Model Railways (under construction - about 85% complete)

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A model railway is essentially a scaled-down version of a section of a real (or fictitious) railway. Model railways are sometimes used to bring back memories of times gone, for example, a model railway could be used to rekindle memories of a now-closed railway, visited by the model's creator. Also model railways are used to create an ideal world to disappear into for a few minutes to a few hours. There is a wide range of objects for both scenery and rolling stock (the actual trains) available for many scales. A brief list of the major popular scales for standard gauge modelling in Great Britain now follows:

Z gauge (way tiny) smaller than N gauge - about 1.4mm = 1 foot scale (1:220)

N gauge - 2mm = 1 foot scale (1:148 "British N", 1:160 elsewhere)

TT gauge (Table Top) - 3mm = 1 foot scale (1:100)

H0 gauge (Half 0) - 3.5mm = 1 foot scale (1:87)

P4 gauge (Proto4) - 4mm = 1 foot scale (1:76)

EM gauge (eighteen millimetre) - 4mm = 1 foot scale (1:76)

00 gauge - 4mm = 1 foot scale (1:76)

0 gauge - 7mm = 1 foot scale (1:43)

Gauge 1 - 10mm = 1 foot scale (1:30)

There are many other scales in which models are built, such as S scale, "L-gauge"1, and gauges 2 and 3, but these are not very popular in Great Britain.

Often the name of a scale gives you some information about it, such as EM gauge - at 4mm to the scale foot, it has a gauge of eighteen millimetres (EM), although it is actually 18.2 if you want to be really picky. It was started because of the narrow gauge equivalent 00 scale, with a gauge of only 16.5mm. The decision was made to keep to 4mm scale so that "ready to run" models for 00 gauge could be used with mere re-wheeling. However, even EM gauge only represents 4'7" gauge, so somebody even more picky came up with P4 or protofour gauge. This has a gauge of 18.83mm, which works out as EXACTLY four feet eight-and-a-half inches, the standard gauge for railways in Great Britain (and indeed much of the world).
TT scale was originally, as its name suggests) designed to cater for layouts on tables, being smaller than 00 (but often just as detailed) allowing for more ambitious layouts in more restricted spaces.

As far as I am aware, very few 00 scale models of any non-British trains have been produced, in fact the only such models of which I am aware were from the Kitmaster range, which has long been out of production, and the scarcity of these "foreign" models compared to the rarity of most Kitmaster kits means that they will be like hens' teeth!

However, H0 scale, which is the global standard for models between 0 and N scale is almost unknown in the UK, except for models of foreign locations and rolling stock. There is a 1:87 scale society, who produce aids for scratch-building in H0 scale, such as wheels, couplings and so on.

Z gauge is the domain of one ready-to-run (RTR) model manufacturer, Märklin, who produce only continental European models.

Railway modelling seems to be a moderately-sized hobby, as there are plenty of magazines on the subject, such as Model Rail, Railway modeller, Model Railways Illustrated (MoRIll) and so on.

Most model trains are electrically powered, at least in the scales I have already mentioned, although in larger scales (such as 5 1/2 inch and 7 1/4 inch gauge, models of steam locomotives tend to be powered by "live steam", which can involve coal boiling water and driving wheels via pistons and connecting rods, and occasionally models of diesel locomotives in these larger scales are powered by internal combustion engines or very small diesel engines. mostly, however, they are battery-powered electrics.

In the smaller scales, models are mainly electrically powered, although there are exceptions to this rule. For example Hornby are now producing 00 gauge live steam models of the LNER A1, A3 and A4 locomotive classes, although the cost of such a loco is likely to be well beyond most modellers' pockets (a snip at £500 for your own steam engine and controller, track, gloves and tools - with the sole disadvantage of not being able to run with "standard" 12 volt DC powered electric trains). I have also heard of 009 gauge (narrow gauge trains represented in 00 scale on 9 mm gauge track) models being made to run successfully on live steam, although this falls outside the scope of this article, and will be explored further in my upcoming article on Narrow Gauge Railway Modelling.

