A Choice of Prototypes

This article first appeared in the September/October 1992 issue of AMRA's 'Journal'.
By Steve J Chapman.

Many modellers begin their interest in model railways without having a specific interest in any one particular railway line or company. The trains that they start out running have either been given to them as a gift or chosen because they look nice or are priced within the budget.

Once a modeller gets seriously involved in model railways it soon becomes apparent that running just anything on a model railway with scenery that was just thrown together because it looked nice does not come close to duplicating the real thing. Those trains just didn't run together in real life. You'd never find scenery like that anywhere.

So what can the modeller do? He can choose a prototype. Choosing a prototype does not necessarily mean that the modeller has to model a railway line that actually exists or existed and only run the trains that actually ran on the line to the precise timetable that was run on the selected day. Modellers can do this if they wish and if this is what they want to do then good luck to them.

For most modellers choosing a prototype does not stop them from modelling an imaginary railway line and running whatever trains that they want to. It simply means that more thought has been put into making the whole layout match more closely with the prototype chosen.


The first thing that you need to do in choosing a prototype is to choose the location. First choose the state, country, or continent. Will your model railway be based on an Australian or overseas railway? If Australian then decide upon the state in which the model location supposedly exists. If overseas then will it be North America, England, Europe, or some other country of your choice. The availability of ready to run models and kits for the various localities in your chosen scale will probably influence your choice.

The locality can then be further refined as far as is necessary. Most of the localities listed so far have (or had) a number of different railway companies operating there. The choice of a particular company or group of companies will define the assumed location of the layout more closely. If you are modelling NSW and also want to run Victorian rolling stock then you perhaps decide that your layout is located somewhere in the south of the state. Modelling English and choosing GWR places your location somewhere in the south west of England perhaps in Devon. if you are modelling North American and choose the DRGW then you perhaps decide that the layout is based somewhere near Denver. Each of these examples makes a different decision as to how precisely that the layout is being located but each has defined a locality to the precision required by the layout owner and will result in a far more realistic model than could otherwise have been produced.


The next thing to choose about your prototype is the time period. This will already have been decided to some extent by your choice of railway company because the company only existed between or after a particular date.

The time period should be further refined if the particular railway company ran totally different rolling stock or changed colour schemes dramatically during its existence. This will enable you to produce a more consistent appearance. It would be inconsistent to run tangaras with NSW rolling stock phased out soon after the red rattlers first took to the rails or English trains in railfreight livery behind steam locomotives or green diesels.

As with the location, the precision with which you set your time period can vary from a period of many years down to choosing to model a specific day. It doesn't matter provided that you choose a time period that is reasonably consistent with the trains that you intend to run.


The next thing to decide is how accurately that you intend to model your chosen prototype. Must everything on the layout be an accurate portrayal of the chosen location during the chosen time period or will you allow foreign visitors? One example of foreign visitors already mentioned is the layout supposedly based in the south of NSW where Victorian trains are also allowed to run.

If foreign visitors are to be allowed to run on the layout then will they be restricted with regards railway company or time period (although to a lesser degree than that for the vast majority of the model) or can the foreign visitors be anything and everything? Will the foreign visitors be allowed to live on the layout or will they be restricted to set operating times?

In some railway locations the prototype railway has trains from some other company or companies run either regularly or occasionally on its lines. If you have chosen one of these lines then you can include these foreign trains without any inconsistencies at all. Perhaps foreign visitors will be restricted to locomotives and rolling stock which actually visited the line during a set time period.


Something worth considering when you are deciding on what foreign visitors will be allowed to run is train consistency. Even if you allow anything and everything to run on the layout, it will still improve the appearance of the layout if the locomotive and rolling stock which makes up a given train all match with regards to the location and time at which they ran. The train will look much more realistic if that particular combination of stock actually ran together at some time. This particular aspect of prototype compatibility can be applied even when no other decisions are to be made with regards prototype choice.


Now the fun part begins. Having selected your railway company, location, and time period you go hunting in book stores and libraries to find books which deal with your chosen prototype. Magazines printed in the country chosen will probably have an occasional article of interest as well. Reading about your prototype can almost become a hobby itself as you strive to learn all about it.

The idea is to find out as much as you can about the prototype so that you can model it more accurately.

You look for the distinguishing features of the railway company. Did they try to avoid using facing crossovers. Did they like using single slips wherever possible. Were their signals upper or lower quadrant and what style of post and signal arm did they use. Were the platforms normally directly opposite one another or did they like to stagger them. What style of station buildings did they use? What colours were various parts of railway property painted? What construction materials were used? This information once you find it will enable you to construct your model railway so as to more accurately portray your chosen railway company inside of the railway fence.

While reading about your chosen prototype you will also find information regarding train formations. Which locomotives pull what trains? That train normally runs in a fixed formation with those coaches in that order. The first class section is always at that end of the train. Those wagons never run directly behind the locomotive. This information is also useful because it will help you to better decide on how you will assemble your trains for greater realism. It may also indicate a shortage of particular types of rolling stock which you require to complete particular trains.


Other books worth reading are those which deal with the scenic and other aspects of your chosen area. What colour is the soil in that area? Soil colours can vary from yellow sand through browns and blacks. Even bright red soil can be found in some areas. Other aspects of the landscape can also help identify the area. Types of rock such as granite, flint, and limestone all have different colours.

What are the prevalent building materials and how are they used in the construction of the local buildings? You should of course have most buildings on your layout 'built' from materials which are readily available at that locality.

What are the popular industries in the area and what affect do they have on the appearance of the area? Port Kembla is well known for its steel industry, when modelling that area perhaps the steel mill can be painted on the backscene and its effects on the surrounding landscape modelled. Cornwall in England has its tin mines and Kent its oast houses.

The industries in the area can also help you in determining the types of trains which are appropriate to run. If you include a particular industry on the layout then you have a definite reason for running the trains required by that industry even though there are not many factories of that type in that part of the country.

Are there any other distinguishing features of the area? One area may have an abundance of barbed wire fencing while in another area dry stone walls appear everywhere. What types of trees and other plants are native to the area?


Following these steps will give you a model railway that to some greater or lesser degree resembles the real thing, the prototype on which you chose to base the model. of course the prototype has a history which explains why certain things appear the way that they do. With a model railway you get to choose what the history of your railway empire will be. This can either be an assumed history to the extent that it is assumed that the railway line was built following a slightly different route and this model shows the result. It can be the real history of the line if you are trying to build a model of an actual place. Or it can be an invented history where you actually write down what is supposed to have happened beginning when Lord whoever established a railway line between X and Y, it was taken over by the XYZ railway company in 18XX, all the way up to the 'present'.

The 'history' of your model railway helps you to determine what trains you should be running. It can also help to explain away the odd item which would be anachronistic on the prototype but which you just couldn't resist buying.


Choosing a prototype, whether a specific station on a specific day or just a general region over a period of years, gives you a purpose for everything on your model railway. Everything is there for a logical reason. Some things belong specifically to your area and era while others are included because you like them, they run well, and by making a minor alteration to the actual history of the area they can be easily explained.

The investigative work required to accurately portray your chosen prototype need not be prohibitive. You can do a small amount of investigation and find out enough to get a rough copy of the area. You can replace structures etc. with more accurate versions as more detailed information becomes known to you. You can stop your investigations at any stage.

Many railway modellers also have an interest in the full sized railways as well. They have already chosen the prototype railway that interests them the most. They enjoy investigating the various aspects of their chosen prototype and finding ways to convert what they find out into model form. Are you one of them?

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Copyright Stephen Chapman