My latest excursion to the east side

Yesterday, after a long day and a long week, Gatermann called me up and asked if I wanted to go to the east side.

So we met up before lunch and paid a visit to one of the east side’s finer establishments, and I brought my camera. Sometimes the things you see over there are pretty dirty, but this time we saw real beauty, and I brought back a picture… from the Kansas City Southern railyard.

This is KCSM 4679, a General Electric ES44AC diesel-electric “GEVO” (General Electric Evolution) locomotive painted up in the Kansas City Southern’s new old paint scheme. Some 50 years ago, KCS used a colorful paint scheme, called the Southern Belle, much like this one. Retro paint schemes are in these days–the Union Pacific started the trend by painting up some locomotives in schemes honoring the railroads they’ve taken over through the years, and judging from the current appearance of UP 1982, the unit painted for the Missouri Pacific, they don’t ever wash those locomotives either (I told you some of the stuff on the east side is dirty)–and the KCS dug out its best paint scheme from the past, updated it a little, and I think the results are striking.

KCSM 4679 is supposed to be painted up for the KCS’ Mexican subsidiary (hence the “de Mexico” on the side) but the front of the locomotive and the herald on the front side says plain old KCS.

There’s some talk that this one’s headed back to the paint shop to replace the herald. The locomotive has been sitting in the yard for the last four days, so this could be the reason.

This is probably stating the obvious, but I’m going to say it. Never actually set foot in a railyard unless you have permission from the railroad. It’s trespassing, and can be dangerous. Stay on public property (the road, shoulder of the road, or sidewalk if there is one) and photograph from there.

I would have liked to have gotten a picture of the UP’s Mopac heritage unit, UP 1982, but when it was sitting in the UP’s Dupo yard there was another train parked in front of it. We were in a decent position to catch the train after it left on its way to Chicago, but it was stuck behind a ballast train doing track maintenance. Unfortunately the last two cars on the ballast train derailed, so UP 1982 stayed parked where we could see it with the naked eye but couldn’t get any good shots of it.

If you’d like to see some shots from the day from the camera of a real, professional photographer, visit Gatermann’s place.

The suburb where Hornbeck and Ownby were found

St. Louis is in the national news again because of the bizarre case of missing children Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby, who were found in the Kirkwood apartment of Michael J. Devlin.


Kirkwood?Kirkwood is a largely upper-middle class suburb west of St. Louis, roughly bounded by Interstates 44 and 270. The main north-south drag through St. Louis County, Lindbergh Boulevard, runs pretty much straight through Kirkwood, although its official name there is Kirkwood Road.

While Kirkwood isn’t as ritzy of a place to live as some of the suburbs to the north and west, such as Chesterfield, Ladue, or Town and Country, if you’re a professional there’s still plenty of prestige to living in Kirkwood. It says that you’re successful and have an appreciation of history.

I never lived in Kirkwood, but my first job was at a roast beef joint, long since closed, in Kirkwood, exactly 1.7 miles from the apartment where they were found. I went to 8th grade at a private school in Kirkwood, less than half a mile from the pizza joint where Devlin worked as a manager. The church where I was confirmed and took Holy Communion for the first time is also the same distance away. I bought the last Christmas gift I got for my dad before he died at a hobby shop just a block or two north of that pizza place.

Although there are exceptions, Kirkwood isn’t exactly a cheap place to live. Founded in 1853 and named for James P. Kirkwod, the first chief engineer of what became the Missouri Pacific Railroad, Kirkwood is a very old suburb, and it shows. Northern Kirkwood is known for its large, majestic Victorian-style houses. Although the edges of the town have taken on the look of post-1950s suburbia, Kirkwood has a very old-fashioned downtown, with storefronts that bring the first half of the 20th century to mind. There are lots of specialty shops there, and numerous restaurants that are either local chains or one-of-a-kinds. It’s a pretty good place to take your significant other for a night out. For that matter, if you wanted to take your kids out for pizza and ice cream, downtown Kirkwood offers several good choices for both.

The pizza parlor where Devlin managed is one of those choices.

To the south, there’s a large, modern commercial shopping district bounded on the north by Big Bend and on the south by Interstate 44, that has lots of big-box stores like Target, Lowe’s, Hobby Lobby, Wal-Mart, Office Depot, and the like. Virtually everyone who lives in the populous suburbs of south and west St. Louis County has probably had occasion in the past year to shop at least once in this district. Devlin lived in a $495-a-month apartment less than two miles away from this busy shopping district.

Also less than two miles from where Devlin lived, and less than half a mile from where he worked, is The Magic House, a very popular, nationally known children’s museum.

All of this probably has a lot to do with why this story ended up on the front cover of Newsweek magazine this week. It’s unusual to find not one, but two missing children, including one who had been missing more than four years, in the same place. But it happened in a populous suburb where so many people gladly take their children to spend an enjoyable weekend afternoon or Friday night.

Some people have questioned how Devlin could have escaped detection for as long as he did. But speaking as someone who knows Kirkwood well, Kirkwood is the last place I would have thought to look.

Kirkwood’s motto isn’t "Where America takes its families," but if Kirkwood wanted that title, it would have as much right to it as anyplace.

We never thought that included kidnappers.

Running Marx and Lionel trains together

Someone asked (not me specifically) whether it’s possible or desirable to run Marx and Lionel trains as part of the same layout, what the caveats are, and how to do it.

It seems to be a pretty dark secret. The answer is, yes it’s possible, and yes, it might very well be desirable, but it’s possible to run into some pitfalls.

