Expensive German Trains... Get more Expensive!

If you live in the US, you've been hearing a lot lately about our 'declining dollar'. For those of us who like European trains...not great news! The below chart shows the exchange rate of the US dollar to the Euro over the past year! Ouch! To put this in simple terms...a locomotive that used to cost $125 USD last year....now costs $150.
Of course, if you're into Japanese trains, the story is not as bad, in fact, its prety good! Although its been eratic, over the past year Japanese trains should be about the same - if not a little cheaper (in fact, nows a pretty good time to buy Japanese trains...its like a 10% discount off of what you would pay a few months ago!):

What does this all mean? For me, its time to start exploring some of the cool trains coming from Kato, Tomix, and Microace, since my dollar goes a lot further against these than it does against comparable products from Minitrix or Fleischmann. In fact, a decently detailed Trix or Fleishcmann electric locomotive with all the modern standards for 'quality' (which would be something of recent engineering, not some 1970's rerun, These typicall feature as basic standards items such as directional lighting- increasingly LEDs; 5 pole motors with flywheels; NEM651 slot; traction on all or most wheels; etc..), like the DB Class 185, retails in USD between $130 for the Minitrix version to $200 for a Fleischmann version).

A similar type of locomotive from Kato or Tomix (another CC or 6 axle class Electric) like the EF 65, goes for around USD $65 to $70! (I'm havin gto assume that the Kato/Tomix Japanese products have similar specification - 5 pole motors, directional lighting, etc... - as both the German products listed above and the standards that Kato lists on its American products line (which are similar). Another point of reference is that I was able to get an 8 car Japanese EMU set for under $200...similar EMU's are well over $400 USD for most of the European versions.

Interestingly, Kato's European models, such as the Class 66 diesel (about $130 USD), are priced more similarly to their European competitors' products than the Japanese products are. This may be a result of the cost inefficiencies of Kato producing a much smaller production run for Europe versus its home Japanese market, but that is just speculation.

There are probably a lot of factors that I am unaware of...marketing costs, distribution costs, taxes and customs, in addition to the currency exchange issue, that go into the relative pricing of these locomotives. To be clear, the European manufacturers do offer a lot more 'advanced' capabilties with regards to making these models DCC compatible, and I'm really not technical enough to understand if their are other factors that can be explained in terms of materials or workmanship that may also explain the price differences.

Of course, there are some neat NS 1300 (Netherlands) CC Electrics coming out from a Spanish manufacturer called Star Train (which appear they will be distributed through Hobbytrain, which also does stuff with Kato and Lemke in Europe) that will promptly tempt me!


Failure! Sometimes I hate DCC! Or... Tomix Track Cleaning Car Conversion Mess!

UPDATE!  If your looking for a solution to installing a decoder in the Tomix cleaning car, you could read my debacle below, which may help you.  Or you could click on this link for a pdf of the installation that is much easier, shorter, and probably safer! 

What a mess. So, I'm on my third Tomix Cleaning Car. I've already burnt out the motor on one so far (DO NOT PUT THESE ON A DCC LAYOUT WITHOUT A DECODER NO MATTER WHAT ANYONE SAYS) and decided I would try to do the DCC conversion on this myself. Its one little car, how hard can it be? Plus, if I screw this one up, I have another one to destroy. This'll be fun.

My approach to DCC conversions is to chicken out as much as possible. Sorry, but those of you looking for expert electronics advice or bundles of encouragement with decoder installs - stop reading. Now.

I like DCC for its operating experience, but hate all the hassle with getting the stupid, expensive clumps of wire and electronics to act like they are supposed to act. All those books about "DCC is simple!" are a bunch of rubbish. Its not even electronics in my mind, more like alchemy. At this point you should realize you should never take my advice on this decoder/install stuff. Seriously. Even if you come back in a year, and I did this crazy cool decoder install that is just amazing and I'm all, like, bragging about it? I'm lying. Don't believe a word. I'm an amateur and following my example will lead to certain failure and a romantic passion for plain old DC control and all that fun you had with the 'direction' switch seeing if you could make your GP9 do a wheelie.

