The Cardboard Layout

Paper Prototype of Thaxted Terminus

Building a cardboard layout may sound like a rather strange thing to do. Yet, there’s method in my madness.

I wanted to answer two questions. Firstly, could I fit everything I wanted onto the baseboard? Secondly, could I store the layout in a ready made plastic storage box?

To answer these questions I decided to build a cardboard model of the layout.

I started by making some buildings from cereal packets. These were the same size as the buildings I want to include on the layout. Placing them on the life size print out of my preferred trackplan showed me that there wasn’t quite enough space to fit them into the layout.

So, I went back into SCARM, edited the plan and printed it out full size. Here’s the updated version.

Prototype of Thaxted Terminus Overview

Eagle-eyed readers will see I’ve straightened the headshunt to bring it towards the front of the layout. This created enough space for a cattle dock and a road behind the headshunt. To create space for the goods shed and a small yard I moved both of the sidings forward slightly, and shortened one of them. Everything else (the station building, platform and engine shed) fitted rather well.

I would like to store each module of the layout in a large plastic box, the Really Useful Christmas Tree box. I believe Chris Krupa had the idea originally, and it’s a jolly good idea. The boxes are ready-made, light and have a clip on lid to keep the dust out. Internally they measure 1,135 (L) x 232 (W ) x 340 (D) in mm or roughly 44.5 x 9.1 x 13.4 inches.

Would the layout fit?

With the Christmas tree box on it’s side, the layout slides neatly into the box.

Cardboard Prototype Gonig into Christmas Tree Box

I made the base of the layout 27mm deep, to simulate a 6mm ply baseboard and a 21mm deep wooded frame. On all sides I added a 200mm deep scenic board (except on the far right hand side because I ran out of cardboard!).

When the lid is put on the layout is totally enclosed.

Prototype Layout in Christmas Tree Box

There are a few millimetres of additional space in every dimension all around the layout.

Prototype Layout in Christmas Tree Box 2

Making a cardboard prototype of a layout may seem a strange idea but it’s shown I can fit the track plan and buildings into the space that’s available, and that I can store the whole module in a ready-made plastic storage box.

Answering these two questions has given me the confidence to proceed…


I’m SCARMing

1 to 1 Scale Print Out of Layout PlanNo, I’m not singing a song from Bob Marley. I’ve been doing some layout planning in SCARM.

SCARM (Simple Computer Aided Railway Modeller) is a free layout planning software package. I’ve never used any software like this before. It’s easy to download and install, and I could quickly start planning a layout. I followed the tutorials and had my first plan in 10 minutes. If only all software was this easy – many thanks to the guys at SCARM!

To make a modular, ‘What If’ layout based on Thaxted I would start with a country terminus. I’ve got a sketch of my ideas.  For storage reasons, I’d like to fit it all on a baseboard 113cm long x 33cm wide (roughly 44 x 13 inches).

I used SCARM to see if I could fit all this in. SCARM has PECO 009 track as one of the standard templates.

Here’s an early attempt using PECO 009 main line points throughout (E495, E496). It’s a cramped for space lengthwise and there isn’t much room between the two lines in the passing loop.

Thaxted 3 with 14 degree points mainline 113cm

Substituting smaller radius PECO 009 points (E491, E492) for the three points in the loop helps a little.

Thaxted 4 with 3 tighter points in loop 113cm

When I use smaller radius PECO 009 points throughout, things get better. These points are slightly shorter, and have a sharper radius than the ‘mainline’ points. It seems to help everything fit into the space that’s available. For example, the headshunt is now a much more usable length and the clearances in the passing loop are greater.

Thaxted 7 with all tighter points 113cm

This is version 7 of my plan, and it’s the design I prefer (at the moment).

Using SCARM as a ‘sketchbook’ to create a basic design and then build new variants based on the previous versions of the plan was easy to do and very instructive.

Now, here comes the best bit.

You can print out the plan at 1:1 scale and use it to see how the stock and buildings would fit on your preferred plan. So far I’ve tried some stock (see the image at the top of this blog). I’m going to keep working on this and use it as a ‘paper prototype’ for the layout. It’s got to be better to make mistakes (and correct them) on paper than to make them when I build the real layout!


Thaxted – A Quick Sketch

Thaxted Idea SketchIf I am going to make a modular, ‘What If’ layout based on Thaxted it would be good to start with a country terminus module.

To create a plausible light railway terminus my basis requirements would be a passing loop and a couple of sidings. To add some operational interest (and because these existed at the real Thaxed terminus) let’s add an engine shed and a bay platform.

Here’s a rough sketch of what I have in mind…

A Plausible Premise

Thaxted Railway Station Postcard

One of the criteria for my next layout is a plausible premise (real or fictional). Well, I think I have found one, literally just down the road…

Thaxted is a small, pretty, town in north Essex. A railway to Thaxted was first proposed in 1835, but the bill was defeated in parliament in 1836. Although, various railway lines were built within 15 miles of Thaxted, the lack of industry never attracted any other serious proposals for a line to the town.

The Light Railways Act of 1896 opened up the possibility of an inexpensive railway joining Thaxted to the mainline at Elsenham, a distance of just over five and a half miles.

