Five years had passed since the demise of the Pigsty Hill Light Railway. I had done
very nicely in five years of self-employment and was looking to wind down. Furthermore,
in the intervening years I had connected my two ponds by a third, whose lower wall
was perfect for a railway extension which would provide the much-needed sidings.
My thoughts were gradually returning railway-ward when I looked in a local toy-shop
window and saw the latest wonder of the age, the Playmobil RC-train. This is a 45mm
gauge system, very toy-like and with plastic track, but at its heart is a very neat
0-4-0 chassis using rechargeable batteries and 27MHz radio control. As far as I know,
this is not available separately, but at 129.95 the lot, who cares?
I leapt in and bought the set and enough extra plastic track to resurrect the P.H.L.R.
The track-bed was still there, although some compromises had to be made because of
the tighter Playmobil (same as LGB R1) curves. The result was perfection. The radio
control system worked like a dream. Even the toy-like track, locomotive and stock
were enough to inspire the rebirth of the railway and when resprayed in less garish
colours the last looked almost acceptable. After purchasing a little extra track
I could ensure that the layout was operable and would not bore me rigid like its
Although the locomotive gave the appearance of "Disney meets the Deutsche Reichsbahn"
it simply un-clicked until the chassis was revealed in all its simple elegance. This
is where the adventure really started.
The next task was to look for a prototype. I was determined to have British prototype
locomotives and stock, but the garden had changed since the days of the Pigsty Hill
Light Railway. The theme now was bamboos and ferns, giving a more tropical feel to
things (if you can imagine tropical scenes that get no sun for three months of the
year). As always when seeking inspiration, I went back to "The Narrow Gauge", the
magazine of the Narrow Gauge Railway Society. It was, oddly enough, a reproduction
of an advertisement for Fowler's sugar cane wagons that put me on the right track.
I already had a Fowler diesel locomotive body which would marry nicely with the Playmobil
chassis, and my coaches and vans, suitably regauged, would look right in this context.
LGB do a very nice line in Feldbahn (light railway) cane wagons, which would do until
I could build my own to Fowler's pattern.
While surfing the Internet, I came across the remarkable fact that the Trangkil sugar
mill in Java not only operates steam locomotives, like many of its neighbours, but
that the star of the show is a small Hunslet 0-4-0 saddle tank built to a Kerr Stuart
design of 50 years earlier, and arguably England's last-built working steam locomotive.
This seemed enough justification for a sugar-cane line using British prototype locomotives
and stock. Later research discovered the North Borneo Railway, still in operation
in Malaysia as the Sabah State Railway, and this became my inspiration. As I hope
the photo shows (and the videos definitely show), the jungle atmosphere is already
there in the garden.
Then, via an Internet link from a US G-scale society, I came across Garden Railway
Specialists of Princes Risborough. It appeared that I wasn't the only one who recognised
the potential of the 45mm gauge (and of German engineering), but wanted to run a
British prototype. In particular, they do a good range of British outline locomotives
either with the Lehmann 0-4-0 chassis or as body-only for use with whatever chassis
the customer might choose. They also do a similar range of conversions and originals
for coaches and wagons.
On talking to Michael Adamson of Garden Railway Specialists, I discovered that he
had also seen the potential of the Playmobil RC chassis, and that this would be an
alternative to the Lehmann 2-rail pickup for their locomotive conversions. At a stroke
this provides British-prototype G-scale locomotives with reliable radio-control,
which for me is a far more satisfactory outdoor solution than rail pickup.
Personally, I'm not too happy with large scale electric locomotives with a steam
outline, although Garden Railway Specialists' fireless locomotive body would be an
intriguing compromise. I suspect it relates to childhood visits to miniature "steam"
railways which turned out to be nothing of the kind Also, as I suggested in my previous
article, I have an increasing interest in NG and industrial diesels, which have the
character and individuality so lacking in their mainline brethren. For me, the coming
of the "Warships" to Bristol simply meant the demise of steam.
