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The Table-Top Railway Mark I

This was my first attempt at a Table-Top Railway and I commenced building it in July 2017. I used an old kitchen table, which my parents had bought in 1964, as the foundation for the layout. The top of the table was removed and a 39” x 24” MDF baseboard was screwed to the frame of the table. I drilled large holes in the MDF to reduce weight. The MDF was then covered with Sundeala, using offcuts I had available.

The layout comprised two ovals, with a crossover and two sidings off the inner oval. The track was Peco ‘Setrack,’ with Peco ‘Streamline’ ‘live frog’ points used instead of the standard ‘Setrack’ points. The use of the ‘Streamline’ points required a lot of cutting of track to get the length of the pointwork side of the oval to match that at the other side, which was straightforward ‘Setrack.’

In order to be able to run trains from the outer oval to the inner oval, I devised a complex arrangement of six separate electrical sections, three on each oval.

Due to using Sundeala offcuts, there were several joins which resulted in poor running of the trains. I then replaced the ‘Sundeala’ with a single sheet of 10mm neoprene, thinking this would make for quiet running. It was a little quieter than the Sundeala, but made the track unsteady, particularly around the insulated rail joints required for the six electrical sections. The neoprene was also so unstable that I could not get the Peco solenoid electric point motors to operate reliably.

Due to the substantial table frame which formed part of the baseboard, this layout was heavy. It also didn’t run at all well and, in September 2017, I decided to dismantle the layout and start again. I kept the MDF, Sundeala and the original top was replaced on the frame of the table!

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The Table-Top Railway Mark II

I commenced this layout in September 2017. In order to be lighter, I made it much smaller using a 30” x 24” ply baseboard. The layout comprised a single track semi-oblate circle of track. It was really an experimental layout to test if I could obtain satisfactory and very quiet running using a soft surface for the baseboard top.  Rather than the neoprene of layout Mark I, this time I used a much softer material called ‘filter foam.’  Aware this would compress under the weight of trains, I decided to use Kato ‘Unitrack’ rather than Peco track. ‘Unitrack’ has a solid base, representing the ballast, and the track sections are joined by sturdy ‘Unijoiners.’

I achieved quiet, reliable running, although I had to the glue the track sections together so that they could not move relative to each other. I concluded from this layout that a soft track bed wasn’t ideal. The layout was dismantled in April 2022 and it is intended that a new layout will be built on its baseboard.

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The Table-Top Railway Mark III

This layout, commenced in October 2017, represented a change of direction. At 2m x 1m, it was not really a Table-Top Railway at all. The layout comprised two ovals, with a loop off each oval at the rear of the layout. The station at the front had a goods yard, a bay platform and, eventually, a branch line. It used Kato ‘Unitrack’ on a Sundeala trackbed, on top of an MDF work surface in my train set room. As such, it was clearly going to be a permanent arrangement. As to be expected with the excellent ‘Unitrack,’ trains ran well, although I had to make a small modification to the points to enable my Union Mills locomotives run satisfactorily over them in reverse. ‘Unitrack’ points have pre-installed point motors and the layout was easy to wire, using Kato’s helpful ‘plug and play’ system.

I spent a lot of time on this layout, going to the extent of gluing loose ballast between the tracks. I made platforms and started on the necessary buildings. The station was called Darrowby, from James Herriot’s books. The railway was assumed to be a connecting line between the North Eastern Railway north of York and the Midland Railway’s Settle-Carlisle line. I obtained a couple of large steam locomotives and four diesels for this layout. Of the four diesels, only one worked properly on arrival - three had to be returned for repair or replacement.

Slowly, it dawned on me that, although this could be a good layout, it wasn’t really what I had set out to do. It was too big and was in danger of being a typical present-day model railway. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course, but I had set out to create something reminiscent of layouts of the past. In July 2018, I made the difficult decision to stop work on this layout. It later was dismantled and the track went to a good home.

