Building the Village

Innsdorf is intended to represent a typical resort village in the Engadin valley early in the winter sport season. There is a “dusting” of snow in the village, but skiing is taking place up on the surrounding mountain slopes. I wanted to create the sort of busy scene that a visitor would see in such a village, the sort of thing I have so often seen when arriving at Alpine villages not just in this valley but elsewhere in southern Switzerland.

This is the story of the first five shops: a supermarket and two blocks of local shops. There are more to come, and the post office is already under construction, too.

While I was making these three buildings I ordered online some lighting equipment both to light the interiors of the buildings and for street lighting. A future post will deal with these. People and vehicles are also important to the atmosphere of the resort village, and these will be covered in another future post

Signalling Innsdorf Station

Swiss signalling is very distinctive and I had no idea (a) how it should work or (b) where I could buy the signals (or parts to make them). I searched on the World Wide Web for Swiss railway signalling and found some very comprehensive information, including a very helpful article on Wikipedia which I have printed out and filed. I also searched on eBay and found two or three people selling small quantities of new and used Swiss signals by Schneider, a German manufacturer, and I saved a search for Schneider HO Swiss signals so that I might in due course obtain the ones I needed. I could not find a dealer in the UK who had them in stock, and as usual eBay became the source of what I would need for the Alpine layout.

installing and wiring the signals

The signals would need a 12v DC supply and so I took the opportunity while wiring the signals to provide the power I would also need for the aerial cableway which I had already installed and for lighting of buildings, streets etc which was planned for later. I had included a switch for the cableway on the control panel and now it could be connected to the motor and the cable cars would come to life. I need to install more resistance in the circuit, though, as it still ruins faster than I’d like (and noisier!).

Installation of lighting will take place soon in parallel with the building of the village. That, and the carpentry involved in providing a “fiddle yard” so that this first section of the layout can be used, will bring first phase completion to Innsdorf and I can turn my attention to devising a suitable running programme and hopefully preparing the layout to be exhibited once we are able to hold model railway exhibitions once more.

The Pre-planning Fact-finding Tour

Before I could do much in the way of planning my Alpine layout I really needed to visit Switzerland specifically to look at its railways. While I had visited a few times, always by rail, I had not really looked at the railways themselves very much with a view to building a model. Although I had been building model railways all my life, they had always been based in England, where I have always lived, and the way they work has been second nature.

I had decided to base my layout on the Rhätische Bahn because that was not a cog railway and therefore had the most interesting spirals, tunnels and bridges in order to cope with the mountains, and so a stay in the Engadin Valley, near the towns whose stations I thought might make the basis of an interesting model, seemed like a good idea, and our tour manager on last summer’s holiday in Grindelwald suggested Samedan. Today’s video is the story of this research for Innsdorf Modellbahn.

Short visit to the Engadin, Graubunden Canton, Switzerland, to research for the model railway

If you would like to read more about the trip, then it is described fully in my rail adventures weblog, The club whose layout is shown at the local museum in Bergün is the Albula Bahn Club.

Scenery: the village and the mountain

To some extent the scenery has been progressing along with the construction of the railway. I have been acquiring buildings, vehicles, trees, people and scenic materials of various types while I have been buying the track and trains etc., and some of the scenery has to be built as the railway is built: the station building determines the platform height, and some electrification masts are planted on its platform; the tunnel mouths need to be in place for the electrification system as well, and they in turn need the basis of the mountainside to be in place. But work cannot really start in earnest on the scenery until the track in fixed and wired and tested, although building kits and buildings made from scratch can be put together on the workbench when a change of task is required or desired.

Die Post signs downloaded from the web, stuck to the Playcraft office block kit to make Innsdorf Post Office

A couple of weeks ago I experimented with putting some light snow on some of my road vehicles to suggest that they had come through snowy weather on the mountain passes before arriving in Innsdorf village where there had been only a “light dusting” of snow. I am using baby powder for the light snow covering in the village, a technique I learnt from another modeller at an exhibition a couple of years ago. The snow is kept in place with hairspray – the only use I’ve had for that since the 1970s …

For the more plenteous snow on the mountain I am using a winter starter pack from Woodland Scenics (purchased at a recent exhibition) which also includes material for making icicles. Its snow effect actually sparkles a little, just as snow should, and is far more effective for anything other than the light dusting of the village. I am not attempting on this part of the layout to create the 2 or 3 metre depths I have seen in the Swiss Alps, but may have a crack at it on the next section (which will probably not be portable) if it seems appropriate.

Overhead Line Equipment and the Seilbahn

All my previous layouts have used steam or diesel outline locomotives and trains, with just a touch of London Underground third-and-fourth rail electric. So the installation of overhead electrification equipment was quite a challenge. I don’t, or didn’t, know much about overhead electrification at all, and was unaware of the specifics of RhätischeBahn equipment, or even who might manufacture the components I would need. A friend lent me a magazine which recommended some publications which I acquired from Peco Publications, one of which in turn pointed me to Sommerfeldt OHLE and their manual, a 162-page illustrated book which I also bought. I was fortunate to acquire a large job-lot of Sommerfeldt kits and components on eBay. I had to bid a huge sum to make sure of winning it because the alternative of slowly collecting all that I might need was not attractive, but the eventual cost was not too bad for the amount of equipment I was able to buy all in one go. Quite a lot of the manual had English translations alongside the German text, but the diagrams tended to be labelled only in German – and I don’t even know much of the technical terminology in English anyway! Here is how it all went:

Installing the Sommerfeldt catenary system
Sommerfeldt’s own video showing how to install their catenary system!

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