KATO 10-239


09/28/15- This was my first Kato Japanese train set purchase. A few years ago, I'd eyeballed the 151 series Kodama release because it reminded me of a toy that I had as a child (and I'm always looking for ways to reconnect with that!). The Kodama release is still around but costs considerably more than before. It was more than I wanted to spend, especially since there were cheaper alternatives that looked very similar. Not being sophisticated enough to care about the differences, I went for the Hakusan/Asama 489 series and then read the Wikipedia article about it.

It's great that the purchase inspires research into the history and background, but that's an incidental interest to me (despite my lifelong quest to become like the Simpson's comic book store guy). I was really more interested in admiring the train model: Such a cool retro look and coloration! Also, I wanted to run it on my track, and that meant installing a DCC decoder.

"DCC Friendly" Installation The Series 489 is advertised as "DCC-friendly" so I bought a full set (2x FL12, 1x EM13) of Kato decoders for it. I have a DCC layout and I wanted to run it without the irritating high-pitched whine that DC trains make when stopped on a DCC track. (That sound lets you know that something bad is happening; although it's harmless for short periods of time, it's not something that you'd want to subject the train to for long periods of time. Tick tock.)

Kato's DCC-friendly design uses decoder circuitboards that slide onto the brass power contact strips (power from the trucks) that run lengthwise on both sides of the cabin. Access is through a removeable panel underneath the body of the car.

Headlight Decoders: Installing the cabs' headlight decoders went without a hitch, and worked perfectly in testing. With lights turned on and direction set forward, the forward white light in the front cab turned on; reversing direction changed the lights to red. Vice-versa for the rear cab. Groovy. Even though my ESU programmer couldn't read the headlight decoders, I later discovered that it could write the address.

Motor Decoder: I couldn't get the motor car's EM13 decoder to work or to be recognized by the programmer, no matter how many times I reseated the decoder. It's a double-sided circuitboard that's inserted between the motor contacts and the power contact strips. It seemed like a great concept-- no soldering, no plugging of connectors. I went through two of them, thinking I'd fried the first one.

It's very frustrating to not be able to see why they wouldn't work. Because this was a single function decoder, there weren't any LED functions to help troubleshoot whether it was a power problem or whether the decoder or motor might be at fault.

I tested it for basic DC operation without the decoder installed. This confirmed that the motor was okay: The train would run for a while, then stop. No amount of on-track coaxing would get it to run again, but fiddling with the motor did.

I concluded that the motor's contacts were probably losing contact with the power contact strips. For reliability I prefer soldered connections, but pin-plug/socket connectors seem to work pretty reliably in the European trains I've DCC'd; you can usually see problems like bent pins or sprung contacts. With Kato's slide-in connectors, it's hard to see if both sides of the circuitboard are making good contact.

Even though I could have tried to adapt the Kato decoder with soldered wires, I had a spare wired ESU LokPilot decoder that I soldered to the motor and the power contacts (after isolating the motor's contacts from the strips with styrene strips slid between). The circuitboard was small enough to fit perfectly where the Kato circuitboard would fit; I just had to make sure that the wires were clear of the flywheel and the drive shaft. It worked perfectly; DCC decoder programming controlled the start and stop momentum and limited the top speed.

The experience convinced me that the slide-in decoder design is an iffy proposition. Any circuitboard that you might have to nudge to just the right place does not inspire confidence in its long-term reliability, and life is too short to waste on frustrations like that (IMO). YMMV, but for me, solder rules.

The Kato series 489 is a smooth DCC runner. Due to the design of the all-wheel power pickups at both ends of the cars and both sides of the truck (side wheel contact instead of axle contact strip), the decoder sees practically zero power dropout when going slowly over crossover and turnout points. The stock Kato light kits rarely flicker.

Interior Lighting: I considered not installing anti-flicker LED lighting because of this, but the Kato light kits are very bright and don't light interiors as evenly since they use a single LED positioned at the end (distributed by a ceiling diffuser). I also inadvertently bought the Kato kit that simulates fluorescent lighting; even though they include a color filter to change its tint, it doesn't look like it makes much difference (the color of the car's seating seems to determine the color).

To even out the lighting, I bought the warm incandescent light versions of Streamlined Backshop's light kits: three of the six-LED N Scale DCC-Friendly Universal Short Passenger Car Light Kit and two of the three-LED Z Scale DCC-Friendly Universal Passenger Car Light Kit for the front and rear cabs.

The boards are easy to install (and remove) and work as advertised. A nice feature is that you can dim them via an onboard trimmer.

I noticed an unfortunate downside and I think it's due to the way that Kato designed the clear plastic insert for the windows: The inserts go to the bottom edge of the windows and from certain angles, the bottom edge reflects the LEDs that are mounted on the ceiling. This isn't an issue for Kato's LED kit because the diffuser doesn't show distinct bright spots like LEDs do.

I transferred the anti-flicker light boards to another train that didn't have this problem and re-installed the Kato light kit. Now if I could just dim the LEDs...

Sound Decoder? By extrapolation, the reliable power would be ideal for a sound decoder installed in a passenger car (not sure if you could fit it into the motor car). Wow... that would make a total of four decoders in the train (or more if you want DCC controllable interior lighting in all cars)!

Final Thoughts: I should mention that if you're only familiar with steam locomotives, it may seem a little strange that the motor car of a Japanese electric multiple unit (EMU) train is in the center, not in the end cars that look like they should have the motors. That's the reason why you have to buy 2 headlight decoders (for the end cabs) and 1 motor decoder for the car that moves the train. Although you could probably do it through a single multi-function decoder, you'd have to run decoder wires in both directions through the entire train. Three decoders set to the same address is definitely a more practical solution.

(For what it's worth, the Byodo-In temple has a serene pond in front, not railroad tracks!)