Railway engineers & builders of the actual railway lines strive for level routes wherever possible. They assess factors, including the locomotives that will be using the routes and the maximum weight they could carry. Whenever feasible, the engineers aim for the most straightforward routes to keep construction expenses within the allocated budget. In cases where obstacles such as hills present challenges, they either tunnel through them or create cuttings in the hillsides. However, this approach isn't always viable. Consequently, numerous routes feature inclines designed at a manageable gradient for trains.
Studying railway routes & their profiles reveal various inclines and banks, ranging from subtle to steep and lengthy. The photo above highlights the Lickey Incline, located south of Birmingham. It proudly holds the title of the steepest sustained mainline railway incline in the United Kingdom. With a gradient of 1 in 37.7 (2.65% or 26.5‰ or 1.52°), it runs for a continuous distance of approximately two miles (3.2 km). Constructed by the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway in 1840, this remarkable feat of engineering still requires an additional locomotive at the rear of the heaviest trains, which is called banking. The rear loco helps assist the lead loco on the heaviest trains to climb the incline.
If you look carefully at the photo above, you can just make out the rear banking locomotive at the end of the train. The Licky Incline is well worth a visit where you might just catch a glimpse of banking duties. The second photo below shows the rear of the same train with the rear banking loco working hard to assist the freight train up the Lickey Incline.
Inclines on model railway layouts
Inclines on a model railway layout make great scenic features. Depending on what period you are modelling, they enable one to perform banking duties which adds to the interest & operations of a model railway. Inclines enable one to raise a track high enough to pass over another track, or run down & under another track. For layouts that have multiple levels, for example, a layout that has a lower-level fiddle yard under the main baseboard, an incline seamlessly allows trains to travel between the two levels.
Inclines on a model railway layout are fantastic scenic features. They not only add visual appeal but also provide opportunities for engaging & interesting railway operations. Banking duties, add an extra layer of interest to your model railway operations. Moreover, inclines allow a track to pass over another or descend and go under another track. This is particularly useful for layouts with multiple levels, like those featuring a lower-level fiddle yard beneath the main baseboard. With the integration of an incline, trains can travel seamlessly between two baseboard levels, enhancing the overall functionality of a layout.
Some things to consider when building inclines on a model railway
- What sort of trains do you intend to run on the incline?
- How much space do you have available for the incline?
- How steep do you require the incline to be?
- Will the incline have tight or gentle radius curved trackwork?
- Will the incline be required to be on a removable/lift-up section of the baseboard?
- Ease of access for track cleaning or sorting derailments
- Will it be hand-built or will it use off-the-shelf items?
What sort of trains do you intend to run on the incline?
When planning an incline, the steepness of it will dictate what type of train can operate on it. A short train, such as a branch line train consisting of a locomotive with two or three coaches, or a locomotive with a few wagons, should be able to tackle a steeper incline. This, of course, depends on the weight of the rolling stock and the hauling capability of the locomotives being used.
A longer passenger train or a heavy freight train will require a gentler gradient. These types of trains will struggle to climb a steep graded incline. It is important to consider the haulage capability of each locomotive being used, as not all model locomotives are equal in what they can haul. A suggestion is to create a temporary test track on a board that can be propped up to different heights. This will allow you to test diverse types of trains on various gradients. By gathering data from these tests, you can determine a suitable incline gradient for your layout.
How much space do you have available for the incline?
Space available for your incline is another key factor to consider. The more space you have available, the longer and gentler the incline gradient can be. This, in turn, allows for longer and heavier trains to run up the incline. If space is limited, it will restrict you to a shorter, steeper gradient, which in turn, will limit you to running short trains.
How steep do you require the incline to be?
Like the real thing, gradients vary over the railway network. The type of railway and location you are modelling is another factor to consider in selecting how steep your gradient should be. A narrow-gauge railway serving a quarry or mountain region, for example, will or may have steeper gradients. Modelling a mainline will have a much gentler and less steep incline. Look at the real railways to help you decide on your choice of gradient.
Will the incline have tight or gentle radius curved track work?