Let’s talk about it.Marx and Lionel competed in the 1950s. While Lionel strove to be a status symbol, Marx had a product for every niche. Anyone could afford a Marx train. And since Marx track and accessories were compatible with Lionel, sometimes they got mixed.

Is it desirable? Sure. Both Marx and Lionel made things the other didn’t. For example, Marx made a nice Missouri Pacific cattle car. Lionel made a Missouri Pacific box car. (The Lionel MoPac car wasn’t as nice as American Flyer’s rendition of the same car though.) And if you’re not a high roller, you can buy Lionel O27 cars (which was Lionel’s cheap stuff) and Marx 3/16 scale O27 cars (which was Marx’s expensive stuff). They’re the same size and look fine together. And both can be cheap. I pay between $5 and $10 apiece for Lionel “Scout” type cars from the late 1950s or 1960s. It’s easy to pay $50 apiece for modern O scale cars.

Lionel and Marx used incompatible coupler designs, but that’s easy enough to fix too. Take your most beat-up Marx car and your most beat-up Lionel car, and drill out the rivet that holds one of the trucks in place on each. Then put a Lionel truck on the Marx car and vice-versa, secured with a nut and bolt. Swap the wheels around if you need to in order for both cars to sit flat. Now you can run Marx and Lionel not only together, but even as part of the same train.

The problem is that a lot of Marx engines–basically everything but the Marx 1829 and the Marx 666 (I’ll just call it the sixty-six from here on out) locomotives had what they call a “fat wheel.” The gears that drive the wheels on most toy trains are in the side of the wheel. On Lionels and the aforementioned Marxes, those gears are smaller than the diameter of the wheel. On all other Marxes, those gears are nearly the size of the wheel.

So what? Well, it’s no big deal if you have a simple loop or figure 8 of track. But if you want your track to have branch lines with switches (also called turnouts), where the train can go off in another direction on a different stretch of track, and you use a Lionel switch, the cheap Marx engines like the 400, 490, and 999 will do crazy things when they hit it. Hopefully they won’t fly too far off the track.

Marx switches are designed for Marx locomotives, of course. The problem is, most Lionel locomotives can’t maintain electrical continuity while they go over a Marx switch. Lionel spaced its electrical contacts differently from Marx. Sometimes momentum will carry the Lionel through the switch and it’ll go on as if nothing happened. But sometimes the momentary loss of power is enough to engage the Lionel sequencer, causing it to either go into neutral (in the case of expensive Lionels) or reverse (in the case of cheap ones).

Flip the switch on the top of a Lionel locomotive to disable the sequencer (also known as an e-unit), and you can run Lionels through Marx switches all day.

You can also modify a Marx switch by inserting some track pins strategically to close down the gap that impedes the Lionels. Simply insert track pins where indicated in the diagram below.


The downside to this is that it limits you to O27 track, but that’s not really a downside–you can get wider-diameter O27 track. Use wide diameter track and then your trains will run just as well, or better, than they would on the costlier O31 track.

You can even go outside of O gauge for rolling stock. If you run across a postwar S gauge American Flyer car and like it, it’s possible to adapt it for use with Lionel and Marx. O27 is supposed to be 1:64 scale, just like S gauge is. So if you run across some Flyer cars and the price is right, consider changing its trucks out for Lionel and adding still more variety to your fleet.

Operate incompatible rolling stock together with conversion cars

In the early 1950s, Lionel had two different standards for the couplers on its train cars. “Serious” sets used its knuckle couplers. Entry-level, or “Scout” sets, used one-piece couplers that came to be known as “Scout” couplers. My Dad had cars with both types of couplers in his collection.

Once I got Dad’s set running, I found a Marx car on eBay that I absolutely had to have–an operating Missouri Pacific cattle car. Marx used its own couplers. So how to get both types of Dad’s cars, plus my new Marx car operating together on the same train?

Enter the conversion car.A conversion car is just a car with two types of coupler on each end. I went to Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton to get mine made. Ideally, I’d have done a Marx-to-knuckle conversion car and a Marx-to-Scout conversion car. Then I could convert either type to Marx, and if I wanted to convert Scout to knuckle, I could just use the other two conversion cars. But Marty only had one Marx truck, so I got a Marx-to-knuckle and knuckle-to-Scout made. One could also make a makeshift Marx-compatible coupler with a Lionel truck that lacks a coupler but has a rivet hole (such as those used on the back end of some Lionel cabooses) and a wire Marx coupler substitute.

The only thing to say is to not use a collectible car to make your conversion car. There’s so little market demand for Scout cars that you won’t hurt their value of most of them by making them into conversion cars, and the same holds true of most Marxes. I used cars out of Marty’s $10-and-under box. I’ll also add a suggestion Marty made: Use an open car, like a gondola or a hopper, that you can put a load in to weigh it down. I find my conversion cars derail much less when loaded down with some weight. Even just a film cannister filled with pennies is enough to make a difference.

In the 1950s, Lionel’s knuckle coupler design gave the best combination of realism and reliability, but at a higher cost. Marx’s design was reliable and very inexpensive, but didn’t look very realistic. The Scout design looked realistic and was inexpensive, but wasn’t as reliable as either Lionel’s knuckle coupler or Marx’s tilt coupler. Today, the difference in cost of manufacturing is probably negligible, and people aren’t so concerned about cost anymore anyway.

Serious hobbyists prefer the Lionel knuckle couplers, and for the most part that’s all that anyone makes anymore. But if I like a car, I’m going to buy it, regardless of the coupler, and I want to be able to use basically whatever combination of rolling stock I like.

I’m not sure what that makes me, but conversion cars let me do it, and cheaply.

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