Sunday, June 06, 2010

Interesting prototypes make dull exhibition layouts

Watching Arne Warf at Railex last weekend, I was reminded of a sad but unarguable fact.

The Hellingly Hosptial Railway is dull. Not too look at, the visual riches on offer would keep anyone happy for many a day. Nor is the history of the prototype anything other than fascinating. Rather, the problem is that despite all this, it’s not very interesting to operate. That’s why when you see it at a show we are so happy to talk to you. Well, that and we are nice people who love to share information obviously.

You see this again and again. Little layouts are fun to build but rarely offer much in the way of operating potential. The trouble is that the most interesting prototypes such as those out of the way unusual lines simply didn’t generate much traffic or have any real complexity of trackwork. If they had they would be major concerns and someone the exhibition circuit would be knee deep in models of them. Hence every Great Western modeller has had a crack at Ashburton and yet models of the Rye and Camber Railway are thin on the ground

Think of all those atmospheric pictures of bucolic branch lines. There will be a loco simmering at the end of the platform. A few passengers will be waiting for the train to depart so they can see friends or loved ones off. The station master will be checking his watch. A porter stands by barrow loaded with luggage. The signal drops and with a whistle, the loco hauls the short train off into the distance. Apart from bird song and cattle lowing, all is silent. It’s a scene I’ve looked at in photographs many times and wished thought some magical process to be transported to.

Sadly it doesn’t work in model form. By the time the train has made it as far as the home signal, the audience is clamouring for a crack express in the other direction. In fact even if you build a stretch of main line, for entertainment purposes trains have to be thrashing though constantly.

All of which leaves me with a problem. I like unusual lines. I love the history and am drawn to the oddball rolling stock that initially makes my display stand out from all the others at a show. Now, you could point out that the phrase “It’s my train set I’ll do what I like with it” crops up regularly around here so I should just take my own advice and do what I want. That’s fine but I also love taking models to shows. As someone who prefers building to operating, the whole thing seems a bit pointless without an audience.

This comes back to the lines on my “to do” list for the future. A little bit of Isle of Man Steam railway for example. Pretty and interesting to me and many others but, we are mainly talking passenger trains running between small stations. What freight there was travelled almost exclusively tagged on the back of the coaches. At their destination the wagons would be detached and shoved in the appropriate siding. Not much shunting action there. I actually considered Knockaloe internment camp which would make a fascinating looking model but was little more than a couple of sidings which wagons were propelled into – not even a runround loop.

Worse, the infamous Groudle Glen Railway idea. There were only ever two locos on the line at a time (working ones anyway) except during the modern preservation era. The odd works train, a wagon or two taking water to the cafe on the cliffs. Apart from that, lots of passenger traffic that travels from one end of the line to the other. The loco runs around and then takes the train back again. Despite this, the model would have a bucket load more atmosphere than yet another 1950/60 BR steam/diesel layout.

Perhaps I need to formalise this. Design a sliding scale with “Maximum historical interest” at one end and “Maximum crowd pleasing” at the other. Layouts could be graded accordingly and exhibition managers would then have another balancing act to add to their desire to get full coverage of scales and eras. At one end you’d have things like the Necropolis railway, at the other a modern image fictitious midlands stations with a train every 10 seconds. It could be called the “Parker Boredom Scale”.


David Smith said...

Micro layouts give the modeller scope to focus on modelling detail - and those that do create something that is fulfilling for themselves and extremely photogenic to show. To increase public interest then more automata objects are required - smoking chimneys, moving industrial machinery; that sort of thing. For pure train operating interest a larger model is needed but to landscape this to the degree seen in micro layouts takes a lifetime of work. After all Pendon have been doing it since the 50s and it's still not finished.

stephen said...

On the other hand you could probably model both ends of the Groudle Glen at once on a fairly small layout, which would be an interesting demonstration of how an entire railway works. Also no need to decide what kind of fiddle yard to use.