Inspired by pictures of the Model Rail Sentinel Shunters in unusual locations a few years ago, and by the stories of ‘extreme ironing’ during the 2000s (underwater, atop mountains, on boats etc), my mind wandered to how I could contribute to getting model railway equipment in interesting locations. No content with just photographing, I was determined to go one further and run a locomotive as well. Unlike a robust ironing board, modern models are inherently delicate, and do not naturally lend themselves to the knocks and bangs of travel. Undeterred however, and for reasons of geographical relevance discussed later, one of the ultimate locomotives in terms of fine detail, the Model Rail USA Class, was selected for project a back in 2017 (I’m only now writing it up). This entailed operating a model railway at the extremes of civilian-accessible global altitude.
The itinerary was not exactly straightforward, and combined both holiday and work travel, to provide the two extremes. I was fortunate to have the privilege of flying at the pointy end of a British Airways Boeing 747-400, in seat 1A on a flight from London to Washington DC. One of the many perks of First Class is the provision of a table of reasonable size. Ostensibly designed so that two people can dine opposite each other, it was apparent to me that the BA interior designers had obviously considered the railway modeller, as there is just enough room for a short length of track laid diagonally across the surface. Indeed it was the anticipated size of the table that inspired me to turn ‘wishful thinking’ of an extreme model railway into an actual possibility; such a large table is unavailable in the classes of travel I am usually folded in to!
So at 38,000ft, cruising at 434mph above the Gulf of Maine, I started to unbox the equipment. One excuse that the British railway system has never come up with is a delayed train due to heavy turbulence, but as soon as I started to fishplate the track together, the hitherto smooth and quiet ride in the nose of the Jumbo started to get bumpy. As the bumping started, a little light came on above my seat, seemingly instructing me to continue plugging in the fishplates…! With the track assembled, the loco was set down, with a hand hovering gingerly above to guard against my neighbour’s glass of Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle being dramatically dispatched by 200g of USA Class-shaped metal and plastic hurled across the tapered cabin. With turbulence subsided and the seatbelt sign off, running could commence. This was very much a proof of concept, as the loco made only a few light engine runs up and down the 4 pieces of track, photos and video taken, and then everything re-boxed. Tempted as I was to bring some pointwork and a few wagons to enable some shunting, space constrains, and my last remaining ounce of common sense, prevailed.
Bachmann S100 operating in Seat 1A of G-CIVY
With high altitude done, the next challenge was low altitude. Back ended onto my North America holiday was a conference at the Dead Sea in Jordan. A transit in London without a chance to return home meant that the loco had to come with; this was not actually part of my original plan! Conference over, and with a borrowed hotel meal tray to provide a firm and clean surface on a gritty and salty beach, I walked down the 157ft from my hotel to the beach before heading for a sun lounger about 2.5ft above the surface of the water. Once again the track was assembled, controller connected and loco shuttled back and forth. At this point a lifeguard came over to see what on earth was happening – even if English had been his first language, or Arabic mine, I think my explanation would have been somewhat perplexing! But there I had it, one loco run in the space of less than a month at 38,000 ft above and 1,357ft below sea level. Aside from the possible existence of a model railway enthusiast submariner, or private jet passenger (with potential service ceiling of some business jets of 45k ft), I dare venture that this might be an unofficial record for altitude operation not only of a model railway, but any powered rail mounted vehicle. It’s just a shame the altitude differential didn’t quite get to 40,000ft!
Bachmann S100 operating at the Dead Sea.
Electrics, equipment and packing
My priority was light weight, robust and independent operation. I acquired a cheap Bachmann trainset controller, and powered it with a 9V battery, to allow for use away from a mains power supply. With a DC feed from the battery, the normal rectifier-based reverser on the controller was of no use, so a DPDT switch was wired into the track feed. Clearly the loco was not going to take any scale speed records, but would work perfectly fine on a short length of track. To cope with being packed in space constrained hand luggage and eliminate the risk of bending, Peco short straights (ST-200) were used (packed in a stack for strength), stopped with the classic Hornby R083 buffer stops, which also acted to secure the power feeds. The whole setup was robust and reliable, aside from the odd loose fishplate. The locomotive was carried in its vacuum formed plastic tray, that being wrapped in bubble wrap and placed in a sturdy box. The locomotive with all its metal and electrics did get the attention of airport security, as it transpires that it is not normal for passengers to travel with their own trainset!
Why the Model Rail USA class? A cheap and rugged Hornby 0-4-0 would have done the job just as well. Or would it? I didn’t want a loco shooting off the short length of track, and the incredible slow speed control, reliable and smooth running of the USA meant that it was just right for the gentle manoeuvring required. Additionally, in the interests of prototypical context, the locomotive was appropriate for both regions in which the model would operate, with the S100s built in the USA and operated in the Middle East during and after WW2. She was purchased solely for this project (I didn’t want to risk damage to my 30064 model which was at that point sold out), with the idea that there would be no sentimental attachment should she be damaged during transport, but the model is obviously now a loved part of my fleet.
Records are set in order to be broken, and with the 3ft/yr decline in surface of the Dead Sea due to continue for the feasible future (not enough inflow to counter evaporation), it will be possible to go lower still every year. Similarly it should be possible to go higher given the right flight plans, and therefore break the 40,000 altitude differential. If any airline wishes to facilitate, I’d be happy to give it another go! Sadly Guinness World Records don’t certify altitude or speed records on aircraft, so there is also an opportunity for someone to get an official record by going to the top of a mountain!
Edited by G-BOAF