What to copy

And what not to copy.

A remarkable number of “railway modellers” I’ve read about on the internet don’t seem to have any desire to create something that looks like a real railway. What they build is something that looks like a train set. Nothing wrong with that of course, but please don’t call it a model railway. Because it isn’t. A model railway is a model of a railway. It should look like one, not like something out of the Pritchard Patent Product Company’s latest revamp of their XX year old plans book.

Charlie’s layout is a train set, it’s built for a four year old to keep him happy with something moving all the time. Two ovals of track, each with a single siding off it, and a disconnected branch line which runs between two single track termini about three feet apart.

roundy roundy princes road

Never in the memory of man has there been a prototype railway anything remotely like this, and I make no claims that it is meant to be a model railway. It is just a train set. A train set with rudimentary scenery, but still a train set. The scenery is flat as a pancake, bar an isolated cliff in one corner, and the three stations are connected by a road that doesn’t go anywhere else. I’ve used wood shavings and sawdust for the grass and bird grit for the ballast. Nothing high-tech, certainly nothing expensive.

No problems, as I said it’s built for a four year old to play trains on. One factor that sets it aside slightly is that it draws heavily on old Tri-ang equipment, with Super 4 track and 1960s and 1970s vintage railway buildings.

stations pronces road

I’ve also included a lot of “retaining walls” which don’t actually retain any earthworks, they’re just to divide various areas of the layout into separate scenes as happened quite often on layouts that featured in the Railway Modeller magazines I used to read as a teenager.

What sets most model railways apart from train sets is usually the fact that there’s less railway and more scenery per square foot of baseboard.

roundy roaundy allt na ballt

Allt-Na-Ballt is the simplest possible track plan, just a circle of track but it is a model railway, not a train set. The scenery is not flat anywhere except the trackbed. There’s even a bit that dips below rail level allowing the inclusion of a bridge under the track.

This brings me to a serious point of contention. All too many modellers are happy to have mountainous scenery towering above their tracks but don’t include any underbridges or embankments.

The world is not built upwards from a flat table so raise the track above datum level to allow the scenery to dip below rail height. Even in flat countryside railways are built on low embankments so that drainage works by gravity. Always observe the prototype.


Scenery below track level – Clockwise from top left, the loading dock at Warley Fen and three underbridges: Allt-Na-Ballt, Rio Paleta and Mengantuk Lembah.

Admittedly the prototype is sometimes in a trench, usually in urban areas where the need for a lot of level crossings is obviated by putting the line below street level. This is not the ideal way to view model trains, but does give an excuse for looking down on them instead of seeing them from ground level.

sandbach trench

An advantage of urban modelling on small layouts is that city centre land is expensive, so the railway is in cramped surroundings instead of sprawling like country stations often do.

Of course having more scenery on a small layout means less railway but, unlike train set type layouts, the prototype does not cram in as much track as it can just because there’s room for it. So simplicity can often reflect reality.

simplicity muston sands

One of my favourite spots to stop for lunch when I worked as a delivery driver was a lay-by close to the West Coast Main Line near Weaverham. From the van I couldn’t actually see the track but I could see the trains passing over the bridge. I frequently find that a pleasant place to stop and watch trains has just plain track anyway.

station rio paleta

No complicated pointwork. No huge fans of sidings. In fact such places are often the worst place to watch trains because they’re usually securely fenced off and inaccessible to the public.

Going back to this picture of Sandbach, when waiting for a train at a station most people tend to stay fairly close to the station buildings, only train spotters congregate at the platform ends.

sandbach trench

But staying near the buildings usually means that there’s little or no pointwork in view. Once again simplicity is the way to model reality.

Don’t follow the track plans in model manufacturers’ booklets. They’re just trying to sell you as much expensive trackwork as they can. Look at the real thing, or photos of the real thing if you do not live near your chosen prototype, then make a model of what you see.



About Bob Hughes

Ex railwayman, life long railway modeller, lover of real ale and spicy food.
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