exhibiting a model railway at a model railway exhibition

the pitfalls of exhibiting laid bare

You have been to a few exhibitions as a punter, you model railways, and now you are thinking of exhibiting one.

Ask yourself why you wish to exhibit? If you are looking for feedback on your efforts, you can easily post images of your line on numerous forums or launch your own website, like this one. You can even show how well it works by posting a video, on say, YouTube.

If you get your layout featured in magazines you can really consider your efforts are getting somewhere. If you are listed as 'Railway of the Month' or 'Inspirational'; consider that you have arrived. What is even better, if you write the article, they even pay you!

Some associations have 'at home' days when like minded folks will take turns visiting members homes, play with your trains, show off their latest models, chat and enjoy tea/biscuits and if you are lucky, fantastic cakes. This can be a pleasant informal way of sharing your hobby; normally a very solitary pastime.. Local groups of the 009 Society do this on a regular basis.

Already, as a railway modeller, you will have come to terms with the fact that as far as most women are concerned, it ranks as one of the most uncool things you can possibly do; just about in the same category of beer mat collecting, spotting buses and watching paint dry. This may explain why very few exhibitors are virile good looking young men! In fact, model rail exhibitions are largely a repository of middle aged and older blokes. Don't get me wrong, a handful of women are railway modellers but they are as rare as hens' teeth. So if you are a female railway modeller and single, you have already arrived at the happy hunting ground! If you are in to uncool middle aged and older men, that is!

But you still want to exhibit?

If you are located near a model railway club, you may wish to join them and become involved with an existing club layout. This has the advantage that you will be able to share the experience with like minded people and go out on exhibition with them and have a good jolly. You may find that the club layout holds little interest to you but all is not lost. You can build your own under the auspices of 'members layouts' and still get a lot of help to exhibit.

For many others, a model railway club may not be an option so you will be on your own. Fortunately, a wealth of information is available to you, from some excellent magazines to numerous websites. There are many forums where you can ask for help and the answer will probably come back almost immediately. However, I have never seen a balanced article on the business of exhibiting. This is perhaps because some in the hobby consider the whole subject a 'holy cow' and any negative comments can be met with a storm of outrage and protest. I may very well find myself the subject of a model railway 'fatwa' after writing this!

why exhibitions?

Well, the answer is simple enough.....money. Most exhibitions are run by model railway clubs. They cost a lot to keep going; maybe it's the rent of the clubhouse or buying supplies and there are all the other expenses experienced when running a club.

"So we could run a model railway exhibition and collect money from punters at the door and from traders who wish to show their wares."

Now this article is largely concerned with the larger shows that draw exhibitors from around the country. The small local show in the church hall has its own charm and perhaps a lot fewer pitfalls.

Let's take a look at the expectations from both sides of the fence.

The exhibition manager of a larger show wants:

A large selection of good model railways which will 'wow' the visitors. Remember, you want them to come back next year.
That exhibitors will not let you down at the last minute.
That exhibitors set up their layouts in time and are ready to operate when the doors open.

That the layouts are properly run during the opening times and exhibitors do not start to pack up early.
That  someone is available to answer questions from the public.

That the exhibitors cause the least amount of bother to the organiser and demand the smallest amount of expenses for getting there.

The exhibitor's requirements are perhaps more varied but here are some factors to consider:

That the exhibition manager sends them a complete information pack about what is expected of them and about the locale they are visiting before the exhibitor commits to the venue.

That if the venue is away from your locale, suitable accommodation is provided. The exhibitor may even wish accommodation for the night after the show rather than drive home exhausted through the night.
That acceptable expenses are paid to cover your costs.
That acceptable free food and drink is provided for during the show.
That there is security for the layout at the venue during the evenings and at night.
That it is properly insured during transit and during the show.
That the layout is protected from the ravishes of the public by good barriers.
That there is a good 'social opportunity' for exhibitors.
That the exhibitor feels valued and cared for.

The whole arrangement, and don't let's forget it, depends on getting a good selection of excellent layouts in show to interest the public. OK, layouts from other clubs will come, but a good show needs more than the 'usual suspects' and this is where the good privately owned layout is sought. Without the layouts, the public and of course the traders will not bother to come either.

so what is involved?

There is a country mile between having a demountable layout and one that is suitable for exhibition.

