Locomotive Roster: SNCF BB 67300; Minitrix 12150

Currently my favorite locomotive! The appeal on this one is sort of funny for me. When I was first exposed to it in the 2007 Trix New Items catalog it did not really stand out (I thought at the time that it looked like a Winnebago!). But over time, the paint scheme started to appeal to me. Its certainly one of the more intriguing and dynamic paint schemes from any railway anywhere in the world.

I've now had this locomotive since June of 2008, and I am thoroughly pleased and impressed with its running characteristics, detail, and reliability. Installing a decoder into the NEM 651 socket was simple, quick, and problem free (by the way, this is a locomotive where there is room for the NEM 651 plug decoder without the wire harness).

This little locomotive can pull quite the load based on its relative size. I can attach nearly all of my 31 pieces of freight rolling stock and it can climb my 2% grade (on a curve!) without showing any obvious signs of slipping. Fantastic!

This is also a locomotive where the price was pretty good. In US dollars, I paid well below $200 last summer (remember the exchange rates back in the summer of 2008?) which is, generally speaking, a good 'value' from Minitrix (my context for this is my past experience with O Gauge, where $400 is typically the floor price and $500 or $600 for a decent model with digital capabilities!). Yes, compared to the domestic US locomotives, this was pricey, but I am not currently in that marketplace, so this seems okay to me (FYI, at current exchange rates, this should probably be around US$160).

In sum, a great looking and running locomotive --- and currently, the only representative from France on the layout! Enjoy the photos!


Locomotive Roster: SBB Class 450; Fleischmann 775301

This locomotive, and its matching cars, quickly became a favorite of mine. I had the good fortune to spend several days in the beautiful city of Zurich in 2007, and during my time at there this was one of the striking trains that I had the pleasure to see in person. I was very pleased to see that Fleischmann has produced not only the locomotive, but the matching double deck cars.

The locomotive feels very solid, and if this (along with the V100) are any indication of the type of quality that Fleischmann produces, then I am very impressed. It runs like a charm. It is a powerful and smooth runner, I am really not sure what else can be asked of these N scale locomotives.

This engine was also a textbook example of how easy it should be to install a decoder. Of course it comes with the wonderful NEM 651 socket, and a straight-out-of-the-box Lenz Gold Mini D fit perfectly and was easily programmed. No problems fitting, or having to go with a version with a wire harness, etc...

I did learn something about this locomotive. While the Class 450 was not my first Electric Loco (that was the Thalys), it was the first locomotive I had that power capable pantographs. When I first put it on the track, I could not get it to work. Before I panicked, I sent a quick mail off to the hobby ship where I purchased it and was pleased to get a quick reply to check the screw at the bottom of the locomotive that selects between track or catenary power. I checked and it was set to the pantograph and was no problem to fix! It does seem that the pantographs reach much higher than the Thalys (which has decorative, non-working pantographs) as this is the principal locomotive that I have to lower the pantographs when going under the Kato Elevated Station (see this post for more details on that).

Another observation. The double-deck matching passenger cars are on the long side, about 164mm long, which was a problem with the Kato Unitrack single track viaduct walls (see the same post). Interesting that the same set was the source of two 'incompatibilities' with some of my track and structures. However, these are completely minor inconveniences at best.

My sole complaint, and you can be the judge of this by looking at the photos, is the very weak LED lights in both the locomotive and the control cab passenger car. Not sure why Fleischmann selected to go with an arrangement that has such dim lighting, but it is sort of distracting and is my one disappointment. If I ever have the time and motivation, this is a prime candidate for an LED upgrade project!

Other than that, an excellent job by Fleischmann!


Unitrack Obersten! (Unitrack Supreme!)

Kato's N Scale Unitrack system was, and continues to be, a very happy experience. I had a few bumps along the way (some of which were unique, but I share them in the interest of passing along my learning or mistakes) but this is one of the few investments I've made that I would do all over again. Is it right for you? That depends....

