2014 NMRA Convention

I attended the regional NMRA convention last week(end). There were five days of activities, including operating sessions, clinics, layout tours, silent auction, contest, modular demo tables, banquet, and more. Much fun was had by all, but since my point here is as a Lego train modeler, I’m going to focus on that perspective.

In general I’ve found most people don’t care how you approach the hobby. HO? N? O? G? Whatevs. Scenery, buildings, plaster mountains, just plywood? Knock yourself out. Switching, fun running, strict prototype accuracy? You can run your railroad however you like. However I did run into a few people that had strong opinions on what was “model railroading” and what was a toy. This always amuses me. Like some of us are curing cancer and others are watching TV in their underwear? Ugh. No. I’ll skip the rant on that subject, chances are you could rant along with me.

Lego’s nice in that we don’t have to worry about electricity. It’s unfortunate that we can’t link switches, lights, and diorama features to commands issued from a throttle, and that we don’t have block detectors. Having two throttles on a remote is a good thing, but only 8 possible addresses is unfortunate. Being able to modify anything is great; everything on our layouts is kit-built or scratch-built. This modular nature means it’s that much easier to add moving parts.

A good bit of the banquet was spent giving out rewards to contest entrants; basically, people that had scratch-built or kit-built rolling stock, structures, bridges & trestles, etc., plus photography. Someone’s kid had entered a Lego train, built to a 4-pip-wide standard. I know, both regionally and nationally, that there’s some Lego Train modellers that could have competed well among these NMRA contest entries, but there’s so much gap between the two that I don’t know how the scoring would come out.

The highlight for me was the layout tours. Seeing a wide variety of layouts is inspiring. Being a model railroader is a decades-long hobby; none of the layouts were completed, almost all between “70% of trackwork and 5% of scenery” and “all trackwork complete and 70% of scenery”. Most of this is expense: it takes some money to buy the initial batch of lumber and to get all the wiring done, and then to buy and lay all the track, but then there’s a lot more to buy. Plaster, ground cover, chicken wire, more plywood, prefab trees, model kits, ballast, paint, brushes, cleaning supplies, etc etc — it’s not just elbow grease. And then, once it’s running and half the scenery is done, I think a lot of the motivation to get scenery done dies, because working rails and half the scenery is a ton of work and pretty close to done.

Yet preferences change year to year. Yeah, it takes years to finish trackwork and scenery, but also years to buy all that stuff. Layout builders tend to grow their layouts over the years, or to eventually move into a house where they dedicate an entire room to the hobby. Or maybe they grew to that point and then remodeled their house to enlarge that room! So do I do more scenery or operations? I haven’t yet dug into electrical rewiring and remodeling to host my layout, though, so really, I have time. It’s still easy enough for me to change from one focus to the other.

Layout tours have motivated me to care more about scenery. Cool scenery is cool. Switching is fun, but that’s an operations thing. I think, personally, my optimum operations platform would be a heavily-scenicked railroad. There’s a guy here in town that has a layout with maybe one building on it; everything else is track on roadbed on plywood. Not even figures standing about. Operations on the layout is a lot of fun; it’s very much a mental puzzle. But if he instead had a ton of scenery, the layout would probably only support five or six running trains rather than eight.

Forever the modelers quandary: “if only I had more space!”

That, of course, makes Lego a very difficult thing. I saw a couple G-scale layouts on the tour. Neat things, both outdoors. But the layouts were dirt-simple; one was three separate loops, one with a siding; the other was a point-to-point layout with one switchback, one siding, and six (extra) spurs. Yet the costs per square foot are roughly equivalent, since a single foot of G-scale track is $8 (HO is under $2/ft, Lego about $3/ft) and single cars are $100. Lego, at 38:1 (roughly), is a very large scale. HO is the most common model railroad scale, with N (120:1) and O (48:1) being the next most common. Lego is even larger than O! If I was a millionaire, I might manufacture my own half-scale Lego items just to get around this one specific hurdle. But then again, if I was a millionaire, I could afford enough space to make a huge Lego layout, too.

Scenery can be neat. The whole gist of MOC contests is that scenery and dioramas are cool. I made and renewed a lot of friendships at this convention. Personally, what I got out of it was a greater appreciation for scenery.

