Heard. Not always seen.

I’ve been on this real layout planning kick again. Maybe it’s the season or maybe (probably) it’s sharing a life with the profoundly creative Krista – it feels so good in this space we share for that sense of shared creativity energy that fills the room.

That’s a photo of the engine shed at St.Ives. The main track extends from the right of this photo on into the station and from there you’d detrain to either head up to your hotel or straight down onto the beach. As with my Looe plan, I’ve been sketching some single line railway plans for the station itself but this post is not about that.

St.Ives’ engine shed was just a single track and reached by a switchback siding off the main. (In my sketch above I’ve added on extra siding as a raised track for coal wagons to be placed to fuel engines. Sort of St.Ives but not really. Sorry.). This plan will never host a complexity of operating session challenges to make it one of the great operating layouts of our era but it would be a pleasant, almost relaxing, place to watch a Small Prairie or Pannier drift in and out of either to mark the end points of their day or perhaps just to take on water before heading out again. I work from home these days and where I stand to work isn’t that far from where the layout sits. That same space is where the stereo is and our workday is scored by what we’re listening to. It could be scored by the bucolic sounds of St.Ives’ seaside and maybe, occasionally, punctuated with the sounds of a tank engine. As I wade into my morning I could switch the layout on and then leave it on and walk away. Doing that would energize recordings of the waves on the beach, seagulls, or any of those like sounds. That’s a wonderful aural backdrop for our day. I could even light one of those nice beach scented candles we have to complete that atmosphere. In that recorded loop you could include random sequences of people at work in the shed. That and those continue through the day: hear, smell, but not see.

Every so often, when I break to make tea, I could wander over to the layout and switch on the engine. While my real life kettle is boiling the model in the shed would be warming. Sound sequences of shovelling coal, inspections being completed, and the like are building and their voice joins the sounds in my kitchen from making tea and maybe a snack too. This is where the session begins. What we’ve enjoyed already as heard and breathed we ready to see.

Tea made, I grab the throttle and ease the engine out the shed a few feet to the water column. At this stage we both take turns enjoying our respective refreshments. That’s good.

Okay, ease forward to clear the point. We can grab this one but we’ll have to wait for the one onto the main to be opened for us. More tea while we wait. This is good.

Ah, it’s time. Open the throttle again and we drift out of our little siding and down toward the station to start the day’s work. In real life the model engine drifts out of that siding and backs, behind the model engine shed, into staging. I’m done so head back over to do the work. The engine is switched off so is silent but the recordings of the seaside continue on.

Periodically, through the day, I can wander back to the layout to play with it. If I had a couple of engines in staging one could be brought out for a five minute blast of playing with trains fun while waiting for data to compile. Bring the engine in, water and fuel, then it drifts back into staging to return to work just like I should. This is time I currently waste screwing around on my cell phone. Why not play trains for a couple of minutes?.

As my day winds down I’d shut down my computer then walk back over to the layout and bring the branch engine home to rest for the night. It’s time for all of us to get into making supper.

Let’s think about what it means to build a model railway in our living room: it shares the space. Its design must integrate with the other uses of the space and it must contribute to the space, not subtract from it. It’s easy to think the model railway as a sculptural installation contributing form to the space. In this design I’m asking if attributes like ambient sounds from this scene could contribute other qualities too? Could it make the room more pleasurable to be in? If its addition contributes to more than just the built environment of our living room this feels like a greater value that better respects the space it occupies and subtracts from this resource in our home.

I like the idea of frequent but short operating sessions. This design doesn’t center on complete thirty minute sessions like the 5-20-5 ones I dreamed about but instead on many very short blasts of play. Even in writing this article I find it attractive the way these sessions blossom in the normal day. Their unplanned timing would be not unlike the themes of each tiny operating session throughout a day at a shed like St.Ives’. The time used, as I mentioned, is just like the time I’d normally spend playing with my phone so this might be a more productive use of time – time wasted better?

