Like most of us leaving school, I wasn’t sure which direction to take. I had enjoyed my workshop experiences in Engineering and had done well at Maths so I decided to take a course in Mechanical & Production Engineering, eventually getting a degree, and chartered membership of the Institution of Production Engineers in 1973 at the age of 26. During this period I had been Industrial based taking an Indentured Apprenticeship at Vickers Armstrong at Dartford / Crayford. The training was very broad and included additional training in Industrial Engineering. Starting work at 6am was a shock to the system and all this for the heady sum of £3.92 per hour for a 40 hour week!
Upon completion and to further broaden my experiences I joined Letraset (a graphics art & printing company) at Ashford. By this time I was married and living in the Medway towns. At Letraset, I introduced the first computer based colour matching facility in the UK, a digital step and repeat system for artwork layout and a fast press die cutting system for characters used on hospital signs. Union negotiations were always required prior to implementation of these projects at the time of Ted Heath’s three day week and confrontation with the Unions! I enjoyed the buzz of working in a different environment and these became a regular feature of my life for the future, changing companies and learning new technologies and helping to develop their processes.
In 1975 I was invited to join Hornby as a Production Engineering Manager. I consequently moved to Broadstairs. Again new technologies of die casting, and injection moulding and introduction of newly developed, microprocessor controlled electronics offered new challenges. I was also responsible for developing automation, introducing several machines using vibratory feeders & state of the art Pneumatic control systems.
In the early 80’s I was offered a post in an Aerospace company (Weston Instruments of camera light meter fame) at Enfield. They manufactured transducers for jet Engine monitoring and control and cockpit instruments (both digital and analogue). Here my role involved purchasing & modernising processes with CNC machinery and improving sophisticated welding techniques like plasma and pulsed tig welding and improving liaison between production and R & D.
Due to the company’s move to Farnborough, Hants (I was living at Bishop’s Stortford by this time), I left & successfully applied for a job with Electrolux who, at this time, were looking to set up a new manufacturing facility for Microwave Ovens. This became the biggest job of my career initially setting up the first production lines in only eight weeks. By developing cell manufacturing techniques & continuous improvements, factory output was doubled and factory space halved over the next 5 years. During this time as Factory Manager, I introduced a new site wide manufacturing computer system & was responsible for some 350 employees producing 35000 microwave ovens per annum for the whole of Europe, Asia and Australasia. Unfortunately, by compressing the factory, the Electrolux board decided to transfer the whole unit to the USA, shoe horning the facility in an existing factory. Containers were loaded and the factory closed in ten weeks.
I then spent the remainder of my working life continuing factory developments for a retail display co., a cosmetics co., a company specialising in modernising railway stations and a co-ordinated measuring machine manufacturer (Renishaws), who were looking at producing high accuracy stable injection mouldings in their products.
At Clement Clark’s, I was contracted to run their R & D (another new area of responsibility for me) and Engineering facility where they were developing respiratory and ophthalmic instruments for the medical devices industry. I was also responsible for the introduction of an automatic assembly line for National Health peak flow meters. It was whilst working here that I gained a patent to measure the operational efficiencies of commercial inhalers.
It was at about this time at 55, having worked for some of the most interesting and diverse range of companies that engineering could offer, that I decided to retire. My two daughters had moved away so my wife (Margaret) and I moved up to the tranquillity of North Norfolk to enjoy the bird life, walking, travelling the world (well some of it), and to develop my digitally controlled model railway.
Upon reflection, I have always felt extremely grateful for the broad training opportunities and confidence that teachers like Mr Mathews & Mr Hawkins at CVTHS provided for me in tackling the variety of projects, that work subsequently offered and demanded.
I use a digital controller linked to a laptop. Wirelessly, this communicates with my smart Phone so that I can walk round the layout dealing with problems whilst controlling individual locomotives. The smart phone is able to control all aspects of the layout including point changing or even changing groups of points for different circuits. All locos on the circuit contain microprocessors added to their circuitry with individually assigned addresses. Some locos also contain sound chips tuned to the particular loco they are fitted in. The sounds include initial start up, acceleration, deceleration, braking, and pressure release in the case of steam locos. Horns can be activated at any time manually. Lights can also be controlled for direction of travel. All great fun!
When compared to the old 12volt DC layouts available when we were at school, which allowed only one train to be controlled independently on a section of track at a time unless it used catenary or the trix three rail system, general control was severely limited.
Today the difference is phenomenal. Train control systems come with an 80 page manual and recommend a short separate section of track to programme and test individual locos. Even track voltage is different, 5 or 10 amp 18 volts AC voltage is applied to the track. I have been closely linked with this development from the beginning, helping to produce the first chip decoder products at Hornby in the mid to late 70’s. (Examples of Early loco chip and four point controllers are shown on the left of the attached photograph). Today this basic system has been further developed and standardised for all model railway manufacturers. Each loco has a chip added and individually numbered, enabling AC to be converted to 12v DC to feed and control the locomotive motor, any lights and even sound. In this way multiple locos can be individually moved and even paired on the same piece of two rail track. On large layouts, a bus bar system can be incorporated so that wired controllers can be linked in around the layout for working convenience. This has now been superseded with the advent of WiFi and computer linking.
Today there are free programmes available which brings the train control to life. With a USB link to a computer all information stored on the train controller can now be visually accessed. I use two main programmes, which are linked, Decoder pro and Panel Pro. As suggested by the titles, the decoder pro contains all the information stored relating to the decoder in the locomotive. E.g. A description of the locomotive, the access address, speed profile, acceleration, & retardation curves, start up current, lighting for direction of travel, momentum control plus any sound control if included on the chip. In fact there are over 100 controllable variables on each decoder. Decoders are also used to control points and signals around the track.
Panel pro provides a visual representation of the layout on the computer screen and will show the direction of the points. Again one command can alter several points (and their signals) simultaneously for circuit control. Point direction changes can be seen on the layout. By using feed back sensors, location control and automation of locos can be achieved if wanted.
Within decoder pro, a throttle control is available so the computer can be used to manipulate points or individual locomotives, their speed etc. There is also a WiFi throttle output. By downloading Wi throttle on the ios or android device, a wireless link can be made to the phone. This then gives complete freedom to walk round a layout controlling any locomotive from the phone.
Strip lights for coaches are readily available now with motion sensors to switch them on and off without any flickering. They run off of batteries. Similarly, separate sound chips can be added to already converted and decoded locomotives to add sound later. These are simpler to install since they are self contained with battery, motion sensor and speaker and tuned to the type of loco.
Locomotive motors have also now improved from the old barrel and flat commutator 3 pole motors that were jerky and needed higher start up currents. Five pole scew wound motors are now fitted, which run extremely smoothly even at slow speeds even with heavy pulling loads for improved realism.
As a hobby even a simple set up is not cheap. Locomotives now cost from £70 to £120, decoders £5 each to £30 for sound decoders with speakers. The layout controllers cost from £200 to £300 and point controllers ~(for 4 points) about £40 each. The motion sound sensors are £40 each.
For me connecting signals to points and feed back control within panel pro are the priorities as well as finishing scenery and generally improving reliability of track feeds etc. (Digital control still doesn’t overcome low voltage control problems caused by dirt and carbon build up). The hobby continues!