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It is difficult to be a keen model railway enthusiast and serviceman if one doesn't own and/or operate a railway one's self.  I have it worked out then that if I own a layout and a web site, then I should be allowed to write about one in the other, even if progress on the former is about as fast as a 1940s mixed goods train on the Hokitika Branch line, and even if the Preiserlings do complain about the lack of attention being paid to them while I'm busy in my Railway Workshops. 

I originally wrote the article below for the Auckland Märklin Club Magazine.  I have since updated it a little to better reflect the current state of the layout and reproduced it here.  The Preiserlings actually should be grateful: In the article below they at least get some attention drawn to their plight, even if nothing does actually get done about it.



Shaky Foundations

Power and Control

On the Right Track

The Pulling Power

Fronting the Scene


Trains in High Places


If your eyes are like mine, you'll want to click on the thumbnail sized pictures to get reasonable sized ones that you can see.



Shaky Foundations

The structure of this layout was born of desperation.   I had managed somehow to survive the first 20 years of married life without finding time or space to house a layout of any sort, but by the time we moved to the present house which appeared to have no more potential railway space than any of its predecessors, I surmised that if I wasn’t, right then, going to implement some sort of action plan for entry to my second childhood, I might never get there at all. I was also beginning to get a guilty conscience about the Preiserlings being shut up in their boxes for such an extended period. 

Accordingly, thoughts turned to the only part of the house where the reign of the Chief of Domestic Services borders on the tenuous side: The Garage.  A typical double garage that has to house 2 cars, a laundry, a workbench, tools, and other accoutrements of the householder’s existence. Not a lot of layout-hosting space apparent until one gets lofty ideas and looks ceiling-ward.

One of the major obstacles I encountered in building this raise-able, lower-able layout was the sectional garage door which, when open, extends back into the shed just below ceiling level for a little over 2 metres.  If I was to avoid that piece of ceiling space then the layout would be fairly small, and if I was to utilize it then the layout would need to be very close to the ceiling when “up” so that the garage door could slide underneath it without giving the layout wiring a number 1 haircut as it did so.


Plumping for the “bigger” option, I did manage to lower the garage door runners a little to increase the available head height between the upper surface of the open door and the ceiling.  The layout was then built on 2 levels with the upper level barely squeezing in to that space and permitting just over 15cm of clearance between the baseboard surface and the ceiling.  Not much, but sufficient provided the terrain is flat and there are no tall structures. At the other end of the layout the base level is some 22cm lower giving plenty of ceiling clearance when raised, so there is scope there for some more imaginative modelling. At the lower level also, the baseboard extends under the upper level and there is about 1.2m of “overlap” which accommodates space for some hidden loops, but more on that later.


The layout is about 4.5 metres long by 2 metres wide and is suspended from six screw hooks, one in each corner and one in the middle of each long side.   There is a swivel pulley on each screw hook, and each suspension rope (4mm terylene sailing braid) passes over its respective pulley, across the garage ceiling, over another pulley, and down to a corner of the garage.



At this point all suspension ropes meet, a slightly heavier rope is used, and a further series of pulleys gives me sufficient leverage to be able to lower the beast gently without getting myself whipped up into the air and entangled in the top pulleys.

It also allows my meagre strength to pull the thing back up again when required.


I found early on in the piece that the terylene braid tends to stretch and contract depending on the load on it, so to keep the layout level when fully lowered and safe when fully raised, the layout actually hangs on chains. The ropes carry the weight only during  the raising and lowering processes




  counterweights                                                                                                                                                       upper pulleys 


Operating height of the layout when “down” is about standard bench height at the low end, but this is of course adjustable by lengthening or shortening the chains.  I did toy with the idea of fold down legs, but eventually decided to simply leave the layout hanging by the chains during operating sessions, the advantage being that one can scramble under the layout if necessary without legs getting in the way, and the disadvantage being that the whole layout can swing around on the chains if pushed, rather alarming for the novice viewer


In case you were wondering, the Preiserlings going about their daily business atop the layout have become accustomed to these large rocking earthquakes over the years, and suffer very little from bouts of motion sickness.


 The biggest hang-up with this “suspended layout” concept is the hassle of having to prepare for a train-ing session.  One can never just nick in and spend a spare 15 minutes doing something with the layout while waiting (for example) for the aforementioned Chief of Domestic Services to change her war paint before embarking on some joint external adventure. One has to back out the car, close the garage door, undo the safety chains, lower the layout, etc. It takes several minutes and quite a bit of effort to get ready to run the first train and a bit longer and quite a lot more effort to put it all away again afterwards. One therefore wants to anticipate having a reasonable session at it before bothering at all.

On the plus side, it's certainly the easiest layout on which to do the wiring work that I've ever had.  One can stand up and do it all at eye height without the crippled backs and cricked necks that are the usual results of such exercises.