OK, so you’re interested in model railways then (you must be or else you wouldn’t have read this far). First you need to decide what scale you’re going to work in. This will likely be decided on the basis of your funds and space to work in, although occasionally, a model of a certain class of locomotive or a particularly good rendition of a building can be the inspiration for working in a set scale. I work in 00 scale, and this is because of my relatively limited budget (I’m a student about to take GCSEs at the time of writing) and my quite severely (in some, though not all, modellers’ eyes) restricted space. I have to keep my model railway in my bedroom, meaning it has to be stored when not in use. This also causes some difficulties which I will go into later.

To the best of my knowledge, the widest range of models and kits are available in 00 scale, because, in my view, this is a pleasing scale to work with – not too fiddly and not horrendously expensive. This is not meant to denounce N or O scale, as they have their advantages too, but I am (as nearly every modeller I know is) biased towards 00 scale.

If you are just starting out, I would recommend buying a 00 scale “Train Set”, either from Hornby or Bachmann. Despite the name, these are not cheap battery powered toys. They are often sophisticated, highly detailed models, of a range of types of locomotive with authentic rolling stock. A Train Set normally consists of:

Track – this varies from a simple small circle to a double oval with sidings

Controller and wires – this converts 240v AC to a safe 12v DC to drive the trains

Train – this varies – it can be anything from a four-wheeled steam tank engine with two wagons and a brake van to a Eurostar.

Scenery – occasionally you will get some scenery as well, in the Hornby sets, you may get a signal box or goods shed and crane, or signals and so on. However, this is not always provided, or even at all in the case of Bachmann sets.

The first place a layout is attempted is often a bedroom or living room floor. This is a bad idea, as dust and fluff will inevitably gather in the motor and gears of the engine, and fluff will also wrap itself around wheels. Another disadvantage of using the floor as a location for a layout is that the floor space will inevitably be needed later on, meaning that the track, rolling stock and scenery will need to be packed away, and set back up again the next time it is required. This is a problem not merely because it is laborious, but also because track joints (called "fishplates" for reasons unknown to me) on model track can only withstand being joined and undone a certain number of times, and are quite fragile, as are some of the more complicated sections of trackwork, such as a double slip.2

The next most common place for a layout to be attempted is a table, often the one on which meals are eaten, as it is likely to be the largest one in the house. This has the disadvantage of needing to be cleared for meals, but avoids the problems with dust and fluff. Also, there is a significantly lower risk of things getting trodden on.

Finally, the ideal location for a model railway layout is a baseboard provided specifically for the purpose of constructing a layout. This need not be anything more complex than a large (preferably wooden) dining table, provided it can support a reasonable weight3. If you're feeling particularly enthusiastic, however, you can purpose-build a baseboard. This has advantages over the dining table approach, as track is more easily attached to soft wood, such as cork, than to oak, as might be used in a table. Also, if you build your own baseboard, you can tailor it to suit your intended layout. If you have to drill holes in the base (for signals or wires, say), it is much easier to work up the courage to drill or cut through your own work than it is to damage the beautiful finish on a dining table.

After you have decided the location of your model railway, you are probably impatient to get track laid and start running trains. However, the next step, that of track laying and wiring, requires concentration, and should not be rushed. Before you set up your track and fix it to the board, I would personally recommend buying either a model railway design program for the computer (such as Hornby Virtual Railway) or a set of 1/4 scale track pieces (available readily, and also produced by Hornby). Then you can mess about and come up with various designs, without the risk of damaging your track. Also, it is highly unlikely that you will already have all of the track you need for your layout, and planning it will mean that you know which pieces of track you will need to obtain.

Once you have decided on the design of track4 that you are going to use, and have obtained the track you are going to need, you should lay out your track temporarily on the board and draw around the outside of the track, at a distance of approximately 1cm from the end of the sleepers (the plastic planks at right angles to the rails). Then, you should use this outline to cut out the shape from some 1/16" thick cork sheet. You can use cork floor tiles as a relatively inexpensive way of obtaining this cork sheet, which is used for sound insulation purposes. After you have cut out the cork, lay it on the baseboard exactly where the track is going to go, and then glue it down using cork tile adhesive. Finally, after letting this dry overnight, it is time for the tracklaying to begin!

