Archive for the ‘Model Railroads’ Category

An Incredible Garden Railway

August 8, 2014

The origin of this suburb layout goes back to the late 1920s. If you visit the website listed you can see that history and more video about this operation. This driver’s eye tour is worth your time. It features 10 scale miles of track.


Spectacular OO Gauge

April 21, 2013 video gives new meaning to the idea of a model railroad in the basement.

Jason Shron

January 8, 2013

If you want to see the website of the crazy guy who built the train in his basement take a look here.

Siskel & Ebert on Electric Trains

August 11, 2012

I’d be remiss if I did not pass this along.  The first four minutes of this video are classic Siskel & Ebert, classic Lionel and classic issues raised by young children and electric trains.

Siskel & Ebert Meet Lionel Railscope

Roger Ebert is still with us, while Gene Siskel has gone on to the Great Trainroom.

The Real Kalmbach

December 18, 2011

Clueless or greedy? That’s the question for you to answer if you follow their latest foray into digital media.

So, I get an email last Tuesday promoting their digital versions of their books available for purchase and downloading. The downloads can be read using the Zinio reader. I looked around to see what might interest me. It was not a pleasant experience. Whoever designed the site doesn’t know anything about shopping on the web. I found a book on steam locomotives but I had to practically order it to find a price. But I looked around until I found the right page and the price of $18.95.

Now it happened that my wife, a published author, was in the dining room with her three critique partners — all published writers of women’s fiction. They meet weekly to review each other’s manuscripts. I asked how much their books sell for in digital versions on Amazon. They responded with a range of $7.99 to $9.99 — for books that sell for around $29.99 as hard covers. When you remove printing and binding, warehousing and shipping plus returns, you can make a lot of profits with digital downloads while substantially reducing the cost to the customer.

When I reported that Kalmbach is charging the same price for a downloaded version as the printed version I set of wails of laughter at the stupidity of this marketing tactic.

Does Kalmbach think we’re stupid? Evidently so. It’s time to support the ascendency of a competitive magazine for model railroading. If Railroad Model Craftsman could get a new art director it just might be up to the challenge.

The Good Old Days?

August 5, 2011

I’m cautiously willing to acknowledge that I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Leaving aside the old age comments, it is interesting to look back upon the model railroad hobby as it once was and to marvel that this idea ever caught on in the first place.  Consider the seasonal project railroad published in the December, 1952 issue of Model Railroader magazine.

Pine Tree Central

The “Pine Tree Central”, which fit onto a flat sheet of 4′ x 6′ plywood with 1×3 pine frame, was designed to start off in the living room at Christmas time.  After the Christmas season had passed, it was then supposed to weasel its way into the household, becoming a full-time fixture in some model railroader’s life.  Of course, it was the 1950’s, which means that you built everything.

Parts needed for the Pine Tree Central

You built everything except the transformer, which is probably just as well; no telling how many houses were not destroyed by fire because of that.  It’s interesting looking back at the train:

The Train for the Pine Tree Central

Once Christmas had passed, the railroad added two more sidings and scenery, and you had something:

The Complete Pine Tree Central

Of course, we have progressed considerably since 1952, and the hobby has become much more user friendly.  So, too, what you get for your money has improved, too.  Consider the 1952 prices and the adjusted-for-inflation 2010 prices:

  • Mantua Shifter 0-4-0 steam switcher.  $15.95 then, $127.88 now
  • Varney gondola. $1.90 then, $15.33 now
  • Roundhouse box car.  $2.70 then, $21.65 now
  • Ulrich stock car.  $2.95 then, $23.95 now
  • Varney caboose.  $2.95 then, $23.95 now

In 2010 dollars, you would have spent $212.06 for items that cost $26.45 back then.  And, you still had to spend over 12 hours to build these trains.  And, if you were lucky, the 0-4-0 would actually run once you had finished.