As an incorrigible cheapskate, it occurred to me that, given a small line that could
happily be worked by a single locomotive, I needed only one chassis. I could combine
it with whatever drop-on bodies took my fancy, as long as the wheels were reasonably
compatible or decently hidden. If all else fails, "tramway" skirts cover a multitude
Which is where I find myself now. I have one British-outline diesel, Fowler Resilient
'Lizzie' with more on the stocks, coaches based on the Pentewan Harbour Light Railway
regauged from 32mm, an Irish narrow gauge coach rebuilt using a Playmobil chassis,
and LGB Feldbahn wagons. For compatibility, I've fitted Brandbright loop couplings,
which fit nicely with LGB/Playmobil, and I've edited these latter to be single-ended.
I still have my signals from a long-gone 16mm model company, and some rather nice
station buildings in terracotta whose origins are lost in the mists of iniquity (and
handed down from time immoral).
I have laid down LGB track, which looks superb. To my eye it conveys an impression
of solidity which more than makes up for the brass rail. The Playmobil track which
it replaced now graces my workroom as a test-track. The layout was designed using
WinRail 4.0, marketed in the UK by Span Software Consultants Ltd., which not only
has a library of pretty well every maker's track, but also produces a shopping list
and (gulp!) a full costing for the track.
There are few advantages to starting a garden railway in the deep midwinter, but
one of them arises from the long hours of darkness. If a railway is to run outside
working hours, it has to be properly lit. Since I'm not using the track for traction
power, it is the ideal means of distributing power for station and signal lights
and for carriage lighting. I surprised myself by remembering how to build current
pickups for the carriage wheels, and am lighting all my coaching stock as I convert
the gauge. Whenever I've built railways in the summer this has always been left for
'later on' which in practice usually means never. One the unfortunate aspects of
preserved railways is that they rarely operate at night, in my view a particularly
magical spectacle, but this needn't be an obstacle to the garden railwayman.
Incidentally, the station buildings are from the 'Much Nattering' set (see bottom
of page). Just to show how one can get it wrong, I was just working out how to fit
the booking office chimney when it occurred to me that coal fires are rare in the
I have decided to once again go for radio-controlled live steam. Everyone tells me
that radio control has improved beyond all recognition; even so, I'm a little more
wary this time round. I have ordered a Roundhouse 'Katie' 0-4-0 saddle tank from
Garden Railway Specialists for a frightening sum of money. I am looking for full
control so that I can shunt the sidings from a single point, ideally while sitting
down, and hope to be able to report back on this later.
Which I can do now; 'Hedgehog', as I've named her, is at least as controllable as
my battery R/C mechanism, and is a delight to see and to run.
A clip-on attachment to the gas valve solves the only minor problem, that the normal
gas-burn rate was way over the top for a light load on a short line. It gives finer
adjustment, and setting it so the ideal gas flow is at the horizontal position makes
it easy to adjust after initial steam-raising.
As noted above, I'm gradually converting my stock to 45mm gauge, and adding illumination.
In fact the passenger brake van has been converted into a push-pull driving unit
with headlamp, and the first of three coaches has been fitted with seats and lighting.
The Fowler diesel headlight (powered by the Playmobil unit) has been moved to a more
prototypical position. The loco and these two vehicles now form the shuttle service
from Pigsty Hill to the main line at Beaufort.
All I've done on 'Hedgehog' is to change the couplings and add a cowcatcher and headlamp.
It would take a braver man than me to make more than cosmetic changes to a grand's
worth of engineering excellence from Roundhouse!
The line is loosely based on British colonial practice, with the North Borneo Railway
as a very vague inspiration. The PHLR was initially laid to two foot gauge and connected
the cane fields to the harbour at Beaufort. When the main line reached Beaufort the
line was regauged to metre gauge and a passenger service provided between Pigsty
Hill and Beaufort to connect with the main line service to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu).
A timetable is under preparation allowing for a passenger service between Pigsty
Hill and Beaufort and sugar cane trains between Pigsty Hill and the cane fields.
The points on the main circuit are LGB Radius 3 (4 foot) and those at Pigsty Hill
and the cane sidings are R1 (2 foot). The point mechanisms have been swapped over
so that the manual (spring loaded) controls on the main line allow the road to remain
set in the directions of Pigsty Hill and the cane fields. This allows hands-off operation
of both the passenger push-pull service and the cane trains. Also, the electric controls
(which are not remotely operated) at Pigsty Hill and the cane fields ensure that
the road remains set to that from which the last train departed, ready for its return.