Monday, 17 October 2016

Remembering my past layouts

Welcome to Memory Lane. Yes that is me. Yes that was 11 years ago at Brisbane's Union Pacific Model Railroad Club Train Show in 2005, and yes, that is an N scale layout. A lot has changed over the past decade, namely my hair turned grey and what didn't fell out. But after many years of devoting all my spare time to writing novels, I'm finally back enjoying my hobby to the fullest. So for this post I thought I would share a recap of how Philden became layout no. 5, and remember my past layouts that would ultimately become the stepping stones to turning me into a half-decent modeler.

Layout No. 1 my NSW inspired N scale layout Gabalong, from 1990. A section of the bench work survived as a BBQ table.

1990, and my first real attempt at building a serious model railway layout occurred when I was 16 and still living with my parents in a little town called Foster in Victoria. My N scale out-and-back folded dog bone design layout occupied most of my bedroom and loosely followed a NSW theme, using an Ibertren 44 class diesel and a motley collection of repainted German Fleishmann equipment. It ran okay, and while I had fun molding plaster cast mountains using chicken wire and papier mache for the first time, the layout was never finished. As it weighed a tonne and was too big to fit in the back of my Nissan Bluebird station wagon when I moved out of home, it ultimately made its way to the dump. However, my Mother kept the thin strip of benchwork that extended to the left and later turned this into a BBQ serving table. All these years later, the BBQ table has survived and is still in use at family get-togethers on the Gold Coast.

Layout No. 2 my N scale Chicago & North Western Bayport layout.

Now married and living in Queensland, the next layout I attempted was a room sized N scale layout using U.S. Chicago & North Western equipment. Started in 1993 and built around a sprawling lake, the layout was eventually scaled back to a continuous loop running around an L-shaped layout the size of two single beds and completed by 1999. Don't ask me what a Midwestern USA prairie railroad was doing running around a lake, I just liked the colours.

Layout No. 2's up and over trestle bridge was my favourite feature.

The layout was a mixture of cheap plastic kits and scratch-built buildings made by myself from balsa wood. The rollingstock was a mixture of new at the time Life-Like locos and the cheapest Bachmann freight cars I could buy as money was tight following the purchase of our first home. It was cluttered, had too many scenic elements that looked like they were stacked on top of each other and ran as rough as guts. If the trains weren't screaming at full speed, you could guarantee that it would stop somewhere on the layout, usually inside one of the tunnels. Derailments were common, making any thoughts of switching cars in sidings simply not worth the effort, but it did keep my kids amused when they were young.

Layout No. 2 was a sprawling affair, but ran as rough as guts!

By the time I had finally decided on a name for the layout, Bayport being the city where the Hardy Boys adventures unfolded, I had also learned the art of installing clear perspex around the entire viewable portion of the layout. Cleaning the hand prints and marks where runny noses would press up against the protective screen became just as important as cleaning the track itself. But ultimately I wasn't happy with the finished result, so pulled it apart in 2000 and started over.

Layout No. 3 the Chicago & North Western Overton Subdivision was my 1st exhibition standard layout back in 2002.

By 2002, my 3rd layout was ready to make its exhibition debut at the 2002 Brisbane Miniature Train Show. Almost 2 years in the making, my near 3 metre long N scale Chicago & North Western layout was aptly named the C&NW Overton Subdivision, just so that I could incorporate my surname onto the exhibitor plaque. My wife had wanted more storage space at home, and so after pulling apart my 2nd layout I soon set to work constructing a 4 door pine cupboard that would feature a model railroad on top. We hired a tandem axle horse float to transport the all-in-one layout and cupboard into the city, and thanks to some slide-on skateboard type supports at each end, the cupboard was easily rolled and lifted on and off the trailer.

The C&NW Overton Subdivision had reached its peak by the time of the 2005 Union Pacific Model Railroad Club Show.