Of course, the model train revolution had not really started until the Athearn “Blue Box” trains entered the scene in the late 1950’s.  Athearn produced a series of inexpensive yet reliable items that would make a lot of people take up model railroading.  Consider these items from the 1971 Walthers catalog:

  • Athearn Super Power F-7.  $12.95 then, $68.93 now
  • Roundhouse gondola. $2.00 then, $10.64 now
  • Roundhouse box car.  $2.25 then, $11.98 now
  • Athearn stock car.  $1.98 then, $10.54 now
  • Athearn caboose.  $2.98 then, $15.86 now

So, in twenty years, the costs for the Pine Tree Central trains had both dropped in dollar cost and improved in quality.  By the 1970’s, Walthers no longer sold Mantua, which had been merged into Tyco during that era.

Today, of course, things have become better and cheaper again.  This is due, in no small part, to the considerable presence of Chinese labor.  Mantua is still in the marketplace, but the smaller engines such as the Shifter are now sold under the Model Power brand.  Steam locomotive kits are now an oddity, reserved for those who enjoy a challenge.  The Pine Tree Central trains in the modern era:

  • Model Power Shifter 0-4-0 steam switcher.  $47.98
  • Bowser 40′ gondola.  $13.95
  • Walthers 40′ box car.  $19.98
  • Accurail stock car.  $13.98
  • Atlas Trainman caboose. $17.95

And, of course, these different cars are available in a large number of different road names and numbers.

So, 60 years after the Pine Tree Central article was published, the model hobby has grown in both scope and in quality.

A few things have changed along the way.  For one, scenery techniques are both more realistic and safer.  The 1952 Pine Tree Central article calls for a scenery plaster formula of glue-based patching plaster combined with 7 lbs of ground asbestos.  Although this was a widely accepted technique at the time, fortunately, the hobby has become better in any number of ways.

And, we haven’t even talked about the improved locomotive performance that results from command control.  I don’t miss the old days; I like to look back and read about them, but I don’t miss them.

Model Railroad Command Control

July 8, 2011

Allow me a moment of personal commentary.  Model railroading can be a complicated hobby.

It’s a lot better now than in the late 1940’s, where you had to build everything.  Back then, you built your own locomotive from a kit (and it often didn’t work the first time, either), you built your own rolling stock, you laid your own tracks.  The whole lot.  You rarely hear long time model railroaders whining about how great the old days were.  Trust me, they weren’t.  Today, things are a lot better, but there are things that are good news/bad news.  Model railroad control with advanced electronics is one of those things.

The concept of model railroad command control is simple enough.  A central command station generates coded signals which are sent out over the track to all the locomotives.  Each locomotive has a decoder which interprets those coded signals and, if the signal is meant for that locomotive, executes the commands from the central station.  There are also decoders for solenoid devices such as track switches.

I’ve been interested in the subject since General Electric introduced ASTRAC to model railroading in 1963, a system which never really caught on.  It would be Märklin that made the world safe for command control with their Märklin Digital system.   It was brand new, and I liked it from the get-go.  The system was both advanced and user friendly, a rare combination.

Märklin plowed a bunch of money into promoting this new command control system and into the support of the Digital dealers and operators.  I attended my first Märklin Digital dealer training seminar in 1986, a two-day event.    For Digital to succeed, Märklin felt that a well-trained network of dealers was key to Digital’s success.  I use Digital to this day on my home railroad:

Märklin Digital Control Panel

It is a reliable system, and, most importantly, it does what I want it to do.  What you don’t see is what was necessary to get to the point that “it does what I want it to do”.  Here, this is part of what was necessary:

Märklin Digital Decoder Panel

You didn’t really need to see that, did you?  What you would rather see is this:

Amstetten Station Layout

Actually, I’d rather you see this instead of the background wiring, too.  I did what was necessary for the railroad to operate in a certain manner, but it is helpful to remember that things don’t need to be this complicated for you to have a good time.