If you have bought rigid, pre-formed pieces of track (known in the trade as Setrack, because it comes in set shapes and sizes), you will find that every so often along the track, there are small holes in the centre of the sleepers. These are for use in pinning down the track. If, instead, you have bought long lengths of bendy track that does not stay in a straight line for long, you have bought "Flexitrack", which has no holes in the sleepers for fixing. This means that you will need to drill your own holes, in about every twentieth sleeper, for track pins.

Reassemble your track layout on top of the cork, making sure that you centralise it on the cork as much as possible. Then, when you have completed setting up the track, you can start pinning it down. Use specially-made model railway "track pins", as these are designed to fit in the holes in Setrack. Do NOT use a normal household claw hammer - if you do, you will quite probably severely damage your track. Instead, use a small tack hammer, because this will fit between the rails, enabling the pin head to be hit in to place until it is flush with the top of the sleepers. Be careful around points. There is a hole in what appears to be a sleeper in almost every set of model railway points. This is not a pin hole. Instead, it exists for ease of adding point motors, which we will examine later. It is vital that this piece of the point (called the tie bar, because it ties the two rails together so they move at the same time) is free to move.

Before anything else, it is important that you test your track after you have laid it. Connect your controller to the track as shown in the instruction manual, plug it into the wall, switch on and start testing.

First, use a small, shunting engine, such as a six-wheeled tank engine, to check that you have power all over your layout, on all of the main lines, and to the end of each of your sidings (if you have any).

Next, use a more complicated engine, such as a large passenger engine, and again run it over the entire layout, watching for any tight spots or derailments. This is to check your tracklaying. If the engine repeatedly derails or stutters on the same section of track, it is likely not to have been laid perfectly, and should be taken up and relaid and pinned down.

Finally, make up a mixed train of goods trucks and coaches, and run it around to check further for any tight spots or poor tracklaying. If there is the slightest chance that something is wrong with the track, pull it up and relay it now, rather than when it is ballasted and there is scenery. It will only get worse, and repairing it now will save many hours of work later, making it worthwhile.

Once you have laid your track and pinned it down, the next job is ballasting, which can be very time consuming. Even with only a small layout, ballasting can seem so boring and so stretched out that the layout will never be completed. Persevere. Good ballasting can really make or break a model. Model railway ballast can be bought in most model shops. If you opt to buy Hornby ballast, which is advisable for a beginner, on the grounds of price, then buy the "extra fine" grade ballast, as their "fine" ballast is rather coarse for 00 scale models.

Sprinkle a small amount (about a heaped tablespoon's worth) of ballast on a section on plain track (ie: not points). It should form a mound between the sleepers, and probably over the rails as well. Using your finger at first, spread it out along the track, in between the rails, until the top of the ballast is about level with the tops of the sleepers. Then, using a small paintbrush, sweep any grains of ballast off of the tops of the sleepers and into the gaps between them. Then, using about a level teaspoon's worth of ballast, sprinkle it on one side of the track, and using a paintbrush, sweep it between the ends of the sleepers and around the ends of them, out to the edge of the cork and so that the ballast is deep enough to just come up to the top of the sleepers. Repeat on the other side of the track, and if there is double track (two tracks parallel close to each other) fill in the gap between the tracks with ballast too, to the same depth as the rest of the ballasting.

Continue this process, taking care to avoid getting ballast in the moving parts of points, until all of your track is ballasted. Then, place a strip of masking tape about 3mm wide and 4cm long in the gap between the point blades5 and the rail that they touch, so that the tape is horizontal. Also make sure that there are no ballast particles between the main running rails and the check rails6, as any ballast here is likely to cause derailments later on. If there is any ballast here, remove it with a fine, pointed paintbrush.

Now, you are ready to glue your ballast down. Prepare a mixture of PVA glue and water, in equal quantities, then add a few drops of washing up liquid, as this will help it to flow better. The mixture should be about the consistency of milk, and should look pretty similar too. If it is too runny, add more glue, and if it is not liquid enough, add more water (this may sound obvious, but bear with me). Then, using a funnel, pour some of the water-glue mixture into a small spray bottle, such as is used for ironing. Spray the dry ballast with a mist of the mixture, spraying parallel to the track, about 30cm from the board's surface, in both directions along the track. If you spray directly at the ballast, you will probably blow it away. Continue applying glue until the ballast and track are almost completely white, and appear as if someone has just spilt milk all over them. Don't panic, as when it dries, your ballast will return to its natural colour, and will be firmly attached to the board. Leave it to dry for at least 48 hours for a really strong bond.

