30 December 2008

The track dilemma

Well, very little has happened over the past few weeks. This is not for any reason other than the pressure of other commitments. As soon as I can, I will be back in the loft and resuming progress.

But this seems like a good point to discuss the track issue, which I have obliquely hinted at a couple of times in previous posts. At present all my track is Hornby sectional track, mostly rather old and dirty, not especially reliable, and rather cheap-looking. I have always thought that Hornby do track grudgingly (they seem to make it because they have to, not because they want to). And in my experience, their pointwork, especially the curved points, can be unreliable. My Hornby curved points tend to derail all but the heaviest of stock unless manually set with some force. One of them was the cause of my prize GWR Castle class loco derailing at speed and crashing off the tabletop layout onto the floor earlier this year. Repairs were needed, although I have to say that thanks to the excellent repair service at Boswells in Oxford, the cost of this was far less painful than I feared at first.

For these reasons I have decided not to use Hornby track unless necessary, and to opt for Peco instead. From what I can tell, Peco track has a much better reputation, and there is also a wider range of track styles and point designs to choose from. For example, they do a very nice code 100 flexible track with concrete sleepers. I think I will use that for the main running rails: it's appropriate to the era, and the clean rails will be good for reliability. Christmas money is already earmarked to cover the cost of that. Because of the inherent expense of buying points (especially the double-slip point I need for the station throat) the new trackwork will probably have to be bought over an extended period. So in the interests of progress, I may need to use some of my old Hornby track for a while.

Many people recommend code 75 track instead of code 100, and it's easy to see why; the rails are in better proportion and you get a more satisfying appearance. But the gauge compromises of OO scale mean that you won't ever get truly realistic track in OO. Having better proportioned track doesn't ever quite compensate for the reduced gauge when running OO-scale models. And besides, much of my rolling stock is 1970s Hornby and Airfix, whose wheel flanges would, I think, struggle with the smaller track cross-section. So I think code 100 will suffice for now. Maybe I'll use code 75 for the branch line, where the allowed rolling stock will be limited to my more recent acquisitions, mainly short DMUs and some light freight.

05 December 2008

Storage sidings

The storage sidings are almost complete...

In this picture, the track beds are fixed but the track itself is not. The design for the storage sidings was finalised at the start of this week after some playing around in XTrkCAD. Five sidings is not that many but I think I will probably have about five trains. There will also be some sidings topside that can be used to park trains if I end up with more.

Concerning the track itself, I have still to decide whether to use my existing Hornby sectional track. The reason why I wouldn't is because it is very grimy and contact is sporadic at best. I tried cleaning all the track a few months ago, but the grime has returned already. For the hidden storage tracks I don't want to be worrying whether the rails are clean enough; trains have to enter and leave the sidings smoothly and under their own power. So I might have to invest in new trackwork. It will probably be flexible track just because the straight lengths and curve radii are not exactly standard according to Hornby geometry.

The next job is to test the running height along the sides of the layout. I want to do that over the weekend if there's time.

01 December 2008

First baseboard completed

Quick update: the first baseboard is now finished...

It took a while to do, although the results don't appear to justify the time spent; Karen's reaction was "you spent 2 hours in the loft and it doesn't look any different!"

I am a trifle worried by the height of the board, especially at the sides near where the roof meets the purlins. I'm not sure whether there will be clearance for tracks along the edges of the board at the full layout height. Some tests will follow.

25 November 2008

Of fiddle yards and gradients

Finally, I have laid the first track bed. OK, so it's only 60cm long and doesn't go anywhere yet, but it's progress.

This is a close-up of the centre rear baseboard section, now complete with trackbed. The anatomy of this picture is as follows:
  • The plywood section at the front is exterior baseboard - this will be the front of the station and will probably have a road, or a bus stop, or something such. Maybe even a tram stop eventually.
  • The vertical plywood risers form the supports for the main board which will sit on top of them
  • The five track sections sit on an MDF trackbed which is the central section of the storage sidings which will be underneath the station board.

To have arrived at this configuration has required some redesign, a lot of rethinking, and an ounce of hope that it will all work. I had originally planned to have the storage sidings lower than this - below the main frame in fact - but the gradients required and the mass of existing woodwork in the way proved problems too difficult to overcome. So I have alighted on this configuration, which raises the station a few cm higher but makes the storage sidings easier to construct and keeps the entire system portable. Even so, there is not much clearance in the storage sidings and accessibility might be an issue (hence I'm not officially calling it a fiddle yard). At first I think I will have to make the station platforms detachable so I can get at the trains parked underneath. Eventually I could think about a slide-out section.

