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Making progress slowly

Ian Simpson


Well, the navvies have been hard at work and most of the trackwork at the Grand Terminus Station has been laid down. Or if you prefer I’ve finally managed to glue two Peco points and 26 inches of flexitrack onto a foamcore baseboard.




There are a couple of changes from my original mock-up. I’ve used a Y point to give a few extra centimetres of length to the rear track, and I’ve decided to use a horizontal traverser sliding between the two tracks at the end of the station, rather than a pivoted sector table. These changes mean I can fit an island platform around 2 inches wide between the tracks. That would have been acceptable at a time when Railway Inspectorate regulation was distinctly light touch; yet another advantage of the period for the slap-dash modeller!


Wooden rods (stirrers from coffee shops) beneath the baseboard operate the points. I like Mercontrol for point operation, but you can only put a point lever in one place and I wanted to operate this layout from both the front and the back. With a width slightly over four inches it’s possible to run the coffer stirrers under the board so they stick out on both sides. I’ve painted them matt black to match the foamcore, and since the front of the stirrer only has to jut out a centimetre from the front facia to grip it, I don’t think they will be too obtrusive.




Peco streamline points have a small plastic circle in the middle of the tie-bar, designed to fit around the bar of the Peco point motor. But it also fits the track pin I use to link the tie-bar and the coffee stirrer. To be on the safe side I've made supporting brackets for the point rods from sawn-up disposable razors (the U channel handle from Lidl’s razor holds a coffee stirrer snugly) and freebie Health Lottery plasticard. I don’t think these brackets are absolutely necessary, but I had the materials in stock and wanted to experiment. I’m a great fan of simple, low tech, cheap solutions, and so far this arrangement is working well.




The free, help yourself Health Lottery plastic cards displayed in supermarkets are actually very good quality 0.030” / 0.75 mm plastic card beneath all that advertising guff on their surface. They cut, score, snap and glue very well indeed. Cement-style plastic glues don't work (as the advertising coating on the surface doesn't melt), but superglue sticks extremely well. It’s a source of modelling material that I use a lot, and you’ll probably be heartily sick of hearing about its virtues after I’ve posted a couple more updates.


I bought some brass cosmetic fishplates from Wizard Models a few months ago (they’re actually made by the EM Gauge Society). As an experiment I’ve superglued a few of them onto the Peco rail joiners around the points (but only on the side of the rail that the viewer will see): they can be seen in the bottom left of the photo below. So far they don’t seem to interfere with the running of locos or stock, even with Bachmann’s rather coarse US profile flanges, so we’ll see how they go.




You probably can’t have too many fishplates on an 1840 layout. Companies like the Birmingham & Gloucester and the London & Croydon used rails that were 15 feet long. (I’ll let you decide how uncomfortable the constant jolts would have been for passengers on wooden second-class seats at top speeds of 30 mph.) For the purist, fifteen foot rail lengths would mean fishplates every two inches in HO. So Setrack rails may be too heavy for 1840 track, but their length is considerably more authentic than my yard-long lengths of Flexitrack!

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Wonderfully creative, Ian. I do hope this kind of creative use of everyday items will continue to be part of railway modelling, alongside the new technologies that are now entering the hobby.

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Love it. Looking really good, I had never considered those Health Lottery postcodes before but will probably get myself some to play with.



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Enjoying the progress on this blog very much, lovely to see the 1840s being tackled. However, I can't help thinking that in the 1840s the track work was always filled (ballasted) up to rail top level so surely any fishplates etc would be obscured?



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Many thanks, Chris, that's an excellent point! I was in two minds whether to mention fish plates in my blog, but I'm glad I did because you've now made me think more seriously about them and about ballast. I hope you don’t mind if I give a slightly long and geeky answer, but you inspired me to do a bit of checking.

Firstly, I'm going to fudge my reply and say it probably depended on the company / the engineer / perhaps even what the contract had set out for each portion of the line. As a new industry the early railways tended to copy the practice of even earlier ones, but by the 1840s civil engineers were also competing with each other to produce new and improved ways of doing things and so we see all sorts of experiments at this time, many of them spectacularly unsuccessful. 

Because the early railways were of such interest to the general public, we're lucky to have quite a few lithographs showing either stations or trains in action in this period. Some are crude sketches but by the early 1840s the best artists, such as John Bourne and John Absolon, were producing pictures that look pretty accurate. Drawings of stations with track and ballast in the foreground are quite common in the commercial lithographs and the companies' own illustrated handbooks for travellers.

Early lithographs of the Liverpool and Manchester show ballast up to the bottom of the rails in the 1830s, with the rails themselves exposed. The sketches in Drake’s Road Book of the Grand Junction Railway (https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/43367 ) show similar practice on the GJR, e.g. in the drawing of the track in the foreground of Stafford Castle on page 32. The early GWR also seems to have had exposed rails.

