Category Archives: Whimsy

Something different on the high street

While wandering around Deptford the other week, I came across something that might be of interest to modellers:

It’s a café made out of an old coach. Not even a buffet car, just a regular BR composite coach on a length of track. I’m told the lemon drizzle cake is very good.

Externally, there are only a few differences from a standard passenger coach. A ventilation duct has been installed on top and a set of stairs leads up to the entrance. And, of course, there’s that livery. One might charitably describe it as “challenging,” but there’s no doubt that it catches the eye. You may wish for something simpler, although I understand a number of US firms produce graffiti decals. Don’t forget to paint over the kitchen windows.

The coach sits at right angles to the high street behind a fence in what appears to be a former school playground. At weekends, market stalls are set up here. If you’d like to see it for yourself, take the train to Deptford Bridge (which, I’m told, is the oldest railway station in London), come out of the station, turn right and it’s just a minute or two up the road.

It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s definitely something different for the modern image urban modeller.


Freelance as a bird

Something I’ve been idly thinking about on and off for several years now is the idea of a completely fictional railway. I don’t mean a might-have-been branch of an existing line, or a fictional place served by a real railway. I mean a completely made-up railway company. And not a light railway, either, but a proper main line company.

In America, this sort of model railway is not uncommon. That is largely because American companies tended to buy off-the-shelf, as it were, from major locomotive works. In Britain, this was the case for light railways, industrial railways and narrow gauge railways, but most of the main line companies tended to build in-house. Indeed, while there are layouts depicting fictional British railway companies, they do tend to be in the light railway/industrial railway/narrow gauge railway mould.

So to build a freelance main line is a slightly daunting prospect, as it rather suggests that some serious scratchbuilding is going to be a necessity to represent the weird-and-wonderful locomotives of your fictional company. Or is it? What got me thinking about the idea of a fictional company was the fact that a number of companies over the years have produced freelance locomotives in OO scale. There are enough, if you’re prepared to perform a little modification and sacrifice super-detail, to get a pretty complete locomotive fleet.

There are additional ways you might pad the loco stud out. While I noted above that most companies built in-house, it wasn’t unknown for engines from one company to end up on the lines of another. Midland ‘Jinties’ ended up on the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway and the Northern Counties Commission in Northern Ireland. London, Brighton and South Coast ‘Terriers’ found their way on to the London and South Western Railway and the Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Railway. Some London, Midland and Scottish Railway 8Fs could be found on the London and North Eastern Railway. Major companies even, in times of need, bought off-the-shelf, as with the LNER J94s.

Or – how’s this for an idea – suppose your company managed to poach a real-life locomotive designer? Say, your company convinced Stanier or Bulleid to work for them? You could run reliveried Black 5s or West Countries. Or even let your imagination run riot with might-have-been locomotive designs and failed projects. Suppose Bulleid was given the wherewithall to build a full run of Leaders? There’s no shortage of possibilities.

For now, here are the fictional classes I have in mind for my own layout, along with how they might be made. I’ve come up with my own very basic class numbering system.


Description: An 0-4-0 side tank. Their small coal capacity meant that they were almost exclusively used for shunting.

In reality: Hornby’s Guest, Keen and Nettlefold ‘D’ class tank engine. Although this is based on a real locomotive, the body has been so stretched in order to fit the standard 0-4-0 chassis that it’s practically freelance.


Description: A larger side tank, capable of trip working. Often used on branch lines.

In reality: Triang’s Nellie. This has been produced in several variants over the years. It’s theoretically based on an LSWR C12, but in reality looks almost nothing like it.


Description: An 0-4-0 saddle tank, fitted with a bunker to increase its range. Primarily used for shunting, although capable of hauling short goods trains. Problems with adhesion led the designer to devise an unusual extended saddle tank for increased weight. This tank appeared almost to wrap around the engine’s boiler, leading the class to be nicknamed “sausage rolls.”

In reality: A Bachmann Junior 0-4-0.


Description: An enlarged version of the successful B3. They were used for much the same duties as that class of engine. Perhaps inevitably, they were nicknamed “jumbo sausage rolls” or simply “jumbos.”

In reality: A Hornby ‘Percy the Small Engine’ with face removed.


