How to lower your train accessories into your table

One of the first articles I remember reading in a train magazine (I don’t remember if it was Classic Toy Trains or a competing rag) was titled “Put your accessories in pockets.” Basically, it advocated cutting holes in your table, putting a board beneath the hole, and putting the accessory in the hole to even it up with the ground level on your layout.

It’s a great idea–more on that in a minute–but it really didn’t go into much detail about how to do the cutting part.

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Thank you and farewell, Dr. Grams

About 8 years ago, I set my mind to repair two Lionel trains that had belonged to my dad. I took to the Internet, and about the only repair advice I could find was to track down The Beginner’s Guide to Repairing Lionel Trains by Ray L. Plummer.

Ray L. Plummer was a pen name for Dr. John A. Grams, a journalism professor at Marquette University and a prolific author. Using either name, he wrote a total of 9 books and 129 magazine articles about Lionel and similar vintage trains.

Dr. Grams died this week, aged 77.

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Why publish in Classic Toy Trains?

On one of the few remaining train forums where I do anything but lurk, the magazine Classic Toy Trains came up in discussion. Someone said, “It ought to call itself Classic Lionel Toys and be done with it,” and the discussion progressed from there.

Being that my next published work will be in that particular magazine, I thought I’d address some of the concerns/comments that came up.

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Contract time

I received a contract today from Classic Toy Trains, a sister publication of Model Railroader and Discover. If you haven’t heard of CTT, there’s a chance you’ve heard of one of the others. It’s an article about the venerable Lionel gateman accessory, and some tricks for improving its operation.

I don’t know yet when they plan to publish it, but when I find out, I’ll make an announcement.

Kalmbach, the owner of CTT, has a long tradition of excellence dating to the 1930s. I’m thrilled to write for them.

If you think you can do it so much better, then do it yourself

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately on the Classic Toy Trains forums. It seems like every time a new issue hits the street, someone has to find an article that has something wrong with it and point it out.It started a few months ago when my friend and mentor Joe Rampolla published an article about adding a capacitor to a toy train to make it stall less often and run more smoothly. The claims, as far as I can tell, were false (I had my longtime friend Steve DeLassus, who has a degree in electrical engineering from Washington University, check them out).

But practically every month since then, someone’s publicly taken issue with something in the magazine.

It’s not about a vendetta against a single author. One issue it was Joe. But last issue it was repair expert Ray Plummer’s advice on repairing a Lionel 2037. This issue it’s the legendary Peter Riddle’s article about getting Lionel’s TMCC and MTH’s DCS (two rival control systems) working together on the same layout.

In the case of each of these articles, the things the author said to do work. There might be an alternative way to do them. But that’s the nature of the hobby. Doesn’t it seem like Model Railroader publishes an article at least once a year about making trees, and not one of those articles has been a repeat since at least 1972 (and possibly 1942)? And if you were to read a complete run of Railroad Model Craftsman, you could probably find another 50 different ways to make trees.

Fifty or a hundred people having different ways to do it doesn’t make the guy who wrote the first article about making trees wrong.

In the case of Ray Plummer, what Plummer said matches what my local repair guy said and did when my Lionel 2037 had problems. When the pilot truck is adjusted within specifications, the 2037 and its many cousins run just fine. Plummer’s critic said the pilot truck is a poor design, and when you lengthen the truck to change its pivot point, it works more reliably.

That’s possible. I don’t know the theory behind pivot points. One of my best friends happens to be a mechanical engineer and maybe he could confirm that for me.

What I can say is that Plummer’s advice preserves the historical integrity and collector value of the locomotive. While modifying the pivot point probably wouldn’t make the locomotive worth any less to someone who just wants to run it, it would make it worth less to a collector.

I can also confirm that Plummer’s advice worked just fine on the locomotive that once belonged to my Dad. It’s almost as dependable as my Honda now.

As far as this month’s article to hit the avalanche of criticism, I don’t use any command control system on my layout and I have no interest in doing so. So I don’t have any experience that would back him up, and neither do either of my engineer buddies.

But I trust Peter Riddle. Riddle has written more than a dozen excellent books about trains. Wiring is a subject that confuses almost everyone, but I’m confident that a fifth grader could read one of Riddle’s books on wiring and understand it, then proceed to wire a Lionel layout effectively. Seriously.

I’ve heard the argument presented in these arguments that if an author is wrong about one thing, the reader loses confidence in everything he says. I don’t buy that argument. Riddle’s advice that the Lionel 1121 switch is a good match for early Marx locomotives isn’t entirely correct. From my own experience I know a Marx locomotive will bounce if it enters the switch from a particular direction.

So do I doubt what Riddle says on the other 95 pages of the same book? No. I also know from experience that the things he says on the other 95 pages work. And I know that even though that Marx locomotive bounces through the switch 33% of the time, it doesn’t derail every time it bounces. So maybe he’s never seen the problem I observed.

I’ll daresay there’s at least one mistake in every computer book I’ve ever read. It doesn’t mean I stop reading computer books. I’ve been wrong once or twice before too. Just ask my boss.

Actually, come to think of it I’d really rather you just took my word on that one.

This criticism bothers me on another level too. Writing an article and getting it published isn’t an easy task. For most people it probably takes about 40 hours’ worth of work. CTT pays $70 per page, and a typical article is 3-4 pages long, so you do the math.

How many people want to spend a week of their lives writing an article only to have some self-styled expert rip it apart in five minutes? Is it worth putting your neck on the line for $300?

Most reasonable people would say no.

I’m sure this is largely an ego thing. Most people regard published authors as special people. So when someone knows something that a published author doesn’t, it must make for some kind of a high.

But the price is also high. How many great ideas languish in the mind of a would-be author, never to see the light of day, because the benefits just don’t outweigh that onslaught of criticism if it happens?

So the next time you catch a mistake in print, that’s great. It means you know enough to be an author. So think of something you know better than anyone else and go write an article and advance the hobby.

Of course, criticism is easier than craftsmanship. Zeuxis made that observation 2400 years ago, and it’s just as true today as it was then. Unfortunately.

A compelling toy train layout with animations done on the cheap

Layouts featuring Lionel, American Flyer, and other O or S gauge trains don’t have to be expensive. Joe Rampola has lots of ideas for creating a good-looking layout with lots of animation (aside from the trains) using mostly inexpensive items. His site has lots of pictures and video clips.

His work has been featured in both Classic Toy Trains and O Gauge Railroading magazines.Among his better ideas: Lay a loop of HO gauge track, then put 0-4-0 mechanisms from cheap HO scale locomotives in the frames of 1:43 scale die-cast cars and make streets for the layout. This is a similar approach to K-Line’s new Superstreets, but Rampola did it years earlier, and his approach is a lot less expensive for those who can live without instant gratification. His approach also allows you to use any vehicle you want, so long as you’re willing to modify it.

He also has plans and instructions posted for lots of inexpensive animations he did using the cheap unpainted (and unfortunately, discontinued) K-Line figures from the classic Marx molds of the 1950s. Sometimes you can still get lucky and find a box of unpainted K-Line figures hiding on hobby shop shelves.

He even has his animations controlled by an old Timex Sinclair 1000 computer. He gives enough detail that I suspect someone good with homebrew circuits could adapt his circuit and his program to another computer, such as an Apple or Commodore. Even a 3.5K unexpanded VIC-20 ought to be up to the task, let alone a behemoth Commodore 64.

I’ve always bristled at the thought of adding electronics to my traditional layout, because my trains are my escape from computers. But using a real computer–real men only need 8 bits–to control parts of a layout does have some appeal to me.

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