Monday, May 20, 2019

Trains I See, Delmarva Edition

We're spending more time out on the Delaware shore, and our drive out is crisscrossed by a number of short lines. Here are two Delmarva Central MP15ACs idling under an elevator at Seaford, Delware.
Judging by the number boards and offset headlights, these are ex-SP units. The air conditioning units on the cab rooves add more gnarly visual interest to these handsomely liveried MP15ACs. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

Things You Don't Realize About N Scale: Vehicular Slim Pickins

What does every vehicle in this photo
have in common? German prototypes,
including the Siemens ACS-64. That
might work for the contemporary North-
east Corridor Region, but probably not
for Appalachia or the rural midwest. 
Vehicle modeling is an important hobby-within-a-hobby in model railroading, and I'm learning fast that vehicles might be among the final frontiers of successful N scale modeling.

Last summer, while wandering around Chicagoland, I visited Desplaines Hobbies, which has a large selection of S scale and also die cast vehicles in 1/64 scale. It occurred to me that the selection S scale vehicles must be one of the attractions of that comparatively rare scale. My favorite S scaler, Trevor Marshall, confirmed to me that vehicle modeling is part of the fun of that scale, and that vehicles provide an excellent visual queue for setting the era and mood of a layout.

That's better--a railroad police Ford SUV--that most American
of vehicles--prowling the right-of-way for trespassers.
A few months later I visited John Sethian's O scale Pennsy layout. I raved about his catenary and fleet of O scale electrics on this blog, but another feature of his layout that impressed was the vast population of era-specific trucks and automobiles.

The importance of vehicles to a visually engaging layout isn't really new news to me--I have already put more than a few hours into finishing HO vehicles for my Dunes Junction layout, and I'll also point out that era- and region-specific vehicles in realistic poses were one of the impressive elements of Tim Nicholson's modeling, which I covered in a recent post.

* * *

With the Old Line Corridor nearly fully scenicked, I've arrived at the detailing stage. I've been thinking about signage, wayside details, weeds, and yes, vehicles. A recent visit to a New York area hobby shop with what counts as a deep stock of N scale vehicles yielded just under a dozen or so vehicles, which I immediately placed around the Old Line Corridor.

The long distance bus is a UK model with the steering on the
wrong side, but it represents one of the ways I casually railfan
the New Jersey portion of the Northeast Corridor,  which
is through the windowz of one of the cheap buses Rachel and I
often ride into New York and Connecticut. Also, that white
Rover Defender is something that would likely only ever be
seen in the Tri-State area, or maybe somewhere in Northern
In the process of researching and then accumulating my small fleet of N scale vehicles, I came to realize that the overall smaller array of N scale products in comparison to HO is particularly exaggerated in the model vehicle space. The selection of N scale vehicles is small and focused on European and Japanese prototypes. For modelers of anything other than the modern era, there are precious few automobiles, with the late 70s through mid 90s particularly poorly represented. And for modelers who are focused on the rural midwest or the south--where foreign cars are still comparatively scarce--creating an accurate representation of the population of typical vehicles would be particularly problematic, with unpainted white metal and 3D printed offerings being the fallback options for most late 20th century North American vehicles in N scale.

Atlas markets some of the only 60s/70s era
vehicles, seen here in the lower part of the
photo, while that 70s/80s Herpa VW Golf
in the upper part of the photo hasn't been on
the market for some 15 or 20 years
About those white metal, 3D printed, and commercially available N scale vehicle models: assembling a fleet of N cars and trucks for even a modestly-sized layout like the Old Line Corridor requires a significant investment. I am loathe to hear and particularly make complaints about the high prices of model railroad products, but N scale vehicles indeed seem rather pricey to me. They are quite tiny, which creates, at some level, a preconception that they should cost correspondingly less than their HO counterparts. However, the German-manufactured N scale vehicles are particularly detailed and well finished, and probably require as much or more manufacturing effort as larger scale models, thus explaining the high prices. While the effect and appearance of vehicles on the layout adds significantly to the layout, I would ultimately be more pleased to spend that effort and money on something that adds even more to my hobby enjoyment. For the moment, however, I appreciate the life that my little cars and trucks add to the Old Line Corridor.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Thinkin' Things About Big Ol' Narrow Gauge Diesels

I always wondered if an Atlas C-628 could be used as the basis for an HOn30 DL535E . . . looks short overall, and the trucks are very short in comparison to those lanky Alco C narrow gauge trucks. But still . . .

