Chronicling the development of my Cambrian and Narrow Gauge 4mm scale model railway

Nodding donkeys and B5000s – the Rail Research Centre Pt1

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Module 4: Rail Research Centre Part 1 

When I first joined the railways as an undergraduate I worked at the RTC in Derby. That’s the Railway Technical Centre. (Some great pictures here) The company I worked for had recently morphed into a private affair from British Rail Research. In the first few years I was there, there was plenty of old research type activity going on and some spectacularly clever people doing some really good stuff (some with spectacularly good beards to go with it). Although I am pro-privatisation having seen the upsurge in traffic, demand, and investment, since the railways were privatised, the loss of BRR is one of the tragedies to come out of it all.

The Railway Technical Centre

The Railway Technical Centre

BRR was involved in some of the great technological advancements in the railways in the second half of the 20th century. You may have been made to think the APT project was a failure but it was the politicians who killed it – the technology was fine as proved by the Pendolino and Class 91, both of which use APT technology and are successes on today’s railways. They were, of course, the originators of the wacky experiments such as tying people to lampposts and crashing a train into a nuclear flask (which reminds me I have a great story from that experiment of a friend of mine being slapped by Carol Vorderman, but that’s for another time…)

It also features the fastest model railway in the world. In aerodynamics you can scale size but not speed so they have the Moving Model Rig capable of firing models approximately 0 gauge sized at 125+mph.

I have always been attracted by oddities and working in and around the Test Hall gave me some opportunities to see some interesting bits and bobs. I have always therefore hankered after modelling a rail research unit. This one will be not much more than a shed with some interesting vehicles parked in the yard and taking forays onto the mainline. I have the Hornby Serco train produced a few years ago and also the Serco overhead wiring test car that someone had built and put on eBay for a song (fortunately they accepted pounds sterling too as I can’t sing). I have an APT-P too so I expect that will feature.

The Hornby Serco set

The Hornby Serco set

As mentioned in an earlier post there may be some Pacer action here. I am part way through modelling one of the Leyland Experimental Vehicles (LEV) by lopping the front off a Hornby class 142 and adding it to the back of the other car in the set to make a single railcar. I am investigating ways of adding in additional pickups as that will be the Achilles heel of the model. Hopefully when finished it will look something like this…

Railbus R3 at Derby really looking like an unfortunate incident between a bus and a wagon

Railbus R3 at Derby really looking like an unfortunate incident between a bus and a wagon

I remember hearing the story about the original drawing for the Pacers with the Chief Dynamics Engineer’s note scrawled across it in red pen “this will never work”!!

Well they did, but admittedly, on most lines where they worked the combination of 60’ rail lengths with a 30’ wheelbase gave rise to some interesting dynamics, hence the nickname Nodding Donkey.

One concept which was not pursued but I have always liked the idea of was the bogied version of the Pacer. Plans are underway to produce a model using the bogie that was earmarked for it – the B5000 (The B5000 was a late ’80s design and eventually went into production under the Bombardier Voyager 220. It is now marketed as the Bombardier Eco-Flexx bogie).

In the next post I’ll talk about the oddest bit of the research centre, the monorail.


As a quick addition to this post, I’ve just found this video showing some great footage of the RTC during the open day in 1979 (when I was 1!)  including interiors of the APT.


Author: Chris H

Having now officially reached middle age, I am a rolling stock engineer and have worked in many different locations including a 7 year spell in Sydney, Australia, where I arrived with a suitcase and left with a wife and a son. I am now based back in my home county of Yorkshire where I juggle full time work, being a Dad to two rascally mini-mes, and trying to fit in railway modelling, assisting the GWR 1014 County of Glamorgan project, and visits to the top left hand corner of Wales. In addition to my heavily railway themed life, I am interested in rugby, cricket, reading crime novels, falconry, and medieval re-enactments.

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