atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#251: Now I'm in trouble

A few months ago I took Mom to do the grocery shopping, and while we were at the store I spied a copy of "Model Railroader" on the magazine stand. After flipping through it I decided to buy it. Since then I've gotten every issue as they hit the stands.

When I was 10, 11, 12, I got into trains. My oldest sister's husband was into model railroading, and actually worked for a terminal railroad in Saint Louis (TRRA for those who know about such things). Liking trains and having a brother-in-law who knew all about them was a wonderful thing for me, and I even went so far as to ask for a big big train set--Tyco's "System 200" set, which allowed the operation of 2 trains at the same time, had more switches and accessories than any train set ought to have, and still fit on a 4x8 sheet of plywood. It had eight cars and two locomotives in it; that added to the stuff I'd already had from my previous HO train set (also Tyco) made for a nice budding model railroad.

There were two real problems. First, I was 10 and lacked the self-discipline to spend hours and hours building and detailing. I wanted to run trains! Second, I was 10 and lacked the money to buy the supplies and parts needed to build a decent model railroad.

So, the basic "flat layout on a sheet of plywood" was it. It was nice, but it was basic--no scenery, no tunnels, no grades, backdrops, or buildings. The plywood was painted green so there wasn't even grass.

Still, by 1981 I had torn up the old layout and laid down the track again, this time with a somewhat more-realistic operation in mind. But at that point, my interests were drifting away from trains, and (to be honest) the basic Tyco "Tru-Steel" rail was a pain in the ass to keep free of oxidation so that the trains would run. I don't know what the "Tru-Steel" track was made from, but in our basement there was no dearth of humidity to help oxidize it. I had to run an eraser over the rails before each operating session.

Mom and Dad remodeled the house in 1982 for my other sister's wedding; and my layout was taken from the basement and stored outside for too long. The transformers were ruined, the track disintegrated, the wiring shot; and eventually the benchwork (such as it was--4x8 3/8 inch plywood reinforced with 2x2s; it wasn't half bad) was recycled for other things.

I still have all the rolling stock, of course--all the engines, all the cars. It's safely packed away, rolled up in paper towels and padded with newspaper...somewhere. I'm not sure where; only that the box is safe and secure somewhere in either the garage or attic.

When I started reading "Model Railroader" again, it got me to thinking about building a layout. Nothing fancy; certainly nothing as large as my brother-in-law's father's layout. That had been impressive to me, the few times I saw it and got to play with it. It was nicely done. But such a massive effort is beyond my means and desire; and even if I wanted one that size, where would I put it? There's no room here for such an edifice.

But N scale, I reasoned...with N scale, I could build a rather complex layout in a very small space. Heck, I remember some guy built a nice layout in a suitcase in the 1980s. I could make a layout with some nice operating characteristics in an area about the size of a card table--heck, I could build it on a card table, making it both portable and easily stored out of the way. Also that would take care of the benchwork; and as an added bonus, the relatively spindly nature of card table legs would ensure I didn't make the layout too big or heavy.

I started looking at toy stores for N scale train sets, but--naturally!--they only had HO and O scale. O scale is too big and too expensive--Lionel trains are O scale. My employer sold a nice Lionel train set--basic oval, locomotive, cars, etc--for a mere $249.95.

I was not going to buy an HO train set, not when I've already got so much rolling stock. If I were going to build an HO layout I'd just find my rolling stock, then go buy track and a good transformer rather than buy a bunch of stuff I already had. (The transformer alone probably would run $100, though.)

And what with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, and then my Dad's "decline and fall", I had no time to worry about it. But I kept thinking about it in spare moments.

SO, today I visited a hobby store and bought a train set.

It's a little one. REALLY little:

It's a Life-Like N scale train set, the "Yard Master" set in Chessie colors. It comes with a basic oval of track. For rolling stock it has a switch-type locomotive, two box cars, a tank car, and a caboose. It also includes a basic transformer, a packet of scenery material (signs, trees, etc) and a building kit--some kind of hotel.

Not bad for $70 retail, and about what I was expecting to pay for a basic train set.

The hobby store didn't have extra Life-Like "Power-Loc" track in stock, worse luck, so I had to order a few turnouts and extra straight track. They say it'll be in on Friday, so I'll have to wait for switching and spotting action until then.

I also bought an additional box car. (See below.)

