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LEGO Trains

June 27, 2011

Recently, I became too busy with the effects of entering the “real world” after graduation to have any time to work on building model trains. But I still needed to get a “train fix” every now and then (or pretty regularly, to be honest). What was I to do?

I designed this poster to mimic a classic Lionel Trains poster from the 1950s. The two trains are (left to right) the 7939 Cargo Train and the 7938 Passenger train, both released in 2010.

The simple joys of Lego Trains have come to the rescue! The brick-built cousins of Lionel Trains, Lego trains are model trains that one doesn’t have to think about too hard, and don’t need a model workshop to design and build. More importantly, being a durable toy, they are portable so that they can go wherever I do in my search for work, no matter how rough the trip is. If a few details fall off, they can be put back in place without an X-acto knife, spare plastic and wood, super glue, paint, and a few spare hours.

Despite their drawbacks in realism (people really aren’t that square-edged and shiny, are they?) they have features beyond portability that make them perfect for my train hobby right now.

1) Power Functions

When I pulled my old Lego train out of storage a few years ago, I was going to take it to college with me so that I could have a train my friends could run (and inevitably crash) without me fainting away or battling them for the controls. When I started researching to get some more track for it, I was dismayed to find that the 9 volt train system of which it had been a part had been discontinued by Lego due to new toy regulations. The 9v trains operated just like any other model train, from track power provided by a throttle that plugged into the wall. The new regulations prevented toys for the Lego target age group (6-12 years old) to operate by plugging into the wall. The only new tracks available were plastic, and the battery-powered system they had used for the trains at the time, called RC Train, did not get great reviews from the “serious Lego model railroader” community. I packed it away again and moved on to other ideas.

My disenchantment with my normal model trains as time for working on them dwindled led me to again consider my Lego train. Now a new battery system called Power Functions had come along, and had some amazing features, including infrared train control that allowed multiple trains to be independently controlled on the same track, along with the ability to turn the lights on and off, which sounded to me like model railroading’s Digital Command Control (DCC) system. It was what my HO scale trains had been needing to make them more social, but was an expensive system to implement, and some of my locomotives are worth less than the $25 DCC chip that would have to be installed in them, or old enough that it would be impossible to wire them correctly. Power Functions (PF) was the answer, as my friends could run trains while I was, and being Lego they could crash them without harm. For me, being interested in realistic model railroad operations, I was looking at the possibility of running a railroad realistically by “controlling the trains, not the track.”

So, I made the plunge and bought a 7939 Cargo Train when had its Black Friday sale at Thanksgiving. And I haven’t regretted it. My friends loved it and the old 9v train joined it for multiple-train operation (and destruction).

2) Newness

Lego trains have served as a kind of “hobby reboot.” My model railroading skills had reached the point where I was scratchbuilding narrow gauge HO scale equipment. Running low on free time and space made me feel stagnant.  I wanted to be running trains or building trains, not just reading about what other modelers were building. With Lego trains, I’m 10 years old again, buying pre-designed kits and learning new ways of building. Learning a new skill can be just as enjoyable as the application of it. And, more Legos are easy to come by, being only as far away as the nearest toy aisle. When I sell my old HO scale layouts later in the summer, I’m sure part of the proceeds will go to more track for the Lego trains.

3) Size

Speaking of track, Lego trains are large enough that the track can very easily encircle the walls of an entire room. There is something very satisfying about seeing the sofa transformed into a mountain range the train skirts the base of, before disappearing into the jungle of potted plants in the corner, only to emerge again from the tunnel under the chair and throttle up for the long straight through the prairie rug. Being about the size of Lionel O-gauge trains, Lego trains have a heft that makes them feel sturdy in your hands. The larger size also makes them cat-proof, an important feature with my parents’ new cat. And when she does gingerly whack one, nothing irreparable happens.

4) Design

There is just something about Legos that appeals to designers. You could argue it’s the pleasing colors, the ability for customization, the inherent creativity, but I think it’s something else. We can sense that they are well-designed objects that a professional designer created. Legos push our design buttons the same way a well designed chair or teakettle does. Not to mention that their instruction booklets and graphic design are amazing to look at, as well.

