Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Merits of N scale

I'll admit, I've been partial to N scale for quite some time.  The majority of train layouts that I've attempted during my childhood were N scale.  Of course, I didn't buy the best equipment, and everything I had sported those ungainly Rapido couplers.  The trains didn't run well, I didn't lay track well, but I learned a lot from this scale.  More and more, I'm looking to get back into N scale as well after bouncing up and down the spectrum from HO to G.  Heck, I even looked at S scale at one point!  So, to put to rest some of my final hesitations, I thought it would be good if I listed everything I like about N scale:

  1. Size.  N scale, in my opinion, is the perfect scale for apartments and mainline operations.  Yes, it's small, but the engines run well and everything is just big enough that, provided there's no sight or hand problems, it's possible to build high quality and fun layouts.  The 1:160 scale also means that there can be a great focus on scenery and prototype length trains.  A 100 car train in HO scale is difficult, but it's possible on a moderate layout in N scale.
  2. DCC and Sound.  About 10 years ago, it was rare to see N scale with DCC installed, let alone DCC and Sound!  But within the last decade, that has changed.  Now N scale locos are not just offered with knuckle couplers as standard, but also with installed DCC.  A few, such as the Intermountain SD40-2's, have sound installed as well as DCC.  It's now possible to run an N scale layout just as HO modelers do.
  3. Modular groups.  N scale has several modular standards.  NTrak, Ttrak, NMRA, and Freemo are just some of the standards.
  4. Small radius.  In N scale, a 2 foot wide shelf is enough to make a complete turn with the track.  It doesn't look pretty, but 9.75" radius curves get the job done.  While the standard HO beginner layout is 4x8, requiring an entire room, for N scale the size is a much more manageable 2x4.  All a 2x4 layout requires is the corner of a room, or one end of a table.
  5. Space to grow.  While a 10x10 room is modest by HO scale standards, 10x10 is a sprawling pasture for your N scale equipment!  At 32 feet per scale mile, a 10x10 room can host a couple miles of track in N scale.  For HO scale, you'd be lucky to get more than 3/4ths of a mile.
  6. Large radius.  Let's say you've got space, enough to do a decent railroad in HO scale.  You could go with HO scale and build a railroad that looks okay in the corners, but large equipment will be difficult to run.  In N scale, having an 18 or 22 inch radius is more than enough for all but the largest equipment.  And if you are running 50 foot cars, they'll look very good rolling on a broad curve.  Heck, the minimum prototypical radius in N scale is 6 foot.  If you have a 12x20 room, half a basement, you could theoretically model something to scale.
  7. Operations.  David Popp has been a great inspiration to me through the last 12 years or so.  His now famous New Haven railroad was built for operations, and it is in N scale.  Also, just to note, David wears glasses, hence no 20/20 vision for him.  And yet he's been able to build an run a fantastic railroad right up until selling it a couple years ago.  I've personally seen that it is possible to read car numbers for waybills.  Yard tracks may have to be a bit more separated, but it's possible to switch out an entire yard without incuring problems.
  8. Detail.  N scale detail in high end models now rivals that of HO scale.  Soon it could be even better.  Not to mention, you see less detail in N scale, so at a certain point the models will "look right" even if they aren't the sharpest or most crisp for details.
  9. 3D printing.  In other scales, you can print parts for models.  In N scale, you can print the model!  The only other scale I've noticed that can do that is HO, but only with narrow gauge models.  Standard gauge trains are still just a bit too big.  But in N scale, equipment and small structures can be printed in one piece, making the whole process easier.  Some will decry that 3D printing will make scratchbuilding obsolete.  To that, I say that few people have attempted all-out scratchbuilding in N scale, so it is of no loss to the small scale modeler to be able to print almost anything as one piece, or as big pieces.  Less time on the work bench is more time running trains.
  10. Finally (just to round it off at 10) there's the future.  Families are getting smaller, income is tighter, and we could very well be living in a more compact world in the future with population growth.  US modelers will be lucky because most of us still have more space than the rest of the world (except, apparently, Australia, which has a larger average home size).  HO scale will still be the majority, probably.  O scale and S scale have been having smaller followings in recent decades while other scales have grown.  Those with a yard will still do G scale.  But for the townhome, the apartment, the condo, the tiny house, the RV, the people who are on the go or living small, N scale has now become the best option to enjoy the hobby without eating up real estate.  N scale has all the same advantages as HO, but in a smaller package.  The smaller space requirements means that N scale will go places, figuratively and literally.
Of course, time will tell how all this pans out.  But at this moment, I feel that N scale is making a strong case for itself.  Perhaps Z scale will one day be considered the smallest practical train, and HO will be replaced by N scale in popularity.  Perhaps not.  But one thing is for sure, N scale is here to stay and has a growing following that attracts not just the old folks, but also the newer (younger) blood.  Better eyes and hands along with a small space and moderate price means that people who are in their 20's and 30's will find N scale attractive to their wants and needs.

