Black Country Blues – developing the project proposal

For anybody not following our progress over on RMweb, John’s notes below describe the process which the group followed to determine the outline plan for the layout and the steps taken to turn the concept into a project proposal.
Black Country Blues – An Industrial Odyssey

Our introduction to the project began with a round-robin note from Chris (2manyspams) asking the innocuous enough question, “Anyone up for this?” The “this” being a submission to the RMweb Layout competition and to a man, all those asked said “yes”.

So having re-assembled the “team” that has all had a hand in building “New Haden Colliery”, the next question was, “Er, what do we have to do next?”

Well, that was simples! There were these criteria to satisfy, by answering the following questions:

  • Who was in the team?
  • Which scale/gauge was to be used?
  • Where is the layout set?
  • When is the period of operation?
  • What makes our entry different/unique/inspirational?
  • Were there any special skills required/employed?
  • Then add a proposed layout plan and approximate dimensions
  • Plus some images, or artwork to back up the scheme.

“Ok, we could answer question one, but, what shall we put in our proposal?”

Hey, let’s try brainstorming by e-mail.

Over 24 hours, the replies had included the following suggestions:

  • Appeal to wide audience, be unique and inspirational
  • Diorama, unusual prototype, industrial atmosphere, maybe with canals
  • Midlands location, more than one time period for operations
  • Achievable finescale modelling, encouraging others to have a go
  • Sectional approach, to spread construction, flexible and quicker
  • Handmade track (probably EM gauge) and scratchbuilt structures
  • Include some research elements
  • Use our existing rolling stock and add simple new builds and conversions

So, our objective:

What we needed was an idea that combined as many of the above suggestions as feasibly possible; something unique and inspirational, an unusual midlands location that was immediately identifiable; a diorama that could be built to finescale standards, using a modular format of construction and be finished into a working layout within a six month timescale.

Now, it’s well-known in the group that I can always be relied upon to come up with an idea. The trouble is – it’s often daft as, an ashtray on a motorbike! However, within 24 hours of “getting the band back together”, to use one of Damian’s favourite phrases – I’d fired out a daft idea. A single A4 page with the following sketchy title: “In search of the Midlands”.


The next steps in the “birth of an idea” and how we got closer to where we are today,

The “Starter for ten” – In Search of the Midlands repeated the competition information, added a précis of the 30-odd replies and stated the general objective; this was followed by a take on an idea for a Midlands-based diorama, the aim of the concept and a brief technical description all in just 100 words.

The immediate replies suggested a meeting (at Barton Marina, 3rd May), where I presented the concept “In Search of the Midlands”, backed up by a series of rough drawings. There was an introduction to “a layout taking a different approach to railway modelling”, which outlined the relationship between the contemporary railway and its Victorian roots. The importance of maps in the creation of the railway system and some ideas for a model diorama 3168mm (12 chains/264 yards) in length to demonstrate the idea were all included.

The concept was good, The plan looked ok, but it would have made a poor model railway.

Also, around the table, it was obvious that the majority of the team were keener on a “Black Country” subject, rather than the vague Midlands/Cannock Chase general idea that I had started off with.

Back to the drawing board and a week later we all sat around a different table and this time I’d brought a longer sketch, 4224mm long, containing a better proposal. But as the evening progressed, it was obvious it was still not quite right. However, it was whilst the discussion progressed that specific Black Country structures were discussed and the predominance of Staffordshire blue bricks in their construction.

In an e-mail next day, somebody used the phrase “Black Country Blues”; a phrase that not only resonated with the infrastructure of the embryo scheme, but also the atmosphere of the area itself in the core era we were attempting to portray. Here was the banner, upon which to hang our proposal.

Whilst all this scribbling on sheets of paper had been taking place, Chris had been formulating the proposal document to send to the judges of the RMweb competition. And Geoff had been wrestling with Templot, trying to create a trackplan, which would satisfy both the aim of showing the relationship of Victorian engineering to the contemporary railway scene and provide a platform for interesting operations.

Chris produces proposal documents for a living, so he took all my woffle, all the e-mails and extra information and produced a professional six page document describing:

  • Who we were
  • The scale/ gauge/ period modelled and prototype area
  • What made the project different and stand out from the crowd
  • Our portfolio of relevant/special skills
  • An outline of the project we intended to build – scenic section now 5280mm long!
  • And finally a trackplan sketch and a projected budget.

It is a beautifully produced document, which was submitted by e-mail to make the fast approaching deadline. I’m sure it was Chris’s professionalism that won the RMweb competition for the Staffordshire Finescale Group, along with that catchy title – Black Country Blues! (a title now featuring lyrics by Stubby, music by Trisonic and backing vocals by Oldddudders!).

On the scale/ gauge/ period and prototype page, there is a series of thumbnail pictures, featuring bridges, canals, a signalbox and a sketch map of the Black Country. The special skills portfolio page also contains thumbnail pictures of our layouts; New Haden Colliery, Treneglos, Foundry Lane, Diesels in the Duchy and “Once upon a time” (which is again on the back burner for the next eight months!).

