Now It Can Be Told

"Now It Can Be Told”

The story of the electronics and the crew behind the “Train House”.

by Kermit Paul, MMR, and Craig Woodhead, owner of Hobbyrama.


Marsden "Mick" Williams, 1916-2013. The “Master” Model Train Collector.

Mick's passion for trains began at an early age.  Thirroul, where he grew up, is a northern suburb of Wollongong, just south of Sydney, Australia.  Nearby is the large railway yard which impressed a young Mick.  It is on the mainline, at the start of the climb up out of the coastal Illawarra region of New South Wales, which has been a major coal mining area since the early days of Australian settlement.  So, from childhood, he experienced a passing parade of steam trains, many hauling full loads of steaming coal from the local underground mines, up the line to Sydney Power Stations, and full coking coal loads coming down this dual carriageway mainline from other mines, West and North of Sydney, bound for the local Port Kembla Steel Works, and for export. 

Mick became a lifelong collector of model trains in all scales, manufacturers, and prototypes, with a preference for European.  He also enjoyed the business success to finance his dreams, as a Steel Works and Port is nearby, and many business opportunities opened for him after World War 2.

Sometime in the late 1970's, he decided to build a Train House on his secluded bushland estate above Wollongong, to house a layout to display and run his large O gauge collection.  It would be a layout like no other, intended for his eyes only, as he was an intensely private man, so all of us who worked on it were sworn to secrecy, and have honored his wish, but “Now It Can Be Told”.


The Train Collection

The train collection included N, HO, O and Gauge 1 in 1/32 scale with custom brass models from Tenshodo, Samhongsa, and other noted Brass model Manufacturers.  Most were of American, European, Japanese, and some Australian prototypes.  Some of the 1/32 scale models were live steam Aster locomotives that were specially converted to electric operation.

Many custom European locomotive purchases were made in collaboration with Count Giansanti Coluzzi of Fulgarex who often shared production runs with Mick, or the models would not have been produced.  A Linn Westcott article on the Count, appeared in the November 1976 issue of Model Railroader.


The Train Building

The Architect designed train building was a two level, brick and slate roof design, of 3,500 square feet with the train layout on the upper level.  The upper level also included a large entertainment area with a catering kitchen for special occasions. The lower level had guest rooms, a workshop, and storage space for equipment not on the layout above, and the wine collection. 

John Millington worked for Mick Williams and was his Building Project Manager.  He has provided information and photos on early building activities prior to the involvement of the two authors.  John also supervised a varying crew of up to five tradesmen working on bench-work construction, track laying, and scenery production.


Layout Design

Concurrent with the building construction, the late Brooks Bowman from Southern California was hired to design and supervise the construction of the layout itself.  It was during this project phase that Brooks Bowman contracted with Kermit to design and furnish the train control system described below.

 Following Mick's direction, the layout was designed for train running rather than for "operations".  Under the late John Armstrong's definition, the layout was designed for "spectator" rather than for individual car movements.  Although not a John Armstrong design, John did visit the layout during a trip to Australia and remarked, "Even for me, this is a bit over the top".         

 Large hidden yards were included beneath the upper level of the layout and although we did not use the term at that time, these yards would now be called staging yards.  The yards were used to store complete trains rather than for typical prototype yard operations.  Multi track reverse in yards were later added on this lower level, as the collection grew.


Initial Construction

The layout framework was made from Tasmanian Redwood.  The track deck was thick 20mm formwork plywood with 12mm “Caneite” an Australian version of “Homosote”, for roadbed.  The layout room used laminated Redwood ceiling trusses, eliminating the need for any columns within the room itself.   Many areas were not accessible from aisles or "pop-ups", so it was necessary to put on soft sole shoes or slippers and walk on pads laid across the track and yards.  The track and bench-work were designed for this load. The lighting was provided by adjustable overhead spotlights.



            Most of the track was prefabricated in Japan using Japanese Cherry wood ties.  Rail was nickel silver code 125.  The more complicated trackwork added later, was designed and hand built by Craig Woodhead.  Complex curved Crossings and inside and outside curved double slips and three-way turnouts emerged and had to be engineered in-situ.  Craig thus adjusted the mainline blocks to roughly even lengths to allow smoother operation in the automatic train running mode described below.


           Motor operated switch machines were from Fulgarex (PFM in US.)



            Two 48 track, computer controlled tables, with pits machined from Aluminum. (Aluminium, down under!).


Control System

            Since Mick, the owner, wanted to see many trains running at the same time and did not want a large operating crew, the decision was made to install a Progressive Cab Control system.  DCC was not available at the time so was not considered as an option.   Even when DCC became available, it did not seem important to convert to DCC given the sheer number of decoders needed and since the existing control system was providing satisfactory performance.


        Progressive Cab Control had been described by the late Linn Westcott in the 1950's as a control concept where power from the train "cabs" is automatically routed ahead, to the blocks to be occupied by each cab’s assigned train.  The locomotives would be conventional DC ("analog"), without receivers/decoders.  In the early 1970's, Kermit had designed a Progressive Cab Control system using modular components that could be connected to serve any number of cabs and blocks. 


        Craig Woodhead's eda Electronics had been authorized to produce the Auto-Cab system kits which were sold in the US by Walthers.  Since personal computers were not widely available at the time, the logic required for the system was based on relay contacts and diodes instead of a central logic processor.   Programming of the system to match the track arrangement was done using jumper wires on the circuit board edge connectors.  Later Progressive Cab Control systems such as those designed by Bruce Chubb use a personal computer to perform the logic function for a system, he described in a series of Model Railroader articles.


