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Life, The Universe.......and garden railways

by John Roach

The Intro and the Outro

Some scribblings on the why, what and how of that brass and plastic ribbon that winds around our little piece of Cambridgeshire. 
Many of us will know that a garden railway is a lot of hard work, frustration, and battles with nature. On the other hand, there is the magic moment when the sun is sinking, the garden is bathed in a warm glow, our drink of choice is in our hand*, and a train is trundling** slowly amongst the flowers.

* Mine's a pint of Adnams, as you've asked. 
  Thank you.

** Or chuffing, if you are of the mobile water-boiling persuasion

The Long and Winding Road...

First piece of brutal honesty - I am an indoor modeller at heart. The excursion into civil and mechanical engineering has come about as a result of two cynical calculations; one on my part, one on the part of my life's little helpmate.

Me: "At least going out into the garden will give me more space than allowed/available inside, and more encouragement to get on with the railway"
She: "At least letting him build a railway in the garden will give him more incentive to maintain and improve the garden"

As with all compromises, both parties have ended up slightly disappointed. (David Cameron and Nick Clegg - are you listening?). 

From wifey's point of view, the scorecard is:
Plus:   I've put a lot of effort into garden infrastructure and maintenance.
Minus: I'm still not safe to be let near green stuff in the garden, in case I pull up a weed that isn't.
          The railway has proved a bit restrictive for plantings, due to lack of space in some areas, and the mutterings from yours truly about plants growing over the track, being too big etc.

From my point of view, it looks thus:
Plus:   I have a working (but still woefully incomplete) railway
Minus: I've spent a lot of time in the garden, but not much on the railway. (See the plus point above.)

Has it been worth it? On balance, yes.

Power to the People


There was simply no debate at the start (around 1999 - 2001). My perception was that live steam was (a) horrendously expensive and (b) for model engineering types. Battery power involved electronics and - even worse - soldering. So track power it was. I was happy with the ideas of the standard "two wires to the rail, SPDT section switches and a controller or two" approach from my HO and N scale days. Track was laid with plenty of section breaks, wires were led back to the main station area for a control panel. Wiring diagrams were prepared , ready to build a traditional control panel. Digital control was becoming available, but I regarded all such devices as the spawn of Satan. (More electronics, see?).

And then...

As chronicled elsewhere on these pages, from 2005 we chose to spend our weekends bobbing about off the East coast of England in 31ft of white GRP with a big stick and flappy things on top. On returning to the railway in 2008, a number of perceptions had changed. It began to dawn on me that I was never going to have a big stud of locos that demanded a complex control system. It has taken longer for me to realise that "operation", as I had known it in my US modelling, was not going to feature outside. For the forseeable future, running the railway will involve a train circulating on the main line, perhaps with another held in the passing loop (when the loop is finished). On rare occasions, a bit of therapeutic buffer-bashing (sorry - shunting) may take place in the station area. 

These realisations have meant that the complex control panel is unlikely to be built, my trusty Gaugemaster controller will continue to be hooked up to the lash-up section feeds, and the Aristocraft Train Engineer (a Christmas present in 2003) will remain in the box. And what about other forms of power?...

Radio Ga-ga

Track power brings with it the joys of keeping the track clean. Running trains frequently is one way of reducing the burden of scrubbing the track; unfortunately my railway gets very infrequent use. Six or eight weeks between trains is not uncommon, so thirty or forty minutes spent cleaning the track and freeing up sticky points is a prerequisite for any track powered running. Bang goes the spontaneous "let's run a train while we eat our tea on the patio" sort of occasion.

The move to British outline models also meant a different approach to powering the wee beasties. Ready to run track powered British outline locos are not exactly two a penny, so I had to face up to on-board control. The Accucraft Baguley diesel, complete (literally) with all bells and whistles, has proved a great first step into radio control. This allows a train to be plopped on the track and running in five minutes, while I mow the lawn, do the weeding or other tasks.

I've come to the conclusion that radio control will be the way forward; basic track power will be maintained, just in case I ever have any visitors to the line. I will have to find the time and courage to try converting a track powered loco to battery r/c, but for the moment that is down the priority list. 