Taken as a whole, the suspension arrangement is a viable solution that enabled me to achieve something that had spent a long time languishing on the wish list, but given the disadvantages I’m going to go for a fixed layout after my next re-incarnation

As to the garage environment, that’s recognisably not the best either but apart from some earlier problems with M track corrosion no ill effect has been noted.  A small light bulb burns continuously over the loco depot keeping any traces of damp from that vital area.






Power and Control

The layout was originally built as analogue because naturally enough that’s how it was when everything was packed away some 20+ years previously, and at that stage I had no thoughts of consorting with the types of people who espoused this un-necessary new fangled digital philosophy. To save weight the control panel with it’s 6 transformers, track block switches, solenoid buttons etc. was mounted on a trolley that stayed at floor level and was plugged in to the layout via a couple of multi-pin plugs (130 pins each, ex old mainframe computer peripherals).

Later, after admitting to myself that the digital proponents weren’t completely wrong after all, I converted the train control to digital and changed this arrangement.  No longer needing to access the train control knobs on transformers, the power supplies are now mounted in a housing on an adjacent shelf in the shed with a cable loom long enough to go up and over the ceiling mounted screw hooks.


   control panel


The track block switches, point solenoid buttons etc. and the digital controllers (Central Station and Intellibox) are mounted on the side of the layout itself. The track block switches were retained so that I could run the layout in analogue mode during the digital conversion process.

The ability to do this is important now because the layout also doubles as the final testing ground for repaired locos, quite a few of which are analogue.   2 train control transformers are mounted on a “drawer” on the side of the layout for this mode of operation.



Point solenoids and signals are all wired analogue fashion, so the digital power is used solely to power the track. Signal “braking power” (negative DC) is also sourced from a separate transformer rather than rectifying the digital signal. This means that my Central Station, sans boosters, copes quite admirably with 4 or 5 trains at once which is quite sufficient for my tastes. On days when I’m feeling adventurous I may have 6 or 7 trains out on the mainline simultaneously, but at any given moment several of them are likely to be stopped by signals, so they’re not actually all pulling digital power at once.


The power supplies that remain “on the shelf” produce power for the CS; the Intellibox; the DC braking power; a 24 volt supply for relays (signals and hidden loop control); and a couple of other special purpose supplies used for “clever things”.  The Transformer that feeds the CS  and hence the track is a “Dick Smith” 60VA supply.  The nominal output of this transformer is 18 volts, the same as the maximum recommended input of the CS, so to err on the side of caution, I took a few turns off the transformer secondary winding to bring the output voltage down to about 17.5 volts.







On the Right Track


Track is a mixture of M and C.   M track was used originally, but C was discovered when trying to ease out the sharp corners, and now all visible mainline curves are R4 and R5. The platform area of the main station was also recently re-laid in C track using wide radius points where possible, and the C is gradually spreading as opportunity, enthusiasm and finance allow.  

As a consequence of the track re-laying exercise in the station area, the station platforms disappeared, so at the moment Mr. & Mrs. Preiserling Passenger need to walk over some bare bison board, scramble up the C track embankment, leap for a handhold and swing up on to the coach steps in order to board the train. It is to be hoped this disgraceful state of affairs is purely temporary and the Preiserlings have been petitioning for something better of late, but progress on platform replacements still remains obstinately slow.


M track has largely been ballasted (I used plastering sand) and I discovered by accident that the appearance of M track is improved immensely if the “holes” around each stud contact are filled in. This is done automatically during the ballasting process, when PVA glue is brushed over the surface of the track bed between the running rails; a little ballast is then sprinkled on and firmly brushed over the glue and track bed. This inevitably results in ballast filling up those holes surrounding the studs and the visual effect is enhanced.


M Track: Disused Branch

 Line runs off to the left


A quiet afternoon at the loco depot. 

Note the added tracks around the turntable.

Be warned, there are some downsides to this process: The ensuing mess of white glue and sand has to be cleaned from the running rails and tops of studs; a small amount of ballast only is required between the rails, otherwise any build-up can lift pick-up shoes off the studs; and M track rusts!   PVA glue, being water based, hastens this process and furthermore tends to be hygroscopic. In areas where I first ballasted, I found I had an ongoing rust problem aggravated no doubt by the fact that the layout is after all, housed in a non heated garage. To cure this, I cleaned up the upper rail surface (yet again) and applied a liberal amount of oil to the rails and surrounding sand.

After the oil had soaked into the ballast I wiped the surplus off the running rails with a dry rag but used no solvents.  I made no attempt  to clean the rust from the sides of the running rails, reasoning that a bit of corrosion ought to look prototypical.  All good now and appearance much better, but if you’re thinking of trying this yourself, be prepared to see the residual re-sale value of your M track slide to Zero!!