The C&NW Overton Subdivision will always be remembered as perhaps my favourite layout. The double track continous loop layout ran faultlessly, and trains disappeared at each end behind a shallow relief backdrop that ran the full length of the layout before reappearing at the other end once more. By the time the layout made its second exhibition appearance 3 years later at the Union Pacific Model Railroad Club of Brisbane's show in 2005, it had undergone continuous change. The right hand side had been opened up to include an overpass that the trains disappeared beneath, a visible fly-through had been included in the middle for a new industry and siding, the station area upgraded, a new motel built as a centerpiece of the township and some rock work added to the scenery on the left hand side.

My then 8 year-old son Brandon joined me as an exhibitor at the 2005 Union Pacific Model Railroad Club Show.

The amount of derailments that occurred on this layout over its lifetime could be counted on one hand. I owe a lot of that layout's success to Ray Nunn of Austral Modelcraft in Brisbane's Mount Gravatt. Always keen to hear how his customer's layouts were progressing, he shared a lot of early advice such as soldering your rail joints to eliminate any dead spots on your layout, the best way to ballast your track and so on. Not only did I take all that early advice on board, but while frequenting his shop over the years I lived in Brisbane, I purchased any magazine or special publication that would help me become a better model railroader. I upgraded my fleet of C&NW diesels to the latest Atlas and Kato models and soon had a layout that performed immaculately, to the point where I could let my then 8 year-old Son Brandon take the throttle for half hour or so at an exhibition while I wandered around talking to others or grabbing a bite to eat.

Rochelle Station on my C&NW layout was named after my daughter.

Sadly, all good things seem to come to an end. While the cupboard-come-layout survived being in storage for 18 months while we built a new house and relocated to the Sunshine Coast in 2008, it didn't when it came time to selling that same house just 2 years later in 2010. Moving into an apartment was just not going to work with a near 3 metre long cupboard that wouldn't fit through anything but a glass sliding door. Unable to find a buyer, the layout was dismantled and the rollingstock and model buildings sold off individually on eBay. It still pains me to think of that pine timber cupboard being offloaded at the dump, but hopefully some readers may recognise some of the above structures and rollingstock if they purchased anything from eBay around 2010-2011.

Layout No. 4 - Alaska in a coffee table, my N scale Northern Exposure layout.

Downsizing into a small apartment didn't stop me from building another N scale layout in 2011, this time beneath a glass top coffee table. Keeping with the theme of white for our lounge room, I went all-out to impress my wife with what I could do within such a small space, by building a scaled-down version of Cicely, Alaska from the TV show Northern Exposure. I loved that show immensely, and soon set about recreating the feel of the town complete with Alaska Railroad locomotives and rollingstock. Believe me, finding Alaskan N scale stuff in Australia is a bit like trying to find a kangaroo in Alaska!

Those are Atlas N scale F7A's emerging into snow from the fully timber-lined tunnel.

Following a two-part winterscape article on making snow by Rand Hood in the January and February issues of Model Railroader magazine, I experimented by making a few batches of white slurry until I found my own mixture that looked better under glass. Basically my version involved white paint, Selleys no more gaps and copious amounts of white craft glitter. The result was simple yet looked amazing.

That's a scratchbuilt timber trestle bridge the canoe-ers are emerging beneath.

The Alaskan coffee table satisfied my need for a model railroad within a small apartment, while also being able to sit back on a stinking hot summer's day in Australia and take in the free psychological air-conditioning the layout provided as a way to cool down. I soon immersed myself in everything Alaskan, and often I'd have an episode of Northern Exposure or an Alaska Railroad DVD playing on the big screen TV in front of the layout.

For a small N scale coffee table layout, I had a huge amount of fun building this.

Watching a train chase its tail around in a circle soon became a bit like watching a train go round and round the Christmas tree, and I had to continually remind myself that it wasn't Christmas everyday. A single siding gave me an excuse to drop off and pick up a box car from the freight shed, but the biggest problem was how low the layout was to the ground to enjoy operating it. I was always dreaming of one day going to Alaska to ride the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and the White Pass & Yukon Route up the cliffs from Skagway, so the coffee table was a way to bring a little bit of Alaska Down Under. While I may still get to travel to Alaska one day, the coffee table sure was a great little layout, and has since passed into the hands of Charles Webber in Brisbane.