Description: An 0-4-0 with extended side tanks designed for use on passenger service. They were noted for their superb acceleration, although they could be unstable at speed.

In reality: A Hornby Railroad ‘LBSC 0-4-0T’. This was originally manufactured in the guise of an 0-4-0 version of Thomas the Tank Engine.


Description: A rugged 0-4-0 shunter intended for dock shunting and indeed, use anywhere where heavy loads needed to be moved around tight curves.

In reality: Hornby’s ‘International’ tank, a vaguely non-British-looking engine produced in the 1970s.


Description: A mixed traffic 0-6-0 with extended side tanks. Essentially a larger, improved version of the B4, it was a highly successful design and formed the basis of a number of subsequent locomotives.

In reality: Bachmann’s Junior 0-6-0 tank of 2005. This, like the “prototype” of the B4 above, was based on tooling originally devised for a version of Thomas the Tank Engine, hence I’ve said that the E1 was derived from the B4.


Description: A small class. The company bought five Jinties from the Midland Railway to augment the E1.

In reality: Er, a Jinty. Triang, Hornby or Bachmann.


Description: Intended to be a modernised version of the E1, these locomotive bear many similarities to the earlier class.  The most obvious difference is that the E3 is a saddle tank. It bears a passing resemblance to the Austerity tank, although it predates that class by a good ten years.

In reality: The current Bachmann Junior 0-6-0 saddle tank. This uses the same chassis as the earlier Junior 0-6-0, and so I’ve accounted for this by saying that, again, one locomotive was based on the other.


Description: A one-off 1930s experiment in diesel traction, using the frames of a withdrawn E1. Its designer had hoped to replace the railway’s tank engines with diesel traction. Unfortunately, while the engine was fine for shunting, it had very poor acceleration and low speed, and was virtually unusable for trip working. No further members of this class were built.

In reality: The Bachmann Junior diesel shunter. This uses the standard Junior 0-6-0 chassis, and so I’ve said that it uses a steam locomotive’s frames. It wasn’t unknown for this to happen with early diesel shunters. For instance, I know Sentinel used the same frames for their early diesels as for their vertical boilered steam shunters.


Description: Another one-off 0-6-0 diesel experiment carried out with the assistance of English Electric. As a result, it bore a strong resemblance to early diesel shunters of the LMS, LNER and Southern Railway. However, unlike those, the aim with this engine was to again produce a mixed traffic locomotive capable of doing anything a tank engine could. The resulting engine was a failure on trip working due, again, to low speed and poor acceleration. Furthermore, it was unreliable, and ended its days as a mobile generator.

In reality: The Triang 0-6-0 shunter, which looks almost but not quite like a Class 08. A lot of early diesel shunters bore a resemblance to the Class 08s, even if they weren’t directly related to them. Therefore it’s not too ridiculous to suggest that another “almost-08” was constructed experimentally.


Description: A Victorian 4-4-2 passenger tank designed for commuter trains. Although fast, they were incapable of hauling the longer commuter trains and so were relegated to secondary services by the First World War.

In reality: A Bachmann ‘Emily’ from their Thomas range. This character is based on a Great Northern Railway Stirling ‘Single’. My version is being converted into a tank engine, with the tender reserved for an I1.


Description: A 4-4-0 passenger engine used mostly for secondary passenger services and pilot duties, although they could occasionally be found substituting on expresses.

In reality: A Bachmann ‘Edward’ from their Thomas range with face removed and a more realistic tender (haven’t decided what, though). The tender supplied is utterly hopeless as a scale model.


Description: Known as the ‘Small Moguls,’ these were basically a tender version of the now-legendary E1s. Like the H1s, they were capable of pulling occasional express trains. However, they were primarily used for secondary passenger services and fast goods.

In reality: A Bachmann ‘James’, again from the Thomas range, with the tender from the aforementioned ‘Emily’. As you may have guessed, this also uses the Junior chassis, this time with the addition of a pony truck.


Description: The ‘Large Mogul’, a powerful mixed traffic engine which really came into its own for heavy goods work. Indeed, they were the favoured class for these duties.

