Roweham by Brian Dickey

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Yesterday, my friend Brian Dickey displayed his British 7mm scale exhibition layout, Roweham, at an area train show – and he asked Pierre Oliver and me if we would like to help him out.

We both jumped at the chance – and we’re really glad we did.

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(Brian (L) discusses his layout with a show visitor while the Auto Train arrives at Roweham)

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(Pierre uncouples a wagon carrying materials to build a cattle pen at the far end of Roweham. Almost the entire layout is visible in this view. Like many classic British exhibition layouts, Roweham is designed to be operated from the back. The sturdy backdrop provides solid support when coupling, and protects the structures and scenery from errant elbows)

This was my first opportunity to operate on a 7mm British layout, although I have seen many in print and a few at shows. Brian has done a spectacular job, as I hope the point-and-shoot photos I’m sharing here convey. And he’s done all of this in just two years.

As the description below notes, the layout is 16 feet long by 19 inches deep. It’s built in four-foot sections. Brian designed the layout so that everything required for exhibition fits into his Prius v:

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The first – rightmost – section contains has a three-track sector plate / fiddle yard. This is hidden from view by a nicely finished panel:

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(Brian at work behind Roweham. Note the level of finish on all aspects of this in-progress layout. The layout sections stand on short legs that fold into each section for transport and storage. These in turn stand on a set of venue-supplied “banquet tables” to bring the layout up to a reasonable viewing and operating height)

The remaining three sections create a small branchline terminal on God’s Wonderful Railway (otherwise known as the Great Western Railway). There are only four switches, plus a cosmetic derail. The entire layout, left to right, can be seen in the following views:

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(End of the line and site of the future stock pen. A railway water tank will be added to the right of the stock pen in this view)

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(The Roweham depot with high-level platform. The not yet built railway water tank will be at the lower left in this view)

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(The main is in the foreground, with the turnout leading to the run-around loop at the front of the layout. A spur – we’d call it a “team track” in North America – comes off the main at left and serves multiple customers, providing several car spots and plenty of juggling of wagons into proper spot order. A loading gauge to the left of the goods shed acts like a height-checker on underground parking garages: It ensures that wagons loaded by the crane can still fit through tunnels and bridges on the line)

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(The mainline disappears under a stone road bridge, as it so often does. In the back, a wagon is spotted at the coal dealer at the end of the team track)

Brian was inspired by two sources – an article on a layout with a similar design, in 00 scale, and a book on the Abbotsbury Branch of the GWR:

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Despite its simplicity, Roweham kept Pierre and I entertained for several hours, and as a bonus I came away with several thoughts about layout design. In no particular order, they are:

Three-link chain couplings are fun in 7mm:
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I’d never used them, but they were surprisingly easy to master. Brian has made up coupling/uncoupling tools similar to my Galvanick Lucipher, with a fine brass hook instead of a magnet at the business end of the tool.

Further thoughts:

– There are never any false couplings – e.g.: uncoupling then moving the train in the wrong direction and recoupling.

– There are never any false couplings – e.g.: thinking you’ve mated couplers, but when you pull away, the couplers separate. This isn’t usually a problem with Kadees but it’s definitely an issue with Sergents.

– Delayed uncoupling to shove a wagon into a spot is a snap. It’s the default condition.

– All places where one must couple or uncouple must be easy to see and to reach. Carefully consider structure and tree placement and how they would affect this. Brian’s layout is at an ideal height for working with three-link chains, while the 19″ depth meant we were always able to look down on the job – not try to do it from the side.

– You can neither couple nor uncouple while laughing. So cut that out.

The locomotives are beautiful. We operated with a GWR pannier tank engine from Lionheart Trains on the goods train, and a lovely 0-4-2T from Masterpiece Models, hauling a Loinheart Autotrailer. Both locomotives were factory-fitted with DCC and sound. The 0-4-2T’s decoder even provided appropriate Autotrailer sounds, including guard’s whistle, carriage doors slamming shut, and the warning gong.

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The control over the locomotives was astonishing. Never mind the lack of need to thump the table: When Pierre and I were shunting wagons, we could ask the engine driver to give us slack in the chain – and the engine driver could back up so slowly and precisely that one could provide slack without hitting the buffers on the wagon. Basically, one could creep back half a link at a time.

7mm British modelling is an ideal size for an exhibition layout. The models are big enough that they have real presence at a show. At the same time, they’re small enough that a nice exhibition layout can be built without requiring a gymnasium to set it up. With the exception of the Autotrailer, which was quite long, all the equipment on the layout compared in length to what one would find on an HO layout that ran 50-foot freight cars.

