Shunting Puzzle

Sweaty Dave, Going Postal
Burton Model Railway
Joe HuntLicence CC BY 2.0

As many people do, I spend all day using computers. My spare time, when not not reading comments on here is usually spent, again on a computer or phone or occasionally watching TV. With the nights drawing in, the options allowing me to break the screen habit are becoming less and less available. With eye strain in mind I decided to look for a hobby.

I didn’t want anything outdoor, due to the lack of light and usually poor weather. Did want something that gave a tangible result – something I’d created that was real, not virtual. Didn’t want anything that had to follow a rigid timetable, as I’m usually called upon at zero notice to ferry teenagers to and fro and other household duties. Final thought was I really should find something that didn’t involve drinking copious amounts of alcohol – shocking to many readers, but sometimes it just has to be done.

Winter nights and Christmas approaching usually brings with it nostalgia of childhood. Memories of presents and toys anticipated and played with. My greatest joy many, many years ago was a Hornby Train set, built in the attic, on a 9ft x 4ft board. Many hours were spent reconstructing the set, my younger brother pushing cars around on the roads we’d painted snaking all over the layout. Birthday money and Christmas presents would be saved up to buy items for it, or you’d be gifted something that didn’t really match or fit with anything else but was added anyway.

Finally, after much deliberation, I decided to relive some of that childhood and build a new model railway. Such a decision isn’t an easy one. Admitting to wanting to build a railway model to anyone is an instant path to social exclusion and derision, worse than being a Brexiteer in a public sector job. You can see why such a revulsion is to be expected, by attending a Model Railway show. I went to one in Newcastle a week or so ago. It was attended by those you would expect, exclusively white, the vast majority elderly males and a few very spotty teenagers. The smell of BO was overpowering. There were one or two elderly ladies there, either accompanying grandchildren or keeping their husbands company. One or two of them were even quite knowledgeable and seemed interested.

So where to start when making such a decision. Research and some dreaming is good – what would your ideal layout be? Now there are no longer the restrictions on budget of childhood, the main factor is usually space – how much of the house will you be allowed to clutter up with this passing fad? There are many other decisions to be made as well and once investigating can find a bewildering array of choice, gauges, scenarios and challenges.

In the end I decided that in order to stay married I’d best gain some agreement from the other half before going ahead, so mentioned the eye strain, thinking of doing something different etc. over a few days. I also decided to opt for a small layout so it would be more acceptable – avoiding any claims of ‘we haven’t enough room for that bloody thing’.

The guilt element still remains – how do I tell the wife I’m about to spend a load of dosh (say £500), so in the end will simply say it’s costing less than her shopping trip away with the girls next weekend and most likely hide the receipts.

Small layout? How small? Well one challenge that is increasing is micro layouts – what can you do with a small space. I’ve opted for the size of a shelf from Ikea – 110cm x 26cm. It’s not going to be a train set with loops of track where a train chases its tail at top speed, but a shunting puzzle (not cockney rhyming slang but actually a thing). Micro layouts can go to extremes – usually measured as Pizza box or even shoebox layouts. You can see many ideas here –

Serious modellers will say there is a difference between a train set and a railway model – the first being as above, with a loop of track and little else, the second being more of a recreation of a scene or slice of life in a period of time that happens to centre on railways. The greater the accuracy and the details the better.

As with many things in life, the anticipation and planning is often as interesting as the actual event, working out what to do has been fun. Thinking what I’d want to aim for, given free rein, has brought up a few interesting ideas.

  • The trains aren’t necessarily the main focus! While the trains are interesting, creating the diorama with scenery, landscape and elements that are of interest away from the tracks are also very much part of it. What actually sealed the decision to go ahead was seeing something called Magnorail cyclists – a Dutch company produces a small plastic chain that runs in a loop under the surface of a model. Within the chain are magnets and you can have items moving around on the surface following the chain – cars, boats, the most intriguing are some cyclists, only 2cm high that appear to pedal along – It is not cheap, but I want to incorporate those cyclists into a layout. I think four of them in short succession with a chase car as a time trial through streets of the layout.
  • Further gimmicks and electronics will also bring life to it – lit streetlights, flickering TV light from houses, you can buy a tiny figure that appears to be welding, police cars with blues lit, crossings that have the yellow then two reds, traffic lights, the list goes on (and the prices high).

Planning involves decisions of scale – do you go so small that items are limited and so fiddly that eye strain will return or larger and have less room for anything. In the end the decision for me was made by those cyclists – they are HO scale, so the most common available and just small enough to fit on the shelf.

Planning a layout isn’t just a matter of drawing a few sketches, you can now do so using free design packages. One of the best I’ve seen by far is called Anyrail 6 – easily allowing you to work out what is possible –

Having tried to work out how to fit both a cycle race, some town and tracks to allow shunting all onto one shelf a number of options have arisen, the latest incarnation is:

Sweaty Dave, Going Postal

You’re looking at the plan view of the shelf. The strange element at top left is the track the cyclists will take, around a roundabout. They then work up a ramp to a higher level where there are two terrace house fronts, they pass them, ducking behind them for the return. Underneath is a ‘fiddle yard’ – basically the store for rolling stock not on view. There is a loop to allow an engine to run around wagons and space to place them. All that in HO/OO within 110cm x 26cm. The software package even gives you a list of parts that are needed to build the layout.

What else should be included? Well to start, the baseboard for the track is usually a soft type of wood – paperboard or low density MDF, so you are able to push small nails in without bending them/damaging the track. To add that to the shelf I aim to recess it a little and hide the wires inside. An ikea Lack shelf is 5cm deep, much of it hollow, so should have room for all of that once the top is removed and replaced with a hinged alternative of plywood and paperboard. I look forward to the challenge of soldering the wires for point motors, signals, lights and all other elements.

I mentioned shunting puzzles – this is where you design a layout just big enough to hold a certain number of wagons on each siding, place them in a random order and then say by picking cards, have to get them into a train of the right order using just a small engine – a website explains it all –

As you obviously can tell this design is more timesaver than inglenook.

Finally to complete the nostalgia trip, what era to set it in? If it is my childhood, I could go for BR Blue – just before HSTs came into service. Naturally on such a small layout motive power would be a small diesel shunter – 03 or 08 – . The other option that might win out, that I have memories of steam. Even in the seventies there were saddle tank steam engines running around the larger coal mines, in particular Ashington Colliery. One of those and NE trucks would fit into an industrial scene.

Adding to the nostalgia, see if you can remember what type of bus brought you to school – as these days there are hundreds modelled in the 1/72nd scale that fits this layout (and can be driven on the magnorail track). I probably would have to go for a United Bristol RELL (not in this company, but I’ll keep looking – or a Bristol MW or LS

Progress? Nothing tangible just yet, planning is getting there and the first major purchase, the Magnorail ordered from Holland. I need to visit IKEA next weekend for the base while other half is away shopping and go to the two remaining model shops within 50 miles of here. Having said that, all of this activity has lightened my mood considerably, not just dwelling upon the day in day out routine irritations that make us increasingly grumpy. It’s nice to have something positive to aim for, no matter how irrational that may look to others.

© Sweaty Dave 2017