Chapter 6 : Locomotive & Rolling Stock

What's on your train tracks? In this chapter we talk about the differences in types of railroad cars and locomotives: do you buy already-built pieces, kits, or do you scratch build? Let's take stock of your stock!

Rolling stock. No, no matter what you may imagine, it does not refer to brand of beer. But, I admit it's not a phrase that's not used everyday, unless you're a model railroader, that is. Then it's music to the ears. It's really what the hobby is all about: your rolling stock.

If haven't already, guessed rolling stock is a comprehensive term that covers all freight and passenger equipment you run on your model railroad.

But just how much rolling stock do you need? Did you notice that I didn't ask how much you wanted? All avid model railroaders have a single-word answer to that question: More!

Before you go crazy buying everything your local hobby store has (and end up sending his youngest child through medical school doing so!), consider some of these qualifying questions. These should help rein in your desires or at the very least spread out your "necessary" purchases over an extended period of time!

But more importantly, by answering these questions honestly, you won't review your rolling stock one day only to find there's very little of it you can actually use.

  • Is there a specific railroad that I want to model my layout after?
  • Does the rolling stock I'm considering buying actually reflect the era I'm modeling? Is that a concern for me?
  • Do I want a model that's already built or do I want to build a model from a kit?
  • Will this particular piece safely make it around my curves on my layout?
  • Will this piece meet the clearance requirements above and beside my tracks?
  • Is this a piece I'm buying for display only or am I going to run this on my railroad?
  • Will other people get to handle it? For that matter, am I allowing my children to handle it?
  • Do I really need this particular piece?
  • Can I really afford this particular piece?

Good questions, all of them! The last question is probably one you're tempted to ignore. But, it really is one of the most important questions that can be asked. Don't even be ashamed to admit it. You've given yourself a budget for your hobby. We all have.

Well, in some cases our spouses have given us a budget. If left unrestrained, it's likely we would spend ourselves into the poor house, because many of us just get so involved in the hobby. It's just a sign of passion!

Distinction: Toy cars vs. model cars

It's about time we make it clear: Yes, there is a difference in quality between those locomotives and cars you buy as "toy train sets" (you know, the under-the-Christmas tree, Dad I just have to have it set!) and those pieces that serious model railroader use.

And in a way, you can certainly understand this. Every parent has been placed in this situation. You child wants something very expensive, whether it's a locomotive for his railroad hobby or if it's an expensive instrument for music class.

Now, you're placed in a tough spot. On the one hand, you sincerely want to expand his horizons. But, on the other hand, you know children -- short attention spans may mean these items are soon forgotten.

Well, that's basically the difference in the toy train market and the model train market. Toy train sets are priced more moderately so that parents can provide their children with an introduction to the hobby -- as well as giving them something great with which to play.

Unfortunately, these moderately priced sets and pieces lack the quality of the model railroaders experience when they buy the higher-priced cars and locomotives.

Ah! But this is a double-edged sword. Because the lower quality can be discouraging. It's no fun -- and not very realistic -- to have to do push your locomotive by hand before it connects with the rail and runs on its own.


Even when you buy model railroad quality locomotives, you must be discerning. Many hobbyists, especially newcomers to the pastime, complain about what I've just mentioned: the need to push the locomotive before it starts running on its own.

Why should this be? Actually, there could be two possible reasons for this. The first is exactly what we've just mentioned: a poor quality locomotive itself.

You see, to run efficiently, the locomotive's wheels must be able to easily access the electricity on the rails themselves and transfer that to the electric motor in the car. The motor, then in turn, travels to the gears which begin to move, activating the movement of the locomotive.

The more wheels which are able to collect this electricity from the tracks to transfer to the motor, the greater the pulling power of the train.

So you see, not only do you need quality wheels, but you also need a quality motor in your pieces. The better the motor, the easier it is for your locomotive to start. Not only that, but the larger the motor is the smoother it will actually turn over for you using far less electric power.

One of the criteria that assure good contact with the rails is the weight of the car. The heavier the car, generally speaking, the more confidence you can have that the contact with the tracks will be good.

But now here's another aspect of a quality locomotive. Flywheels. (Didn't know you'd need such an extensive knowledge of electric motors, now did you.) A flywheel, by the way is a heavy wheel or disk that rotates on a shaft. The momentum of this rotation provides near uniform rotational speed to the shaft as well as all the parts connected to the shaft.

The flywheel helps to slow the initial rotation of the motor, so that it starts nice and smoothly instead of lurching forward. And the flywheel also plays an essential role when it comes time to brake. It slows the rotation so when you turn the electricity off, the motor smoothly slows, instead of coming to a sudden screeching halt.

But while this makes the locomotive more realistic -- and definitely "push free" -- it does add to the cost of the final product.

Consider HO and N scale

You can understand, then, why the model railroader pays more for having these items included in his equipment. In fact, if you're searching for top of the line authenticity as well as quality, consider investing in either the "HO" or the "N" scale (or both if you're feeling rich!) The locomotives in both of these scales include many of the features which make them a joy to run.

The next time you're browsing through a hobby store, check the quality of the locomotives in these two gauges. I can just about guarantee you that even though the body of this car may be plastic, you'll discover sound model railroad quality underneath it all.

The locomotives in these two gauges have all-metal frames to give the car that weight we previously talked about that was essential for the electric contact as well as for the necessary traction.

The all-metal wheels will be of superior quality. And every single one on the piece picks up the electricity from the track. And without even looking I can also be near 100 percent sure that the wheels are gear-driven by the motor (Ah! Should I call myself the psychic railroader? No?)