In reality: Hornby’s version of James. This is larger than the Bachmann version, being a modified version of Triang’s hopeless 3F tender engine. The extended front and Schools Class tender serve to make this a freelance engine.


Description: A 4-6-0 intended for heavy freight but, in reality, offering no advantages over the established I2. However, they were excellent passenger locomotives and, before the arrival of the K1s, were reckoned to be the best express engines on the railway.

In reality: Bachmann’s ‘Henry,’ yet again from the Thomas range. This engine, in the original Railway Series books, is based on a Black 5. In the TV series it looks like no engine living or dead.


Description: The railway’s first Pacific. The J1 ‘s success as an express engine was noted, but it was not without its faults. The rear of the locomotive looked somewhat ungainly, being unsupported, and the unusually large cab windows were prone to breakage . The K1 was designed to correct these faults, and also boasted a larger boiler. The resulting engine was perhaps not as elegant as the Pacifics developed on other railways in the 1920s, but it was more than capable of the jobs it was given.

In reality: Yes, once again, it’s from the Bachmann Thomas range. This time it’s Gordon, which uses many of Henry’s chassis components. It’s commonly asserted that Gordon is based on a Gresley A3, but in fact there’s not much of a resemblance. Hence, again, I feel no guilt whatsoever for claiming it as a freelance model. However, the tender is again hopeless and will be replaced.


Description: A somewhat inelegant Pacific with inside motion, developed in the mid-1930s to work the routes for which the K1 was too heavy. The resemblance to the LMS ‘Princess Royal’ class has been noted, and allegations of industrial espionage against Crewe have been made, although never proved. In fact, given that this engine has few similarities to the Princess beyond the visual, the theory is largely discredited.

In reality: A Triang Princess. These were too short to be considered ‘scale models,’ and didn’t have outside motion – once again, it’s a case of an engine that’s bad enough to be freelance.

So there you go – 18 different classes of locomotive, sufficient to cover most duties on a railway. These aren’t the only freelance or semi-freelance models that have been produced, not by a long way. With a little imagination you could probably do a lot more, but I hope I’ve proven that it’s possible to create a freelance fleet. In future entries, I hope to explore the fictional company a bit more.

Are they allowed to do that?

Well, I’m pleased to say that my predictions for this year’s Hornby range were, to a man, entirely wrong. I refer you to the official Hornby website for this year’s releases. Briefly, the things I’m getting most excited about are the LNER L1 and B17s. The 4-VEP multiple unit is to be introduced, which will be a nice addition to the expanding number of Southern multiple units available (as well as being units that operated locally to me), although I do wonder if it’s perhaps a bit too similar to Bachmann’s 4-CEP. Having said that, I would imagine there are plenty of people who will buy both – I recall them often working alongside one another, sometimes coupled together. And by changing the interior, they could produce the 4-VEGs that were used on the airport service to Gatwick.

Speaking of airport services, a train pack that has piqued my interest is the ‘Imperial Airways’ pack. This consists of a T9, a Pullman composite, a Maunsell brake coach and a bogie utility van, all in Southern livery. This replicates the service that ran out of London Victoria, serving the Imperial Airways airfield at Southampton. Due to the lightly-laid track, the T9 was about the only express engine capable of using the route. I’ve often thought it would be an interesting service to model. AND I WAS RIGHT.

The Railroad range has a number of new additions this year. The GWR County and LMS Patriot have been added, as have the old Lima Class 40 and Class 33. One that rather caught my eye, though, was this:

It’s a freelance 0-4-0 finished in the livery of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. A neat little model and rather appealing. It appears to be based on the LBSC E2, which was an 0-6-0. But I do wonder how this works in terms of copyright.

Allow me to explain. Bachmann, as I have explained before, holds the licence to produce Thomas the Tank Engine characters for the North American market. A few years back (2005 I believe) they introduced the Junior range in the UK. The locomotives for this were an 0-6-0 side tank and an 0-4-0 saddle tank, both rather freelance-looking but nice enough in their way (I own both, and crude though they are, they have a certain charm). Unfortunately, the tooling they used to make these was developed from the Thomas range. As a result, they got into a bit of trouble with HIT Entertainment, who own the copyright for Thomas. They have since withdrawn those original Junior engines and introduced a generic 0-6-0 saddle tank and diesel shunter.

