone.  It isn’t as if you have to dismantle the layout every day so Mum can put your tea on the table.

  1. Detail packs.  These are the bits that come in a bag with your new loco.  The reason they are supplied separately is that they are too fiddly even for Chinese assembly line workers to cope with.  You won’t see them when they are fitted: but you will see the splodges of Superglue that you used to stop them falling off.

  1. “Optimised for DCC”. Meaning ultra high efficiency motors that have a starting voltage of about 0.8 volts.  So all that good work by the manufacturers fitting extra pickups, high spec coreless motors etc is completely undone because if you are on DC control, you won’t get reliable slow running with less than one volt at the rails, unless you clean the wheels and track every five minutes.

  1. Union Mills. Writing this feels a bit like kicking a faithful old Labrador.  Without Union Mills we wouldn’t have any RTR pre-Grouping goods 0-6-0s at all.  They are inexpensive, robust and run beautifully.  But their designer really needs to buy some better measuring equipment.  Even the ruler from a school geometry set would do.  A tolerance of +/- 2mm on key body dimensions and wheel diameters is not “close enough for N”.  And the ones that aren’t black look as though they have been painted by dipping the bodies in Dulux. Must try harder.

  1. Shoddy design.  Exhibit A: Farish J39.  I liked the look of this so much that I bought three. None of them ran well.  Tender drive with the motor driving one end axle, and power to the other two by a long chain of wobbly, badly moulded plastic gears.  The Germans could have got something like that to work, but Farish – no chance.  I sold one, and the other two now have torque-monster Mashima motors to overcome all the binding and friction in the geartrain.  That works, but it shouldn’t be necessary on a model costing nearly a hundred quid.

  1. Exhibitors who won’t talk to you.  Model railway exhibitions are about showcasing the hobby, not just a chance to run trains all day without the wife pestering you to cut the grass.  Typical conversation with a layout operator:
Me: That ballasting looks really good, what material did you use?
Operator: mmmm.
Me: Nice loco, never seen a model of a GNWSJR Class Y before.  Did you build it yourself?
Operator: no.
Me: Err... well, nice to talk to you. Enjoy the rest of the show. (Wanders off wondering why model railway enthusiasts are so bloody weird.)

  1. NEM coupler pockets in N gauge. The hobby had that one big chance to move N gauge forward by developing a decent universal coupler pocket to take alternatives to the clunky old Arnold coupler. But the job was given to a pan-European committee, and they screwed it up.  That thin flat shank makes it difficult to design an alternative coupler.  The pivoting spring-centred pocket relies on very accurate manufacturing to maintain correct coupler heights, and most manufacturers use tolerances that would have embarrassed British Leyland in the Allegro/Marina era.  Arnold NEM couplers no longer self-couple reliably, and NEM pockets won’t take Micro-Trains knuckles (the nicest of the commercial coupler designs) at all. The Dapol Easi-Shunts, which promised so much, only really work properly (at least in delayed uncoupling mode) in Dapol pockets.   On something like a Farish 2MT, where the pockets don’t swivel at all, you can use magnets so strong that they pull the loco off the rails, and the delayed-action facility still won’t work. And now we’re stuck with rubbish couplers for another forty years. Grrr.

  1. Rivet-counters. Go away.  You’re just showing off your store of completely useless knowledge and we’re not interested.  And half the time your “facts” are wrong anyway.

  1. Over-reliance on Rule One (“It’s my railway and I will run what I want.”) We are in danger of becoming a hobby of model loco collectors, building layouts which bear absolutely no resemblance to any real railway, anywhere, ever, but just serve as a convenient place to stick all those new loco purchases.  That’s why just about every single layout you see has a large motive power depot.  A layout without a loco shed? Unthinkable. Oh, and that much-relied-on “town in the Midlands where the GWR, SR, LMS and LNER all meet”. It exists, it’s called Banbury (stretching the “Southern” a bit, but SR locos did run through there), and none of your models look anything like it.