C track has also been ballasted, but mostly just on the road bed slopes to make it blend better with the M track.

Picking bits of ballast out of point mechanisms being a non-favoured pastime, I haven’t plucked up courage to get the ballast very close to the points on either sort of track.


The track configuration is in the shape of a “folded dog bone”, the return loops at either “end” being hidden in the inter-level space, so the appearance (hopefully) is of a double track main line disappearing into tunnels at the appropriate locations.


                                                                                                                                         Württ K Class emerges from  the upper tunnel








The main station is a terminal station that branches off the main line on the upper level. It boasts 5 platform terminal tracks plus one “through” platform to add variety to the operation.  There are 5 reasonable length storage sidings, a smallish goods yard, and a loco depot with turntable and tracks for about 14 steamers.  Goodness know where the patronage comes from to support such a station, and as the Preiserlings aren’t talking to me at the moment I haven’t been able to find out, but it must be there somewhere off the edge of the layout I think.

 A small secondary station on the lower level acts as the terminus for a short branch line that clambers precariously up a rather steep incline and disappears into yet another tunnel.  A diminutive push-pull train (3029 tank loco with 4000      

passenger coach on the uphill end) shuttles automatically back and forth along this branch line at regular-ish intervals.


All in all the layout suffers somewhat from having too much track in too small a space, and sometime, somewhere, somehow, when I build the next layout, I’d like to do something similar with about the same amount of track, but “unfold” the dog bone to give more straight running, a less cluttered effect, and more scope for scenic wonders.


The main line is divided up in to 9 Track Block Signal sections and there are 3 hidden holding loops in the tunnel at one “end” of the dog bone.  The loops are automated and provide for a bit of guess work on the part of the viewer as to which train is going to emerge from the tunnel next.   I suspect the Preiserlings are unimpressed with having to remain stationary in a dark tunnel for long periods of time while waiting for their train to “have a turn” just for the amusement of an occasional giant, but that’s life at the bottom.


Signalling is also automated with a home-grown relay based circuit that provides for braking sections in front of each signal.  Rather than the Märklin inspired transition sections, which I played with but found to be rather jerky and bothersome in operation, I’ve used a circuit whereby power in the braking section is switched from normal track power to the negative DC braking power via a relay. This is done when the train is well inside the signal section thus obviating the need for intermediate transition sections, and the result makes for a much smoother braking operation. (See, I do care about the Preiserlings).


Braking length on each signal section is about 1.2metres from contact trip to signal and engine coasting distance is set for a little less than that at normal train speeds.  There is a dead section just past the signal mast to guard against over shoot and also a short dead section at the beginning of the braking section. This latter is to guard against the possibility of a stray pick-up shoe further back on the train shorting between the digital track power and the negative DC – a rather serious event as it has the potential to destroy the output stage of one’s expensive digital controller.

One other thing perhaps worthy of note is that to help with the realism there is about a one second delay after a signal turns “green”  before the braking relay releases and loco can begin to accelerate away (Driver re-action time).


The signal displays themselves are a mixture of old 7188 signal heads, a couple of 7039 semaphore arms, and one rather crude-ish home made attempt that I haven’t got around to re-building yet.  The 7039 solenoids are retained to provide semaphore arm functionality, but the actual track control itself is achieved by the previously mentioned relay circuit.


With only a couple of exceptions where I’ve needed directional discretion, I’ve used the “isolated rail” type of track contacts instead of the pick-up shoe activated ones. I’ve found the former to be most reliable, they can’t stick “on”, the output pulse can be cleaned up or lengthened by use of relays if required, and my signalling circuit allows for shutting off of the contact once activated so that if a train remains stationary on the contact section, there is no danger of relay burn out etc.  There is also the advantage that a “pusher” train with loco and pick-up shoe at the rear will activate the braking relay signal when the leading coach hits the track contact, thus ensuring that the train will still stop in the correct position in relation to the signal.  





The Pulling Power


Motive power is mostly steam although a V100, a V200, and a 3034 E41 also share the train pulling duties.  Overhead catenary is still a long way off and in fact will probably never eventuate on the existing layout, but the E41, pantographs down, manages admirably without.  Maybe it has large storage batteries in it that are charged up overnight??   There's certainly no truth in the rumour that a team of Preiserlings is pedalling the thing - I would've heard about it by now because they'd be demanding wages for the job.


Being a bit of a tinkerer by nature, I’ve modified most locos in some way or other, even if is to simply fit a second pick-up shoe to the underside somewhere.  In the interests of non-interruptible running, I normally fit a second pick-up to newly acquired engines as a matter of course, except for small varieties (3000 etc) where it’s just not possible to get the second shoe underneath.  I also have a 37059 (Wurtt. K class) engine with which I was unable to do this because of central gears protruding below the chassis line, and this one remains my only loco (out of about 24) which hasn’t been modified in some way or other.



