[09/16/15- I started this article over a year ago, but didn't take any pictures or upload it. I forgot about it, and reconfigured the space to take pictures of Japanese monsters. To finish this article, I've unpacked some of the dusty trains and props to photograph them. They looked better on the layout but I'm not up to the job of unpacking all that stuff and reconstructing the layout just to take some pics... Sorry. Anyway, here's the article, in all its musty & moldy glory.]

03/17/14- Late last year I revisited an old interest from the late '80s-- N-scale model railroading. During the '90s, my old scenic'd layout had been largely dismantled to reclaim space. I'd long-since boxed up anything that I thought was worth saving. It had been fun but I'd moved on to other interests. Unused and neglected, it had become the Godzilla of dust magnets.

Back in pre-Internet times, I bought whatever locomotives the local hobby shops stocked-- I wasn't too fussy. The coolest thing they had was a MiniTrix "Orient Express" set, and once bitten, I lusted after the German locos I'd seen in a Fleischmann catalog. Unfortunately, they were too expensive and you had to jump through many hoops to mail-order them.

What drew me back was seeing video of a Fleischmann streamlined BR 01.10, equipped with digital controlled motion, lights, and sound (Check out elmertrains' YouTube Video. FWIW, that's not my layout, even though we have some of the same buildings.). It hit all the right notes for me: The streamlined Art Deco styling, the variety of synchronized sounds and lighting effects, and the fact that it was WWII-era German, with imperial eagles on the cab. This "DCC" (Digital Command Control) thing seemed pretty interesting, and worth checking out.

So the Fleischmann BR 01.10 video started me down the path of fulfilling another personal grail quest: European/German trains. The timing was right; this was a fairly recent release so it was still available online (I've since learned that the marketing model for this stuff follows the modern trend of pre-orders and small production runs).

Learning How To Buy Trains All Over Again: It's not like it was during the late '80s, where your choice was whatever the local hobby shop stocked. The Internet (and having more money) has made mail-ordering European trains much easier, especially through US-based Internet retailers.

That said, it can be a little peculiar. For many things, it's like the usual online retail: Click "buy now", checkout, and the postman delivers it. However, for some things like locomotives and cars, vendors often advertise a mix of in-stock items, discontinued-but-may-be-in-stock items, and pre-orders. Unlike the typical online retailer, some don't indicate whether something is actually in stock. That's a relevant consideration if you're not fond of deferred gratification. Depending on the store's policy, you may have to wait for quite a while if something isn't and is being backordered. I've read that some pre-orders have extremely long waits and some never materialize at all. Apparently, it's due to tough times for the industry: The manufacturers announce production plans in advance and produce in limited quantities. Therefore, the "discontinued but may still be available" stuff is exactly that-- unsold inventory from a retailer's past orders from the manufacturers' limited production runs.

It may take some research to learn how old a model is. That matters when buying DCC because digital technology changes rapidly and a 10-year old DCC-equipped model probably has an old decoder, possibly with a few bugs and fewer features.

That also has relevance for one's plans for adding decoders to old models. Besides possibly having to deal with construction/design incompatibilities, a state-of-the-art decoder installed in a loco built in the '80s doesn't guarantee a loco that will perform well. Motor technology has advanced and older motors may be very noisy and not perform well at slow speeds. I successfully converted a couple of my '80s locos but their performance convinced me that they would need too much additional work to upgrade them to the performance standards of the new stuff: It made sense to just buy the new stuff.

Therefore, "discontinued but may still be available" adds some uncertainty to one's buying decision. It may be due to a limited production run (collectors like that) of a recent product, or it could be older technology that's been replaced by a newer design. The prospects for DCC-compatibility and a smooth-running loco are usually better in relatively recent models because modern motors are generally quieter and more efficient than those from the last century; you can replace the decoder if you want/have to.

A Word about Couplers: This is a very important topic to some in model railroading, especially in N-scale and among US hobbyists (or so it seems since I read/speak English). Historically, N-scale trains came with Arnold Rapido couplers which are oversized, don't look like real couplers and often couple with an unrealistic amount of daylight between cars. On the plus side, they are reliable, easy-to-use, and were a standard adopted by almost all manufacturers.

This has changed as more realistic replacement coupler systems were marketed. US and Japanese manufacturers began to release sets with their own proprietary knuckle couplers, some designed for remote coupling/decoupling and some designed specifically for passenger trains with very close coupling (and aren't compatible with other couplers in their own product line).