New layout - the "back story"

As I have said before, I like my model railways to have a convincing reason to exist, even if they are entirely fictitious.  So we are back in Border country and ex North British territory once again.  Just for a change I am going to build a through station (or a "roundy-roundy layout" as some people might say) - more on that later.  The location is Alnham, which (unlike Belstone) is a real place a few miles north of Rothbury on the edge of the Cheviot Hills.  It never had a railway, but one was planned.  The Northumberland Central Railway was intended to leave the Wansbeck Valley line at Scotsgap Junction and head north through Rothbury, Alnham and Wooler to join up with the branch from Berwick to Kelso somewhere near Ford.  In the end the line only got as far as Rothbury before running out of money, and later on the North Eastern built their own line from Alnwick to Coldstream via Wooler, which killed off any prospect of the Northumberland Central ever being finished.

But what if it had been completed?  It could have been a rather useful little line, for one reason - the large Army training area at Otterburn, established in 1911 and served for many years by rail from West Woodburn station on the Wansbeck Valley line.  Otterburn was the main reason the "Wanney" survived as late as 1966, despite losing its passenger service in 1952.  A line from Scotsgap to Berwick would have taken a lot of military traffic from Scotland off the East Coast route between Berwick and Morpeth.  Which provides me with all the excuse I need to build some interesting wagons (Warflats and Warwells) with interesting loads.

What would Alnham station have looked like?  Probably much like the stations between Scotsgap and Rothbury.  Single platform, simple wooden building, goods siding with a "kick-back" and a second siding for cattle traffic.  So I will be pulling in elements from Ewesley, Brinkburn and Longwitton to try and recreate a typical Northumberland Central Railway wayside station towards the end of the line's existence, circa 1960. Longwitton?  That name rings a bell...

Back in the late 1970s, every Easter my dad and I used to go to the two big model railway exhibitions, York and London.  One year there was a small EM Gauge layout which absolutely fascinated me.  It is the only one from all those shows that I can still remember.  It was built by Ian Futers, and was (as I can now see, having tracked down the December 1977 edition of "Railway Modeller" in which it made its first appearance) a pretty accurate and highly atmospheric recreation of  Longwitton station in around 1952. It was circular, like a clockwork train set, which was rather unusual.  Ian Futers built a whole series of layouts in the 1970s, all based on various bits of the North British empire in Northumberland.  He built a new one each year, and has had more influence on my own modelling than anyone else (possibly excepting David Jenkinson of "Garsdale Road" fame).  So "Alnham" will be to some extent a recreation of "Longwitton" but with a few differences.

Obviously it will be "N" rather than 4mm.  Ian's "Longwitton" being 4mm scale had a hole in the middle of the circle for the operator to stand in, but that won't work in "N", not in the space I have anyway.  I don't want anything less than two foot radius curves in the scenic area, and I only have about 4 x 3 overall to play with.  So I have ended up with a "squashed oval" - a continuous two foot curve through the scenic area, tightening to 9 inch "train set" curves round the back., with a passing loop in the hidden area, possibly two.  That means I will have to construct my own pointwork which should be interesting.  I've done soldered PCB pointwork before, but in EM, not N.

At this stage I haven't built anything, so nothing is settled.  Since I will have to build my own track, one possibility would be to do it in 2mm finescale (9.42mm gauge).  That has the advantage that you can actually buy track gauges for it (no-one seems to do them for code 40 rail to 9mm gauge), but will require a lot of mechanical work (new chassis for starters) and there is some debate about just how tight a curve the 2mm standards will allow.  The constructional methods favoured by 2mm loco builders look as though they don't allow a lot of sideplay on the centre axle, and it all looks a bit complicated.  It would be nice to get something running this year, so I'll probably stick with 9mm for now, and find a small machine shop to make some track gauges for me. Then I'll build the pointwork (only three points, but all of them curved) and if those work, I'll start on the baseboards.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

"We're doomed!"

Well, that didn't really work.  For various personal reasons I had to stop modelling for a while.  The layout was sold on eBay along with all the stock that I hadn't messed around with.  But I'm back in the game, working on plans for a new layout (Borders steam again) and fizzing with new ideas to try, some of which will turn out to be rubbish. So I'll kick off the revived blog with an extended rant about the current state of our little hobby, before turning my attention back to actual modelling...