The layout design is still evolving but is beginning to settle into a stable pattern. Just as well, given that all of the next steps will involve cutting wood to the shape required by the track design. The total height range of the layout is about 14cm - the storage sidings have the lowest elevation and the branch line bridge over the mainline the highest. There are some places where the gradients are tight - notably the 14cm drop in about 3m, including a station, for the branch line from the bridge down to the storage sidings. One possible solution is to swap the bridge orientation so that the mainline runs over the branch line. I am still thinking about that.

Here is the same view as above but with the top board in place. The station board will be 3cm higher than this in the end to provide clearance for the storage sidings.

Next task: to finish putting this frame together and then repeat nine more times with different configurations. But first I think I'll lay out the entire storage sidings (sub-surface) track bed, so that I know where I can and can't put risers for the top board.

Needless to say, I've given up trying to estimate when it will all be finished.

10 November 2008

Ready to add height

It's been a while since my last post, but finally I can report that all ten of the baseboard frames are completed.

It has been a slow process because of existing commitments and the usual constraints, but I am glad to have arrived at this point. From now on I will be doing work that reflects the final shape of the model, rather than foundation work. So the next task will be to make and attach the risers on which the final baseboards will rest. I'll start at the back (the station) and work round the sides.

The baseboard frames are all detachable, and fix to the primary frame using bolts. Small lengths of batten on the primary frame act as guides to ensure that the baseboard frames sit where they should. For the time being I expect to exploit the ability to remove the baseboards from the primary frame, for example by doing some work in our garage rather than in the loft itself.

I've made a few tweaks to the layout design, particularly simplifying the sidings. This should help to making sure that the entire board is not swamped with track, thereby leaving space for scenery.

Somewhat worryingly, I have discovered a leak in the roof up by the chimney breast. When I went up to the loft on Saturday morning so start work, I found a puddle of water on top of some damp plywood sheets. I guess I should be grateful that the plywood was where it was, otherwise the effect could have been a lot worse. The leak is under control for now but it might require attention, and there's no doubt that that would hold up progress.

09 October 2008

Layout test #1

A layout test already? Surely some mistake!

Well, no, because I need to check that my planned alignment fits on the baseboard, and work out where the track beds will run, before I commit to chopping up lots of expensive plywood to make the complete frame.

So yesterday evening I got out all my old sectional track and assembled something approximating to the left-hand end of the station. Here is the result...

I laid out a few more ply sheets than I have built frames for yet, just to get a better sense of the station area. And I'm pleased to say that the layout does fit, the only problem being that the chimney breast sticks out a bit further than I had it doing in the plan, so the track for platform 3 (yes, they already have platform numbers in my head!) might need to be moved inwards a little, thereby narrowing the platform itself.

The train standing at platform 1 is none other than my very first ever train set, augmented by a couple of coaches from my brother-in-law who very kindly bequeathed me his old set of very similar vintage. It's good to confirm that the station will be able to accept a five-coach train - that is about the minimum length that I consider looks good on a model.

For the interested among you, here is a close-up of the alignment in the station throat. The diamond crossing in the middle of the picture will be replaced by a double-slip point in the final layout.

PS Karen has commented that the gap above the hardboard sheets on the back wall looks unsightly, and she is right. I will fix that when I next have the opportunity to make lots of noise in the loft.

Baseboards update

Here is the promised photo of progress on the baseboards so far...

As you can see, the baseboard frames are fairly rudimentary at the moment, but they will get more sturdy once I start adding height. As mentioned before, the main station (which will be on the boards shown in this photo) is going to be raised a little from the base level, which means cutting up the ply and supporting some of it on risers attached to the frame. I need to complete the entire set of basic frames before I can do that.

06 October 2008

Starting the baseboards

No photos to show (yet) but some progress nonetheless over the weekend. After a lot of deliberation and reading around since my last posts, I finally decided on a surface material for my baseboards. I have gone for 9mm plywood, supported on a nominal 2"x1" frame. The baseboard will be constructed in 4'x2' sections (or rather, 607mm x 1220mm, as that's what Wickes supply), each of which will be essentially independent with its own frame. Whether or not the layout eventually becomes portable, I feel it's better to make the board detachable in case I have to move it for any reason. The shape of my layout is neatly covered by ten rectangles the size of the ply sheets, with very little wastage.