         The Auto-Cab system was assembled and programmed in the US and shipped to Australia for connection into the layout.  See photo of one of the two system racks.  The system was equipped for twenty cabs and 120 blocks with manual or automatic engineer modes of operation.


            Both the European and American sections had their own ten cab control panels located on an elevated platform in the center of the layout.  This allowed each train to be operated manually or under automatic control in any combination.  These panels included controls to operate most of the track switches including those in the two visible upper-level yards as well as the many hidden lower-level yards.  Separate local yard controls were provided on the layout edge for the ‘O’ Gauge branch line, and the Dual-Gauge On3 terminal yards.  The On3 branch-line was a more typical two cab, twelve block layout arrangement, with a smaller, separate Auto-Cab relay rack.  These branch-lines were fully integrated with the main layout.


            With this arrangement, one or two operators could manually select the track routing.  They could then either run some, or all, of the trains manually, or select Auto-Engineer for the other trains.  All cabs had three-color cab signals that represented the trackside signal ahead of the cab’s train.  In Auto-Engineer mode, the cab's output voltage would ramp down on a Yellow or Red cab signal.  The ramp down or brake rate was adjustable to produce realistic train slowdowns instead of a quick stop.  These train brakes were released when the Green cab signal appeared.  The cab signals were essential, since no trackside signals were installed on the layout, and many of the trackside signal locations would not have been visible from the central control panels.


            The cab throttles were custom ten-amp transistor types with inertia capacitors that allowed the brake application to produce this smooth response.  Detection of trains in blocks was done using the Operational Amplifier "Op Detector" designed by the first author. 


            The control system worked very well, especially considering that the only digital computers eventually installed, controlled the two turntables.  It was very impressive to see up to twenty long trains running and smoothly starting and stopping with only one or two operators at the controls.  Mick spent many hours just watching the trains go by, as he had done many years earlier, at Thirroul.


           In later years, the Auto-Cab system relay racks were replaced with a touch screen digital computer system, but retained the original switch control panels, and the 10 Amp inertia throttles.



         Although the scenery was well done, it was not super detailed, or the layouts main attraction.  Given the high track density, there was not a lot of area remaining for scenic effects.  The tall stone viaduct was a spectacular scene.  We don't recall a single figure or automobile on the layout.  This was partly due to the combined operation of European and American trains over the same tracks.  It would have been difficult to construct detailed scenes appropriate to both types of trains.       


Disposition of Trains and Layout

         The Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich, QLD, is the beneficiary of the will of Marsden “Mick” Williams.  He gifted the collection to the people of Australia.  The layout itself is now being dismantled, as the property and buildings were recently sold by the family.  Large sections of the custom-built track work and the control panels have been preserved and the museum is now working on plans to best display the collection, and what is left of the layout.




About the Authors

            Kermit Paul is a mechanical and electrical engineer with over fifty years in the hydro-electric power field and in the model railroad hobby.  He is the inventor of the Operational Amplifier block occupancy detector (MR Aug. 1973) and the Auto-Cab progressive cab control system.  His HO Lone Pine & Tonopah railroad has been featured in Model Railroader Nov. 1993, Railroad Model Craftsman Oct. 1999 and Model Railroad Hobbyist March 2011.  Since 2004, he has been the Project Engineer on the 1/32 scale Lackawanna Railroad under construction for a client in New York. 



          Craig Woodhead is a self-employed entrepreneur from Brisbane, Australia, who says, while he had not enjoyed in his business life, anything near the financial success of his benefactor/patron Mick Williams, he has maintained a similar life-long interest in all kinds of model building hobbies, which started when he watched, as a young boy, the taillights of a train disappear into a tunnel on his Grandfather’s model train layout, and he was hooked.  Later, he designed, built, and flew, Control line and R/C model planes.

           After finishing High School, having spent a little too much time studying hobby books, and designing model train layouts, he gained employment with the State Government Main Roads department, but soon started his entrepreneurial activities in music amplifier manufacturing and sound equipment hire, pioneering the Disco party scene in his hometown of Brisbane through the 1970’s    

            During this time, he was also developing, as his hobby interest, the eda model train inertia controllers, and after contacting Kermit Paul in 1972, about model train detection, started to also manufacture Auto-Cab modules.

            Around 1978, he found some financial success, as the Disco boom he had seen coming, finally arrived, so he divested his interests in the eda model train controller manufacturing, and the sound hire equipment business, to work full time as a Disco DJ.  This is living, success at last.

            Disco, however, did not last forever as planned, and by early 1982, he was looking around for a new challenge, ie, unemployed, when Kermit contacted him with news a very large Auto-Cab system had been ordered from Australia, of all places, and would he be interested in coming to Wollongong and help one Brooks Bowman to install it.  So, remembering the lyrics of a John Lennon song of that time, “life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans”, he decided to move with his wife to Wollongong, for just a few months, to help set up the “Auto-Cab” system, Kermit had built and sent from the USA.

             Little did he expect, he would thereafter be invited to work and live at the Train House, first installing “Auto Cab”, and then rebuilding the trackwork and control Panels, of this “Ultimate” model train layout. This took nearly 9 years.

             Craig, regretfully, left Mick’s employ in early 1990 to come home to Queensland as his mother and his wife’s father, were in need, and by then he had started a young family he wanted the surviving grandparents to know.

             He still regards those years as the best of his life and told Mick so, often, when they spoke, during annual Christmas phone contact. 

             Craig no longer has any desire to build his own model train layout.

             He currently owns and operates Hobbyrama, an award winning, large hobby shop, in Brisbane, Australia.     (    



December 14, 2014