Before ballasting my layout, we tested this ballasting method on a cork floor tile, and even after turning it upside down, shaking it and generally abusing it, the ballast stayed put, as did the track. This was important, as my layout is stored vertically when not in use, which has caused some interesting problems to be overcome, more of which later.

Once the ballast has dried, it is advisable to remove the masking tape from the points, and check that they are still working and not glued solid (by flicking them from route to route a few times). Then, clean the entire track using a track rubber. This is like a more abrasive version of a pencil eraser, which, when used firmly on the track, will remove burnt-on dirt, glue, and almost anything short of rust. However, rust is not a problem unless your set is more than about 20 years old, as modern model railway track is made, not of steel, but of nickel silver. Once you are satisfied that all of the dried-on glue has been removed, try test-running again, using the same technique as last time. If the engine stutters or stops, turn off the power, push the engine back a few inches, and "rubber scrub" the section of track where the problem occurred. Keep doing this until all of your track is clean, and your engines run faultlessly. If small engines seem to stutter on the points, this is a problem that cannot be solved by cleaning, but is evident unless you buy special "electrofrog" points. These do not have the plastic section where rails meet in a V shape that normal Hornby or Peco "insulfrog" points have. However, electrofrog points are more complicated to wire up.

Next, to scenic work, once your track has been found to be in full working order. Before you embark on this, I would advise drawing a rough sketch of your track plan on a sheet of plain paper, then work out where you will want contours, by drawing them as on an Ordnance Survey map. Bear in mind - the real world is very rarely flat, so don't forget that unless you have a board smaller than 4' square, at least one hill, valley or cutting is a must. Don't be too afraid to make them a decent size, too, as once they have been scattered (see later) any contours will all but disappear.

Once you have decided where the contours on your layout will be, you must subdivide them into two categories - large (bigger than 2 inches [5cm] tall) and small (less than 2 inches tall) because there are two different methods of hill-making.

The first one which I shall look at is that for making small hills, which is also suitable for making small cliff faces as found in cuttings. You will require some "modelling rock" or Mod-Roc, which is basically a roll of plaster-coated bandage, similar to the stuff used for making plaster casts around broken limbs (although much more messy, and hence fun), a bowl of warm, clean water, and a pair of sharp scissors.

First draw in pencil on your layout board the outlines of the areas which will be raised above board level. Cut the Mod-Roc into squares, with sides of the same length as the width of the roll of plaster bandage. Then, take one square, place it in the water bowl, and hold it under water for two seconds, until it has become floppy and squidgy. Then, having removed it, place it in the middle of your contoured section of ground, push down the edges so that they are very flat, and push down the middle, but leave it thicker in the middle by moulding it with your fingers. Repeat, except by layering the bandage over the lump you have, keeping it straight and flat where necessary, and extend it sideways and vertically. Stop when you have completed your hill.

The method of building a large hill is different, because if it were made of solid plaster bandage, it would be very heavy, and not a little wasteful. Therefore, we build a framework, out of sheets of wood, in what looks from above to be a grid pattern, made of pieces of wood cut with a flat bottom and the rough contours of the hill on the top. For longitudinal pieces of wood, cut a slot in the top every time it crosses over a latitudinal one, and in a latitudinal one cut slots in the bottom. Glue this down to your board. This means that now you can see where, how high, and what shape your hill will be.

The next step is to cover the top of the wooden frame with a net formed of strips of masking tape. After this, cover the netting with a layer of Mod-Roc, as per the above method, and allow to dry.

If you have been following the above instructions, you should by now have a board with some ballasted track (hopefully with at least one electrical connection to the controller) and some bright white contours. The next thing to be done, after cleaning the track again (I know it is boring, but it is easier to do it little and frequently than to attack the track with a sander every six months), is to decide whether you would like electrically or manually operated points, and whether you want working signals (provided you actually have any in your design). Both electrically operated points and working signals add another layer of realism to a layout, but require more work.