So, now that my utter lack of credentials in this field is firmly established, I will now demonstrate my utter cluelessness with this lame attempt at a decoder install in a stupid cleaning car.

My absolutely shameful and cowardly approach for this decoder install was to take advantage of this circuit board produced by a German company, DigitalZentrale, that uses one of the few (theoretically) simple solutions for decoder installations: the NEM651 plug. In theory, that means most decoder installs should be truly 'plug and play' (in reality, we all know that's not true). Unfortunately, the actual manufacturers who use this standard only really applies to a small set of German manufacturers. So I guess for the rest of the world its "learn how to solder train-boy!".
But I have to hand it to the Germans...the NEM651 is a great idea in a hobby that saw its last creative days when it came up with 3-rail tinplate track. Anyway, I got the circuit board (above), complete with all German instructions (although its possible to get a barely intelligible English translation from Google, but its not that helpful), and started dissembling the track cleaning car.

I did 'cheat' and peak at the garbled translation (I noticed enough "ACHTUNGS!" and "NEINS!" in the German instructions to get the fact that the photos alone may not be conveying some important information).

Taking apart the Tomix cleaner was pretty easy, once you realize that you have to remove the screws from the trucks to remove the cover where the motor is (the instructions showed both sets of trucks being removed, but I don't really see the point of removing the trucks from the side of the car opposite the switch and motor....all there is on that side is just some weights.). In fact, while the photo below shows the correct placement of one Philips head screwdriver to remove said trucks, this is actually a pointless part of the process. But enjoy the photo anyway:
So, with both sets of trucks removed, a firm grip (with -as is usual at this point- more force than you think its wise to apply to these thin plastic shells) and lots of pulling gets the little plastic covers off. You can then have all sorts of fun dumping all the parts out on a table.
So here's a more than useless tip: Once those screws are removed, all the parts really don't just fall out. You'll need to remove that 'fan' thing (round black thing on bottom of car) from the 'pole' ("axle"? "rod"?"stick"? etc...) or whatever that 'pointy' thing is that comes out of the motor at the bottom. I hope you can tell what I am talking about from the above picture, otherwise I just wrote a sentence more confusing than Google's over-rated capability at translating German N scale websites (actually, the Japanese translations are worse, but more entertaining). Anyway, the 'pole thing' on my motor inserts into the hole on the 'fan' thing, and mine was on really tight, and when it finally came off - it flew across the room (of course, I'm not worried if I lose it, cause I have extra parts from the cleaning car that I already fried a motor on! Hah!). So be careful.

Now that all the important pieces are removed and scattered across your desk and you realize you don't really remember how they go back together, its fairly easy to see how this new NEM 651 circuit board will replace the existing circuit board. Did I say I love the NEM 651 format? Yes? Okay, I'll stop repeating myself.

As you can see from the photo below, the new and the old circuit boards. The new board, which has a fancy little NEM 651, 6-pin, Lenz Mini-Gold D ($44.00) decoder inserted into it, sits next to the old one! Right now I'm thinking "Hey! This was easy!"

Yep. Just keep thinking that.
Then came the panic. See, there's this round black thing that goes into the round hole on the original circuit board. At the time, I don't really know what this round plastic thing does and I don't care, all I know is that the 'round black thing' (which also had little metal pieces on it to pick up electrical current! Oh no! Its important! Arg!) WILL NOT FIT IN THE OBLONG HOLE ON THE NEW CIRCUIT BOARD!!! I've been had! Of all the cruddy luck! To get this far, only to find out that I got a circuit board for some other model Tomix cleaning car, this really su.....wait....what's that? The round thing connects to the switch on the top of the Tomix car that turns it on, off, and to CL mode (CL mode, for those of you who don't visit the Japanese train forum and aren't versed in the world of Tomix, is a "Constant Lighting" mode that Tomix came up with so that the lights on Japanese trains always stay on under traditional DC power, or so I think. Its also rumored to be a problem for my Japanese modelling friends in their attempts to convert their Shinkansens and Thomas's to DCC, but that's another story....)?