First, I doubt that I would have much interest in this hobby if not for the simplicity, functionality, and capabilities that Kato Unitrack provides. Yes, there is an obvious sacrifice in terms of prototypical realism, but there are ways around this (one of which I may attempt is to apply some 'rust' paint to the rails, and use diluted India ink on the plastic ballast which, according to other sources on the Internet, not only makes it more realistic but takes down some of the 'shine' of the ballast). For me, the ability to remove, add, and then continue to use the same piece of track after multiple revisions is a capability that makes up for the somewhat more pricey nature of this track and its subjective questionable prototypical appearance.

Second, while there are only two switches offered, a #4 and a #6, the fact that the switch motor is installed under the switch, thus removing either the unsightly switch machine sitting beside the turnout, and the excellent frog power capability and the great performance of these switches (i.e. no derailments) is another significant benefit of this track.

Third, the ability to connect, add power, and run trains and manipulate switches could not be easier. The fact that you can wire together a layout without touching a screw driver or stripping a single wire, is a feature that I love, although you still have the freedom to modify this as you wish.

And finally (at least for this post), since its more or less code 80, it is very compatible with Atlas, Minitrix, and other code 80 track (I've actually connected both Atlas and Minitrix track to Kato Unitrack without the need of their special adapter track and it works well...particularly for yard settings where the ballasted roadbed does not look correct).

Okay, so what are the cons? To be fair, these may not be 'cons' depending on your layout, pre-planning research, and rolling stock, and so on, but this is more a list of some of the 'issues' that I did find with Unitrack on my layout so far:

No Flex Track!!! Fleischmann has a similar ballasted roadbed track with a sort of 'flex track' piece, its really frustrating that there is no similar option for Unitrack. I did attempt (as mentioned above) to use transitions between Atlas flex track and the Unitrack, but while it worked satisfactorily, the appearance and commitment to matching the ballasting was more ambitious than I was ready for.

Curve Options. While Unitrack has many, many diameters to choose from, and the track system is extremely flexible in terms of combining curves, if you need to make minor realignments with your line, you are stuck. This is where flex track comes in very handy. I have an area of the layout where I need the tangent to move about 5mm or 1/4 inch, and there is just no suitable way to do this with Unitrack (that I know of).

Crossing (the 90 degree crossing).
My original track plan required a 90 degree crossover. However, I found that the crossover was not very reliable when it came to Rapido style couples and the flange on the couple would catch on the opposing rails, leading to derailments. I tried to determine if there was any way to file or modify the crossover to avoid this (or modify the couplers as a worse case) but ultimately revised the track plan to remove the crossover altogether.

Beware of 2" Height Descriptions.
One of the biggest challenges I had to face was thinking that the 2" piers and so forth for the elevated track sections, are actually considerably higher once you add in the plastic supports. Beware if you are building your adjoining sections of the layout to viaducts and other elevated sections using the piers that your actual adjoining elevation will have to be higher. If you use the Piers (which are two inches in height) and the plastic attachments, the top of your rail to your base is between 2 9/16 and 2 5/8 in elevation. I can't fault Kato as they are not wrong, but it would have been helpful if their dimensions measured the top of rail to base distance!

Single Track Viaduct clearance problems.
The inside wall of the single track viaducts are too high to allow your longer passenger cars and rolling stock to go through. The problem is specifically with cars that are longer that 160mm, as I have a set with passenger cars that are 164mm which have problems on both the 282 and 315mm curves, however, my 161mm cars do not appear to touch the inside walls at any point. A very crude (and temporary) solution I had to apply was to sand down the inside walls with my belt sander. Still working on a better plan, possibly with a completely different approach to the elevated track in this area.
Overhead Station Clearance problems. Keep those pantographs down going through the Kato Overhead station! This may be a manufacturer specific only issue, but the pantographs on my Fleischmann electric will not clear the bottom of the Kato station. Since elevating the station is not a good option (the stairways that come with it would not fit right), you either need to install catenary that would push the pantograph down as it goes under the station, keep the pantographs down, or device a system to restrict the full extension of the pantographs on those models where this is an issue. I have noticed this is only a problem on those electric engines that have the capability to draw power from catenary. My Kato Thalys cannot do this, as the pantographs do not go high enough to encounter any obstruction from the station. The actual vertical distance from the bottom of the station to the base is just a hair under 2". However, once you add Kato Unitrack, the vertical clearance between the top of the rails and the bottom of the station is about 1 5/8.