Firstly, the signals. Which types of signals to use depends on the type of trains you have, and what time period your model railway is set in. If it is a modern setting, you will most likely want mainly colour light signals (which look a little like traffic lights, only with the lights in a different order), possibly with one or two semaphores (the ones with large arms which move up and down). If it is set in the steam period, you will want mainly semaphores, though which type of semaphores you will need depends on what area (or region) you are modelling, which is the company to which most of your locomotives belong.

For example, if you are modelling a Great Western Railway layout, you will want lower-quadrant7 semaphores, which in 00 scale can be built from Ratio kits, which can be made either operational or not, according to preference (and/or skill). If you are modelling London Midland and Scottish, London North Eastern Railway or Southern Railway layouts, you will want upper quadrant8 semaphores, for models of which you can use the Hornby models, or, for models of a more scale appearance (although obviously more delicate) you could use the Ratio kits, which can be made operational. Ratio signal kits are made to work by a simple system of springs and strings under the baseboard, with a miniature lever which can be placed near the controller position. The Hornby signals can also be remotely controlled, but this needs some work, because they were originally designed to work with Hornby's point motors, which have since had their design changed, making them impossible to connect to the signal, unless you can find the old, flat, mark one type.

Models of colour light signals are available, both operational and not, from many companies, including Eckon, who sell their signals in both kit and pre-built form. If you require working colour light signals, you will need a power supply9 for them, as well as some form of switches. Two-aspect (two light) signals are the easiest to wire, requiring only a double-pole single-throw switch to operate them. Wiring diagrams for the signals almost always come with the signal, but if not, can be found on the internet with a quick search.

Secondly, electrically operated points. There are two main types of point motors - solenoids and rotary-motored "slow action" types. For a beginner's model railway, solenoids are probably best, because they are cheaper (in general), easier to wire up, and often more reliable. Also, most types of pre-built model railway points are ready to have point motors fitted. In fact, some points are available with motors already fitted integrally in the track base10. To operate a solenoid point motor, you need a "passing contact" switch11 and a power supply other than the one used to power your track.

There are a couple of different ways of attaching motors to points. The first involves cutting a slot in the baseboard, and mounting the motor underneath. Remember that hole in the points' tiebars - the one I said not to put track pins in? That hole is used for attaching a solenoid point motor to the set of points. To fit a point motor in this way, you need to cut a slot underneath that hole, so that whichever way the points are set, there is a small hole through the tiebar and the baseboard. This is probably done more easily before track is laid permanently and ballasted. Then, after smoothing the bottom of the baseboard, attach the point motor in the way specified by the manufacturer, with the thin bar of the motor placed through the slot in the baseboard and the hole in the tiebar. Wire it up, also following the manufacturer's instructions, and you should have a remote-controlled set of points.

Another way in which it is possible to use a point motor is mounting it on top of the baseboard. Some point motors (such as the Hornby ones, for example) can be fitted into baseplates which allow them to be screwed to the baseboard surface, with a piece of scenery on top to disguise the motor. If you choose this method, there is often a bar protruding from the baseplate, with a hole in one end, and which moves slightly back and forth. After locating the small raised peg on the end of the tiebar into this hole, move the tiebar to the route setting where it is furthest from the motor baseplate, and move the baseplate as far as possible from the set of points while still attached. Then it will be in the correct position to be screwed to the baseboard. Once it has been screwed into place, attach the point motor to the baseplate, and wire it up. Then, after testing that it works, you can try to disguise it with a small hut or maybe a freight container.

After testing that all of the points work, you are ready to do some more scenic work. It is time to select the buildings you will use and where you will install them on the layout. Some model railway buildings are prebuilt and prepainted (Such as the Hornby Skaledale range, and Harburn Hobbies range, for example) while others are kits to be built out of plastic (Hornby and Dapol produce plastic building kits), card (Metcalfe and Superquick produce various buildings in card) or plaster. Sometimes, however, the only way to get a building that fits is to build it yourself, whether by "kit-bashing"12 or by "scratch-building"13. Once you have chosen your buildings, built them (if necessary) and are happy with where they go, attach them to the board with double-sided sticky tape.

