The Rise (and Fall) of a Lockdown Model Railway

Thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, most of us are spending more time at home. Safely distanced from distractions of the outside world, many have turned to jigsaw puzzles or online Pilates classes. Others, like myself, have spent more time reading, finally working through shelves laden with unread books. Some have even invested their new-found leisure time in building a model railway!

Amongst the ranks of modellers in lockdown was our very own Edward, who built an impressive OO gauge layout in collaboration with his brothers. Alas, the layout is no more, and Edward is already working on an improved model. I talked to him about the creation and dismantling of his lockdown model railway layout.

A busy moment at ‘Toy Town’ station

What first inspired you to build a model railway? Was it something you had done before?

Getting a job in a model railway shop was the main catalyst! I knew my Dad had model railway stuff in the attic, so he’d done it before, but didn’t help us build this one. He let me and my brothers get on with it. We had track, buildings, and some locos. My little brother works for a big staging company, so we were never short of wood for building a good baseboard. 

The fact that rugby training was cancelled, and everything was put on hold for eight weeks due to coronavirus contributed as well. This was something I could do at home with whoever wanted to do it.

Of my two younger twin brothers, James had more of an interest in it. Though he’ll deny it now, it was his words ‘kinda want to build a layout now’ that started things. Whilst my other brother, Ben built the baseboard he didn’t really have much of a role to play afterwards, other than coming in and asking, ‘can it go really fast?’ That was all he said really!

Though he’ll deny it now, it was my brother’s words ‘kinda want to build a layout now’ that started things.

In the beginning, what did you want to achieve?

When James said he wanted to build a layout, we built a flat train set to a design we found online. Having built that, we decided to build our own one, and looked online for inspiration. We had a space of 6’ x 4’, so we didn’t want to go too big or too complicated. We ended up with two lines and a small goods yard.

It started out as a train set with minimal decoration but we soon progressed into the modelling realm. With it being a simple layout, it left a lot of room for modelling. Over one end of the table we layered up some foam to form a tunnel on which we built a farm. We had plenty of space for modelling as well as running the trains.

How did you source the components? 

Dad had a lot of everything we needed to start building the model railway. I bought a couple of additions from Rocket Railways, including a pannier tank, and a class 101 because that’s what my little brother really liked.

A seemingly ordinary scene at the farm, but one of the pigs has suffered an unfortunate fate!

Did you work in collaboration or competition with your brothers?

It was a bit like building by committee, but there were only two members of the committee so it was really easy. From the beginning we had a photograph, which we followed and added our own touches. Though we weren’t really in competition, we each made our own contributions.

Did any other family member/s offer assistance or comment?

Our uncle thought it was really cool, though he couldn’t come in to look at it because of the pandemic. Instead, he came to the window and we opened the curtains so he could admire our layout.

None of the women in the family were bothered. My Dad came in a couple of times and decided to play with them a little bit, but never committed to joining us in building it. I don’t really know why. 

Was there a point at which you decided the model railway was ‘complete’?

No – but looking back, yes. When we were building, it got to a point where we decided to install point motors. At that stage everything worked fine and looked great, but the installation of point motors meant we had to take up the track. Having never built a layout before, we had already ballasted everything. Trying to stick the track back down doesn’t work. The track became quite flimsy and we ended up breaking a few points. 

My brother being a technical whizz with the computer set up servos rather than point motors. He was able to programme them, and they worked with remote control at one point. But because we were ripping the track up and putting it back down again, the points got damaged so we ended up wrecking a lot of the points, and the servos didn’t do them any favours either.

Operations overseen by ‘Mayor of Toy Town’, Edward

What sort of approach did you take to operating the layout?

I was more fearful of breaking the trains, so I tended to run them at a more realistic speed. James was much the same: he didn’t want to wreck them. He preferred modern diesels, so would constantly run the Class 125 we’ve got plus his Class 101. I would then come along and swap it for our Flying Scotman or Sir Nigel Gresley or the pannier tank. 

We had a Percy at home, and a Thomas and a Diesel, so sometimes they would be run. We did run a little session – or rather, a virtual session – for our little cousin, Seth, with all the Thomas trains on it, which was quite fun. Seth loves Lego, so model trains are not a big leap from there.

On reflection, what do you think were its respective strengths and weaknesses?

It looked really cool as a layout. Wherever you looked, there was always something to point out, derived either from our experiences or in a response to our circumstances. For example, there was a great big divet in the baseboard and we put construction workers in it, so it looked as though council workers were working on the road. 

We didn’t use the best materials, so there were divots all over the board and it was slightly warped. The trains would go really slowly up one side and rush down the other. My brother built some tressels which were flimsy, but we ended up buying some proper ones which helped sort the trains out. 

We tried to wire up the shunting yard so that we could operate it using a separate controller, except we had to take up the track that we had ballasted and put it back down, so it didn’t really work very well. 

Now I’m working on a new one. The original layout is no more – it exists only in photographs. Having learned from last time, I now have a sturdy flat baseboard made of staging board – plywood covered in a layer of phenolic, an anti-slip paint. Underneath there are 2”x4”s drilled into the top and sides, so it’s not going to go anywhere! It’s quite a substantial baseboard now. 

A lively scene in the pub garden, complete with recycled pallets for tables

Have you any lessons to share with fellow modellers?

Planning is key – don’t just rush into it. We rushed into it, and ended up with quite a nice model but it did have its flaws. I think if we’d just left it and decided not to put point motors in and mess around with it, it would probably still be here. 

Another problem was posed by the location of the model railway in my brother’s bedroom. People often knocked into it, and it was starting to look worse for wear. Now we’ve actually tidied his bedroom, the new layout is in a corner, away from everything else, so it’s more likely to be preserved. 

I have high hopes for the new one. There’s a lot more track on it, and a lot more things going on, but I don’t think it’s going to be as scenic as the last one. We’ll see what happens. 

Finally, why did you call your model railway ‘Toy Town’?

I think it was just my brother’s idea of a joke. I was the Mayor of Toy Town: it was my project, and James was just helping out. He would frequently call it Toy Town, but I think he secretly really liked playing with it. And it’s evident to this day because he called me the other day without prompt to ask about the new trains. Though he will deny it, the whole thing started with his own words, ‘I kinda want to build a layout now’.