Which translates into a desire to add more scenery to my own layout, at the expense of operating complexity.

New Train Sets for 2014

There’s been pictures and videos released already for the new train sets due this year. I think last year, new sets were already available by May. Maybe just in stores? Brickset implies stuff becomes available online in June each year. I haven’t really been paying close attention. Anyway, my point: I think the release of these new sets is imminent. The thing to “worry” about, as it were, is which sets are being discontinued. The Red Passenger Train (7938), Yellow Cargo Train (7939), and the Train Station (7937) have been available since June of 2010, and that Station has been sold out online for at least a month. Back when the Maersk train was publicly available, I had been thinking of getting another set or two. I moved and wasn’t too attentive to my layout for a while, the set got discontinued, and now they go for $250 instead of the retail $120. And that set was only available for 18 months! So it seems that four years is a pretty long time for the two old train sets still on the market.

60052 Blue Diesel Switcher

60052 Blue Diesel Switcher

One of the new sets, 60052, is a blue switcher with two flats and … a livestock gondola. Or something. I guess it makes play easier for the children who will be getting that set built around their Christmas tree this year, but us AFOLs will continue making awesome custom rail cars. Well, you AFOLs, maybe not me. Anyway, the introduction of this set suggests the imminent retirement of 7939. The Red Cargo was available during the same period the Maersk was (mid 2011 to late 2012), but I think the idea is that 60052 (or whatever set number it becomes) will replace 7939 in the lineup. I’m glad to see that. Here in the States, it’s much more common to see a diesel switcher rather than an electric and I think the engine will resonate with American audiences. Likewise, the Maersk was a road diesel, an SD40-2, like I see on occasion on the MoPac railway here in town. A short little switching diesel will fit my layout much better. Part of that is that the Maersk does not like to take corners. Using it as an operating engine is a pain as it derails so often. I guess really I should be building my own engines, but man, I’ve got a ton of work to do as it is!

Lego's new high-speed electric passenger train, 60051

Lego’s new high-speed electric passenger train, 60051

The 60051 is yet another high-speed electric passenger train. I’d guess that the Horizon Express, which has been around for nearly 18 months, will be retired as well. It kinda feels to me that there’s always been 3 engines available, so maybe not? What would they keep around? One cargo, one passenger, and then a “special” engine, which to me is what the Horizon is. I see the Horizon fitting the same place the Maersk and the Emerald Night before it did, whereas the 60052 seems to be a “standard” set. I think it’s important to note that 7938 and 7939 both come with motors and remote controls; that they’re intended to be able to be run standalone, whereas the Maersk, Horizon, and Emerald Night are more display pieces. None of those three came with a motor and remote. ok, so I’ve been rambling. What I really want to discuss, because it’s what I want to think about: what’s my shopping plan? I just bought a second 7939; I could deal with more tankers (but those are easy to hand-build), and I wouldn’t mind a couple more flats, but the intermodal is meh, especially compared to the awesome Maersk intermodals. And I have no need for another electric (vs diesel) engine, or yet another motor/battery/IR receiver/remote combo. I think what this means is that I should buy the cars I want while the set is still available. As for the 7938 (Red Passenger Train), I think I want a total of 3 or 4, and I have one so far. I can’t really use them now, but if they’re going to be twice as expensive in a year then I really should buy it before it gets discontinued or even out-of-stock. My plan, btw, is to have two sets of engines and rear cars but to kitbash one or two sets into other typical passenger car types, eg sleepers or baggage or observation.

Thinking about it… my local Lego Store has put a few trains out on the floor. It’s not a huge retail store but it is a decent size; I think they put the trains out now because TLG is trying to get rid of them before they introduce the “cool new set”. Mostly I’m thinking of buying the sets because, with only a few extra pieces, I should be able to mold it into three cars, while the track and remote will still remain somewhat useful. Hurm. Or not? Since it seems that almost every new set will come with them? I could see myself buying four of the 60052s just because short switching diesels would be useful and appropriate on my layout and I could use tons of the steel-cable and cargo flats. Technically, scratch-building cars is cheaper, but only because I wouldn’t be buying the track, motors/remotes/etc, or engine. Lego keeps its value, at least from the purchase side: I can’t buy pieces cheaper than TLG sells them for. I could order the pieces for just the cars that I want, but after the time spent finding them plus the extra shipping and handling for a bunch of small orders I don’t think I’d be saving much money. I have a decent job and other things to do, so to some extent plonking down $150 for a set is the cheapest way for me to get the pieces I want. If I had less money, more bills, and/or way more time, I’d probably decide to pick-a-brick or bricklink my way to more rolling stock.