Probably the best way to discover what is required is to note where the crowds are at exhibitions or how long they remain at a layout.

Again, there is often a difference between club layouts and private ones. One of the stars of the club layout is called Dewsbury. The layout is huge and is superb in detail, quality and operating interest. It arrives in a massive truck and takes hours to assemble by a large team who seem as practiced as a Formula One pit crew. They even wear matching uniforms!

Dewsbury at exhibition

Not all layouts have to be built to such exacting standards to be popular. A few layouts are down on realism but have loads of trains rushing around, which can be very exciting to the public. One has no scenery at all, just several tracks laid down as a large loop and kids are allowed to control the trains. Kid paradise!

The private entry is often very much smaller but can have exquisite detail.

privately entered gem, Pempoul; Reseau Breton in 1:50 scale

When designing your layout, you may wish to consider these factors:

Lighting: Many halls have inadequate lighting and some larger ones use sodium bulbs which wash out all colour. Ideally your display should include its own lighting system which makes the best of your model.
Presentation: How will you frame your layout for the viewing public?
Composition: How will your layout look to the public? Does it 'hang together' from the viewing point
Activity: Does the trackplan allow sufficient train operation to maintain the public interest?
Atmosphere: A indefinable factor, but these may be pointers. Does the layout invoke memories of a certain area? Can visitors mentally 'place' themselves in the landscape and feel part of it?
Reliability: Will your equipment run for two days without failure?
Transport: How easy is it to transport your layout? Will the rail joints between baseboards always line up? How many people do you need to help carry it and set it up? Can your stands be adjusted to allow for floor irregularities?
Health and safety: Yes, the cold clammy controlling hand of bureaucracy has even descended on model railways! Your layout may have to pass various tests, often to do with some woman called Pat and you may have to supply RCDs....( you may have to Google this to find out what on earth they are).
Showmanship: Don't forget you are part of a show, so get into the role. You must consider how best to operate your layout to maintain public interest. This is not quite the same as 'playing with trains'.

There are just so many factors to consider, it can be a bit overwhelming.

how to get invited

So you have built your exhibition layout and are 'raring to go' ......but where?

You will need to acquire photography and colour balancing skills using a software programme like Fireworks or Photoshop. You should also be able to post submissions on the internet. If you really cannot do it, persuade someone who can to do it for you.

Now is the time to post photos of your layout on a few of the better forA. Indeed, if you have been smart, you will have regularly posted during construction so that the layout has had maximum exposure.

You should also place your layout in listings like the UK Shop Directory.

Not everybody is computer literate and there is still nothing quite like being featured in a major magazine. It is best to send photos by post or email and offer to submit an article to the editor.

exhibiting at a show

You will have to make sure that your layout is completely ready and that everything is working to perfection. Work out how you are going to operate it to create maximum interest. You will need to get together a tool kit for running repairs, RCD plugs and all the rest of the paraphernalia. It is very useful to use a checklist so you do not forget something vital.

If you have a larger layout which will not fit into the back of the car, you will have to organise the rent of a van or Luton. This will also need collecting. Larger layouts have many more logistic issues. You may need more than one person to help load and operate. You could experience some difficulty in conning friends to go with you! If you do manage to elicit help, your volunteers quite rightly, may expect you to provide all meals throughout the journey and at location. This can become very expensive.

From the moment your model leaves your front door, it is going to be under threat.

weather: Can your model survive rain? Are your bricks hand painted with water colour? What will you do if you have to move the model around under a deluge?
heat/cold shock: Your layout may very well have operated perfectly at home, but after a few major changes in temperature and humidity experienced during transport and erection at a venue, the story could be very different.
transport: Even with the most careful driving, anything that is not fixed on your model will be elsewhere when you arrive. Loose scatter will be all over your track and bits of ballast can be jamming the point blades. Think of taking a small vacuum cleaner with you.

Shows generally open at 10.00/10.30 hours and you have to be ready by then. Often, it is necessary to get there the evening of day before to offload and set up. Sometimes the exhibition hall is not open sufficiently early on in the day of the show to get it all done by then. If the venue is a long way from home you will have had a tiring journey and may have had to stop for resuscitation at a motorway service area where it costs a week's salary for a tea and a bun.

