Archive for March, 2009

Waiting for Plywood

March 28, 2009

It helps to have a sense of humor if you’re trying to build a model railroad of some size and complexity.  Recommendation:  take photos once in awhile.  Here’s a picture taken in July, 2005.  I posed some equipment facing westbound at the temporary end-of-track.  This is where an interlocking begins on the four track mainline.  While I would like to make faster progress, I have the satisfaction of descending into my basement today to see that the plywood showed up, the track got laid with all the hand-built crossovers, and switches are now controlling the points.  And I did it all!  With a little scenary and a tower my wife is building, this will soon look like an interlocking of the Pennsylvania Railroad I admired in my youth.

Get to Work!

Get to Work!


Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

March 9, 2009

One of the more interesting items in my train collection is also one of the least expensive.  It came from Strombecker, a model kit manufacturer that was originally located in Moline, Illinois.  I have a back channel connection to Vernon Strombeck, but we will leave discussion about that until another day.

When you collect, you know other people who collect what you collect.  As a  rule, it is very collegial, in part because what I collect tends to be obscure.  So, Ken Lundquist, a friend in the train business for many years, presented me with the item below.


Alas, it was an empty box, but it very nicely captures the spirit of a Strombecker kit.  And it was a kit, with everything made of either wood or thick paper; the Strombecker kits of that era were crude by today’s standards.  The cover art shows a Rock Island locomotive and streamlined train alongside railroad semaphores, signals which date back to the days of the steam locomotive.

There were six  TA locomotive’s, built specifically to pull the Rocket streamliners of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad.  These streamlined trains were built by E. G. Budd, the same people that built the Pioneer Zephyr and many other passenger cars.  It has been said that the Rock Island was the third railroad in most two-railroad cities, but they were always interesting and colorful.  And the Rockets of 1937 were quite interesting, small high speed trains with all amenities on board.  Strombecker’s choice of the Rocket was a natural, since the Rock Island had a major locomotive shop in Silvis, Illinois, right next door to Moline.  No doubt, the kit planner knew someone at Silvis, who conveyed the plans from the railroad to Strombecker.  In any case, the box sat empty for many years with a few other Strombecker items that I have.

One of the most interesting developments in the train collecting business is eBay; it’s like a giant yard sale, and if things are going to turn up, they’re going to turn up on eBay.  By happenstance, I decided to do a key word search for Strombecker one day and an assembled Rock Island Rocket train turned up, being auctioned by an individual in Indiana.  I gritted my teeth and put in an enormous bid, maybe upwards of $80.00.  I clearly was hot for it.

An interesting aspect about collecting the odd and obscure is that stuff finds its way to you, much as the Strombecker box did.   Another thing about collecting the odd and interesting things is that not everybody knows what an item is, or cares.  While I was emotionally prepared to pay a large amount for the Rocket, everybody else lost their enthusiasm at around $20.00, and so the train was mine for what I consider to be a “song”.

The train is gorgeous, and whoever built it did a very credible job, especially in light of the fact that the locomotive is made of carved wood and the cars are carved wood with laminated lithographed paper sides.  Up close and personal, the train is somewhat crude, but even then it still does justice to the efforts of Strombecker.

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

From the locomotive on the left, the typical Rocket had a small baggage compartment, kitchen, pantry and dinette section in the first car, coach seating in the second car and a tavern/lounge in the third car (the one with the rounded observation end).  These Rockets operated at premium fares in high speed service.

There were six consists of cars;  a car set for the Des Moines Rocket (Chicago – Des Moines), a car set for the Peoria Rocket (Chicago – Peoria), two car sets for Minneapolis – Kansas City service and a set for the Texas Rocket, which ran between Dallas and Houston.

The sixth set is the train which the model represents, for a train which operated between Kansas City and Denver, starting in 1937.  The cars are named Bear Lake (baggage dinette), Mt. Evans (chair car) and Pikes Peak (observation).  The Kansas City – Denver service did not last very long, and the train was put into service between Kansas City and Oklahoma City (later extended to Dallas) in late 1938.  The cars were renamed with that route change.