5) Fun

Realistic model railroading can get too serious sometimes. Lego trains are anything but. I can have pirates and spacemen sharing drinks in the lounge car, and no one is going to call me out on it. I can mix steam and diesel, American and European prototype, and the fact that its all Lego holds it together. The train can be held up by aliens, and the Alien Defense Unit troopers can call in the folks at Hogwarts for help. It’s all fun and hilarious, and can be created in a few minutes.

My dapper Lego doppleganger prepares for adventure on the high iron. All Aboard!

My Lego collection is currently small by most Adult Fan of Lego (AFOL) standards, but with the impending sale of my childhood HO scale layouts, plenty more track is a possibility, along with some headlights for the Cargo Train. And, maybe I can manage the current train station set that’s at Toys’R’Us with the last of my graduation money…

In the future, when I have the space and time and stable lifestyle to start building in HO scale again, I’m sure every time I need a break the Lego trains will go rolling down the tracks. And for now, they’re the best trains I own.


Springfield Streetcar

June 18, 2011

Recently, the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader carried an article describing the predicament the city had found itself in with its Expo Center. A consulting firm had been asked to analyze the Expo Center’s competitiveness with others in the region, especially the convention center in Branson. The city had already begun negotiations to get a new connecting hotel added to the Expo Center, and feared that it would not be enough. To their dismay, they were right.

The Expo Center sits in a desolate stretch of St. Louis Street, four blocks east of the main shopping and dining of the downtown area around the square, and sandwiched between residential areas to the south and an industrial rail corridor to the north. The report by Hunden Strategic Partners revealed that without an additional $53 million in private investment and $55 million in public subsidies in the area around the center to create restaurants and entertainment close-by, the Expo Center would continue to lose to its well-placed rival to the south and be a drain on the city’s budget. In fact, the image of Springfield itself seems to be to blame, as a city known for being unswervingly status-quo and even old-fashioned doesn’t attract convention-goers wanting to have a good time. However, all of the things that would make for a complete convention package already exist, just separated by four hot and uninviting blocks. What to do?

Build a downtown streetcar line, of course! The ability to hop on a streetcar and within minutes get to anywhere in the downtown area would link the disconnected Expo Center to the successful business district that already exists, at a minimal cost to the city compared with that of attracting private development in the area around the Center. Tampa, Florida is by far the best example of what a streetcar line can do for a city’s convention business, with Tom Keating, the president of the local chamber of commerce, saying that the streetcar line has become a draw for conventions, along with giving the city a coherent image by linking disparate entertainment and shopping districts.

I have begun to design a streetcar line for downtown Springfield in my free time, and plan to seriously propose it to the city as a possible course of action. With the cheapest streetcar lines costing only $4 million per mile, the city could save a whopping $50 million in taxpayer money and still create a successful Expo Center.

You can find my new Springfield Streetcar site here.

Mainstreet of America

April 17, 2011

The iconic sign of wanderlust.

Route 66 is an important part of America’s transportation history. From its beginnings in the 1920s and 30s and the exodus of the Okies to California to the late 50s and 60s tourist culture, it spans an important period in the emerging role of the automobile in American life. With the Mother Road expected to receive federal funding for preservation of those sections that have been neglected and the crumbling roadside attractions long bypassed by the interstate, the “Mainstreet of America” may be on the verge of a renewal.

For years Route 66 enthusiasts, who have traveled its length documenting the kitsch and gaudy roadside attractions and simply enjoying the legendary trip, have lobbied for various preservation measures along the route. Within the past decade many states have engaged in placing “Historic US 66” signage along the decommissioned route in order to help those seeking the old road find their way. In many cases, this is not enough. Downgraded sections of highway have slowly deteriorated under decreased funding conditions. Many of the old landmarks have crumbled or been torn down, with the remainder outside metropolitan areas falling into severely dingy states. If action isn’t taken soon, this piece of history will soon fade away into the rural landscapes it once linked.

