No reason for brand wars

On one of the train forums I frequent, a legitimate question quickly degenerated into brand wars. And brand wars are one thing, but when people hold their preferred company to a different standard than the other company–in other words, one company is evil because it does something, but their preferred company does the same thing, it isn’t productive.

Actually, I see very little reason for brand loyalty as it is. I drive a Honda and I use a Compaq computer. Do either of those companies have any loyalty to me? No. To them, I’m just a source of income from yesterday.I don’t like the categorization of companies as "good" and "evil." Companies don’t exist to be good or evil. Companies exist for one reason: Make money. And one thing to remember is that companies will always do exactly what they think they can get away with.

In the case of the toy train wars, the two antagonists are Lionel and MTH. MTH is a scrappy underdog that got its start building trains as a subcontractor for Lionel. A business deal went bad–in short, Lionel left MTH high and dry on a multimillion dollar project, so MTH decided to go on its own and sell the product Lionel decided it didn’t want, but Lionel didn’t like the idea of one of its subcontractors competing with it while also making product for them, and understandably so.

MTH and Lionel have been mortal enemies ever since.

A few years ago, MTH accused Lionel of stealing trade secrets. The specifics are difficult to sort out, but someone with intimate knowledge of some of MTH’s products started designing equivalent products for Lionel. MTH sued and won, to the tune of $40 million. The case is now in appeal.

There’s no question that Lionel benefited from this contractor’s knowledge of the competing product. The question is who knew this was going on, who authorized it, and what an appropriate punishment would be. The only people who are questioning guilt have blinders on. There is no innocence here–just possible degrees of guilt. The other question is appropriateness. Lionel doesn’t have $40 million in the bank. Arguably the company isn’t worth a lot more than $40 million. So that $40 million judgment is essentially the corporate death penalty.

MTH is anything but perfect and holy, however. The thing that bothers me most about MTH is its attempt to patent elements of DCC (Digital Command Control), a method for automating train layouts. It’s an open industry standard, widely used by HO and N scale hobbyists. So MTH was seeking to collect royalties on something that’s supposed to be free for everyone to use. That’s a particular pet peeve of mine, and it’s the reason I haven’t bought any MTH products since 2003.

I came close to relenting this weekend though, when I saw some people bashing MTH while holding Lionel up as some kind of perfect, holy standard. It made me want to go buy a bunch of MTH gear, photograph myself with it, and post it on some forums so I could watch these guys have a stroke about it. Fortunately for them, I have better things to do with $200 right now. I also looked on my layout, and I don’t know where I could put the things I would have considered buying.

I’m more familiar with the computer industry than I am with anything else, and if you mention any computer company, I can probably think of something they did that would fit most people’s definition of evil. HP? Print cartridges that lie about being empty. Lexmark? Same thing, plus using the DMCA to keep you from refilling them. Dell? Nonstandard pinouts on power supplies that look standard, but blow up your motherboard if you try to use non-Dell equipment. IBM? Microchannel. Microsoft? Don’t get me started. Apple? Lying in ads.

As far as I’m concerned though, the most evil company of all is Disney. Disney, of all people? Yes. Disney is the main reason for the many complicated rewrites of copyright law that we’ve had in recent decades. Whenever something Disney values might fall into the public domain, Disney buys enough congressmen to get the laws changed. Never mind that early in its history, Disney exploited the public domain for its gain as much as anyone (which was its legal right), even to the point of waiting for The Jungle Book to fall into the public domain before making the movie, in order to avoid paying royalties to Rudyard Kipling. The problem is that now that Disney is the biggest kid on the block, it’s changing the rules it used to get there, so that nobody else can do it.

Unfortunately I’ve even seen not-for-profit corporations, companies that exist mostly to give away money, do dishonest things and essentially steal. If a charity can and will do these things, you can be certain that a for-profit corporation will.

So I don’t see any reason for brand loyalty, aside from liking a product. If you buy a company’s products and you like them, fine. Keep buying them. But that doesn’t make the people who prefer a competitor’s product evil. They didn’t sign off on the decisions, and your favorite company has done its own share of underhanded things too, whether you know it or not.