Sir Walter Gibley, a prominent local landowner, favoured the building of a 2′ 6″ line. He engaged an engineer for the line, Walter Hopkins, who visited the Hunslet works. Hopkins was shown narrow gauge stock and locomotives being built for India. He was impressed and he enthused about the simplicity of the system.

A proposal for a 2′ 6″ line, the Elsenham, Thaxted and Bardfield Light Railway, was submitted in 1896. Fund raising began, and the negotiations with local dignitries, the Great Eastern Railway (GER) and the Treasury continued for several years.

Eventually, the GER stepped in and offered to fund half the construction costs and to build and run the railway… if the line was build to standard gauge.

This was too good an offer to refuse, and we were robbed of a narrow gauge railway!

The standard gauge line was opened in 1913. It was a charming rural line, built at low cost. As with many rural lines it struggled to pay its way. It closed to passengers in 1952, and closed completely in 1953. There are lots of images and maps of the line in the Henham History pages.

All the above is true (although heavily summarised).

But what if…. the fundraising for the 1896 plan had been successful, and a narrow gauge line, with a slight colonial feel, powered by Hunslets, had been built through this charming part of Essex?

If that had happened you would want to model it, wouldn’t you?

Well, I know I would !

 Image from Wiki Commons, Public Domain.

What Will I Model Next ?


I definitely want to build another layout, but what will I model ?

After mulling that over for the last 6 months I realise there are three things that attract me.

A common carrier.

I love rural common carriers. Railways running through beautiful countryside, transporting the local agricultural produce from one small town to another. Definitely not industrial, certainly not profitable and probably rather run down. Think Welshpool and Llanfair or the Leek and Manifold… Hmmmm…

This idea really appeals. It would fit well with my aim of building a modular layout that can grow. I can imagine starting with a country terminus and adding other scenic boards over time. There could be a lot of variety: fields, rivers, bridges, cottages, farms, wayside halts, passing stations and so on. There is lots of potential to sustain my interest. I really like the prototypes. Having said that I probably wouldn’t model a particular prototype. I would rather model a fictitious, but plausible line. That would give me more freedom.

A factory layout.

The cobbled courtyard of an engineering works, with lines going in and out of the various buildings. Lots of grime and discarded detritus to add detail and atmosphere to the layout. Small industrial petrol and diesel locos taking short, heavily loaded trains of raw materials into the factory and emerging to whisk shiny, newly manufactured products off to be transferred to a standard gauge transfer yard.

This idea appeals too, but there are a couple of sticking points. I’ve tried sketching lots of track plans but I haven’t been able to create one that includes all the elements I want and would be good to operate. Also, I can’t see this being a modular layout. At most I see two boards, one for the factory, one for the transfer.

To add more confusion, it occurred to me that this would be a great 09 layout. Not in the 15 inch gauge miniature railway style but as an 18 inch gauge industrial line. (OK, I realise 09 isn’t strictly 18 inch gauge but you could model it to give that impression). Strangely, I like this idea. Yet, I’m not sure now is the time to change scale. I’d be starting all over again.

A Pre-WWI French 60cm line.

Ladies in Edwardian dresses, waiting to board long, mixed trains with elegant carriages. Beautiful Weidknecht locos running through the streets of dusty French towns, out into the country and even to the seaside. Elegant, slightly dilapidated French buildings. The smell of fresh baguette and strong coffee. OK, I’m getting carried away now… But browse through the many, early postcards available online and it’s easy to get carried away.

There’s quite a lot of ready to run 009 / H0e stock available for post-WW1 French lines. However, I find the pre-war atmosphere, locos and rolling stock much more appealing. Here lies the problem. There are only a few kits available for pre-war material. This is very much a scratch building project, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that. Yet.

The conclusion…

This is a long blog but it’s been useful for me to get my thoughts straight. What’s it told me?

  1. My next layout should be the common carrier, it appeals to me and it fits well with the type of layout I want to create.
  2. I will probably build that 09 factory layout. Not now, but sometime.
  3. I’ll keep dreaming about the French layout.. and eating baguettes…

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Scanné par Claude_villetaneuse (Collection personnelle) [Public domain], (PD-1923)

What’s Next ?

Whats the Next Train

Now I’ve decided that ‘First’ is finished, the question is: what’s next?

What features would I like in my next layout. Let’s make a list…

After Narrow Gauge South I realised I like layouts that have:

  • A plausible premise (actual or fictional)
  • Realistic scenery
  • High level of detail

So these criteria are on the list.

What else? The tight curves in ‘First’ mean it is suited to small locos and four wheeled wagons and it is really a ‘one loco in steam’ layout. Let’s add:

  • Run larger locos and bogie coaches
  • Run longer trains
  • Easy to run multiple locos

There are various ‘aspirational’ criteria

  • Modular – can be built in manageable installments and can grow into a bigger layout
  • Could become a home layout
  • Could go to the occasional members day or exhibition

Wait, after the aspirations, let’s come back to earth. There are some practical considerations

  • Easy to store – there’s probably not enough space at home to set it up permanently
  • Planned then built – not built without a plan (like ‘First’  🙂 )
  • Good fiddle space with easy access – no reverse curves to access the fiddle (like ‘First’  🙂 )
  • Relatively quick to build each module
  • Will maintain my interest

That’s a good list of what I want from the layout.

What will I model? That’s the next blog…

Image by Pi.1415926535 used under a Creative Commons License