When I began to build County Gate, I never imagined that it would become an exhibition layout. It was going to live at home and be nothing more than a 'boy's toy'. Very early in its build, I was persuaded to make it portable and available for exhibition. This posed many problems which had to be solved, from the design of exhibition stands to the construction of a special trailer. Scenery had really been my interest so the layout evolved into a 'railway in a landscape'. This involved the occasional train arriving at the station and waiting for another to cross in the opposite direction.

Initially, it was built using DC  and trains were kept in a traverser hidden under the hotel. This worked just fine for home use.

Once it was decided to exhibit, this solution no longer worked and a fiddle yard was obviously needed behind the scenes. As the railway grew, DC operation began to show its weaknesses and I began to investigate the possibilities of digital control. A chance meeting at Warley with Malcolm Alberry tipped the balance and we launched into a Digitrax system. Straight away, life became much, much easier. The system worked 'out of the box' and we could run our little trains wherever we wished.

For some time, we ran the layout at exhibition using manual control of points and signals leaving the DCC just to loco control. It worked fine but was very demanding to operate for long periods of time. Inevitably, errors would happen resulting in derailments resulting in damage to the delicate scenery. Re-railing these tiny trains could take a lot of time and was extremely embarrassing with the public looking on. In addition, despite efforts to keep everything clean, now and again a loco would stall and require the 'hand of God' to get it going again: all very unsatisfactory.

Gradually, we expanded the rolling stock and we eventually decided to keep our trains in fixed consists which we knew worked and did not derail. Once this decision was made, it was possible to introduce 'companion cars' which were wired up to collect line current and pass it onto the loco. Stalled locos became a thing of the past. Bit by bit, small modifications were undertaken until we could claim near on 100% reliability.

One of the hardest aspects of model railway design is to arrive at a solution that offers interesting operation to the public during exhibitions. County Gate is in effect an intermediate station with a passing loop on a small narrow gauge single line.

Operation of the main line is in effect, trains arriving from both directions, stopping at the station and then continuing onwards. To add interest, we designed a large fiddle yard at the rear of the model so that different trains would arrive in sequence.

The original fiddle yard was situated behind the viaduct section of the layout. It was a very long way for our slow trains to wander around to the back and park in the yard. An equal time was then taken to bring on two more trains to the station. In addition, the ladder lengths were too short to house all the required trains. At exhibition, this has resulted in long delays before anything happens at County Gate. The new fiddle yard runs the length of the layout so trains can appear at a much faster rate.

In addition to the main line, the harbour branch runs a regular shuttle with its railcar and the occasional coal train comes and goes.

The new fiddle yard has been a vast improvement compared with the original one and exhibition operating became less fraught but still difficult to operate manually.

The breakthrough came with a chance meeting at Warley between myself and Malcolm Alberry. With his help, over the past two years, we have automated the operations of County Gate. A great deal of electronics, miles of wiring and Railroad & Co software from a laptop makes all this possible. The system is described elsewhere.

The first automated outing was in June 2009 at Chatham. The system at that time just involved six trains on the main line. It ran faultlessly for two days and the trains were virtually 100% reliable. Further automation was then installed allowing for the operation of the Harbour railcar and route selection for Harbour coal trains. The automation has vastly speeded up fiddle yard operations and trains are absent from the visible layout for two minutes only.

We then had ten trains that operating on the six ladder fiddle yard. Once a train has left one of the longer tracks, the train behind shuttle forward to take its place, thus leave space for the train to return. This is called the County Gate Shuffle. This lasted until December 2012 when we reverted to one train per track on the fiddle yard but also operated a train from road 7. This modification was done to simplify operation at shows.


Coal trains to and from the harbour are all that is left of manual operation at exhibition. This is generally handled by our Garratt, which will run round its train at the harbour and haul the train back to the fiddle yard. Here, the Garratt has to be manually moved to the other end of the train. We can select the coal train route by computer however, once all other operating schedules are stopped and trains returned to their starting position.

We have always wanted to present a 'show' and after much further programming and experimentation, we now have  loco whistles and horns which sound at the appropriate moments and even guards' whistles. The sounds are assigned to the appropriate locomotives.

In order to explain to the public what is happening, we installed a large flat screen just above the backdrop. As trains arrive at the station, a short slide show will say which engine is hauling the train and where it is going.

Longer shows automatically come one once the last train has disappeared from the scene. These include such subjects as the history of the L&B, how the scenery was made etc. These can be watched while the trains are out of sight. (about 2 minutes).