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Peterborough - Building the layout

11 August 2010

As I explained in my previous article, before Peterborough and somewhere south of Hitchin, the layout was going to be based on Spalding, which is not, and never has been, on the ECML. It was going to be a secondary layout with occasional main line diversions. The trouble was that the diversions were, well, rather more regular than they should have been. Spalding though had been a determined attempt to stop my frequent changes of mind and I had already commissioned Allan Downes to build the station buildings.

Allan works so quickly that he delivered them before I could change my mind again. In fact, I had even gone so far as to install platforms and track as at Spalding, and very permanently too. Now what? Make up a story to fit what was there? Talk about doing things the wrong way round. So, an alternative universe Peterborough came into being. Then I started trying to make it look more like the real thing, which really wasn't possible - wrong buildings, wrong track formation, a loco depot in the wrong place, and they were just the small errors.

Still, I persevered, and commissioned from Peter Leyland, like Allan Downes a most gifted craftsman, a much shortened version of the Great Northern hotel, which faces the real station, plus a beautiful signal box, with fully detailed interior and illuminated to boot. Then I placed both as they should be, which showed their rather plain rear elevations instead of the much more interesting fronts.

This of course made the whole thing look a little bit more like what it wasn't, if you see what I mean. For some time, an insidious campaign had been in progress by highly experienced modellers who thought I should not call the thing Peterborough - on the fairly good grounds that it wasn't. One morning I just tried repositioning some of the buildings and suddenly  the whole thing looked right. I could not contemplate changing it back, but of course it now looked even less like Peterborough.

Next confession. Although I can ignore those pesky millimetres, I cannot bear to see locos and rolling stock running side by side that never did in reality. For me, that illusion of reality is immediately shattered. That's why I couldn't just run B17s and other locos I really like where they did not belong, which would have solved a lot of problems. And that is another reason for modelling that which I know best. I have at least some first-hand knowledge and recollection of what actually occurred.

Belatedly, we come to design considerations. I knew what I wanted, or I thought I did. I definitely knew what I didn't want, which included gradients, hidden track and tight curves, all of which I knew from part-built schemes could cause problems when operating. I also feared building something too simple, with boredom setting in as soon as it was finished. What do I actually have? No gradients, 3' minimum radius curves, and only 25' of hidden track. Oh, and a track plan which is far too complex to be properly operated by one person. Not very successful there then.

I also wanted a long stretch of railway in the countryside, which after all is where 95% of real railways are to be found, and I wanted to avoid a station in the middle of the baseboard. And definitely no baseboard should be more than 2' 0" wide, so that everything would be in easy reach. Finally, I wanted to be able to run trains continuously, though only in private of course. Well, as you can see I got the country section, and the station is at one end of the main baseboard. I even started with 2' 0" wide baseboards. But, you see, if I just extend some by only 9" or so, I could have a fair sized loco depot, and a better station forecourt.

A bad decision, one of many, but not the worst. That was to have two continuous runs, one through the station and the other using the country section and that 25' of hidden track I vowed to avoid. The plan should make this clear. The result is double junctions at each end, and conflicting movements which make it very difficult to run more than one train at a time, even when a number of operators are available.

It really is a good idea to plan properly before leaping in at the deep end. I didn't and I am paying for it. My original design incorporated a rather large storage area, but I soon filled that and looked for more. The answer was to add another narrow baseboard at the back of the loft. I had previously discarded this, as the slope of the roof by then is getting rather steep. It was done, with much cursing and contortion, as the area is hard to access. It would not have been if I had designed it in from the start of course. There was room for four tracks, so I squeezed in five. The entirely predictable result was that any derailment is an absolute nightmare to deal with.

I think you have probably got the picture by now. Plan before you start, rather than make it up as you go along. It doesn't look too bad, to me at least, but it is just so frustrating to operate. Truly, you can't have everything. The price for my 25' of 'long thin railway' is those two darned double junctions. Is that too high a price? Increasingly, I found it was. There have been some successes. I decided to run express trains eight coaches in length.

Most ECML expresses were longer than that, some considerably so, but I found that a ratio of two to one works. An eight coach train occupies one third of the country section and just looks right whereas longer though prototypical trains don't. That same idea has been used on the station side too, and again I am happy that it has worked well visually.

Well, that deals with philosophy and design criteria. It also uses up nearly all the content I have generously been allocated, so such matters as control, locomotives and rolling stock must be left to the next article. I made the decision to opt for DCC at a very early stage, which is a story in itself, and which I shall eventually explain. These articles are actually a valedictory for Peterborough in its present form. The various problems I have outlined, together with the loft location, have become too much for me to cope with, so a move to a more congenial and convenient location will shortly take place. There, I shall have a go at creating a more accurate, though certainly not to scale, model of the old Peterborough North, hopefully learning from the many errors I committed this time around.