Monday, April 29, 2019

Finished Island Model Works Silverliners Spotted in the Wild

I nearly spit out my decaf when this stunning photo graced the top of a recent Model Railroad Hobbyist blast email. The models and photos are the work of Tim Nicholson.  The modeling alone caught my eye: the colors and textures alone capture the look and feel of the Northeast Corridor in late spring or summer. Then I realized I was looking at an electric MU car under wire! Woo hoo! Photo and models courtesy of Tim Nicholson and Model Railroad Hobbyist. 

There's a lot of great modeling going on in Tim's deceptively simple vignettes. In addition to doing a bang-up job with a tough Island Model Works kit--the lights and the little details like wipers, marker lights, hoses, safety chains, of which modern passenger equipment seem to be full--the right-of-way and structures show remarkable craftsmanship. Details to look out for in this photo: concrete detail, station windows, and joint bars. Photo and models courtesy of Tim Nicholson and Model Railroad Hobbyist.  

And those poles and that wire. Notice the fine gauge wire, and the compound catenary (the prototypically correct double contact wire). The cantilever poles and insulators are also prototypically proportioned. Hoping to see more of Tim's work!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Modern Narrow Gauge, Another Persistently Obtuse Interest

Modern narrow gauge I have known:
PeruRail GE diesels in Aguas Caliente,
station stop for Macchu Picchu.
When I was a wee lad reading Model Railroader magazine back in the 70s and 80s, there seemed to be a lot of coverage of narrow gauge modeling. Malcolm Furlow’s various project railroads and photography epitomized this 80s-period narrow gauge mania. Pretty quickly, I kind of lost interest--old Rio Grande steam locomotives, wood rolling stock, and lots of quaint and scenic and rustic things. It wasn’t the big time railroading I was growing up with in Northwestern Indiana, and narrow gauge modeling seemed to be set in cartoony scenery compared to my environs.

Nonetheless, the modeling itself intrigued me, and I especially gobbled up anything on Bob Hayden and Dave Frary’s Carrabasset and Dead River Ry. layout. The C&DR looked interesting while also looking workaday--it was a slice of life in rural New England in days gone by--instead of spectacular Rocky Mountain and Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner southwest vistas.

During this same time period, in the March 1979 Model Railroader, a "Trade Topics" review of a brass PSC HOn3 White Pass & Yukon DL535E appeared. Here was a weirdly proportioned, butch-looking Alco, vaguely reminiscent of an Alco C420, and I was intrigued. WP&Y information was hard to come by for this middle-school-aged Hoosier, but over the years I came to know more about this modern narrow gauge line and its second-generation diesel fleet.

A White Pass & Yukon DL535E narrow gauge
road switcher. It’s about the size of an RS3,
but is proportioned more like a C420. Note the
 ‘swole’ radiator and filter protuberances--some-
thing that the Alco/MLW engineers couldn’t
figure out how to shrink down to 3’ gauge
Photo courtesy Wikipedia /Yufei Yuan

Even more interesting is discovering that there are even examples of narrow gauge heavy electrics, and one doesn't need to look far to find HOn30 (called HOe in Europe), HOm (HO meter gauge) or even, after a fashion, N scale narrow gauge electric railroad models. (Kato offers 1/150 scale models of modern Swiss meter-gauge Rhaetian Railway models that run on conventional 9 mm N gauge track.) Practically every issue of Continental Modeller covers at least one European or other international narrow gauge layout, and most are 'modern' if not post WW2.

I keep thinking about the possibilities of modern narrow gauge modeling. One obvious approach would be European prototype narrow gauge, of which there is an extensive selection of prototypes, models, and track. Another approach would be straight up modeling the WP&Y. Several key rolling stock items have been offered over the years in several scales.