And there’s certainly no reason to go to war for your company of choice. It wouldn’t do the same for you.

Confessions of a mediocre modeler

Spookshow is an N scaler’s autobiography of his hobby experience.

I agree with him that he isn’t a master modeler, but if he’s mediocre, he’s upper-tier mediocre. The biggest difference I see between his layouts and the layouts in magazines is the photography–their photographers take clearer, “poppier” shots, and they don’t take photos of the layout’s weak points. (What you don’t show is as important as what you show.)He talks about everything that went into building his layouts, including his thought process, and his philosophy on the hobby. It’s interesting to watch another hobbyist think, and it’s kind of refreshing to see it from the point of view of someone who isn’t full of himself. A lot of hobby sites tend to pat the author on the back a lot (mine may have too much of that attitude too, for that matter), so I find this guy refreshing.

This site is worth spending some time reading, certainly. I don’t do N scale and I don’t go after the realistic look (I may try it someday, but not now) but his insights are very useful.

I don’t know if this attitude is a general thing, or if it’s just one particularly vocal modeler and it seems like a lot because he just talks too stinking much, but I get really irritated with a tunnel-vision approach to the hobby. I can still learn a lot from people who take a different approach from me. I think I can learn more from them than I can from the people who think just like me. After all, we’re probably all stuck in the same rut. I even look at what the tabletop wargamers are doing. They build scenery too…

Cars (as in vehicles) for train layouts

I was at Kmart today, and as I usually do, I wandered down the toy aisle on the off chance I might find some cars that might work on my train layout.

I did a lot better than I usually do–Jada and Maisto came through for me.I won’t talk about HO and N scale trains because for those scales, you can walk in to any hobby shop in the country and find pretty much anything you want. Us Lionel and American Flyer fans have it a lot tougher.

Lionel O scale is roughly 1:48. You won’t find 1:48 vehicles anywhere these days, but you can find 1:43 and 1:50. Some people fret that 1:43 is way too big, but sometimes you can hold up one maker’s 1:43 vehicle next to a similar 1:50 vehicle from another make and find they’re just about the same size. Maisto and New Ray are two makes of cars that size.

Lionel and Marx O27 is 1:64, more or less. Maisto, Jada, and Ertl make lots of 1:64 cars. Some Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars are close, but most are closer to 1:72, which is a bit small.

American Flyer O gauge trains made after 1937 are 1:64 scale, and all American Flyer S gauge trains are 1:64.

Since I run O27, I have lots of vehicles to choose from, but the problem is finding something era-appropriate. Contemporary vehicles are no problem to find, but if you want something old, it’s hard to find much other than a ’57 Chevy. Well, you can find a handful of late ’50s cars of various makes, but it tends to lean towards the late ’50s, and from looking at the stuff in the diecast aisle, you would think Ford and GM were the only two companies making cars in the ’50s. Want a Studebaker or a Hudson or (gasp) a Dodge? Good luck.

Of course I had to make things more difficult. I like really old trains, so a ’57 Chevy isn’t exactly going to cut it. I need 1930s and 1940s cars.

Maisto just happens to be offering a 1:64 ’36 Ford Coupe as part of its G Ridez series. It has homey-ized rims and thin tires, but other than that, it looks pretty stock. Hot Wheels has offered a ’36 Ford since I was a little kid, but it was always a hotrod.

Maisto also offers a ’37 Ford, but it has a prominently chopped roof

And Jada is offering a 1:64 ’39 Chevy Master Deluxe as part of its Dub City Old Skool line. Like the Maisto, it has thin tires and weird rims, but aside from that, it looks stock, and it’s black. This is a very nice car to have because it’s a late 1930s station wagon–a family car. It looks just like the cars you see families using in the movies set in the ’30s and ’40s. I hope I can find a few more of these because it’s the kind of ordinary car that will look natural even if I had several on the layout.

So if your toy train preferences lean towards American Flyer S gauge or Lionel or Marx O27, a trip down the toy aisle at your local Kmart or Target would probably be a good idea.

