Southern Eclectic
an OO/HO model railway layout never completed


This layout was conceived as an antidote to the quintessential British fiddle yard to branch line terminus type layout that preceded it.   Not that there was anything drastically wrong with this previous layout.  It met its original design and operational criteria exactly, but my modelling interests changed more than the layout was capable of being adapted.   It was about 95% complete when I dismantled it, the only major item missing being the station building.  It was operated to a sequence timetable extrapolated (the location being fictitious but somewhere in the south west of England) from the 1960 Southern Region public timetable.  However after a few years the endless train arrives, engine runs round and is serviced, engine does some shunting, train then departs type sequence began to bore me.  I had also become interested in the US Southern Railway and a British branch line terminus was not suitable for operating most of my growing collection of US stock.

Thus "Southern Eclectic" was born - a layout designed to be a scenic platform (pun intended) upon which to operate and display realistically my UK and US Southern Railways models.   When complete half of the layout will credibly portray somewhere in the south of England and the other half somewhere in the south east of the United States.  Visits to that part of the USA have confirmed that certain locations are similar to parts of Surrey, Hampshire and Wiltshire (allowing for the fact that botany is not a strong subject of mine) although building structures can be quite different. I will conduct separate British and American running sessions turning a blind eye when the rolling stock passes inappropriate structures.  I promise not to run the "Bournemouth Belle" and the "Southern Crescent" at the same time unless I am having a deliberately frivolous session! 

the British station on the lower scenic level A general view over the British station area with the incomplete higher level behind.  The Hornby viaduct sections currently stored on the upper level will be cut down to form a low relief frontage to the upper level (thereby getting twice as much length out of the product) resembling "the arches" familiar in urban areas.  The platforms are also of Hornby origin, purchased cheaply at swapmeets.  The lip on the platform edge will be cut off, a new platform edge added using Peco SR concrete design platform edge sections, and then the platform tops will be resurfaced.  This is a quicker method of building a platform structure than starting out with flat sheets of plasticard, balsa wood or plywood!

The track layout can best be described as a double track mainline in a folded figure of eight pattern with two through stations/depots each with freight facilities (one UK and one US), a branchline and several sidings serving industries.  Unfortunately an intended loco shed was abandoned due to shortage of space and a short industrial spur substituted instead.

The layout is in a 12 feet by 8 feet 6 inch space in my attic, this being the usable space between purlins.  Fortunately I am short so I get more headroom out of this space than an average man!  Nevertheless height restrictions result in the lowest track height being an unfashionable 29 inches above floor level (the highest being 40 inches), but if I held out for the eye-level currently in vogue (even with my diminutive stature) I would not have been able to fit nearly as much layout into the space. The main baseboards form a rectangle 12 feet by  6 feet with a central operating well 102 inches by 32 inches within.  By now you will have worked out that I have had to compromise on a tight minimum mainline track radius of 24 inches with there being a short section of trainset-like 18 inch radius on the branchline.  There is an additional "outrigger" baseboard 6 feet by 2 feet 6 inches along the outside of one of the 12 feet sides (the remaining usable space in the attic being taken up with the attic hatch and loft ladder - believe me if I could have done without these things there would have been baseboards there!). 

the three levels

The layout is built on three levels:

The lower level is the fiddle yard, its baseboards being a frame of 2x1 inch PAR softwood cross braced at least every 2 feet, with 9mm exterior grade plywood on the table top. Track is laid directly onto the plywood surface.

The first scenic level 7 inches higher is also built with 2x1 inch PAR but to an open frame construction braced at least every foot.  The track base is 9mm Sundeala in the visible sections and 9mm exterior ply in the hidden sections.  The track is laid onto 1/8th inch cork.

The second scenic level track base is constructed of 6mm exterior plywood supported on vertical risers with 9mm Sundeala laminated on top. Again the track is laid onto 1/8th inch cork..

The track is Peco Streamline OO/HO code 100 Universal.   Finescale code 75 was not available when I bought the track in bulk many years ago and besides I do have some treasured old coarse standard stock I might want to run. The points are live frog except in the fiddle yard and all points are electrically operated by Peco point solenoids.  The layout is wired for conventional cab control using the traditional miles of wire and scores of electrical switches.  I would like to go to digital command control but unless loco modules ever come down significantly in price I will never be able to afford enough of them. Then I would also need to find the enormous amount of time to install the modules into a loco stud collected in  4 plus decades of modelling. Progress on building the layout has always been painfully slow due to work and family pressures - often nothing happens to it for months at a time.   Baseboard construction started in 1994 and they were all built at once on a production line basis to theoretical measurements - a mistake I will not repeat should I ever build another layout.  They should have fitted together to form a perfect rectangle but when it came to making the final join there was an eighth of an inch discrepancy.  In percentage terms this is not really very much and it was overcome with carefully directed brute force when fitting in the joining bolts!  Next time - should there be one - I will custom build one baseboard at a time to ensure a perfect fit.

