Model Railways - an introduction

I've always had a great fascination for the way that the technology that surrounds us and which we take for granted actually evolved, and for how we got to be where we are today.

There is no more fascinating area of technology development than the steam railway, the mechanism that literally created the modern world.On the banks of the River Tyne, not far from Newcastle, UK stands a little cottage. As a place to live and bring up young children, it would seem cramped today. It's hard to imagine the conditions in which not one, but four families lived in that cottage more than 200 years ago.

George Stephenson's birthplace, Northumberland, UK. Photo: National Trust

What the picture doesn't show is the trackbed of the Wylam tramway, on which the photographer is standing. As the young George Stephenson (born 1781) grew up in a tiny room in this cottage, he woud have looked out of that little window (bottom left, beneath the sundial) and seen the horse drawn carts lumbering by on this, one of the first railways in all the world. Somehow, in a way that is difficult to imagine, his young mind forsaw not only how steam power would transform tramways like Wylam, but also how such railways would link up to form a network that would spread across the whole world. It's no co-incidence today that the 'standard gauge' of railways is also known as the 'Stephenson Gauge'.

Model railways have been a fascination for small children (and large ones too) ever since that time and one of the earliest model locomotives still existing is attributed to him. The study of models is one way to improve our understanding of how these revolutionary ideas came about and for me, this has taken two distinct forms: Firstly, the construction of models of the earliest railways from contemporary materials, and Secondly the restoration of some of the earliest surviving commercially produced railway models to working order. This second avenue of interest has crystallised into the restoration of an almost entirely lost model railway scale, Gauge 2, dating from before the First World War.

(A note about Gauges and scales: The Track Gauge, or the distance between the inside edge of the rails, is the way that railways are characterised. Stephenson gauge is roughly the gauge of the wooden waggonway outside the young Stephenson's window - 4ft 8 1/2 in, or 1435mm. The scale of course is 1:1, or full size. Gauge 1, referred to below, is a track auge of 1 3/4 inches, or 45 mm, and the scale associated with this gauge is 1/32 f full size, or in my case 10mm/ft. Gauge 2 is 2" gauge with a scale of 7/16" to the foot.

Continentals, confusingly, measured gauge from the centre of the rail. That's why German G2 models often carry the marking '54', or 54 mm centre to centre)

Early railways in Gauge 1.

Here you can see examples of scratchbuilt locomotives and rolling stock from the earliest railways and especially the first Inter City railway in the world, the London and Birmingham Railway, engineered by George Stephenson's son, Robert. These models are produced from contemporary material, much of it in the form of original editions that I've been able to acquire. These models are unusual and often unique, as in the case of Edward Bury's locomotives for the L&BR, which are rarely modelled. All of these models are made with the help of Computer Aided Design (CAD) and many are 3D printed, perhaps the first entirely complete locomotives and trains produced with this new technology.
(Photo: Michael Bailey)

The Gauge 2 Model Railway.

Almost forgotten today, this scale had a brief flowering before the First World War when entire ballrooms could be converted into houses for model railways and youngsters (and their fathers) had a desire for something a little chunkier than gauge 1. In a time of stringency after the war this scale went out of favour and was largely abandoned in the '20s and 30's. The last known gauge 2 model railway was taken up in the 1960's and since then, locomotives and rolling stock have been confined to collector's shelves. Until now.