Coaling stage with storage sidings in the background.

The preiserling depot crew have to work pretty hard

coaling up the fleet with an antiquated manual coaling crane.

  They don't get paid  for it , either!


Double heading BR44s. The rear loco is a Hamo

conversion on which the  front coupling hook has

been replaced by a Relex coupler to enable coupling

 to the front unit  


All engines are digital (no Delta) and most have Märklin 60902 style decoders in them, but a few lokpilot decoders and MFXs are also in evidence.  Other modifications include adding Telex couplings to several, a BR44 is a converted Hamo, and the celebrated Kleinbahn “Blauer Blitz” (Blue lightning) runs very nicely after its ex 2 rail metamorphosis.   

A 3016 rail bus has been wired permanently to its trailer to provide 2 pick-up shoes and 4 more wheels of grounding and this is a nice smooth runner now - prior to that I never could get the thing to run decently. 

 A couple of CM800s (early 3000) are also wired permanently together for the same reason. In this case both are motorised but share a single lokpilot decoder.



Meeting of class 89s on the "viaduct"

The dual CM800s are permanently

coupled together and share a lokpilot decoder

                                                                                                                       looking over the loco depot toward the town area.

  Storage sidings on the right



Other locos include a 3098 BR38; The SNCB version of the same thing; a T18; a rescued-from-scrap but now restored 3005 (BR 23) with drilled out chimney, smoke unit and telex coupling, that scrubbed up nicely enough to pull the Rheingold;  a BR24 (Telex again), a BR85, and a 3102 BR53.  This latter must be the most shockingly designed piece of machinery that Märklin ever produced, but hopefully they’ll forgive themselves one day and re-engineer the thing “Big Boy” fashion which will turn it in to one of the best, and I’ll forgive them as well.    Pride of place though goes to the SK800 which I discovered and restored.  This one has also been converted to digital (sacrilege) , but I have all the original parts so I can re-convert it to the original analogue if the mood ever takes.  


As can be seen from the foregoing, a large portion of the engine roster is 1960s – 1970s vintage, but nearly all were mechanically re-furbished when converting to digital and most are smooth runners – a quality I strive to achieve.  A few newer engines include the original UP Big Boy; the previously mentioned 37059 Wurtt. K class; and a 37886 SNCF 150x.  The latter was my first MFX equipped engine, purchased because I wanted to try out the new sounds (marvellous, but distracting if one had too many I suspect). 


Other locomotion projects on the go at the moment include returning an old TM800 to running status, and converting a Hornby “Flying Scotsman" to 3 rail digital, an exercise that’s been full of hidden surprises.






Fronting the Scene

As will be obvious from the line-up of motive power, I haven’t attempted to model any one era or even country, and the same can be said of the scenery such as it is.  Scenery (i.e. anything that’s not related to the railway operationally) is still at a fairly rudimentary stage.  

Because of the height restriction at the top end of the layout, there is little scope for landscaping and I’ve just modelled the Loco depot, the beginnings of a small shopping centre and not much more.


There is some necessary 3 dimensional work where lower level meets upper, with some perilous-looking cliff faces, tunnel entrances and retaining walls, and the lower end of the layout is more crowded with ideas: a small stream that starts nowhere and finishes in a swamp under a bridge, a park, and a few other novelties, (an interesting one being the Faller “ride on lawnmower” bloke) but all this is done in a fairly ad-hoc way, and shows the sad effects of little pre-planning.




Broken down post and wire fence on the hill top. The animals have long since

 fallen over the cliff, and I had to remove them from the layout as the Preiserlings

 were complaining about the putrid odour of decaying plastic.



Trees are made mostly using twigs or twisted wire as formers with lichen, sphagnum moss, and almost anything else being used to give variety to the foliage.  A small group of ponga trees came out quite well using the ends of real fern fronds on top of black cocktail straws, but after a couple of years they are now starting to age with leaf drop etc. It (the leaf drop) may be prototypical, but I need to put in a few new ones as well to freshen up the crop as the model variety don’t automatically refresh like the prototype does.




Next time (aah, that again – I actually need about 3 life times), when I’ll have much more space and less track density (o ye of little faith), I’ll put some effort into planning the scenery as well as the track layout. I know I should have done that before I started this layout, and I’m sure it would have come out much better that way, but I’m always too impatient to start and normally sally forth armed merely with a hazy idea in my mind as to what I want.  


I must also endeavour to recruit the Chief of Domestic Services’ interest, and have her involved in that side of it. She’s the real artist in the family and could make a much better job of it than I.