This hobby covers a good spectrum of social aspects, most modellers I know aren’t club members but either work alone or in small groups. ‘Space’ in the UK is often at a premium and frequently costly, so it’s no surprise that there aren’t many large layouts and there’s an emphasis on relatively compact designs. This year I’ve had the opportunity to view and operate on two very different systems which make clever use of space, my first exposure to a Fremo configured layout, and a return visit to see and operate Geoff Taylor’s Cambrian Penmaenpool layout. Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit Geoff’s layout to see how a ‘system’ operates, as well as visiting Buckingham (now in Tony Gee’s care), and that generated or awakened an interest in operating as ‘a railway’.
My layouts above have been pretty typical self contained asteroids the trains coming and going as actors with no rationale as such. In this case the train enters the scene and leaves it, it isn’t seen at another location or en route. Buckingham and Penmaenpool have a function that is missing on my and similar single location layouts, and that is the trains act with more of a purpose, they do something rather than pass through one single scene or location.
This spring I was invited by Chris Gilbert to see a Fremo meet using US HO equipment. The group meet regularly and use a village hall which they book and pay for, giving them a significant amount of space to ‘play trains’. Control is DCC using a mobile phone wifi network (wiithrottle) dedicated to the task. I’ve not really embraced DCC, but this system and Penmaenpool are both DCC. Unsurprisingly with Buckingham’s history it’s DC and will remain so, proving DCC is not an essential requirement for a multi location layout. The Fremo concept then worked well, but with a few ‘that’s odd’ moments for me. The layout was configured in an X with the main sorting and marshalling yard on the end of one arm where the trains either departed from, or arrived at.
Across the X were a number of locations requiring a train service, or with trains purely passing through. Some modules were work in progress, and there was a variety in style too, not enough to jar, but on first look, noticeable. Chris had generated switch lists and train consists from records of the stock the group uses, and the previous meet, i.e where specific freight cars ended up across the network of depots and industries.
Track on the layout/modules is HO off the shelf flexible track and commercial pointwork, alignment across boards being covered by the Fremo standards. The trackplan on the boards being up to the builder, but required to comply at baseboard ends. It was interesting to see some industries not having a run round loop, for us making our own standalone layouts, a loop is often a real operating benefit. Out on the open road however, this is a far lesser requirement, due to the locations being operated by trains travelling in the appropriate direction, a real world scenario.
The turnouts are operated using your fingers to throw the blades. Having spent time and effort on my layouts hiding point motors and wiring and maintaining them this getting your hands in there was a real culture shock. Uncoupling of stock was performed using manual picks, rather than electromagnets. Again these felt retrograde steps on first view. Then, we started operating. Myself and Hugh Edgely were allocated train 401, an out and back freight from Trent Yard to Blind River Valley. Very quickly the ‘downside’of the manual point switching was lost. The consist was assembled by shunting the Yard rather than a manual ‘crane shunt’ this form the train. Then we set off to Blind River.
On the way we passed two locations, one where we would switch cars on the return, the other where we would wait and cross an outbound train from Trent. The operation certainly became immersive when you looked up you were aware of the fact you’re done distance across the hall from wherever you started, rather than the 6ft to fiddleyard many of us are used to. Think of a small exhibition hall and driving your train from one layout one end of the hall, to another layout at the opposite end. This, this is different, your locomotive and train has gone somewhere. Because you have a switch list you then have specific moves to make, as well as being conscious of not blocking the main lines for through traffic. Thus the manual point switching and different build styles blend into not being an issue, because you get immersed into operating the railway they cease to jar or be anywhere near as notable.
Coming away from the event I was struck by the teamwork aspects. Not only in the operating the railway, but in the administrative elements too. To make this happen the hall has to be hired, the layouts put up and tested, as well as taken down at end of play. There’s obviously the social side of it too, meeting a group of like minded friends with a collaborative goal in some ways a club without a club.
Shelfie2 seen here is very much a module, part of that being due to spending time with the Trent Valley Fremo group. Even if it only gets joined to another project by myself sometime, the potential is fascinating.