One thing I’ve learned is that I have to be patient. Usable cars are out there, but there may only be a handful of them issued every year–including anything Mattel releases under the Hot Wheels or Matchbox brands, undersize or not. I take what I can get. But improving the layout a little bit at a time over the course of years is part of the hobby’s appeal. At least it’s supposed to be.

What to do if you can’t find a Lionel Polar Express set

The Polar Express is turning out (so far) to be a bigger hit for Lionel than it is for Tom Hanks. Dealers are sold out and the sets are turning up on Ebay, usually with asking prices $100-$200 higher than the suggested retail price. It’s not as hot as Tickle Me Elmo, but since the words "hot selling" and "train set" haven’t appeared together since the late 1950s, well…

So what should you do if you (or someone in your household) wants The Polar Express and can’t get one? Hint: Ebay shouldn’t be your first resort.First and foremost, Lionel did little other than apply new lettering to existing product to make this set. So if you can live without the posable figures that were included in the set, any 2-8-4 Berkshire steam engine pulling a string of heavyweight passenger cars is going to look like the Polar Express. That’s Greek to you? Don’t worry. If you call up a hobby shop that sells trains and ask for that, someone there will know what that means.

But, from a playing with trains standpoint, passenger cars aren’t nearly as interesting as freights. Once you get tired of watching the Polar Express run around in circles, the set’s going to do time in the basement or the attic and maybe come back out around the holidays to grace Mom’s porcelain village with its presence. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless the train was intended to be played with.

If the Polar Express has kindled an interest in trains, Junior is going to have more fun with a freight set, because freight trains haul stuff. Gondolas and hoppers can haul loads of marbles, flat cars can haul automobiles and construction equipment, and so on. New cars can be added to make it more interesting, usually at fairly low cost. Besides, a freight train isn’t going to scream "Christmas," which the Polar Express certainly does.

I recommend O27 type trains for kids for two reasons. First, I recommend it because it’s what I grew up with and it’s what my dad grew up with, so it must be the best, right? More seriously, O27 trains are big and heavy enough that they can be handled without breaking. The track can be permanently attached to a table, but that isn’t necessary. It works just fine set up on the floor. HO and N scale track don’t work as well if they aren’t bolted down, and an O27 set has much more tolerance for kinks in the track. Also, because of O27’s sharp curves, you can actually squeeze a better O27 layout into a 4’x5′ space than you could an HO set. It isn’t as realistic, but kids aren’t as worried about perfect realism as adults. Another advantage of O27 is that it’s scaled at 1:64, which is about the same scale as the Matchbox-type cars that every kid already has. Kids would probably play with the trains and cars together anyway even if they weren’t the same scale, but since they’re sized to go together, they give more play options together.

What brand? Lionel is the venerable brand, but there are others. If you go to a store like Hobby Lobby, you’ll see sets from a company called K-Line, if you’re lucky, maybe one or two Lionel accessories. Many of the so-called anchor department stores carry a set from either Lionel or a company called MTH in their catalogs, if not in the stores themselves. While the brand loyalty to Lionel and MTH is even more ridiculous than Ford and Chevy pickup truck loyalty, there isn’t a lot of difference these days. The nice thing is that even if you buy a set from one company, the other companies’ cars will work with them. Most of the hobby shops here in St. Louis carry a large selection of inexpensive cars from a company called Industrial Rail. Unfortunately, no matter which brand you get, it’s very difficult to find an O27 gauge set for less than $200.

Used, er, vintage trains can be a lot less expensive than buying new, but I don’t recommend it for a first-time buyer looking for a train set for a child. I’ve bought a lot of used vintage trains, and about half of them run. It’s usually impossible to tell from looking at the outside or from its age if it’s going to run. An 85-year-old train I bought ran–poorly, but it ran–while a 30-year old train I bought didn’t run at all. If you’re going to buy used, buy from a hobbyist who has been using it and can demonstrate that it still works, or buy from a dealer who will stand behind it.

But if you must have the Polar Express, what to do? Ebay may be your only option. Lionel fanatics have known this set was coming for about a year, and they bought up a good percentage of the sets. Most of the remaining sets are spoken for. A phone call to your local Lionel dealers (look in the phone book under "hobbies") might turn up a set. If someone actually advertises a set in the ads on the left-hand side of this page, they’re worth checking out too, on the logic that they wouldn’t pay to advertise something they don’t have in stock.