Fire and  Water

The default assumption for (British Outline) garden railways seems to be "Garden Railway = live steam". However, steam may not feature on my line for a little while yet....

Second piece of brutal honesty - I like diesels. Although I was 13 when steam stopped on BR, I wasn't a railway enthusiast at that stage. Not for me sandwiches and a bottle of Tizer on some steamy station platform; I was more likely to be watching the aircraft at Speke Airport, or building a King Tiger or Jagdpanther, or painting more figures for my model Wermacht. So I don't have a nostalgia for steam, only the inherited folk-memory that makes one connect the locomotive with a slightly rosy-tinged past. I can also admire them as pieces of the mechanical engineers' art. I became more interested in railways in the early 1980's, following the birth of our son, and the arrival of of his first Hornby train set. So my trainspotting days actually started in my late 20's, when blue diesels reigned supreme.

I've always been a bit apprehensive about live steam; partly because I still associate it with "engineering" (and therefore complexity), and partly because I lack the fundamental knowledge and vocabulary of the machinery. (I couldn't tell a clack valve from a cistern valve...). I've had one experience of live steam (thanks Graham!), and most enjoyable it was too.

However, I have to face up to an inconvenient fact - currently, with lots of work and family pressures, I don't have the time for live steam. On the rare occasion trains run, it is likely to be at short notice, to get something trundling around while I get on with other tasks.  To get out a steam loco, prepare it, and raise steam is probably half an hour. Plus, given the gradient on the line (well, it seemed like a good idea at the time), the engine would have to be driven, rather than left to it's own devices. So steamies will arrive, but not just yet.

Anyway, that will give me time to work out what a clack valve is.....

It's my party...

Railway modellers will usually sit somewhere on a spectrum - at one end are the "model the prototype as it appeared on August 30th 1939" fundamentalists. At the other, there are the happy-go-lucky bunch who work to the "anything goes" philosophy, enshrined in the (in)famous Rule 8 - "it's my railway, and I'll run what I like".
If you are of the latter group, then have fun; it's a perfectly valid approach. If I visit your line, I'll enjoy it.

But it doesn't work for me. I want my line to have some form of coherence. Hence the backstory outlined elsewhere on the site - to give some kind of framework to hang rolling stock acquisitions on. I freely accept that there are anomalies in my approach - I'm trying to work to 15mm/foot, but have some 14mm and 16mm items. Some of my stock is of 2 foot gauge prototype, some of 3 foot. But as long as it hangs together without glaring scale differences, I'm happy. After all, real narrow gauge lines (especially the more financially challenged ones) often tended to have a somewhat eclectic mix of rolling stock. Plus it fits in with my LNER* modelling technique.

*LNER - Looks Near Enough Right

Weather with you

One topic guaranteed to to reduce otherwise civilized modellers to steely-eyed, "Hot glue guns at dawn" hostility is the topic of weathering rolling stock. "Unweathered stock is toy-like!", cry the grunge brigade , as they fire up their airbrushes. "I'm not risking ruining a perfectly good model" retort the shiny boys, as they give their prized steamie another buff and polish...

I happily attacked my HO and N gauge stock with chalk powders and dry brushing - it looked right, and was appropriate to the layouts. However, I'm not so sure about the merits of weathering in the great outdoors. My feeling is that brighter models stand out from, and can compete with, brightly coloured flora. Weathered stock is more subdued, and, unless all plantings are to scale (mine certainly aren't), it seems to me that the train starts to get lost in the scenery. Whilst I like the railway to blend in with the environment, I'd prefer subtlety to invisibility.

The Wanderer

I get a bit embarrassed when I look at the rummage-sale heap that passes for my workbench. Y'see, I tend to have a lot of projects on the go.
I start on an item with good intentions, then somehow it all goes pudd'n shaped. I get so far with the model, then as progress is usually slow, my mind tends to wander*. It frequently comes back with an idea firmly in it's grasp. 
"Y'know, you really should try modifying a Hartland flat wagon". 
Good idea - I've got some coffee stirrers. I was getting bored repainting this station anyway, and need a break......