So I start thinking....if I'm adding a decoder to turn this thing off and on, I probably don't need the "round black thing with the electrical contacts which won't fit in the oblong hole on the new circuit board". So I ignore it and move on. More fun awaits.

Unfortunately, just plugging the decoder into the NEM 651 socket isn't enough, according to the instructions and the design of the cleaning car, you need to bend the pins on the decoder so that they go at a right angle right about where the circuit board ends. With this bend in the decoder, it will neatly rest within a pocket between the weights that surround the motor and the plastic shell (or you could cut a hole in the shell and have it stick out, which will turn out, for me, to have been a better choice). So, bending six tiny little pins shouldn't be all that hard, right?

And its a really good thing I have this handy Google translation tool, because the instructions actually mention "Lenz" in this section (one word I can pick out of the sea of German), so I know I have a Lenz decoder, and I know this is important. So skipping past the original German and going to Google, here's what the translation tells me:
The legs of Lenz decoders can not bend to these break off, they see
bitte davon ab einen solchen Decoder zu verwenden. Please use them from such a decoder.
Whew! Good thing I read that! What was it? Something about 'leg's breaking off' of Lenz decoders? No problem! I get the pliers out and quickly proceed to....break the legs off the decoder! ARGGGGGGGGG! (Do you hear that sound? Have you heard that sound before? Its the sound of a decoder going to decoder heaven).

Plan B

Reminding myself that there's something redeeming about this hobby, that money isn't everything, and that this is still a better way to spend my time than watching TV, I figure out a Plan B. I decide to use one of the Digitrax DZ125 decoders I have hanging around! I am determined to get this job done and start cleaning some track with DCC control! Also, the price is great on these Digitrax decoders too ($20-$25?), so I'm not as worried about....okay, not going there...it will all be fine. Really.

Here's my plan of attack. You only need two wires, I guess. That's what I'm down to. Guessing. Two wires for the motor...that's all you need, how hard can it be? I religiously check the Digitrax instructions to confirm that the Orange and Grey wires are the only two wires I care about.

This is so easy! I should have done this first!

So I strip down the wires, tin them up a bit with my soldering iron (they need to be a little stiff to fit inside the socket) and jam in their respective holes. See photo below.
I think to myself...is there ANY REASON this cannot work? I tell myself "No, there's not! I mean, this is just a DCC decoder installation! Its not rocket science!"......

Moving along....

Put the cleaning car back together. I notice that the new circuit board doesn't sit quite as tightly between the contacts on the motor as the original curcuit board. Also, make sure you put the circuit board in 'shiny side down' (see, that's the kind of decoder installations I can understand! "Shiny side down", or "Plug thing #1 into hole #1"...THAT I can handle! Since when did model railroading become electrical engineering? Some day I should write a post about the electrical diagram I got that was supposed to help me add LED's to a control panel. There were so many weird shapes and squiggly lines...come on, just tell me the "red and black wires" go {And to make even THAT difficult, apparantly, the 'black wires' aren't shown because they are 'common', well PHOOEY! Show 'em anyway! Why are electricians so lazy about this stuff} ! I tell my son that he should go to college and major in electrical engineering if he wants to play with trains like his dad when he gets older). So, the new circuit board is not quite as tight, but it fits, and the whole thing gets reassembled.

With everything back together, I make my way to my old Windows XP PC with JMRI and Sprog II to check out my install and program this bad boy! I also discover that I'm under the illusion that, at least in this hobby, buying more junk will make problems go away. You see, and I've mentioned this before, I wasn't happy with how difficult it was to program decoders with the Trix Mobile Station...the Sprog II looked like a great solution, so i spent more money. In all fairness, its been a lot easier, the problem is you get NEW problems! So its almost like your back at square one!

With everything set to go, I hit the fateful "read decoder" button in the Decoder Pro program and .... I get this:

Error 306 — timeout talking to command station
Fantastic. I end up rebooting, reinstalling, tinkering with COM ports in preferences, updating drivers...you know, all that fun stuff I like to do that got me into this hobby in the first place.

