Coffee Tables, Computers, And Railways

If you were a British kid at any time from the 1950s to the 1980s, the chances are that your toy shop had a train set in it. Not just any train set, but a full model railway layout in a glass case roughly the size of a pool table, with a button that when pressed started a timer and set a little tank engine off on a circuit with a pair of coaches. Magical for a generation raised on black-and-white TV, but probably not something that would cut it with today’s youth. A modern take on the glass-case layout comes from [Jack Flynn], who has created a coffee table with an automated and computerised N-gauge railway layout inside it. And this is definitely a railway rather than a railroad, the main locomotive is a Brush Type 4, a British Rail Class 47 diesel.

The modelling is a work of art, with a slightly idealised British street scene in an oval of double track against a backdrop of a rocky hillside. In the hill is an unexpected surprise which you can see on the video we’ve  placed below the break, and beneath it lie the electronics. A Teensy handles the track switching and all the various LED lights around the board, a Sprog DCC controller takes care of the trains, and overseeing everything is a Raspberry Pi running some custom software in Python with a web interface for control. We probably wouldn’t be able to resist a bit of remote-control railway action if our coffee table had a layout like this one!

22 thoughts on “Coffee Tables, Computers, And Railways

  1. I love a nice coffee table layout. ( along with our small layouts
    I have an automated end to end layout on my window sill at work and thiggest issue I have is corrosion on the tracks – it requires constant maintenance to keep the trains running – so much so It has become a static display…

    Im in a dry environment a long way from the ocean.. How do other opperators of automatic layouts keep things running smooth??

    1. Model railroaders like Wahl Clipper Oil, or another plastic-safe, high-quality light mineral oil such as sewing machine oil or instrument oil. A very light application of such oil will coat the rails and wheels in an oxygen-blocking layer through which the wheels can still make electrical contact. It will also soften and loosen most forms of dirt and crud which might be a problem.

      At first glance, it seems like it would create traction problems, but in practice, this seems not to be an issue.

      Also, running the trains frequently also helps keep the corrosion down.

    2. This is actually a concern of ours as part of the build. The layout will be accessessable via a lifting top and the two end sides will drop down on hinges to allow for cleaning and train fixing. I’m interested to see how it runs once the table is complete and loosely “sealed”

  2. Interesting. A tinkering project for the tinkerer. I’ve worked at railway display functions sending messages from the front door to the back door using old American Morse, Vibroplex keys, and sounders like those of the Western Union. Like ham radio, the directions from entry are numerous.Thanks for sharing.

  3. British my butt. I’m American and I wanted one of these for decades. When I was about 12 or so, I came across some issue or another of a scale model railroad that featured “rare” N scale layouts and I fell in love with them ever since.

    Even at N scale, I have a hell of a time trying to shoehorn even a coffee table in amongst all the other crap I have in the house.

      1. I volunteered at my local historic railway museum operation today fixing brakes on one of our cars. There are a lot of places out there like that where you can do model trains at 1:1 scale.

    1. Yeah there’s some great wee touches across the whole build. Shout out to Steve @ plan8earth who is doing all of the modelling and wood work. I’m just electronics.

  4. “…not something that would cut it with today’s youth.” Guess again. I exhibit N scale at train shows, and they’re positively seething with today’s youth, decked out in their Thomas shirts and hickory-stripe caps, who have to be dragged away at closing time. Trains have as much appeal now as they ever did.

  5. …and my wife won’t let me install an express train around the inside edge of the exterior walls of the house, running from room to room, up high near the ceiling corner….It would be so cool having the train do that every hour on the hour as a kind of time piece…sigh

  6. I wonder how long it will be before that video gets a copyright strike for the music? I know the man who wrote it is dead, but that doesn’t put it in the public domain!

    1. Yeah fair comment, the video was really just a bit of fun between us during the build, fits so well though!, hope Freddie and co would have approved, will tip my hat and remove if required.

    2. A Fair comment indeed, video was made for ourselves and “don’t stop me now” was perfect for the mood at the time, never really thought about copyright, just enjoyed the music, hoping Freddie and co would approve, but can be removed if not.

  7. One of my local pubs (The Highbury Vaults in Bristol), has a train track running down one side of the pub, through holes drilled in the walls, where it travels up and down throughout the evening.

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