By now, you probably think that your board looks a little silly with bright white hills, buildings placed on it and some railway track and signals. This is why we will apply scatter. Scatter is normally a fine powder of some sort, which is coloured, and can be used to represent grass, gravel (the ballast used on the track was a sort of scatter), sand, cinders on a path, mud, and various other types of ground cover and foliage with a little ingenuity. However, before applying scatter, it is first necessary to paint any white plaster bandage contoured areas brown or green, to prevent the white plaster from showing through the scatter. Once this has been done, anywhere else where there will be grass can be painted a muddy brown if desired, being careful to avoid getting paint on buildings or trackwork.

Once this paint has dried, scatter can be applied as desired. As an example, I will describe adding grass scatter here. First, apply slightly diluted PVA glue to a small area where a grass effect is desired. Then, while the glue is still wet, sprinkle a little green scatter onto the middle of the glue, and spread it around with something straight, such as a paintbrush handle, but not quite spreading it to the edge of the glue. Then, apply more diluted PVA next to the area where you have just applied scatter, overlapping the edge slightly, so as not to leave a gap between the two areas. If necessary, apply more scatter, spreading it so that there is a thin layer of scatter atop the glue as before. Continue this process until the desired area has been scattered. Leave overnight (or preferably two nights) to dry, and then repeat, to build up the thickness and opacity of the scatter layer to the desired level.

Different effects can be achieved by mixing scatter colours in various areas, such as a few small patches of yellow mixed in with the green in grassy areas to break up the block of colour.

Once the layout has been scattered, other pieces of scenery, such as trees and plants, and various details, such as telephone boxes, cars and people - in short, everything that brings a layout to life - can be added.

Firstly, vegetation. Many manufacturers produce model trees, which range widely in terms of price and realism. The easiest model trees to find are often those produced by Hornby, although most of these are hardly the most realistic of trees, having the appearance of a toilet brush painted green. There are other types available from model shops, some of which are quite good, such as some of the European manufacturers' products. The best model trees that I have ever seen are manufactured by a company in London, called 4D Models, although they are prohibitively expensive for most people who require more than about three trees. They are made of an etched brass frame shaped to represent branches, coated on one side with solder and the other side with hot glue to build up trunk thickness, and finally flocked with various grades of scatter. The reason for the extreme price is the fact that all of this work is done by hand. However, the finished product is good enough to be used on architects' models.

This is as far as I have got with this article. I will be looking at more scenic work and electronics, detailing and running the locomotives and rolling stock later in the entry.

Writer's notes:

scales /

train set /

baseboard /

track /

ballast /

contours /

electronics /

signalling /

buildings /

scatter 1/2

other scenery


1This term is often used to describe model trains built of Lego, running on standard Lego track. However, the techniques used in modelling in L gauge are different from those used in any other scale, and I will not go into them in this article.2A double slip is like an "x" shaped crossing (or diamond crossing), on which it is possible to either pass over the crossing or change routes.3If you can stand on it without it breaking, it's likely to be strong enough to use as a base.4 Also, rather confusingly, called a layout.5 The technical term for the thin section of rail whose position can be changed to change the selected route on a set of points. They are held the correct distance apart by a tie bar.6 The short sections of [ shaped rail next to the normal (or "running") rail, which serve to prevent, or reduce the effects of derailments on the points.7This means that the arm is horizontal to indicate "stop", and lowered 45 degrees to indicate "all clear".8This means that the arm is horizontal to indicate "stop", and raised 45 degrees to indicate "all clear".9This is most often 12 Volts or 16 Volts uncontrolled (ie: not affected by the controller's track output) DC, which can be obtained from most major brands of model railway controller. This power supply can also be used for other proprietary electrically-powered accessories, such as building lighting, turntables and so on.10Although admittedly I am only aware of a few manufacturers who provide this, such as the Japanese company Kato, whose track is incompatible with other track makes without the use of adapter track sections. Kato produce pre-ballasted model railway track in N and HO/OO. Also, the German company Fleischmann, who (I believe) also provide manually-operated points.11"Passing contact" switches provide a short burst of current when operated.12 This involves buying a kit and then altering it to suit. 13 This means making the entire building out of card, paper and/or plastic without a kit.

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