Presentation is important. While those in the UK may be used to layouts that exhibit some thoughtful and professional presentation, I find this is rare in North America. Brian has done a wonderful job of finishing the layout. The benchwork is nicely painted. There’s a drape to hide the legs (and the DCC system, and a camera or two, and lunch, and…) – plus another drape to hide the venue’s banquet tables. There are some nice signs to tell punters what they’re looking at, and so on.

Operating from the rear of the layout was a new experience. I know there’s a debate in UK circles about operating from the back vs the front. The argument goes something like this:

– Back: Exhibition layouts are like a theatre stage, with the trains as the actors. The people who bring the theatre to life – the director, the stage manager, etc. – are backstage, in the wings, so they don’t take away from the performance.

– Front: Exhibition layouts are like a TV talk show shot in front of a live audience. The trains are the guests, the layout is the stage – and the presenter is out front, where she/he can engage with the audience.

– Back: I don’t agree with you.

– Front: I don’t agree with you.

– Back and Front: Let’s grab a pint.

That said, I enjoyed working from behind the scenes – although I also made a point of talking over the backdrop with the punters. The narrowness of this layout – just 19 inches – definitely helped in that regard.

From a practical perspective, the sturdy backdrop was important, given that we had to reach into the layout frequently to couple and uncouple. It protected structures and trees from our elbows and gave us a place to steady our arms so we could hook a link.

I need to learn more about British railways, particularly operating practices that one can adapt to a model. For example:

– What sort of paperwork is used to move wagons? Did the GWR have waybills, and what did they look like?

– When and how was the locomotive whistle used? (UK locomotives, in general, do not have bells.) If I recall, a “long-short” is used when emerging from tunnels, under bridges, or other sight-limited situations. But the 0-4-2T had two whistles – a high-pitched one (with long and short function buttons) plus a lower pitched “warning whistle” (with long and short function buttons). When would I use each of these?

– When was the Autotrailer’s “Warning Gong” used?

– What language was used between engine driver and the guy on the ground (what we’d call a brakeman here) to communicate shunting moves? Is he a brakeman in the UK?

I’d love to find out more about GWR operating practices to help bring Brian’s layout to life at shows.

I would love to see more quality layouts like this at exhibitions, as opposed to layouts that emphasize quantity. A huge, poorly-conceived and poorly-executed layout leaves me cold, but smaller, well-done layouts like this are a delight – regardless of theme, scale, or prototype.

Thanks, Brian and Pierre, for a terrific day out in GWR country: I look forward to future opportunities to run trains to Roweham!

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15 thoughts on “Roweham by Brian Dickey

  1. Wow. Talk about a day out. It sounds like a really fun time.

    I’ve yet to see a 7mm scale layout in person too, though I’ve certainly enjoyed a share of them in the pages of the various British model railway magazines.

    My Dad models British railways in 4mm scale (OO) and we’ve talked about three link couplings. It was neat to read from your first hand experiences. You’ve confirmed some of the enjoyment that can be derived from their use and I’m going to leave them on my “someday…part of a…gonna do that” list. In addition to what you’ve mentioned I think some further advantages might include their more forgiving nature with regard to mounting heights on stock. A final advantage (to me) is that you can make them at home and they’re once less thing we’re reliant on the trade for.

    What a grand day out. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    /chris

    • Hi Chris:
      Happy to share.
      I should note that Pierre and I talked quite a bit about the couplings and agreed that we wouldn’t want to attempt to use three-link chains in smaller scales. Eyesight doesn’t scale down – nor does hand/eye co-ordination. In 7mm, the links are tiny – but still huge compared to 4mm/00 scale.
      That said, I know some people use a ferrous metal for the third link, and a small magnet on the end of the coupling tool. I haven’t tried that so can’t comment on how well it would work.
      Cheers!

  2. Use of 3-link and associated types of coupling on exhibition layouts can be a hotly debated issue over here, with some objecting to the “hand of God” descending from on-high, but they do look the part in photos. Personally, I love ’em and wouldn’t use anything else for my UK outline S scale models.

    Goods wagons would have “consignment notes”, which may relate to a whole wagon (e.g. for a delivery of coal to a local merchant) or for indiviudal packages, parcels and “smalls” traffic, usually carried in a box van or the guard’s van (same as LCL). In the latter case the guard would have care of the notes, but some notes might be held in clips on the wagon sole bars (the longitudinal frame members supporting the body). The guard would also compile a list of the train vehicles, in order – just like a consist list, and used as an aid to shunting.

