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Thinning the Herd: When You Have Too Many Trains.

July 9, 2009

When collecting anything, from bottlecaps to chris-craft yachts, eventually you reach critical mass; that point when either there’s too much stuff. Sometimes this can grow to so many items that it begins to intefere with daily life or a job. I know many model railroaders who have thousands of freight cars, hundreds of locomotives and perhaps a layout to run 1/100th of their fleet at a time. There are brass collectors with entire floor-to-ceiling walls of glass cases of $200-7500 locomotives and rare cars. Lionel collectors are in a league of their own. It’s not uncommon to see a guy who has turned his basement into the New York department store christmas demonstration layout, with yellow and cream boxes covering all four walls. Impressive? Yes. However what use is a collection this complete if it cannot be appreciated by anybody else, the relavance of having one of each type of postwar lionel cattle loader becomes irrelavant if you pass on and your massive collection is fragmented into the 10,000 pieces you took an entire life to build it into in the first place.

Since I was six years old I’ve gradually purchased HO scale trains. I’d get money from my grandparents and aunts and go spend it at the local GATS show. I had an adept sense for frugality which sometimes worked quite well for me and sometimes backfired spectacularly. I can honestly say that I’ve only paid retail for less than 6 of my 50+ locomotives in my collection, and ironically the ones I bought new usually fell apart faster than the junkers I bought and repaired. Until about a year ago I used to do this with freight cars, buying anything I liked and running it on my layout, until I discovered the detail of Accurail, Kadee and Intermountain cars, but that’s another story.

Of course buying junkers has an incredible benefit; if researched, some of the older cars (especially AHM, Ambriod, and Roundhouse) offering were based on some very eyecatchingand unusual prototypes. These were (and still are) a pleasure to find, rebuild and redetail. The only problem with junkers is occasionally you put the rosy colored glasses of “oh! this old MDC shay doesn’t run now, but if I spend some extra time working on it, despite some missing parts, perhaps I can get it running and looking nice. and for $5, I suppose I can’t afford NOT to buy it..” Yeah. er… no.

With new cars, especially the meticulously decorated cars now offered RTR from Atlas, Athearn, Intermountain and others are so intoxicating when seeing them on the shelf of the hobby shop. Seeing that Atlas billboard reefer and thinking about a whole string of fancifully decorated reefers carrying pickles, choclate, baby food, meat, sausage casings, fruit, vegetables and other perishables…until you realize that they outlawed billboard reefers in 1936….and your modeling the mid 1950’s.

Restraint is the Key

Setting yourself a particular modeling year isn’t just for Jack Burgess. I HIGHLY reccomend that you choose an era, or a specific year and stick to it. Choosing, say, 1954 would keep you from buying 100 billboard reefers, Second generation diesels, ultra colorful 40′ boxcars, and still be able to run steam on your layout. Choosing 1974 would pretty much give you a nice range of “modern” equipment in shiny new appearance with a small handful of 1950’s era equipment. An earlier era, like 1904 would be a challenge, probably requiring a lot of scratchbuilding, which would save you money by not purchasing 100’s of kits. I’ve been tempted to break my era entirely and model Tunnel motors and GP40X’s, but then I see where my real interest lies, small mainline steam, and keep focused. Focusing my modeled year has undoubtedly saved my thousands of dollars and unnecessary desires for random (and expensive) pieces of equipment.