If you must turn to Ebay, e-mail the seller before you bid to make sure the seller actually has the set. A lot of people are listing sets on Ebay with the intent of ordering a set if someone buys it. This practice is illegal, but these buyers either don’t know or care. But why should you pay someone $350 to order a set and wait until March to get it when you can pay $250 for the set yourself and wait until March to get it?

The other option is to wait until March. Lionel will make more sets. Trust me on that. They need the money.

Lionel bankruptcy

Lionel bankruptcy

It was all over the news when it happened. Lionel, the train maker, filed Chapter 11 on Nov 16, 2004. But a lot of the news stories got some critical details wrong. It’s not the first time a Lionel bankruptcy confused people.

Lionel has been bankrupt before, but the company has changed ownership numerous times so it’s not the same legal entity that went bankrupt in the 1930s and 1960s. There have also been numerous rumors about bankruptcy after 2004. These are usually dealers trying to create artificial demand to clear inventory.

Read more

Converting Bachmann On30 cars to O or O27?

There’s always a discussion about the cost of O gauge/O scale somewhere, mostly because it’s hard to find new locomotives for less than $500 and new train cars for under $75. You’d think this was a hobby for trial lawyers and brain surgeons.

One guy pointed out how much bang for the buck he’s getting when he buys On30.

Now, a bit of terminology here. O scale is 1:48 scale. One quarter inch on the model is equal to a foot on the real-world equivalent. O27, the cheaper brother of O scale, is actually 1:64 scale, though it runs on the same track. “Serious” hobbyists often look down on O27, but the nice thing about O27 is it lets you pack a lot more into a smaller space.

So what’s this On30 stuff and what’s the difference between it and regular O or O27 scale?

I’m glad you asked.

On30, On3, and the like refer to “narrow gauge.” Most train track in the United States has its rails 4 feet 8 inches (or 8 1/2 inches) apart. That’s “Standard gauge.” Occasionally, a railroad would lay its track 3 feet apart, or 30 inches apart, or some other measurement narrower than 4’8.5″. This was especially common out west in regions where they had to deal with a lot of mountains. On30 refers to 1:48 scale models of 30-inch gauge trains. On3 refers to 1:48 scale models of 3-foot gauge trains. On2 refers to 1:48 scale models of 2-foot gauge trains. And so on. I’ve talked more about On30 here if you want to know more.

Now it just so happens that the distance between the rails on regular old HO scale track measures out to 31.3 inches in O scale. For most people, that’s certainly close enough. O scalers have been living with track that’s 5 scale feet wide ever since we decided that O scale was 1:48, back in the 1930s or so.

So Bachmann, the makers of the cheap HO and N scale train sets you see at Hobby Lobby, decided to take advantage of this convenient accident, make some 1:48 scale cars, put narrow trucks on them, bundle some HO scale track and commercialize On30. So now it’s actually easier in some regions to get a Bachmann On30 train set than it is to get a Lionel O train set.

I found this page on converting Bachmann On30 cars to S scale. What the author did was remove the Bachmann trucks and couplers and substitute American Flyers. Since S scale stuff is even more scarce than regular O scale, this is a slick trick. And, as you can see from the pictures, for the most part the stuff still looks right. Rivet counters won’t like it, but if you’re a rivet counter you’re probably not reading this page anyway. For people starved for inexpensive trains, or for trains, period, they’re fine.

Well, I like my Lionels. I’m not going to convert to On30. But I don’t like Lionel prices. So I build some of my own stuff, and the stuff I do buy, I buy used. So I’ve amassed a pretty sizeable collection, even though I’ve spent a lot less than most hobbyists will spend on a single locomotive.

But I’m always looking for something new and different.

A K-Line passenger car costs $117. A Bachmann passenger car costs $28.

A pair of K-Line freight trucks costs $8. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

You can’t put freight trucks on a passenger car. That’s what I’m thinking. Freight trucks are different from passenger trucks for some reason. Something about people wanting a smoother ride than cows.