work in progress on the upper scenic level
Track laying in progress on the upper scenic level, the bit remaining to be done from the point in mid-picture being the US freight yard.  The track joint below this point was one of my two problem areas for derailments and the track has since been slewed slightly to the right to eliminate a reverse curve.
This photograph illustrates the "open frame" nature of the upper level, a small US town will eventually be built onto the 6mm ply frame over the lower tracks.  The layout-free area in the top-right is the hatch out of the attic. The Sears plastic bag above the hatch results from a shopping trip in Asheville, North Carolina - prime US Southern Railway territory!


All baseboards were installed, track down and wired up, and control panels built by spring 2001.  Yes that is seven years since baseboard construction began!  At that point I indulged myself with doing something I have always wanted to do ever since my first trainset - running two trains in opposite directions simultaneously (...on two different lines of course).The lowest level - the fiddle yard - has its own small control panel built into the baseboard.  The fiddle yard roads are switched by a diode routing matrix to ensure that I only have to know which road a train is going into and not which individual points need to be switched.  The lower scenic level, representing the UK section of the layout, has on its track a cosmetic 3rd rail using Peco "Individulay" components.  Only track on this level has so far been ballasted.  The two scenic levels also have their own control panels mounted adjacent to each other on a tray suspended in the operating well.  I was unhappy with the rigidity of the fascia of the first control panel and the second, learning from the experienced gained from the first,  was much better.  As a result I built a new fascia for the first panel and this was done ambitiously without disconnecting the electrics.  All the switches were first labelled and then dropped out of the original fascia; the wires and switches left dangling like a spider's web.  The original fascia was then used as template for its replacement which when constructed had the original wiring and switches fitted into it.  Fortunately it all worked first time.

track with cosmetic conductor rail The third rail.   The bits of orange wire you can see represent the power paralleling feeds seen on the real thing. Where appropriate they will eventually disappear into concrete trunking - as on the prototype - but at the current rate I doubt if I will get around to this detail for a decade or so.

I had trials and tribulations with the ballast laying on the lower scenic level .  Firstly due to modelling whilst not in a fit state of mind - I was enduring severe problems at work at the time - I failed to notice that the granite ballast I was using despite being labelled "fine" was in fact "coarse".  This was overcome by then laying the correct "fine" ballast over the top of it.  Secondly real granite ballast plus PVA adhesive results in unrealistic bluey/green coloured ballast.  This happened on my previous layout but not nearly so virulently.  This was overcome by laboriously and carefully painting the ballast between each sleeper with diluted grey acrylic paint. I used matchpots of matt household emulsion rather than small pots of modelling paint because it is a much cheaper this way.  Fortunately my eldest daughter helped me with this task.  Normally - being a teenager - she laughs at my model railway activities.  When the time comes to ballast the upper level I will make sure the ballast really is fine and use either matte medium or matt acrylic varnish to fix it.

Following completion of the trackwork and wiring stage I did extensive test running.  This highlighted two places where locos with large diameter drivers regularly derailed.  This was despite testing the track whilst it was being laid,  but I had only done this with goods wagons, coaches and locos with small diameter wheels.  Moral - always test with the whole range of wheelbases and wheel diameters from one's rolling stock.  The track at these two places was re-laid to eliminate the problems, though in one place this proved to be an extensive job because not only had the high level since been built in front of it but it was also a ballasted section.

track laying on the upper level here has yet to commence
The upper level under construction, also showing clearly the three levels and the use of hardwood strips where Sundeala is the track base to give track ends a firm foundation.  The track behind the upper level has since been relaid as it was the second area where large drivered locos regularly derailed.  The green box on the lowest level is the fiddle yard control panel.