Then that get's overtaken by the pressing need to build a small halt to cover a stepping stone by the track....

Actually, I really should put a driver in that loco. 'Bout time I tried painting a figure....


*Sometimes it wanders so far it sends me postcards.

Break every rule

The aforementioned Rule 8 is not the only one that applies to Garden Railways:

Law of Selective Gravity: 
Of all the rolling stock in the train, it will be the most expensive item that derails and hits the floor. 

Law of Budgetary Deficit: 
Garden Railways will cost all you can afford + 10% 
Garden Railways will cost 3 times as much as you admit to your spouse, and twice as much as you admit to yourself. 

Law of Temporal Distortion: 
The expensive detailing part will disappear from your workbench, only to travel through time and reappear in the future (usually after you've shelled out on a replacement). 

Newton's Second Law of Garden Railways: 
An object in motion will remain in constant motion - until your back is turned. At which point it will derail spectacularly at the most inaccessible point of the line. 

Law of Proportionate Disaster: 
The probability of a major cock-up is in direct proportion to the number of people watching. 

Eeyore's Principle: 
Murphy was an optimist. 

Paint it Black..

Modelling a freelance railway brings benefits (for example, the sense of creating, rather than replicating something). It also brings dangers, mainly to the wallet - "Oooh, yes, I like that loco - I'll think of a reason why it might run on my line..."  There are also the the many decisions to make once you become the Chief Civil/Mechanical/Electrical Engineer. Such as colour schemes.

I'm still pondering the loco scheme - it's not made it up the priority list yet. However, I've been building or repainting a number of lineside structures, so I wanted a "house style". This is where those folks following a prototype have it easier - they just reach for their copy of "GWR Fire Buckets for the historian and modeller - Volume 2" and away they go. In my wisdom, I've decided to go for a BR Scottish Region/West Highland inspired blue and white scheme. Logical, given a BR or later period setting in the West of Scotland. But also A Bad Move.

A number of you will already be sniggering at the potential drawback - painting large-ish areas of white over pre-coloured or previously painted structures has proved to be A Pain In The Backside. Whilst I like the result, I can't help feeling that I've shot myself in the foot. Hey ho - grimy black, anyone?

Under Pressure

Now this club is a wonderful thing; a credit to the "Founding Fathers" whose idea it was. However, it has a creeping, insidious, effect on contributors - peer pressure.

This takes a number of forms. The constant posting of high quality modelling can be inspiring;  "Yes! - I could have a go at something like that" This spurs waverers on to do things, and possibly do things better. Feedback and suggestions only improve the process. But when times are difficult, and modelling time is scarce, it can be a bit depressing to see the parade of productive activity passing in front of one's eyes.

The main point of this rambling is, however, about a different pressure. About 60 psi to be precise. Y'see, the live steam afficionados have to be the most subtly evangelical bunch around. Regular posting of chuffing videos and atmospheric steamy shots eventually wear down the resistance of even the most die-hard diesel fan. So despite writing a few months ago that live steam would not be arriving on the ALR for some time, I now find myself awaiting the arrival of a steamie. The Brotherhood of the Oily Rag is about to gain a novice member (I'm not sure what the initiation ceremony is, but it probably involves something unspeakable with steam oil and a 6BA spanner).

Now, where's my boiler suit and tea can?...

Living in the past

15 or so years of small scale indoor modelling conditions one to a certain way of thinking. Like, y'know, railways are made up of multiples of 4 foot by 2 foot pieces of wood. And you need a big loco fleet to keep people interested. And railways must run in straight lines, not round curves, because an oval is Not Prototypical. And you must get the layout looking scenically beautiful, 'cos otherwise it might be considered A Toy. (Horror! Shame!)

It took me a long time to rid myself of the large rolling stock fleet/sequence timetable way of thinking. (Given the cost of garden-size items, this is a good thing for my bank balance and matrimonial state). But the habit of building scenery is proving harder to shake off than a Jack Russell on a postman's ankle. Virtually all the projects sitting on my workbench (and lurking under it) are structures. Two station buildings to repaint, a fish loading shed to kit-bash, a line-side hut partly assembled and painted, a loco shed to re-roof and repaint, a low relief pub and cottage to build.....  I've got more construction projects planned/underway than several small Gulf states.