Minimize your “Project shelf”

This is ever harder than restraint, once you have chosen and era, you typically would buy a huge pile of stuff for the trains you want to model, and I’ll bet not all of it is ready to run. Furthermore I’ll bet that some of the stuff you want for your layout will be unique and would sometimes require extensive redetailing or kitbashing to make your model look like it’s real-life counterpart. As I began seriously modeling, these projects seemed to appear and multiply. I have two doodlebugs made from harriman coaches and halfed GP40 frames floating around in my workshop along with 2 dozen steam locomotive projects and a slew of “bad-order” freight cars. Oh, and did I mention the project list doubled when I went DCC two years ago…yup, decoders for all! *sigh*

The other half of this equation is the stack, shelf, pile or cabinets filled with unbuilt kits of all types any modeler worth their salt has. Building a shake the box kit is worth it just as a diversion from larger projects sometimes and it’s always nice to have a few lying around, but you go to a couple of train shows and then your modeling space is covered in kits for buildings, freight cars in plastic wood and resin, locomotives in metal and plastic and then suddenly a few evening projects turns into what seems like a years worth of work, and what do you do in the meantime while staring at the pile of kits? Why purchase more of course!

Get your screwdriver, glue and NMRAgauge, because you should finish some of those car kits. Now. You’re already spending time reading this blog, you could have put together an Athearn Boxcar or converted an older N scale car with Micro-Trains couplers or started kitbashing an On3(0) flatcar, or begun thinking about your next layout.

Don’t buy the chicken before it hatches.

I cannot tell you how many buildings I have purchased over the years for my layout, only to optimistically think while planning a new layout “oh, It’ll fit” and once having laid the track and constructed the building to find out that it doesn’t. It’s always nice to have a stash of buiding kitbashing parts handy, but one box leads to a chest of drawers leads to a dresser leads to a dresser, toolbox, small parts box and two moving boxes filled with building kit parts…and the built buildings scooped up at trainshows for nothing cover shelves. They all need to go.

The roster of your locomotive collection exceeds any sensible ratio!

I was, and still am an engine fan. A couple of years ago I had more operable engines than operable, reliable freight and pasenger cars. That has since reversed with an influx of cash, but again the fleet has grown full of “fat”, either poorly detailed or freight cars with sub-par operating characteristics. The other thing to watch out for is too many unique cars in what should be a sea of Black and Boxcar red. You might want to take a closer look at some of your freight cars sometime and see how crude the details might be on some of your older offerings. You might as well do the best option, upgrade or sell. Be realistic witht the amount of time you can dedicate to projects (see above) and decide how many cars you REALLY want to upgrade and how many you can comfortably live without.
A highly detailed, nicely weathered and perfectly operating small fleet of cars is more impressive to any visitor than a vast sea of dusty, crappy looking, shiny plastic-with-badly-pad-printed-lettering rolling stock.

With locomotives it’s another story. That story is for another time though. Stay Tuned.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Galen gallimore permalink
    December 2, 2009 4:20 am

    As one ‘guilty as charged’ modeler with way too many unbuilt kits, I really appreciate your posting this article. I do want to offer one ‘out’ for folks who just can’t say no to a half-built Penn Line 4-4-2 in a cigar box for $15, no, make that $10. (Yes, that’s the actual deal I got at the WGH show recently)

    That excuse, er, reason is this: for those of us on a limited hobby budget, there is a time to stock up on kits & projects and a time to build said kits & projects. The time to buy is, like stocks, when the price is low, and the time to build is any time you can’t afford to buy.

    I know, it sounds like a cop out, and it is, but speaking from experience, I have found some of my most productive periods in the hobby have been when I couldn’t afford to just go into my LHS or GATS and plunk down hard earned cash for the latest thing I just had to have. Forced with having to choose between the price of parking plus admission to a GATS or kadee #5’s and paint to finish that unbuilt Northeastern wood combine, well, the choice is clear.

    I know a guy who bought two Santa Fe 3751 4-8-4’s when they came out (with all the whistles & smoke & bells) just so he could leave one all shiny and new and run the other. And I know folks with way too many FSM, SRM, etc. craftsman kits that will NEVER get built because some day they’ll double/triple/etc in value and it’s just nice to say you have one thing of a limited edition. But many in the hobby just don’t have the disposable income others do, and especially so now that the economy is worsening.

    Anyway, thanks again for an entertaining and encouraging post. I think I’ll go build that Accurail Mather stock car…


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