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First Night Nerves




The layout has been to its first show. We survived. (Actually it went quite well.)


Some years ago I was involved with a rather unhappy club project. That layout's career culminated in a disastrous trip to a show as a part built item. Some of us in the group had hoped that this would mark a turning point in the project and that we could put on a good show for the public to re-establish some credibility. Unfortunately that was not to be, as someone who technically was not part of the group unilaterally decided to rewire one end of the fiddle yard and replace the control panel software during set-up. Neither worked, and having left the clubroom on the Thursday with a working layout I walked into the hall on the Saturday morning to be greeted with "We've just run our first test train: there are only 3 roads working in the fiddle yard, and you can only use them from that end."


There were other problems, and in retrospect that awful weekend was the beginning of the end for both the group and the project. At a personal level I spent three-quarters of an hour pacing up and down my room that Saturday night vowing that when I finally extricated myself from the project I was never, ever, going to be involved in any way ever again with any kind of layout group or group layout..


So it's fair to say that I have a lot of what Aussie cricketers call "mental scarring" where exhibiting, exhibition layouts, and operational reliability are concerned, and my attitude in recent years to the whole business of exhibiting has been rather ambivalent


Yes, Blacklade can actually be fitted into the back of my car. Yes, in principle the layout could be exhibited. Yes, it has in fact been taken to a couple of small informal closed events on a "show and tell and run some trains" basis. But - I've not actually done anything to get it invited to any shows, or even tidied up a few loose ends that were left outstanding. If the idea of exhibiting ever crossed my mind I was inclined simply to lie down in a darkened room until it went away......


That was until the chairman of a group I belong to volunteered me for the high-jump.


The society was going to mount a presence at a largish show. The stand would be there, and so would be a couple of layouts owned by members. There was even to be a small dedicated room. Excellent news , and a venture emphatically to be supported.


Then it appeared there was a small glitch. It seemed that there was some kind of small gap.


At which point I get an email from the chairman: "How long's your layout?".


To which I made the mistake of replying - "8'6" " .


"Right , you're going to Middlemarch".


After which there was a reassuring silence for about 6 weeks. Then an email from the organisers arrived. Details and photos were sent back to them, with which they seemed happy , and I received a formal invitation. The first symptoms of panic appeared.


The first task was to tidy up some minor electrical work - detailed here: http://www.rmweb.co.uk/community/index.php?/blog/343/entry-16577-electrifying/


Then there was the question of drapes - which was ably dealt with by my operator and his wife.


That sort of cleared the decks on the layout front.


There were various administrative matters to attend to, but basically my attention could be focussed on stock. How productively is another matter.


The big effort was a desperate attempt to push the 155 on to completion, since that would give me a spare unit to play with. More precisely - the layout was to be shown as BR Blue modern image layout, c1985-90, since that's the suite of stock that's more or less complete. For that period the red and silver wave West Yorkshire PTE livery on the 158 is strictly incorrect (although it doesn't jar); however the 155 is in the earlier red with white stripe and would be spot on. Having it in service would also allow me to consist, with 155+153; and that formation fits neatly in Platform 3 and in one road of the fiddle yard. Even better, if I could build my DC Kits 128 I could run 3 car Modernisation Plan formations by consisting it with my 2 car units.


Sadly it was not to be. I'm at least 2 blog postings behind on the 155, but suffice it to say that by the weekend before the show I had pushed it to the point where I had started test-running the chassis - at which point it suddenly died and refused to report CVs. A desperate rushed installation of the new decoder (which I had hoped to avoid till after the show) ended with a dead chassis and the decoder refusing to report CVs. Frantic testing with a multimeter could reveal no shorts and no missing connections. Having apparently blown two decoders in quick succession, I could go no further.


Meanwhile unexpected pressure of work meant that the 128 had dropped off the to-do list entirely.


Back to layout administration. I had knocked up a layout description and emailed it to the organisers for the programme (though they lopped off my opening flourish "Welcome to BR's "crumbling edge of quality" - wholly appropriate I think as description of what I'm trying to portray")


With a new operator, and first time out on the circuit, it seemed prudent to arrange some operator training.


So my main operator came over one Saturday when he was en route to an evening engagement nearby, and we spent a couple of hours running the layout and going through the various party-piece moves and recovery measures. One further issue showed its face - he had only just bought a PowerCab and this was the first time he had tried using one in anger. As we had 2 PowerCabs available, I tried operating with his PowerCab as a "slave" handset. This works , but there is quite a crippling lag in response with the "slave" handset. Another consideration was that all the route macros are on my PowerCab . We agreed he would bring his Powercab to the show as a backup, but mine would be used for operation unless it failed.