I bought the first tranche of material on Saturday and spent a few hours on Saturday afternoon making a start on the baseboard frames. Because it's not entirely clear yet how the surface is going to work (i.e. whether it's flat or whether it's open) I am not fixing down any of the ply yet. I can still go ahead and make all the basic frames without having to worry about the surface just yet.

I have had a go at creating a track plan in XTrkCAD - it's by no means perfect and there's lots I need to learn how to do in the package. But you can see the draft here:

The draft uses Hornby sectional track for illustration but I intend eventually to use Peco flexible and Setrack if funds permit. Watch out for another post about my track dilemma soon. Some things don't quite join up - again, this is an artefact of using sectional track

I think - and I stress this is just an idea at the moment - that the main station will be slightly elevated from the base board level, and that the side sections - the areas with "vertical" track in the diagram - will have the surface at a lower elevation with the track crossing on bridges. Technically it's easy enough to do this, and there should be a nice height effect. Then the front sections will all be open frame to allow for lots of scenery and for the feeds to and from the fiddle yard (feeds to the fiddle yard are indicated with arrows on the diagram). The yard itself will, as hinted before, be under the station area.

The first task is to complete the five frames along the back wall so that I can put down some track and tweak the station layout. I have completed two and nearly finished the third of these frames, and have enough ply to cover them all. Once the station alignment is known I can finalise the plan for the complete layout and therefore the design of the open frame sections along the front.

More to come when I've tidied up enough to allow photographs! With the arrival of several plywood sheets, space has suddenly become an issue in the loft...

02 October 2008

RIP: the portable layout

Before I started on the loft project I had constructed a small(ish) portable baseboard for my birthday trainset. Combined with track and equipment from my previous foray into model railways, this had come along quite nicely within certain limits - there was no scenery, and some of the track was less than reliable (more on that in another post). But it was never more than a stopgap, and as I am about to start on the baseboards in the loft, yesterday I called time on the portable layout. I took up all the track, dismantled the board and carried the materials up to the loft for use there.

Before the dismantling, I gave the layout one final outing with some of my existing (pre-birthday) rolling stock...

In the above picture you can see the GWR Pullman set as well as my old faithful BR HST, a class 121 DMU and some freight stock.

RIP, portable layout. No flowers.

Completing the frame

After a couple of weeks of little progress, I have lots to report again. I took a day off yesterday and was up in the loft for about 7 hours. Here is the result...

With the exception of a couple of leg braces, the primary frame is now finished! The cross-bracing will help to support the baseboards and provide extra rigidity. About half of the bracing is reclaimed wood (stuff that was already up here when I started). There was just enough of this to save me a further trip to Wickes. The total cost of the frame is a little under £70, slightly over budget but allowing savings in other areas.

I put hardboard sheets along the back wall in order to provide a foundation for whatever backdrop eventually goes behind the model. For now, it will serve as a useful noticeboard!

Having done that (bar about half an hour to tidy everything up) I can turn my attention to the baseboards themselves. Before I can start building them I need to settle various questions that I still have.
  • Flat or open? Will the entire layout be built on a flat board, or will some sections be open-frame construction? At the moment I think the area along the back wall, which will contain the main station, will be flat board (possibly with the branch line platforms at a higher level along the back), but the through section at the front might include some open frame to allow interesting levels and more scope for scenery.
  • Where will I put my fiddle yard? The original plan has this as phase II, on a spur at the RH side in the above picture. But this may be impractical, because there is not that much space between the front of the layout and the loft hatch, and what space there is we need to retain for storage. So I have come up with a mad idea to try and place the fiddle yard UNDER the layout along the back wall. I would need to have feeder tracks running into tunnels and thence down under the frame. I have yet to work out whether this is possible without requiring alterations to the primary frame, which might get in the way of the feeder tracks.
  • What surface material will I use? I am still trying to decide whether to plump for plywood or MDF for the main running surface. Both have their pros and cons - MDF is cheaper and easier to fix track to, but ply is stronger and probably quieter. I have MDF left over from the portable layout, so I may use a mixture.

These are big issues and any advice or suggestions from out there would be welcome.


A big thank you to family and friends, especially Karen, for the shower of extremely useful birthday presents. I can run some serious trains now!

15 September 2008

Behold, the frame!

Well, the basic frame is up. Apologies to the neighbours for the assorted drilling, sawing and banging that has accompanied the lovely weather at various points during the weekend.

I started, as planned, with the plank along the back wall....