The problem, you see, was that Bachmann’s tooling was specifically developed for the Thomas range. Hornby can get away with using the same tooling for, say,  Oliver the Western Engine that they use for the 14xx in their regular range because the 14xx was developed first. Now, the engine you see above was originally developed for a battery-powered starter set in Hornby’s Thomas range. That is to say that it was specifically developed as a Thomas character. This, I think, might cause them to fall foul of the same problems as Bachmann. I hope they don’t, as it’s a delightful little engine.

Further Reading – The E2

“Why does my tank engine…”

thomasworkWhen I was a small child, I absolutely loved Thomas the Tank Engine. It was my favouritest programme in the world ever. It wasn’t what got me interested in railways – that had more to do with the three or four generations of railwaymen in the family. But it certainly helped. I learnt to read through the books. Much later, I even wrote my dissertation on the original Railway Series books. So I still have a considerable nostalgic attachment to that little blue dock shunter.

Which is why I was intrigued by a new book in the popular Haynes manual series. The Thomas the Tank Engine Owners’ Workshop Manual (1945 onwards). The book promises to be a technical guide to how Thomas and his friends work and how the railways of Sodor operate (probably at a loss).

This is far from being the first technical guide to Thomas and friends, but it’s the first one to tie in with the television series (as opposed to the original books) and the first one to be aimed specifically at young children. The television series has long been criticised for moving further and further away from railway realism, so this would seem to be a return to the good old days.

The book features cutaway drawings of Thomas, Gordon, Percy and Mavis (illustrating a side tank engine, a tender engine, a saddle tank and a diesel-mechanical shunter respectively) plus Trevor the Traction Engine and Harold the Helicopter. There’s also a diagram of how steam engines work and an explanation of how an engine is built, driven and maintained, including a section on the time Henry was rebuilt. An article called ‘The Tracks of Sodor’ explains the basics of railway operation and ‘Old and New Engines’ gives a history of locomotive design (The First Steam Engines, Narrow-Gauge Engines, The First Express Trains, Newer Steam Engines and Diesel Engines) using characters from Sodor as reference points. One niggle here is that Fergus is used to illustrate the first steam engines when he is in fact an Aveling Porter traction engine locomotive – not the pinnacle of modernity, but hardly a pioneer of steam. Given that Rocket has appeared in the books, it would surely make more sense to use him/her/it for this section.

There are a few factual hiccups – for one thing, I’d seriously dispute the article on how an engine is built (the cab before the firebox?). From the point of view of the fictional Thomas universe, the manual includes a number of sometimes quite obscure factoids from the books hitherto ignored by the TV series (Henry was built as an experiment, Sodor has a bridge to the Mainland, there’s a rack-and-pinion railway up Culdee Fell), but ignores others (the existence of the little-seen electric railway to Peel Godred is denied). Rather than going with the idea that Henry was entirely rebuilt into a Black 5 following the story ‘The Flying Kipper’, this book states that he was simply given a larger firebox. This, I suppose, explains why the Henry in the TV series looks nothing like a Black 5.

All in all, despite a few nitpicks, I’d say this was a perfect present for a young Thomas fan. Older children might find it a little basic, but for the young ‘uns it’s a simple introduction to a complex subject, easy to understand and clearly illustrated and just generally Really Useful.

Further Reading – Martin Clutterbuck’s site on the technical side of Thomas, with some contributions by Yours Truly.

Grime and Punishment

They say that a layout is never truly finished. I’m afraid I managed to disprove that supposition with my last layout, which I definitely did finish. Now I’m bored, which is why I’m embarking on a new layout. Like the last one, this will be a micro.

 IMG_0823_2Hopefully this mock-up gives you some idea of the sort of thing I’m going for. The setting is basically going to be somewhere in London’s Docklands, with brooding warehouses looming on all sides, two-level track and a small canal basin. I’m not aiming to be even remotely realistic here, aiming primarily for atmosphere. You see, I’m a great fan of grime and rust. I’m weird like that. I love sooty, crumbling brickwork, corroded metal, abandoned buildings and places where I shouldn’t be. This is going to be a version of the Docklands that celebrates that. A Dickensian caricature of reality.