    Most goods traffic of the steam era ran without automatic brakes, and for a branch line local/way freight (called a “pick up goods”), they would be unlikely to be operative even if fitted. There were no brakemen, just the driver, fireman and guard. The latter was responsible for the train, and one of his roles was to keep the couplings tight, so that the driver had better control of the train – long, unfitted coal trains used to travel through my home station at a fair rate of knots (actually, at about the limit of 40mph allowed through some pointwork at the south end of the station) as they built up momentum for the long 1:200 climb out of the valley. These were noteworthy as the guard’s van would have the brakes as tight as possible without causing the van to skid, with sparks flying out from the brake shoes rubbing on the wheels. Sadly this all disappeared about the time I was born, but older enthusiasts and railwaymen have told me of some of these sights and sounds, and there are some lovely photos. But I digress…

    A GWR branch line, even in the era depicted by Roweham, might generate some residual freight traffic: traffic which the railways were obliged to carry under “common carrier” legislation, which was not repealed until the 1960s. It is likely that smalls traffic would be carried in the van, under the charge of the guard (a few guard’s vans had side doors to facilitate this) or for busier lines, there would be a “branch van” which ran up and down the line on a daily basis, usually coming from a central goods handling/transhipment point, but possibly just from the local junction, with much manual handling involved. More important towns might even have a whole wagon dedicated to this work.

    The guard would oversee the shunting, and at very small wayside stations might even throw the points and handle the (un)coupling. At a branch terminus in the 1950s, it is likely that there would be a goods porter who also doubled up as the “shunter”, with responsibility for dealing with coupling and point switching (on the GWR, the points referred to the switches, and turnouts were referred to as “points and crossings” by the plate layers). Points and signals on lines used by passenger trains would be interlocked, and operated from a single frame, usually in a separate signal cabin, although a frame may have been located on the ground, on the platform or in the station buildings: on lightly traficked lines, there would be a porter/signalman, as there would be little work for a full time signalman. The exact nature of the signalling and interlocking would vary according to a whole host of factors, including whether the branch was operated by “one engine in steam” (where a token for travelling over the branch was required, and this also had a key to unlock ground frames) or other alternatives, usually involving either a “staff and ticket” or multiple tokens, arranged between block posts so that only one train could be in the section between those posts at a time. These might also be interlocked with the signalling. Ground level discs might also be supplied, for access to sidings, run round loops, etc, but not always – it depended on what legislation was in force the last time there was a revision to the layout, and also to the amount of traffic carried over the line. The GWR at one stage used “point indicators” to show the setting, but these were gradually removed over time. Points traversed in a facing direction by passenger trains had a “facing point lock”, usually operated by a separate lever in the interlocking frame, although sometimes by the point lever using an “economical facing point lock”. The FPLs usually required pulling to lock the points before a signal could be released, although on some one engine in steam branches, the reverse was true, so that the home and starting signals could be released without the train staff, that being on the train that was arriving/departing. One of the simplest arrangements was at New Radnor, where the train staff unlocked a lever frame with all of four levers. There was a facing point (unlock) for access to the run round loop, the lever for those points and the catch point (derail) on the loop, and a repeat for access to the goods yard – latterly all of one siding. The loco release point at the other end of the loop was not traversed by loaded passenger (or any) vehicles, and had a hand operated turnout, this may even have been sprung loaded to allow engines off trains to run through and push against the points, which then reset to allow the engine to pass down the loop. And yes, the catch points did derail an engine on at least one occasion. They used a taxi to replace the service for the rest of the day. It was not overworked…

    The guard, signalman, shunter and driver (engineer, and his fireman) would work together to make the shunting as efficient as possible. A lot of this would simply be down to an established routine, but shouts, nods and simple gestures would be key to this: most of these are common sense, but arms arranged to form an X shape meant stop, and a waving arm indicated ‘keep moving’. Pausing at points, and giving a single whistle, would be a pretty simple way of indicating that the points needed setting to the alternative route, but there might also be local whistling codes for specific routes. These would be detailed in the “Appendix to the Working Timetable” (WTT – employee timetable to North Americans) which often remained largely unchanged for many years, if not decades. (I have one from 1916, with updates from the 1920s simply pasted over the original pages!) On the GWR, there was no movement without a prior warning (quick peep on the whistle). There were standard codes, but I need to see what information I have (if any) on the GWR in this respect before I can say much more.

