Exhibiting: what is the next step?

County Gate is nearly ready for another exhibition

Those who visit model railway exhibitions are a very varied lot. A small number of folks are very bizarre indeed and turn up time after time and can be both alarming and sometimes very entertaining.

Obviously many exhibition visitors are already model rail enthusiasts and have a clear agenda of what they wish to see but a very large number of folks arrive with no more than a passing interest (if any) in model railways. Are we doing enough to entertain these people? When we have a line of spectators staring at our layouts, are there ways on putting on a better show?

This has been the conundrum facing us at County Gate. The layout is quite long (32ft) and it is not unusual to have visitors four deep along the entire length. There is an awful lot of scenery with trains running through it. It portrays just what we want: a small country station on a single line minor railway. Often as not, folks do not even notice the trains moving along the track as they are rather small in their surroundings!

All the signals work correctly but again, they are not always noticed. On larger layouts, it is just not possible to explain verbally what is happening. So what could we do about it?


In reality, train movements on such a railway would be infrequent, so firstly, we compress time. Two new trains cross at County Gate every three minutes or thereabouts and in addition, a shuttle service is run into the harbour. This at least promises a good chance that the operation will be seen before the visitor leaves.


The sound levels at exhibition tend to be high and loud sound from one layout will only annoy. We now have quiet ambient sound for the countryside and for the harbour and visitors do seem to enjoy birdsong and the occasional seagull or barking dog.

We also have whistle and horn sounds for when the trains leave the station.


Most exhibitions supply a printed guide. Exhibitors are asked to write a few words to describe their layout. This is often all that the visitor will ever know about what they are looking at.

Pelmets and baseboard fronts

Many layouts do have pelmets over their railway and some are used to add further descriptions of the model. Others attach such information to the front of their baseboards. Occasionally, one sees many photographs displayed with long and involved descriptions; all in small writing. I wonder how often they are read in the hustle and bustle of an exhibition.

We have printed simple further interpretation on our pelmets and I notice that they are indeed often read.

supplementary guides

At a cost, one could produce a supplementary guide to one's layout which could be available to the visitor either sold or for free. This may work but frankly I rather doubt it.

Some inter-reaction could be had by providing a quiz for children where winner get a small prize.

slide shows and 'mini movies'

A viable alternative is to use a screen or series of screens visible to the public. On this, a series of mini movies or slide shows could be shown during moments when not much is happening on the layout. The history of the railway, how the layout was built or how it is controlled are all possible subjects.

This is an example that I have prepared for County Gate.

Such shows can be easily initiated manually. At County Gate, our Railroad and Co software initiates them at the correct moments of the operating sequence.

This system also announces each train that arrives at the station.

This is an example

For a layout like County Gate, two screens would be needed to allow all to watch. This is not cheap as the estimated price is about 100 per screen.


Once such a system is in place, it is also possible to incorporate cameras too. The activities on our rear fiddle yard could be filmed as trains are automatically marshalled back to their sidings and new trains dispatched (best not to get caught picking one's nose behind the scenes though).

It could also be possible to show the layout from angles that cannot be seen by the public. The possibilities are endless, including the use of a miniature camera mounted on a train.

animated cameos

Some layouts make good use of animation. It may be a seaplane with rotating propeller or could even be cars moving down a guided road system. Our layout has a flickering bonfire and arc welding light emanating from the engine shed. Again, the possibilities are endless and must certainly add something to the show.

Our collier 'Glenthorne Rose' is fitted with a large smoke generator. A computer cooling fan blow the smoke up the  chimney in a realistic fashion.

We are then, of course, presented with the conundrum that parts of the layout are still, rooted in a moment of time, while other bits are moving.

This is very obvious on our latest layout, Cliffhanger. The waterfall is animated but the waves of the sea below are still.

A number of European companies now supply moving figures and cameos. Sadly, many are very robotic and if I see another burning house with a fire crew, I shall scream. That is always the problem with commercial animations.

loco smoke

Some layouts do fit Seuthe smoke units to their locos. Personally, I am not convinced as they really do not look like steam engine emissions to me. In addition, I am concerned that the smoke generating oil would get all over the engines and scenery.


Given the right kind of layout, the lighting can be gradually adjusted from day into night. This can be really very effective indeed although not appropriate for our own County gate.


We have started to use smell. When trains arrive at the station, a special oil burner blows out the smell of steam engines .

I am sure there are lots of other really good ideas out there and hopefully, this article might get us all thinking. If by improving our showmanship we can persuade newcomers into our hobby, everyone will be a winner.

For some it may be possible to obtain the effect of shadow from clouds passing over and back screen project onto the backdrop could offer great effects.