Model railroading as fan fiction

Dan Bowman sent me this a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself agreeing with it: Model railroading is a form of fan fiction.

It seems like a good way to look at it. Every model railroad is a compromise. By my rough estimations, it’s 4.1 miles from Dupo, Illinois to Cahokia, but even if you model in Z scale, you’ll need 97 linear feet to model that line. I would think it would be very difficult to build a Z scale layout of that size–it would take a huge basement–and only put two towns on it. So, at the very least, people put their towns closer together and use a fast clock to make up for the compression. Some people compromise a lot more than that. Read more

“It’s your happy place.”

Someone told me today that she didn’t quite get the appeal of model railroading, that it must be a male thing. And that’s fair: Model railroads were first invented by a dollhouse maker so they would have something to market to boys. That company still markets trains, but no longer markets dollhouses, so I guess you could say it was successful.

Here’s how I summed up the appeal.

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The Observation Car

I’ll argue that model railroads and toy trains are separate but related hobbies. That said, I still enjoy good model railroading material. I can still steal ideas from them and adapt their techniques.

Late last year, noted model railroaders Dave Frary, Doug Foscale, and Jimmy Deignan started a podcast called The Observation Car. If listening to three veteran modelers sit around and talk shop once a month for a little over an hour sounds interesting or useful, it’s worth bookmarking. They haven’t done their February podcast yet, but I’ll be watching for it. In the meantime, they have three podcasts up to listen to.

E.R. Johnston, the train dealer, the myth, the legend

Something today made me think of Johnston Electric, a legendary, long-gone train store in St. Louis’ Dutchtown neighborhood that sold Lionel, American Flyer, and HO scale trains.

I was in the old Marty’s Model Railroads store in Affton one afternoon several years ago while Marty was going through a box of trains he had bought earlier in the day. He found some manuals, catalogs, and other paperwork, which he set aside. Then he pulled out an old newspaper page. “I wonder why he saved that?” he asked. He set the paper down, then something caught his eye. “Oh, that’s why,” he said, and pointed at an ad on the page.

An ad for E. R. Johnston from 1948
An ad for E. R. Johnston from 1948

“Johnston’s,” it read at the bottom. “3118 Chippewa Street.”

“I spent many, many hours at that place when I was younger,” Marty said.
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Recapturing the charm of someone else’s dad’s American Flyer train

My buddy Todd brought over his dad’s American Flyer train today. It had been a gift from his dad on his first Christmas. It was from 1938.

That was a peculiar year, because it was the first year that A.C. Gilbert, of Erector fame, built American Flyer trains. Previously American Flyer had been an independent company in Chicago.

This model was a Gilbert design, and at most produced from 1938 to 1941.Late last year, Todd had asked our mutual friend Tom about how to go about getting the train repaired. Tom referred Todd to me, since 3-rail O gauge isn’t Tom’s specialty. Of course Tom knew the answer: Marty Glass, of Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton.

So Todd took it to Marty earlier this year, once the Christmas rush had died down. Todd called me yesterday and said Marty had finished it. He brought it over.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he brought out an intricate 4-6-4 Pacific. It had far more detail than anything Marx ever made, and far more detail than any O27 locomotive Lionel ever made too. It had an intricate set of linkages, which turned out to be its downfall because they got bound up on us once. Marty had run the train for Todd when he picked it up–I suggested Todd have him do that, since 68-year-old trains always need some adjustments after they’ve been repaired. It ran fine on Marty’s layout.

Before we ran the train, I fixed the light in the Pullman car Todd brought over. He hadn’t taken that to Marty. The wire had come loose from the pickup on the underside of the car, and the light bulb was rattling around inside. I fished the bulb out, examined it (it looked fine; the old light bulbs in these trains is almost always fine, even after being shipped across the country), put the bulb in the socket, and re-soldered the wire to the pickup. I solder like a plumber, but judging from the pickup on that train, so did the Gilbert employee who built it.

With the car ready to go, I put it and the locomotive and tender on the track. We quickly found that the oddball American Flyer link and pin couplers didn’t line up right. Time for some more adjustments. I finally got the coupler heights adjusted correctly, then I hit the power, expecting since it had run in the store, it would run just fine on my layout.