On the face of it we modellers have never had it so good. The quality of ready to run (RTR) models has improved out of all recognition in the last twenty years. So has the variety, to the point where the manufacturers are starting to run out of prototypes and duplicating each other. The locos run nicely (if properly assembled at the factory), wheel standards are finer, derailments and rough running are getting fewer.  Hell, you don’t even have to ballast your track any more, at least in N gauge.  Kato will do that for you. You can buy ready-to-plant buildings, easy to use scenic materials, and who needs a baseboard when you can buy a door from Wickes for £20?

But... Go back forty years and the situation was very different, even in OO which was far more popular than N and still is.  The range of RTR locos was very limited, they were poorly detailed and aimed mainly at the toy market.  So if you wanted to build a model railway as opposed to playing with toy trains you had to learn some skills.  You’d start by detailing RTR models – real coal in the tender, headlamps, a loco crew, maybe renumber or even repaint your models.  Then you’d start modifying them.  People were taking Triang Princesses and turning them into slightly stubby-looking Jubilees and Black Fives with little more than glue, Plastikard and a craft knife.

Then you’d try building a kit.  Entry level was whitemetal body on an RTR chassis, so the end result might look slightly “off” in its proportions but at least it would run. From there you could move on to complete kits – brass chassis, Romford wheels and gears and usually an X04 motor, or a Romford Bulldog if you were feeling flush.  Done that and got it to work?  How about a Jamieson kit – pre-cut brass components, solder assembly, not even the handrail positions marked out.  And once you’d done that, you would be able to scratchbuild, no bother.

At every stage one of two things could happen.  Either you would find that your skills weren’t up to the job.  There are plenty of really badly built loco kits on Ebay to prove that point.  Or you might find that, actually, you were capable of more than you thought.  As your skills improved your models got better – more complex, more detailed and better running. And that was a process that would never end.  Each model better than the previous one: each model teaching you new tricks that you could use to make the next one better still.  That’s a hobby for life.

It didn’t just work on an individual level.  People published their own work in the magazines, other modellers picked up on those techniques and improved on them, and the quality of modelling in general improved. If you take some old Railway Modellers from 1960 and 1980 and compare them, the general standard of layouts in 1980 was (with a few notable exceptions, Borchester, Buckingham etc) very much better than twenty years earlier. People were beavering away at improving the standards of wheels, track and mechanisms, and sharing what they learned.  That process gave us P4, Flexichas, coreless motors and 2mm finescale among other things.

The problem now is that no matter how far you take this process, and however good your skills, your hand-built model will never look as good as the ones you can buy in a model shop, and it will probably have cost you more money as well.  And unless you are modelling something really obscure it is unlikely you will end up with any big gaps in your fleet by sticking with RTR. So RTR is no longer the starting point, it’s the end point, and the only “modelling” anyone needs to do is some spreadsheet modelling to see if the credit card will stretch to yet another loco.  The rest is just playing trains.  It’s slow-speed Scalextric and people are going to start getting bored with it, especially with the flood of new releases now slowing to a trickle.

That’s the problem I have with the situation now.  RTR-dominated modelling is a dead end.  You can do it for years, and the only skill you will ever acquire is in crafting complaints to suppliers when locos don’t run 100% perfectly out of the box. Of course no-one is forced to use RTR.  You can build stuff if you want to.  But you no longer have to build stuff, and human nature being what it is, if you offer people a short cut most of them will take it.  Unfortunately the short cut in this case leads to the end of railway modelling as a skilled, creative hobby.  And having got that off my chest, I’m off to play with my toy train set.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The selfish hobby

Not much progress on 'Belstone' in the last month due to other commitments - work, family, voluntary organisations, that kind of stuff.  I managed to grab a couple of hours to sort out the wiring, which now uses heavy copper bus bars running the full length of the board, and a neat self-latching relay to switch the frogs on the diamond crossing - see the N Gauge Forum for full details on how I got this one to work.

Yesterday afternoon, after I had cut the grass, trimmed the hedge and pulled up about two thousand stinging nettles, I got out the modelling stuff and started constructing the largest single building on 'Belstone' - the combined station building and stationmaster's house, based on the very typical North British structure at Scotsgap Junction.  And I realised one of the reasons why I enjoy railway modelling so much.  It is the only thing in my life for which I am answerable to no-one else.  Not my customers (I run a car repair business), my wife (lovely though she is), the Government, or anyone else.  The only person I have to please is myself.  There is no pressure of any kind.  If it takes me the next ten years to construct this one building, it doesn't matter at all.  It is, in that sense, a very selfish hobby, but not in a bad way.