All things considered, the issues I ran into are relatively minor compared to some of the problems I've had with 'traditional' track. I also have to say that I tried to use both Atlas and Minitrix switches on the layout originally, but due to persistent derailments or frog conductivity issues, they were all replaced (except for a couple of Minitrix switches in my mill yard).

Its a great system! It will be interesting to see what Atlas does with its new competitive version of this system. If the two systems are compatible, this could be good news for us N Scale modelers!

For more in depth help, tips, and deeper commentary on the Unitrack system, I recommend the Yahoo Unitrack group and Karayan's Unitrack page, which both contain multiple links to various resources as well. I also go into some more detail on some successful features of this system in this post, which I think articulates some of the unique advantages and capabilities of this system.

UPDATED:  I take a look at Kato's new "super-elevated" curve tracks at this post.


Locomotive Roster: DB Class 221; Minitrix 11120 (Set)

I've already mentioned that this locomotive (and its companion Class 03) in the Minitrix "Super Starter Digital Set" are good runners. It is, in my opinion, a good locomotive for the money (although if you're buying one of those larger starter sets, it really pays to shop around. Most websites were asking US $950 or so for this set, but I found a site where it was going for US $700). Trix (and other German manufacturers) all offer the same or similar versions of this locomotive, so I am sure there are better quality versions (and higher prices?) and plentiful supplies wherever you look!

As a modeller, in my mind, this locomotive is similar to the classic EMD F units in the States, if not in appearance, at least in terms of fondness of memory for German (and other) railfans.

I don't have any 'cons' with this locomotive. Its been a very consistent, reliable running engine, with great traction. Most of this is plastic (as compared to more premium versions that are more die-cast), it does not have LED lights, but it did come equipped with a decoder already installed.

I think that's all I have to say about this engine, enjoy the photos!


Action! Layout overview video!

Enough ranting! Back to the trains! This video is sort of a panoramic overview of my N scale world with action shots of the Minitrix Kof II, a Kato Thalys, DB V221 diesel and a Class 80 DB steam engine! All are DCC except for the Class 80.

This video shows action on the four seperate loops, or lines, on the layout. It also shows some areas that...uh....aren't ready for public consumption. But, hey, if you've built a layout before, you know what I mean! :-)

(And, yes, that strange 'stopping' by the little Kof diesel is NOT planned...wait for my review of that little loco!)

NEW DCC System! (or why would I spend big $ for ugly technology)

"Intellivision DCC" To Be Released Soon
Check out the new DCC system ..errr.... not. For those of us that remember, the product above is actually a Mattel Intellivision. From the early 1980's. What's my point? Simple, in the age of the iPhone, Wii, Xbox 360, etc... why is it that Digitrax, MRC, and NEC (to pick on the big 3 US makers anyway) make products that would have looked like telecom utility gear even 20 years ago? Are my fellow American industrialists just completely clueless when it comes to product design? Case in point, here are representative samples of their cornerstone products in the marketplace today:

Now I realize that this will offend some users that will point out that these systems are state of the art and a 'pretty box' is no substitute for easy operation, reliability, etc... Point taken, and I agree. My point is not that we should have 'pretty boxes' with crap functions, etc... but why is it crazy to expect both? By profession, I am a marketer. I'm not an industrial designer, but as a marketer I know that design communicates (sometimes dishonestly) attributes that the product would be expected to have. The 'message' I get from the product design of the above big 3 US manufacturers is that this DCC stuff is 80's technology and does not look fun at all.

Compare, if you will, the new Marklin Central Station 2. I can't speak for the technology or its capabilities (that's not my place and there are plenty of other places online to get that perspective. Its beautiful, is it not? For those of us that like technology and its sexy design, Marklin hit the ball out of the part (as we say in the states).
Marklin is not alone. Roco, while somewhat 'toy-like' in appearances, at least avoids looking like nuclear power plant testing equipment. Viessmann's Commander and ESU's Ecos also do a great job of making the appearance of their systems attempt to communicate something about the capabilities of their product in a way that is contemporary and stylish.

There certainly are some other companies whose products almost make it, I am thinking of the Hornby Elite and Lenz systems, which, only look about 10 years out of date versus the Digitrax, MRC, and NCE systems.

