Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Let the Bashing Begin

People who hammer Micro-Trains are often derided as trouble-makers, and ordinarily I'd agree—except that Micro-Trains has in a way brought it on themselves. Any company that is self-described as the "Cadillac" of this or the "Ultimate" in that has entirely too much hubris for their own good. And while deliberately looking for the tiniest errors is indeed unnecessarily excessive, pointing out glaring, easily-fixed bloopers—which, regrettably, show up regularly on M-T products—is fair game. But... does it do any good, when collectors will slavishly plunk down green for everything that comes out of M-T's doors?

You've got to hand it to M-T: one thing they managed to do right is contrive a market all their own, whether deliberately or by accident. Collectors constitute an entire self-contained industry, replete with training courses on investment techniques; no matter what emerges from Talent, Oregon, they're happy with it. Meanwhile, cars wind up with paint schemes based on one or two faded old photos someone at M-T found in the bottom of a file drawer (when dozens of clear, sharp ones exist on the Internet for all to see), and advertising features such nonsense as six-axle FTs. One sometimes wonders if anyone having a vague familiarity with railroads gets to see the stuff presented for public consumption. Are they the slightest bit concerned that they're sometimes the laughingstock of the industry? And if so, would they be inclined to do anything about it?


We've cut them slack for the fantasy collector stuff—it's apparently their bread and butter, so we tolerate Happy Birthday cars alongside so-called "prototype" items in their monthly releases. But when the prototype cars have lettering that never existed in real life, M-T needs to cut us some slack for having the urge to slam the "Cadillac" of N scale. Given the ease and speed with which one can verify facts these days, there's simply no excuse. Who are they trying to kid when they put a pipe load in a boxcar? What are they smokin' up there in Talent, anyway?

How'd they get 'em in there?

Reasons for these regular gaffes have been leaking into the forums via one of their own. Many of their employees, it would appear, know little to nothing about railroads or modeling (or even spelling, for that matter—but that's a whole other issue). This explains much. But when someone is employed to perform a job, and either lacks the necessary qualifications or the initiative to learn at least enough to perform reasonably well, that person's job ought to be at risk, no? (Let's put it this way: I'd be fired if my performance was comparable.) If the employee is doing fine in the eyes of the employers, the scrutiny must then fall on said employers. Well, when you've got a model railroad manufacturer with a President who refers to a Gunderson well car as a "depressed center flatcar," the problem may start at the top.

The buying public, by and large, isn't bothered by such trifles, however, and thus the problem is perpetuated. As long as M-T's employees can continue putting food on their tables, all is right with the world, and the 1% of their customers who clamor for something a little closer to reality are left shouting down holes. We can write just so many polite letters addressing issues, which would apppear to go straight into the circular file, before we reach the point of frustration, the point where the bashing begins. Is it right? Of course not. But it's perfectly understandable.

E not = O

With the potential for being a truly exceptional manufacturer, it's all such a sad waste, especially considering that plenty of learned modelers are more than willing to contribute their expertise, gratis. Leveraging the Internet, M-T has at their disposal a vast pool of accumulated knowledge to tap, complete with volunteers ready to do some of the legwork, and yet we rarely see anything except the finished product—by which point it's too late to re-render the artwork or change the paint color. What's going on? Would participating in product development spoil a surprise or something? What, pray tell, is the point of all this secrecy? Other companies regularly announce releases well in advance. I may be wrong, but M-T could do well by engaging some of their customers more directly and more often.

Meanwhile, Atlas is soaring past M-T both in terms of quality and accuracy. Not to mention sheer volume. Yet, blithely unaware that they've been de-throned as the industry leader, M-T still doggedly persists in releasing one faux pas after another, their energies spent fretting over problems with OEM trucks and couplers instead of living up to their own motto. Some of us are at the point of giving up (a point others have long passed), writing off Micro-Trains as just another toy company.