There is quite a bit that’s not so obvious from the photo. Under the bridge, I’m planning to have the canal – all silted up, maybe a grounded barge. There will be a similarly decrepit crane or two, a reminder of better days. The sheets of card will be hacked into giant corrugated iron warehouses. Were there ever warehouses that big made of corrugated iron? In this version of reality, of course there were. And they were never maintained, either.

It’s a scrap box project, that is to say, I’m trying to make it using mostly things dredged up from my scrap box with minimal expenditure. The signal box and pagoda shed are both Wills, the bridge is Hornby, the buffer stop is Peco. Track is Hornby. The water tower is from Hornby’s Thomas the Tank Engine range, and is perfect for light and industrial railways.

The baseboard cost a grand total of £4.50, being the frame from a dirt-cheap artist’s canvas with a sheet of foamcore mounted on top. I’m planning on adding at least two more sheets of foamcore, partly for the sake of strength and partly so that the canal will have a bit of depth when I hack it out.

You’ll recall that I mentioned corrugated iron warehouses. These were inspired by a lucky find in an art materials shop in Soho (Cass Art of Berwick Street, if you’re interested). They had corrugated card in A4 sheets – slightly overscale for 4mm, but again, this ain’t reality. In any case, it’s cheaper than plasticard and easier to work with than plastic sheets. The sheets are available in several colours; I went with white, as I plan to paint the Dickens out of these things.

I’ll keep you posted.

Beyond the Vale

A short while ago I made a short pilgrimage to Aberystwyth for my sister’s graduation (very proud moment there, wipe away manly tear etc). And it almost goes without saying that after the ceremony, I found time to explore the railways of Aberystwyth.

The most famous, without a doubt, is the Vale of Rheidol. Why, it’s even mentioned in Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Mon Amour. This line runs from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge, and shares a terminus with Arriva Trains Wales. The main station is severely reduced from its original glory, with only one platform in use and the main building having been turned into a Wetherspoon’s (although admittedly they’ve done a fine job preserving the original architecture).

The Vale of Rheidol departs from alongside the main line.

Number 8, Llewellyn, pulls into Aberystwyth

Number 8, Llewellyn, pulls into Aberystwyth

It then climbs through the titular Vale to Devil’s Bridge, which I am told is scenically spectacular. Unfortunately, the day we went there were only two trains running, so there wasn’t time to get out and look.

However, here is the station.

However, here is the station.

No. 8 at Devil's Bridge

No. 8 at Devil's Bridge

The line is currently owned by the Phyllis Rampton Narrow Gauge Railway Trust, a somewhat cagey charitable organisation founded with the aim “to preserve, exhibit, display and loan for demonstration for the public benefit and for the advancement of technical, historical and general education, steam and other railway locomotives, rolling stock, equipment, machines and relics which are historical, operational and of general interest and in addition are of educational value.” To this end, they keep the engines in private locations and don’t let anyone see them. Several are apparently stored at Capel Bangor on the VoR, presumably in that locked shed with no windows. I mean, I don’t want to cry “conspiracy”, but I strongly suspect that one of the trustees got drunk once and started boasting that they have, like, fifty locomotives. Then, the next morning, rather than admit their booze-fuelled exaggeration, they got caught in the lie and now they’ve got to act like they really do have all these rare engines. A cautionary tale for us all, I feel.

The Vale, as seen from the train

The Vale, as seen from the train

But more notable is the fact that, prior to 1989, it was still owned by British Rail. Yep, twenty years after the end of BR steam, BR was still operating this little narrow gauge tourist railway. The engines were known as Class 98 and painted in BR blue.

I’m not entirely clear how this is supposed to have happened.

No. 8 again, this time in blue.

No. 8 again, this time in blue.

I mean, it’s not as if BR was exactly sentimental at the time. None of the online histories seem to have any reason why this line survived while, say, the Varsity Line was closed. I rather imagine that it went something like this.

The Scene:  The office of Dr Richard Beeching. BEECHING sits with an UNDERLING, working out the fine details of the Modernisation Plan.

