Rebuilding Rae Bridge 2001-2003

Ted Polet

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1 - Start of the project

After 20 years' service, the station having survived three house moves, in January 2001 I started preparations to replace the old Rae Bridge station of the Craigcorrie & Dunalistair Railway. Some areas of Rae Bridge dated back to my first 1968 layout. The track and scenery had become a bit tatty and needed to be replaced, and in addition this project enabled me to solve a few problems in the old layout. I could add a branch line combined with an electric tramway, and the entire set-up could be designed as a portable layout to replace Dunalistair harbour on exhibition work. Normally the three new units would be part of the permanent layout in the attic.

As soon as the baseboards and the table legs were completed, tracklaying started. Accuracy of the track breaks across baseboard gaps was tested by repeatedly assembling and disassembling the baseboards. After success in this area was ensured, I would be able to remove the old station from the permanent layout and substitute the new units. By re-using all the old buildings and many scenic details, I hoped the atmosphere of the existing station would largely be preserved.

During February 2001 I tried laying track across the baseboard breaks, and it turned out all right. So, with some regret, I carefully dismantled the original Rae Bridge area and removed it from the main layout. Part of it was 33 years old, the remainder dated from the mid-1970s. A respectable age for a model layout that was badly constructed to begin with, and proved to be in not too good a condition (some of it just disintegrated). With some fiddling, the new units fitted exactly into place. At the start of March 2001 I started fitting the first high level track bases on to the baseboard surface.

At the end of March 2001, I finally fixed the location of the works complex and the yard tracks. The main problem here was a realistic track layout leading to the carriage shed, leaving enough space in front of the loco shed and a place for the coaling stage. In the end this was easier than I thought: just use two left-hand points from the main works siding. At the start of April, all track in the station was in place, except at the tram depot where I still needed two more Peco points.

The works building, which is very unsquare as it was more or less designed around the old uneven baseboard surface, had to be levelled on stripwood foundations. The rearmost track inside the building has very little clearance for locomotives to be able to reach the timber works structure at the back of the shed, so this needed some fiddling to be aligned correctly.

The next job was to be the high level line from Glenclachan in the rear corner, and extending the tramway to its dead end spur on the intermediate level. Since the end of March however, delay was experienced due to domestic matters. It would be November 2001 before more progress could be made.

2 - Resuming the work

Seven months after completing the work described above, at last some developments made themselves felt at the start of November 2001. One rainy afternoon I built the high level track base on the left hand baseboard unit and its extension against the wall and around the corner across the doorway. The lifting section was the most difficult item to produce although I could use the 'bridgehead' left by the original lifting section. Here the route hidden behind the backscene of another part of the layout continues, ending up in the Glenclachan Gorge and eventually at the other end of Rae Bridge, having made a circuit of the railway room. The hinges of the lifting section are offset so the moving rail ends fall in place next to their fixed counterparts.

At a later date I put in some work in the far corner of the layout, completing the support structure for the high level line and the removable track base that hides below the baseboard unit carrying the sheep dock and cottage just next to the Rae Bridge area. After completing this work, laying track on the high level and setting a train on it I found out that the result is a bit dramatic and quite different from the old Rae Bridge station with its rural atmosphere. It seemed therefore that even careful planning and visualising in your mind can produce unexpected results. My main concern was to avoid the scene becoming too overcrowded.

December 2001: the Christmas holidays might have been longer as far as I am concerned! Still, I made considerable progress with the mechanical point control system. This feature was continued from the old layout. The main difference is that in this case I put all the 'works' under the baseboard. The main ingredients of the point drive are… bicycle spokes, mains voltage terminal blocks and clothespins.

January 2002: After I had continued the work on the mechanical point and signal control system over Christmas, I needed several weeks to complete the electrical wiring process. This is divided into three parts due to the layout having three units. I started out wiring the left hand and right hand units, using 30-strand multicoloured flat cable. The cables were split into a tree, bringing the connections exactly where they were needed: a section of track, or one of the electrically controlled points on the left hand unit. At the other end of the flat cable a D connector was fitted similar to those connecting the printer to your computer.