In sum, this post is really about my frustration with the offerings that are available. Despite their competency, I can't seriously consider any of the above products. Is that shallow? Maybe. I am considering the products that I mentioned have design elements that appeal to my sensibilities.

I hope this post resonates with others in this hobby. Again, its not a criticism of the systems themselves, but it is a call for our US (and other?) manufacturers to not be as lazy when it comes to the hobby. After all, the benefits of products and systems with more mass appeal are obvious to anyone in this hobby.


Locomotive Roster: TGV Thalys; Kato 10910

Another non-Minitrix locomotive/train, this time the very beautiful TGV Thalys. I have been fortunate to have taken the Thalys from Paris to Amsterdam, and it was as wonderful a ride as it is a beautiful train (yep, that's yours truly in the photo with the "1:1" scale version!).

My real world experience with the Thalys was another one of those experiences that led me to 'return' to N Scale. I had seen the Thalys offered by Kato, and I knew, even if I didn't end up doing any modelling in this scale, I had to have it (of course, by now, I'm very clearly committed to N scale!).

This was actually the fourth N Scale item I got. After the Minitrix Digital Starter set with the Class 03 and V221, the TEE followed, and then the Thalys. Therefore, it was actually the very first DCC installation I had to do myself as the previous engines all came pre-installed.

The set is advertised as "DCC Ready", but what precisely that means, is almost anyone's guess. What it turns out to mean is that you need to get at least one or more of the following: An ESU manufactured replacement light board (KATO147456) and a NEM651 compatible decoder. While the ESU kit comes with 2 light board replacement boards, you are left to wonder how you get the lights to change over correctly in the non-powered unit? You could just leave the original light board installed, unfortunately, KATO's original light board has white LED's while the ESU board has yellow LEDs.

I didn't really want to have white light boards in the non-powered unit, and the only solution was to use two decoders for the Thalys. For my first DCC decoder installation, this was turning out to be a very challenging task. Thanks to the internet, there were a lot of websites with some clues as to how I should do this, but no specific instructions on how to program 2 decoders that will be installed in the same train set, but only one is powered, and the only function of the other decoder is to switch the lights depending on direction. While that may sound simple to someone who's been using DCC for years, for a newbie, this situation was fraught with questions.

Fortunately, I did not end up frying any decoders. Through a process of carefully reading the manual (which, for the Minitrix Mobile Station was neither thourough or long!) and plenty of 'tutorials' on the web, I basically figured out that giving both decoders the same address (although programmed seperately) but giving one the proper CV codes to reverse the lights, proved to not be the disaster that I thought it would be. I got it running!! Once I got it running, the sleek 10 car set looked great, but all of those 'dark windows' did not look right, and I ended up installing the appropriate Kato light kits to add lighting to the set. Not sure if that was such a good idea, as the contacts on passenger car light sets/kits are not the most reliable (can someone please figure out some new technology for this? Is there a solution?). Some of the cars look like they are having a strobe light party...oh well. Here's some impressions....


- Looks great. Kato's obvious experience with these types of train sets is apparent in how well (especially mechanically) the set moves and looks around pretty tight radii. The close coupling is amazing.
- Powerful. The engine in this thing is amazing. Very powerful and very quiet. Another plus for Kato.
- Reliable. This little engine swings around its 10 car set and never misses a bit on track that may cause other engines to falter. Excellent.