Strombecker Rock Island TA Diesel Locomotive

Strombecker Rock Island TA Diesel Locomotive

In this photo, you can see that the wheels are made of wood, so the train is unpowered.  There were enterprising modelers out there who made this train actually run.  You can see the colorful livery of the Rock Island from a happier time, when the sight of this train passing through small town America was given due awe.

The TA’s were interesting locomotives, powered by the same Winton 201 diesel that powered the Pioneer Zephyr and were used in dedicated Rocket service.  They were built by Electro-motive Diesel, a General Motors subsidiary company; it was the first time that EMD built their own locomotive carbodies.  After the Rockets simply became another passenger train, the TA’s worked in all sorts of passenger service, ending up in the Chicago commuter pool and local service at the end.

The colorful livery of the Strombeck model reflects the earlier, happier days; many have called this the roadster paint scheme.  Viewed from a certain angle, it looks like the front of the locomotive is an automobile.  This is not a surprise, since EMD was General Motors company and, presumably, many of the graphics artists used to design the locomotive paint schemes of that era had automotive design experience.

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

Also, looking from the side of the locomotive, you can see the distinctive back taper of the locomotive carbody to match up with the lower height passenger cars.

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

Strombecker Rock Island Rocket

In all, a remarkable model of a remarkable train, perhaps even more so since it is made of such crude materials.

Sleeping Car

March 8, 2009

When I rode Trains 645 and 638 with my Uncle he always found an empty roomette for me in the ten roomette six bedroom sleeping car out of New York and Roanoke respectively.  Unfortunately for the future of  travel on this route, the sleepers were seldom full.

In retrospect, I wish I had recorded names and car numbers on each trip.  But I do remember with vivid certainty that one of the sleepers I rode was named Randolph Macon College.  The post war sleeping cars built for the N & W by the Budd Company were named for colleges and universities in the railroad’s territory.  These cars didn’t feature the shot-welded louvers of the streamlined cars Budd built for many railroads in the post war period.  They were known as slab-sided cars, at least among rail fans if not the car builders.  They were quiet to ride and I loved that special aroma of clean upholstery and fresh air circulating through the ventilation system.  N & W also had some 10-6 Pullman-built sleeping cars that probably graced these trains and I assume many runs featured a 10-6 sleeper from the Pennsy.  This appears to be the builder’s photo of this car.  However, as I give this photo a closer look I see what looks like one of N & W’s Pullman-built coaches to the right and behind the sleeper.  Perhaps this photo was made at Roanoke given the curved track in the foreground that suggests the station’s track layout.  I welcome your opinion.


The Grade Crossing

March 7, 2009
Santa Fe Crossing - Galesburg, Illinois

Santa Fe Crossing - Galesburg, Illinois

The railroad grade crossing accident case is one of the evergreens of American jurisprudence. The crossing at grade is not only an intersection between railroad and highway, but in earlier days, it was an intersection between conventional technology and new technology. Today, it is an intersection between the inexorable forces of hundreds of tons of locomotives & cars moving at speed with rubber tired vehicles under the direction of the imprudent or impulsive. And, it is an opportunity for the plaintiff’s bar to redistribute the railroads’ capital. Every grade crossing closure is cause for gala celebration in the railroad’s legal department.

Given the inevitable outcome of something very heavy hitting something relatively light, the legal pleadings take on a timeless, almost Kabuki-like portrayal of events. For the plaintiff’s bar: The cruel and insensitive railroad was operating a train which was under the direction of someone completely unfit for duty due to a combination of no sleep, alcohol consumption (now drugs today), who failed to sound proper warnings from his train which was operating at excessive speed. For the defense: The automobile or truck was under the direction of someone completely unfit to be driving due to a combination of no sleep, alcohol consumption (now drugs today), or impulsiveness, who failed to obey the proper warnings of an approaching train that was operating at proper speed and which was being operated by a prudent individual who attended church regularly. And, these being modern times, you can also throw in a cellphone for good measure.

In spite of the customary impulsive behavior of the hittee in these cases, jury heartstrings usually were plucked with great skill, and dollars were awarded to the plaintiffs on the assumption that the heartless railroad could well afford such an award. To this extent, not much has changed over the intervening centuries since that first collision between train and carriage.