Following the notification that our proposal had found favour, another presentation followed, this time to Steve Cole and John Emerson, to seal the deal.

What next?

“More in a bit, our kid”  . . . . .

Find out much more about what we are up to at: Black Country Blues – the winning RMweb Project Layout proposal


Black Country Blues

I’m really pleased to say that our project layout proposal for RMweb was succesful and that the group will be working on this in the coming months.  Obviously, this means that some of our other projects will take a bit of a back seat for a while, but we all have every intention of coming back to those as time permits.

Progress on the project layout “Black Country Blues” can be followed on RMweb and will also feature in British Railway Modelling magazine and on the Model Railways Live website.

We will continue to post updates (both on the RMweb project and other activities) here too.


Relic Hunting for Low Level

From time to time I’ll search for Wolverhampton Low Level related stuff on e-Bay.  The platform ticket (which is the avatar I use both here and on RMweb) is one recent example of this.  The photo below shows this, along with a couple of other recent finds.

The June 1971 edition of Railway Magazine was sourced following a tip-off from Neil Rushby that it contained an article about the (then) imminent closure of the GWR mainline between Low Level and Snow Hill.  While the article itself doesn’t really tell me much I’d not read or seen elsewhere before, it’s nice to have and really helps to set the scene for the layout.  It’s interesting to read something written at the time the layout will be based, rather than the more recent sources.  It is accompanied by a couple of photos, one of Low Level with the bubble car stabled in one of the centre roads and an 08 in the former up platform (with a varied selection of parcels vans and a couple of vanfits).  The other shows the bubble car pausing for custom at Priestfield on its way towards Snow Hill.

The pink sheet of paper (actually there are two sheets stapled together) is a BR handbill (which also dates from 1971) showing the timetable and ticket prices for the Low Level – Snow Hill passenger service.  Six weekday departures left Low Level bound for Snow Hill (with an additional 13:50 departure Saturdays only).  Journey time was 32 minutes (compared to 35 minutestoday on the Midland Metro – although that includes additional stops and takes you right into the centre of Wolverhampton), calling at Priestfeild, Bilston, Wednesbury, Swan Village, West Brom’, Handsworth, Langley Green and Hockley.  There was of course, we are reminded “NO SUNDAY SERVICE”.  A second class day return would cost you the princely sum of 40p; a one month season ticket £7.20.

One which got away recently was a 1971 Locoshed, mainly to confirm the Bescot 08 allocation at the time; I’ll keep looking.  The plan is to display these finds on the fiddle yard screening of the layout – assuming I get the time to continue with the layout build since the arrival of the new family member at chez Forrest:

P4 Track Co Turnout

I had a couple of days off work this week and thought this might allow a bit of modelling time.  It did, but nowhere near as much as I would have liked.  The current list of tasks for my WLL project is broken down into rolling stock, buildings (& other structures) and track.  Having done some work on buildings and rolling stock recently I thought maybe it was time to look at track and I managed to find a couple of hours to have a go at putting together one of the P4 track company turnout kits.

I had high expectations for these products, in fact it would be fair to say they were one of the things which attracted me to building the layout in P4 rather than EM.  They have small pips on the timbering which allow the chairs to locate in the correct position.  I’ve not used steel rail or plastic timbering before and have previously made up my own common crossings and switch rails so these kits are quite different to anything I’ve built before.  The first one (of three which I’ll need) is a B8  left-hand turnout, which will form the junction of the former goods avoiding lines at the rear of the layout.

Overall I found construction to be a quite a pleasant experience, although must admit I struggled a little to follow the text of the instructions (I’m never good with instructions and was confused further by my LH kit having a RH template in the pack, as the astute will have already noticed in the photo above!).  Despite the pips on the timbers, a set of gauges are still required to ensure accurate alignment of the rails, mine came from EMGS (who can supply these to suit 18.2mm and 18.83mm gauge to members of the society).  As designed the kit is intended to make a straight turnout, but I found it easy enough to introduce a gentle curve to match the drawing I have prepared in Templot (which is based on a scan of a 1:500 plan of the station).  I suspect this may be more of a challenge when it comes to the C10 turnout for the down platform though.

At this stage there are still some details to add.  The detail in the chair components is far superior to the C&L components I’ve used previously and overall I’m very impressed.

Testing with a spare coach bogie seems to confirm all is well; hopefully I’ll find a little time over the weekend to add the remaining chairs.  I think it probably took about 3 hours (excluding tea breaks) from opening the pack to get to this stage; probably another hour on top of that to add the remaining details – although this should reduce as familiarity and confidence with the product increases.  At £35 each they aren’t cheap, but as I only need a few, I think the advantages in prototype fidelity and ease of assembly do make them good value.

Pies Galore?

The latest social evening for the group was held at the Sun Inn, Stafford, where much hilarity was had and pies eaten. Ok so it was only one pie but several of the group sampled it thanks to the generosity of Mr Y (or was it the wish to keep his sylph like form?!). Everyone there agreed that the refreshments and entertainment (kindly supplied by dint of leopard print) were excellent and even Mr C was seen to smile during the evening! Evidence is hereby given to the suitability of the pie presentation.

