Monthly Archives: February 2016



You may have heard that the most commonly recommended method of producing realistic ballasted track is to spread loose ballast around the sleepers and then, when you’re happy with it, glue it down with a 50/50 mix of PVA glue and water, with a few drops of washing-up liquid added. (The detergent lowers the surface tension and so helps the glue to spread in and around the ballast particles.)

This is the ‘tried and tested’ method recommended by most builders of ‘exhibition‘ layouts, and numerous books on rail modelling.

This does give a very good effect but it is time-consuming and there are some disadvantages:

  • You have to be very careful not to get glue in and around the moving parts of points (turnouts), otherwise they can get gummed up and won’t work
  • Sometimes, as it dries, the glue causes the ballast to ‘heave’ and you get a ‘lumpy’ finish
  • Although the glue should be colourless when it dries, you can get a slightly shiny or ‘plasticky’ look – especially if you’ve been a bit too liberal with the application of the glue!

And perhaps the biggest drawback of all: if you decide to change your track layout and you want to re-use the track and points, it’s a real pain to lift and clean them – it is possible to carefully lift and re-use glue-ballasted track – but chipping off glued-on bits of ballast is not the most fun-packed way to spend a evening!

SO, here’s a radical suggestion: How about NOT gluing it down?

After all, the full size real thing isn’t glued down, the ballast is loose. Now unfortunately we don’t (yet!) have working scale model DCC-controlled ballast-tamping trains; but on the other hand we don’t have rain, snow, floods, gales, or passing trains weighing hundreds of tons, to disturb the ballast either; so once laid the ballast should stay where’s it’s been put.

Bear in mind that, as I said above, the ‘glued down’ method is used for exhibition layouts, which have to stand up to being frequently dismantled, manhandled and transported, often upside down, so all the scenery has to be firmly fixed down; but if yours is a ‘layout that never leaves home’, on a fixed level surface, then you don’t need to worry about that.

Then if you do decide to change the track layout it’s a simple matter of removing the loose ballast (a small battery-operated vacuum cleaner – the kind used for cleaning computer keyboards – can be useful for this) and if you’re careful you should be able to re-use the ballast.

Alternatively, if having completely loose ballast is a step too far:
Lay the track on top of double-sided adhesive tape, and sprinkle the ballast over it. The ballast will stick to the exposed tape in between and around the sleepers. You could then top it up with a loose layer on top. Then, if at a later date you want to change the track layout, it’s fairly easy to remove the loose ballast and then carefully peel the track away from the tape.

I fully realise that this might be a controversial suggestion! As always, any comments are welcome!

All the best,


BR Early Crest

British Railway Eras

Many newcomers to the hobby of railway modelling are confused by the huge variety of models available, representing prototypes from different periods of time, ranging from Victorian times up to the present day.

To help to clear up the confusion, some model manufacturers have adopted the concept of ‘eras’ to define the time period that a model is supposed to represent.

(In this article we’ll cover the Era system used by Hornby, but several other manufacturers, such as Bachmann, use the same or very similar classifications.)

Under this system, time periods are divided into 11 ‘eras’ according to when major changes occurred, as follows:

Era 1: 1804 – 1869 Pioneering
Era 2: 1870 – 1922 Pre-Grouping
Era 3: 1923 – 1947 Grouping: “The Big Four” – LMS, GWR, LNER and SR
Era 4: 1948 – 1956 Early British Railways (Early Crest)
Era 5: 1956 – 1968 Late British Railways (Late Crest)
Era 6: 1968 – 1971 British Rail Pre TOPS
Era7: 1971 – 1986 British Rail TOPS
Era 8: 1982 – 1997 British Rail Sectorisation
Era 9: 1996 – 2008 Privatisation
Era 10: 2006 – 2017 Network Franchising
Era 11: 2014 on Present Day

Now let’s look at these in a bit more detail:

Era 1 1804 – 1869  Pioneering
This covers the very early days, from the first ever public passenger railway (The Stockton & Darlington, opened in 1825) through the ‘railway mania’ times when railway lines were being opened all over the country.

Era 2  1870 – 1922  Pre-Grouping
This covers the period when railways were becoming more established, and there were numerous railway companies, ranging from small branch lines to large companies like GWR.

Era 3  1923 – 1947  Grouping
In 1923 many of the smaller companies were amalgamated or ‘grouped’ into one of the ‘Big Four’ regional railway companies: LMS (London Midland & Scottish), LNER (London & North Eastern Railway), GWR (Great Western Railway) and SR (Southern Railway).

Era 4  1948 – 1956  Early British Railways (“Early Crest”):
The railways in Britain made a crucial contribution to the war effort during the Second World War, but after the war they were in a poor state, following the hammering they took from all the extra train movements and damage from bombing, and years of underinvestment, and the decision was taken to nationalise the network in 1948. The “Early Crest” refers to the early British Railways emblem, popularly known as the “unicycling lion”:

BR Early Crest







Era 5  1956 – 1968  Late British Railways (“Late Crest”)
During this period the infamous ‘Beeching Report’ was issued (in 1965) which resulted in many lines being closed and the withdrawal of steam locomotives and their replacement by diesel locomotives. BR also officially changed its trading name from ‘British Railways’ to just ‘British Rail’ in 1965. The crest used in this period was nicknamed the ‘Ferret & Dartboard’:

BR late crest






Era 6  1957 – 1971  British Rail  Pre-TOPS
This was the beginning of the ‘corporate blue’ period, when BR changed its livery to an overall blue and also adopted the ‘double arrow’ logo:
BR-double-arrow-logo (Source: British Rail from

Era 7  1971 – 1986  BR TOPS:
‘TOPS’ was the ‘Train Operating Processing System’, a computer system introduced by BR which resulted in locomotives being renumbered; diesel locos lost the ‘D’ prefix and were allocated a leading ‘Class’ number instead.
(We’ll cover class numbers in a later post.)

Era 8  1982 – 1997  BR Sectorisation
During this time BR, although still nationalised, was ‘Sectorised’ into separate business ‘Sectors’: for passenger traffic these were InterCity (express services), Network SouthEast (London commuter services) and Regional Railways (regional services); and for freight traffic, Trainload Freight, Railfreight Distribution (for non-trainload freight) , Freightliner (for intermodal (container) freight) and Rail Express Systems (for parcels traffic).
Each of these had their own livery, and there were also some sub-sectors such as petroleum, coal, etc. with their own livery variations.

Era 9  1996 – 2008  Privatisation
Under the Railways Bill (which was passed in 1993 and came into force in 1994) BR was broken up and sold off to private companies, leading to the present day arrangements of several competing freight companies (Freightliner, DRS, etc.) and several Train Operating Companies (‘TOCs’) running passenger services under regional franchises.

Era 10  2006 – 2017  Network Franchising 
The BR network was divided up and franchises for either regional areas or certain routes (e.g. the West Coast Main Line). Companies such as Stagecoach, Virgin and First bid for these franchises and were awarded rights to operate trains on those routes.

Era 11  2014 on  Present Day
This bring us to the current situation where we have the franchise operators, several goods operators, and also some new TOCs such as Hull Trains and Grand Central: these are “open access operators” who run their own trains on specific ‘paths’ which the franchise holders do not operate.

(These last 3 Eras can make a very colourful modelling scene, with numerous different liveries running alongside each other- some of which (e.g. GNER) are now already history!)

[Note: This article has been updated to align with the revised Era system now used by Hornby, as shown in their 2019 catalogue and on their website – the website also has a useful timeline graphic which shows how some of these Eras overlap.]