As for me, I think N scale is my future.  I still want to try HOn3 and On30 narrow gauges (which can be built to similar space requirements)  but when I think of mainline and branchline operations, N scale is now more appealing than HO.

My two cents.


Monday, February 13, 2017

A New Project

While I'm busy monkeying about with On30 and HO scale trains, I've also started the planning process for an outdoor layout that I will be building at some point in the next year or two for my mother now that she has land to build on.

First things first, the house will need to be finished.  But as soon as the materials have been gathered and a solid plan put in place, construction on the garden railroad will begin.  The railroad will be 7/8ths scale, or 1:13.7.  These large trains run on Gauge 1 track to represent 2 foot gauge just as 1:20.3 scale is used to represent 3 foot gauge.

But before anything can begin, I need to get a feel for the site of the future railroad.  To do that, and as an introduction, here are some images of the area:

The lot is located in a meadow between two mountain ranges.  The one to the east is quite bare, as it gets the afternoon and evening sun.  But the ranges to the South and West are dotted with pine trees. This area is known as Camas Prairie.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Declining Hobby

"Kids these days spend too much time playing with digital toys, they just aren't interested in real life."

I hear this all the time.  Americans, on average, spend 10 hours a day looking at a digital screen for entertainment purposes.  This includes television, internet, games, smartphones, tablets, and all other digital devices.  Here's an article that goes in depth from CNN:  American Screen Time 

I imagine that if these figures are true, the rest of the world is in step with America.  There is no doubt that the digital revolution has completely changed everything in our world, and quite quickly.  When you consider that 10 hours a day is really all the extra time a person has between work, eating, commuting, and sleeping, it's no wonder that model railroading is in decline, people simply do not have any time to devote to anything other than a digital screen.

Need more evidence?  It's been shown that while the average home size in America has been slowly increasing,with homes being built now averaging 2500 square feet, the size of an average lot has decreased 13%.  The result is McMansions on tiny lots. The result would be that Americans are preferring indoor activities, and we know which activities those are, digital media.

But I think there's more to it than that.

We, as a whole, are spending less time doing luxury activities and more time doing the survival activities necessary to live in a modern world.  While the inflation rate has been fairly steady, the average American income increase has not. Since the recession, Pew Research has concluded that spending is up 13%, but wages have dropped.  Americans are simply working for less, but needing to spend more just to keep up with expenses such as housing and food.  This is less of a squeeze and more like being torn apart, stretched to the limit.  What that means is that there is simply less money for leisure activities.

Hobbies tend to be expensive.  Want to go skiing?  A season pass can set people back hundreds or thousands of dollars.  Want to go fishing?  A rod and reel can be had for cheap, but quality equipment costs a small fortune, not to mention owning a boat.  When 20% of American households are considered to be below the poverty line, it makes sense that such expensive hobbies would be flat-lining or in decline.  Model Trains, for better or worse, are expensive items.  At one point, trains were cheap, but so was the quality.  Many hobbyists have had experience with model trains from the 1970's, 80's, and 90's  that were very cheap considering all that goes into making a decent model.  Unfortunately, costs of production in China have been rising.  Okay, that might be good for China, but it's not so great for a cash-strapped bunch of American hobbyists.  It's not uncommon to see quality equipment priced over $500, just for a locomotive.  Go to a hobby shop and the nice running freight cars in HO scale cost $30 each.  Remember the $500 layout challenges?  Unless you are buying used, it's near impossible.

So the rising cost of the hobby, rising cost of living, a wage depression all contribute to the decline in hobbies.  In fact, the only hobbies that are seeing an increase are those hobbies that are incredibly cheap.  Hiking is actually doing quite well, and it's because all you need is a trail that you paid for with your taxes and two working legs.  Travel is doing okay, but it fluctuates depending on the price of gas and time of year.  Photography is up, and it's no surprise because most people have a camera with them now-a-days and getting pictures processed is far cheaper now than it was in the film days.