- "DCC Ready"? Come on, what does that mean? Kato needs to get with the 21st Century and start installing decoders or at least allowing for NEM651 plugs.
- Decoder fitting: As if the challenge I talked about above was not enough, once I finally got the decoders programmed, it turns out in this case that you need decoders with the long wire harness, not just the NEM 651 decoders that only have the short plug and no wires. Why oh why can manufacturers not be clear about whether there is space for the decoder and a long harness is needed to fit the decoder in the shell? Well, the good news is I ended up with spare decoders for another install! But, it keeps going....
- Weak shell to chassis connection: The method in which most N scale locomotive shells fit onto the chassis seems to be either too loose or too tight (both are bad!). In this case, the connection/tabs/friction tags between the shell and the chassis are very week, and I had significant difficulty (particularly with the non-powered unit) to get the shell to sit right on its chassis....and stay there!
- The couplers between the Powered Units and the transition (M2?) cars. For reasons beyond me, there are two types of non-standard close coupling mechanisms in this set: A very efficient and effective and easy to manage 'coupler' between the passenger cars, and then a very silly 'scissor-like', flimsy, and fragile friction type connector between the engines and the transition cars that you have to try and 'snap' together without snapping the couples or your precious train apart. I ended up actually snapping one and had to order a replacement (the ONLY source I found was MG Sharp in the UK, which thankfully had them. They are listed as "Eurostar Couplers" but are just the same. I ordered extras! And if I go through all of those, I will glue the connectors together so that the engine and the transition cars are permanently attached!).
Passenger Car lights: The kits were relatively simple to install, but getting all of the tiny brass parts so that they have good contact (particularly around curves) proved very difficult. The result is train where the lights are flashing on and off, particularly around the curves. Well, we're travelling between Paris and Amsterdam, let's just pretend those little N scale people are having a party in there....

I guess with so many 'cons' listed against this set, one might wonder if I felt it was worth it and would I buy it again knowing the problems and frustrations that I had? Yes, although the many hurdles that one has to go through sometimes to get something to work right, does have the tendency to take ones affections away, its a beautiful set unmatched or not produced by any competitor (that I know of) and franly, the price is pretty good for as much of a set that you get. When you add in decoders, light kits, etc... it does add up, but I feel it was worth it.

UPDATE: See new/updated information on the decoder installation at this post!

Diecast N Scale vehicles?

A quick post to share some potential news that may be of interest to readers of this blog. This post relates to that other transportation mode, the automobile. Apparently there is a UK based company that will be producing a line of diecast vehicles in N Gauge. The company is called Oxford Diecast, and they appear to have quite a history in other scales and are now branching out into N Gauge.

While I have a few of the high quality 'mini-metals' vehicles, they are very North American specific. I also have some vehicles from Wiking, Herpa, and Busch, but they are very much plastic. It will be nice to have another source of diecast vehicles in N Gauge, and these with a more 'international' flavor!


Locomotive Roster: DB V100; Fleischmann 8-7230

And now time to look at one of the Fleischmann models on the layout. I actually was thinking of posting some more layout pictures since I haven't really focused specifically on that since I laid the track down and completed most of the wiring connections, but I think that sharing my photos of these locomotives on the current layout - while also giving a 'user's opinion' of them-is a decent way to 'kill two birds with one stone'.

On to this post's model....this is a model of a DB V100 with a pre-installed digital decoder, giving it the '8' prefix in Fleischmann's catalog. The detailing on this, like many of the newer models from Minitrix and Fleischmann (don't know about Roco, but I assume this is true) feature a higher level of detail than past versions of these locomotives. I would go so far as to say if you did not know the scale in the photos, you could assume they were HO (except for those classic Rapido stype couplers! Which I don't mind saying that I love for their simplicity and functionality, but I know many people despise them). In fact, before I acquired this locomotive, I had a low impression of Fleischmann quality, which was probably influenced by seeing a lot of Fleischmann HO stuff in the states in the 70's that was never really taken care of (e.g. it was usually in boxes of 'junk' at swap meets). I was very young at the time, but that association sort of stayed in the back of my mind. I am glad to see that it was not true....or at least, is not true today. The locomotive has proven very durable and has even survived a fall from the layout to the floor (which has a thin carpeting material over the concrete....not much protection for the dreaded dropped loco!!!).

- Its digital operation from the decoder was flawless from the start. Right out of the box, never had a problem with the programming or operation with either a LokBoss or the Trix Mobile Station.
- Detailing. As mentioned above, it looks great, the headlights have the appropriate amount of brightness.
- Motor: Not the strongest locomotive by any means, but a solid motor, although I find it does work better after having 'warmed up' a bit.
- Insensistive: This locomotive seamingly retains solid electrical contact through virtually all conditions. One of the more reliable operators on the layout.

- None to speak of. I've owned it for about 6 months, and no issues. Let's hope that continues!


Locomotive Roster: Dutch RAm TEE; Minitrix 12440

The great thing about modeling European prototypes (for me anyway!) is the exciting new industrial designs and intriguing new prototypes that are just fascinating to one who is mostly exposed to their own countries domestic versions. I think one of the reasons I enjoy the European models (and potentially, one day, the Japanese models) is the surprise of seeing a familiar locomotive style with dramatic (some would say, exotic) differences from that which one is used to.

