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Binns – Hornby Dublo nostalgia from the 1960’s

During the summer of 2006, an email was circulated around the members of Southport Model Railway Society and Eastbank Model Railway Club stating that a member's neighbour was intending to dispose of in a skip what was vaguely described as an old Hornby type train set, and would any of our members be interested in having it. The response was underwhelming. Not fully appreciating what I was getting myself into, I replied with an affirmative and within a couple of days the remains of the train set board along with two black bin bags full of broken bits and pieces arrived and were dumped in the back garden. Although in a somewhat distressed state, this train set turned out to be not by Hornby (Tri-ang Rovex, Margate) but by Hornby Dublo (Meccano, Liverpool) origin.

Having been brought up with Tri-ang Railways, Tri-ang Hornby and Hornby (Margate), my preference has always been for things Rovex. What did I know about Hornby Dublo? Not that much really. Therefore I made reference to Michael Foster's excellent book 'Hornby Dublo Trains' as a source of inspiration and information on the Hornby Dublo products of Meccano of Binns Road, Liverpool.

After some contemplation, the conclusion that I came to was that to restore this train set to a standard worthy of the reputation of Hornby Dublo, I would have to start from basics and disassemble what remained and completely refurbish the baseboard. By examining the quality of the joinery work, this baseboard was not the work of an amateur but had been professionally constructed. It suggested that the train set could possibly have been commissioned by Meccano as an operating demonstrator for placement in toy shops in the 1960's to promote their then recently introduced Hornby Dublo two rail model railway system. Not only that but the front and top faces have built in slots indicating that at one time sections of toughened glass were present not only to protect the contents but to allow the train set to be used as part of a shop sales counter. This glass was of course missing.
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Despite first appearances the baseboard was structurally sound so all that was required was for the removal of the track and other broken bits and pieces, filling in holes, removing the flaking paint and rubbing and smoothing down damaged woodwork, replacing a rear access hatch and repainting everything in colours as close as could be matched to the original ones. As the electrical control system and wiring was in a severe state of decay, this was removed and immediately disposed of.

The track components were then tested and found to be structurally intact but the electrical conductivity, especially of the points and integrated accessory switches, was poor. Rust, as such, was not the problem since Hornby Dublo two rail track is of nickel silver construction but more than forty years of accumulated grime was found to be causing the bad electrical conductivity. The slightly unorthodox procedure I adopted was to dump all the track pieces, but not the points, into a basin containing a 100% solution of cheap supermarket cola and leaving it bathing and fizzing away for an hour or so. Two things resulted from this procedure. The track became remarkably clean and I made a personal resolution to stick to hard liquor and never touch cola again. The points did require a more caring approach though. Amongst the junk in the bin bags of bits and pieces there was a mixture of live frog electric points and also the later issue Simplec insulated frog electric points. These I decided not use since they seemed to be less reliable and anyway they did not have the additional accessory switching contact units.

As a digression at this stage I had an opportunity to experiment with track layout configurations using the newly cleaned Hornby Dublo track components. As I mentioned earlier, being brought up with the ingenuity and simplicity of constructing layouts using Tri-ang Super 4 track, the apparent unnecessary complexity of the geometry and the greater number of different track components of Hornby Dublo 2 rail track that were essential was, I found, disillusioning. The live frog situation was not a problem though as long as the correct electrical procedure was followed.
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Throughout the Hornby Dublo product range metal tabs are used as a means of assembly and the live frog electric points are no exception. The tabs were carefully bent back to allow removal of the covers over the solenoid and accessory switching contacts. On every point the two outer rails were carefully removed from the plastic base by sliding out from the fishplate end and this allowed the centre switching rail assembly to be lifted and removed. All the electrical contact surfaces were then thoroughly cleaned including the underside of the running rails where contact is made with the switching rail assembly. Once reassembled, the points performed flawlessly, mechanically and electrically. The track and points were then reinstalled in their original locations remembering to insert the necessary isolation gaps for the live frog points. An additional two sidings were installed to allow for the inclusion of a two road engine shed.

The original Marshall power unit was found to be in reasonable working order and this was used to provide power for the trains and various electrical accessories such as the illuminated buffer stops, electric semaphore and colour light signals, uncoupling ramps and travelling post office apparatus. Switching was provided to allow the train supply to be provided from an external source such as an H&M Clipper as and when a higher current was required. As an example of this situation, a Ringfield Class 8F locomotive that I have owned since new was never a good performer. It always drew a high current and it ran extremely sluggishly on the Marshall power unit. The solution was to replace the magnet with a new 21st Century version. The resulting improvement was awesome. Not every locomotive we will run will have had the same opportunity for this upgrade, hence the facility of providing an external power supply.

The operating lineside apparatus for the travelling post office coach requires a supply independent of the train supply due to its common return wiring configuration via one running rail. Non-locking switches were used for the uncoupling ramps to prevent them being accidentally left activated. Points are operated using Hornby Dublo maroon passing-contact lever switches but power is supplied through a capacitor discharge unit to protect the solenoids from overheating. To assist the layout operator, an auxiliary display panel mimics the track layout and uses light emitting diodes to indicate the setting of all the points and the activation of the uncouplers, isolating tracks and mail coach apparatus. These deviations from using authentic Hornby Dublo components does not in any way desecrate the nostalgic 1960's atmosphere since none of these operator aids can be observed by the viewing public.
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The suburban and island stations, goods depot, engine shed, double track tunnel, footbridge, electric signals and scenic accessories all required to be replaced and these were sourced from local swapmeets and of course, eBay. Not everything that can be seen on the layout is, however, a genuine product of Binns Road. A colour light signal, an uncoupling ramp and two electric points are of French origin - Hornby AcH0, but the geometry of these points and uncoupler track is identical to those from Liverpool but with subtle differences to their finish.

In retrospect, this restoration project has been most enjoyable and in the process I have learned much about the innovations and also some of the flaws of the Hornby Dublo system. Assistance with information from numerous people who possess a vast knowledge of Hornby Dublo products has been gratefully received and absorbed, thank you all. The layout, at 7 feet by 3 feet, is of a size that many people in the 1960's could reasonably accommodate and possibly afford but more importantly, enjoy playing trains with. At that time we did not get into a furious frenzy about a few millimetres or so of discrepancies in dimensions of models but just enjoyed ourselves running trains. Anyway, never mind the fine detail, see how fast the trains go. Despite rumours to the contrary, nostalgia really is what it used to be.

This layout is available for public exhibitions and our intention is to present to the observer what was available for the average model railway enthusiast from Hornby Dublo in the early 1960's. The layout set up time is only a couple of minutes, just enough time to find two tables, a nearby power point, set out the trains and retire to the bar.

Information and photos are available on the Eastbank club
web site.