The plan is that a blow-by-blow account of the progress of that project will in time appear in these pages. I have been fortunate to receive help and assistance from a number of people during the building of the present layout, and have the good fortune to have acquired locomotives, rolling stock, signals and buildings from several very gifted craftsmen. I intend to acknowledge my debt to them by name in the next article.

In my first article I attempted to explain my modelling philosophy and what led to the building of a very large but totally unprototypical 1950s East Coast Main Line layout. By the time I had summarised my many errors and I hope one or two successes, I had run out of space without even considering what is actually on the layout, and how it is operated. In doing so, I shall need to explain a little more of the self-imposed constraints which limit what I model.

As I explained last month, I can happily overlook the many deficiencies of OO gauge because I believe that they can be submerged by the overall effect of a well-designed layout. I cannot, however, bring myself to be as cavalier when it comes to locomotives and rolling stock. Looking back, that is probably one of the main reasons why in nearly 40 years of modelling this is the first layout I have ever completed. Had we been told in the ‘70s or even the ‘80s that in 2010 we would have access to models of the standard and diversity available today, I am sure we would have doubted the sanity of the person who gave us the information.

There are still gaps, and no doubt always will be, but it is now possible to put together at least for later periods of our railway history a much more representative portrayal of the real thing, most of it available, should one so wish, ‘off the shelf’. Good quality kits, the vast majority of which are actually capable of being completed, make life even easier. As an ECML modeller, I have little excuse now for getting things wrong, or for glaring omissions. This matters to me. I personally cannot just run an eclectic mix of whatever takes my fancy. In saying that, I do not intend to criticise those who can and do, it is just a fact so far as I am concerned.

Even in 1996, when this layout was conceived, choices were far more limited than they are today, and far less accurate prototype information was available. I had no real idea then  what the correct formation of any ECML express might be, nor would most of the carriages necessary have been available even if I had the information. Now that I do, I think it is necessary to do my best to get things right, so I have now built up a representative selection of the trains that would have been seen in the late ‘50s.

Thanks are owed here to Bachmann for their excellent M.k.1s, without which the whole thing would have been impossible to contemplate, as there are over 200 carriages on the layout. I have come to understand after many years that life is all about compromise. In this case, that meant accepting that full length main line expresses were out of the question. I explained in my first article why I eventually settled on eight coach formations. Briefly, it fitted in with the length of my storage roads, which would hold two such trains, (just), but it also looked right when set against the length of the layout. Still, I can’t hope to reproduce more than a fraction of the actual trains that ran, so compromise must be accepted again.

Of course these trains must have locomotives to haul them. Once again, the transformation just within the lifespan of this layout is amazing. Thanks to Hornby and Bachmann I can now acquire locos from my local model shop to a standard undreamed of when I first returned to railway modelling. It is possible that I may have overdone it a bit, as there are now nearly 100 of them. In addition to ready-to-run items, there are also quite a few kit-built ones to fill the gaps which inevitably and always will occur.

Basically the rule is that if it ran regularly through Peterborough in the late ‘50s, it is present. If not, it isn’t, whatever the temptation... so far at least. Peterborough has the great advantage for me of seeing the most eclectic range of locos imaginable on a daily basis during my modelling period. That is why history was, shall we say, slightly distorted when choosing the layout’s location. It was the only place so far as I am aware where Pacifics could be seen rubbing shoulders with my all time favourite class B17s, and with the lovely GE ‘Claud Hamiltons’ and even ancient Ivatt C12 tanks, all of which are on my ‘must have’ list.

I’m not going to list everything, which would be tedious in the extreme, suffice it to say that you should get a good idea of what is present from Tony Wright’s excellent and oh so evocative photographs. One or two early diesels are to be seen, but for the most part steam still rules. Goods traffic is limited, because in daylight hours it was. I do though have a 42 wagon empty coal train, each wagon of which I have individually weathered. Visually it looks really good, so it must have been worth it. I do not use an airbrush when weathering, just powders. They do the job pretty well in my opinion, and provided I avoid too much handling, the powders are gratifyingly willing to stay put. There is also a representative selection of other goods traffic, including class C, D and H trains, and of course coal for London.

So, how and with what is all of this operated? The answer to the first part of that question sadly is ‘with considerable difficulty’, purely because of the design faults which I unwittingly perpetrated early on, as I explained in the first article. ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’. How often have I ruefully said that in my lifetime I wonder? And why do I still have to say it even now? Do we ever learn? Well, I hope so. It will be possible to operate my new layout single handed. That unfortunately proved to be almost impossible with this one. The loco shed and yard alone need at least one person to get things done. Even on the main line, the conflicting movements which my oh so clever track plan made inevitable meant that one train at a time was generally the rule. Yes, I could get two trains circulating and just watch them go by, and I frequently did, but to run it anything like I had envisaged? Sadly, no.