BEECHING: Right, let’s see who else is for the axe… Audlem, Ambergate, Chittening, Cheslyn Hay… Hand me that copy of the lyrics to ‘Slow Train’, would you? I can’t remember what comes next.

UNDERLING: I believe it was the line from Selby to Goole.

BEECHING: Ah, thank you.

UNDERLING: Oh, and one other thing – this Vale of Rheidol Railway rather stands out.

BEECHING: Never heard of it. Please explain.

UNDERLING: Oh, it’s this narrow gauge railway in Wales. Used to be all about timber and lead, now it’s all tourists.

BEECHING: Ah, a good point. Well, let’s –

Enter ERNEST MARPLES, Minister for Transport.

MARPLES: Good morning, Beeching.

BEECHING: Oh, good morning, Mr Marples, how are you today?

MARPLES: Very well. I am glad to say that there is still nothing suspicious about my extensive interests in road building, and that nobody has made the link between my pro-road, anti-rail policies and my many, many shares in road construction, which as you know I sold upon taking office and can buy back as soon as I leave. I also have no track record of corruption and certainly do not plan to flee the country in 1975.

BEECHING: I’m glad to hear it.

MARPLES: How goes the Modernisation Plan?

BEECHING: Oh, well, well. I am confident that our policy of considering each line in isolation rather than as part of a larger national network will not be counterproductive by removing sources of traffic from the main lines. I am also sure that, with hindsight, we will not come to regret the removal of many of these lines and have to reopen them at great cost.

MARPLES: Excellent! And dieselisation?

BEECHING: We think the way to go is to continue buying characterful but non-standard locomotives of varying reliability.

MARPLES: Excellent! Excellent – but here’s an idea. They are indeed characterful, so I suggest that in the long run we should consider painting them blue with full yellow ends that will make them look really ugly!

BEECHING: Brilliant!

BEECHING & MARPLES: (dancing) Paint them blue! Paint them blue!

UNDERLING: Sirs? Sirs? What about… Hell0? What about the Vale of Rheidol?

BEECHING & MARPLES: Paint them blue! Paint them blue!

UNDERLING: (shrugging) Alright then.

The Rock Island Lie

Now, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the revolutionary impact that railways had on the world and the way people live their lives. I mean, the very fact that you’re reading this blog indicates that you’re an intelligent person, and no doubt very good-looking as well. Kudos to you.

But to recap. Railways, railroads, call them what you will, they were one of the most incredible innovations of human history. Suddenly unthinkable distances could be covered in mere days in comfort. Goods could be traded in places where it had hitherto been impossible. Travel was no longer a luxury for the rich. So it’s no surprise that railways have also had an impact on culture, inspiring works from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Buster Keaton’s The General. Then there’s the song, the Rock Island Line. This was first performed by Leadbelly, but has been covered many times – Yr. Humble Chronicler has the Lonnie Donegan version on his iPod. I’d recommend familiarising yourself with it before reading any further.

What is less well-known [DISCLAIMER: Neither the author nor the webmasters make any claim to the veracity of the following] is that Leadbelly considered a different version of the lyrics before settling on the published ones. Recently-unearthed notes reveal that the original opening would have gone something like this.

Now this here’s a story about the Rock Island Line.
The Rock Island Line, she runs down into New Orleans
And just outside of New Orleans is a big toll gate
And all the trains that go through the toll gate,
They gotta pay the man some money
But of course, if you got certain things on board
You’re okay and you don’t have to pay the man nothin’.
And just now we see a train comin’ down the line
When it come up to the toll gate,
The driver, he shout down to the man,
“I got pigs,
I got horses,
I got cows
I got sheep,
I got all livestock,
I got all livestock,
I got all livestock.”
The man say, “Whoa, hold on, boy, those are clearly steel wagons.”
Then the driver look back, and he say, “Are you sure?”
And the man say, “Well, yeah. I mean, I can see exactly what’s in ’em. I mean, stock cars look significantly different to the sort of wagons you’d use to carry pig iron, which incidentally is what you actually have in there. I don’t believe you’re a real train driver at all.”
So the driver, he say, “You’ve taken all the fun out of this song.”
And that’s where the story ends.

This train isn't carrying livestock either.

This train isn't carrying livestock either.