I was recently given some old model railway magazines and whilst scanning through them I came across an article by D. Milton entitled ‘Prelude to Exhibitions’ (Model Railway Constructor, March 1967). This is primarily an article about taking layouts to exhibitions. Much of this article is common sense and is just applicable today as it was back then and so I thought it would be useful to use it as a basis for setting down a few guidelines to be followed when taking a layout to a show.

The first thing to bear in mind is that the majority of visitors to an exhibition are not modellers, and they cannot be expected to appreciate the finer points of modelling or operation, so there must be something to hold their attention. An obvious candidate is continuous activity as far as operation is concerned. This does not necessarily mean that something has to be moving at all times, but there should be an expectation that something may happen within their attention span (which is usually surprisingly short). For these short periods when there is nothing is apparently happening, their attention must be captured by the scenery (building, trees, etc) which must be attractive, relevant and of a high standard, or perhaps a small working diorama. Last but by no means least, the layout must work reliably and continue to do so throughout the exhibition – not only for the public but to avoid frustration to the exhibitors. There is nothing worse than everything grinding to halt whilst attempts are made to change a failed point, or get a recalcitrant loco working in full view of the public.

Having stated these ideals, we can look now look at how they might be achieved. Most failures are put down to 'exhibition gremlins' - damage in transit, expansion caused by high temperatures encountered in exhibition halls, or dust from the atmosphere. Troubles from all these causes can be minimised by careful planning and the following points should be considered:
Layout design and construction

Unless you are unusually proficient and/or have a large back up team, plan for simplicity. This does not necessarily mean a small layout but one where a number of operations can be carried out simultaneously. For example in an end to end layout the good yard/ engine shed might operate independently of the arrival/departure platforms. With a multi-track continuous circuit try to avoid shunting operations that necessitate crossing over other tracks – it reduces the amount of activity and as we all know crossovers and slips are recipes for disaster.

Use the best quality materials available for constructing the baseboard, and make it strong enough. This does not mean that you have to go overboard on the size of timber used, but sound engineering practice should produce a lightweight and strong structure. Two areas that need particular attention are ensuring that baseboards are not prone to warping and that the ends are rigid enough to mate reliably with their partner.

Consider the size of the baseboard. Too small and you will have many baseboard joints with all the problems of levelling and electrical connections. Too large and they become difficult to manhandle which make them more prone to damage.

Transit damage is a constant worry. Not only can you knock down trees, building etc, but electrical wiring can be snagged, rail joints bent and, if fitted, dowels damaged. The best way to avoid this to form boxes of matching baseboards held apart by end pieces that can be bolted on to protect the track ends. If side pieces can be made as well, this will help protect the layout from dust, spider, cats etc during storage.

When designing the baseboards consider the question of putting up and taking down the layout. If possible use bolts and ‘T’ prongs to bolt the baseboards together - no danger of losing the nuts and even the bolts can be used for the end pieces for transport. Trestles and legs should support adjacent baseboards (it makes it easier to bolt them together and takes the strain off any connections) and, since exhibition floor are rarely level, should ideally have leveling devices (a box of wooden shims of various thicknesses will suffice if you do not wish to go to the expense of leveling screws). Minimise the amount of loose equipment – pack extension leads, tools and any other paraphernalia into boxes. Label each box/ baseboard pair etc and have an inventory so that you can check that you have everything you need – it is no good arriving at the exhibition venue and finding that the control box is still in the clubrooms 200 miles away.

Make certain that the basics of the scenics are finished, or at least give the illusion that this is so (additional detailing is always an ongoing feature of modelling). This does not mean that you should not exhibit a layout under construction, but if you do then it is important that this is explained on the layout.

Plan for simplicity in the electrics. If feasible use a ring main type set-up to improve reliability.

Most exhibition halls do not have good lighting so make certain that your layout has its own.
Before the exhibition

Ideally erect the layout in the clubroom or other venue and clean the entire track. Check that everything works as you expect it to.

Repair any damage that may have occurred to the scenery paying particular attention to the baseboard joins. It is inevitable that some damage occurs at exhibitions (chimney pots knocked off, signal bent etc), so consider using a notebook to record these as they occur so that you can rectify at the first opportunity.

Check all the rolling stock, particularly the motive power. Clean the wheels and, if you have one, give each engine a blast on a rolling road. At least you know that they were working and if not either repair or leave at home (no danger of attempting to use a duff loco).

When loading the transport, check the inventory so that you know that you have everything you should have.

Make certain you have an adequate tool box and repair materials. Items that you may need are spare base board joining bolts, spanner/screwdriver, extension leads, RCD unit, spirit level, glues, soldering iron, solder and flux, spare wire.

Consider making up a small first aid kit containing plasters, paracetamol, a bottle of water etc.

Have a roster of operators drawn up, with substitutes available if someone is unavailable at the last moment. You will need one or two more people than the number required to operate the layout to allow for breaks.
At the exhibition (it is assumed that the layout have been successfully erected and is running)

Presentation - first appearance counts for a great deal, and a touch of showmanship is necessary to get the public interested in any layout:

Legs and supports should be covered over with material stretched across the front and sides, as this gives a neater appearance and provides somewhere to store boxes and oddments. Although not as important nowadays because of the ‘no smoking’ laws, it is a good idea to finish the curtaining a couple of inches or so above the floor.

Information notices should be neatly printed, using stencils or computers. If the layout is based on an actual location a few large photographs of the original may be used to advantage.

The scenic items must be firmly fixed in place and be capable of withstanding shocks in transit. The last thing anyone want to see are drunken people or church steeples at crazy angles.

A backscene is essential, even if it is only a sky scene. This delineates the extent of the scene and more importantly hides cups of tea etc.

Keep the operating area clean and tidy. Route extension cables away from where you walk, have a box or bin bag to deposit rubbish and store all empty boxes carefully under the layout. Remember it is not a storage area for the coats/rucksacks of club members visiting the exhibition and who are not part of the operating team.

Make certain the integral lighting is doing its job – illuminating the layout and not blinding either operators or public.

It should be understood that the exhibition is being staged for the benefit of the public and NOT the operators, and this means that a certain degree of discipline must be enforced. Only those directly concerned with the running of the layout should be allowed on the inside, or behind it during working hours.

As a generalization all trains should be run at, or close to, scale speeds and all movements made as realistic as possible and in a railway-like manner. Where possible, layouts should be run to a timetable or at least to a set sequence of operations. This has several advantages, as it gives the operators something positive to do preventing them from running the layout for their own amusement rather than the spectators, and gives some coherency.

Consideration should be given to having a ‘front of house’ person whose sole task would be to speak to the public, explaining the operation and method of construction. This person should have an outstanding knowledge of the layout, be friendly and have a charisma. Although, it does mean an extra person on the operating team, it benefits the actual operators greatly in that they are less likely to be distracted by the public and hence make schoolboy errors - like setting the wrong road.

If a locomotive fails, or a item of rolling stock starts to play up, remove it immediately and relegate to the repair box.

If there is an electrical failure, hopefully it will only affect part of the layout (one circuit, or the goods yard). Unless it is immediately obvious what the problem is and can be fixed quickly, do not attempt a repair until the conclusion of the day’s operation. It is doomed to failure, particularly changing a point or point motor. However do plan for possibly having to replace a controller which may be effected simply if thought about in advance. This where the ‘front of house’ person comes into their own since they can still hold the show together.

A final thought: It is better to operate a simple layout that really works than a complex one that does not.