Thus, the wiring of the left and right hand units was carried across to the centre unit which includes all the controls. The flat cables terminate on a copper-clad PC board 'patch plate' made by cutting grooves into the copper surface, each strand having its own square of copper. The same was done for the wire connections on the centre unit itself, and the control panel. Finally, all the connections were patched through from one plate to another, resulting in a spaghetti mass of wires in one place. This was carefully documented to ease fault finding.

At the end of January I had progressed so far that I was able to put the three units in their proper place and hook them up to the power unit. Despite intermediate tests I found a number of problems which had to be rectified. But finally the time had come for the first train to run through the new Rae Bridge station! The next months saw extensive testing and a start of scenic work.

3 - A Christmas job

June 2002: from January I had operated the new layout to check on the track, electrics and controls. I encountered surprisingly little trouble in view of the complexity of the work that had been done during the previous months. Thus, with the model railway show at the Valkenburg narrow gauge museum coming up in June, the moment was there to start doing something about the scenery. And again I was faced with a long period of hard work that on the surface doesn't really show a lot of result but is very necessary to produce that final goal: a fully scenic layout that captures the imagination once you see it.

My favourite materials to build a scenic base with are expanded polystyrene blocks and corrugated card. As opposed to the well-known American hardshell construction method which uses card strips stapled to a base, and paper towels drenched in plaster laid across, my approach is more labour-intensive but is suitable for solving difficult problems, like removable units to gain access to parts of the layout below the scenery. The photos explain how I went to work. The advantage of using these materials is that they can be cut and applied easily, using white PVA glue. Ordinary household pins are used to fix parts in place when the glue sets.

When the scenic contours had been completed, and the tram depot yard had been added (I had to order some more points from Peco) I was faced with the question how to set up the whisky distillery I have been planning for many years. In addition I had to find a way of camouflaging the sharp curve in the main line in the right-hand corner. The available space was rather cramped, so I first decided to have a look at the whisky distilling process and the buildings required. After some research in books and on the Internet I came up with a first plan of a possible distillery set-up.

My idea was a bit unorthodox as I needed the main railway to pass between the distillery buildings so I could disguise that 9" curve. I planned the malting shed (where the barley is allowed to germinate into what is known as malt) to the right of the railway, with a linking bridge across the track to the grain elevator that would put the malt into the kiln. The bridge can contain either a conveyor belt or a walkway for wheelbarrows, and it nicely covers the sharp curve behind and the hole in the backscene.

Then I decided to make a few plain card building shapes to play around with in the available space - until I noticed a few styrofoam blocks left over from scenic construction! One Friday off work I had a go at it and produced the corner of the malting shed and a kiln shape, and from there the shape of the distillery buildings just fell into place, although they had to be turned a bit with the railway curvature. Then I sat looking at those white blocks and thought I couldn't expect the public at the show to imagine a distillery from that lot. I hit on the idea of scanning the roof and wall surface of a few buildings, printing that out and sticking it to the styrofoam.

4 - the final lap!

The first thing to do now was to complete several coats of paper tissue on to the scenic contours with diluted white glue to bond them into a hard shell. This is a wet process and one has to make certain any card fillings under track etc. are impregnated with paint beforehand to guard against warping. Next was to complete all the stone embankment walls. I cut grey paper templates of the walls and took them downstairs in the living room, where I covered them with small squares of scrap card to represent masonry. I have used this method for 35 years now, having copied it from Trevor Rowe's Trawsfynydd Railway articles in 1968, and I find it very relaxing. So there I was in front of the TV, watching Christmas films together with the family, and steadily producing masonry walls. One lucky thing was that during the entire period we had rain, rain and rain which is an excellent stimulus to stay inside and keep going!

With the walls and bridge piers completed, I decided to look at the track and tackle the most difficult bit which is the inset street track of the tramway and the link line. At the local model shop I found a plastic cobblestone material produced in Belgium which, despite being rather expensive, proved to be the best choice for those parts of the tramway which were to be set into cobblestones. I cut the roadway sheets down the middle and laid the curb stones against the rail after cutting off the sleeper ends. Inside the rails I fitted old N gauge rail salvaged from the first layout, laid flat. The space in between was filled with paper tissue and white glue, and painted afterwards.