It always takes much longer than you think  to offload and complete setting up and you may have some problems getting things to work right. It is made more difficult because everyone else is trying to do the same thing all around you. There is no such thing as organised chaos! Further delays can be experienced because you might have to wait for the electrician to do a safety check on your wiring. It is always better to get your trains out onto the track to give them the maximum time to temperature and humidity normalise. Never lock them in the boot and leave them overnight. Half the locos will not wake up the next day for some time.

Watch out for the 'curved ball'. You will know what your requirements are to operate your railway and you should have made these very clear to the exhibition manager. If you arrive and the facilities promised are not provided, don't give in. Insist on your table, operating space or whatever else you required. If they are not forthcoming, don't give in to emotional blackmail. Pack up and go home.

Although the exhibition manager expects you to attend a booked show, be aware that some will cancel you out within weeks of a show, despite having booked you months earlier.

With all of this going on, you will already be feeling tired and hungry. Many clubs do not offer any food at setting up time the evening before and you can find yourself driving around a strange town late at night trying to find somewhere to eat. If you have brought helpers, 100 can disappear very quickly!

Hopefully, barriers will have been already set up for you at your allocated position and these also have to be properly adjusted.

You will then have to find the hotel or B&B (unless you found this earlier). It is amazing how hard this can be after setting up as you will feel completely brain dead. This is a time when GPS comes into its own.

Getting to bed exhausted, you will have to be up early enough to get to the venue to do any last minute adjustments and checks, provided that a host club member has remembered to get up early too, to open the door to the exhibition hall. This is not always the case!

With any luck, you might get a fleeting glance of the other exhibits before the door opens to the public.

the public

Many visitors have no more than a passing interest in the hobby and have no idea of how delicate models can be. After all, toys are made from unbreakable lead free plastic...aren't they???

A proportion of the public come well equipped with small children whose sole purpose for existence is to destroy your precious layout. Sadly, it is not allowed to insist that they have their hands tied behind their backs and what is worse, the doting parents do not keep the little dears under control.

If one does get through your defences and pulls off your line side fences, you are very likely going to shout and you will almost certainly get an angry response from an indignant  parent saying "Well, he's only three". Amazing: when did they breed out common sense in these parents?

This means that you will not only have to concentrate on operating the railway, you will also have to watch for kids and the occasional adult who has crawled under or around the barrier. This can be a tad stressful.

Some visitors will be great pointers. Given half a chance, they are quite capable of pointing their fingers right through telephone wires or model ship rigging. Others are the 'touchy feely' types, who just cannot resist touching everything, no matter how delicate it may be. It is amazing how they can manage to reach your layout even if you have a barrier.

Then there are the 'danglers'. They will lean over the layout and in doing so remove trees, fences and anything else in their path with their hanging camera, handbag, coat or beer belly.

Finally, there are the photographers, who may very well thrust their zoom lens in your delicate model, destroying all in its path.

How are you feeling so far?

Throughout the day, you will be expected to keep operating your layout in an interesting manner and continue to answer the same questions, over and over again while still smiling. If you are to retain any sanity, you will need  relieving by a companion for food and a few breaks. If the whole affair becomes mind numbingly boring it can be a good time to get into comfort eating!

If you are a smoker, you may discover that you are not only prohibited from smoking indoors but also outdoors.....even if there is a howling wind. Check this one out before you agree to go.

Hopefully the food will be OK but sometimes it can turn out to be little more than a bag of crisps.

Once the doors close, you may get another fleeting glance at the exhibits and then, hopefully, but not always, you have a get together with the other exhibitors. Realistically, it may be the only opportunity you get to socialise other than during a rushed lunch. With any luck, the get-together will be in a hotel where everybody is staying. This is by far the best arrangement as you can have a few jars and not worry about driving to a digs afterwards.

the prizes

What better way of having all your hard work validated than by winning a prize at a show. Well, all is not quite as it seems to be. Many clubs appoint their own judges who award the prizes. It is not surprising therefore, that they may be awarded to 'friends' rather than for merit. Sometimes, one can actually predict who will win by reading postings by club officials made on forums prior to the actual show!