Not so much. It ran for a few feet, then stopped in a shower of blue sparks, leaving a buzzing sound on the layout that I’ve come to associate with a short circuit.

The handrails were the biggest problem. There are two holes in the cowcatcher assembly that the handrails are supposed to slide into. Had I been doing the design, I would have made the rails longer, so they could be bent further underneath. But that’s irrelevant now. With the handrails not in the holes, they were pushing the cowcatcher down low, there it could short out the third rail. S gaugers can gloat that this wouldn’t be a problem on 2-rail S gauge track, but they really ought to respect their elders.

So I fixed the rails, and put a dab of solder on the underside to hold them in place (solder won’t stick to the zamac boiler). I noted the Phillips head screws Marty used to put it all back together. I’ll have to give him a hard time about that the next time I see him. Phillips screws didn’t come into widespread use on toys until the ’50s.

With that problem taken care of, it ran, but then it locked up hard. I gave it another thorough examination, and found that some of the intricacies on the drive rods had come misaligned, causing it all to bind up. I had to take it apart to free up enough space to realign everything. I took off the front truck, then the cowcatcher, guided everything where it was supposed to go, and reassembled everything.

And what do you know… It ran. It was a bit herky-jerky at first, but in my experience, old motors are always that way when they’ve been sitting for decades. They seem to need to get some running time in before they get used to running smoothly again. Todd told me that Marty said the motor was fine; the only problems he found were structural. From the sound of the motor, Marty obviously had lubed it–they tend to squeal a lot after 50 years, let alone 68, and this motor sounded like new–but I guess that’s all it had needed.

I found out the hard way that this locomotive (an American Flyer 531) really hates O27 curves. It derails every time, even on curves where you lead into the O27 and back out with a wider curve. So we moved it from my inner loop to my outer loop, which is mostly O42 except in one corner, where I had to do O34 to make everything fit. It made me nervous on O34 curves, but it did manage to stay on the track. It was much happier on the O42, which makes sense, because American Flyer O gauge track was 40 inches in diameter, just like its S gauge track.

Once we were confident it was running, we packed it back up. Todd was going to go surprise his dad with it. It’s been a long time since its last run. I hope he’ll enjoy seeing it roam the rails again.

Now that I’ve seen some of the late prewar 3/16 scale American Flyer up close and personal, I have a new admiration for it. I own a number of the Flyer freight cars from that period, but none of the locomotives. The detail is very good, and they run smooth and are geared low, so they have plenty of pulling power.

I’m sure Todd’s dad will be happy to see it running again. I know I sure enjoyed fine-tuning it.

Excuse me while I go check eBay…

Making a Marx run like a Marx again

After a couple of marathon days at work, I unwound on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by refurbishing an old Marx Canadian Pacific-style tinplate locomotive.

At first, its problem wasn’t obvious.The usual prescription for a misbehaving Marx is to remove the motor from the locomotive frame, douse it in contact cleaner (I got some zero-residue contact cleaner from Advance Auto Parts for $1.99, which is the best price I’ve seen) to remove or at least soften the decades’ worth of grime and no-longer-effective aged lubricants, then conservatively re-lube, applying some sewing machine-type oil to the axles and bearings, and some light grease to the gears.

I did that, and the thing still would only run about three feet at best. It smoked better than most modern Lionel locomotives do, but the problem is, this particular train doesn’t have a smoke generator. Ahem. I get worried when a non-smoking locomotive smokes better than my smokers.

Since this CP came from a store, I took it back whence it came–to Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton. Lionel (the co-owner, not the train company) flipped it over, took one look at the wheels, and pointed. "That’s either steel wool or cat hair." Sure enough, there was lots of hair wound around the axles next to the gear-bearing wheels. Marty took a look at it and decided the wheels were too tight, so he broke out his wheel puller and pulled the wheels out a fraction of an inch from the frame. The locomotive mostly came to life. The e-unit still buzzed, so he grabbed a can of special lubricated contact cleaner and blasted a couple of squirts of that into the e-unit. He warned me to make sure I let it evaporate, otherwise I’d see a really big spark and maybe some smoke. Then he oiled the axles for good measure. It ran. Not like a Marx usually runs, but it could make it around the track under its own power for several minutes at a time.