And the motor itself? Well, I can make some accurate predictions here too. It's made of a superior "cans" type of construction. This means it draws very little current and turns with precision. And it also has the essential flywheels we've just discussed for those smooth, realistic starting and stopping motions.

By contrast, the locomotives designed for the less expensive toy train market don't include those wonderful, vital flywheels as well as motors that aren't that great in quality.

In addition to their plastic bodies, the frames themselves are plastic as well, unlike those created specifically for the "HO" and "N" gauge markets. And you can be sure that only select wheels on these less expensive models actually collect the electricity.

But more than that, these locomotives are also probably quite light in comparison to the model railroad version. Some versions, though, do have several metal plates glued inside of them in various places in an attempt to increase the weight.

Buying your locomotive

So you find yourself purchasing your first locomotive. Don't just buy the first one you see. Here are some general tips to keep in mind.

First, don't even think twice about taking the locomotive out of the box. This is essential. Make sure that all of the wheels are metal. While this doesn't necessarily mean that each of these actually picks up the electricity, at least it's a start. If the car doesn't come equipped with every wheel being metal, then don't buy it.

Turn each of these metal wheels with your fingers. Those wheels that turn easily are not gear driven. If they are difficult to turn, they're gear driven. And you want them gear driven!

If you're in a hobby shop (which I recommend) ask them to test run the car. The store probably already has a track set up. Should you test run it and it needs to be push started then don't buy it.

The clerk may try to tell you the locomotive failed because the track is dirty. But don't take his word for that. Ask him to wipe the track with a rag and try again. If the locomotive still needs push started, don't buy that particular car.

Purchasing rolling stock

This same type of exacting care should be taken when you're buying rolling stock as well even though we're looking at a few different features. Since we've spent so much time discussing wheels, let's start with those. After all, wheels can literally make or break a successful rail line.

For all cars other than your locomotive, by the way, it doesn't matter whether the wheels are metal or plastic, as long as they meet several other criteria. You see, these wheels aren't connecting to the electric output.

The wheels on your rolling stock -- whether it be a open top hopper or a gondola -- should be free from any wobbling. They should also turn freely. This is easy enough to test. Simply turn the car upside down and spin the wheels. After you physically let go of the wheels, they should continue to spin for a while. (I know, this is the complete opposite of what you look for in a locomotive!)

If they stop immediately or wobble, then you really don't want to buy this particular piece.

The best wheels, though, are those connected to metal axles. And the wheels should be a specific distance from each other on the same axle. If the wheels are placed too close together they'll naturally fall between the rails. And if the wheels are spaced too far apart, they, as you can imagine, won't sit properly on the rail either.

If the wheels are plastic and the axle is metal then you can easily adjust the wheels as you need to. By contrast, some cars have the axle and wheels molded as one. This provides you with no options.

Regardless of the car -- locomotive or rolling stock -- buy short. This may sound like stock market advice, it isn't, but it's a mantra most railroaders live by. The problem with the longer equipment is that the pieces may give you trouble as they round your curves. The overhang of the ends of the longer equipment may cause derailments.

In a similar vein, you should probably buy the short diesel locomotives. The longer ones, modeled after the old fashioned steam prototypes, can be problematic on curves and short turn outs.

In addition to that, the model versions of the steam versions are actually must more difficulty to place on the track because of the number of wheels they have.

By the same token, you may want to stay away from the extremely short steam locomotives with only four or six wheels as well as the four-wheel locomotives. They usually don't run well at all.

In the way of passenger cars, you may want to pass on buying the long cars. This just causes problems on tight curves as well. In fact, some manufacturers make short passenger cars specifically for those tight curves.

While this sounds great, you may discover that they look out of proportion to your other equipment.

Build your own

I've throw a lot of "do's" and "don'ts" at you when you purchase already-built cars. You may be throwing up your hands right now, thinking: All right then! I'll show you! I'll just build my own.

Now that's the spirit. And you have two basic options. You can either build your rolling stock from kits or you can scratch build them.

The build-from-a-kit option is one many of the model railroaders choose. And there's a lot to be said for this option. Consider, for example the satisfaction and pride you feel every time you complete your kit car. You may not get that instant thrill in running it immediately, but I believe you get a deeper, fuller feeling of ownership of your railroad when you piece that rolling stock together.

And don't get me started on scratch building your cars. Yes, it may be a bit harder, but the level of satisfaction also rises with it. You don't have to build the most complicated car in the yard either. You can start off with a simple flat car or even a box car. Simple lines, less detail. And the parts for these cars are usually easily available.

If neither of these options really appeals to you, then compromise. Buy an undecorated car or kit. All you have to do then is to add the reporting marks or place appropriate decals on.

Transporting your transportation

Wait a minute! Where are you going with that armful of rolling stock? Aren't you fearful you're going to drop them? Here, let me help you with them.

There is, you know, a much easier -- and safer -- method of storing and transporting your transportation. Many model railroaders I know use plastic tote boxes. You can purchase them at just about any larger store that has a large-size toy department. They modify these totes by adding wooden dowels as handles for the top tray.

Then they glue plastic pipe capes to a piece of ABS pipe -- yes, the type you can find in the plumbing section of your neighborhood hardware store.

The cars then rest on Styrofoam, separated by Styrofoam dividers custom cut to the length of your individual cars. And of course, they have a separate tote box for their locomotives!

"Next stop: Scenery and Structures!"

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