If winning a prize is important to you, then attend those shows which award a trophy for best in show, voted by the public. After all, it is the public who pays to go and their votes will not be affected by the 'old boy network' which can pervade this hobby as surely as the Masonics do elsewhere!

end of days

So at last the doors close and you can get packed up again and sort out expenses, which should be paid in cash. Some organisers now expect you to send an invoice which will be paid at a later date. Avoid these shows like the plague as sometimes the expenses are not fully paid. Some exhibitors depend upon immediate payment to have enough money to get home!

There will be a rugby scrum of exhibitors and traders at the doors and it can be some time before you are able to load up your Luton/van/trailer/car unless you are prepared to carry your stuff half way across the car park. Tempers can get very frayed by then, so do not be surprised to find yourself being shouted at! If you are a very long way from home, are you going to feel OK driving through a dark winter's night? This is when it becomes a good idea to stay a further night and leave Monday. The additional hotel night must be organised in advance with the exhibition. This is all very well, but how many of your friends will be prepared take off Friday and Monday and be away all weekend just to help you with your trainset?

By the time you arrive home, you will no doubt be doing a very passable imitation of the 'living dead' but you will still  have to offload your layout and return any rented vehicle.

the pitfalls

Some exhibitions are run extremely well and the host club is charming and welcoming. Others are organised badly and your weekend can turn into a nightmare. The same goes for exhibition managers. There are some wonderful individuals but there is also the occasional rude bully who can reduce all but the toughest to tears. You may find yourself being 'blacklisted' at exhibitions if you argue with some of these 'good old boys' so it is best to get everything really clear before you agree to go.

You are the guest of some railway club and have the right to be treated as such. Rather sadly, some clubs have the arrogance to consider that you should feel 'honoured' to have been invited! Some clubs may actually be downright unwelcoming unless you are part of their little group.

If the worst happens and your layout is damaged, you may be facing many hours of repair work. This is the time to inform the exhibition manager...after all, it was insured, wasn't it?

Hmmm....what can actually happen is that the manager will start muttering about the insurance excess and how expensive it is for the club to make a claim. It you are not careful, you will leave making no claim and be made to feel how unreasonable you were to think about it in the first place.

So before you agree to accept an invitation to exhibit at Twitty Fee Model Railway Exhibition find out exactly what you are letting yourself in for before agreeing to attend. This is often not as easy as it should be as some managers can be very evasive at the booking stage of the game.

If you feel that you have an acceptable offer, send the manager a letter stating the terms as you understand it and get them to sign and return it. Better still, if you have strong views about what you expect from the exhibition, send them a copy of your terms. The exhibitions are only too keen to send you their terms but often seem quite put out that you may have some of your own.

Your terms can include requirements for hotel accommodation, (do you really want to spend some nights in what appears to be a young offenders facility? - I did recently and have to say the experience was ghastly! Apart from anything else, the place was the centre of the Birmingham sex industry!)

You need to make it quite clear what your layout needs as a 'footprint'. This includes the space you need around it to operate properly. If this is not clearly understood and accepted some real problems can arise. Below is the 'footprint' of County Gate as an example.

Check up for what is on offer for food at the exhibition. Ask to see menus from the previous exhibition. Nearly all exhibitions do not pay for evening meals; the exception being Utrecht.

Remember. without good layouts, there will be no exhibition. You are the exhibition. You may be happy to go but do you want to find yourself a few hundred pounds out of pocket apart from the considerable investment in time?

Perhaps it is time to review this whole thorny issue. The better private railways are one of the highlights of a good exhibition and some will be lost to the circuit unless some expectations of managers change. Perhaps this explains the current trend to have pizza layouts and 'railway in a shoe box' displays. I doubt the public will stampede to the show to see too many of these though.


if it all goes pear shaped

I do not want to give the impression that all exhibitions are frightful; they are not. I have only been very unhappy at three shows: a tiny percentage of shows we have attended. Indeed some can be really fun and fulfilling. There will be the odd time however when things go really wrong and you end up in an impasse with the Exman. What can you do about it? Model railway exhibitions do not belong to some national guild that monitors standards so anything can happen at a show if they are so inclined. The club will always close ranks against you so unless you are prepared to go to small claims court, there is not a lot you can do. If you complain on forums or websites as I do, be prepared for a great deal of unpleasantness!


There it is. The world of model railway exhibiting. Some folks thrive on it and others find the whole system so ghastly that they watch daytime TV or join SAGA instead. Just make really sure what you are getting into and have it in writing!