Local Pork Pie on offer here!

First-sprung COV AB

For a while now I’ve been accumulating some of those nice Bachmann air braked wagons.  At some point in the future I might even build a layout on which to run them, but for now they are gathering dust.

With my planned move to P4, I thought it would be a good idea to have a go at springing one of these just to get a feel for how the Bill Bedford spring units work and maybe add a few other detail improvements too.  The Bachmann axleguard units are screwed in place, so are easily removed leaving a clear flat floor to mount the replacement units on.  The spring units folded up easily, I changed the spring wire provided for some 0.3mm phoshor bronze wire.  The Brassmasters axle spacing gauge came in handy for getting everything corrective aligned.  The wheels (these are Gibson EM ones) were fitted with brake discs by S Kits (from Nairnshire Modelling Supplies).  The bearings are left overs from Chivers MDV kits.

The buffers were also replaced using sprung 18″ Oleo buffers from 51L, which I fitted at our modelling night last week.

After touching in the paint on the buffers, fitting some brake pipes and a light weathering, here is the end result:

Technically it’s slightly too modern to put in an appearance on Foundry Lane, but I think it will find its way into the stock box for the next exhibition.

Black Country Buffalo

When deciding on a project I try and find something a little bit different taking the most averse route to avoid clichés and so it was that I gave consideration to one of the rail/canal interchanges that sprung up around the Black Country, initially to assist transfer to heavy supplies and products from the canal network to the heavy industry for which the Black Country became known across an old empire. Avoidance of the obvious led me to look into ‘Shrubbery Basin’ as it was labelled on old OS maps. This lay a short distance south of Wolverhampton High Level station, accessed from the GW Walsall Street Goods site and sitting between the LNWR’s Stour Valley route and the Birmingham Canal as shown in this map.

My initial research was frustrated by a lack of source material with little or nothing from the local council or archives other than original land purchase documents. The site itself was wiped from the map at some point during the 1960s and consumed by the expanding British Oxygen Company site and all that has surfaced since starting that research is a single image showing the shed covering the sidings and basin. Beyond my living memory the orientation and style of the shed came as a surprise to me looking a little more like a slice of Herbert Street Goods Station. The current owners of the site, BOC, had no information available from the time of their acquisition despite their estates manager recalling basic information.

Frustrated I fell back to the position of being able to better research the nearby Chillington Basin as being the only rail/canal interchange still in existence in the country and thankfully now the subject of a preservation order. The boundary of the site is reasonably accessible from Chillington Street and the towpath of the Birmingham Canal where urban decay has taken hold after the site finally fell out of usage in the last ten years.

A view of the west side of Chillington Basin from the canal towpath.

Chillington Basin, as an interchange point was first constructed by the Chillington Iron Company whose factory was half a mile east of the wharf and linked by a horse-drawn tramway to allow the products to be loaded onto the narrowboats for onward transport. The LNWR purchased the site in 1897 building the shed as we know it and opening the site as Monmore Street Goods in 1902 with the purpose of catering for other local goods needs including inbound oil supplies via rail from Ellesmere Port transferred to the canal and transported a very short distance under the Bilston Road to Gaunt & Hickman’s British Oil Company which which had moved to a site in Eagle Street after WW1 – Reference.

In the 1930s one ‘arm’ of the basin was capped off and removed to allow the building of a travelling crane for transshipment of goods between the two sidings beneath it and a central roadway illustrating the change in importance of road transport. I’m surprised that the remaining ‘arm’ of the basin remained intact from that point forward.

Ownership subsequently passed to the LMS and BR(M) and this 1952 shot still shows signage from its previous owner. In 1966 the site was ‘re-branded’ as part of the conversion of the Walsall Street Goods site to the Wolverhampton Steel Terminal with the whole of the former goods station site now being accessible from the former LNWR siding from the west side of the Stour Valley route to Birmingham New Street. The Chillington Basin portion of the site then became more of an adjunct to the main terminal as a dumping ground for sundry wagons and another loading point between lorries and wagons as shown in this 1970s view. At this time the purpose of the steel terminal was a centralised outbound railhead for the latter decade (and a bit) of outbound finished products of an industrialised area.

In current times the Wolverhampton Steel Terminal still exists but purely for inbound traffic of steel seeing 12-15 trains per week offloaded by crane and forklift as an interchange to the road network. The site is currently owned by DB Schenker and by their kind permission I was able to access the site and take more detailed pictures (some 500!) and measurements to enable the Chillington project to move forward. The foreman who facilitated the site visit was the longest-serving employee on the site, his first job being to operate the travelling crane which was still operational in 2000.

Chillington Basin travelling crane

Coincidentally the foreman had the photograph shown above in his office showing his grandfather standing in the open wagon beneath the new travelling crane evidencing that outbound steel products brought to the wharf by rail-owned transport were the staple diet of daily activity prior to WW2.

Buffalo? We day ‘ave basins in the Black Country, they’m Bisons.