For the casual hobbyist, it can seem like a quagmire: Each manufacturer seems to have their own standard of the moment, and there are a mind-boggling number of different installation situations. MicroTrain/Kaydee is probably the oldest and most established standard of these more realistic replacement couplers; my eyes glaze over when looking at their product line. It's not simply that the knuckle designs differ, but the mountings vary from manufacturer, and within their own product line.

Europe seems to be more tolerant of the Rapido couplers. Minitrix and Fleischmann (I can't speak for other European manufacturers) seem to have stayed with the Rapido couplers, with the main replacement option being Fleischmann's "Profi" couplers. Modern products seem to have a NEM standard coupler pocket, so in theory, one could replace couplers with a simple tug, regardless of the make. Not that there's much reason for this: None of the US or Japanese manufacturers seem to make their couplers with a NEM plug. (I could be wrong about this, but if you can't find it on the first 10 pages of a Google search, it probably doesn't exist, or is an extremely niche product). I've seen discussions about MicroTrains working on this going back to 2009. There may be a good, practical reason why it hasn't happened.

It may be that the European way of coupling trains-- with buffers between cars-- is fundimentally incompatible with close coupling in model trains. To make it work, the model train buffers would need to operate like the real ones and compress when going around curves. I replaced the Rapido coupler in an Arnold Rheingold car with a Kato Scharfenberg coupler and coupled a Kato passenger car to it. The coupling space was considerably reduced, but the cars would derail going around curves. Ergo: Cars with non-functional decorative buffers need space between cars to navigate curves. Either that, or couplers with mechanisms to increase the coupling distance when going around curves... without locking the edges of the buffers when they aren't aligned just right.

The point of this is that European trains seem to have stayed with the Rapido standard, and despite this, it hasn't hurt the hobby. While diehard hobbyists probably find ways to adapt MicroTrain couplers, I suspect that most don't and are satisfied with being able to easily mix cars from different brands. I guess it's a matter of priorities.

Reichland, abandoned and neglected, dismantled in 2015...

Track, the Layout, and Scope: What remained of my '90s layout track wasn't worth bothering with since it had been nailed down and ballasted, then ripped up. A problem with a permanent scenic'd layout (for me) is that my interests change and space is precious. Lesson learned. I made the conscious decision to keep it simple this time around: I wanted a simple oval decorated with moveable structures. Something that was relatively easy to keep clean. Something that I could easily box up once my interests changed and needed to reclaim the space.

Kato Unitrack on top of a dense foam sectional utility mat seemed like a good plan. Unitrack receives good reviews for its quality and reliability. While the selection of straight and curved track segments is fairly large, the variety of turnouts and switches is more limited than some other company's offerings. Good 'nuff for what I had in mind.

The mat has some good (and not-so-good) qualities:

  • It's fairly cheap;
  • It's lightweight, easy to store, and easy to deal with;
  • It covers and evens out the surface remnants of my old layout;
  • It deadens track sound;
  • It's easily cut and poked through for wiring/trees/telephone poles;
  • It resembles asphalt surface, but can be painted;
  • It's easy to clean;
  • Unfortunately, it has ugly interlocking tabs between sections.

I wasn't surprised when my intentions were influenced by "mission creep": I bought a lot more track, more locomotives and cars, more buildings, and a bunch of accessories. The simple oval ended up with lots of switching options, staging areas, elevated trackway, and even storage areas in scenic'd "caves" that I hadn't ripped up from the first layout. This extra stuff made it less reliable and more difficult to clean, plus I'd forget which turnouts the turnout switches controlled. In 2015, Reichland was dismantled and resurrected in simpler form as "Kaijuland".

Reichland theme park approximation, to the best of my recollection. Brown area is elevated, with Rheingold and Orient Express passenger trains stored underneath in caves. (Sorry, my skills haven't moved much beyond MacDraw.)

Temporary versus Permanent Layout: A temporary layout trades natural scenery features for buildings and moveable structures. Instead of having a train disappear into and reappear from a tunnel, you do it with buildings. There are trade-offs on both sides.

  • They don't look as good, and there's a limit to how good/realistic it can look.
  • Not conducive to a modeling with a "prototypical" approach.
  • Short pieces of sectional track aren't as reliable or versatile in layout design as long sections of flexible track.
  • Track doesn't get nailed or glued down so it's not as stable, which makes it less reliable.
  • Simpler layout/switching design to reduce hassle of relocating power and turnout control wiring for layout changes.
  • Lighting buildings is problematic if you want to keep the buildings moveable.
  • You miss out on the fun and gratification of making scenery: Hills, tunnels, and bodies of water. This is a major attraction of model railroading.
  • Easy to store if you need to reclaim space.
  • No ballasting!
  • Easier to clean.
  • Less of a time commitment.
  • Easier to make major changes to layout design and theme.
  • Mentally easier to indulge a whimsical theme since it's not permanent.
There's a continuum between, and one could take hybrid approaches like making small shelf dioramas and modular scenic'd layout sections that join together to form a larger, expandable layout. I think the difference is like painting on a canvas, large or small (and having to put it somewhere) versus just having/storing the tools to decorate a disposable canvas.

