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

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Why railways?

Someone recently asked me on Facebook why I liked railways. It’s an interesting question. Look on the bright side. It’s a harmless hobby…

The Elder Statesman introduced me to railways. He grew up in Gloucester and went on family holidays back to the ancestral home in Bude so if you snap him in half he has “GWR” written through him like a stick of rock, and his second favourite is the Southern.

His Uncle was signalman at Yeovil Junction and the Elder Statesman used to go there in holidays to work the ‘box under tuition. My Great Grandfather was a Stationmaster on the LSWR. Started way down in the Lizard as a lad porter and moved east as he got promoted, ending up living in Bude.

Bude station in 1907

For me, I like odd things, experiments, and performance. I like narrow gauge, LNER and GWR. I don’t mind LMS or SR but it gets a bit particular with them: – Hughes Crab, Stanier developments, Q1, Leader, and USA tanks. I like mechanical signalling, industrial railways (particularly brewery railways), and the study of railway accidents.

The one thing that is common in that list is that I am interested in clever mechanics, and providing the best solution to solve the problem at hand.

The history of the engineering experimentation and development over the course of the industrial revolution is fascinating and the only acceleration of development of similar proportions has occurred in the last 30 odd years with the development of computing power to enable CAD / CAM, 3D printing, rapid prototyping, and the like.

If you find me on a locomotive footplate I’ll probably tell you about the performance; if you find me under a locomotive, the ingenious design; in a signalbox, the sheer complexity of mechanical interlocking; at the Railway Technical Centre, the history of the fantastic creations born there; at a disused railway site, what made the railway important; the railway museum, the designs that changed the world; and if you want to know what I think of the current railways I’ll remind you of the unbelievable growth in the last 20 years.  I’ll probably do all that with an enthusiasm which marks me out as slightly bonkers. But then I’m an enthusiastic railwayman. It’s in the blood.

Stockport No.2 Signalbox - mechanical interlocking

Stockport No.2 ‘box interlocking © Peter Whatley

I’m going to start sounding like a stuck record in a minute. The Elder Statesman likes the elegance and class of railways, particularly locomotives. He loves pointing out that it is likely there are more books written about the GWR than any other single subject on the planet. Not sure about that one, but it is an interesting theory.

For that reason he hates Hawksworth while I’m fascinated by him, His style wasn’t Churchward or Collett, but to my mind his style was GWR. Experimenting, improving, trying to win back the years lost when Collett was past it and didn’t step down. He was too late of course. But what might have been? His 15xx was a leap in the right direction. His Modified Hall should never have been called a Hall it was so different from the original. His County took 2 cylinder locomotives beyond the classic 4 cylinder Castle. And his Pacific would have been the most powerful locomotive in the UK.


That’s what I love. The investigation of what was and what might have been. Pioneers at the top of their game. Which means come Christmas time, at some point, over a Purple Moose or two, the Elder Statesman and I will have our usual conversation where he waxes lyrical about the GWR and I tell him I’d be more impressed if they’d sorted grease and mechanical lubrication, roller bearings, accessibility, crew comforts, left hand drive. All the things that made the GWR, great though it was, flawed. And then we’ll argue whether the GWR or the Ffestiniog was the real pioneer (they both were).

I’ll probably also get a chance to get my usual little jest about my favourite Southern locomotive. It’s called Ellerman Lines….

Happy Christmas everyone. Cheers!

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Stefco – standing on the shoulders of giants

Steve Coulson  (C) FR Archives

Steve Coulson
(C) FR Archives

Last night, we of the Ffestiniog lost one of the greats of the preservation era. Steve “Stefco” Coulson stands head and shoulders above many not because he did more, but what he did had such variety.

A nuclear engineer by trade, and a staunch supporter of nuclear power, Stefco could, and regularly did, turn his hand to anything.

Funkey locomotive Vale of Ffestiniog  (C) Barrie Hughes

Funkey locomotive Vale of Ffestiniog
(C) Barrie Hughes

His achievements stand as monuments to that, particularly the Funkey, Vale of Ffestiniog, where he took something that shouldn’t have fitted on the FR’s loading gauge and made it fit, and carriage 122 which although ultimately only a prototype could have been the forerunner of a new fleet of tin carrs and still I believe is one of the first carriages to fill up due to its roominess. Certainly the design should be looked at by other railways who cannot build wooden carriages like the FR does.

Carriage 122 (C) Stewart Macfarlane

Carriage 122
(C) Stewart Macfarlane

Interior of Carriage 122 (C) Stewart Macfarlane

Interior of Carriage 122
(C) Stewart Macfarlane

Not only that but he was instrumental in helping set up the Purple Moose Brewery and was effectively their first resident engineer, and could even be seen disappearing into the cellar of a local hostelry when they had an intermittent problem with their lines.

Stefco was also an accomplished model maker and his ability to make sequential models by cutting the CDs you got free with computer magazines into cams to drive a sequence of model actions was astounding when you did get a chance to view the gubbins of the job. His model of a narrow gauge train being filled with coal by a digger then moving into the exchange shed to be tipped was just incredible.

For me Stefco was the Tamper Man. He was the first of a line of engineers who have tackled regauging tampers for use on the FR, and proved it could be done. The Stefcomatic, ex Southern Region, saved from scrap in 1968, and returned to use in 1978 by Stefco, was the stalwart tamper on the FR for many years. It had a brief second life when it tamped some of the lighter graded sections of the WHR but it couldn’t cope with the 1:40 gradients and the KMX was brought in to do the job.



Stefcomatic Both (C) Roger Dimmick

Stefcomatic t’other side
Both (C) Roger Dimmick

As I set about regauging the KMX, it was often Stefco I’d have a pint with in the evening to talk over the latest challenge. He always had an idea, or a thought; invariably it was just what was needed.

The man was an inspiration, a great engineer, family man, and  friend to lots of us on the Ffestiniog. He built on the giants of the Ffestiniog and his name will stand with them. He will be sadly missed.

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I have a thing about tampers. They’re weird enough to be interesting. And once you understand how they work, the detail differences become interesting too (honestly!).

I worked on a tamper once. I took on the job of designing the regauging of one when the Welsh Highland was being built. The finished article is fit to tamp any part of the Ffestiniog Railway and the Welsh Highland Railway. Not surprisingly after tamping almost all of the Welsh Highland it needed a bit of fettling and went to Plasser for a rebuild a couple of years ago.

What’s this to do with model railways you ask? Well, when I was in Australia, Rob, better known for being one of the modelmakers behind Dduallt and Bron Hebog, built a model of the KMX tamper for the Bron Hebog layout. He said he liked it because it was unique.

Well it was until I asked him if he’d build me one. Coming from north of the border, this was an offer worth pursuing so over the last couple of years he (in his guise as Boston Largs Works) has been building me one. This isn’t entirely unrealistic as there were 3 of these tampers built to this design although the other 2 don’t sport the roof as that is an FR/WHR/Me addition. (Nor do they sport windscreen wipers as they originally worked down a coal mine in France so we got some from a local boat chandlers IIRC).

KMX tamper

KMX tamper (C) Rob Waller

The model is now complete. So in a couple of weeks I’ll be going to the Hull Model Railway Show to collect it (and maybe have a play on Bron Hebog). I am quite excited.

My unpainted tamper posed with the original finished one

My unpainted tamper posed with the original finished one (C) Rob Waller

Another view of the two tampers

Another view of the two tampers posing on the Bron Hebog layout (C) Rob Waller