Although Märklin Digital was very successful from the start in Europe, it never really caught on in quite the same way in North America.  In the American market, the dominant control format is DCC.  Unlike Märklin Digital, DCC is “open architecture”. As a result, there are several manufacturers of DCC equipment, many of them based in the United States.  No reason to get into the “whys” of this, just accept that DCC is the electronic communication format of choice here.

That said, there is a degree of difference between the different manufacturers.  As with so many other model railroad matters, everybody has their own taste and preference for a DCC system.  And, while DCC is open architecture at the individual locomotive decoder level, it is not open architecture at the command control system level.  The whole promise of DCC was that it would be cheaper than Märklin Digital, which is what it proved to be.  Along the way, DCC also became more powerful than the earlier generations of Digital.  Which is another story for a later day.

The point being that while DCC locomotive decoders can be used with all DCC systems, you’re only going to buy one DCC control system, and generally the different components of that system are going to come from one manufacturer.  And while individual locomotive decoders can be bought for as little as $20.00, the command stations, throttles and such can run into some money.  Combine this with the notorious thriftiness of the average model railroader and you’ve got a formula for some interesting events.

A lot of model railroaders put professional golfers to shame with their drive to not spend a lot of money for something.  The model railroad manufacturers use the term “value oriented consumer” because it sounds a whole lot more professional than some of the other descriptions.  The net result is that when it comes to the selling of DCC command control systems, there’s a lot of elbowing and elitism.

Generally, model railroad DCC systems tend to be in clusters, like infectious diseases.  An adventurous modeler buys a DCC system and learns how to use it.  Another model railroader friend comes to visit, sees the command control system and decides that it is for him.  His choice of a DCC system is likely to be same system as what they have seen.  So, too, a good train dealer has a preference of systems, for a variety of reasons.  Model railroad club layouts are also influential.  On the plus side, this behavior means that a command control system often becomes popular for reasons other than competitive excellence.  This is not bad, just a statement of the general reality of the market.  At the same time, this clustering of command control systems often leads to the model railroad equivalent of sports “trash talk” about competing systems.  There’s a lot of elbowing going on out there, often for no good reason.

I say this because I am writing about an application of electronic command control for a specific project on my personal website.  On the pages that I am currently working on, I’m describing how I approached a model railroad control issue in a coffee table.  Ultimately, my solution is to use command control, because it makes things easier for a number of reasons, and it won’t require a wiring panel like the one above.

The idea in this situation is to control two or possibly three locomotives, and to control three track switches.  Very simple, and for many command control systems, far below these systems’ capacities.  Keep in mind that even the “basic” command control systems can control 10 locomotives.  Some of these basic systems also can control up to 8 track switches.

The “entry level systems” are now capable of operating 20 locomotives at any given time, and are able to access over 9,000 locomotive addresses.  They are also capable of operating 999 turnout addresses.  In short, far more power than my little coffee table would require.

Yet, why do I want to use command control in this situation?  It is because of a feature called “load compensation“.  Märklin introduced this concept in the mid-1990’s with its new 6090 decoder.  Basically, the command station sends a speed command to the locomotive and the load compensating decoder balances the motor voltage so that this locomotive goes the same speed all the time.  Uphill, downhill, with a light train or a heavy train.  It’s a terrific feature.  And, like the concept of sectional track in the 1870’s, the concept of load compensating decoders was willingly shared by Märklin with the rest of the model railroad industry.

Because my coffee table project has track gradients, I know that I want to equip this railroad’s locomotives with load compensating decoders.  And, since the coffee table railroad is N-Scale, my choice will be DCC because of the widely available number of N-Scale sized decoders.

But as I am writing about this, an interesting episode comes to mind.  As I was working through the coffee table design, I knew that I wanted a really simple command control unit.  In practice, this unit would control 2 or possibly 3 N-Scale locomotives.  If implemented, it would also control three track switches.  Very simple, and I had a unit in mind, the Bachmann unit:

Bachmann E-Z Command System

Bachmann E-Z Command System

Yeah, it’s pretty boring, but, on the other hand, my requirements were three locomotives and three turnouts.  Granted, this Bachmann unit doesn’t control turnouts, but my personal irritation centers on something else.