But I've often thought about splitting the difference: how about a modern, updated C&DR? Turns out I'm not the only one with this idea. Ted Alexander's Norfolk Terminal (NT) layout, featured here on Nick Pautler's To Points East blog, is indeed an updated, modern C&DR. Ted has done an excellent job capturing the look and feel of what a modern Maine two-footer might actually look like. And unlike many model narrow gauge pikes, it has a sparse, industrial look and feel instead of a cute and whimsical fantasy junkyard vibe. Nothing against cute and whimsical fantasy junkyards--I certainly enjoy looking at them, especially those that seem to spring up among On30 model railroaders--but they just aren’t my jam.

Thoughts of a modern passenger and rock hauler, in an interesting, not-often-modeled setting have come back to me repeatedly over the years. That setting might be the Alps, a Caribbean island, a Latin American country, or even rural New England or eastern maritime Canada. Doing so in O, S, or HO would give me the chance to indulge a subsidiary interest in vehicle modeling that my recent N scale modeling doesn’t avail well. And of course, there’s the possibility of wires and pantographs over the weird little trains. Let’s see what turns up . . .

Monday, April 1, 2019

DCC, Complaining About

Bernie Kempinski admitted in a recent post on his USMRR Aquia Line blog that he loves to complain about DCC, and this wasn't his first run at this most evergreen source of model railroading disappointment. He unleashed a torrent of bile on DCC quirks and incompatibility back in 2017 or so, which I somehow missed.

Regular readers here know that I certainly have my own DCC grievances, but I usually frame my DCC dyspepsia by expressing envy for the European approach to DCC. (Like, why don't we North American model railroaders have graphic interfaces on our controllers, seamless compatibility with our consumer gadgets like smart phones and tablets, and for the love of all that is good, standard decoder plugs?)

Bernie lamented in 2017 that the rat's nest of incompatible programming specs and protocols that cause various combinations of models, decoders, programmers, and controllers to not work well with each other. He also noted that a number of DCC products intended to work with computers are actually only narrowly compatible with a few types of computers and operating systems.

I've certainly experienced those very problems in my own adventures with DCC, which I finally resolved by acquiring a dedicated Windows 10 computer and then my ESU ECoS controller, which has sufficent amperage and support for multiple DCC and proprietary control protocols.

In other words, I solved my DCC problems by acquiring some major DCC artillery worth around a cool grand, although I got lucky acquiring the ECoS and the Windows 10 computer second-hand for half that.

Solving ordinary DCC challenges shouldn't bust the hobby budget.

* * *

Another DCC observation: I've noticed that decoders are often defective right out of the package. Interestingly, the first DCC control system I ever bought, a Digitrax Zephyr, was also defective right out of the box. Are there perhaps low expectations for manufacturing quality in this space?

Fortunately, all of the DCC manufacturers I've dealt with have robust warranty policies. I haven't kept detailed track of my experiences with defective decoders, and I will freely accept that my own mishandling or misinstallation might have played a role, but I think around 10% of my 40 or so decoders--across several DCC brands--have had some kind of failure at or very shortly after installation. This failure rate did pick up with launch into N scale--maybe tiny decoders are more fragile and/or defect prone?

But I've had enough installation jobs stalled by the 2-4 week warranty return process to have noticed and make this complaint.

 * * *

Bernie's recent post reiterated his 2017 complaint that diesel sound, which he dismisses as "industrial noise," is the culprit behind possibly needless DCC complexity.

I agree with Bernie about industrial noise. Modern diesels and electrics do have a kind of sonic sameness, with some differences here and there. That sameness is exacerbated by the small speakers common to small HO and nearly all N scale locomotive models.

So that's where I will pile on to Bernie's specific complaint about sound--that (modern) locomotive sound is indeed so much noise, to which I will add that sound might just be a bridge too far for many smaller models. As a result, nearly all N scale and many HO models end up being expensive, unreliable little industrial noise makers.

One additional data point for this assessment is an experience I had at the 2018 O Scale convention here in Rockville, MD, last year. I was chatting with Tony Koester, and a sound-equipped O scale SW1500 that was running on a nearby modular layout was loud and high quality enough to interrupt our conversation! At this point, I realized that speaker size and installation make a critical difference to the model railroad sound experience.

