Thursday, June 2, 2011

How Much Time is Too Much Time?

So lately there have been rumblings that Daddy spends too much time in the train room...  Coming out of the cold and rainy season, I can see where this could be a legitimate complaint.  There's also the fact that my wife has been toiling away at evening graduate classes three nights a week, so I'm basically unsupervised much of the time.  Being an adolescent trapped in a middle aged body, there is all kinds of potential for mischief.

The good news is I've made all sorts of progress on the layout, finishing the infrastructure of a major expansion, adding some cool structures and reworking some key scenery elements.  I've also caught up most of the outstanding decoder work that's been piling up.  The bad news is that when Laura gets home at night, typically the dishes aren't done, and the kids are still bouncing around well past the certified bed time.

In my defense, I know lots of guys that spend a great deal of time out on very expensive sailboats, in the woods in a heavily armed tree stand, or wandering around a golf course chasing a little white ball.  Of course there are others who devote their spare time to more "earthly pleasures" that keep them beyond the reach of their wives and families.  That's a hobby that's definitely more expensive than I can afford.

Now that the sun is out a little more, there are other chores that take me away from the layout.  Finishing the paint job on the house chief among them.  There's also baseball on TV, which my wife and I enjoy sitting together and watching.

Over the years, I've gotten pretty good at breaking layout projects down into bite sized pieces.  I can feel like I'm making progress on something in 15 minutes to an hour as time becomes available.  Of course, being solidly ADD, I can also be up there for hours at a time either focused on a singular detail, or unfocused and bouncing from project to project.

So anyway, what about this commitment of time...  As you may or may not know, this economy hasn't been kind to me or my family, so we're not in a position to take a get-away vacation, or anything like that.  The train room has been something of a refuge for me.  I guess the trouble is that it is in the attic, and it does keep me beyond the reach of the family a bit.  But it's also one of the few places in my world at the moment where I can just close the door and leave the world outside for a while.  With her class load, I don't see much of my wife anyway, and my kids are old enough to amuse themselves.  I can't sit still long enough to watch a bunch of television (save for the occasional ballgame or movie), so I drift up to the attic where I can feel productive, keep myself amused, and listen to some old records, or the ballgame on the radio.

In the warmer weather, one solution is to move some of my more portable projects down to work on them out on the porch.  There I can keep busy, but still have an eye out for skinned knees or geometry homework.  In a way, I suppose the hobby can be considered addictive.  Like booze or drugs, there's a certain "high" in it, there's peer pressure, a fair amount of expense, and that potential for separation from loved ones.  But that defines any hobby, doesn't it?

We all know someone that's gone off the deep end, with trains running around the living room, through the bathroom and across the kitchen counter.  There's usually not the risk of annoying a spouse in those cases, however.

So I'll carry on, and strive to strike a balance between the responsibilities of family and the hobby I've enjoyed so much.  At least when I'm up there tinkering, everyone knows where to find me.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Still Not Sold on Sound

It seems the latest fashion in Model Railroading, apart from the timeless vest covered with railroad patches and the tie tack with blinking crossbucks, is on-board sound.  Tiny speakers nested under coal bunkers or in fuel tanks emitting tinny noise are on the list of any beginner, and even many more experienced guys.  A speaker that's supposed to evoke standing trackside listening to the roar of an EMD 567, or the chuff of a steam locomotive have captured the hobbyist's imagination.

But not mine.

I've had the pleasure of installing a number of sound decoders into both N and HO scale locomotives.  I've also participated in a few operating sessions where sound has been in use by one or God forbid, more than one operator, and I have to say that after the first few moments of novelty, and the delight of pressing F2 and getting a faint "woot woot" from the kazoo-like speaker, the excitement plum evades me.

Maybe it's because when I'm running my trains, I've just gotten used to listening to old vinyl records.  (A fact which should say a lot about my affinity for technology of another age.)  Or maybe when I have three diesels on the point of a heavy N scale train, I like to hear them working... often sounding a lot more like a lashup of real diesels than those little micro chips can.

In either case, on-board sound just doesn't do it for me.  I don't like the way it adds significantly to the power drawn by the locomotive, I don't like the way it sounds so thin compared to the real thing, I don't like installing sound decoders and speakers and all those wires, and I don't like having more buttons on the throttle to fool around with while I'm trying to operate my train with one hand, and sip a beer with the other.