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The Table-Top Railway Mark IV – Poppingham

This layout, commenced in July 2018, was on its own 48” x 30” baseboard. Clearly this was much closer to my Table-Top Railway concept than layout Mark III.  This layout comprised two ovals, with two long sidings off the outer oval and three shorter sidings, laid out as a goods yard, off the inner oval. The passenger station was at the opposite side of the layout to the sidings. I decided this layout would be steam-worked only and would use mainly Union Mills locomotives. I was learning!

The baseboard was a ‘layer cake’ of ply, covered with Sundeala and with 3/16 cork sheet laid on top. Again, I was learning! The track was Peco ‘Setrack’ using second and third radius curves, and ‘Setrack’ points. No troublesome point motors this time – the points were manually operated. I didn’t ballast the track, thinking the brown colour of the cork would look rather like the track bed of a real railway.

I made platforms and continued constructing the buildings I had commenced for layout Mark III.  A little train-set style tunnel was made and an overbridge spanned the tracks. Although intended to be a semi-scenic layout, there was still a fair bit of scenic work to be done and I made good progress with this. The layout was fully-signalled with excellent, but non-working, signals from PD Marsh.


I decided to use my imagination for the location of this layout and, in early August 2018, decided on the name, Poppingham, for both the passenger station and the layout as a whole. The area around the sidings was named Ellis End after C Hamilton Ellis, one of my favourite authors about railways.

In July 2020, I decided to build a smaller layout in addition to Poppingham. This layout, and then another one, turned out to be so enjoyable that my interest in Poppingham gradually faded away and it was eventually broken up in the autumn of 2021. This was a good layout and it was the first definite step to establishing my approach to building a Table-Top Railway. Layouts Mark I – III largely taught me what not to do. But layout Mark IV taught me what to do. And it gave me a name – Poppingham!

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The Table-Top Railway Mark V – Little Poppingham

For several months, in the early summer of 2020, I had been thinking about starting another layout as a change from making buildings for layout Mark IV, Poppingham. Two things had sharpened my thinking. Several friends had kindly suggested Poppingham might be a good layout for taking to model railway exhibitions. I had become bored with exhibitions and hadn’t been at one for over 10 years, so it took a while before the idea developed, but why not? Assuming I'm asked!

The second thing was a sense of guilt at giving up with layout Mark I. The baseboard was still in the garage, which was long overdue for a clear out. "Use it or throw it out," I said to myself. After a few weeks of thinking, I decided to use it; layout Mark I would be reborn as the Table-Top Railway Mark V.

The 39” x 24” baseboard from layout Mark I was re-used, complete with the offcuts of Sundeala, which had earlier caused problems with running. This was embarrassingly easy to resolve – a good going-over with sandpaper and a layer of cork sheet laid on top. This was the same type of ‘layer cake’ baseboard I used on layout Mark IV, except the ply was replaced by MDF. The track was Peco ‘Setrack’ using first and second radius curves, to allow for the narrower baseboard. Once again, ‘Setrack’ points were used. These were still manually-operated, but now using wooden rods sliding within the baseboard. A friend called this ‘stick in a void’ operation, which is the perfect description.

Another friend had used ‘Plastikote Stone’ Gotham Grey aerosol paint to represent ballast and I followed this approach. It was the perfect solution. I also simplified the wiring to achieve ‘three wire control.’  That is, three wires from the controller to the layout.

The track plan was almost the same as that of layout Mark I, but instead of six switched power sections to allow trains from to outer oval to use the two sidings off the inner oval, I realised I needed only one. An on/off toggle switch for this is mounted on the baseboard and the necessary (and very straightforward) additional wiring required is all within the baseboard.

This layout was great fun and received an invitation to the Hayle Model Railway Club’s ‘Virtual Exhibition’ in December 2020. A friend took the necessary video and this had to be done outside in the garden, due to the coronavirus ‘social distancing’ requirements then in place. As I carried it out of the house, I realised it was rather heavy and, if I was to attend actual exhibitions, something lighter would be a great benefit. This made me decide to build layout Mark VI, officially called Portable Poppingham but normally simply called Poppingham.The Table-Top Railway Mark V was dismantled in August 2022.  It is intended that its baseboard will be used for a future project.

Click                           to view our entry for Hayle MRC Christmas Show - December 2020

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