Sunday, October 2, 2011

Model Catenary: Real or Fake?

My electric train fascination began early, and my obsession with correct-looking catenary wasn't far behind.

Fixated on that contraption on the
 roof: South Shore in the Dunes,
 1970s photo
My first train ride ever was on the South Shore when I was about five years old, when Mrs. Hroma's preschool class took a train ride field trip from somewhere in the Indiana Dunes to Michigan City. What I really remember from that trip: the top of the train. I asked the conductor what that thing on the roof was, and he told me, "That's the pantograph. It collects electricity from the wire to make the train go."

So before I knew what a coupler or any other part of a train was, I knew about pantographs and catenary.  These components are what makes electric trains electric, after all.

Not long after that South Shore ride I saw HO trains with catenary and pantographs during a Christmas outing in downtown Chicago--the Marshall Fields department store's elaborate Maerklin HO train display featured German-prototype electric locomotives and MU cars operating under model catenary.

My tween-age mind was blown by HO catenary and pantographs! Shortly thereafter, I came into the mentorship of a Chicago-area O scale traction modeler, and stole glimpses of heavy electrics in model railroad magazines and catalogs. Vic Roseman's photos of Northeast Corridor HO subjects (these 2005 photos from Railmodel Journal  nicely capture Vic's magic) especially caught my eye.

Nice, but
It didn't take long to figure out that the Maerklin HO overhead that first caught my eye looked very 'Euro', as in right out of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 movie. US catenary poles tend to be simple affairs--telephone poles or span bridges of simple H-columns or maybe an iron grid lattice. Maerklin's 70's-era poles had some kind of Bauhaus/modernistic latice look that just didn't seem right for any US electric line.

The other problem with that old Maerklin catenary was the size of the wire, which actually wasn't wire.  Those lengths of snap-together catenary were actually punched out of sheets of stainless steel or nickel silver, and had a correspondingly huge, rectangular, out-of-scale cross-section. On close inspection, it looked as if the catenary was made not out of copper cables, but out of seamless lengths of magical silver 2x8 lumber forged in Asgard by Thor.

Vic Roseman's spidery catenary look became my holy grail. "How did he do it?" I wondered. Meanwhile, my real life travels took me in and out of Germany, and I became familiar with that country's model railroad scene, especially Sommerfeldt and Viessmann catenary products, which are made from wire and hew closely to prototype practice.  I also dabbled in N scale, which is where I first encountered fake catenary.

Can you spot the fake catenary
in this Kato N GG1 ad?
Fake catenary is practically a necessity in N scale--actual 1/160 wire would be a barely visible wisp. Some hardy N scalers do real catenary, or at least overhead wire. Sommerfeldt and Viessman each offer N catenary, and any self-respecting N electric locomotive for the European market has functioning pantographs. But N scale overhead tends to look more like plumbing than wire, so N scale manufacturers have offered products that suggest the appearance of catenary: Japanese manufacturers Kato and Tomix offer nicely detailed catenary N poles and spans with no wire (Sumida Crossing has a great explanation; this Kato ad shows scratchbuilt fake Pennsy catenary).

Another style of fake catenary adds another element besides poles and span bridges: fake or non-functional wire that is set just above extended pantographs. The old Arnold Rapido line of N trains pioneered this 'aesthetic wire' approach with a catenary system that featured rubber string as a stand-in for wire.  An obscure Japanese manufacturer, Ginga, offers super fine fake photoetch N catenary wire sections that fit between Kato and Tomix poles.

Turns out that the fake catenary idea works in HO as well.  The aformentioned Vic Roseman penned an article on how to make non-functioning catenary in the April 2005 Railmodel Journal, revealing that his awesome Pennsy model photos featured this technique.  He incorporated thin fishing line, which not only has a more-or-less scale appearance, but is also durable and cheap.  But pantographs must be locked into a fixed raised position and can never touch the fishing line 'wire', lest it ruin the illusion.  In short, Vic's fake catenary looks great as a 'placeholder' above the track and trains. I am tempted by this technique and no one should be surprised if I put up a test section of it for some photography.

But I'm committed to the real catenary, because I want my pantographs to subtly flex and for the trains to look great from any angle.  And in the days since my travels in Germany, a US competitor, Model Memories,  has emerged to fill the gap in American catenary. Don Silberbauer, the mastermind behind Model Memories, is a genial and accommodating guy who is committed to helping modelers build catenary.

The real kind, not the fake kind.  But I'll bet you can make some outstanding fake catenary with Model Memories stuff.    Stay tuned to see catenary go up on the Dunes Junction layout.

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