As I was considering which command control system to use, I asked a fellow model railroader who is also on the business side of the hobby what he thought about this particular unit.  “Oh, it’s a piece of ****”.  I reiterated what my requirements were, but he was adamant that I needed something “better”.  Presumably, one of his products.

It surprised me in a way, but you also have to wonder how many potential model railroaders were turned off by an elitist attitude.  And, you have to wonder about the mission-creep that DCC often takes on.  Where the whole premise once was “two wires”, meaning that the basic technology only required two wires to the layout to get command control.  In practice, however, it takes more than two wires, depending upon how many locomotives you have and such.  But what gets me is that when the command control intelligentsia get together, it’s a never ending complicated cavalcade of CV’s, stop bits, zero stretching and whatever else their active minds can come up with.

Given the attitude of those serious DCC enthusiasts, a lot of model railroaders seem to conclude that they would be just as happy with analog control lest they get sucked into command control, which can be a hobby all unto itself.  My point is that while command control should be seamless and invisible, it rarely is so when in the hands of the “experts”.

Which brings us back to the “piece of ****”, above.  While it is a limited unit, it also may be more than sufficient for many in the hobby.  For while the E-Z Command unit itself has limited controls, it will be used to control individual locomotives.  And each locomotive has its own decoder, assigned an unique address.  And within that decoder are powerful adjustments that make each locomotive both unique and realistic in operation.

In short, the command station itself can be “dumb” since most of the complicated stuff happens with the decoder in the locomotive.  A knowledgeable third party such as your train dealer can program the locomotive.  This would not be just the locomotive address, but also the speeds, the light functions and a host of other specifications.  And, under normal circumstances, the locomotive can be programmed in one location and then brought home to be used in another location.

So, calling the E-Z Command unit a foul name does little justice to the model railroad layout owner.  Yes, there are more advanced systems out there, but not everybody needs to fly a 747 when a Piper Cub will do.  And, by the way, even if you have just one locomotive, command control may still be for you because the load compensation feature makes for very smooth slow speed operation.  Perfect for switching railroads, for instance.

In a way, the elitist attitude is as old as the model railroad hobby itself.  In Europe, kids who had Märklin layouts felt superior to the kids with Fleischmann.  In America, it was Lionel versus American Flyer.  And, for a lot of model railroaders, there is the elitism of being in O-Scale rather than HO.  I suppose that this is fun stuff, but in the end it doesn’t really serve the purpose of expanding interest in the model railroad hobby.

The Canadian on Tour

June 2, 2011

The work at Rapido really deserves our attention. The quality of their passenger cars may be the best in the world. As much as I like the quality of the Broadway Limited cars from Walthers, Rapido goes a step beyond. You can follow the tour of The Canadian across Canada at this blog.

The Canadian

May 30, 2011

The Budd-built Canadian, the transcon of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, may well qualify as one of the most beautiful trains that ever polished rails. Now it will be a beautiful model in HO scale. Rapido is bringing it to market later this year and you can read about its development in their current newsletter. While I model the Pennsylvania Railroad, with brief appearances by the Reading Railroad and the Western Maryland, this is a train I would own purely for the display value.

Railway Post Office

October 26, 2010

I remember seeing a postal ritual while watching Pennsylvania Railroad trains with my grandfather at the station in Marysville, Pennsylvania. There was a mail crane on the side of the eastbound track and a bin to receive mail pouches thrown from the RPO. This was a fascinating scene for a child and a metaphor for the high purpose of expediting communication in an industrial world. While doing research for my model railroad I came across this filmed reminiscence on the site of the National Postal Museum. Notice that the pouch thrown from the passing B & O train simply skips across the station platform.