There are those who say that the architectural and therefore historic preservation merit of the “kitsch” and gaudy landmarks along the route is lacking, but this ignores the contribution to the story of American architecture these buildings embody. “Kitsch” is America’s contribution to the world. The amusement park, Buster Keaton’s visual comedy, and folk art are all indelible parts of American culture. There are few examples throughout history of America doing slick European quality design very well. America has always been a gaudy place. From the thrown-together frontier towns sometimes full of gaudier displays than even those in the make-believe world of western movies to the sometimes over-the-top lifestyle centers of today, the fantastical and the idealized have always been what American artists, designers, and builders have excelled at. Even serious historical styles have their moments, from the “Painted Lady” Queen Anne homes of San Francisco to the streamliner-inspired Art Deco skyscrapers; these have all been preserved with vigor. If one is not careful, looking at the world solely through a trained designer’s eyes can lead to considering all historic buildings far too hokey to save. For the country that gave the world the idealized Main Street of Disneyland to turn its back on the just as gaudy, just as whimsical Main Street of America would be a grave mistake.

Making HOn30 Gondolas

April 10, 2011

Narrow Gauge Fever Pt. 2

I promised in Narrow Gauge Fever that I would eventually do a photo how-to on making HOn30 gondolas out of Bachmann N-scale ones. This idea came from an article by Bob Hayden, one of the original heroes of HOn30, on the HOn30 Home Depot. I have simplified the process to suit my own tastes and time available for kitbashing.

The gondolas to use are the basic 40′ Bachmann gondolas that come in the old-style cardboard packaging. These can usually be found for around $5 to $7 in most hobby stores, and they could be found even cheaper on eBay. The simplicity of their constructi0n is what helps make this a quick and easy conversion. I prefer the Pennsylvania roadname, as being black it is the easiest to paint over.

Step 1

Pry out the coal load. It may or may not be lightly glued, I have seen them both ways. Then, flip the gondola over and carefully use a small screwdriver or x-acto blade to pry the frame off of the body. With the body bottom-side up, cut or saw it in half. Also, trim off the stirrup steps on the four corners, as these will probably get broken off anyway during  the construction process and are out of scale.


The bodies have been removed from the frames and cut in half.

Step 2

Cut a strip of 1/32″ thick basswood that is the interior length of the body for the new floor. I build my HOn30 equipment to the full 3′ gauge width of 8′, so I make my new floors about 7.5′ wide, which is about 1″ . Scribe the basswood to simulate wood decking, and test fit. If it fits with no problems, then use super glue (CA) to glue the new floor to the halves of the old floor.

1/32" basswood cut to the new floor size is glued to the two halves.

Closeup of the finished floor installation.

Step 3

The original bodies have ribbing and details on the ends that will prevent the new ends from fitting properly. Cut off the brake wheel and larger details, then sand the ends until they are generally flush. Next, cut new ends from 3/8″ x 1/16″ basswood strips, and glue them to the ends.

New outside ends are made and glued to the original body.

Step 4

Cut new interior ends from 1/4″ x 1/32″ basswood strips, making sure to test fit. Use CA to glue them in place.

New interior ends are glued in place.

Step 5

Cut new top sills for the ends from 1/8″ x 1/16″ strips, and sand the tops of the new ends if they are not flush. Then glue the new sills in place with CA.

The tops of the ends are sanded and new sills glued in place.

I have left the interior end overlapping the interior edge of the sill so that the new sills overhang the ends slightly to add some variety.

The interior end overlaps the interior edge of the sill, creating an overhang.

Step 6

Turn the new completed bodies over and test fit the original frames. Then, glue them EXACTLY in the center of the new bodies, lined up along the centerline. Otherwise, you will have a car that leans and wobbles down the track.

At this point, I usually remove the trucks and install longer couplers from the Bachmann N-scale dummy knuckle coupler sets, so that the new longer and wider gondolas will not bump into each other and derail on tighter curves. I also have installed Rapido couplers on one end of the cars. With the operating scheme I will use on the Mustang RR, these cars will always travel in loaded and empty pairs, so the Rapido couplers double as adapters to equipment without knuckle couplers and as permanent couplings.


The original frames are glued to the center of the new bodies.

Step 7

The next step is to paint the cars and add final details. I paint mine oxide red as a reference to the Rio Grande 3′ gauge gondolas, but any drab color would work. Later on, heavy weathering will bring out the scribing in the floor again. As a final touch I drill a small hole in the end sill to fit a new HO scale brakewheel from my parts bin.