Moving into the 1840s, ET Dolby’s lithograph of a Norris loco climbing the Lickey Incline (http://railwaymaniac.com/2015/11/bankers-the-lickey-incline ) shows all of the rails and even the cross-sleepers. I checked John Turner’s first (1977) volume of “The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway” to see what the London & Croydon did, and on page 61 he wrote that “Ballast was up to the tops of the longitudinal timbers, so that the [supporting] cross-sleepers were completely buried”, which sounds as if the rails themselves were exposed. The earliest lithographs of L&CR stations are a bit too crude to be certain, but I think ballast then might have been to mid-rail height. By the atmospheric period, station drawings show the rails completely exposed. My own view is that the LCR always covered all of the sleepers and sometimes, by design or accident, the bottom half of the rails as well. 

Jumping on a decade, George Measom’s “Official Illustrated Guide”s to the LBSCR and SER (both available as free downloads on Google Books) show exposed or semi-exposed rails at London Bridge, Croydon, Merstham and Reigate. (Although Google Books has editions from around 1857 the drawings did not change between editions and most illustrations seem to date from the late 1840s or early 1850s.)

That's an extremely unrepresentative survey reflecting my own interests, and I certainly don’t want to claim that ballast never reached the top of the rails (at least on the outside of the rail). But I’ve always been dubious about the extent of the practice. Early engineers and their passengers had a dread of derailments (well, hopefully modern engineers have one as well!), and piling loose stones up against the supposedly smooth rail tops while completely hiding the short, light, comparatively fragile iron rails that could break or move out of gauge seems to be asking for trouble. But I can see that some early engineers would have believed that partially or completely covering rails stopped them moving about, much like the argument for covering sleepers with ballast.

So after all that, I just don’t know how prevalent the practice was in this period. I don’t think it’s a myth, but I do wonder if there was also some confusion because most railways were laying ballast to the top of their sleepers, hiding the bottom of the rails. My personal guess is that it was more common to lay ballast to mid-rail rather than the absolute top of the rails in this period, at least on the main lines: sidings may well have been a different matter.

You've definitely given me something to think about!

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Hi Ian,


I have to agree with you, I think my claim 'to the top of the rails' is a bit  excessive. Have you read any of Samuel Charles Brees four volumes on 'Railway Practice'? A really good reference for early methods of construction for just about every aspect of railway engineering from tracks and turntables to bridges, buildings, rolling stock and a few locos too. I have all four in print and all the illustrations in PDF format so I'm happy to look up anything you want anytime. I would add T. T. Bury to the list of early illustrators of railways, again pretty accurate for the time. I'm laying my 1844 Bricklayers Arms layout in flexitrack but considering a fine piercing saw slot in the top half of the rail (the exposed bit) at regular relevant distances, (or I might just ignore it). Haven't decided yet!


All power to your elbow though, I'll be checking your blog on a regular basis, great stuff!





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Many thanks, Chris. Yes, Brees is an extremely useful source (and for anyone else reading this far through the discussion, yes his books are also available free in PDF format on Google Books). When I saw your post on your Croydon 0-4-2 I immediately thought of Brees's drawing of the loco and guessed you were using it. I may well take up your kind offer, as I've only got PDF versions myself and they do tend to be indistinct on some illustrations. I'm really impressed that you've got the print versions!

(Wishaw also has some useful illustrations for early modellers at the back as well, for example complete plans of early Birmingham & Gloucester wagons).

Yes, I definitely should have added Bury, especially as I looked at some of his prints when trying to work out what the Liverpool & Manchester did with its ballast. We're so lucky to have these illustrations for the period.  

I was wondering what you were planning to do on Bricklayers Arms, which is going to be an amazing museum-quality layout.  I'm really enjoying reading your blog.

All the best


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Ah yes, my copy of Brees. If you go onto Abe Books website and type in Samuel Charles Brees 'Railway Practice', you get 94 results! The first page or so is all Ebooks but as you scroll down you get printed versions on offer. They all seem to come from Dehli in India, takes about 3 weeks. The print quality is not first class but it's perfectly acceptable for reference. Lots of them are individual volumes but somewhere in there you can get the whole 1-4 bound into one book like a telephone directory for about £20.00. It's quite handy to have the paper version for reference, mine is full of post it notes!


Thank you for reminding me about the Birmingham & Gloucester wagons in Wishaw. I'm struggling with wagons for BA and might have to plump for some London & Birmingham and perhaps the B&G stock as representative, if somewhat foreign rolling stock for a railway south of the Thames!





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Really enjoying your progress and the history lesson too, am now searching Abe Books for Brees as this is such a fascinating time for railways. Keep letting us know how you're getting on as I'll be watching with interest



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