Interestingly, the first casualty of the new railroad technology was one of its investors, a William Huskisson, who was a leading economist in the England of the early 1800’s. He managed to do it in a spectacular fashion. Being one of the investors in the fledgling Liverpool & Manchester Railway, he was present at the railroad’s opening day, September 15, 1830. After riding the locomotive Northumbrian, he dismounted and turned to cross an adjacent track to speak with the Duke of Wellington. In spite of shouts of warning from the crowd, he did not see the locomotive Rocket, which was approaching, probably at the blazing speed of 20 mph. He was struck and severely injured, dying later that day. This would not be the last time that railroad personnel would die that way.

At that point, railroad technology was five years old.

American Flyer 9900 Zephyr

March 7, 2009
American Flyer 1935 Zephyr

American Flyer 1935 Zephyr

I guess that the place to begin with my train collection is this very nice example of an American Flyer Zephyr. This model was based on the real Zephyr, which is now on display at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago.

One common theme in the toy business is that when something new and exciting arrives on the popular scene, a toy and other models of that new thing soon show up in the market. It is hard to understate the excitement that America felt when the Pioneer Zephyr made its maiden run from Denver to Chicago in 1934. This new train was unlike anything that had run on rails before. Trains were steam powered, dark and smokey; the passenger cars were painted in muted shades of green. The Zephyr was unlike everything else, a classic example of the streamline style.

From today’s perspective, it is hard to imagine the excitement which this train created.  The United States was in the middle of the Great Depression.  People were out of work and there appeared to be few prospects for the future.  People took to the road to seek employment, illicitly riding on the truss rods of freight cars or on the “blind” of passenger train mail cars.  It was a desperate time.  And into that environment came this silver streak that captured the public’s imagination.

This new train used new technology.  Instead of dull green plates of steel, it used Shotwelded stainless steel using a manufacturing process that created passenger cars which are still largely corrosion free, 6 decades later.  Instead of a coal fired steam locomotive, this train used a Diesel.  The Pioneer Zephyr’s first trip was broadcast throughout the country by a new medium, radio.  In all, this train was a clear break from the past.  A toy was needed.

Many model train manufacturers stepped forward.

American Flyer Zephyr

American Flyer Zephyr

The American Flyer Zephyr of 1935 was made of cast aluminum, which nicely captures the stainless steel look of the real train.  Casting technology in that era was not as good as it is today, and these units were sand cast, with the resulting rough spots on the sides being polished out by hand, a very expensive process.  The curved segments of the train were not so easy to polish, and you can see some of the inherent roughness on the nose of the model.

This train was a one time affair; I believe that it is set No. AF 1327-RCT,  and it is an unique train.  Subsequent American Flyer offerings were made of lithographed sheet metal, a process which was considerably cheaper than the hand polished 1935 unit, but the 1935 Flyer unit has all the elements of the Pioneer Zephyr, from the baggage/mail car to the observation.

American Flyer Zephyr

American Flyer Zephyr

There were a few concessions to model railroad realities, but overall, the 1935 American Flyer Zephyr is an interesting model.

There aren’t very many of the American Flyer 1935 Zephyrs around today. Although cast of very durable aluminum, this choice of material would put it in very high demand during World War II, when aluminum was a scarce resource needed for airplane manufacture. As a result, many of the American Flyer 1935 Zephyrs were collected during patriotic community aluminum drives and made into tools of war. The streamlined Union Pacific M10000 met the same fate.

I consider myself to be fortunate to have this interesting model in my collection.

Shippensburg Street Running

March 7, 2009

Perhaps you have sharp eyes and when you read the post on Rules and Speeds saw that the limit in Shippensburg was 6 mph.  There was a good reason.  The single track skirted the campus of Shippensburg State Teachers College westbound and entered into the middle of Earl Street and through the town.  On one of my trips with my Uncle Paul during the summer I was amazed to look out of my darkened roomette to see a line of autos I could almost touch and, behind the parked cars, front porches filled with people talking, drinking, and watching us slowly roll by.  It was railroading surrealism.  A sleeping car that had travelled at 80 mph only two hours earlier was  here moving at parade speed.  We should have had a marching band leading our E8 down the street.