Part way through the test running part of the diode switching matrix controlling the entrance/exit to the bay platform on the lower scenic level stopped working due to a short circuit.  I disconnected the control panel from the layout and inverted it to work on it; the detachable design being for easy maintenance.  Despite extensive checking switches, diodes and wiring with a meter I could not find the problem.   Yet when the panel was reconnected it was still faulty.  It took several of these time consuming disconnection and inversion cycles for me to realise that the difference was due to gravity.  Sure enough when leaving the panel connected to the layout and testing it from underneath I quickly found the switch that was faulty.  A heavy duty plunger switch had failed such that its inner contacts closed by gravity.   Inverting the panel to work on it resulted in gravity keeping the switch correctly open except when pressed.  I will be wise to this ruse next time. Despite the adverse climatic conditions in the attic I have not experienced any problem with the Sundeala warping - and just about the only advantage of the slow rate of construction is that there is plenty of time to find out how stable things are!  Generally the whole baseboard structure has proved stable although there is one baseboard join - and not the one I forced together - which seems to contract and expand adversely with heat and/or humidity.  I tend to leave the baseboard joining bolts at this place loose.  This is intended to be a permanent layout never to leave the home, but on the basis that every day we live in the house is a day nearer a future move - should we ever move - it is designed and constructed to be taken apart once only for transportation.  Any such move will first require special transit frames or boxes to be built. This provision has added considerably to construction work as it would have been quicker (and cheaper) to screw and wire it all together permanently.  At baseboard joins the track ends are soldered to PCB sleepers which are then nailed to firm wood under the cork.  In the case of Sundeala baseboard sections there are strips of 9mm square hardwood attached to the baseboard frame ends especially for this purpose.
the spiral/helix between the fiddle yard and lower scenic level
Rolling stock reaches the scenic levels from the fiddle yard by a complete two turn helix of Peco 2nd radius Setrack, representing a 4% gradient which given the length of trains I intend running is just about OK.   Above the helix is one of the gradients from the lower scenic level to the upper.  In this picture track laying on the upper scenic level is complete except for the US freight yard (the expanse of bare baseboard on the right).   Originally the upper scenic level was to be 4 inches above the lower to give sufficient clearance under bridges for my US doublestack containers and autoracks.   However in the linear length available this resulted in a 5% gradient (Saluda here we come!) which proved upon extensive testing to be too much for the majority of my model locomotives.  So the gradient you see is the second attempt giving a height rise of 3 inches and a 4% gradient - still hideous I know.


Clearly with the remainder of ballasting, backscenes and all the scenery still to do this layout had a long long way to go.  2002 was supposed to be a year out from layout construction to spend time on rolling stock projects.  By this time I had not constructed any rolling stock for well over a decade.  However time proved to be so scarce that all I managed was building a  single BR(S) Motor Luggage Van, so with my to-be-built kit pile still nagging at me it seemed likely that I would not resume work on the layout until 2004. When I started construction of this layout I did so with the American layout philosophy of building an ambitious layout over a long time period rather than the traditional British approach of thinking small, finishing quickly before you become bored and then scrap it and start another. Eventually I managed to get all trackwork laid, wired up, control panel built and the whole thing fully working. I celebrated by doing the one thing I had always wanted on a layout of my own - running trains in opposite directions on adjacent tracks. I used two Hornby Merchant Navies, one pulling Pullmans, the other a Mk1 coach rake.  

However, there then comes the big "but"!

Despite the fact that all those track joints at baseboard joints remained stable virtually all of them were on curves, many at a shallow angle to the baseboard joint. This inevitably led to unreliable running with large wheeled stock such as steam locos whose flanges caught in the track gaps. Diesel locos and all hauled stock ran well through these joints though. I experimented with guard rails but these were only partially successful. Additionally, there was inadequate clearance between the fiddle yard and lower running level and any de-railment or poor running on anything other than a front storage track presented an access problem. Finally the tight curvature allied with the steep gradient on the helix never allowed long heavy trains to run up reliably.

Finally, by 2006 the floor in the attic was in sore need of replacement. I thought about ways of replacing the floor whilst leaving the layout in the attic, however it was by far easiest to do by having an absolutely clear space. So the layout and stock had to come out of the attic whilst I replaced the floor. After some heart-searching, although the layout would have gone back in the attic (after a little bit of repair to unfortunate damage incurred during its removal) I decided to abandon this project as by now there were too many negative aspects. On the positive side, I learned an awful lot - the hard way - about what works and what doesn't, and what I really want out of a layout. The next layout will be simpler and require far less maintenance - but will pressure of life ever increasing its construction will now have to wait until I retire from work.

Colin Duff. 12th September 2008.

baseboards in the garden

The layout - in bits - in the garden. Track and wiring was subsequently removed and viable bits salvaged for re-use. The table-top type baseboards and all legs are still in storage in the garden shed - why I don't know because they probably will not be of use for the next layout and they are forever in the way taking up too much space. I just cannot bear to part with them just in case one day I find a use for them!

The fence has also since been replaced - yet another task keeping me from modelling!


all photographs are copyright

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