Ballasting the track

Once the track was wired and tested, it was time to add the gravel ballast. The cork underlay provides the actual ballast effect, but to give it a realistic appearance, real granite chipping are added between the sleepers. Most chippings sold for OO and HO track look too large to me (see the pictures on my blog post about the Art Deco layout I built a few years ago), so I was going to buy ballast intended for N gauge modellers until I came across Gaugemaster’s offering at their stand at a model railway exhibition. I used that and am very happy with the result.

There is no getting away from the fact that ballasting is a fiddle and tedious process, but the results are worth all the effort. Great care is needed, especially around pointwork, and I have a lot of points in a small space on this layout. Further, there was a big hole under the tie bar of each point where the motor was fitted, and I had to find a way of blanking those before the ballast could be laid.

I spent some time carefully trimming thin card to shape and slipping it under each point, allowing the minimum open space for the functioning of the point motor before ballasting. Then I mixed up suitable adhesive from 50% warm water, 50% PVA glue and a few drops of washing-up liquid to reduce surface tension. I had an old PVA bottle with a thin nozzle, ideal for applying it to the track, and I shook the mixture gently in this and left it for a day before use.

Using the dilute PVA with washing-up liquid to fix the granite ballast

It took a few days to do the ballasting, recovering excess granite afterwards with a vacuum cleaner with a cloth over the nozzle to retain it for future use. Then all the track was inspected and any occasional stray granite chips which could impede train wheels or the smooth operation of points were removed and then all functions tested until I was satisfied that it all worked properly.

Control Panel and Wiring

I always enjoy the wiring of a model railway layout. It is a good exercise in logic and problem-solving! This may be why I am not especially attracted to the digital systems now becoming quite popular; at least, not attracted enough to pay for all the requisite kit, like a decoder for each locomotive, signal, point motor etc on the layout! With traditional DC wiring I do miss being able to have sound (although this matter less with all electric locomotives) and train lighting, but digital control costs a lot for this benefit, so I am sticking with DC wiring and that is how Innsdorf has been wired.

Watch the wiring grow under the baseboards!

I began by drawing out the track diagram and working out how many electrical sections I might need: sections are necessary in order to allow several locomotives to be on the layout with only one being moved at a time by each controller. I intended to have two controllers so that I would not be limited to only one train moving at a time, but there was no point in having more than that since in such a small space more would never be needed, and there was nowhere for more operators to stand anyway. It soon became clear when I thought about how the station would be used that I only needed two distinct sections, along with some platform-end isolators so that uncoupled locomotives from incoming trains could be parked at the buffers while another locomotive takes the train out. I decided to adopt the simple solution of one controller for each section, and to allow a loco to move from one side of the station to another, one of the sections would have a switch to allow it to be operated by the other’s controller when required.

Each section needed a feed and return wire on each side of the join between the two baseboards, so no inter-baseboard connectors are required. As this station would be operated from the front at home and behind when taken to an exhibition, I designed a control panel which could be used either way round. The panel carries the track diagram with the switches and point-control studs embedded in it, and the twin controller simply sits on top of the panel and can be positioned facing either way. The layout plugs into the underside of the panel using multi-pin computer plugs and the twin controller plugs into the top using a computer network socket which has eight lines, just enough for the purpose!

Laying the Track

Track-laying needs to be a job that takes time and care. I used Peco HOm gauge flexible track and live-frog points. Never having used a narrow-gauge trackage system before I had to learn about clearances, minimum radii, etc., so it wook a while to come up with a suitable practical and Swiss-looking layout. I printed point drawings off Peco’s website and laid them out on the baseboards to design the station trackwork and then drew the track plan directly onto the boards in order to guide the placing of the cork underlay. Each point was then laid loosely in place and checks made that, for example, there was sufficient space between the release crossover points and the end of the platfrom road for a locomotive to stand, and that my longest train, the Glacier Express, would fit into the platform.

Laying out and pinning down the track and pointwork

For control of the points I used a system which I’d never used before, with the point motors attached immediately beneath each point, requiring a large rectangular hole in the baseboard, each of which took some time to measure up and chisel out and left me with a visible aperture which would need to be closed up as much as possible when ballasting the track. It does give great results in terms of simplicity of operation but was not simple to fit, and to my mind the ballast really does not quite hide the hole. It looks OK to the casual observer, but I know it’s there. Further, the MDF of which I made the boards does not take well to being chiselled, even with brand-new sharp chisels, and chunks of material broke off the underside on breakthrough. Still, it is OK now and works well, much to my relief.