Fantasy WWII: Having just passed through a radio-controlled WWII German tank phase, it's not too surprising that I would carry that thematic focus into N-scale model railroading. I already had a good supply of European buildings (Faller, Vollmer, Model Power, etc.) from the original layout. After buying a bunch of groovy n-scale WWII and era II German stuff, I tried to make sense of the anachronistic mishmash, and decided that I'd modelled an exact replica of the imaginary Reichland theme park of the future. (Their research quality was questionable, which explains the presence of the fearsome WWII "Dust" mecha.)


My RC tank experience shows that I'm more a tinkerer than a modeler. Making mountains, tunnels, and weathering is fun, and especially gratifying when it comes together to create an aesthetically unified and immersive scene that looks like it could be real (from a narrowed viewfinder perspective). In a perfect world I'd do it all-- but again, it's a matter of time and priorities.

For me, digital sound and control are where the most interesting tinkering possibilities reside. My first time around, digital control wasn't widespread, and I was only aware of it as an expensive and exotic niche for progressive railheads. Since then, standards have become widely adopted and hardware has evolved to the point where DCC systems are an attractive choice for a first system, or an upgrade plan for those who have been in the hobby for a while. Digital sound in n-scale still lags behind larger scales, but is proving itself as a viable option. The challenge is fitting a speaker and sound decoder in such a small space. A number of early factory-installed sound locomotives just don't work that well, but that's changing as technology moves forward.

That said, while digital offers many more features than analog, its complexity also increases the number of potential head-scratching problems. Troubleshooting DC systems is much easier because there are fewer things that can go wrong and fewer things to check. Troubleshooting DCC systems involves the mechanical aspect, the simple electrical aspect, plus the decoder, its programming, and its digital control system. DCC track wiring is actually easier to set up than DC for running multiple trains, and when everything's working properly both are about equally easy to operate, but when problems pop up, DCC may take a good deal more knowledge to troubleshoot and fix.

It's also more expensive to get into since it's an additional expense. If you've accumulated a large collection of analog DC locomotives, it would take a lot of additional bucks to convert them to DCC, if they're even convertable, or worth converting. Replacing them with modern DCC-ready locomotives would be even more expensive. Unfortunately, DCC and DC don't live very well together, despite what the sales literature says. Yes, you can run DC trains on a DCC track, but it's not a pleasant experience. Chances are, you'll be worried about the damage you're doing to the DC locomotives so will be less likely to put them on the track.

Ready-To-Run vs. DCC-Ready vs. DIY: As of 2014, there aren't that many ready-to-run DCC sound-equipped models available, but that's changing. DC/analog n-scale is well-entrenched, and manufacturers need to appeal to as wide a market as possible. Therefore, most locomotives are sold with a removeable DC compatibility circuitboard installed instead of a decoder ("DCC-ready"). Ideally, you'd be able to buy any decoder with a compatible interface, plug it in, and go to town. With many diesels, decoders are available that are specifically made to fit in a particular manufacturer's models, making for a relatively easy conversion. In that case, it's a matter of researching and ordering the right one. However, there are many more different locomotives out there that don't have a tailored decoder model and require a more generic solution. That's where the plug 'n play thing becomes a lot more iffy. (The most universal interface is bare wires and a soldering iron...)

Today there are a few leading standards, but more interfaces types than there were yesterday so if you want plug 'n play, you have to pay attention to that when you select a locomotive and decoder. Secondly, even if the interface type matches, there's no guarantee that the decoder will physically fit without modifying something. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's not. Some may plug straight into the socket using the "direct" version of the decoder (with pins attached to the circuit board), some may require a decoder with a wired plug that you may have to snip off so you can solder the wires to the locomotive, or shorten them fit in the available space. Some may require modifications to the locomotive. If you're not a tinkerer, your safest bet would be to buy a popular model with a decoder specifically tailored to fit, or buy a Ready-To-Run DCC model. Generally, that's easier if you're modeling USA trains, diesels in particular (as most USA model railroaders appear to).

