The layout at Alexandra Palace, London, in March 2008

   From left to right:  Jim Abbott, me and Alan Gray. The photo was taken by Mike Sandell

Operation of the layout is very simple. The main line operator runs trains round and round. He has eight to choose from and, if he wishes, he can stop them at the signals. He soon learns which ones can be relied upon to restart! The shed operator moves locos into, out of and around the shed area as he chooses and he soon learns which ones will go on and off the turntable without causing bother.

There is, however, more to it than that. At least two weeks before an exhibition I check over and clean all the locos and rolling stock. Loco wheels are cleaned with contact cleaner applied by cotton bud; other wheels get a scrape with a sharp screwdriver. I then erect the layout and check everything, all locos and rolling stock, all the scenery and all the electrics. The track is given a thorough clean with contact cleaner applied with a clean rag and all is then dismantled and usually sits in my living room until loaded for transport into two estate cars.

The normal team of operators numbers four. We usually travel to an exhibition on the Friday morning and set up on the afternoon and evening. We are provided with accommodation on the Friday and Saturday nights and travel home on the Sunday evening. However if the journey home is longer than about three hours we are always provided with accommodation on the Sunday and travel home on the Monday.

When running the layout we work two operators on and two off and change over at hourly intervals. This avoids boredom because operating the layout for two days becomes mind-numbingly dull. The sequence of eight trains on the main line takes between five and ten minutes to complete so, during an exhibition lasting thirteen hours, it has to be repeated over one hundred times! Often the two operators change positions after half an hour.

A time consuming operation on a Friday evening is setting out the rolling stock and I have attempted to speed this up by fitting almost all of the stock with a simple hook and loop coupling of my own design. This is illustrated below. It is made from 0.45mm diameter nickel silver wire.

The loop end of a coupling

The hook end

The turntable is a bit of a problem. It is operated by hand by turning a handle and it picks up power by means of two strips of springy copper that scrape along a rail set into the turntable pit. There is a bit of backlash in the system which sometimes causes the table to twitch just when you don't want it to. I find that turning the handle a half turn backwards  helps to remove the backlash and, anyway, the problem helps to keep the operator awake! I also find aligning the rails difficult unless I stand on a step and look vertically down onto what I am trying to do.

Locos are fed into and out of the loco shed via cassette units. They are placed onto these units with the aid of a railing ramp. The cassette units consist simply of bases of copper- clad circuit board to which brass angle has been soldered. An insulation gap is cut between the angles. Power is supplied to the cassette unit by means of wire spring contacts soldered to the running rails. Provision is made in the shed layout for locos to be fed into the rear of the shed as well as from the tunnel approach, but this facility is never used because there is not enough room for two operators to stand together at one end of the layout.

A cassette unit

The connection between a cassette unit and the track

The layout has, up to December 2011, been to 23 exhibitions and won a prize at several of them. Perhaps the best achievement was coming third at Manchester in 2006 behind 'The Gresley Beat' and 'Dewsbury Midland'.

What of the future? The layout has been to most of the local exhibitions so recent showings have involved long journeys. The operating team is getting older and feeling the strain so, maybe, the layout has reached its sell-by date. It appeared at Warley and Wigan in 2011 and perhaps that is an appropriate time for it to retire. Maybe some bookings will turn up for 2012 or 2013 that do not involve long winter journeys and could tempt us out of retirement. We're not quite too old yet!

Mike Sandell and Jim Abbott operating the layout at the Blyth
exhibition on 29 & 30 Nov. 2008
Click on the photo to enlarge

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