So what do I make of this model railway trip down memory lane? Well, while cleaning through some old boxes of railway memorabilia, I came across the two exhibitor plaques from my old C&NW layout. Before the pine cupboard was hauled to the dump in the back of a trailer, I had somehow managed to pry the plaques loose from the layout and had stored them away safely. I'm so glad that I did. Photos are great to look back on, but the two plaques were like finding a small piece of my own railway memorabilia.

The exhibitor plaques from my previous layout are now mounted inside the mouse-hole door panel of Philden.

Although nothing to do with layout no. 5, I decided to mount them along with the brass C&NW letters inside the mouse-hole door cavity of my current bookshelf layout. Even with the door opened for the tracks to connect with the staging shelf, they are not going to be visible to the viewing public anyway. But for while I am operating trains to and from the visible portion of my bookshelf layout, it is a reminder of the time that my modelling skills progressed from an eager amateur to a wanna-be professional, (if there ever can be such a term).

While they are not visible to the viewing public, the plaques are a way of paying tribute to my former layout.

Fast forward to late 2014, and the increasing amount of exceptional quality Australian HO scale models being released on the market finally convinced me after 30 years of N scale modeling to switch scales, and construct a new layout. Layout No. 5 became Philden, (an acronym of my name, Phillip, and my wife's Denise). Keith Jordan's The Patch HO scale layout as featured in 2012 Great Model Railroads became the inspiration for an apartment sized bookshelf layout. While Southern Rail Models NSW 2 car Xplorer set gave me reason enough to believe that I could enjoy operating trains on an up-and-back layout. In May 2015 after returning from the Brisbane Model Train Show full of inspiration and armed with a car boot full of goodies, I made the call to start this blog, documenting the step-by-step construction process from the moment I cut into the first piece of timber.

Layout No. 5 was a change to both Australian outline and HO scale after 30 years of N scale modeling.

Now, almost 18 months later, trains are running and around 95% of the scenery and buildings are complete. With only some final re-wiring issues to sort out with the interior lights on some structures, Philden is ready to make its exhibition debut in 2017. To date I have approached a couple of show organizers here in south east Queensland, so for now I'll just have to sit back and wait before announcing which shows I will be taking Philden to next year. Having been to quite a few model train shows in the past, I know how exciting it is to walk into a venue and say; "wow, I haven't seen that layout before." I think as a model railroader, it is important for even a lone-wolf modeler such as myself, to contribute to the growth of our hobby by making their layouts available to be appreciated by the viewing public. Not only that, but getting a new exhibitor plaque to proudly display on the layout will give Philden its own unique sense of place in history.

Philden won't be my last layout, even allowing for the upper level expansion that will follow sometime in the next 12 months, but I certainly want this to be a layout that lasts a lifetime. Even if circumstances change in the future and I once more have the space for a room-sized layout, it would easily make a great end terminus, or at the very least a fancy display cabinet for my rollingstock. While its all too-easy to be caught up in the euphoria of our latest modelling projects, I'm glad I took the time to sit down and write this post while reflecting on my past layouts. There's often a lot of sentiment attached when talking about railways, after all, its what attracts us modelers to devoting countless hours to recreating a time or place from our youthful pasts. But when it comes to model railroads themselves, there's always something that is evolving in this hobby and it can quite often become a case of out with the old and in with the new. Perhaps in the process we're overlooking some of the great layouts that once existed. If I mention the names Beyond Bulliac, Bolivia or Esk, who actually remembers what I am talking about?

Anyway, after my stroll down memory lane and having just come back from visiting the 1st ever Logan & District Model Train Show at Beenleigh over the weekend, I hope that Philden can take its place in the busy hall at next years show at Beenleigh. If it inspires just one person to believe they too could build a 9 foot long HO bookshelf layout in a small apartment, then I will have succeeded in doing something positive for the hobby. Now if you excuse me, I better get to work on all the final touches.


  1. Hi Phil,
    It's great to be able to look back on past endeavours. Each layout gets better as we get older and more experienced.
    At least Roundhouse have named a series of carriages after you. The "Overton" cars.

  2. Thanks Bob, although I do have to admit there were one or two failures in between layouts that I penciled down as 'practice sessions'.


Thanks for taking the time to visit Philden. I hope you'll book a return ticket soon. Cheers, Phil