The concepts for converting a loco to DCC are the same regardless of nationality. For basic motor control, the decoder is inserted between the normal DC wiring: 2 wires of the decoder to track voltage, and 2 to the motor. Light control is likewise simple, replacing the light's DC power feed with feeds from the decoder. If you're adept at soldering, you can reclaim space taken up by the Plug and Play socket. Fitting a modern loco with a motor-control decoder is usually fairly easy since those decoders have become smaller and smaller.

Sound decoders have bigger circuit boards and need a real estate-hungry speaker: Much more difficult to fit in a locomotive. With steam locos, the size of the locomotive body determines whether installing either component in the locomotive body is worth considering; you don't want to remove weights that help keep the train and electrical contacts on the track. An attached tender is usually a better candidate, especially if the motor is in the locomotive body. If adequate space isn't available, the sound decoder and speaker can be put in a separate sound car.

I should mention that DCC sound is especially expensive. An ESU LokSound sound decoder is almost 4 times more expensive than their multifunction (non-sound) LokPilot decoder, and if you plan to install custom sounds, you probably will want to buy their hardware programmer. Depending on what you buy, the decoder may cost more than the locomotive.

Despite the difficulty and expense, DCC sound is worth the effort, IMO. Not only does it enhance the experience of operating the train, for the tinkerer it opens a slew of geeky subjects to become immersed in. Onboard sounds do have a gimmicky aspect and you may get bored with manually activating sounds, or want to run your trains in silence; not a problem, turn off the sounds. However, when I see videos of, or run trains without sounds, it seems like something is missing.

Sound Decoder Considerations: Most of my experience is with steam trains, which I think showcase the driving sound (chuffs) the best. Ideally, the sound decoder and speaker would be installed in the steam locomotive/tender. It's where we expect the sound to come from. The motor that moves the loco is controlled by the decoder that generates the chuffs, which is a good thing for synchronization of the two.

It's essential that the sound decoder have good power pickup from the rails since temporary loss of power causes a noticeable and annoying hiccup in the sound. If the loss is long enough, the decoder reboots, usually causing an even more annoying hiccup. In some cases, the rebooted decoder will restart with slow chuffs and catch up with the motor.

If the rails work perfectly (rare), one cause of power loss can be eliminated (the fewer turnouts, the better). However, rails aren't the only cause: The locomotive's wheel pickups can also be less than perfect due to grime on the wheels, or from the wheels being out of adjustment so that they glitch electrical contact on curves and straights. Conducting power between moving contacts is always less reliable than doing it through a stationary soldered connection-- but that's not an option for moving trains.

A motor flywheel isn't much help for this. Momentum may keep the loco moving to re-establish good electrical contact over a small gap, but a flywheel doesn't keep the current flowing to the decoder. Until good electrical contact is re-established, the temporary loss of power usually causes a hiccup.

One possible solution is to install a "keep alive" capacitor (or battery) to ensure that the decoder receives continuous power during the interruption. The "gotcha" is that sound decoders draw a lot of power and it takes a pretty large capacitor to do the job reliably. ESU recommends a 25 volt 2200 uF capacitor, which is almost as big as a motor. Finding space for the decoder and speaker can be difficult enough without having to find room for a large capacitor.

I used a smaller electrolytic capacitor (one that would fit) in my first attempt to make a sound car; it helped prevent rebooting, but didn't solve the problem of frequent transient glitches. I also experimented with a sandwich of 5.5 volt Gold Caps, but wasn't impressed-- I think it took too long to charge them(?).

The solution that I eventually adopted was to draw power from as many wheels as possible, ideally spread over as long a length as possible. If using a separate soundcar, power drawn through its wheels is combined (via wired plug and connector) with the locomotive/tender's power, which gives more stable power to the motor, decoders and lights. Tomix, a Japanese company has a much slicker solution: Couplers with power connections share power between all cars. Not sure how reliable or "prototypical" the couplers are.

The Power Trucks: The trucks/bogies matter a lot, and are probably the first place to look for reliable power to your decoder. Some older trucks designs draw power from one rail per truck via an axle wiper; this gives a single contact source in the front and rear truck, one truck for each rail.

Modern trucks from Kato and Bachmann have contacts mounted at the sides of the wheels at the pointed bearing ends (with insulated axle) and each truck can pick up power from both rails. This doubles the power pickup points and increases the reliability of power conduction. This is the best solution for creating a reliable and reasonably glitch-free standalone sound car, without having to resort to power plugs between cars.

It can take some major dickering to graft a modern-design truck onto an older car, but the performance upgrade is noticeable.