Eventually, after a couple of reboots, I get
Error 308 — No acknowledge from locomotive
That's it. I'm done. Okay, not really. I actually take it apart, check connections, curse the looser circuit board connection, fiddle with stuff, etc... But, like that great Jerry Seinfeld joke " I don't know why I look under the hood of my car when its not working....if there's not a giant switch turned to 'off' under the hood, I'm useless" pretty much sums it up.

So, where am I now? Despair. Disgust. And one fried cleaning car, one broken decoder....and still lot's of dirty track.

Don't worry, the saga will go on. I expect there will be a "Plan C" once I can muster up the courage. I refuse to admit defeat (I'm not that smart). Apologies to all N Scalers, 3-Railers, Germans, Japanese, DCC'ers, Tomix, Digitrax, Trix, JMRI, Sprog, Lenz, electricians and electrical engineers who were offended by this post. I'll do better on my next one. I promise.


Creating a skyscraper from scratch (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about getting the basic materials to create my "Godzilla Corporation" global headquarters skyscraper. In this post, I'm going to add the sidewalls, work on the back wall, create floors and do something to decorate the interior....

The Sidewalls:

The photo at right shows the 15.5 inch long strip of "sintra" material that I will use for the side walls. This skyscraper will only have windows in the front and back, so 'blank' concrete walls work just fine for the sides. Sintra is a material I have used a lot of in my layout, and its a good material for buildings as well, although its too thick to work for walls on smaller buildings, as part of a large skyscraper structure (representing thick reinforced concrete walls), it works fine.

I made the sintra side walls about 1.5 in longer than the smoked acrylic to allow for the ground floor entrance, shops etc... I will use some traditional 'clear' acrylic for the ground floor, which I will cover in a later post.
After attaching the two sides, I then started work on the back of the skyscraper. Since this building will sit in a block with other, shorter, buildings, I painted the first 8 inches or so and left the top half clear. I then applied the 'scoring' to the exterior with the same measurements used for the front (16mm between 4mm floors).As you can see from the above photo...the building can stand (I'm like a proud father all over again! Let's just hope this 'baby' doesn't learn how to walk! Arg....bad joke. Sorry!)! However, one thing you'll notice is that its easy to see right through the smoked acrylic 'windows' through to the wood of the plywood behind it. Even with the 'back' wall attached, the building will look more like a semi-transparent block than a skyscraper if I don't do something to change this.

The Office Floors:

The solution to ensure it doesn't end up looking like a big chunk of empty plastic was to use traditional foam core. I cut 18 pieces of foam core to fit inside the skyscraper (also cutting out a rectangular area on the backside which will be an access area for where my wiring for the interior lighting will run).I then spray painted just the tops of the foam core with an appropriately neutral looking color, and added in scraps of foam core, office furniture, and other little details to give some dimension to the floors. I only added real detail to about 3 floors, as I expect that these 3 floors will be well-lit with LED's with the others being relatively 'dark'.
Its important that only the top of the foam core recieves the spray painting, as the black edges will go against the inside walls opposite of where the 4mm scoring is on the outside, and since the sides of the floor foam core pieces will show through, its important that they not attract attention. Hopefully, this way, it looks like there's a real floor there (the thickness of this acrylic, which you can see in an above photo quite clearly, does concern me a bit. It'll be interesting to see what the final product turns out to look like!)!

Interior Walls:

The other detail to address is the interior sides of the building. Having 'black' for interior walls (the unpainted color of the sintra I used) just wouldn't look right (unless this was an office building for vampires, but...no, no, let's not go there...). So I decided to create some 'fake' details on my computer. I used a basic drawing program to create 16mmx 32mm rectangles and filled them in with muted office colors, small images of office-like posters, and other stuff. I then separated this rectangle with another 4mm black rectangle (this is where the foam core will cover it up). After doing a lot of copy and paste to reproduce 19 floors of office walls on both sides of the building, I printed out on my color inkjet, cut to the right shape, sprayed the backs with adhesive spray, and applied to the inside walls! Viola! Instant detail!
That's it for this update! If you have a questions or comments (thanks Don!) please leave a comment! Next time...its lighting and ground floor detail! Whoohoo!