Pieces for the car-carrying flat from 7939, after the cars themselves are constructed

Pieces for the car-carrying flat from 7939, after the cars themselves are constructed

Depends on the rolling stock, really. Here’s the car-carrying flat car from 7939. Once you’ve got the wheels/coupler/bogie bits, there’s not much else needed to build this. And you can use anything as cargo, including cars from your set — if you’ve bought much City in the last couple decades you’ve got little road cars. A base, two wheels, six yellow bits, and an undercarriage assembly. Cake! As a side note, I think I need a white table so that these pictures aren’t so hard to see. 🙂

Design of a Town

I finally have a town layout that I like. In this post I’ll go over the design process.

Readers might recall that my goal is to build a layout that could be enjoyed by three operators for a two-hour session. That is, each operator would have enough interesting switching work plus other train-management time to consume a couple hours. I love switching, but there’s also other things to do: watching trains run, interacting with a dispatcher or other operators, “engineering” (moving the train, coupling & uncoupling, throwing switches), “conducting” (figuring out what goes where, what to pick up, and the order to do all of that), and maybe a couple other things.

My goal with this town — one of two, and the layout will also have a classification yard — is to provide switching time plus some work for passenger trains. I want to operate with the rule that someone switching a town is not allowed to foul the main. Prototypically, there might be some spurs off of the mainline but part of my puzzle here is having this restriction. I actually first started with the opposite assumption: that there would be some industry spurs off the mainline and the work train would have to get time & track at some point to switch those spurs.

The main reason I changed my mind was a space concern, actually: I’ve got 9 tables in the layout, each between 7 and 12.5 square feet, and so I decided each town consumes exactly three tables. This one consists of two 5′ x 2.5′ tables, and one that’s 24″ x 42″. Like Tetris or packing a suitcase, designing this town was a matter of figuring out how to place and rotate things so that everything that I wanted would fit.


Three tables with baseplates, ready for tracklaying

One of the early decisions I had to make was whether the mainline would run at the back of the table or along the front. If it’s at the back, that means that someone working the town is closer to all of the industries and switches and cars and will have an easier time working. With the mainline at the front of the table instead, less space is consumed by the snaking mainline. I’ve got a 180 degree turn at the very west end of the town and being able to use the space inside that turn was critical: it was just too much space to waste via forcing the mainline to cross over the table.

I also spent quite a bit of time futzing with track. Eventually I decided that I shouldn’t connect any track together, because I was breaking it apart and rearranging it way too often. The core issue is where to place the switches and that’s eventually what I wound up concentrating on. It’s easy to visualize spurs with maybe a lone piece of straight track, but getting switches to fit into the space available and curves to go where I need them were tricky. The worst part is really that Lego switches are huge monsters. TLG has kept to 32-pip lengths, which means the diverging branch of a switch turns for six ties (each tie being 4 pips apart), goes straight for a tie, and then curves the opposite way for two ties. The result is that the angle of the diverging track is 1/16th of a circle; the same as a single piece of curved track. Not only does the switch consume a ton of space, but the reversed curve makes it harder to fit switches into tight spots. HO modelers are always begging for more space; O and S scale modelers have it worse; but really, working in Lego is crazy. I’ve got 150 square feet of space to work with here and I am cramming in as much as humanly possible.


Finished town viewed from the West end

After having a partly working layout, I stuck a few cars on the spurs and ran a train through. Without anything in the way and with no specific guidelines on which car had to go where, it only took me eight minutes to get everything switched. That was way too fast to be able to provide enough entertainment for one engineer for a couple hours. This then forced me into focusing on how to make the switching job more time-consuming (but also entertaining).