Is N-Scale DCC Ready for Primetime? Yes, it's been around for quite a while... however, IMO, n-scale DCC still has a sightly experimental, "not-ready-for-primetime" feel.

  • There's still jockeying between manufacturers for standards, which results in some incompatibilities and proprietary solutions. That's especially true for DCC because it's relatively new territory that offers new opportunities to make some money. The proliferation of different decoder socket/plug "standards" by the manufacturers just makes it harder for the newbie, which doesn't help grow the hobby.
  • DCC systems are like computers. They occasionally need to be reset/rebooted to restore proper functioning. The controller may not give any outward warnings of this, but it may be telegraphed by your locomotive if it starts acting peculiar: For example, stopping and starting abruptly and repeatedly for no good reason, or a lower top speed than you remember it having. If in doubt, try resetting your Controller. (Consult your manual to find out how. For Digitrax's Zephyr, it's the intuitive key combination, PROGRAM + SWITCH + 39 + CV/WR + EXIT)
  • While there are standards for DCC, they only cover some of the territory; the rest are up to the manufacturers. For example, one company's DCC decoder may use upper CVs that another company's programmer might not be able to read or program.

N-scale pushes technology to its limits because everything is so small-- I'm amazed that n-scale digital can sound as good as it does, and that the parts can be made to fit.

For N-scale in general, tolerances are much tighter, and consequently, it doesn't take much to make stuff not work-- like a nearly invisible fiber wrapped around and jamming an axle or gear, or a tiny speck of metal shorting the sections of a motor's commutator. N-scale is very fussy about dirt and dust, and requires very smooth and precise trackwork to perform reliably. Because it's so small, it's not easy to spot the problems. All of this can make working on and troubleshooting problems a challenge. (At least it's not as bad as it would be in Z-scale.)


Maintenance in N-Scale: I'm far from an ideal candidate for this hobby. As cool as I think this hobby is, it's really a hobby for neatniks. I smoke, we have cats, and I create lots of dust from the Dremel and airbrush, in addition to the dust that unavoidably happens from the process of living. N-scale trains have tiny motors, tiny gears, and require good electrical contact between the rails and wheel pickups. Mixing the two is a recipe for unreliability... especially if you flit from hobby to hobby and return to this hobby after a long period of neglect.

No matter how well your layout ran before, after an long absence, it's likely that few things will work as well as they used to. Restoring that can be a lot of work: The track rails and locomotive wheels will need to be cleaned to restore their surface electrical conductivity. Unless you're obsessively clean, the nearly invisible motes of dust that have accumulated will find their way into the mechanisms of locomotives the first time you run them. So you should know how to disassemble and reassemble your locomotives to give them a thorough cleaning. Extremely fine grunge can work its way into your motor, and you probably won't even see it.

Giving a motor an ultrasonic cleaner bath (used to clean jewelry) can deep-clean commutators and brushes-- the prime suspects for a motor that exhibits problems. This can turn a stuttering motor that doesn't turn into one that works as well as it did when you first ran it.

It's a good idea to download manuals or keep the paper copy handy, mainly for a parts breakdown and part numbers. They usually have oiling instructions, which you should follow if you want to do things "by the book" (but don't overdo it because oil is a dust magnet).

The main consumable in a motor are the brushes-- they wear down because they rub against the commutator and will eventually need to be replaced. It's a good idea to have spares on hand. Fortunately, they're relatively cheap... but may not be easy to order online. If you don't feel comfortable placing orders for European parts from European websites that only incidentally support orders from folks who only speak English, eBay can help; even though orders may actually come from Germany, the eBay transaction is structured enough so that language shouldn't be a barrier. (The waiting is the hardest part.)

If you choose the non-US arena of model railroading, you should understand that finding support will be much more difficult, and that parts will be much harder to find and likely be quite expensive.



I've acquired a small collection of German trains to equip with DCC decoders. From my original '80s-'90s foray, I was able to convert zero (0) locomotives to DCC; Some were too DCC-unfriendly to attempt, and the two that I was able to convert ran so poorly that I removed the decoders to use elsewhere.

Since reviving this article in 2015, I've recomissioned and tested my DCC locomotives one at a time. Few have worked flawlessly directly from storage. A couple had motors that needed an ultrasonic cleaning bath. It was hard to get any of them to budge at first; they've needed some coaxing and DeOxit on the contacts to get them to limp around the track. Once they can do that, it takes a number of trips around the track to "get the dust off" until they run smoothly.

...After Reichland closed its gates, squatters moved in.