A straight incline is preferred if one has the choice. However, due to space constraints or how the layout has been planned, it is inevitable that a curved track may or will be required on an incline. The curved track will naturally increase resistance to the train as it climbs the incline. A curve with a tighter radius will increase resistance to the train as it runs around the curve. This, in turn, could cause the train to stall or stop. A gentler radius curve will have less resistance to the train and lessen the chances of a train stalling or stopping on the incline.
Will the incline be required to be on a removable / lift-up section of the baseboard?
Another factor to consider is where the incline is to be located on your layout. It may be that the incline will have to cross an access point to the layout, such as a doorway or another section of the layout, for example. If this is the case, extra work will be required in building part of the incline where it crosses such locations.
Several methods can be used for such situations, including a removable lift-out section, a lifting flap section, or a swing flap section baseboard. If you are confident in baseboard building, this shouldn't be too much of a problem. If you're new to building a model railway and don't feel confident, enlist the help of a joiner or baseboard building specialist. Otherwise, plan your layout track plan to avoid this situation.
Ease of access for track cleaning or sorting derailments
If installing an incline in hidden parts or areas of a layout, such as under a scenic section or in a tunnel, for example. It's important to consider easy access to the track. During the layout build, this can be made & it'll save frustration later on. In case of a train derailment or when the track needs cleaning due to dirt accumulation, think about how can you access the track. Two options include incorporating access holes or lift-off sections that allow convenient access to the track on the incline.
Will it be hand-built, or will it use off-the-shelf items?
Building an incline for the first time can be a little daunting for the new modeler. The easiest way for them is to use off-the-shelf ready-to-use inclines. Some examples of these include:
- Simple clip-fit incline support piers. These fit onto the underside of the track, making it quick and easy to install (ideal for temporary layouts).
- Styrofoam/Pre-cut wood/plywood/MDF incline sections. These are glued/screwed to the baseboard, and the track bed and track are affixed on top of the incline sections. They take the difficult guesswork out of working out the angle of the incline.
Hand-building an incline enables one to custom-make an incline to suit as required. Handbuilt inclines are usually made out of wood, plywood, or MDF materials. This option is more suited to those who are confident and comfortable with woodworking. Unlike off-the-shelf versions with set angles, working out the gradients will be required for hand-building an incline.
What are the recommended gradients I should be looking at using?
The steepest gradient one should consider is 1 in 30. A good all-round gradient is between 1 in 40 to 1 in 60. If looking to run long trains, then the minimum gradient to be considered is around 1 in 80.
I'm limited on space & can't fit in a long incline. How can I fit in an incline?
A space-saving method is to use a double gradient. This method involves building your railway so that the track is raised off the baseboard by a round 40mm (1 ½"). The track we want to pass under another track. The other track is also positioned at one and a half inches (40mm) above the baseboard as well. One track will run down an incline to the baseboard surface top, whilst the other track rises up to clear the other track at a height of three inches (80mm). This method shortens the length of the run needed for the incline.
To illustrate this, the two simple diagrams below show the difference between a single gradient and a double gradient. In both examples, one track climbs and crosses over the other track via a bridge. The single gradient requires a longer length of incline & more space. The double gradient only requires half the length of what would be needed for the single gradient, thus being a great space saving option to consider.
Single gradient climbing to a height of 80mm (3") to pass over another track.
Double gradient climbing to a height of 80mm (3") to pass over another track.
Finally, a few do's & don'ts for modelling inclines
- Check what space you have available.
- Aim to use the longest incline you have space for.
- Aim for the gentlest angle for the gradient.
- Ensure easy access to the track if located in tunnels or under a scenic section.
- Think about what type & length of trains you will be running.
- Test run trains beforehand on a temporary test incline set at the angle you wish to use.
- Aim for the gentlest/largest radius curve possible if the incline has curved track sections.
- Rush! Take your time.
- Expect all locomotives to handle and cope with inclines (Not all locomotives are equal in performance).
- Make access to the incline difficult in tunnel sections or under scenic sections (This will only lead to frustration).
- Cut corners when laying track on inclines (Poorly laid track will cause problems and derailments).
- Make curved track sections tight radius (Tight radius curves cause drag and can lead to locomotives stopping or struggling).
Looking for further information on model railway inclines? We'll take a more in-depth and detailed look at how to build inclines in an upcoming follow-on guide soon.