The layout behaved absolutely faultlessly throughout the afternoon- much to my surprise and relief. My decorative spirit thermometer was reading about 24 degrees - I suspect that the points may actually be heat-sensitive, since when I was struggling with point throw during the summer the ambient temperature was commonly 25-28 degrees


One absolute essential for a DCC layout, at least in my book, is a sheet for the operators listing every single item of traction, with number and DCC address. Otherwise nobody knows what they're doing. I drew one up in Word as a table, and emailed it to a fellow exhibitor for plastic lamination. The address sheet shows the TOPS number, class, TOC/Livery and address, with a column showing whether the item does or doesn't have lights, and another one showing the consisting code . (see here) http://www.rmweb.co.uk/community/index.php?/blog/343/entry-16399-multiple-as-in-diesel-multiple-unit/


Since I envisage the sheets being used at future shows I added several other items likely to be finished in the near future (e.g. the 128) with a warning mark


The exhibitor's paperwork arrived about a week beforehand. Wheels were cleaned during the week before, and I assembled an emergency toolkit - strictly out of duplicate tools in case I somehow lost the lot


And so to the event itself.


I loaded everything into the car on Thursday evening, and drove into work the next morning: since I have to park in the street on an industrial estate I draped a blanket over the boards and took the holdall with the stock into the office. I left work a little after 1pm , and was soon onto the motorway. An hour into the drive I stopped at a leafy service station for water and a sandwich , then pressed on as the gantry signs were warning of delays ahead - that proved to be a false alarm, and I was checking into the accommodation, a Holiday Inn in a nearby spa town, by 4 o'clock.


I then got a phone-call from my main operator to say he was already at the venue, which was open for setting up, so I drove out with everything to get Blacklade set up.


The venue, a modern museum in open country,, is one of the glitziest places I've seen used for an exhibition; but its one big drawback is that it is cut up into various relatively small rooms - in that respect it was more like the typical school venue. We were in a dedicated room at one end of the venue, with three other society layouts and the stand. For exhibition purposes Blacklade sits on tables (the legs are a bit embarrassing) and two tables (phew) had been provided. Blocking out had not yet been done and proved a little fluid, but to cut a long story I pushed the tables against the wall, set up the layout along the front edge - remember Blacklade is a maximum of 1' wide, narrowing to 5" at the central board joint - and got all the electrical equipment plugged in.


Here we are - I was tense, nervous and uncertain, and not really up for recording every moment for posterity in case I fell flat on my face, so this is the only photo.



I had brought two clip-on lights, but to be honest the lighting in the room was so good that we decided they actually detracted from the overall effect and they went back in the bag. Stock went on the layout, the track was cleaned (do it the other way round) and I did a little test running. Coupled with operator training in recovery measures and stock recognition (Do not assume that a steam-age modeller knows what a 101 is)


We managed to get a short on the station board. That knocked out the MERG decoder , all points on that board dead - unplug PowerCab and 16V auxiliary supply, plug back in, reboot. . Test decoder's back in business- try Point 3.


Point 3 doesn't move. Try point 3 the other way.


Point 3 doesn't respond. Sits there silent and still. Points 1 and 2 throw. Try again in rising panic. A 2 day show with one point on the station board dead and my longest platform locked out of use....


Desperate measures taken. Clear the stock, tip up the layout. I had an earlier problem with intermittent failure of one output to respond . I solved it by moving the point concerned - this point - to the spare output. I'll have to put it back on the old output and hope to limp through the show with all the route macros out of sync.


I had actually removed the first wire when the penny dropped. The point concerned was now on output 4 . Point 3 didn't throw - because output 3 isn't connected to anything. It's now point 4. But as I only ever use the route macros, I hadn't remembered that. Point 4 - throws.


Panic over - stock back on the layout , and we head out of the venue, back to the hotel, and to a local waterside pub with decent food.


The next morning, after an excellent breakfast with operators and adjacent layouts (including the striking sight of Simon Kohler sharing a table with his successor) we headed off to the venue and were in place for 9:30


The first hour, when I was operating, was not good. The Airfix 31 would not stay coupled to the loco-hauled set, due to misalignment of the Kadees. It wouldn't stay coupled to the engineers' train either , thanks to the plough interfering with Kadee tails. (I thought I had sorted that). The parcels derailed. We had several renditions of the Hokey Cokey with the power supplies to the PowerCab and 16V auxiliary bus in order to reset the MERG decoder. A matter of 15 seconds each time, but I was getting tense and edgy given the need to deliver reliability in front of the public, and that tends to result in operator error.