I'm certainly not opposed to model railroad sound--I just think that tiny locomotive-based speakers might not be the optimal approach. On small layouts, stationary speakers--even cheap ones, like, say, computer speakers--would undoubtedly render sound more dynamically and faithfully than sugar-cube sized speakers encased in moving locomotive shells. They would also allow for other environmental sounds to be mixed in, such as right-of-way sounds (singing wire, something I've touched on previously), nature sounds (cicadas, for example, would be appropriate for the Old Line Corridor's wooded mid-Atlantic locale), and of course, Bernie's dreaded industrial noises.

The moral of the sound part of this story: maybe model rail manufacturers are expecting DCC to do too much, and maybe there are better ways to add the sonic dimension to our model railroads.

Monday, March 18, 2019

OMG, the layout is almost finished

With the near completion of the N Scale Architect curtain wall factory (an upcoming post will give a detailed review and lessons learned), the Walthers tractor dealership, and the Pikestuff warehouse, the Old Line Corridor is getting closer to completion. Already thinking of how additional trees and vegetation, right of way details, signage, and vehicles will give the layout a completed look.

A "drone" shot of the suburban Maryland-inspired industrial area with principal structures roughly positioned in. Next steps are to blend into the surrounding scenery and add some additional atmospheric details.

The purpose of that large-ish N Scale Architect factory is to block the view of the staging yard from the front of the layout, as seen in the background here. A fence and additional vegetation will enhance the blocking effect.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Catching the White Whale: Amtrak ICE Trainset

Finally laid my hands on one of the reasons I started out on the Old Line Corridor in the first place: Fleischmann's N scale Amtrak ICE train set. This is a 'best of both worlds' model: an interesting European prototype that actually ran on the Northeast Corridor. It was second hand, in excellent condition, and as evident in the video, runs reasonably well.
It does have a few quirks. As noted by the encyclopedically tireless tester of all N scale locomotives, Spookshow, it has some tricky close couplings, which turn out to be simple drawbars with NEM coupler plugs and sockets.
Its early 90s production also predates 'DCC ready', so DCC installation will be either old school with lots of soldering and whatnot, or expensive, as Fleischmann's recommended DCC conversion is to remove the Amtrak ICE shells and install them on the drives for a separately offered equipped ICE loco set. That DCC-equipped ICE loco set, is, of course, even rarer than this ICE Amtrak set and usually fetches an even higher premium price. Nonetheless, glad to have this prize running on the Old Line Corridor.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

How many HO locos to pull an actual loco?

A lot of HO locos, apparently, but it’s certainly possible. German language, but go to 11:30 or so to see the money shot. A lot of amperage going on there.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Model Railroader Magazine Project Layouts Can Be Bought, Apparently

A Kalmbach Publishing acquaintance mentioned to me a few months ago that Model Railroader project layouts were taking up valuable space around the Kalmbach offices, and as a result, MR editor Hal Miller was keen to sell them off. The Virginian, Salt Lake, and Red Oak layouts, among others, could be had for bargain prices. Transportation would, of course, be the buyer's responsibility.

I wasn't sure if I was having my leg pulled, or if this was some Model Railroad Industrial Complex gossip that would not be appropriate to share, so I more or less forgot about the conversation. Then I heard this interview with MR Video editor David Popp, and heard it from him:

Other fun facts: David Popp is a war gamer (did you know this, Trevor Marshall?) and slot car racing fan. Who knew?

Monday, February 18, 2019

Random Developments and Thoughts

First, that moment when 200 or so seemingly random and abstract parts transmogrify into something recognizable as a model. In this instance, the transformation was particularly rewarding because of the medium of this N Scale Architect kit--the parts are all cardstock strips and rectangles that were difficult to envision as a factory.
Second, it's time for another pontification about how the Europeans do DCC. I've done a couple of DCC installs on European prototype N scale models in the past couple of months, which used the Next18, AKA NEM 662, decoder socket. The decoder socket and plug --see above, 'Buchsenleiste' is one the locomotive, 'Stiftleiste' is on the decoder--is only a quarter of an inch or so across, making for a tiny little decoder. Which leads me to wonder why Atlas, Walthers, and Kato DCC installs still involve special replacement printed circuit boards instead of Next18 or another standard socket, like the NEM 651. Intermountain, for its part, does use an NEM 651 socket in its ES44 models. Seems like an opportunity for efficiency and reduced production costs that would benefit modelers and the model railroad marketplace.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Structure Making Weekend