When I first drew the plan my thoughts were more inside the envelope of the railway’s space. I thought I should include a siding to store some other items of rolling stock to provide an alternative option for an operating session. By thinking about this layout in the context of how it would be interacted with during a day I don’t think that extra track adds anything of value to the layout’s design. That said…wait: the original design works because its operating session asks for a casual amount of interaction. Beyond the workday, when there might be more time, I could instead invest time and attention in interacting with those cars? That’s kind of a neat way to build different personalities into one very simple model railway design.

I seldom discuss a choice of scale when sharing these designs but this time I’ll need to say that OO/HO might be too small and O is probably about right. A lot of this layout is based on needing to study this layout up close. In O, the models are large enough to watch the way the light in your room bounces off the spokes of the engine’s wheels. This plan does not use a large area of space. Within the layout we see individual models but, as we step back out from it, those individual models fade into each other and contribute to a collage of form. In a larger scale, this blurring effect may be lessened and the parts may not be lost inside each other. We think of larger scale models favouring detail and we celebrate that “it’s okay that they might cost more because you won’t need as many to fill your space” and I’ll add that when the time to study and appreciate your work is finite you can invest a greater proportion of it into these fewer models: study that tree instead of all those trees.

The track plan is simple. In my drawing I’ve indicated two turnouts. These two turnouts are probably safely operated locally by the crew on that engine, so, I’d operate them using typical manual means like I’ve used before. However, this is all reached by a turnout off the main track. This mainline turnout would be interlocked and we’d have to (want to) ask for permission and so it can be changed by the person in the signal box. To replicate this I’d have a simple push button on the fascia we use to “call” the signal box. Pushing that starts a clock and at a random period of time that turnout changes. It forces us to wait for an external actor to do their part – I think that’s cool.

At one point a branch like this would be served by a full day of trains. Our locally-stabled branch engine moves through all the steps of the typical day, either starting its day or ending it. I suggested that, during the day, it would return to the scene to take on water; that could be other engines too. If we include that coaling siding, every so often, we can bring in a coal wagon and exchange it for the one that’s always there. Because we’re doing this using larger scale models we should probably figure out how to make the doors on the hinged so we have to close the door on the wagon before we pick it up and open the new one’s door when we drop it off. Also, this siding is elevated so we’re shoving up to it. In O you could easily bury a small servo and decoder in the underframe so there’s a real brake to set on the model – wouldn’t that be cool?


As part of my daily routine I read Peter’s blog and, since his writing always rewards consideration, I treat myself to thinking about what he has to say. Tea is everything to me. Just when I thought I couldn’t think anything more important about it, Peter writes this: https://ruk.ca/content/fulfilling-small%C2%A0dreams-often-possible

Speaking of inspiration, Geoff Forster’s blog is a constant example of the power of design focussed on designing for your experience and to enrich the quality of that. Thank you Simon, I wouldn’t know about it if you hadn’t shared it: https://luggvalleyrailway.wordpress.com/llangunllo/

All this talk of Panniers seems like more than enough excuse to reread Tom Forster’s blog since his posts on modelling them are among my favourites on the subject: https://tfmodelling.wordpress.com/tag/pannier-tanks/

There’s no doubt Pont-y-dulais is a superb example of just how good a layout like this could look if moved into the late industrial steam era: https://paxton-road.blogspot.com/2020/09/friday-update-eighteen-nine-twenty.html

While we’re hopping around in time, OTCM’s Six Quarters is another sweet example of that late era industrial steam aesthetic that suits this scene too: https://otcm.wordpress.com/six-quarters/



Categories: How I think, model railway design, My Favourite Prince Street

Tags: , , , ,

12 replies

  1. Why the extra siding for loco coal? That’s extra expense to install and maintain, which the railway company would be keen to avoid.
    In practice, no trains ran overnight on such lines, and once or twice a week a single wagon load of coal would be taken on-shed as the branch loco was “put to bed” overnight, with the coal wagon by the stage, with the shed cleaner acting as labourer to shovel the coal from wagon to stage.
    Not as interesting, operationally, I suppose, but this is a big difference between railways in the UK vs North America: people were cheap, and land expensive. Labour-saving ideas that might require some capital expenditure didn’t come into it for small sheds.
    You can possibly find exceptions which test this rule, but that’s the point about the general rule: the exceptions are rare. Rare enough that for verisimilitude on a layout, either model the individual specific example, or the general rule.