But you get the idea. $36 is a lot less than $117.

K-Line passenger trucks are $25 apiece. That’s more than the car. But $78 is still less than $117, though I’d just live with using freight trucks, myself.

If the S scalers can do it, why can’t we?

A model railroad scale conversion chart

Plans in model railroad books and magazines are often in a different scale from your favorite. Having a model railroad scale conversion chart helps.

I’m into O scale and the rest of the world, it usually seems, is not. Dimensions for published plans are almost always sized to HO scale, or even S scale of all things. Of course, after A. C. Gilbert imploded in 1967 and took American Flyer with it, it seemed like the “S” is S scale stood for “scratchbuild,” because building it yourself was the only way you were going to get anything, so I guess that’s fair.

Here’s a cheatsheet you can use to convert measurements from one scale to another.

Assumptions: O scale is 1:48, G scale is 1:22.5. If you use a different measurement for either scale, I’m sorry. This won’t be much use to you.

G Scale O Scale S Scale OO Scale HO Scale TT Scale N Scale Z Scale
G Scale 213% 284% 339% 386% 533% 711% 977%
O Scale 47% 133% 158% 181% 250% 333% 458%
S Scale 35% 75% 119% 136% 188% 211% 289%
OO Scale 30% 63% 84% 115% 158% 211% 289%
HO Scale 26% 55% 73% 87% 138% 184% 253%
TT Scale 19% 40% 53% 63% 73% 133% 183%
N Scale 14% 30% 40% 48% 54% 75% 138%
Z Scale 10% 22% 29% 35% 40% 55% 73%

Find your scale in the table along the top. Then scroll down to the desired scale and find out the factor you need to enlarge or reduce. So, if, say, I have HO scale plans I want to enlarge to O scale, I run across the top to HO, then down to O scale, and see that I need to enlarge the plans to 181%. If I have O scale plans I want to reduce to S scale, I run across the top to O and down to S, and see I need to reduce the plans to 75%.

You can also do this if a building you want exists in kit form for a different scale. Measure it. Then do the math based on the chart to figure out what size to build everything for your scale of choice.

Further reading

I hope you find this model railroad scale conversion chart useful.

On a somewhat related note, if you’re unsure what scale something is, here’s how to figure that out before you convert it. You might also find my cross-hobby scale conversion helpful.

Shopping an estate sale for trains

My girlfriend loves shopping at yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and basically everywhere people look for bargains.

I’m not into that all that much. I’m a guy. So I just asked her to keep an eye out for tools for me if she happened to be garage sale-ing.

This week she found an estate sale with tools and trains. It started at 7:30 this morning. So I dragged myself out of bed to go.The description said "electric trains." Usually when people say electric trains, they mean old American Flyer, Lionel or Marx, because that was what those companies used to put on their boxes. "Model trains" usually means HO or N scale. Nothing against those, but they’re not my thing. And besides, you can buy those anywhere.

When I got there, it was right at 7:30. It looked like they’d started early because there were lots of people there. I noticed a lot of people glancing at the trains but not staying long. I took a look. The glossy brightly-colored enameled bodies instantly told me it was pre-war stuff. I looked at the prices. $85 for a refrigerated car. $28 for a gondola. $24 for a caboose. These guys had gone to the library and looked up the values of the cars. I know because the guy told me so.

"Are these prices about right? I went to the library and looked them up."

I explained to him that the Greenberg price guides tend to be skewed in favor of the east coast. Prices are higher there, partly because the cost of living is higher out there than in the midwest, and partly because there’s a bigger following over there. Lionel and Marx were both New York companies. Gilbert was a New Haven company. Flyer was a Chicago company before selling out to Gilbert, but that was prior to 1938. There’s more appeal to the stuff on the east coast because you find people whose grandfather or great uncle worked for one of those companies, or some other connection.

What I didn’t tell him (but should have) was that those prices are for mint condition. And while his items were in nice shape, they were anything but mint. Most of them would grade to excellent, or very good. Stepping down a grade knocks anywhere from 10%-50% off the price of the item.