The station building is still at an early stage although already looking recognisably North British, so no photos yet.  Construction is the usual Plastikard, and very fiddly to put together, being quite a complicated little structure.

In other news, I finally joined the N Gauge Society, and as a result have a set of B&B magnetic couplers in the post to me as I write this.  If I can get them to work I can put in the electromagnets for the uncouplers, turn the baseboard the right way up again and start thinking about scenic construction.  That's after I have built a supporting frame for the baseboard and rebuilt the fiddle yard from my previous layout to suit the new one.

Monday, 27 May 2013


I took another trip up to the barn where I store all the junk I can't bear to throw away.  The main purpose was to dig out my box of enamel paints in the hope that they hadn't all dried out in storage (they hadn't, even though some of them must be thirty years old by now).  On the way out I bumped into a box which I had ignored because I thought it contained yet more of my late mother's gardening books.  The box moved in an un-booklike way, so I opened it and found a large quantity of model railway items that  I had either forgotten owning, assumed lost or thought I had flogged on eBay years ago.

The haul included various building kits and materials, four BachFarish maroon Mk1s, two Minitrix Gresley coaches, two locomotives, my old H&M Clipper (bought second hand in about 1978) and a little hand-held Gaugemaster controller.  So I set about trying to bring some of my old DCC-resistant locos to life, thinking that if I could get them to run I might be able to sell them.

First up was a Class 29 diesel, built many years ago using a Langley whitemetal body kit on an American Atlas chassis, and probably the only loco kit I ever actually finished.  I wired up the old Clipper, applied power to the track and the '29' ran after a fashion - jerky and hesitant, but it had never been a great runner so I wasn't expecting much.

Next for testing was an Ivatt 2MT 2-6-0.  An old Minitrix model, bought cheap as a rather battered non-runner and remotored with a Mashima can motor, back in the days when I still had steady hands and good eyesight and hadn't yet discovered High Commissioner whisky (available at all good petrol stations).  I put that one on the track and it just buzzed at me.  Ho hum.  I took the body off, found the motor had seized through lack of use, freed it off and applied a few spots of oil to the gears and bearings.

I then decided to try the little Gaugemaster controller.  The 2MT moved: I galloped it up and down the track a few times, then tried a bit of slow speed running.  Good as gold: no stalling or hesitation over the points, controllable down to a slow crawl, a slight wobble in reverse but then it always used to do that (probably a slightly distorted traction tyre).

I tried the class 29 again with the Gaugemaster.  Noisy, but good.  I don't remember it running that well ten years ago.  Metro-Cammell DMU (Farish body, Kato chassis) lurched forward a few inches and stopped.  Strip, oil, reassemble and I now had three exceptionally good slow runners.  By now I was on a roll, so I thought I would tackle the Class 26 (TPM resin body, Farish chassis, Hanazono 5-pole motor, split gears on two axles).  I dropped in the new wheelsets that I had bought and never fitted, dab of oil in the appropriate areas, and... same again.  No stalling, no hesitation, slow speed control as good as anything you might get in the larger scales.

So after an hour or so happily 'playing trains' I realised I have a problem.  The only reason I decided to go down the DCC route was in the hope of achieving the reliable slow running that had always eluded me in 'N'.   I don't need directional lighting, sound, or the ability to run two locos on the same section of track. Yet here I am with four old relics from the bad old days and a controller I found in a box, getting exactly the kind of dependable, consistent operation I wanted, without a single chip in sight.  Am I barking up the wrong tree?

Maybe not.  Two problems with the Gaugemaster.  Firstly, a whole lot of motor noise from all four locos.  Secondly, the motors are getting very hot even after a fairly short period of slow running.  Whatever waveform that little controller is putting out it is a long way from pure DC, and Japanese motors don't like it. I didn't have that problem with the J39 on the Dynamis Pro controller, and that has a Japanese can motor as well.