It was with this sense of joy and surprise that I came across the Minitrix 12440 Dutch RAm Trans Europe Express in their 2007 catalog. I have an affinity for the Netherlands, having visited there a couple of times for business in the past several years, and this interesting train set intrigued me with its somehow similar -yet very different- styling (compared to US prototypes). One can almost see a touch of early Fairbanks Morse or Baldwin in the design of this set.

As an N Scale modeler, it was also very interesting to me to see that this set already came equipped to run in DCC and... it had SOUND! Here is a video clip of the trainset backing into, and through, the suburban station on my layout:


- Detail...the model looks great. Not sure that it looks as good in the photos as it does in person, but the detail and quality of construction are amazing.
- The 'close coupling' mechanism that Minitrix uses is amazing. Even on some of my very tight (242 radius) curves, you don't get that 'stretched out' look that long cars get on tight curves. Its impressive and not noticable that the radii is not prototypical!
- Sounds. The sounds are great. Whistle, engine sound (which change at different RPM's), door open and close, a 'whistle' sound, and some uncoupling sounds are all pretty much spot on. The down side (and I felt this way with O Gauge as well) and no fault with the model, is that diesel sounds are just not that interesting to listen to (there is just not enough room for bass at any scale to get the right sound of power that these things have in real life!).
- Lights already installed in the cars!

- Sensitive. Of all my locomotives...this engine is usually going to be the most 'touchy' about the track. Whether it be a very slight misalignment at the track connection between two rails, a small 'frog' gap break in the current, or whatever, this set can pretty much be counted on to stall out at the lower speeds (of course, at high speed, EVERYTHING works great! But I try to keep my speed to something similar to real life! :-)). Is it just my locomotive? It seems heavy enough that its not going to have contact problems, it definitely has enough contact wheels, ah....just can not figure this engine out. Again, when it gets going, its fine, but its just so darn touchy....
- Car lighting. Within about a week, one of the car's interior lights started to flicker and eventually not light at all. Now another car is showing the same result. This is really a problem (that I have) with all passenger car lighting and the terrible solutions we have to get conductivity from the rails to the lights.
- The close couplers are a PAIN to get coupled. Not sure if Trix uses this method with other trainsets, but it does not use standard Rapido type couplers, but sort of 'friction'-based plug and socket system that is somewhat springy. In order to get the cars coupled, you need to very carefully press the plug into the other cars pockets, while the 'springiness' allows the diaphragms of both cars to touch at this point, which interferes with the ability to get the 'plug' to 'latch'. Annoying, and I suppose, this is minor, but it does keep me from taking the trainset apart as much as possible (and thus it stays on the layout!).
- A 'bell' sound would have been a nice sound feature, but that assumes that the prototype - or trains in general in Europe - used bells? I have to believe they did) as the horn sound is kind of monotonous and would be nice if there was another sound to go along with that horn.

Locomotive Roster: DB Class 44; Minitrix 12449

This is my most recent addition to my growing N Gauge roster, the Minitrix 12449, which is an oil-fired steam locomotive known, apparantly, in Germany as the Class 44, but better known in the US as a 2-10-0 configuration.

The features of this model are that it already comes with a DCC chip installed with Sound! I posted a video of the locomotive in action:

My impressions:

- Sound is not only remarkable for this scale and this locomotive, but Marklin/Minitrix went the extra step with this model to give it 'smart sound', in that it will automatically make sounds and change over time as it sits idle, or will reduce / stop the 'chugging' sound as it coasts. Really well done.
- Operation so far has been excellent, although I've only run it for a couple of hours. The real test will be how it works in a year or two from now...
- Detail/construction: The detailing looks very nice as well. Additionally, the body is die-cast metal, so it is hefty and solid and feels like a quality item that can pull a long string of hoppers!


- Really, its the price, but you get what you pay for.
I've barely had this locomotive running for a week, so still far too early to know if there is any issue to be surprised with as it ages. I expect to report back if my opinion of this item changes, but given the apparent quality and price tag of this item, my expectations at this point are quite high.