    The auto coach gong was only used when the coach was leading with the driver in the cab. The gong was foot operated, and was used to warn people close to or on the line of the approaching train – rather like that on a streetcar. I need to check on whether this supplemented or supplanted the use of the whistle.

    That’s a very nice William Clarke designed station building (depot in the UK usually referred to the motive power depot) which is entirely appropriate for a model inspired by the Abbotsbury branch (that is a superb book, one of my favourites) although the stone looks a bit dark and grey for Dorset, if that is where the line is meant to be. Clarke’s designs appeared on a number of branch lines, using local stone, so the colour might be spot on for other areas. The ex-MR box van, built I presume from the superb Slater’s kit, would be getting rather old and worn by this date, but they were long-lived enough to see it through to the 1950s.

    The 0-4-2T, essentially a 1930s upgrade to a design dating back to the (I think) 1860s, is likely to be either from a kit (Modern Outline, CCW or Springside) or a brass model produced by San-Cheng, and sold under the aegis of Tower Models or Bachmann (yes, them) Brassworks, but those are just guesses.

    Like your own Port Rowan branch, very little rolling stock is needed for a standard UK branch, except that as you are demonstrating, it is unlikely that exactly the same wagon would appear even if to a common design.

    That’s enough from me!

    Simon

    • Hi Simon:

      Thanks so much for the extensive reply. It helps a lot!

      I guess the use of 3-link chain couplings falls into that same category of debate as, “Do we operate from the back or the front?” in that both camps are right and will never reach an agreement. Personally, I’m with you – they look the part. Plus, they really did force Pierre and I to plan our moves.

      As you know from reading my Port Rowan in 1:64 blog, I’m a huge advocate of “Finescale Ops” – of slow, deliberate moves, supported by prototype practice and paperwork, to expand an otherwise simple layout plan into a realistic and challenging operating session. For me, the 3-link couplings are a classic example of something that does that: There’s no opportunity to bang the cars about, no temptation to set speed records for switching freight cars (or, in this case, shunting wagons). The pause to couple/uncouple contributes to the feeling of real work being done – and is much more satisfying than standing idle while pretending that a 7mm person is making the coupling.

      I guess my next lines of inquiry will include:

      – obtaining a scan of a consignment note.

      – obtaining a scan of the relevant section of a WTT, to provide an example of the types of “route requesting” whistles a driver might use, so that we (Brian, me, Pierre) can develop our own version for Roweham, if required. As you’ve noted, in a simple terminal such as this it might be sufficient to use a quick signal – two short toots (“0 0”), perhaps – to request that the points nearest the train be lined for the other route.

      FYI, since writing the original post I’ve checked with Brian and learned that the 0-4-2T is from Masterpiece Models (I should’ve remembered that, because Pierre and I were joking about “Monsterpiece Theatre with Alistair Cookie”.) I’ve updated the post with this information. It’s a beautiful model, with working inside valve gear (which can just barely be seen through the frame by looking below the boiler/smokebox).

      As for the station colour, I might have to blame my camera for that. I was juggling operating duties with picture-taking, so I was using the “everything preset” setting with flash instead of an “aperture priority” setting with a tripod and natural lighting. So the colours may be way off…

      Again, thanks for the extensive reply. Very much appreciated and you’ve given the Roweham crew plenty to think about.

      Cheers!

  3. So does this mean a 7mm sleepy BLT Trevor? and a great post. I do like the 3 link coupling as it gives a sense of real operation and spot shunting/switching is just as possible with them.

    • Hi Tom:
      Not for me – not at this time, anyway. I have enough to do with my Port Rowan in 1:64 project at home, and my participation in the S Scale Workshop on the road.
      However, I’m always thinking about the design of exhibition (and home) layouts. I’ve followed the UK hobby scene quite closely for decades (and even subscribe to Model Railway Journal), and my thoughts on layout design are definitely influenced by what I’ve seen from the east side of The Pond. That said, this was my first opportunity to work a 7mm layout – my first chance to work with three-link couplings, a layout designed to be operated from the rear, and so on – and I’ve definitely learned some lessons that I’ll be putting to good use on future projects.
      Cheers!

  4. Wow. Thanks for that terrific comment, Simon. I really enjoyed reading the detail on how a train was managed and worked. Now I’m really intrigued and keen to learn more.

    Thanks

    /chris

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