Next I added two of the longitudinal beams. The location of the chimney breast meant that I had to do things in a slightly strange order.

After that, the rest of the beams went in without any trouble. Despite my less-than-meticulous measurements in places, the frame is pleasingly level!

The right-hand of the two bar stools in the above picture is in what will eventually be the operator space. I encroached into this space a bit to provide more baseboard area, but I can confirm that there is still enough room for two reasonably sized people to sit in there comfortably! I am toying with the idea of making a scenery "lid" which can be used to cover that space if the layout is running automatically (he said, breezily...).

Before the primary frame can be considered complete, I need to add two further things:
  1. Legs to prop the frame in the middle (one of them is already in place, just visible in the above picture). The frame feels pretty solid but I would rather be safe than sorry.

  2. Cross-bracing in each "square" of the main frame. This should help the frame stay in shape as well as providing a bit of extra support when the baseboards go down.
I have the wood for both of these things, but it may be a couple of weeks before I can resume construction because of upcoming commitments. Nevertheless I feel happy with the progress made so far.

08 September 2008

Entering the building phase

Lots more progress to report. With a clear weekend I had plenty of time to complete the last of the preparation, buy the wood and get on with some real live construction.

First, I had to sort out the flooring. The loft had a bit of old carpet covering the walkway; when I rolled it back I found that, as well as covering the walkway, it also covered a multitude of sins...

Fortunately there was enough good chip and plywood, and some serviceable floor slats, amongst the jumble to allow me to lay a decent floor around the layout area. A permanent chip floor can wait, and it will have to: what these photos don't show is the unsightly mountain of boxes etc behind the camera! I'll need to tackle those before I can do a decent permanent job with the floor. But the result for now doesn't look too bad.

Having done all that, I was finally ready to start making the frame. A trip to Wickes ensued, wood was purchased and loaded into/onto the car (thank heavens for the roof-rack), and brought home, hoping that my knots would hold. My trip would of course have to coincide with the biggest rain-shower of the day! I was very glad yesterday not to be living in Morpeth. Anyway, the wood quickly dried and is now all safely up in the loft.

I have bought enough large planks (47x75mm cross-section) to construct a basic primary frame, supported along the sides by the main roofing timbers, along the back by the wall, and propped in the middle by legs. It's a lot of wood! Once the primary frame is built I'll make secondary frames to carry the baseboards (this will necessitate another trip to Wickes). These secondaries will be of smaller cross-section (22x47mm) and will fix directly onto the primary frame using bolts.

As can be seen in the above photo, the first transverse beam of the primary frame has been attached to the main cross-beam in the loft. Next to go in will be the transverse beam along the back wall. After that I'll put in the four longitudinal beams; that way the two remaining transverses will have something to rest on. The main challenge is, of course, getting everything level so that the baseboards don't have any underlying gradients.

It will probably all take a long time because I can't do noisy work (masonry drilling, cutting) in the evenings - our daughter sleeps in a room just below the loft hatch, and even she would surely not sleep through such a soundscape. I'll do what I can down in the garage, but some things I can only do in situ. Ah well - there's no rush. But now that I've started in earnest, I can't wait to see the first trains running.

01 September 2008

Progress (at last)

After a break of five months, I'm finally under way. Over the past week I have made significant progress in getting the loft ready to accept the layout. The layout space has been cleared, surrounding boxes have been moved, and, yesterday, I put in the extra lighting I will need to be able to see what I'm doing when building the framework. For lighting during the construction phase I'm just using an old fluorescent tube that used to live in our kitchen (we removed it the day after we moved in!) but eventually I will put in spotlights and other lighting to make the layout look better.

It feels good to be on the move again, even though it will be a long time before any trains actually run up there. I can't really say why it's taken so long to make progress since my first posts - except the obvious explanation, namely that the financial squeeze has kept a lid on all forms of spending. And even now, I don't know how long it will take to amass the wood for the framework. There's plenty of recyclable timber in the loft which should help with the frame, but not enough for everything I need to do.

I am planning a modular baseboard construction - a basic frame fixed into the loft, and then baseboard sections slotting into place on top, bolted together. The idea is to make the layout as portable as possible. I think I know how to do it, but I need to read a bit more first...

27 March 2008

Visiting Pendon

We visited the Pendon Model Railway Museum on Monday. On a snowy Bank Holiday with a toddler to entertain, we thought it worth a look. And we were right.