Why? Because 4 exhibition layouts tell me that bare track is not The Done Thing. 

But hang on a minute - the track isn't bare. I don't need scatter materials - I've got real soil and ballast. I don't need lots of Woodland Scenics foilage -  I've got plants and shrubs. Real railways consist of lots of - well, not much apart from track. Am I building a railway or a model village?

In the words of Fagin, "I'm reviewing the situation"

The Name of the Game...

...or more accurately, the game of the name. Applying names to locos is part of the time-honoured tradition of garden railways. There all sorts of approaches to the naming policy, from the sort-of-prototypical through to the downright comic. One dominant practice, though, seems to be that of naming a loco after one's soulmate. Whether this is done through affection, pride or downright grovelling, it's pretty normal. In fact, Roundhouse might as well refer to their "Lady Anne" as "Lady.....(insert name of significant other here)".
As Tag Gorton commented in a recent GR editorial, this needs care. It's not advisable to fix the name of your beloved to the loco too firmly, just in case......

Anyway, there was no debate about the naming policy for the ALR. Whilst I suppose I could have gone for suitably Scots names  - Wolf of Badenoch, Thane of Fife - it was to be family names. The diesels (hard working, no fuss, dependable) are to be named after male members of the family, whilst steam locomotives (glamorous, high maintenance, liable to uncontrolled explosions if not handled with care) will carry names of the distaff side. 

Now, when the Caradoc arrived, I made the usual ingratiating offer to my good lady of naming the loco after her. Any vision of thereby gaining loads of  Brownie points evaporated with the reply that she was really not bothered about having a loco bearing her name. OK, says I, this one will be named "Princess Louise", after our daughter. Still going for the toadying approach, I stated that the second loco to arrive (whenever that is) would be named "Lady Ruth", in her honour.
"What?" was the response - "if our daughter is a Princess, I don't want to be merely a Lady!"  
"Errm - hang on - you weren't bothered about having a loco named after you."
"Yes, but - it's the principle of the thing."

Wimmin', eh?

Exotic Birds and Fruit

The species Homo Modelrailwaycus is normally sub-divided into 3 sub-species - The Builder, The Collector and The Operator. 

The Collector is distinguished by a showy plumage of brightly-coloured boxes, the contents of which are only revealed rarely; often this occurs in the presence of other members of the sub-species. This is normally assumed by observers to be an attempt to establish a dominant position in the group, by flaunting "A rare example of the LGB Silver Anniversary set with the logos reversed on the second coach" or other exotica. This sub-species is not high in numbers, as the obsessive nature of acquiring the collection is considered by many to be an obstacle to mating activities.

The Builder, by contrast, is a less gaudy creature. Adorned with odd splashes of paint, occasionally with digits fixed together by careless application of Superglue, this sub-species rarely strays from it's natural habitat in sheds or garage workbenches. Never happier than when fettling bits of brass, plastic or wood, occasionally emitting it's distinguishing cry of "I knew this would come in useful" as it pulls a random piece of junk from a corner of the shed, it is an industrious creature. Unfortunately, the industry is often matched by a short attention span, with it's nest (workbench) full of semi-completed projects. Builders are more successful in the mating stakes, as the female of the species considers many of the skills transferable to other activities such as the strange process known as "DIY". However, jobs often take longer than planned, due the builders' habit of breaking off from, for example, a plumbing job, as he realises that the sink waste pipe is just the right diameter for a Hunslet boiler.....

The final group, The Operators, exist in a blur of bell codes, sequence timetables and fast clocks. They display all the patience and skill of a lion stalking an antelope as they approach a knotty shunting problem. Operators chatter excitedly about correct lamp codes, the priority of trains of different classes, and, for those who use mobile water-boiling to power their trains, arcane matters of "horsepower" or "pressure".  Plumage varies according to their particular passion - it may be bright T-shirts with many badges and strange symbols, or it may be faded tweeds or overalls with coal or grease stains (this variation is assumed to be a form of morphic resonance, with the plumage changing in response to differing stimuli). They are the most gregarious of the sub-species, flocking to rituals know as "Exhibitions" or "Open days" .