Model Railroading needs three ingredients, time, money, and space.  So far, it's apparent that Americans have less time and less money, but what about space?  Going back to the first paragraphs of this article, the average size home is 2,500 square feet, up from 1973.  Average number of children is also decreasing per family, now down to around 2.5 kids per household.

But how long will that trend continue?  I imaging that 2 kids will be the norm in a few decades, and having a smaller family means a smaller house.  Right now, it is quite possible that the American house is as big as it's going to get.  Not to mention the ever increasing cost to build or buy a home will provide extra incentive to stay modest.

So then, what can we conclude?

Americans have less money.  As a consequence, Americans are picking up cheap digital devices for entertainment, or going for walks (I'm sensing a polarization of different activities) rather than spending boat loads of cash on boats, or most other hobbies.  Finally, with a decreasing family size and a tighter budget, the average home could vary well become smaller in the near future.  Basically, model railroading is screwed, or is it?

A glimmer of  hope is that while the hobby as we know it is in decline, there are plenty of movements out there to counter the trend.

There are movements to promote history, outdoor recreation, family fun-time, travel, gardening, and creativity.  Finally, there is also the "maker" movement, which pushes people to make things with their own two hands.  So if this hobby has any chance to survive, it is the following:

  1. Trains are interesting.  Kids love trains, and even today many people find trains interesting.  Ridership for heritage railroads is steady.  Trains, so long as they exist, will be interesting pieces of equipment, even if they are less romantic now than in the 1950's.
  2. People love history.  850 million visit a year are documented by museums across America.  Considering the population of the US is 320 million, that's a huge number.
  3. Model Railroading encourages creativity and skills that people want to learn.  If you are a model railroader, you are an artist, an electrician, a historian, a story teller, and probably an all around interesting character.  People want to build and create, they just need the means to do so.
We should focus heavily on to adapting the hobby as we know it to fit with those categories.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Small Spaces are a Blessing (no, really)

Most, if not all, model railroaders dream of a basement empire.  I certainly do.  The trouble is that for most of us, such a grand scheme remains a dream.  I've had ideas on how to go big without a huge space, large scales, modular show layouts, folding layouts, etc...  While all those ideas look good on paper, most of the time such ambitious plans get the better of me, I fizzle out, and the idea dies on the drafting table.  So far this has happened to me many times where I start a project but just can't finish it.  Knowing that I'm not the only one, this post is about how a modeler can have a great layout without much money or space.

Of the three ingredients needed for model railroading, time, money, and space, we really only have control of one, time.  True, we all live busy lives and can't donate as much time to the hobby as we like, but we can be much more flexible.  Outside of work, time is free, and we can use it how we wish.  This is in contrast to money and space, we often can't spend a fortune on trains and making an addition to the house is usually out of the question.  While we can't donate infinite time, we can doll it out in large quantities over the course of several years, and that's exactly what many modelers do.  Over several years, or sometimes several decades, many of us build small layouts and collect trains in the hopes of one day getting a chance to build a big layout.

My dream is to one day have my own property and build a studio dedicated specifically to model trains, but that is a long way off.  In the meantime, I'm stuck living in other people's residences, whether it be an apartment, townhouse, or rental.  Even if I were to buy something like a condo or a house in town, I'd be limited by square footage or the lot size, not to mention zoning laws.  Obviously, many hobbyists are in the same boat as me, only a fraction of modelers get the chance to do something grand with model trains, so the rest of us are left to compromise.  But what if a massive layout isn't the ideal?  What if having a great layout in a bedroom, or even along a wall, is better than the huge empire we all dream of?  Maybe having a small space isn't such a bad thing after all.

All train layouts require skill, patience, and a maintenance schedule.  Unfortunately, big layouts require huge amounts of time, money, and space as well as a mastery of several skills related to electronics, carpentry, artistry, and modeling techniques.  Northlandz, the largest model railroad in the world, has full time employees that are PAID to keep the railroad running.  Museum layouts, possibly the pinnacle of what a model railroad can be, have had more man hours put into them than we could ever hope to have in our own lives.  In other words, for almost all of us, a giant layout just isn't practical. So then, let's explore some options to cut our ambitions down to a manageable size.

"Honey, I Shrunk the Layout"

Very, very small train layouts are a popular theme for many hobbyists.  The foremost site on micro layouts is which contains thousands of examples of micro layouts.  Most of these layouts are under four square feet, which is 12 inches by 48 inches. That's tiny when compared to the 4x8 foot plywood layouts most of us are familiar with!

