A Visit to the McKinley Railway

The weekend before last I was invited to visit the Mckinley Railway and in this post I will share with some pictures and video of the layout as well as a description of why this layout has been given the title, ‘Britain’s Most High Tech Model Railway’.

The Mckinley railway belongs to David Townend and with the aid of some fellow modeling friends he has built a wonderful model railway that does more than first appears.  The railway is a British outline OO Gauge layout set between 1958 and 1972.  David has modeled the main line section between London Kings Park Station and Manchester Park Street Station.  Along the way the line passes though the stations of Birmingham Broadway and Mckinley Road.

When you first walk into the actual layout room you are greeted with the sight of London Kings Park Station.

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This is a terminus station with six stub end passenger lines, a parcels depot, an engine facility and three coach sidings.

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Although it is difficult to see, all the lamps in the yard are lit.

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The locomotive facility has both steam and diesel servicing facilities and a turntable which is located just to the right of the engine house in the photo below.

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The in and out lines leave the station over a steel bridge with the locomotive servicing area behind.

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The lines then meet a double track main line which navigates its way through the railway room.  Below is a track plan of the layout’s visible sections; if you click on the image it will display bigger.

mckinley_high_levelThe layout has two double track main line loops folded into the room.  The longest is 60m long and the other is 45m.  To ensure all this trackage does not make the room over congested there are a lot of hidden track and staging areas which are shown on the plan below.  The letters on the plans correspond to the joining sections between the two plans.

Model Rail 4.3pi The other large station is Manchester Park Street and this is also a large terminus station. As with London Kings Park it has stub end platforms, although only four.  There is also three carriage sidings, a large engine facility, freight yard and industrial area.

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Behind the lovely station shown above is a busy scene which has been very nicely modeled and I was allowed to take some pictures inside with the building removed.

McKinley Railway Vist May 2015 - 10 McKinley Railway Vist May 2015 - 11 McKinley Railway Vist May 2015 - 12 Because of the larger engine facility and goods yard the throat to the station is complex and the track work is very impressive.

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All of David’s track has been weathered and looks very realistic.

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At the back of the engine facility is another turntable.

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The larger of the two through stations is Birmingham Broadway.  The station has four through platforms, a freight yard, flour mill industry and engine facility.  This station is situated under the only window in the room and it happened to be a lovely day outside so the light here made it a bit hard for my camera phone to capture the scene in all its glory.

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The coaches on the high level are in the coach sidings for London Kings Park Station.

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McKinley Railway Vist May 2015 - 28 McKinley Railway Vist May 2015 - 27 At each end of the station there is a signal box controlling the train movements, even though the back of the this box faces the operators David has detailed and illuminated the interior.

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This signal box also controls the access to the engine facility at Birmingham Broadway.  The two tracks nearest the signal box are the main line.

McKinley Railway Vist May 2015 - 17 Another large area on the layout is Portarlington Exchange Sidings.  This is a large freight yard alongside both double main lines which converge before passing under the dispatches desk.

McKinley Railway Vist May 2015 - 39 McKinley Railway Vist May 2015 - 15 The final main area is the small station of McKinley Road.  This is a small country station on one of the double main lines positioned just after the two diverge.

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Leaving McKinley Road the double main lines change direction and elevation.

McKinley Railway Vist May 2015 - 30 The final part to the layout are the staging areas; as you may have noticed from the track plans above there are several hidden sidings around the layout but the main staging area is in the adjoining room.

McKinley Railway Vist May 2015 - 07Each main line has four staging tracks.

Now you may be thinking that although this is a very nice layout what gives it the title of ‘Britain’s Most High Tech Model Railway’.  Well, firstly, this layout is fully DCC controlled which gives it all the advantages that come with DCC such as sound and lights.

Secondly, the layout is computer controlled.David has designed his layout so that it can be operated as a conventional model railway or as a fully functioning busy British main line single-handed.  I am sure at some point those of us who have used DCC systems, or DC systems that have more than one controller, have operated two or more trains at once and it was fun untill something went wrong because you were watching one train while the other was busy pushing a 10 coach train into the engine shed!

David wanted to create the feeling of this busy railway but with a controllability that ensured things did what they should do.  To achieve this the McKinley Railway’s 650m (2000ft) of track has been split into 90 separate blocks all controlled by occupancy detectors from Digitrax.  Each block or section has its own signals which are automated either by the occupation of the block in front, or by the computer.