The locomotive was still running hot though, so I attacked the hair wrapped around the axles with a #11 Xacto blade. I can’t really describe the process other than cut, pull, repeat. Work the blade until it feels like you’ve cut something, then see if you can use the side of the blade to pull it out. Lots of old hair came out. When I couldn’t get any more, I ran it on the track for a few minutes, first in forward, then in reverse. That would usually loosen things up enough that I could yank more hair out or at least cut some more.

After about half an hour of this, the locomotive was to the point where it could run on its own power for 10-15 minutes and only be warm to the touch afterward. That was a huge improvement; earlier it could only manage a couple of laps before the motor would be too hot to comfortably touch.

I ran it for about 20 minutes. At some point the locomotive suddenly sped up and didn’t slow back down. Some piece of debris had worked itself loose from the running, and suddenly it was running like a Marx again. The cheaper (or older) Marx locomotives were geared really high, and they basically only had three speeds: off, fast, and so fast it’ll fly off the track (and not pick up any speed from gravity while falling).

Most people who had Marx trains set the track up on the floor temporarily, ran the trains, then took the track back apart and boxed it back up. That’s why it’s so common to see 50-year-old Marx sets still in their original boxes. But setting the trains up on the carpet meant all sorts of stuff could find its way up from the carpet into the gears and wind its way around the axles. Some of my more experienced Marx buddies tell me almost every locomotive they buy has this problem.

So, if you’ve got an old train from your attic or basement and you’ve set it up and it just won’t budge, flip it over and take a good look at its axles under a strong light. What you find might be what’s keeping your train from running.

When in St. Louis, don’t miss the City Museum

So, not wanting to celebrate the Anheuser-Busch-mandated holiday of New Year’s Eve but not wanting to sit around at home on a Friday night either, a good idea came up: Go to the City Museum.

It claims to be unlike any other museum you’ve ever seen. While that may be debatable, it does have something for everyone.It’s a very hands-on museum designed for exploration. The first level is almost like a catacombs, with secret passages and the like. Wear comfortable tennis shoes. You’ll need them.

The other two levels are a bit more museum-like but still hands-on. Each level has a large slide that goes down to the lobby. Yes, adults can fit in the slides too. I know because I went down each of them about three times.

You’ll find a level of art and artifacts and various activities. Included is a very large, elaborate, and critically acclaimed HO-scale model railroad that was built by St. Louisan Pete Fordyce in the 1950s. Fordyce was a frequent contributor to Model Railroader magazine and the layout is reasonably famous, as far as model railroads go. Anyone who ever built a plastic model kit as a child will be impressed with it; a model railroader could probably stand there for hours studying the techniques.

The top floor has a very large exhibit dedicated to architecture. The artifacts include doors, windows, cornices, and even entire storefronts. Most artifacts have signs telling where they came from and why the building was demolished–sadly, usually for something stupid and generic like a chain store or a gas station. There are exhibits about the histories of door hinges and doorknobs. How can hinges and knobs be interesting? They weren’t always the boring, bland mass-produced affairs you see at Home Depot today.

Outside, there are lots of things for kids (big and small) to climb on. I didn’t climb much; as much as I would have liked to climb up to that airplane and go inside it, climbing up three stories on semi-open girders to get there is more than my nerves can take. Judging from the number of people climbing on it, I’m in the minority and that’s a good thing.

I absolutely recommend it. At night when the admission is only $5, not only is it cheaper than going to the movies, but you’ll get some exercise and if you’re not careful you just might learn something. During the day it’s far less expensive than going to an amusement park.

Incoming link:

An easy coupler height fix for prewar American Flyer

So I picked up this oddball car at Marty’s Model Railroads a couple of weeks ago. It’s a Lionel/American Flyer hybrid: A Lionel 807 cattle car on a prewar American Flyer 8-wheel frame. It has the awful prewar Lionel latch coupler on one side and the oddball AF hook coupler (with the funny-shaped tab) on the other. It’s compatible with everyone else’s hook coupler, fortunately. The Lionel coupler is compatible with nothing.

