Trains, Tanks and Trenches: model railways with a difference

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military modelling“They’re all the same dad”

I have to say I had some sympathy with the young teenager whose conversations with his dad I overheard at a recent model railway show.

While the size and quality of model making vary, the theme of the majority of model railway layouts seems very stuck on two basic formats.

They’re either a quaint branch line with a station or an industrial setting, such as a mine or harbour.

And, I have to put my hand up and say I’m just as guilty. All my layouts have the same lack of imagination and fall into this trap. My latest £35 model railway project, as fun as it is to build, is yet another harbour dock themed layout.

I can visualise the despondent teenager at the show glancing at my layout, humpfing and walking off despondently in search of something more exciting.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these layouts and being centred around railway lines we are a bit limited in what we can model but it set me thinking.

Around the same time as I happened to be given a book as a birthday present by a friend. (Hi John if you’re reading this!).

John knew I was “into trains” and gave me Christian Wolmar’s Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways. It’s a fascinating account of a poorly documented aspect of railways and got me thinking about war-themed model railway layouts.

I’ve seen several layouts set in or around the 2nd World War period, such as the one pictured above and the video below, but Engines of War opened my eyes up to the potential of model railways set in and around actual combat areas.

I’m not talking about a layout carrying tanks etc on an otherwise normal line but a model railway set in a battlefield settings. Walmer describes how the flexibility and versatility of narrow gauge railways, in particular, saw them used to ferry troops and armaments up to front lines.

war railwayBattered, improvised, trains running through mud, trenches and shell craters with combat taking place around them would certainly be different, unusual and fun.

It’s also very possible.

Using either 00 gauge trains and track or 009 (OO scale models on N gauge track to achieve the narrow gauge look) means track and trains are readily available. (Bachmann have several 009 gauge Baldwin locos — as used by British forces in WW I — coming out in December this year).

And there are lots of plenty of military vehicle models built to this scale too (1/76th) from Airfix and Revell

In terms of track plans, there’s an incredibly useful resource of WW1 trench railway maps online here (Change the category on the left to Belgium/France WW1 and pick a location). The transparency of the map can be changed to show satellite imagery of the area that will help with terrain

Animation, lighting and smoke circuits familiar on model railways could produce explosions, fires and soldiers moving around to bring extra life and realism and also raise the model work above that of military dioramas.

Is a battlefield railway something you’d consider? Have you done it? I’d love to hear about and see some photos of layouts set in a combat zone, the trenches of WW I or WW II or another war.

Photo: Battlefield narrow gauge railway, public domain via Wikipedia.



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