Born to Run

Following on from the previous paragraph, I suppose I ought to 'fess up as to where I stand in the species classification. For most of my involvement in model railways, building models has been a necessary evil ; something which has to be done to allow the enjoyable stuff to be undertaken - operating!
I have had the pleasure over the years of operating a large number of layouts, amongst which were:
- Andy Hart's legendary Achaux on a number of occasions including the old IMREX in London
- Barry Walls' O gauge Wallsea - as the new boy I was given the role of shedmaster, responsible for turning, servicing and sending out the appropriate class of loco for the timetabled service, (with lamps in the correct position for the class of train). With Barry's beautiful hand-built locos (A4s, B17s, J15s et al) it was a pleasure to handle the tasks.
- My good friend Mike Boutle's O gauge Ronce, an SNCF layout au style anglais, i.e. terminus to fiddle yard, with 3-link couplings. In an example of "carrying coals to Newcastle", we took the layout to an exhibition in Compiegne, where we confirmed the locals' opinion of the eccentricities of les rosbifs. As we wrestled with the 3-link couplings, the spectators could be seen shaking their heads in wonder/pity at les attelages anglais.....

My US modelling led me to long for the sort of purposeful operations our cousins over the pond indulge in. The idea of signing up on a call board for a job, getting my train orders and remote throttle, then taking a train over a large layout against the clock whilst obeying instructions from the despatcher, sounded just fine. I wanted the radio headset, and to be saying things like "Extra 3532 West rolling" and "Roger that, Despatch" (Yes, I know I'm sad...).

Large scale modelling has necessitated model building, quite a bit of which, I have to admit, has been enjoyable. However, I know that if you put me in the vicinity of an operating layout, it would be a case of "Gimme that throttle, bud" and modelling tools would be dropped like a shot.

I can see for miles and miles

I'm starting to compile a little list of "Things I'll do differently on the next garden railway". One item on the list is to try to introduce more "view blocks"; nothing make a small layout look smaller than being able to see all of it. I've managed some, but one area troubles me:

The scree bed, in the early (US) days:

The bed looks fine, but seeing all the track heightens the tightness of the curve. This is, of course fine if you are modelling the Horseshoe Curve, Tehachapi, or chunks of the Darjeeling -Himalaya. There was a good reason for not hiding the rear part of the curve - my live-in carer said that it was bad enough losing a chunk of her small garden, without hiding a  portion of what is left. Plus a mound, or tall shrubs, would make the already shady strip by the fence even darker. 

I can see our next garden having a "my" side and "your" side. 

Listen to what the man said

I've never considered myself to be too bad at languages. I mean, I did A-Level French and Spanish (OK, it was mumblety-mumble years ago); I have been known to get the beer and wurst order correct in Germany; and I even have a stock of useful Scots phrases (Awa' an' bile yer heid, ye big feartie). But on reading Garden Rail, SMT, or indeed corners of this esteemed site,  I am frequently confronted with a baffling language; I'm so lost I frequently wish for one of dear old Douglas Adams' Babel Fish.

 I think the language is called Engineerish.

An otherwise perfectly readable article suddenly veers off into this impenetrable dialect, and I am left looking for the pictures, feeling like a first year French student being given a copy of Proust, Zola or Jean-Paul Satre in French and told to get on with it.

Lacking a Rosetta stone for these techno-hieroglyphs, I can only loosely transcribe a typical paragraph:
"It's a known problem with the Omnibombulator - it's all down to the queeching valve not flip-flopping. A quick tap with a half-inch naggler should loosen things up. Then you need to disconnect the thrutch-flange from the base plate; two turns to the left, three to the right. Careful when you ease it off, as the truss beam is only a loose fit on the clacking trunion.  You might need to nurdle the spigot from the thrust plunger - a three-eighths Gripley is useful here - then a quick drop of Bunker C to lubricate it, and Robert is your avuncular relation." 