The cars are painted and new HO scale brakewheels are added.


Your new narrow gauge gondola is ready to go! This simple method allows an entire mine drag to be built in a weekend. I will probably build removable loads for them in the future, like ballast for repairing washouts along the line, or tarp-covered mine supplies.

The completed cars are pushed into a siding by Mustang #7.

Until next time, happy modeling!


Simplicity in Steam

April 7, 2011

It is an idea that, on first contact, seems like a crazy, wacky attempt at “green tech.”

However, once you think about it, the benefits of the idea begin to come to light.

The idea I’m talking about is the Solar Steam Train concept. Basically, it involves running fireless steam locomotives off steam generated by the sun.

Before you wonder where I left my tinfoil hat, let me explain that there is a lot of story behind the idea of “sun puffers.”

The development of steam technology in the application of rail transport didn’t end with the construction of the last steam locomotive for a major railroad in North America in 1949. An engineer named L. D. Porta continued improving steam locomotive efficiency and theory up until his death in 2003. The efficiencies he was able to achieve with standard steam locomotive technology were amazing, having several times improved the efficiency of the thermodynamic system beyond the theoretical limits. In the 1970s, during the first oil crisis, he helped develop plans for a modern steam locomotive running on coal that would look like a diesel locomotive of the day, called the ACE 3000. The project failed due to a lack of funding, but he continued to develop his ideas on other projects that came to fruition in other countries around the world.

ACE 3000 drawing by Gil Reid, from the Ultimate Steam Page.

Fast-forward to the 1990s, and enter DLM AG. Continuing the development of modern steam technology, DLM successfully sold a series of brand-new steam locomotives to several cog railways around Europe. These locomotives out-performed the diesel locomotives they replaced in all economic respects, and featured light-oil firing that reduced their environmental impact over the comparatively dirty diesels. Conversions to light-oil fuel have become DLM’s specialty in recent years, but recently they purchased two fireless locomotives to refurbish and modernize, and presented them to the public in 2010.

DLM Fireless Locos at their unveiling, from DLM's website. Notice the solar panels on the cab roofs.

Fireless locomotives operate without an internal heat source, with the normal boiler being replaced with a vessel that stores pre-generated steam. They are, in simplest terms, thermos bottles on wheels. They usually operated around mills and factories that had surplus steam on hand from stationary boilers in the plant. Many industries preferred fireless locomotives, for both product quality and safety reasons, like linen mills, canneries, and gunpowder factories. Several factories in Germany are still home to fireless locomotives, and there have been rumblings here in the United States about refurbishing old fireless locomotives for factories with sources of steam.

The fireless loco technology is the simplest application of steam technology to rail locomotion, with a minimum of maintenance required and simple operation. There is no way a driver can damage a fireless loco, other than wrecking it, whereas there are a myraid of things that can go wrong with a normal steam locomotive, up to and including boiler explosions. The charging process takes only a matter of minutes. There are far fewer parts than goes into the modern diesel-electric locomotive, with none of the extensive manufacturing wakes that electronic components usually have. The embodied energy of a fireless locomotive, even a modernized one, would be far less than that of any other propulsion type.

Solar steam technology is simple as well. Some of the earliest large-scale solar power plants operated not with photovoltaics but with mirrors that focused sunlight onto a central point, to either directly generate steam or heat a metallic mixture that transferred its heat elsewhere to generate steam.

It becomes not very hard to imagine the solar steam railroad landscape, with fireless locomotives built with modern insulation stopping every 100 miles to recharge their accumulators. The solar steam plants dot the landscape, with modern versions of railroad windmills to pump the water to the station to be heated. Backup steam power when the sun doesn’t shine comes from underground liquid metal thermal storage in rural areas. In cities, backup steam power comes from co-generation plants that supply heating, cooling, and electricity to neighborhoods and streetcars.

Today, too many of our energy systems operate independently of one another, leading to massive waste and huge carbon footprints for those who live with centralized power networks. The idea of solar steam trains simplifies everything down to a level of unified processes, generating a world where the direct connections between energy and work are apparent to everyone.

