Room for context

I’m in a bit of a British railways mood these days – in large part because I’m working on some 7mm (British O scale) passenger cars*. So while poking about my library of railway books, it’s no surprise that I pulled this one off the shelf for another look:

GWR Modelling V3

In the book, author Stephen Williams describes his layout, based on a Great Western Railway branch line terminus. Because it’s designed to take to exhibitions, he made the benchwork as compact as possible so it would be easier to carry and to fit into a vehicle. Then, he makes the following observation, which really struck a chord with me:

However, now the model is complete, I realise I have made a significant error in excluding all the non-railway buildings. Because the model station is surrounded by grass, it looks for all the world like a rural outpost when in reality, it is set within a built-up area. It is probably too late to do much about this now, but more thought at the design stage might have led to the creation of a more convincing model.

What an important lesson!

The author’s layout certainly looks lovely – but it does indeed have a rural flair to it. Given that I know next to nothing about GWR branch lines in general or about the author’s specific prototype, I noticed nothing “wrong” with the layout until I read the above quoted passage. From that perspective, the layout is a success even though it presents as rural instead of urban – because I enjoyed looking at it. But others more familiar with the subject may react differently: They may feel, as the author appears to, that his prototype has been mis-represented. (Or they may fill in the missing pieces – they’re just beyond the edges of the benchwork, after all, and most of us are really good at filling in missing pieces when we know them to be there.)

I should stress that this is in no way a criticism of the author’s layout: I think it’s superb. But I’m glad that he pointed out this oversight so that I and others might learn from it.

In relating it to my own layout, I’m relieved that I included so much space around the railway – especially in the terminal at Port Rowan:

Port Rowan - overview of terminal from meadow
Click on the image to visit my Port Rowan website, where you’ll find lots of other photos of the railway in context

To be honest, I lucked out with this: the terminal includes a turntable, which is approximately 12″ in diameter, and therefore needed a foot of depth in the benchwork. But nothing else needed that space – there are no industries to model around the turnable, or other tracks.

I could have placed the turntable in a blob off the front of the layout and saved myself some space. Instead, I simply kept the front edge of the layout deep enough to accommodate the feature, and filled the rest of the space with meadow and orchard:

First Time Here - 20
This view from a few years ago shows the Port Rowan yard as seen by an arriving train. The second switch along leads off to the right – and you can follow that track through the meadow to the turntable in the distance…

Imagine how different the above scene would look if instead of orchards, I had built large warehouses on either side of the main track – or if I’d added multi-storey brick buildings along the backdrop and a combination of dirt and pavement between track and fascia. The same track arrangement would’ve told a completely different story while remaining functionally identical.

To be fair, I am building a home layout – not something that has to travel – so it’s perhaps easier to include space beyond the railway. Even so, I might have narrowed the benchwork through much of this yard in order to gain some space in the aisles. Having read the highlighted passage from this book, however, I’m glad that I included space for context.

If you’re in the design stages of your layout, consider adding an extra 6″ behind the scene, and 3″-6″ in front of it. Sometimes that isn’t possible – but chances are you can do it without sacrificing comfort in the room, or access to the track for operations or maintenance. This little bit extra is especially important for shelf layouts where those few inches may make a huge difference by placing the railway in the larger scene.

*If you want to know more about the 7mm Great Western Railway passenger cars, click on the book cover in this post.

2 thoughts on “Room for context

  1. If you look at recent MRJs, you can see that the builder has been addressing this “shortcoming” by building an additional section, containing the road at the end of the line plus the houses upon it.

    There’s a lesson there: it is always possible to extend a layout beyond the railway boundary fence at a later date.

    • That’s excellent news. I’ll have to go back through my Model Railway Journal collection to look for this. Thanks for the heads up.
      Cheers!

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