The cars also weren’t 100% original. At some point the couplers on the cars had been replaced with Lionel post-war couplers. That’s an upgrade, which is probably why the original owner had done it, and whoever did the upgrade did a good job, but from a collector’s point of view, it lowers the value. It’s an advantage to people who run the trains, but someone like me isn’t going to pay extra for it.

The prewar freight set that was priced at $137 total at this sale probably would have been priced closer to $75 at Marty’s Model Railroads, frankly. Marty probably would have given him $40 total.

He also had two passenger sets. They would have graded out to Good, possibly only Fair. They, too, were priced at mint.

There was a nice prewar engine. I forget the number. It was priced at $250 for the engine and tender. That’s a fair price if it’s a whistling tender, if the engine is in perfect working order, and the paint is good. The paint was really good on the engine. But it probably at least needed a lube job. With no way to test the engine, there was no way I was going to pay $250 for it.

I spied a couple of postwar Marx diesels, priced at $50. It was an A-B pair, with the B unit being a dummy. A quick examination revealed the front had been cracked and re-glued. Diesels tend to go for more than steam engines the same age, but in that condition, and untested, a Marx should only go for $20.

I also spied a couple of pairs of Marx metal switches. They were the electric variety. I’m told metal Marx switches were prewar. I don’t know about that, since all of the metal ones I’ve ever seen were in a lot with postwar equipment. Maybe they were put together after the war with old parts. Marx was known for that. At any rate, the Marx metal switches are highly desirable. The later plastic switches sit higher than your track, so you have to shim your track for the locomotives to run right. These don’t. Also, the design allows Marx and American Flyer engines with thicker wheels than Lionels to pass through them. So a metal Marx switch lets you run any train you want. And unlike the Lionels of the same vintage, they run off a fixed 18 volts, not from the track, so they tend to work more reliably.

The only Lionel switch that compares is the Lionel 1121, which Lionel didn’t make for very long. It’s easier to make the 1121 self-tending, but in all other regards the Marx is better.

The switches were priced at $10 per pair, including the original boxes, control panels and wires (but the wires need to be replaced). That’s not a fabulous price, but it’s fair. I paid $10 per pair for some plastic Marx manual switches at Marty’s back in December. Marx switches tend to sell for $10 per pair on eBay, but then you have to deal with shipping.

So I bought the two pair of switches, and nothing else.

Later, my girlfriend told me they wouldn’t take her check. So I guess it’s a good thing I only got the switches. I wouldn’t have been able to get any more even if I’d wanted to, because I only had $24 in cash on me.

It was a mild disappointment. I took a quick look at the tools and saw the same thing. Prices were very close to what I would pay at Sears. Only at Sears, I’d get a warranty on it, and if I bought $100 worth of stuff, I’d get a $5 off coupon on my next purchase.

It was a mild disappointment. She was disappointed too. I’m going to assume it wasn’t typical. She told me it wasn’t a very good estate sale.

I think I’ll go back tomorrow afternoon, towards the end, and see if the trains are still there. Maybe then he’ll be looking to deal. Marty can charge the prices he does because he’s willing and able to sit on inventory for months or years. Individuals usually can’t or won’t do that. But he was charging more than Marty would.

If not, there’ll be more next week, or if not, the week after. ‘Tis the season, and very early in the season, at that.

Vintage signs and lighting for your toy train layout

I couldn’t have possibly found this site too soon:
Besides photographs of six vintage building signs, there are also numerous other photographs for download that might be useful, and also some articles with really good tips.

Emphasis is more on serious modeling in HO or N scale than in toy-train O or S gauge, but in the case of the photographs, all that means is you have to print them bigger in order to use them. And the tips for assembling and improving models from kits hold regardless of type.

I also found this tutorial on lighting your railroad buildings with Christmas lights. Seeing as most places have them on sale for 50, 60, or 75 percent off while they last this time of year, the timing’s pretty good.

One guy in rec.models.railroad suggested using yellow LEDs to light your buildings, but seeing as a strand of Christmas lights is dirt cheap and I don’t have anything to cannibalize yellow LEDs from, I may go the Christmas light route first.

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