On a daily basis the chuffing in the distance and the lonesome call of the whistle that signals the arrival of far-off places to wherever the tracks lead, and stirs the wanderlust deep in the soul, would once again be heard.

The High Price of Transportation

April 6, 2011

One of the most baffling stories about public transportation I’ve ever heard has played itself out over the past several months.

The decision to try and spend money slated for passenger rail improvements on roads instead has happened in many other places besides New Jersey, including Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, who have all rejected high speed rail (HSR) funding. The high up-front costs of rail transportation and the operating subsidies it usually requires makes it suffer from considerable sticker shock. But attempting to divert money already approved for rail to road maintenance is at the best insane.

The national road network and automobile transportation are subsidized to a high degree, otherwise road transport wouldn’t be economically viable in competition with rails. (Remember that the early American railroads put almost everything else in the transportation sector out of business, including a number of toll roads.) Passenger rail, since the enaction of the Interstate Highways act, has received only a trifle in comparison of the quadrillions of dollars we have spent on roads and highways since then.

If the automobile weren’t such an inseperable part of the American dream as handed down to us by the Greatest Generation, people might be able to realize what an efficient money pump the car in their garage is. A pump that is very efficient at sucking money out of the economy and flushing it away down rivers of concrete.

The Nexus of Politics and Design

October 8, 2010

On Wednesday the New York Times published an article about voter disgust with Washington and the potential for a third consecutive turnover of power in Congress, titled “Voter Disgust Isn’t Only About Issues.”

The article goes into great detail about a group of three consultants doing unpaid voter research, finding out what issues are at the core of why independent voters have been so fickle during the past 20 years through today. Their method is rather creative: sit a small group of voters down in a comfortable environment, such as one of the subjects’ living rooms, and have them come up with their own idealized countries and compare them to the one they currently live in.  Not surprisingly, for anyone paying attention to the state of the world, their flip-flopping isn’t really about the issues that politicians have been scrambling to define themselves on. What they are worried about is the breakdown of civil society.

The voters cite things like an increasing number of angry drivers, the disappearance of common courtesy, and the hectic pace of modern life. All these things are symptoms of something architects have played a part in for the past 60 years: the modern physical designed environment.

The current structure of most of our lives revolves around the structure of our cities. We live in bedroom houses, drive for potentially hours each way to work, and hardly interact with the world outside of those two places on any given day. You don’t even have to live in the suburbs to experience American anonymity. Housing tastes have led to the ability to choose to live with as little contact with others as you want, no matter where you live. You have the choice of not being forced into daily personal contact with other people.

Architects and urban designers were the enablers of this trend toward seclusion, with land values and the public’s tastes after the Second World War being the driving forces. The breakdown of civil society was a side-effect that no one realized was hiding within their automobiles and Cape Cod houses.

Comparing modern America with modern Europe, the picture is vastly different. Europeans still interact on a daily basis in a way that gives one the feeling of stepping back into pre-1950s America. The lack of available space in Europe that for hundreds of years was viewed as its greatest detractor instead forces people from all walks of life into daily close encounters. Public transportation is still the way most people get around. You’re likely to buy coffee in the morning from your neighbor and sit next to another neighbor (who runs the local bakery) on the train. By contrast, in modern America the fences between yards are like the space between universes.

Architects are currently poised to be the saviors of civil society. With sustainability becoming an ever more popular trend, and more people wanting to live in walkable neighborhoods and urban centers, the desire for change is finally present. Not to a new way of doing things, but ironically back to the way things used to be.

The monkey wrench in the process, though, is money. Private investment alone will not be enough to heal the wounds to the American landscape caused by the forces of the private market over the past 60 years. The result of those wounds, an insecure public willing to bolt from whoever holds power, stands to block the healing. A national government paralyzed by never-ending power shifts will never be coordinated enough to spend the money that repairing the fabric of the city will require.

Architects should take this as a warning. We have a duty as PR representatives of this change to a kinder world to stay aware of the outside forces affecting design. We must do everything we can to educate the public about what must be done to achieve the “ideal country” they desire. America stands at a tipping point: either intelligent design will restore civil society, or the country will slowly be taken to a fear-stalked place where design becomes an irrelevant practice devoid of the power to change anything.