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
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%
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
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
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
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).