It's a low-profile attraction to say the least: tucked out of the way in the village of Long Wittenham near Didcot, with a cramped car park at the end of a narrow lane. But the welcome from the volunteer staff was warm and friendly - they seemed genuinely grateful that we had visited (and we were by no means the only people doing so). And once we got into the display rooms, Pendon revealed itself to be an inspirational place, especially for a budding modeller such as me.

There are three large models, two of which are fully functional. The extent of the models is breathtaking. With the massive hills and viaducts of the Dartmoor Scene you experience a vertiginous three-dimensionality that is just absent from most models: even at 1:76 scale, the high tors tower over the visitors. The Vale of White Horse Scene on the upper floor is 70 feet long and housed in a huge barn of a room - but the fine detail and realism of the models would justify any superlatives you cared to throw at them. The guide we spoke to said it would take another 15 years before everything on that layout would be complete, and it's easy to see why. Every length of track (EM gauge), every sleeper, every chair, is hand-made, individually assembled and individually weathered. Every contour of the landscape is carefully crafted. Every building is based on a real example somewhere in the Vale, and reproduced in loving detail. Even down to the hollyhocks blooming in the gardens. If I can capture even a fraction of that realism on my layout, I will be happy.

I heartily recommend Pendon for anyone who appreciates good scale modelling - not just in the railway sphere. They are always looking for volunteers to work on the modelling; if I had more time and more talent, I would jump at the chance.

26 March 2008

Early images

Here is the "site" as it is now...

The current site

And I have put together an outline plan for the layout...

The initial plan

(please excuse the roughness of the track sketch...)

Getting started

Welcome to the blog for Middlehampton. With this blog I intend to chart the process of constructing a model railway layout in my loft. I'll try to keep it up to date and add photos as the model progresses

Why "Middlehampton"?
It's a name I coined years ago to represent an imaginary city somewhere between Northampton and Southampton. The name seems plausible and is easy to remember. When I was about 12 I designed an entire city for Middlehampton, including transport network. This placed the city somewhere between Stevenage and Luton, with loops from both the East Coast and Midland mainlines servicing a mainline station, and an elaborate underground metro serving the suburbs. Fortunately for the residents of west Hertfordshire, this city has never been built; but the railway ideas live on to a lesser extent in this model.

The background
I have been interested in model railways for years. When I was about 12 my parents gave me a basic Hornby set (R790) for Christmas. Over time I extended this with track, rolling stock and buildings, and was finally able to establish a fixed layout on a baseboard hinged to my bedroom wall. This lasted for a few years but was impractical for a number of reasons. At around the time I left home to go to university, the layout was dismantled and put into storage, where it remained for the best part of 20 years.

At my 40th birthday recently, my wife and family clubbed together to buy me a fabulous new set (R1077) including DCC control and a GWR Pullman. This has inspired me to retrieve all the old boxes of stuff from the previous layout, and to start the process of revising the fixed layout idea - this time in the loft of my house where it is out of everyone's way. Just opening all the old boxes was a journey of rediscovery, especially when I came across items I had forgotten about. All the locomotives still work, although some of them are a little sluggish after 20 years gathering dust.

The model setting
As soon as I returned to this, I knew that the model would have to have certain features and a particular setting. The basic design is already fixed through long hours of daydreaming, and as the ideas have taken shape I have reached the following basic parameters for the model:

  • Based on 1970s British Rail (my favourite period)
  • Loop design: double-track mainline and two single-track branch lines
  • Junction station: mainline with through tracks, and intersecting branch lines
  • Branch line station halt
  • Fiddle yard off the loop, with up-and-over spurs from the mainline

Because I have the benefit of DCC control, I will be working on that basis for the entire model. Already I have started to convert some of my existing locos to DCC - more on this in a later post.

The constraints
There are a few constraints which I will have to take into account:

  • The loft is small and we need some of the space for other purposes. Hence the available space is limited - only 10' x 7'. This puts limits on the scope of the model, and particularly on the platform length for the mainline station. Some of the curves will be tighter than I'd like.
  • I need to use proprietary models and components (I have no experience - yet - at doing it myself)
  • Finance and time are, as ever, limiting factors - so it may take a while to get everything done

The plan
There's lots to do but I hope to approach it in a methodical way. Here are the steps that need to be taken first:

  • Clear the loft space and make the remainder of the loft useable
  • Install decent lighting and power in the layout area
  • Build the basic framework using new or recovered timber
  • Build the baseboards

I will try to keep this blog up to date with photos and further reports, as the work progresses. Comments and suggestions will be welcome at any point.