Kingsgate: an exhibition layout in OO gauge

Back in the seventies and eighties I used to exhibit a model railway called Kingsgate. It was a fictitious compact terminus in the City of London, with services similar to those of Moorgate in steam days and assumed to be somewhere just north of London Bridge, near the Bank of England. I did not actually build it, although I did help a little with its early construction and then adapted it when I took it over from my friend Alan, electrifying the points and building a new diagrammatic control panel, for example.

We used to operate the layout to a full timetable (which I based on what remained of Moorgate’s services in the 1978 British Rail timetable!) and used a variable-speed clock (designed and made by another friend, Chris) so that we could operate the rush hour at normal rate but speed it up for the times of day when there were fewer train movements: at exhibitions we did not want the public to come along and see nothing happening because the next train was not due out for five more minutes.

It took three people to operate the layout properly: one in the fiddle yard ensuring that all the trains were correctly formed and ready at the right time (this person also controlled the clock speed and made the station announcements), one driving trains into the station and one driving trains out. Shunting and light engine movements within the station were carried out by whichever driver was not otherwise engaged, since in such a compact station no more than two locomotives could move at the same time anyway.

I look forward to renovating Kingsgate, which has been disused now for about twenty-five years. Not only was it a reliable and interesting layout in its time, but as standards and fashions have changed it is now also interesting as an example of the way we used to model forty years ago!

Laying the Foundation

A firm foundation on well-built baseboards is essential for a reliable model railway. I had an additional challenge which was to store an existing layout in the same room; my solution was to make double brackets that could hold the old railway beneath the new one. One day I hope that both will be available on the exhibition circuit, as the old one used to be forty years ago! See the video below for details …

The first wall bracket in place in the hobbies room. The horizontal spar will take the existing “Kingsgate” layout currently cluttering the floorspace; an additional spar will be added later to take the baseboards for the construction of Innsdorf. This is the first step of a long journey!
The video shows the first stages of layout construction

How it all began

I first visited Switzerland when my wife discovered that her family history went back many generations ago to a family in Neuchatel Canton – you can read about it in my travel blog if you are interested – and then we visited the Alps on a Great Railway Journeys holiday to celebrate my sixtieth birthday and it was then that we began to think that perhaps a model railway based on our experience there might help us to relive what then seemed the holiday of a lifetime. We returned to the Alps a couple of times since then, and once more to Neuchatel, and then once I was retired and was in a position to start building we went to have a proper look at the Rhaetian Railway which I had decided would be the best railway on which to base the model.

The Bernina Line of the Rhaetian Railway

Meanwhile I had been scouring eBay for equipment: locomotives, coaches and buildings so that I would be ready to start. I acquired a length of HOm gauge track and fixed it to a small piece of board so that I had a test track on which to try out the locomotives I was acquiring from eBay, and all was ready as soon as we moved into our retirement house, in which a room has been set aside for the purpose.

My Photography

I have been publishing my photographs on Flickr for many years, although since starting the new model railway layout I have become a little behind with posting photographs … I must catch up one day, but it is still worth a look as photographs are ageless anyway! There are some digitised images from the seventies among them.

Birmingham New Street in the early 1970s

The art deco layout

At my last home I built a fantasy layout full of art deco and streamline moderne design: LMS and LNER streamlined trains, deco and moderne buildings. It was very much a quick project but although all the trains and track were ready-made, most of the the buildings were designed and built from scratch (except for some real classic Airfix buildings and a couple of card kits by Kingsway – no point in redoing what someone else has already done). See the video to watch the layout grow, then scroll down to the picture gallery of street scenes!


Many years ago I helped a friend build an exhibition layout based on a plan in the Railway Modeller. I took it over when he moved on to another project and I provided all the locomotives and rolling stock and continued to exhibit it for a few years. It is no longer fit to show but I hope to restore it one day and exhibit it again.

Condensing steam locomotives at Kingsgate
Midland Region condensing 3F tank loco and imaginary LT ex-Metropolitan Railway condensing 0-6-0T at Kingsgate

The layout is now called Kingsgate and it is based on a small London terminus in the late fifties or early sixties, just as diesel traction was becoming common but while there was still much steam operation.

Exhibiting Kingsgate