With what is it operated? Well for some time the answer to that also was ‘with considerable difficulty’. I decided to use DCC, and I suspect that in 1996 that was a bridge too far for the system I chose, given the size of the layout. The problems I encountered have been documented elsewhere, and I shall not repeat them. They did however have the unfortunate effect of confirming the views of the self-confessed Luddite of Little Bytham regarding all matters concerning DCC. I now use the NCE system, which almost miraculously removed every area which had previously caused me so much difficulty and frustration.

What have I learned? Don’t rely on rail joiners for electrical continuity. It doesn’t work with DC, and because the track carries the essential commands to locos and accessories, good continuity is even more at a premium where DCC is concerned. I’m not going to get embroiled in the ongoing DC v DCC debate - each to his own is my motto, but I can’t resist saying that my layout has never burst into flames! I must also confess that if you look under my baseboards you will see more than two wires. In fact you will see rather a lot of them. It’s inevitable when wiring a large layout. Having said that though, the loco depot alone would have required 35 section switches, and a rather large control panel had I opted for DC. I don’t like to even contemplate how long it would have taken to get just one loco from the back of the shed out onto the main line to collect its train.

In fact, if I had to choose what is for me the greatest advantage of DCC, I would unhesitatingly point to the ability to park any loco anywhere on the layout, provided you remember where it is of course. All points are now controlled by Tortoise motors, as I felt that the impact caused by a solenoid motor each time a point is thrown would inevitably lead to failures in the longer term.

The layout is fully signalled, and we got to the stage where nearly all of them were operable. They were all scratch-built by Ken Gibbons, and as nearly as possible resemble those which would have been seen at Peterborough North, though amendments had to be made to suit my track plan. ‘Exquisite’ is the only word to describe them. I just could not believe the difference they made when they were installed: the whole thing was transformed.

They need to be there, even if they don’t work, to complete the visual effect. Again, operation was by Tortoise motors, using NCE accessory decoders. I have also used a number of Lenz LS 150 accessory decoders, which worked very well. Although I suspect that it is wise to use accessories made by the manufacturer of your control equipment - for the simple reason that they are designed to be fully compatible. Certainly NCE’s offerings are simplicity itself to wire.

So, there we have it. I made a lot of mistakes, and the whole thing was flawed in its conception and execution. I have to say though that to me at least it looked pretty good, and it makes me sad now when I occasionally ascend to the loft and see what remains after pretty much everything has been removed or stored. I don’t regret it, and I think I have learned from it, so the new one will be better in all respects. I can’t ask much more than that.

I could not possibly ask either for more in the way of help and advice than has been freely given to me by so many people. Tony Wright is a great mate, and a mine of information on all things ECML. He takes a mean photo as well, and when work is to be done excels in a supervisory role. Apart from that he also builds beautifully constructed and free running locos, and I cherish those which he has built for me. His duties with BRM, and possibly building his own trainset have limited the time he has available though, so I am also indebted to John Houlden of Whistlestop Railways who since taking up model making professionally, filled in nearly all the gaps in my loco collection in very short order, and to a very high standard.

Much coaching stock has also been commissioned. Mike Radford of MARC Models is another who has not only built lovely coaches for me from his own excellent kits, but has also become a much valued friend. Ian Willets now supplies me with superb coaches too, wonderfully painted by Dave Studley. I can only express my admiration for all of these people, who can and do supply me with things to be treasured and which I could not hope to build to anything approaching that standard myself. I am fortunate that having worked for 47 years and counting, and having been reasonably prudent in saving a bit for my old age, I am now in a position to be able to commission what I desire from such gifted people.

Buildings were nearly all from the incomparable and unique Allan Downes. The layout would have been nothing without them. More recently Peter Leyland has also created some lovely buildings, and is now working on those needed for the real Peterborough North.

Last but not least, I need to mention those who have worked with me on the very large task of actually building the whole thing. Neil Stevenson of Sherwood Models did a great deal in the early stages, and reacted very patiently when I changed my mind and asked him to do it all over again. Latterly Neil Kinnison, now the owner of ZTC controls, also worked tirelessly on the layout, including contorting himself to reach places where no human being should have been asked to go. Tom Wright also spent hours crawling into inaccessible places to install more droppers when we found that we hadn’t put enough in in the first place. To each and every one, my grateful thanks, which also go to those who I will have, inevitably,  forgotten to mention by name, but who have also contributed. They know who they are.

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