In early June I discovered the largest Japanese railway layout in the UK. It's one of the exhibits at Wroxham Miniature Worlds, which seems to be one of the best kept secrets of the modelling community.

If you've never heard of WMW, it is a large indoor model railway attraction in Wroxham, Norfolk. It claims to be the largest indoor modelling attraction in the UK, stretching over 10,000 square feet. The attraction is made up of many zones including model railways in various scales, slot car displays, a whole city made from Lego bricks, model boat displays, vintage penny arcade, interactive flight simulators, train simulators, and a host of toys from across the decades. As a destination it is aimed at families visiting the area, rather than the serious railway modeller, so doesn't seem to have been mentioned much in the modelling world. There is, however, something for everyone there.

The Japanese railway layout is not only the largest Japanese layout in the UK, it is believed to be the largest N gauge layout on permanent public display. It was created by a team of skilled modellers about nine years ago, measures about 10m long and features 11 separate tracks. The layout features a fully detailed city with skyscrapers, a model coastline, and a Shinto temple. It's not based on any specific city in Japan. However, it does draw inspiration from a variety of different Japanese cities, including Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. The layout features a mix of traditional and modern Japanese architecture, as well as a variety of landmarks that are common to Japanese cities. The layout is also set in a fictional Japanese countryside, which features rolling hills, rice fields, and a traditional Japanese village. This combination of urban and rural scenes gives the layout a unique and authentic feel. In terms of trains there are Shinkansen, commuter lines and rural railways.This includes elevated tracks, bridges, and tunnels. There is also a tram system installed in the city, but it sadly wasn't working on my visit.

I may have some bias here, but I was delighted to find out that 99 percent of the equipment used for building the layout was KATO. This includes 1500 pieces of track, 300 cars, 100 buildings, and about 250 pieces of rolling stock. This just shows how KATO really do provide a 'complete system' for railway modelling. Although stock of some items can be tricky to get hold of in the UK, the KATO catalogue has all the tracks, trains, structures, buildings and scenic items you need to create a whole layout.

Watching the trains run on their respective tracks, there is an impression of something going on all the time. To achieve this, the designers have incorporated an extraordinary amount of automation. Over 100 sensors and logic boards from the Heathcote/IRDOT family operate the trains, including cycling the trains through hidden 'rest' sidings. All this is done on conventional DC/Analogue power with normal KATO power isolating points. It's inspired me to learn more about this subject.

You'll see from the pictures that there's plenty to 'spot' on this layout - it's not just about the trains. The landscaping is fairly simple, but doesn't feel unnatural or forced. Plenty of trees and ground cover help everything to bed into it's surroundings. The blue water of the coastal part of the layout is really inviting.   Within the city area there are plenty of cars and pedestrians dotted around in life-like ways. It's busy, without being too crowded. In a few places the same buildings have been used, but given different stickers or positioned from a different viewpoint to increase the variety. Detail parts such as catenary, streetlights, fences and roadsigns also help to bring the display alive. Good use has been made of the KATO dio-town range, some of which is sadly no longer available new.

I was able to have a chat with WMW's operations manager about maintaining such a large and complex system. As expected, Kato track and rolling stock is no trouble at all, with the main task being to keep things clean. He counts on KATO trains running for more than a year (remember this is a seven day a week attraction) before being retired to become spares donors. The commonality of many components makes keeping things running much easier. Comparisons were drawn with rolling stock from other manufacturers on the other layouts which aren't such a pleasure to deal with!

I asked a few questions about the building of the layout, but WMW were a bit shy of stating the costs involved. It's obvious however that putting something together like this would take hundreds of hours, although I suspect that as much time went into planning and sourcing everything as much as the actual building process!

One of the reasons given for building a Japanese layout was to have 'something different'. This is something I hear from other modellers in the UK who have decided to model Japanese railways. I think it really succeeds at Wroxham - I felt it was the best of the layouts on display by some margin. This is partly because of the level of detail and number of trains running, but also the way it fitted together cohesively.

I found my visit an inspiration in various ways - it was so good to see a full KATO layout in the flesh and at scale. I've seen some videos of railways in Japan but it's not as good as a real life visit. It's unlikely that may of us will ever be able to have this much space to play with, but I'm really glad that the WMW founders decided to go for it. Thanks to the friendly folk there for taking the time to chat with me.

Have you seen the layout in the flesh? What did you think? Do you know of a larger layout in the UK? Do get in touch.


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