    Just my tuppenceworth…

    • Valuable thoughts and certainly appreciated.

      In MRJ 250 Iain Rice posted a photo of Thaxted shed which had one of these coal sidings. I liked it so thought it might be a fun addition. I agree that it is added expense so unlikely to be common in prototype anywhere.

      On a model I also thought it interesting the way it shaped the land. In this thin space the raised siding creates a trough that runs down into the center of the scene which is opposite to the typical idea of raising a modeled scene as we move from front to back. I liked the visual arrangement of the engine emerging from this.

      In model form the biggest deciding factor is going to be: can it be added and is the space consumed to add it worth the cost. That cost borne of details like we’re discussing.

      • Thaxted was a relative latecomer to the scene, not being built until just before WW1, when labour costs had escalated considerably from 40-50 years before, when a lot of branch lines were built.
        Which underlines my point: to model the exception, you need to do just that, if verisimilitude is your aim.
        Unfortunately, this can become a bit boring, as to model the loco coal being unloaded, the rest of the layout is (a) inactive and (b) probably in the dark, too.
        Other common methods of loading coal on branch lines were to have the coal wagon standing somewhere convenient, and to either “parallel park” next to it, or to simply buffer up to the wagon, so that the bunker was adjacent to it, and just a shovel’s throw away…

        If you built such a small scene as primarily a diorama, then having the coal wagon simply standing in front of the shed is less of an issue, as you can stage things for photography or even leave it be whilst having a chat!
        Alternatively, have the shed and coal road to the front of the layout, with the shed building acting as the view block for entry/exit to the scene.

      • And that is the general arrangement of the scene, from the front and moving backward: coal, engine shed, siding disappears behind engine shed into staging so there’s no need to hid it travelling through the sky.

        I’m not opposed to the idea of replenishing coal from the engine shed’s siding. That could be equally as much fun and no less story. At most, the only rolling stock on this sparse layout is the engine plus maybe that coal wagon so finding a way to showcase the modelling on that wagon is a consideration.

  2. This looks dangerously close to Pont-y-dulais with Panniers…
    https://paxton-road.blogspot.com/2020/04/pont-y-dulais-we-have-light.html
    I love how you’ve expressed the concept, and how you might interact with it, this is a great way to put the feelings I have about PyD located above my bench and ready for a play at any point through the day.
    I think the idea of an associated sound track sounds superb, I find DCC sound distracting and prefer the simplicity of DC control, but a soundscape would be very mindful and a lovely background to the working day.

    • There is, undeniably, a resemblance but here’s how I arrived: I was working through the idea of single line stations like the Looe plan. Those plans are absolutely modern era projects. Moving back from St.Ives’ station I travelled past the site of the St.Ives engine shed. My head was still mainline railways when I sketched this. As I typed toward the end of this post I wondered if it would be plausible to move this into the 1970’s. Like Pont-y-dulais? If I were lucky. While we’re talking OTCM’s Six Quarters is another superlative example of doing this aesthetic right: https://otcm.wordpress.com/six-quarters/

      In the 1970’s version of Heard. Not Seen I’d really want that coaling siding but have it buried and long out of service. Loco coal is trucked in and a tractor helps load the engine. Set in late winter. Overcast. Lousy.

      I arrived at this plan inspired by early twentieth century GWR but am really engaged in the idea of moving into the 1970’s – an era, for countless reasons, I find so attractive.

      • I think the plan would work as an industrial setting and the concept still holds, shift change would bring the engine back to the shed… however the sound of the seaside and holidays wins out I hunk. My comparison was more that the idea of a simple plank you can visit and revisit for short periods through the day is one is a path I’ve already trodden and can warmly recommend.

      • Certainly and that ambient sound was the driver behind this planning exercise. The idea you could switch the layout on to trigger that ambiance but, unlike we usually do, I wouldn’t interact with it immediately. Not until there’s a moment I needed a break. Then, time to lose myself in a moment of moving steam engines around.

  3. Is that structure with the long ladder against it the station platform? What an ornate structure!

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