CLICK HERE for Part 3!
CLICK HERE for Part 1!


Creating a skyscraper from scratch (Part 1)

Or....How the "Godzilla Corporation" built their major downtown office complex!

I've been thinking a lot lately about attempting to build my own skyscraper. Given the relatively sparse offerings (although, not as bad as one would think) for modern N scale skyscrapers, I wondered if it was possible to build my own. I spent a lot of time researching and thinking about various materials, and I think I've found a relatively simple method to create a very cost effective, and hopefully very cool looking, modern skyscraper.

Actually, I have two different skyscraper scratch-building projects going on right now, but I am just talking now about the building that (I think) will become the "Godzilla Corporation" worldwide headquarters.

Materials - Use what you find:

Windows are the hard part. Obviously, I don't have the ability to cast scale window frames, etc... so the key is how to most effectively simulate it? As I started studying 'real' modern skyscrapers, what I notice is that the lack of detail - really just lines where the exterior glass plates come together - should make this kind of project much simpler. Additionally , most modern buildings seem to always use some sort of tinted glass. This can be achieved with automotive tinting film, or (and what I will use in this project) 'smoked' plastic/acrylic sheets.

In fact, I got lucky (which is one nice thing about not having too much of a pre-determined plan!). On a recent visit to the TAP Plastics shop near me (which is a shop which specializes in plastics, typically for signs and so forth) I was looking through their scrap bin and came across 2 pieces of 14 x 3.5 inch 'smoked' acrylic.

I also picked up some of their other 'scraps' which will be good material for testing and for the other skyscraper project I mentioned earlier. The best part? Cheap! $2.50 a pound was the rate, and I think I had a pound of scrap total!

Making Windows Out of Nothing at all:

There were 3 methods I was considering for transforming this boring plastic/acrylic material into something that looked like a skyscraper: Using strips of styrene (or plastic) glued on; Masking and painting, and finally, 'scoring' the plastic with a knife. I did some early tests with scoring and liked what I found! I scored lines across the surface at 16mm intervals, then added another score 4mm after that, and so on.What's cool is that just one score with the xacto knife was all it took to give a pretty good representation of the seams of a modern skyscraper. I fiddled around with rubbing some silver and white paint into the score marks, but found it was unnecessary (at least on this dark, 'smoked' acrylic).

Of course windows, even on modern skyscrapers, are not made of a single plane for each floor, so I needed something to run vertically. I could have added more scoring, but I wanted to try something different. I tested the look of adding some vertical 3mm styrene strips and I was very happy with the look!
Clearly, its a very '1970's' looking skyscraper, but I'll take it! I used some styrene 90 degree corners for the edges which fortunately look good with the vertical strips. I glued the corner styrene pieces (using a hot glue gun) with enough of a gap to fit my side sections (the flat piece to the right in the above photo) but that is for my next post!
On my next post, I'll talk about adding the side walls, ground floor details, office floors and other stuff! Please leave a comment if you find this interesting! Thanks for reading!

CLICK HERE for Part 2!

CLICK HERE for Part 3!


Plastic Surgery on a German Toy Store! ("Spielwaren")

A couple of posts back I mentioned the 'remodel' I was going to attempt on another of the old, built kits I had recently picked up. This building, with the prominent "Spielwaren" raised letter sign ("toys" in German I believe) has since 'gone under the knife' to come out as a slightly different type of toy store!

So here's the original building "before":
And here's the 'modified' version "after":
The difference? Repainted, added LED's, new (flat) roof, and laser-printed color decals.
Yes, eventually I will talk about trains again, instead of just buildings! :-) But as I am doing some additions and changes to the layout (all of which involve adding a new yard and expanding the downtown area) all of the trains are boxed up safely out of harm's way!