Shunting Puzzles

One problem that I have with model railways is that I find operating them is not as much fun as building them. Once built, a lot of layouts seem to become processions of trains, with lots of similar movements for the operators to replicate. Twinned with this is the problem that complex layouts take years of part time work to finish – so they often feel like they will never be complete. I’ve had several starts at building layouts, and none have progressed well. They can seem uninteresting to operate after the track has gone down, or never seem worth getting stuck in – progress is hard to see toward the ‘finished’ goal.

Small layouts fix one of these problems – it is easy to see how to get a simple layout to a finished state – but I’ve never really appreciated that they could solve the first as well. A recent discovery was the ‘Micro Layouts’ website by Carl Arendt which contained many inspiring small layouts. Often good looking, the bold claim was made that many were interesting to operate too. Two plans stand out, and even have their own website maintained by Alan Wymann. Ingelnook Sidings and Timesaver are not new, and both present a shunting game to the operator. Wagons are placed on the layout in a starting position, and the game is to move them to randomly assigned end positions. Each plan limits carefully the lengths of the sidings, to make the puzzle harder to solve. This makes them unlike the real railway (which is engineered for ease of operation), but it makes them more compact and more interesting for the model maker.

How I’d spent around 20 years reading the model railway press, and missing the significance of these two plans is amazing. Perhaps it was simply the lovely presentation on the web – you can even try them out – that got me to notice them this time.

One other feature I liked is that they don’t require a fiddle yard, and lots of manual handling of the stock on-and-off the layout. They both run self contained, and with automatic couplers, completely hands off.


Starting point

Over the years I’ve been meaning to start a layout, and I’ve acquired a few useful bits:

  • 2 A2 sized pieces of 5mm foam board.
  • Some Knightwing kits for portacabins, fuel depots and so on.
  • A Bachmann 25 in BR blue – the first DCC ready loco I was aware of.
  • A selection of medium radius Peco code 100 streamline points, with solenoid switches.
  • Some matching flexitrack.
  • Figures, suitable for a BR corporate image era layout.
  • Souvenir wagons from my travels (so from Japan, France, Germany and so on).
  • The wagons, locos and track from the late 80’s when I was using model railways more as a toy.

And finally, the spark to my recent restart – the Hornby Pendolino DCC train set.

What I wanted to do is build a layout that re-uses as much of this as I can, so that it doesn’t end up costing a huge amount.


The Pendolino

Hornby Pendolino

I remember writing that life had got busy. At the time my largest customer was based in Birmingham, and I was spending a fair amount of time (as were many of my team) commuting up the West Coast Mainline. I became accustomed to the 8.10 from Euston, and I was usually impressed with the service. I’m sure I mentioned (more than once!) to everyone who travelled with me that I had grown up in a house that I could see the WCML trains from. When I decided to leave Symbian and take some sabbatical time this year, I was surprised to be presented with the Hornby model of the Pendolino I’d spent so much time on.

I enjoyed model trains as a kid, and as an adult I went along to the odd show, and procrastinated about building a layout ‘someday’. Laying the new trainset out on the floor rekindled my interest, and I’ve now spent the first few weeks of my sabbatical building that ‘someday layout’. I doubt that was the effect my colleagues expected, but thank you all, it’s been a blast!

Incidentally my picture doesn’t do credit to the model Hornby have created, which is a nice replica of the real thing – complete with great details like tilting around curves.