After an hour I handed over to another operator, and took the wretched 155 with me in quest of Digitrains. The venue was by this time packed tight with people, and traders were busy, but I left the unhappy thing with them to test the decoder, having bought a Gaugemaster budget decoder to supply a harness with which to test the TCS MC2.


I also bought a little plasticard with a view to inserting it into the offending Kadee on the 31 to pack it up. That didn't work, so loco-hauleds were canned for the day and we dropped back to a plain vanilla DMU operation. From then on, Blacklade ran more or less without any problems until the end of the day - the only remaining issues being caused by an operator forgetting to set the route or moving the wrong unit. When I returned to Digitrains late on the day, the crush had eased and they confirmed that the decoder was not merely alive but running very happily on their test rig.


We shut down for the day ,and went up to the exhibitors reception. This I think would have been improved by providing something a little more substantive to eat - certainly despite it being billed as a 2 hour affair I think pretty well everyone had gone after an hour. We were with the operators from the other layouts in our room, but somehow folk didn't seem to mingle, and I didn't meet anyone from other layouts. After this we headed back to the hotel and off to the pub for our evening meal. On the way I spotted one of those punning names that you only find on layouts - a local solicitor named Wright Hassell (Just say it... ) Someone is clearly modelling in 305mm to the foot scale.


Sunday began with a determined effort to get the 155 into traffic. A seized armature was diagnosed, oil applied and the whole thing run for 5 minutes to loosen it up. This seemed very promising : unfortunately the plug of the Express Models lighting kit was catching across the gangway and derailing the unit, so that was that, and it went back in the box. On the plus side I remembered that I'd packed a 20 as spare loco, and while it wasn't suitable for passenger trains the oil tank and a limited parcels service could be reinstated. Watching it drift slowly down from the fuelling point into Platform 1 was very satisfying.


Sunday was busy but not quite such a crush and we ran through the day pretty comfortably, with operators changing hourly. This meant we all got a reasonable chance to see the show and the standard was high . It isn't possible to mention all the excellent layouts present - a number of them have operators who are members of this forum - but one layout quite new to me which caught my eye was Sydney Gardens - a finely modelled diorama of an elegant part of Bath which happens to have the GW main line running through it. Cavalcade layouts normally leave me cold, but here the outstanding setting was modelled so well that it was an admirable foil to the trains (I have seen it suggested that Brunel deliberately designed this section as a showcase for the GWR, displaying his railway to the gentry taking the waters)


There were - as it happens - no layouts in non-commercial gauges other than one 3mm layout. I only realised that after the show - which demonstrates just how high a standard of railway modelling is attainable in OO. The absence of P4 and EM simply didn't register - the show was full of top-quality modelling


And by the afternoon I'd had enough of rebooting the MERG decoder and bought a Digitrax DS64 (like wot we have on the other board) to replace it.


After the show closed at 4pm , we packed up the stock , dismantled the layout and took it out to the car. I realised that as Blacklade is my home portable layout I am actually pretty adept at breaking down; and the fact that the boards are light enough to carry in one hand through the venue helps no end.


It's a curious fact that we ran through a 2 day show without cleaning either wheels or track after set up. I had too many other things on my mind to remember - and the stock never reminded us by stalling. This is quite a tribute to the mechanical merits of modern RTR


With good access for vehicles outside the whole thing was quickly loaded, and my wheels were turning at 4:57pm


The journey home was hindered by the major road works on the A45 on the south side of Coventry and at the junction of the M6 and A14, both of which cost at least 20 minutes, and by a stop at a Little Chef for a bite to eat.


The following morning it was back to work.


The show netted no additional invitations to exhibit , which is not surprising since there were quite a few big high-profile layouts at the show, and exhibition managers would naturally have been drawn to them instead. I have no illusions that I was other than last and least in the layout list - but we were to a perfectly respectable standard, and I don't think Blacklade looked visibly out of place in such distinguished company. I was extremely relieved and heartened by operational performance through nearly all of Saturday, and the Sunday. Despite minor problems the layout was running smoothly and reliably - there is a short list of matters to be fixed, but nothing that makes me doubt the fundamental soundness of the layout.


Would I do it again? Certainly

Edited by Ravenser

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