This is four or so N Scale Architect curtain wall factory kits under construction, assembly line style. It is made up of a laser cut 'task board' (1/16" card) base layer with self-stick brick and task board overlays and Grandt Line windows. It will be formed into a large generic factory approximately 12' x 4" x 6", the main purpose of which will be to form a view block at the end of the Ivy Cith visible staging yard. This might be my first craftsman structure kit in decades and construction so far has been rewarding if not laborious. I spent most of the weekend prepping the wall base layers and painting the brick, concrete and window parts, which number (seemingly) in the hundreds. However, assembly seems quick now that the painting and prep is done; that end wall in the lower left went together in about 10 or 15 minutes. 
The Walthers tractor supply kit got some finishing and weathering love. The decal sheet is substantially different than what is depicted on the box art. Painting and weathering brought out the kit's excellent masonry detail. Next comes final assembly, including window glazing and downspouts.

I tried a new weathering product on the Walthers kit: Ammo by Mig Oilbrushers. These are oil paints mixed and thinned for  model weathering and finishing, in a fingernail polish-like applicator. They are easily blended with odorless thinner or white spirits. Not only is this an excellent weathering product, the most useful color in my Oilbrushers set has the truly awesome name of  'Starship Filth'. Luckily Starship Filth is a similar shade to Northeast Corridor Filth.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Varieties of Model Railroad-ious Experience

Karl Gebele's Kompakt-Anlagen ('Compact Layouts')
book. Cynical North American modelers probably
notice the unweathered rolling stock and roller coaster
curves and grades first, but miss Karl's genius: pure
wonder and romance, expressed in virtuoso scenery
as well as artfully rendered slices of German life. Like
it or not, Karl's work is more achievable, connects
with the public better and will inspire more partici-
pation in the hobby than basements filled with fleets
of era-specific rolling stock and stylized operations.
My venture into overseas model railroading is yielding new insights into not only new models and modeling techniques, but also into alternative approaches to and philosophies of model railroading.

Or put another way, I'm learning that the ideal of model railroading as put forth in the major US model rail magazines ain't the only way to do model railroading.

Tom Barbalet of the Model Rail Radio podcast and others have pointed out the elements of the 'orthodoxy' of the US model railroad industrial complex: fixation on a few major US prototype railroads; idealization of recent past railroad eras; large lifetime layouts with expansive fleets of locos and rolling stock; virtuoso prototype- and period- specific rolling stock modeling; idealization of advanced over simpler functional techniques (i.e. disdain for sectional track in favor of difficult handlaid or flex track); DCC, sound, and state-of-the-art electronics, including signaling and detection; and finally its apotheosis in complex, formal operations sessions. A look through the big magazines and the offerings of the major US model rail manufacturers strongly support Tom's 'orthodoxy' thesis.

Tom and others have also pointed out that there are alternatives to the large lifetime layout, such as modules and smaller layouts. A look through European model railroading magazines, books, and videos (check out Pilentum TV on YouTube) further reveals that superdetailed, era-specific prototype modeling is not the only satisfying end-goal of model railroading. Indeed, there's a strong case to be made that an alternative end-goal for the hobby is communicating with the public and capturing the imaginations of non-model railroaders.

Karl Gebele is a fixture of the German model railroading press, and his new book, Kompakt-Anlagen: Viel Modellbahn auf wenig Raum ("Compact Layouts: Much Model Railroading in Little Space"; available in North America from Amazon Germany) showcases such an accessible and imaginative approach to model railroading. A quick Google search will turn up numerous photos and videos of Karl's work, which demonstrates that excellent model railroading can--and does--routinely take place on tiny layouts with sharp-curved sectional track with ready-to-run rolling stock equipped with pizza cutter flanges and oversized couplers.

The genius of Karl's work is that he visualizes and models contemporary German life and culture, leaning heavily into excellent scenery, painting, and finishing techniques. For non-model railroading Germans, and for anyone who is familiar with Germany from travel or military service, Karl's vignettes and visual idioms are instantly recognizable. For example, the opening photograph of the book depicts--unmistakably--Germany's wine country.