As you can see the basic layout fits rather nicely on our living room coffee table. The set's second box car is still in its box, because when I took it out of the box I found that one of the trucks had undergone spontaneous disassembly. It's not a problem since it's just a matter of reinserting the axles, but I need good light, tweezers, and a magnifying glass to do it. This stuff is tiny compared to the HO scale stuff I had in the early 1980s.

I was impressed with the level of detail on the locomotive:

From the latches and hinges on the cowling, to the diamond-plate on the walkways, to windshield wipers--and this isn't even really all that special; the better-quality models (ie non-toy, costing hundreds of dollars each) have even better detail than this.

The locomotive seemed to run in fairly well. At first its motor seemed a bit stiff, but by the end of my first hour of operation it seemed to have "run in" fairly well. The included power pack has a bit of notchiness, which--again--is to be expected from a toy-type train set. There are many other options available for the serious modeler who wants realistic operation rather than a sudden jump to a scale speed of around 10 mph from a dead stop.

Only one of the headlights works. I don't know if this is by design or if it's a manufacturing defect, but the headlight which works only lights when the train is traveling in that direction. That's protypical--the headlight in the direction of travel should be on--which leads me to believe I've got a minor manufacturing defect here. It's a very minor detail and one which I can correct if I ever really feel the need to do so.

The locomotive struggled to pull its consist of three cars and a caboose up an unrealistic grade of about 10%-15%. (Most real railroads try to limit grades to less than 3%.) The wheels would start slipping on the rails; although the train didn't slow down I could hear the motor speed up.

When I got tired of watching the train go around the basic oval I ginned up a makeshift tunnel and realized that it really adds a lot to the operation if you can't see the train all the time.

So I think I may work a bit on building some terrain this weekend.

Finally, I will have to find a place to put my impending model railroad somewhere where the cat can't get at it:

I had hoped to get a really good picture of the cat investigating the thing, but she's camera shy and this was the best I could get. I stopped the locomotive in front of her; she sniffed it, and then held up a paw, thinking about batting at it. A stern, "No!" made her re-think that...but I know how her tiny little brain works. So, the locomotive and cars are stored in their shipping containers.

The locomotive and cars come with non-realistic couplers which are cheap to manufacture and install. These are easily replaced with the "magne-matic" type of couplers made by Kaydee and other companies, though.

So what about the extra box car?

The other day I was trying to learn a few things about the Union Pacific line which runs through Crete. The UP line used to be Missouri-Pacific, before the big mergers of the 1990s, and much of the train watching that I did in my early teens--the first time I was into trains--was on the MP because it was handy.

The MP-15 diesel switcher that I drove when I was 11 was a Mo-Pac switcher.

My initial thoughts about building a train layout centered on the Mo-Pac as it was in the 1980s. Crete Lumber had its own siding and occasionally received loads of lumber that way. The "yard limit" of the 26th Street yard actually extends to Crete, anyway. There is another siding in Steger for what used to be a pasta factory and another lumberyard, and this siding also had a freight station. (The pasta factory now is used to make wrapping paper.)

I decided that one "end" of my layout would be the 26th St. yard; and the other--well...I needed to do some research, so I fired up Nutscape and started looking at Microsoft's TerraServer site. At the same time I also did some Googling for maps of the M-P line.

What I found is that there is a small terminal railroad operating almost in my back yard!

It's called the Chicago Heights Terminal Transfer; and it's been in operation for decades. It actually makes a loop, too, or so I'm told; it's hard to see on the satellite images especially since tracks can be torn up or moved.

M-P--and now UP--owns 1/5 of the CHTT, so they can operate on the CHTT track with impunity. The CHTT track is, in fact, where I drove that MP-15 lo these many years ago. It serves the Ford Heights Ford Stamping Plant, and it looks like it also serves a railroad car manufacturing plant--among other things.

CHTT seems almost tailor-made for the kind of model railroad I want to all I have to do is learn enough to build it. It has many advantages: it's close to home; the locomotives can be either M-P or UP, depending on what year I want to model, which makes for easy modeling (no special paint jobs); the line is short and compact, yet serves large industry, making for fun operation; and using N scale and selective compression I ought to be able to fit it into a space no larger than 4x8, with maybe a little stub running down to Crete and Steger with the occasional load of lumber. If I want to get really nuts there is a handy interchange with the EJ&E for even more operating possibilities.

So today I bought an N scale train set. I'm probably doomed.

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