The Design of Small Model Railways

Cameo layout

Cameo layout
[200×50 cm²]

Most of the layouts on this site are quite rigid. This is because I use fixed rail pieces and hardly any flexible track. And I want to utilize the available space to the max. So in many cases, it all looks a bit artificial. But as I said before, operations are everything so compromises have to be made. I‘ve tried to be less stiff with my plan “Diorama”. I used wide curves to get a more natural look. But could this way of designing be improved?

In Europe, most small layouts are based on an oval or an twisted eight shape. The first layouts on this side (set 1) are based on that principle. But then a lot of compromises have to be made. On the other hand, the British railway modelling scene has taken a different approach. In Britain houses are also small and room is scarce. Mr. C.J. Freezer in his book “A home for your railway” describes a lot of possibilities to find a little space for a layout. The solutions presented are still valid, but another trend has persisted for quite a long time: little portable layouts. When you visit a model railway exhibition, you‘ll probably have seen them. Iain Rice has dedicated a whole book to this type of layouts: “Creating Cameo Layouts”. I highly recommend reading this book from cover to cover.

A cameo is a gem or ‘a literary sketch, small dramatic scene, or the like, that effectively presents or depicts its subject.’ Both descriptions sort of apply for a cameo layout. A cameo layout is one where:

  • The 3D modelled scene is combined with a 2D backdrop.
  • Complementary fascia‘s, wings and other display aids set off the modelled scene.
  • Carefully considered and built in lighting provides natural illumination for the modelled scene.
  • Necessary offstage areas or staging tracks are built in to the layout.
  • Support structures display the model at a “natural” viewing height.
  • Necessary electrical and mechanical “gubbins” are built in to the layout.

In North America this trend never took off. Of course there are many shunting layouts in that area. But most of them are in some form self-contained. They don‘t have offstage areas to store away trains. Though offstage storage is becoming more popular over there, I fancy the idea that you use all space available as a viewable area. Putting staging at both sides of the layout can double the length of the layout. This has been discussed for my “City layout”.

My self-imposed challenge

So I gave myself two challenges: create a cameo layout with no offstage areas but with shunting possibilities (American style) and use fixed track pieces, in this case Märklin C-track. For inspiration I stumbled upon the layout “Bawdsey”, originally built by the late Chris Matthewman. There were plans to extend the layout with a new segment: Bawdsey Ferry. I took the sketch as an example for my design. It has a distinct charm I couldn‘t resist. Somehow I thought it should be possible to squeeze the whole scene on a baseboard of two meters long.

Reproducing the layout with Märklin track was indeed quite easy. To get a more natural look, I only used the large radius tracks for curves, with some hardly noticeable exceptions. To my regret it wasn‘t possible to use large radius switches in this small setting. All by all, I‘m quite satisfied with the overall result.

With a three-rail system like Märklin, street tracks are always an issue. The harbour at the lower right corner has some street track on the quay. YouTube user marklinfromsweden has made a rather interesting video on how to make street track with Märklin. If you follow the instructions at the end of the video, you know how to convert M-track to street track. Therefore, I‘ve used M-track pieces for the harbour track. The standard M-track straight 5106 can be sourced cheaply as second hand for less than a euro. So when you spoil a piece or two, that‘s not really a burden on the budget. Alternatively, you can also use K-track for that purpose. In the plan below you can see the track pieces for both possibilities.

Cameo layout
Book shelf

A model railway with the size of 200×50 cm² is not big at all. But again, this layout is not easily transportable or stowable. That’s why I tried to make the track plan even smaller. So that the job fits in a bookcase. Most bookcases have a depth of 30 cm. That is now the maximum depth. Since the depth is smaller, the length becomes shorter. The sizes are now: 150×30 cm². That’s not much for a model railroad. The consequence is that the train will also be shorter. The maximum train length is now about 475 mm. That are a shunting locomotive with two short two-a×le carriages. If you are recreating this track with Märklin C tracks, I would use a locomotive with a Telex coupler. Now you can decouple cars remotely. So much more fun.

 This cameo layout cannot get smaller with h0 standard gauge. There isn’t room left for some interesting bits, like the harbour scene. Again, this layout uses Märklin C track. Using another track system doesn’t decrease the overall dimensions. When redesigning for narrow gauge, the dimensions can be even smaller. But I’ll leave that to your discretion for now.

Cameo layout on a bookshelf
Last but not least

I don‘t want to go into great detail how you should operate this layout. But if you want to add some offstage storage, the possibility is there after some slight modifications. I would certainly be surprised when a cameo layout, build with Märklin track, would appear in an exhibition. This layout is portable enough to serve that purpose. But somehow, three-rail track is not favoured by serious modellers. Despite the fact that in Germany many truly great layouts have been built with this system.

 The photograph below shows the quay at the Kirow Ardelt GmbH factory in Eberswalde, Germany. As always, I like the atmosphere on these privately owned railways. For me, it‘s certainly an inspiration.

Kirow Ardelt GmbH

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