What North American modelers could take away from Karl's work--and what the North American Model Railroad Industrial Complex should be championing--is how to work with the limitations of space and resources to do inspiring modeling that tells stories and engages non-model railroaders. In particular, Karl shows how to work with small radius curves, steep grades, and sectional track--without ending up looking cartoonish or whimsical. The major magazines occasionally showcase excellent small layouts that forthrightly incorporate sharp curves and grades while evoking a place and time, but such coverage is rare enough to be remarkable. Rick Van Laar's CSX layout, featured in the February 2011 Model Railroader (also available here in a compilation of 4x8 layout stories) is one of those layouts, and so is Steve Campbell's HiTop layout, which was also featured in MR in March 2016.

Europeans do have it easier, in one particular way, with their small layouts: most of their model rolling stick, regardless of scale, is engineered to run on much tighter curves than North American equipment. This is partly a function of smaller prototype equipment--the largest European electric or diesel is roughly the size of an Amtrak ACS-64 or AEM-7, there are virtually no large articulated steam locos, and few freight cars are longer than 40'. But it's also a function of market expectations. European manufacturers want to make their wares usable by as many model railroaders as possible. This approach is democratizing, in its way, because anyone can run virtually any car or locomotive, regardless of layout size. One of the qualities I have always admired about my MTH HO South Shore Little Joe is its 18" minimum radius--would that I could have had this locomotive on my first HO layout, built of course with sectional track back in the 70s. Instead, the brass models of that period were not only expensive, they ran poorly and required impossibly broad curves.

My own takeaway from Karl's book and from the European approach to model railroading is a validation of how I plan to move ahead with my own hobby. A basement empire is not in my future, but modules and small layouts are. And I particularly enjoy modeling that results in a 'wow' not from other model railroaders, but from lay non model railroaders. When my sister, who thinks model railroading is silly, immediately recognized Dune Acres (AKA Mineral Springs Road) on my Dunes Junction layout, I knew I had been successful. Same when my wife noticed that the different parts of the Old Line Corridor actually correspond to various sections of the actual Northeast Corridor. "That looks like Jersey, but this other part looks like Maryland between BWI and Union Station." She also thinks my tiny trains are ridiculous, but I managed to connect them to her world.

And connections--like the ones that Karl Gebele makes--are what I want from my model railroading.

Monday, January 28, 2019

What’s Happening on the Old Line Corridor, January 2019 Edition

Smells like team spirit: Operation Lifesaver is in the house--this Conrail Operation Lifesaver GP15-1 was a gift to my wife, Rachel, who is Operation Lifesaver's national Executive Director. Finally got a DCC decoder into this gem of a model over a recent weekend so it can run on the Old Line Corridor layout.  
A tiring chore completed: this sound-equipped Bachmann GG1 in Congressional Silver threw a traction tire, which needed to be replaced. Traction tires are an unfortunate fact of life in N scale. Can't live with 'em because they interrupt good pickup and make rerailing a hassle, can't live without 'em because when they inevitably come off, the wheels are won't track or roll well because of the big ol' groove in the wheel profile. The model required complete disassembly to replace that one errant traction tire. This problem also afflicts Kato's otherwise excellent GG1 model as well. Would that some aftermarket manufacturer devise some ingenious method of replacing traction tires permanently with solid metal tires.  
And a fun structure build: this Walthers farm equipment supplier kit fits together especially well and is well engineered, unlike Walthers massive papermill kit which suffers thin, flimsy, translucent walls and confounding windows. Walthers could improve the instructions for all its current structure kits. 

Monday, January 21, 2019

Texas Interurbans

This old freight motor, Interurban Express Motor #330, is on display at the Visitor's Center in downtown Burleson, TX. I visited family there recently, and they took me to see the partially restored car, the interior of which also serves as a museum exhibit.

Side view of 330. Looks like it rolled right out of the Crooked Mountain Lines shop. Particularly striking was the gaunt, small scale of the cars on display in comparison even to modern light rail vehicles, let alone to modern mainline passenger and freight equipment. 

Parlor Car #411 is also on display--a much fancier specimen than that rugged old freight motor. Unfortunately, appears to be missing its pilot and steps. The wood restoration on both 411 and 330 is excellent but both were missing traction motors wiring. Wonder what the prospects for full restoration to operability are?