The Cost of Model Railroading

I’ve been in the model railroad hobby for over 50 years now.  The first piece of equipment that I actually purchased myself was a rubber band drive Athearn GP9.  I don’t recall what I paid for that engine, but to a 13 year old kid, it was a small fortune.  I do remember buying Athearn “blue box” and Roundhouse freight cars for as little as $1.19.  My first brass locomotive was a PFM/United model of a U.P. 0-6-0 switcher.  Cost then was $34.50.  Jerry at Hub Hobby Shop in New Orleans allowed me to put that engine on layaway until the fortune was amassed.  By then I was working part-time jobs, and a mere year later I sprung for my second brass engine, another United model of a U.P. 2-8-0.  This baby set me back $44.50.  I still have those engines, and they are in running order (though neither has set driver to rail in over 15 years).

Over the years I’ve watched as prices increased on equipment and supplies, and even though I was dismayed to see things go up, when I put it into perspective of the overall marketplace for things, I realized that the prices for the most part weren’t really out of line.

Back in the early 2000’s, I made the decision to go with the Lenz brand for my DCC power and control system.  That decision was based in part on the knowledge that Lenz was developing a new radio control throttle utilizing a knob (which I prefer) for the speed control.  That throttle did not come to fruition, as Lenz abandoned the project quoting the difficulty and expense in making an international throttle that could meet all the various requirements of broadcasting both in Europe and the U.S.  Major disappointment!  But anyway, I had already purchased their Set01 which uses the LH100 tethered throttle, and decided to stick with their system.

Over the years I have added components to the system: a couple of the LH90 throttles with the big knob for speed control, a computer interface component so I could use DecoderPro with the system, and a few other odds and ends.  During these years, I had noted that the prices of the Lenz equipment essentially remained steady…so steady in fact, that I had wondered how they were able to do it.  Recently that all came to an end.  The U.S. distributor for Lenz products (Debbie Ames of Tried and True Trains) announced her retirement from the business.  Later it was announced that American Hobby Distributors (the wholesale arm of Tony’s Train Exchange) would become the new Lenz distributor.  In reading all this news, I suddenly became aware that the prices had taken a dramatic increase, with street prices rising between 40 and 50 percent!  Now I don’t fault AHD for this, and it’s hard to get angry even at the Lenz folks.  I’d bet that between the ridiculously long time that Lenz prices held the line and the instability in the financial markets, they really had no choice but to implement the increases.

This has caused a sudden shift in my financial priorities for the new layout.  I’ve started a search for the remaining components that I will eventually need, and luckily, I’ve found several vendors who are still selling at the older prices.  The most significant find was a new Set90, which gave me a new command station, 5 amp booster, and knob throttle.  I will use my old command station at the workbench now for programming (and it will also serve as a backup should the new CS fail).  I’m still hoping to get another throttle, one more booster, and a passel of the throttle plug-ins to go around the layout benchwork.

While it is painful delaying the layout construction for a brief period due to this diversion of funds, ultimately I think it will be a wiser use of my limited hobby dollars.

I hadn’t intended to get into such a long-winded dissertation about my DCC system purchases, but it kind of punched me in the face when I saw the huge price increase with Lenz.  As I look at the other equipment out there, pretty much all of it has dramatically increased in price.  Most of the prices have followed the traditional model of small, but steady increases over the years, so they don’t carry the “shock value” of the Lenz increase.  But even companies such as Athearn are no longer “cheap”.  It amazes me that so many huge layouts are being built these days; the costs have to be staggering!  But the upside to all this is that IMHO, the hobby industry is bigger and better than ever.  It is amazing to see the sheer dearth of products available now.  Despite the ever-rising prices, we’ve never had it this good.

For what it’s worth, I still think trains are cheaper than boats 🙂

Regards, Jack

M-100 Enters Passenger Service

The Louisiana Central features passenger service, with two trains running each direction daily.  The early morning/afternoon train consists of a baggage/express car, and a day coach.  However, the late morning/evening train has been the source of discussion lately in the board room.  That second train is necessary because of the working schedules of the commuters who use the service, however ridership is on the low side.  It was decided to refurbish the old EMC doodlebug that had been inherited from one of the predecessor roads, the Willis, Acadia and Monterey.  The M-100 was in sorry condition, and the original gas engine had pretty much given up the ghost.  But Harry “Bubba” Griffith, the Master Mechanic, was confident he could re-engine the old girl, and at the same time, spruce her up with new upholstery and a fresh coat of paint.

Today the M-100 rolled for the first time across some temporary trackage near the town of Monterey.  She’s a bit stiff, but overall she performed well.  This will be a great addition to the roster, and she should serve quite nicely.

>>The M-100 is from Bachmann’s latest run of Spectrum series EMC doodlebugs.  Interestingly, it is advertised as “an 80′ doodlebug with a 72′ trailer coach”.  In reality, it is a 72′ doodlebug with an 80′ coach.  For me, this was a good thing because I almost didn’t buy the doodlebug because I thought it might be too long.  I read several reviews and comments on the internet about these units, and NO ONE mentioned that little quirk.

The detail is fair, but could use a little help.  I might replace a few of the plastic details such as the bell, headlight, etc. with nicer aftermarket ones.  It has wire grabs, but not at all the locations that need them.  It shouldn’t be too difficult to upgrade it to a decent level.  The motor has a DCC decoder included (very bare bones), but I’ll likely replace it with a sound decoder eventually.  And the yellow LEDs Bachmann uses in the headlights and interior lights are just terrible, with a sickly yellow color that has a hint of green.  Golden white LEDs will look much nicer, I think.  The coach is similar in detail to the motor, so also could use a little better detailing.

I won’t judge the running qualities yet as it hasn’t been broken in, but I can already tell that it should run decently once a better decoder is fitted into it.

I look forward to operating the beast on the new layout.

Regards, Jack

Marcel’s Pulpwood

One of the key features that will be incorporated into the Louisiana Central is a pair of ‘loads in-empties out’ scenarios.  On the Willis end there will be a plywood plant that will generate a significant amount of wood chips.  Behind the plywood plant will be a pulpwood dealer (Marcel’s) where loading of pulpwood onto railcars will take place.  Most of these chip and pulpwood loads will travel down to Monterey, where they will be consumed by a kraft paper products plant.

Marcel’s will generate 8-10 cars of pulpwood per day.  I will need this many loaded cars, along with an equal number of unloaded cars for this operation.  I have a nice fleet of Atlas pulpwood cars (known as woodracks on the Louisiana Central) that need loads built (the cast plastic loads are just terrible looking IMHO).  Earlier this year, while at Lou Schultz’s C&O Railroad, I was admiring the loads on his woodracks.  These were built up by Bill Williams using Azalea bush clippings, a slow and tedious process I’m sure, but one that produces an outstanding looking load.

Last weekend I was raking up a zillion River Birch branches that had fallen during a recent storm.  I noticed that the reddish-grey color of the tiny twigs wasn’t that far off from the color of the pine trees in this region, and from which my pulpwood will be harvested.  I clipped a few “logs” using a Chopper and was pleased with the resulting pulpwood it produced.  I spent a couple hours gathering small branches for this future project.  Actually, I have estimated that a woodrack will likely hold 1200-1400 logs, so if I’m going to fill 8-10 cars, plus a couple big piles on the ground, I’d probably be wise to start building these loads very soon.  It should make a nice leisurely project that can be done in evening spurts, utilizing a TV tray  while watching the tube.

If you’d care to chime in on any of the ramblings I present here, please feel free to do so.  I’m hoping this new blog will generate some conversation.

Regards, Jack