The 150 points or turnouts on the layout are all powered by Tortoise point motor machines which are connected to Digirtrax DCC stationary decoders.  This whole system is connected together via the Digitrax LocoNet system and linked to a PC.  David uses software from Freiwald Software called TrainControler.  With this system David was able to map out the railway and tell the computer where each of the block sections are and how long they are, where all the points or turnouts are, what trains are on the layout and where they are.

Once the system knows all of this the operator could, say,, run a train from London Kings Park Platform 4 to Manchester Park Road Platform 2 and the system would set all the necessary points and run the train.  Then whilst that train was trundling around you could say run a train from Birmingham Platform 4 to Manchester Platform 1 and it would also do it.  But as the first train would also be coming up behind the second train on the same tracks, the system works out where and if the trains will meet and will prevent them from colliding.  The system also knows what the different trains are and knows the priority of each.  So if the train from London was an express and the train from Birmingham was local it would allow the express to pass the local without holding up the express.

When you factor in 100+ different trains in the layout the benefit of this really becomes clear.  David has pre-programmed several sets of movements into operating sessions, for example, a typical day in 1964 with all the movements between London, Birmingham and Manchester plus the rest of the UK represented by the staging yard.  The computer will work though them all in the correct order, moving trains around the layout, stopping local trains at the small station, moving them aside for a fast express, holding incoming trains at stop signals while others leave through the busy station throats.

When I first heard about this my thoughts were although it is very clever would it be any fun.  The answer is yes, because the human interaction element is still 100%.  On a typical operating session there are four to six operators each controlling a yard or station.  For example at the London Station, every train that comes in needs to be turned around.  This involves pulling the coaches back with a shunter to release the locomotive, the locomotive then needs to be sent for service and turned.  The parcel vans need to be shunted and sorted.  New trains need to be made up from the coach sidings.  This is a big operation and can keep one operator busy for ages.  Once a train is ready to depart a switch is set that tells the computer that train is ready to go and it can have control over that line.  The operator then gets busy with another train while the computer will take the train out to its destination.  I had the pleasure of operating London Station, in fact there were two of us, and while we were immersed in the shunting there were trains coming in and out and moving all over the layout which gave the feeling of a busy railway which is just what David wanted.

What amazed me was how smooth everything was, and I don’t just mean the locomotives I was controlling.  I have seen trains running before with automated systems and they tended to stop erratically and accelerate to max speed very quickly.  In this layout trains pulled out of stations gracefully and glided to a gentle stop.

This was achieved in several ways, firstly every locomotive on the railway has been speed matched and recorded in the software.  This means that when David sets the speed on any controller to 20mph the locomotive will do a scale 20mph; that is a great advantage of DCC.  Different locomotives have top speeds set depending on what they are; slow for freight, medium or fast for express.  The system knows all the distances and the speed performance of the engines so it can work out how to smoothly control the train.

David has also replaced the standard OO coupling with US style Kadee couplings which are much more reliable, and look better.  He has also correctly weighted everything to keep trains uniform and ensure they stay on the track. This created a problem in that a lot of the UK motive power commercial available are not good pullers; so David has re-motored most of his stock.  Below is a class 47 diesel with an Athearn motor taken from a US diesel.  The extra weight of the big fly wheels give the engine the traction and power that it needs.  He has also improved the power pickup on his locomotives and lighted rolling stock.  Because of the extra weight he has added to the engines he was able to remove the traction tires which improved the power pickup.

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All these improvements and modifications help to ensure the railway runs trouble-free.

To help the operators understand what is going on with the layout around the room are large display panels which show the layout in diagram format  They include point direction indicators, signal settings indicators and train locations.  Each block section has an orange light whcih illuminates when there is a train in the section.  The one below shows the hidden tracks.

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These panels show the visible main lines.

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Below is a video I took of a passenger train leaving London Kings Park Station for Manchester with a stop at Birmingham.

Here is a much better video that was taken by David showing the Midland Pullman doing the same trip.  The sounds in the station at the beginning are coming from the DCC sound decoder in the train.

David is in the process of expanding the layout into the next room.  The extension will included a large number of storage tracks with lots of trains parked up behind each other.  When one is sent out onto the layout the computer will shuffle all the others forward.  On the top of the large storage facility will be a new scenic section; David is planing on making this countryside and industries.

You can read more about the McKinley Railway on David’s website here.  He also has more videos on his You tube site which you can find here.

My visit to the McKinley Layout was a fantastic experience and I look forward to seeing it develop as the extension is built.

Next weekend I am off to the London 3D print show and will be looking at all the new technology with interest.  I will be there on the Friday if anybody would like to meet up.  In next week’s post I will tell you what I discover that might be of use to the Model Railroad and Railway world.