It was understandable that our westbound trip, carded through Shippensburg at 12:21 am, would find the local citizens in a festive mood on a summer night.  But, to my amazement, it seemed there was an almost equal number of revelers on our eastbound return through Shippensburg at 3:14 am.

I read somewhere that this part of the CVRR is no longer in service.  Perhaps someone knows when the rails were pulled up on Earl Street.  But, if you have a copy of Trains magazine for January, 2009, (page 81) ,you can see a photograph of a Penn Central train with auto racks on Earl Street as recently as August, 1973.

The original route of the CVRR ran on streets through other towns on the route.  When I find that elusive book in a carton in my basement or garage I’ll provide details from the historical record.  Ah, time for spring cleaning!

On Train Collecting

March 6, 2009

I collect trains. There, I’ve said it. It should be pointed out that there is a fine line between collecting and accumulating, between fascination and obsession. I figure that I could spend 20 years and thousands of dollars on psychotherapy, and in the end find out that I really hated my dog when I was 8. Or I could spend the money on the trains and get it over with. Besides, my insurance doesn’t cover psychotherapy. Nor does it cover trains, so I’m private pay all the way.

Like any good garden variety psychological problem, train collecting has a large number of subsets, variations on the theme of buying trains.  One major indicator of a shift in collecting habits is when you not only buy trains, but also start selling trains.  I’m way past that, too.  I’m to the point where I have worked for model train manufacturers or dealers for over three decades.  Why not attempt to make money with your issues?

Given what passes for normal behavior these days, train collecting is an innocent pastime.  And, given the wide variety of trains available, both modern and historical, train collecting takes a wide range of expression.  In short, there’s something out there for everybody.

The presence of train collectors is a silent asset for those who operate model trains.  The fact is that a large number of the new model trains sold today will never operate, much less escape from their boxes.  Worldwide, cartons of model trains sit silently in closets or on display shelves.  And without that silent majority, there would be fewer reasons for a manufacturer to go to the financial effort of making new models.  Say what you will, the model train manufacturers are in it for the money, which is as it should be.  The end result of the presence of collectors is that a lot of trains are manufactured that might not have otherwise, and the beneficiaries are the train operators.  Of course, I operate trains also, so much the better.

One of the realities of this situation is that the manufacturers are producing models of locomotives that might not have otherwise been produced.  In earlier times, if you were buying a model train, it would be decorated in Santa Fe or Pennsylvania railroad liveries, since those were the most popular railroads.  If you wanted to have a locomotive decorated for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad (one of my personal favorites), you had to paint and letter the locomotive yourself.  Now, of course, this has all changed.

With the combination of improved manufacturing techniques and inexpensive Chinese labor, there is a startling variety of model trains in a wide variety of liveries.  For example, Atlas has recently issued models of the EMD MP15 switching locomotive in both N-Scale and in HO-Scale.  The locomotive was available in both sound versions and non-sound versions.  And these locomotives were available in the livery of the Texas City Terminal Railway; with versions of all three locomotives of this company.  Likewise, single locomotives such as the GP38 of the Tennessee, Alabama & Georgia.  At the same time, models of rarer locomtoives are now in the market also; consider the Atlas model of the ALCo HH660, of which there were 43 locomotives ever built.

One consequence to this plethora of stuff is that those who model Santa Fe or Pennsylvania now sometimes find themselves on the sidelines.  Fewer people paint and letter locomotives these days; why do so when you have so many nice Factory-painted units to choose from?  From a manufacturing perspective, it takes as much time to make a model of the TA&G GP38 as it does to make a model of the Santa Fe GP38, so something has to give.  There’s just so much production time and capital available.  Another consequence is that the companies who manufacture lettering decals are also seeing a decline in activity.  Why paint and letter when you can buy it off the shelf? So, we live in interesting times.

As we go along, I will be going to my collection and dragging out stuff for your amusement.  I do have stuff stashed away in boxes somewhere, but I have a lot of interesting things that are not.  My orientation is not so much with their value as much as it is finding what always fascinated me in the first place.  So, my tastes will emerge, obscure tastes to be sure, but I hope that you will find them interesting.