It was intended as a conversion car, but it rides too high, so the Lionel coupler won’t connect with a Lionel car. Bummer.Marty and I came up with a couple of possible remedies. I could replace the Lionel coupler with one that has a longer shank. I could replace the Lionel coupler with one that attaches with a screw or rivet, and make a bearing with a piece of brass tube to lower the coupler, and attach all of it with a long bolt.

I came up with another solution that doesn’t require any disassembly of the car. That’s good, because these prewar cars weren’t intended to be disassembled, and generally you can only disassemble and reassemble once. Obviously, this car got its second disassembly and reassembly when it was put on the Flyer frame. I could probably get by with just removing the roof, but the paint’s in pretty good shape and I’d rather not mar it.

American Flyer copied Ives’ oversized wheels. I happened to have the car close to a 6-wheel Marx car, and noticed the difference the smaller Marx wheels made in the car height.

So I pulled out some spare Marx wheels and swapped them in for the Flyer wheels. As I suspected, the car started riding lower. It wasn’t quite a perfect match for the height of a Lionel, but it was close enough. The Lionel latch couplers have enough play in them to make a secure connection.

Of course, the height was no longer a perfect match for American Flyer either. But these couplers have lots of play in them too, and that oddball AF design gives a more secure connection than the more traditional tab-in-slot couplers used by everyone else, so the cars connect and stay connected there too.

Marx wheels are cheap, because the standard Marx wheel stayed in production for almost 40 years, and Marx sold millions of train sets. So lots of parts survive to this day.

You still think outsourcing is a good idea?

Don’t be fooled by the topic I put this in: This has potential implications for any area of manufacturing.

Lionel, the most famous U.S. maker of toy trains and model railroads, has been found guilty of industrial espionage and ordered to pay $40 million to competitor MTH Electric Trains.

What happened? Well, both Lionel and MTH outsource their production. As it turned out, some work that was done for MTH ended up in Lionel designs as well.I really don’t think anyone has a good grasp of what happened, but the story I heard is that a contractor who worked for MTH’s subcontractor designing locomotives moonlighted for Lionel’s subcontractor, and that he reused some work that he did on an MTH design on a Lionel design. MTH claims Lionel knew about this. Lionel claims it did not.

Regardless of who you believe, somebody was wronged. R&D work for one company ended up benefiting its competitor, and now that mistake is costing lots of money.

As a consumer, I’m disappointed because I’ve been led to believe that Lionel and MTH do their own designs and outsource production to Korea and China. Evidently they outsource some of their lucrative R&D as well.

Apologists for both companies have said that Korean companies tend to be related by blood or marriage and that workers routinely move from company to company, taking trade secrets with them and using them. That’s the corporate culture. U.S. corporate culture, of course, is exactly the opposite. We demand that you somehow forget all of your proprietary trade secrets when you change employers. Or at least don’t use them in your new job.

The products involved in this case aren’t the $20 locomotives you see at Hobby Lobby or Toys ‘R Us either. We’re talking premium products that sell for five figures here. I’ve seen them in person–they’re definitely impressive looking. But they’re playthings for people who make six figures per year, minimum. I like O gauge Lionel stuff an awful lot. But I don’t expect to ever own one. They cost more than I’m willing to pay for a computer.

I suspect that with those kinds of profit margins, they could have afforded to build them in Michigan or New Jersey, where Lionel understands how its workers work and its workers understand how its employer works. That’s the scenario if you assume Lionel is innocent. If you assume Lionel is guilty, well, that scenario makes industrial espionage much more unlikely. It’s always best not to allow yourself to be tempted to do something wrong–it’s easier to avoid temptation than it is to resist it.

And if they’d had to raise the price of a $1,400 locomotive by another $100, I doubt too many people would have screamed. Especially if the words “Proudly made in USA” were prominently featured on the package.

There’s some question whether there’s even room in a $100 million hobby for both Lionel and MTH. When your industry is worth $100 million as a whole, and you have to share that pie with four or five competitors, you can’t really afford a $40 million jury award, can you?

Saving a few bucks in labor and R&D may have just cost Lionel its life.

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