But why do we care? Many other manufacturers don't get the monthly "bash fest" that M-T seems to incur when they make foobies (have you ever seen Model Power cars?). Is it because we, as a community, can't make our peace with writing M-T off? They were the standard bearer for N scale freight cars for years. It's only been recently that they've lost their luster. I think what we're all afraid of is them being a fallen hero. I know that personally, I feel let down. As I was coming of age as a modeler, I thought everything M-T did was great, largely because, at the time, it was. Now, with increasing competition, they seem to have decided that it's easier not to compete to be the best. Nobody wins gold medals for freight cars. The only real reward is paying the bills, and maybe a nice vacation. So maybe M-T wins after all. Too bad that their win is our loss.

Co-Authored by David K. Smith and Ed Kapuscinski — so blame them both


Dave Vollmer said...

Some of MTL's recent decisions leave one scratching one's head...

I think the comment about "fallen hero" is right-on. That's also why I'm upset about Model Railroader's recent downward slide; when viewed from the perspective of former glory it's sad to see an institution begin to self-destruct. But I'll leave the MR issue for a future TTAMT discussion!

I have a decent number of MTL cars; in fact I have more MTLs than any other manufacturer (except Atlas). But the majority of my MTLs are older releases. The newer ones score every now and again (like the PRR REA X29), butn now there's so much "chaff" to sort through each month. The States, the battleships, the 12 Days of Christmas, the Smokey Bear series, etc... I guess I don't get the collector mentality (not that there's anything wrong with it - I just don't get it). I'm looking for what MTL used to provide, and that's well-detailed cars with proper paint schemes. More and more I've been going to Atlas for that.

I've switched out my MTL pizza cutters on most cars, but found actually that Atlas wheelsets are more reliable in MTL sideframes than MTL's own lo-pros. Why is that?

MTL couplers are still the best out there. But if MTL wants to keep a seat at N scale's head table, they'll need to do more than that. Incorrect schemes and collector's cars may appeal to some (heck, probably more than I know), but to the prototype-oriented model railroader, these are wastes of time and plastic. No one company can really be everything to everyone, and certainly if MTL sees dollar signs in the collector world it has every right to follow them... but as was said ealier, it will be hard for some of us to let go.

For what it's worth, I still check MTL's monthly releases. I still look through tables for MTL cars of the past each time I go to a train show. MTL did amazing things for N scale, and helped me realize that I could switch to N from HO and not give up detail. I hope MTL turns it around and decides to keep a stake in the N scale prototype market. Right after they do the Periodic Table of the Elements series...

Oh, by the way, +10 points for the correct usage of the word "hubris."

Anonymous said...


I'm 104% with ya on this! They could be so much better with so little effort. But for some reason they pass on the little effort.

With the "good enough for grandma" edict regarding PIZZA cutters, I can't help but feel they are dooming themselves to the upper deck of the N scale arena.

- Mark Peele

Anonymous said...

What's really, really credible is opinion from a blog that hasn't been updated in seven months. Way to go, guys!

MSC said...

Your blog and insight is exceptional...you need to start writing again, this blog is too good to silently rust away in the infinite yard of disused or abandoned blogs.

Your "future" topics are so engaging, you NEED to post something. I still come here weekly hoping for something to happen!

Anonymous said...

Well now, what a great topic! I thought it was just me, but then I'm a foreigner. I've lately been selling off my MT hoppers and replacing them with Inter Mountain hoppers. I like the see thru etch metal roofwalks.

The sad truth is - they can be so much more. I guess they will keep on making something if they can keep on selling it, so that must mean someone is buying the collector cars.

I still look every month, but I seldom find something woorth buying. $25 for a car AFTER discount? Ouch! My wallet cannot sustain that.

Keep going!

Big Ed
Cape Town
South Africa

Philip Redfearn said...

What a great blog. I love the way you go into lots of detail for each locomotive and give those insight which others can eaily miss. Keep up the writing!

Philip Redfearn