With introductions and explanations accomplished, it’s time to start working on the project and creating the Burnesyd Magical Muggle Railway. As I originally mentioned, this display will only be setup for at most three months, most likely between November and January. It has to fit into our living room and accommodate a tree somewhere in the design. It also must be sturdy enough to withstand being setup and taken down every year, ideally for a good many years.
So, the first step in achieving these goals is to establish a track layout (the pattern of tracks that will determine what the train does and what path is takes). This was determined by two factors: (1) the size of the Christmas Tree and its position and (2) the location of the track in the room. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure at this time what size of tree we might have but I assumed we’d need between a three to four feet loop to give the tree enough room. Also, since we did not have a length of wall open enough for a more rectangular layout, we’d need one that could fit in the corner.
Luckily, Lionel has an enormous library of track layouts available online for free. Most even detail the necessary FasTrack section lengths to make purchasing the individual pieces far easier. To begin with, I selected the Corner Deluxe layout. As illustrated below, the layout fits nicely into corners and features a loop with a second smaller interior loop. Ostensibly, an object – such as a Christmas Tree – could be placed in that interior loop.
However, the inner loop on that initial track layout would have less than a 3′ diameter. While most available tree stands have between a 18″ and 29″ diameter, this would leave little additional room between tree and track, too little to ensure both tree and train had ample room for appearance and activity. As such, I selected to use a different layout, the Corner Christmas Tree layout. It is roughly identical to the Corner Deluxe, but sacrifices space between the inner and outer loops to increase the diameter of the inner loop to slightly over 40″. This would give ample room for the tree and potentially give us enough room for smaller presents, making for a more decorative and festive tableau.
The next consideration would be the actual display and its components. The entire display must be modular and withstand wear and tear being assembled and then subsequently disassembled a month or two later. Additionally, it should have as easy a setup and disassembly as possible. Immediately, this excluded the idea of using a number of separate scenery pieces. Not only would that be cumbersome to setup and remove, but it also limited creativity and construction of those pieces by an unacceptable amount. I decided we’d need to construct two moderately sized display pieces for each end of the track layout, much like miniaturized versions of a more traditional static model train display.
Thus, I conceptualized two ‘plates’ (later re-designated as sandwiches) that would be large enough to attach the terminal loops of the track and to construct scenery and other display features. The majority of any constructed display components would thus be attached permanently to these two sections. This would give the display enhanced durability and longevity and allow me to conceptualize more complex and imaginative display features. Having two separate sections would also allow me create three distinct areas, as per my original plans: sections for both Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and London and the interconnecting Christmas Tree Loops. Given some of the special plans I have for each, being able to separate them spatially, thematically and mechanically is very important.
Once these preliminary steps were taken, it was time to get actual tracks on the floor and get an idea of what it would look like. Obviously, constructing the entire layout would take a far larger selection of track segments than what came with the Lionel Hogwarts Express train set, even accounting for the additional straight track pieces that I purchased. I had been considering how best to handle part of the project since initially purchasing the Hogwarts Express Train set and had put a fair amount of research into all available options.
One huge obstacle that a hobbyist must overcome is the relative waning interest in model trains over the last twenty years or so. A quick search shows that this has become more or less a hobby predominantly for men, ages 35 and above. As such, it is rare to find anything other than the ‘Ready-to-Play’ sets – like the Hogwarts Express or Polar Express sets, for example – in the moderate to large retail stores. Some hobbyist stores still exist, but ones that are dedicated purely to model trains and that have a suitable variety of O-Gauge stock on hand is rare. In my hometown of Oklahoma City, there is only a single store of that kind, Whistle Stop Trains. Other than that, we have two stores in Tulsa, around ninety minutes away, and another in Claremore. While Whistle Stop Trains has been an invaluable resource for me, there is still clearly a relative scarcity of available retail resources in the area.
To counter-balance the lack of local stores, a number of online retailers abound, although they are still not as plentiful as one might wish. In the end, I chose a vendor on Amazon that takes the free track layouts on Lionel and constructs premade sets for the more popular designs and sells them in one package for a combined price. Although wary about paying a premium price for the combined set, I was pleased to discover that the vendor sets were still less expensive than purchasing the components separately.
Track in hand, it was time to construct the track in its desired location.
Our initial plan was to set up the track against one of the large picture windows that faced out towards our backyard. This would make for a nice ‘Christmas-y’ scene when viewed from outside, albeit if it was just from the backyard. However, a number of factors quickly invalidated that idea. First of all, (as one can see from the images above) the space in that corner of the room was too small for the track layout. On one side, our entertainment center and the right-hand speaker cut approximately two feet into the left-hand loop. On the other side, the right-hand loops came within two inches of the chaise lounge of our sofa. Additionally, there is a nearby air vent nearby that would make for uneven flooring as well as potentially present a fire hazard by being too close to the Christmas Tree. Any of these alone in enough to force a change of plans; together, they prompted me to move the track to the other side of the room, near our entryway.
Given that our entertainment center is off center towards the right side of the room, the corner nearest our entryway is significantly larger. I tested the track layout in that corner and – while it did require me to move a smaller piece of furniture out of the way, it seemed a much better fit, as well as seeming to be in a far more open and accessible area. In the end, the new corner fit far better.
Laying out the track and measuring distances, I quickly came to the conclusion that the default track layout for the Corner Christmas Tree would not suffice for some of the design elements I had in mind. Looking at the illustration, you can see that the terminal loops have a substantially angled curve. To give myself more room for the diorama and any additional features, I determined I would need to modify the curves. Below you will see the final diagram, detailing my final track layout design, complete with dimensions, Hogwarts and London ‘sandwich’ locations and total track count.
As you can see, I extended and rounded the two terminal loops more fully, although the London loops still contains a slightly flattened loop. This gives me a nice increase on the design-able footprint for each of the sandwiches as well as slightly increases the transit time for the Hogwarts Express, making for a slightly longer trip. While space will always limit how long the train will take to make a complete trip around the track, I’d like to introduce enough distance and time to make the process as interesting as it can be, for as long as is possible.
I also re-arranged some of the individual track sections on both the sandwiches and the Tree Loops so that each sandwich as a track ‘break-point’ at the same location on each end of the loop. This required using two 5″ straights instead of a single 10″ straight in some places, but the result is a far better designed layout with increased modularity and sturdiness. This will mean less stress on the track pieces at the joins and increase the display’s ultimate longevity. I’ve also made sure to include 10″ sections to allow for both the standard plugged transformer connection (in this case permanently configured for the Hogwarts sandwich) as well as two 10″ terminal sections to power any accessories or display features I might add.
I feel this is the best possible track layout, given the current available space. It can be used universally in nearly every room that has corner space of roughly eight feet by nine feet. The sandwiches will be placed behind where presents would be displayed and the tracks surrounding the tree could conceivably have enough empty space between them to allow small presents to be placed there, making for a more festive Christmas scene. While it is only the beginning of the actual construction process, I am nonetheless pleased with how it is beginning.