To build such a layout requires out of the box thinking, but really doesn't require that much money, space, or even time.  All that work is concentrated into a small space, which usually results in a higher quality display than most of us could manage in a basement, or even a spare bedroom.

"Let's take this outside!"

If there isn't much space inside your home, and you have a yard, and you aren't renting the property, a garden railroad is a solution to the time, money, space dilemma.  Basically, instead of pouring money into construction materials, you instead pour money into trains and track work, not to mention landscaping, gardening, and yard upkeep (which you probably do anyway, right?) While micro layouts focus all the effort into a small space, garden railroads focus all the effort into one area, track.  Yes, the track and power is expensive, but the benefit of a large scale is that it doesn't take much track or rolling stock to be happy. In my garden railroad, I was perfectly content with a couple dozen cars and two engines.  Heck, I'd even be content with one engine!

Such a unique take on the hobby gets you outdoors, doesn't eat up space within the house, and really all a person needs is a 10 by 20 space in the yard, a loop of track, a few switches, and either a lawn cut really short, or some way of elevating the track above grass level.  A garden railroad can be had for about $1000.  Sounds expensive until you realize that even in HO scale, engines are approaching $200 each and cars are between $15 and $50 per unit.  The larger scale means that it's easier to scratch build rolling stock, which is usually cheaper than buying cars ready made.

A great place to get info is Family Garden Trains

"How about the modular Standard?"

There are many modular standards available for most of the commercially available scales.  The idea is to have individual modelers get together, bringing their own piece of a railroad, and combining it to form a giant railroad.  Let's say someone builds a Freemo module or two for their apartment.  Alone, this set of modules would act as a switching layout.  But travel throughout the region to different shows, and that same hobbyist can run full scale freight trains and prototype accurate passenger trains.  Even better, the hobbyist can have a large collection of models AND occasionally have the space to run them.

Unfortunately, such a concept requires traveling, sometimes hundreds of miles, to train shows.  Not everyone has the time to do that, but if you do, it's worth checking this option out.  By it's nature, modular railroads get people to be active members of the hobby, traveling the country, meeting hundreds of modelers, and is just plain fun if you like to travel and meet other people.

Free-mo standard

Free-mo N scale

List of clubs from the O Scale Kings

Indiana Large Scalers module exhibits

"Ride the Modest and Western Railroad"

Let's say a hobbyist has some space for a railroad.  Not a ton of space, but perhaps a bedroom or part of a basement, maybe even a garage or attic.  Such spaces aren't huge, but they aren't tiny either.  A decent railroad can be built in such a space without a huge investment of money if the plan is simplified.

A lot of larger railroads tend to be "spaghetti bowl" layouts, with dozens of switches, multiple mainlines, and scores of cars.  Such layouts are expensive, but a much better layout can be built by simplifying the plan, and all it requires is to think like a real railroad executive.  Real railroads typically don't have more than a single main track in a given area, and every industry is given as few switches as possible to make the track work as cheap as it can be.  By redesigning the track plan to have a single mainline, enough industries to be busy but using as few switches as possible, and focusing on scenery makes the train layout much cheaper and well within the grasp of many hobbyists. Even better is that there are thousands of short line and regional railroads across the globe to draw inspiration from, or directly copy.

"Going small..."

The final option that I can think of at the moment is to switch to a small scale.  N and Z scales have made great strides from their roots as an unreliable toy-like hobby to become serious contenders for serious modelers.  The small scale means a great layout can be had in a fraction of the space, or a railroad empire can be made in a bedroom.  If money is your constraint, go with a modest layout, similar to the simplified railroad above.  If money is no object, but you only have a bedroom or the corner of a basement to work with, start collecting trains in small scale and you can have the empire of your dreams without a ton of space. There's been loads of discussion on this topic, so I won't get too deep in this one.

N scale Magazine

Z Track Magazine

"We'll make a three pronged attack."

There's also the option of taking the different routes and combining them.  Garden railroads can be both modest, and built in a smaller scale.  Heck, the Brits have managed to make OO scale railroads outdoors for decades.  A modular set up in N scale is possible through N-Trak, T-Track, and Freemo modular standards.  A decent switching layout can be had in a 2 foot wide by 8 foot long pair of modules, that's one wall in one office room!