March 3, 2009

Even prior to the steam locomotive, railed roads faced a peculiar problem.   For example, a coal car would be loaded at a mine and then conveyed to the coal consumer.  Upon delivery the freight charge was paid and the railroad was left with an empty car that needed to be returned to the mine for the next load, a non-revenue producing movement.  So, the tariff had to reflect the fact that the costs of moving the load of coal were not simply in one direction.  This issue is called backhaul, and many forms of transportation are faced with this problem.

Inevitably, lots of empty cars would end up at one location on the railroad and there would suddenly emerge a dire need for empty cars at another location.  This train could be heard for miles before it finally arrived since there were no loads inside the cars to dampen the rattling of metal cars bouncing on metal rails.  As train movements go, a load of empty cars was of lowest priority, taking the siding for every other train which was producing revenue for the railroad.  If the shipper really needed fresh cars, then the train’s priority moved up bit, but backhaul movements are simply an unfortunate necessity.

The railroad benefited if a car type could be used for a variety of loads.  By having a car which could be used for a variety of loads, back haul was lessened.  As railroad technology spread, specialized car types emerged.  And the more specialized that the car was, the more likely that it would be traveling empty at least half the time.  In some cases, these cars were used infrequently, but when they were needed, there was no other car like it.  Such cars would be designed for a specific purpose and, again, the tariff would reflect this.  These cars were varied and interesting; some cars were created for special freight traffic.  Cars which haul food products need to be kept immaculately clean and tight to prevent spoilage.  Others, such as those used in cow hide service, were so foul as to be unusable for any other purpose.

For livestock cars, transport revolved around the needs of the meat packing plants.  In the farming regions, vast numbers of cars were needed for short periods of time when the crops were harvested.  And when the freight had been delivered, these cars would have to be stored at an area near the potential freight loading until future use.  In general, open hoppers carried commodities which were not affected by the weather.  Others were in specialized service, such as cement and silica, which needed to remain dry.  Yet the inevitability was that these cars were often traveling empty.  This was exacerbated by Interstate Commerce Commission rules which required that a car belonging to a specific railroad needed to be returned to its home road once empty.  There were financial penalties called demurrage if the car was not returned promptly.  In later years, the railroad discovered ways to minimize this issue; Railbox comes mind right away.

Containers were supposed to help remedy this problem, since it was the containers themselves that were subject to imbalances.  Since the containers were generally owned by other companies, the railroads successfully shifted the problem away from themselves.  For a while, a serious container imbalance resulted from a large amount of traffic coming from China to the New York area.  There was talk of simply scrapping the containers upon delivery of their cargo; fortunately this idea never gained much traction, but for a while, a huge number of containers were sitting empty on the east coast since nobody wanted to pay the costs of returning them.

In the case of passenger cars, it was safe to assume that in most cases that there was an equal amount of passengers in each direction, but the big variable was when they traveled.  The railroads tried a variety of approaches to deal with this problem.  Back in the day when college students actually used public transportation instead of private autos, the railroads would drag out every available piece of equipment when school started up or when football games were held.  In many cases, these cars had been stored for months, kept on the equipment roster strictly for the brief traffic surges that happened around the beginning of school, Thanksgiving and Christmas and Spring Break.  These cars were fine specimens of early 20th Century technology, with elegant and ornate light fixtures and upholstery suitable for any Victorian parlor.  The witty often suggested that these cars also still had arrows sticking in their sides from Indian attacks on the prairie.

The railroads also dealt with equipment imbalances with their locomotives.  As with the freight cars, locomotives often become piled up at one end of the railroad while there is a need at the other.  On more than one occasion, the train enthusiast would photograph a train with 8 locomotives on the front pulling a modest train of thirty cars, far more power than the train needed.  These power balancing moves were necessary to get motive power to where it was needed, and an educated ear could tell that the passing train had only two locomotives that were actually pulling.

Now, with just a few major railroads and the benefits of computerization, car and motive power imbalances are less frequent.  Instead, another problem has emerged; with the downturn of freight traffic due to the difficult economy, the railroads are rushing around trying to find places to store cars which are not needed at the present.