We need some trials.  Of the relics, the easiest to convert to DCC is the Class 26.  So I will fit a chip to it and see how it compares with 12V DC control, and report back.

Belstone goes all West Highland on me, circa 1967.  Class 29 pauses between shunting operations as a Class 26, newly outshopped in rail blue, runs into the station with a passenger train

Normal Working Resumed.  Ivatt 2MT heads an absolutely typical Border Country branch line train.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

A sense of place

Sunday afternoon, and having mowed the lawn and pulled up a few random nettles to keep my landlord happy I settled down to some more useful activity.  First job was to make the trackplan alterations mentioned previously - lift and relay the bay platform and loco servicing roads, and slew the goods siding towards the centre of the baseboard to make more room for a goods platform.  All nice and easy.  I haven't reinstated the wiring yet as I am still minded to redo the whole lot while I have the chance.  It will be a lot more difficult once I start putting scenery in place.

Having done which I thought I would have a crack at constructing the first of Belstone's (very few) buildings. If you are looking to recreate the look and feel of a particular area, buildings are important.  Every pre-grouping railway company had its own distinct architectural style.  A good model railway should allow you to take an educated guess at the region it represents, without a single locomotive or item of rolling stock being visible.  And of all the various railway-related structures, probably the most distinctive are signalboxes.

Granted, some companies used off-the-shelf products by companies like Saxby & Farmer or The Railway Signal Company.  But most of them used boxes to their own design, and there was a lot of variety.  One of the best-known was the wooden framed box designed by the Midland Railway.  An early example of modular construction, it could be adapted to suit anything from a small branch line to a major junction simply by increasing the number of window bays.  The design was immortalised thanks to Airfix, who produced a kit in the 1960s for a typical mid-sized Midland box (actually based on Oakham) which must have sold in hundreds of thousands.

Likewise the North British had its own way of doing things. Their boxes were square, solid things with fewer windows than most other companies, and instantly recognisable.  So there was no way I was going to get away with a 'generic' plastic kit-built signalbox for Belstone.  I dug around in the scrapbox, found a pile of Plastikard sheets of various kinds (including embossed stone, slate and brick) and set to work with a Swann-Morton scalpel and some glue, as well as the Ian Futers drawings for Scotsgap signalbox.

After about four hours and a slightly burnt dinner, I now have something which is far from finished, has a lot of rough edges to tidy up, but is still unmistakeably a North British signalbox.  Here it is with one of my unfinished projects from years ago, a resin bodied Class 26 diesel on a Farish chassis, now rendered completely pointless by the Dapol model and so unlikely ever to be completed.

And here is an overall view of the layout showing the realignment work, as compared with version 1.0:

I am still not completely happy with the track plan.  In real life I don't think the loco servicing road would have been accessed via a headshunt off the bay platform.  More likely, given the available space it would have been through a facing crossover interlaced with the access points to the bay platform.  Oddly, Peco have not so far included this particular track formation in their Code 55 range.  But I think the revised arrangement looks better and more railway-like than the original, so I will try to leave it alone now.

Coming next - having managed to build most of a signalbox I will tackle the station buildings (same constructional techniques, just bigger).  I also need to decide whether to build the road overbridge from scratch or just use the Peco one.  Road bridges are a lot less distinctive than signalboxes, and if there is anything unusual or special about North British bridges I cannot see it.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The invisible turntable

No sooner had I finished that last blog post than I had a thought.  Turntables.  Scotsgap had one, so did Rothbury, Reedsmouth, Alston, and just about everywhere else in Northumberland where trains terminated.  Belstone would have had a turntable, only a little one to be sure, but it would have had one.  But where?

Perhaps Scotsgap again provides the answer.  The turntable and inspection pit were on the other side of the road bridge from the station and water tower.  In model railway terms, in the fiddle yard.  So instead of shortening the loco servicing road I need to lengthen it, to go under the road bridge and into the fiddle yard the other side (where, as it happens, there actually is a turntable, to reduce the need for handling small delicate locomotives).

The main problem with this is that I have deliberately spaced the servicing road well away from the running line, which means I will have to lift and relay the access pointwork and the bay platform road. Meh. That will teach me to make cocky blog posts about layout planning.  Lucky I haven't started ballasting yet....