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.