The most obvious point is that the more spots there are in a town, the more work there is to do, and the longer an engineer will spend switching within a town. Having both facing and trailing spurs means some runarounds will need to be done. Not having the incoming train blocked for orderly setout of cars also helps; it puts a higher cognitive load on the engineer, and that means a more interesting switching puzzle. Having to swap a car from the train with one on a spur is more interesting than picking up a car from a spur and setting one out somewhere else. And the most complex bit, I think, is having to pull a car from the “back” of a spur while leaving a car in place in front of it.

Runarounds are key, but … they’re kinda always there. One of the tricky bit about making this town interesting to switch is that the mechanics of switching with Lego are far easier than with HO. Uncoupling? Cake; no picks or magnets needed; you always just manhandle the cars. Coupling? Cake; no worries about couplers being closed or positioned wrong. And the engines are fast enough that switching directions and running back and forth is very quick.

There are three basic ways to provide more hours of enjoyment to an operating session: more cars to switch, more complex movements, and limited space in which to do them. Train length is, unfortunately, limited by the weak magnets within the couplers, but I think 6 cars is doable. 8 is right out and 5 is definitely possible, but I think 7 is pushing it. That means that a full turn in a town will be setting out 6 cars and then picking up 6 cars. I’ve mentioned complex movements above: putting in a spur with multiple spots on it is the gold standard here. In the above picture, the Maersk car with the two grey containers is parked next to some barrels. The idea is that those barrels indicate a spot, and the end of the spur (at the bottom of the photo) is a separate spot. But also note how cramped that spur is with the long, ~34-pip Maersk intermodal flats! And that gets into the space consideration: consider the two spurs between the mainline and the runaround where a white boxcar is parked. To fit cars down there without fouling the main, one would have to back the engine down the track where the white Maersk container car is. Switching those spots will require a lot of movement because there’s no room for anything other than the engine and a car, and even that is tight. If there was another car parked next to the Maersk then the only way to switch would be by first moving cars out of that spur. That’s part of the puzzle bit: tons of little movements add up to a couple hours of entertainment.

East end of the town including passenger siding

East end of the town including passenger siding

I sat down and looked at how many spurs I had and how long it would take to switch everything. I came to the conclusion that a full turn might only take twenty minutes, I think because I am very heavily biased in this layout to simple, single-spot spurs. That said, I decided to add some other things that the engineer would have to do, other than running multiple turns through the town. In other words, I’d given up on a single turn taking two hours. Just not gonna happen with a six-car consist limit. So I decided to have the engineer run a passenger train as well, especially since I’ve got both the Red Passenger Train and the Horizon. Yeah, technically they’re electric trains, but perhaps one day I’ll modify them to have diesel power.

Given the arrangement of my tables, there was a bit of dead space on the East end of the track. I decided to add a siding large enough to hold four cars, with an extra spur that I’d use for RPO. The idea now is that the engineer will run a turn into the town, picking up (eg) only Eastbound cars, and return to the yard. Then he’ll run a passenger train, swapping out RPOs as he goes. Then a second turn, picking up Westbound cars. I’ve got enough spurs (but not yet enough cars) to fill four turns — that is, twenty-four cars — but I’m thinking rather than running two each of the Eastbound and Westbound turns that instead he’ll run one of each, a passenger train or two, plus some unit trains.

I’d really love to have a town complex and interesting enough that a single turn could spend two hours running, but I think that’s a bit much, even on a dense HO layout. The only turn I’ve seen take that long had 18 cars. Another long turn I ran on an HO layout took over a couple hours but included a delay getting started, a long run from the yard through two other towns plus a sizeable bit of scenery, one broken turnout that required hand-moving and rerailing every single car (and I’m talking about rerailing HO cars here), ambiguity about passing through one town (the work siding? it’s blocked, we can’t go through), a dead turnout where the engine always stalled, and an aborted run up a branch line on uncleaned track that it turns out we didn’t need to do. Whew! That was a fun session, but all the broken stuff is not something that I want in my layout.

So, again: given the difficulty of getting 8 cars into a Lego consist, can I really design a town that provides enough entertainment for one engineer? Will I need more space? I think I’ll want to spend time operating on this layout to learn how to best design a layout for entertaining operations. I will say that the design process itself has been a ton of fun, and that’s not including building cars and scenery!