Nope.  Sound is not the savior of the hobby.  There are many who would argue otherwise, but rest assured, they are wrong.  Sound is a novelty, it will amuse the uninitiated briefly, and be a crutch to people who would rather not pursue a higher standard of model building. 

If I wish to enjoy the sound of some historic diesel, I shall spend a few moments scanning You Tube, and I'll find what I want in a matter of moments.  If I want to really enjoy the thrum of a big diesel, then I shall take my web lawn chair trackside.  And there I'll get the full Monty!  Squealing flanges, flattened wheels tapping by.  Maybe, just maybe, there will be some jointed rail and a healthy dose of clickety clack!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Times That Try Men's Souls

Hunters have their duck blinds, mechanics their garages. Others will sit in a beach chair and lose themselves in a book, or just watch the surf. People are very adept at finding solace in their leisure time, even if it's catch as catch can. It's a vital survival strategy as life seems to get more complex every day.

There's a lot of things going on in the world right now, giant oil spills, wars, economic downturns... It's enough to make your head spin sometimes, especially if you or someone you know is dealing with hardships related to any or all of the above.

The forums tend to light up in times like these with threads predicting gloom and doom, and the demise of the hobby as people find their disposable income dwindle away. I find myself up to my eyeballs in alligators at the moment, with stresses ranging from dwindling income to difficulties at work, two children and my wife all in college, aging cars and a house that needs painted... So I can totally relate to the disposable income situation.

But I reject the notion that trying times spell the end of model railroading as we know it.

First of all, when the bullets are flying overhead, outside of time spent with my family, there is no refuge more comforting than the train room. When it's time to sort out the news of the day, the bills in the mailbox, the nonsense at work, I drift up to the attic and turn on some music, and look around for something to do.

There's always plenty to occupy me. I'm in the process of expanding the layout, so there's everything from benchwork to wiring to tackle. There are still parts of the railroad that are operable, so I can do some switching if the mood strikes. There's also a workbench full of projects that are in various states of completion. Decoders need installed, a structure needs painted, a bridge needs to be detailed.

When times are good, I have a tendency to stock up on stuff that I know I can't get around to for awhile... it's the old saw "when I have enough money, I have no time, when I have enough time, I have no money." But the Boy Scouts always admonish us to "Be Prepared," so I keep a healthy supply of scratch building materials, tools and paints at the ready so I can treat myself to an hour or so of idle tinkering to help clear my head whenever the need arises.

I suppose the people who complain the loudest about the demise of the hobby are the guys that rely on "ready to run" and "factory assembled" products for their enjoyment. While these products are indeed convenient, they are also a lot more expensive. So if you're in a situation where you don't have a lot of money to spend, you're going to feel like you can no longer enjoy the hobby. For me, that's where my enjoyment begins.

My favorite challenges are making something out of nothing. Or looking at some abundant and inexpensive material, and re-purposing it for the model railroad. (My latest foray has been to salvage teabags from the big vats of iced tea we make this time of year, drying out the tea leaves, and using them for ground cover.)

I enjoy seeing the results, pass or fail, and learning things as I go along.

Which also helps me deal with the other challenges in my life. So while the train room is a great place to escape from the "real world"... it also can provide a way to sharpen my way of thinking about work, home life, and the world in general. Everything is a process, with a beginning, middle and an end. You just have to get on with it.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pleasing the Crowd... or Yourself. That is the Question

As I go about the messy business of rebuilding a major portion of my model railroad, I'm beginning to struggle with the question of just exactly what I'd like my layout to be. The original design is a wonderful tangle of main line, yard, branch line and industrial operations. And even in its present confused state, it serves well the social interaction that model railroad operations can be.

At any given session, I can have 4 to 10 crew jammed into my layout room, and everyone (for the most part) has a job to do. In fact, without that formidable staff, sometimes it's difficult to justify even turning on the lights in there. I do go in and tinker, and will on occasion set the turnouts for a closed route and enjoy watching a train circulate. But I'm trying to come to terms with the idea of having all this stuff, and questioning whether I'm really enjoying the layout the way I want to.

My operations plan is, admittedly, heavily influenced by the fact that I live at least a couple of hours from most of my crew. They travel a good distance to run my layout, so I feel compelled to provide them with a solid "play value" for the time they have invested. Thus I have staging areas that can hold hundreds of cars, lots of money tied up in switch motors, DCC throttles, and let's not even get started on rolling stock. In between sessions, I'm faced with building the new this, or rewiring the faulty that... and of course, cleaning engine wheels.

