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-containded. 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 of scenery, like the harbour scene. Again, this layout uses Märklin C track. Using another track system doesn’t decrease the overall dimensions. I’ve made a another version with M-track by Märklin, but this is sort of an academic exercise.

Cameo on a bookshelf
Becoming tiny

When redesigning for narrow gauge, the dimensions can be even smaller. I tried using Roco H0e track, but the tack system is too limited to make everything fit. I had to use N-track and a three way switch to finish the design. But the sleepers don’t fit a H0 or 00 scale narrow gauge system, so they’ve to be covered during landscaping. Moreover, the wide angle turnouts have switch machines attached to them by default. Of course you can remove them and replace the with underfloor ones, but that leaves you with five machines to sell second hand.

So I went for Peco 009 Setrack. And I’ve used tram tracks by Tomix as street tracks at the proposed goods facilities. But you can use leftover pieces of N track to make your own street tracks. The choice for Peco posed an extra challenge, because Peco packages multiple 009 Setrack pieces in one blister. And I did want to use (almost) all the track pieces that come in one package. This track system is also limited, so in the design below you’ve to alter standard track pieces to make it all fit in the tiny space of 80×20 cm². These are marked with an asterix. So without a hacksaw this layout cannot be build, but that is a price you’ll have to pay when you work with sectional track systems. Alternatively, you can use flex track like most modellers would do. But there’s no flex track with the “wacky” sleepers typical of the Peco 009 Setrack tracks. So the choice is yours.

Micro camee-modelbaan
1×blister To-S140WT, rechte rail 140mm
1×blister Peco-ST-401, 009 Peco Setrack, rechte rail 87mm
1×blister Peco-ST-403, 009 Peco Setrack, gebogen rail straal 228mm, hoek 22½°
3×Peco-ST-405, 009 Peco Setrack, wissel rechts 87mm 22½°
2×Peco-ST-406, 009 Peco Setrack, wissel links 87mm 22½°
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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