A micro layout in a small scale using a modest track plan can be very, very tiny.  A Z scale switching layout can be built in a 6 inch by 48 inch area, two square feet.  If you have a bedroom but a lower budget, going with a larger scale, and keeping the plan simple creates the feeling of a big layout but without all the expense.

A Final Thought...

You can also join a club or organization and run on the club's layout.  This only costs a person the membership fee per year, plus attendance to open houses and/or train shows and helping maintain the layout.  Probably the lowest cost option for a modeler to run trains.  A club has the benefit of being a sort of school for a modeling techniques, as the wide range of skills and experiences present within the club gives a person plenty of opportunity to learn from more experienced hobbyists.  If you are a somewhat social person and are looking for a way into the hobby that offers an education of modeling techniques, I highly recommend searching your area for model railroad clubs and checking them out.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Anatomy of a Switchback

Switchbacks are cool features on mountainous railroads.  When a train couldn't turn within a ravine to climb up a hill, switchbacks were used to cut the grade into pieces that were more manageable to an engine, and allowed for broader curves.  A Switchback consisted of two grade sections, a transition from the grade to level at each end of the grade sections, a switch, and a tail track.  Trains would come up on the lower grade and park on the tail track.  The brakeman would throw the switch, and then the train would back up the second portion of the grade.  Here's the diagram:

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Different Options

To model in a small space, there's plenty of options.  Here are just a few that I can think of:

  • "Armchair" modeling.  This is where someone collects photos, books, participates in hobby events, and may even build models of their own, but have no layout to run on.  There are plenty of competitions throughout the world for accurate models.
  • Dioramas.  If someone loves photos and videos, wants to operate models, and has a place to store a lot of modules, building dioramas might be the best option.  Dioramas are stand alone scenes that let modelers practice their skills, and run trains very short distances, but the emphasis is typically on high quality, excellent details.  There's also plenty of competitions for dioramas.
  • Micro layouts.  Carl Arendt, the late model railroader, helped bring the niche hobby of building micro layouts into the mainstream.  Rather than focus on entire operations of railroads, micro layouts look at much smaller scenes that have a lot of interest, similar to a diorama.  The difference is that a micro layout is a stand-alone operating train layout.  The Arendt style micro layout is under 4 square feet, making them useful for apartments.
  • Shelf layouts.  If you are lucky to have some wall space, a shelf layout is a great idea because they have a zero footprint area on the floor.  Shelf layouts, as the name implies, are train layouts built as shelves, designed to hang from the wall.  Of course, if you rent an apartment, the landlord might frown on drilling holes through their walls, but shelf layouts can be built to be free-standing and simply butt-up against the wall.
  • Club layouts.  This is cheating somewhat, but you can have excellent models at home, and go to a larger club train layout to run.  It has the advantages of being in a social group of like-minded people, layout maintenance is shared between several people, and many clubs regularly host open houses and train shows.  The downside is you won't always get what you want out of a club railroad, since it's a communal project, not a personal one.  Additionally, that means putting up with some less-than-friendly colleagues in the group.  It seems every club has at least one member that's a grouch.
  • Modular clubs.  Joining a modular group is nice because you get to have your own small layout that connects with other member's modules at larger events or monthly meetings.  Within your space, and within the parameters set to make the modules interchangeable, you get at least some freedom to make a scene the way you want it to.  Some module standards have more freedom than others.
  • Historical modeling.  If you have a museum nearby dedicated to railroads, it's possible to get involved with the museum, build displays, learn about the local railroad history, and make "museum quality" modules.
That's just a few ideas that I can think of over the course of 15 minutes.  I'm sure there are plenty of options and unique situations out there.  So if you like model railroading, and don't have a lot of space or money, perhaps look into these options.


--James Willmus

An Introduction of Sorts

JJWTrains, my previous blog, set about documenting my thoughts on, as well as the first couple of chapters in my journey through the vast hobby of model railroading.

But, now I'm entering a new phase in my life.  Whereas before I was a high school student, now I'm a young adult. Whereas before I had a basement, studio, or garage to build train layouts, now I must share a house with other young adults or live on my own in a tiny apartment.  And while model railroading took up much of my time, now life is much busier as I build a career, a personal life, and attend University (not to mention work).

I was disappointed at first when I realized how much time I'd have to dedicate to things outside of modeling, but I see a unique opportunity to share with others just how someone can enjoy model trains in an apartment or in an otherwise small space while also balancing a busy life.  This blog will also help me to keep practicing my modeling since I really do want to keep updating and moving forward in the hobby.

--James Willmus