Now don't get me wrong, I like running those hot freights from one staging track to another. I love sorting cars and assembling trains in the yard, then sending them on their way. I really like switching my big industries, and that drag of empty hoppers needs to get back to the tipples...

But am I biting off more than I really want to chew? It would probably help if one or two guys lived closer, and could come over on a Tuesday night to help take care of the tedium. Or if I was an hour away, instead of two plus, so I could expect to fire up the layout more than three or four times a year. Right now, it seems a to be a lot of buck for the bang.

So, what to do? Do I go ahead and blast the whole shootin' match and start fresh on a simple short line that I can get my head around? Do I revisit the master plan, and see if it can be made to work with fewer hands (and dollars?)

My fear is that by scaling back to a railroad that looks, fits and runs better for one guy in a relatively small space, that I'd be sacrificing the opportunity to have those great ops sessions where guys come from far and wide to have a good time at my house. (A bit narcissistic, but then aren't we all?)

I'd also miss the variety of operations that I enjoy. While I think I'd love to build a simple branch line serving a handful of customers with a heavily weathered geep, I might also get terribly bored with it after a few times of doing the same thing over and over and over...

I suppose the only real answer is to press on with the master plan, and when the urge hits to run that rusty switcher, I'll just turn on the branch line and let the rest of the layout sleep...

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Fleet Mentality

On the Railwire, the topic of the cost of some new rolling stock came up, and it got me thinking about how our rolling stock purchases fit in with the concept of our model railroads.

For N scalers, these are the best of times it seems, at least in terms of the quality of rolling stock that is being offered. ESM, Fox Valley, and Bluford Shops are all producing some absolutely jaw dropping freight cars that are well designed, nicely assembled, and perfectly painted. There are also some great passenger car offerings that blow you away with the level of detail. Body mounted couplers are finally making their way into the main stream, and even Atlas Trainman is offering new body styles.

But it's also the worst of times, if you're trying to build up a fleet. The ESM G-26 mill gondola retails for over $20 a piece. Most newer cars carry a price tag of $15-20, new passenger cars tip the scales at close to $50! Plus, the method of "Build to Order" means that you either pony up or miss the boat.

I've been accumulating rolling stock for 30 years, so I have a few advantages over someone just getting started. Yes, a lot of my fleet is getting pretty long in the tooth, and the level of quality pales in comparison to what's coming on line now, but the bottom line is, it's already on the rails, and I can choose to upgrade or replace at my own pace. I'm used to seeing the bulky cast on grabs, the relatively high ride height, the brake wheels that look like innertubes... I'm content to throw a little weathering on, maybe change a part or two, and put 'er on the road.

A new guy might get a taste of the high end stuff, and decide that the 40-year old Trainman tooling isn't adequate. So he starts to put together a 20 car train, and quickly realizes that he's staring down the barrel of a $500+ investment by the time he puts his Atlas Master locomotive on the point, and a MicroTrains caboose on the end.

That doesn't even begin to address the other expenses of track, power supply (and decoders, if that floats your boat) sound chips and scenery.

I'm drawn to N scale for it's train:scenery ratio. I'm also attracted to its ability to accommodate large scale operations on a relatively compact layout. (That 20 car train in N is about 7' long, in HO it would be 14') As such, rolling stock is a major factor in what goes into the train budget.

As I illustrated in my article in N Scale Magazine, I like to "resurrect" those old junkyard dogs from the early days of N and put them back in revenue service. It takes some time and money to upgrade trucks and couplers, and do some paint and decal work, but in the end it's worth it to me, because while they don't add glamour, they certainly add variety to the fleet without adding substantially to the expense side of the ledger.

I have started picking up the newer cars, and I do like the way they look, but when they're added to a consist of 20 other cars, and are rolling by at track speed, they don't necessarily stand out. They do look nice in close up pictures, but I don't need an entire fleet of detailed cars to do that. Consider that for every Miss Texas and Miss California, there's 48 other girls up on stage that look pretty good, they just don't have as many added on... er... detail parts.

I'm sure that over time as I add more and more of them, I'll see more of a difference, but again, I have the luxury of an already intact fleet, so I don't have to be in a hurry to spend the big bucks on the newer cars. The key to tempering my enthusiasm is keeping that fleet mentality, wherein the value of the total is more than the sum of its individual parts.