Continually ensuring that the track remains functional is the most important issue when applying scenic cover to it. I clean the track after each session and run a locomotive over it. The railhead should always remain about 1mm above the road surface. Next I ballasted the main lines and all the points, using N scale ballast by Woodlands which was applied dry, levelled and then slowly injected with a glue and water mix with the usual bit of washing up liquid added to break the surface tension. Several applications of glue and water were needed to produce the desired bonding. Around the points I took care not to glue them solid and to keep them functional. Then I filled in the sidings and the loco yard area, using plaster coloured dark grey, with a bit of white glue dissolved into the plaster for additional strength. And finally, when all the track was back in working order, I could start completing the remaining scenic surface, again in grey plaster.

In a very short period of time, Rae Bridge had changed from a bare collection of baseboards and glaring white blocks of styrene into something quite close to the completed scene. This illustrates one of the key problems with layout building - you hardly see any progress. Most of the time you are bogged down with sheer endless preparation work and I find I have to be very firm with myself and keep going at what becomes a bit of a bore in the end.

After the weeks of hard work during and after the Christmas period I had planned to relax a little, but once you're in the right mood things tend to take their own course… quite soon afterwards I continued work on the remaining area to complete in the right-hand unit. The distillery site was now modelled including the access road, the loading platform and the peat store foundations. The peat store had its own siding which is accessed using a wagon turntable. These were quite popular in confined spaces up to about 100 years ago. It's quite easy for two men or a horse to move a narrow gauge wagon of a few tons along a siding.

Modelling the river with its rocky bottom and waterfalls was quite a job, despite the fact that I have done it before. I always model the river bed 'dry' using fine gravel and coarse sand, with cork boulders and patches of rock. One rock formation in the middle is a weathered oyster shell - as you see many materials can be pressed into use. The river bed needs to be absolutely tight, with raised edges, as the 'water' that is poured in is a liquid epoxy resin mix that can leak out before it has set completely. This material comes from the yachting trade, and having a boat myself is very convenient as I had tins of epoxy in the garden shed. Epoxy resin needs to be mixed from two exactly measured parts, otherwise a sticky mess results that will never cure completely. It sets at room temperature. The next day, using epoxy glue, I glued patches of cotton wool in the areas where I wanted waterfalls and rapids. These were then blended in with more liquid epoxy and left to set. For some reason the result is far to grey in appearance to represent white water, so I had to stipple on some acrylic paint which then had to be varnished in order to arrive at the right colour.

The bridges were made using various materials and sources. The river bridges consist of a 1mm plastic base and Peco N scale girders. The plastic base was disguised from below as a steel frame by adding plastic strip and fake rivet plates. On the inside of the Peco girders I added triangular vertical frames. Painting the assembly dark grey and adding some rust transforms the bridge into something quite acceptable. The girder bridges on the left hand unit were modelled using plastic sheet and strip, and the rivet detail was made with dots of white wood glue applied with a needle. I was introduced to this method by the late Reinier Hendriksen, who used it with considerable success on locomotive tanks. The timber deck on some bridges still has to be added.

Finally, something about signals. Rae Bridge is complicated to operate due to the awkward tramway junction swinging off right in the middle of the station. Some train movements and the electrical switching needed for them are explicitly governed by signal levers, so it is a good thing to have signals hooked up to them showing the correct aspect! I had to build several more signals and as elsewhere in the layout I used parts taken from the Ratio LNWR signals kit. For only a few pounds, this provides a number of essentially non-operating signals.

The parts are too fragile to be used in long-term operation, but if one adds metal bearings and shafts this can be remedied. I fit the posts with pieces of 0.5mm aluminium tube epoxied in place of the plastic fitting provided, and glue a household pin in a hole drilled in the arm to act as a shaft to insert into the bearing tube. Thus a lightly moving signal arm results. The plastic balance weights from the kit can be used, or, as in my case, etched brass weights and cranks that are better suited to movement transfer from horizontal operating wires. A stopper wire is added to ensure the arm is exactly horizontal in the 'on' position. The spectacle plates are drilled out for future addition of coloured lenses.

Building signals is a precision job that initially often fails. A bit of perseverance however will add both atmosphere and interest to your model railway scene and its operation. Definitely something to try for yourself!

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