At least, I think that's what it said......

All things must pass...

All lives are finite. Mercifully, the majority of us are unaware of our allotted span on Earth; however, the Ardnacraish Light Railway has now had it's life expectancy defined.

There has been a lot of evaluation of our lives going on chez nous over the last 6 months or so. Much soul-searching about what we want from our remaining years on this mortal coil, lots of  financial calculations (Spreadsheets! Yay!) and thinking about family matters. The arrival, in a couple of years time, of a significant birthday for us  (hint - the first digit is a 6....) has hastened the process. 
The Lord - and pension funds - willing, I will hopefully be fully retired in about 4 years time; at which point we will sell up and move to a slightly smaller house. Location uncertain, probably nearer one of the offspring. The railway would be lifted before sale, so if we want to sell up in early 2016, then closure and track lifting would need to take place in autumn 2015. So the ALR has a bit over 3 and a half years left. This focusses the mind somewhat, so I am determined to get the railway in a satisfactory state quickly, and concentrate on running and building models.

Sorry if this seems a bit maudlin - normal lighter-hearted service will resume in due course.

Welcome to the machine

It's funny - I'd always thought of my interest in railways as being fairly holistic. I'm as interested in the social history of the railways as in the trains themselves. Similarly, in modelling, I've always concentrated on getting a working, scenic railway; this usually resulted in ready-to-run stock, with all my efforts being directed towards the infrastructure and scenics. So it was logical that when I started in the garden, I wanted to get things looking right. (more of this in a future ramble).

And yet...
When I look back over the years, my memories of transport (I'm interested in all sorts) have not been of the infrastructure or background - it's been of machines.

Things that have made me go all moist-eyed and weak at the knees:

-  an express loco (especially one of LNER provenance!) thundering past....

- A HST in it's glory days, exiting Kings Cross, it''s pair of Paxman Valentas howling as it disappears into Gasworks Tunnel in a haze of exhaust...

- The sweet sound of a Rolls Royce Merlin, as a lone Spitfire headed west towards the sunset.. 

- As a lad, watching an English Electric Lightning in "Intercept climb" mode, afterburners screaming as it pointed it's nose vertically skyward and disappeared in a ear-shattering roar of Rolls-Royce Avons...

- A Thames barge ghosting up an East coast river, accompanied by the creak of wood, canvas and rope...

So I'm reconsidering my approach to garden railways; whilst bare track on wooden planks is not my thing, perhaps a bit less emphasis on scenics wouldn't go amiss.Reflecting on the above makes me realise that whilst the holistic view may be  good for the brain, it's the sound and vision of the machines that have the power to move the soul...

Turn to Stone

Another entry on the list of "Things I'll do differently on the next garden railway";

A logical carry-over from indoor modelling was the use of plastic structures in the garden. Whilst claiming no particular excellence in the kit-building, they were in my comfort zone, so to speak. However, what was good for my indoor slice of France or California is not necessarily the same for the great outdoors. Whilst I yield to none in my admiration of talented creators of miniature worlds (such as Mel and the good Doctor of this parish) the downside of detailed plastic structures is weighing on my mind. I found that details were coming adrift in the hurly-burly of the garden environment, regular repainting necessary and glue comes un-glued. When one is tight for time, the natural view is that a job should stay jobbed, not require re-jobbing on a regular basis. Wear and tear can be minimised by bringing buildings inside (which is what I have done), but this gives the line a bare look, and adds to the time required for a running session. In truth, I hardly ever put out the buildings usually I just grab a loco and some stock, plonk them on the track, and get on with the garden tasks. Time for a rethink...

I'm moving towards the idea of having fewer, but more robust buildings. To this end, a few Cain Howley stone structures have arrived, and are likely be the way forward. I'm happy to accept fewer, less detailed but more robust structures. The benefit of having them visible all year round, with less maintenance required appeals to me.

Who knows. less time faffing about on buildings may mean more time spent working on my ginormous pile of unmade rolling stock kits.
(All pigs fuelled and clear for take-off....)