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Dover Night Ferry - N Gauge

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Long before the first digger scooped out a chunk of earth to carve out the Channel Tunnel, and Eurostar welcomed its very first customers on board, there was another train that ferried passengers from Dover to Dunkirk... on a boat!

The Dover Night Ferry took to the tracks on 14th October 1936 and carried passengers from London Victoria to Paris Gare du Nord.

In more recent times, the ferry captured the imagination of model railway builder, Harry Denford, who created this extraordinary and unique layout focusing on the precise location, buildings and vessels.

Dover Night Ferry model railway

The Real Dover Night Ferry

The Dover Night Ferry was an international boat train, launched on 14th October 1936, to carry passengers from London Victoria to Paris Gare du Nord. It ran until 1939 when World War II ceased operations. It resumed in 1947, but eventually took its very last passengers in 1980.

A vintage poster showing the New Train Ferry Boats

The train was operated by Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits (CIWL) until 1 January 1977. It was then taken over by British Rail. Southern Railway provided the locomotive to begin with, but this eventually passed to British Railways in England, SNCF In France and from 1957, by SNCB in Belgium

The locomotive never went on the boat - it was too heavy and would have sunk it (not to mention overwhelmed the lower decks with smoke!). Instead, the loco-less train was split into two sections of carriages and loaded onto the boat with the help of a brake car. The carriages were loaded equally on tracks on both sides of the boat - port and starboard - essential to maintain balance. Once in Dunkirk the train was attached to another locomotive which would then resume the journey.

The Dover night ferry train being loaded onto the boat

The loco problem was solved in 1961, when the South Eastern Main Line between Sevenoaks and Dover Marine was electrified. At that point, the train was usually hauled in England by Class 71 electric locomotives. In its final years, the night ferry was hauled by Class 33 diesels or Class 73 electro-diesels.

Building the layout

Harry chose to set the layout in 1966.

"It was mainly for practical purposes because I was able to easily get off-the-shelf locos and die-cast vehicles," Harry explains.

Allthough originally called Dover Marine 1966, everyone on the exhibition circuit referred to the layout as the Dover Night Ferry and the name stuck.

There were three boats used for the night ferry - SS Twickenham, SS Shepperton and SS Hampton (three places I've actually lived!). Harry chose the latter for his model. (Harry comes from Sarffff London and he thought it sounded posh!)

Attention to detail was imperative, as the layout was based on an iconic location with detailed mapping of the infrastructure, buildings and track. However, Harry worked out if he were to represent all the actual correct locations and features of the large dockside, he would be looking at a layout of 22ft x 5ft! He opted instead for a more sensible 9ft x 2ft space.

The challenge was to include all the recognisable elements, which he achieved by using some artistic license. (Something no railway modeller ever does!)

This means the layout includes not just the ferry, but the hotel (which still stands by the way and can be seen for miles), the crossover track when entering Dover Marine, the station arches and the previously mentioned brake car.

In real life, passengers would alight at Dover and walk onto the ferry. SS Hampton also took cars, admittedly only a few, which were craned onto the outer upper deck. So of course, the crane had to be included as part of the layout.

Dover Night Ferry model railway

Being solely built for exhibitions, the layout needed to be lightweight enough to transport, so Harry used two Tim Horn laser cut boards for the baseboard. The layout was designed for a three-track operation, with Southern EMUs leaving the terminus and joining a two-track system to go through a tunnel under the white cliffs. (Yes, more poetic licence here, Harry admits.) A further standalone double dockside track was used to bring in the boat train.

Together, the boat train, 08 shunter on track two, and three platforms with three EMUs, gives plenty of movement and interest on the layout.

Like all his exhibition layouts, Harry designed Dover Night Ferry for a single operator. To allow for rest breaks without halting operations, Harry used two DC shuttle controllers with settings at about 2 mins for movement on and off the ferry for the boat train, and 1 minute for the 08 shunter.

A Gaugemaster controller was used to operate the EMUs' movements in and out of the terminus. Being a traditionalist (and making it more fun), Harry used standard lever-operated point controllers from Hornby - 5 levers in all.

The track work also required some ingenuity. The actual track between the ferry and the loading pier were not connected. There was also a crossover which had to be featured as it was so famous (or infamous).

To reproduce this on the layout would mean putting a couple of snips in a perfectly straight track for no other reason than accuracy. But it also meant more fiddly wiring. For Harry, heart ruled head, and he got the track cutters out and the gap was made. Instead of soldering, however, Harry just used standard Peco rail power connectors and some under board wiring.

Harry wanted to make the ferry fully removable for full access to the track, but this presented another dilemma. He had plans to make the inside of the ferry fully lit to show the train deck lit from above. How to do both? He solved the problem by building the inner side walls of the ship as a baseboard permanent fixture, with LED strip lighting running along the top. The shell of the ship then just slotted over.

SS Hampton had a completely straight bow, which meant making her out of balsa eliminated the need for curves. The funnel and many of the ship's accessories such as the life boats, were taken from a Revelle 1.48 tug boat kit. The dimensions worked well, making the funnel big enough for a ship at 1:148 scale.

To create the entrance to Dover Marine with its famous arches, Harry used two OO gauge tunnel mouths. An N gauge track gave the required effect of a large station entrance.

Originally, Harry never intended to include the brake car as it was something so unique that it wasn't commercially available. However, at a monthly drinks night for modellers that Harry held at his theatre in London (he was artistic director at the time), Colin Snowden from The OO Gauge Association, persuaded him otherwise.

Harry set about trying to find photos of the brake car and eventually recreated it using a low load wagon and an old standard brake car shell. As the photos he used for reference were all black and white, he took a chance on painting it grey and hoped no one would notice if it wasn't the colour of the actual car itself.

Another iconic feature of the port of Dover is The Lord Warden Hotel. This absolutely had to be included in the layout. For this, Harry kit-bashed a Faller building to create the layout and style of the building as closely as possible.

He also included the A2, with cars and lorries from that era, as well as the famous white cliffs (made out of polystyrene to keep the weight down).

Being such a unique layout of an incredibly iconic train, Dover Night Ferry proved exceptionally popular on the exhibition circuit, attending over 10 shows over the course of a year.

Harry recently donated the layout to members of the Headcorn model railway group. He's heard that members have made a few changes to the layout since, including making an exact replica of the Lord Warden Hotel - and he hopes to see it out at exhibitions again soon.

Do you have a model railway layout you'd like to be featured on the Model Railway Quest website? Send me your best photos along with a short description and I'll add your layout to my gallery page. I'll be choosing some of the best for a featured blog post. All you have to do is send your layout details to and write Gallery in the subject line.

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1 Comment

Nick Bastable
Nick Bastable
Jan 19

Lord Warden Hotel Colonel Stephens Billet of choice

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