Running in the Family

When I was a child, I would occasionally spend the night with my Grandmother in Cabot, Arkansas and just after bed time, a large train would come rumbling by her house, as she lived less than 100 yards from a main line, and I would jump out of bed to watch the train go by. The night air was cool and the grass and pavement were lit by the moon and starlight and the one or two street lamps that ran along the road between the house and the train track. The lonesome whistle of the engine and the clickity clack of the train wheels on the steel tracks were the only sounds I heard as I watched the trains roll along. I wouldn’t budge from my perch until I saw the caboose roll along into the darkness. Some nights, I went to bed disappointed once the railroad companies stopped using cabooses.

Figure 1 My Granddad Standing next to a retired steam locomotive circa 1970.

My mother tells me that both of my Grandfathers worked for the Missouri Pacific railroad back in the forties, fifties and sixties; mom’s dad was an engineer and dad’s dad was a conductor, and both worked for the railroad until their respective deaths. Their company was eventually bought out by Union Pacific.

My father has always had an interest in model trains as long as I can remember. His preference was the large modern diesels that pulled America’s freight ( I surmise this was because of his career in transportation logistics) while I preferred the old steam locomotives of the 1800s.

My parents bought me a train when I was a child, one of those carpet trains with the oval shaped track that could be set up and taken down quickly. Of course, the problem with those train sets was that in designing them that way, the manufacturers guaranteed themselves repeat business as pieces would invariable get broken or lost in the process. Another problem with those sets was that running the train in a perpetual circle or oval got boring pretty quickly. The only way to alleviate that boredom was to actually build a model railroad with buildings and tunnels and bridges.

My father had a grand plan to set up a full scale model railroad on a large piece of plywood with miniature buildings, cars and trees; a small scale duplicate of a slice of America that we could control. Sadly, this model never reached fruition as we didn’t have room for it in the house and when we started it in the garage, it got pushed aside to make room for more practical matters. I hear from mom that he did eventually set it up after I moved out on my own.

Sometime around 1997 or 1998, my dad and I went to the Arkansas railroad museum in Pine Bluff. While we were there, I bought a small N-scale steam locomotive and a few cars and some track; enough pieces to build a small working electric train setup. I had no aspirations of building a large model train set, but I always like the wood-burning steam engine with its large bell-shaped smoke stack, and I wanted to have one that would run on my desk while I did my homework, since was attending college at UALR. I don’t remember ever getting it running, though, and that engine sat on a piece of track on my desk until I moved away. Then it sat in the hutch on my desk for another 16 years, doing nothing more than gathering dust.

In December, 2016, I took an assignment to write an article about a display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science called Trains over Texas. The museum had a large O-Scale model railroad built featuring natural and man-made landmarks of Texas. While researching the story, I watched the model trains run and talked to several museum docents, who were avid train modelers. This reignited my interest in model trains and I became interested in whether my old train would still run after all these years. Of course, this meant I would need track and transformer, which I did not have.

In trying to find one, I determined it would be cheaper to just buy a boxed railroad train set from Amazon, rather than piece the track together.

I got the train set, put it together and ran the n-scale coal-burning steam locomotive that came with the kit. It worked fine. I then put my old train on it. It sputtered and spun its tires and did its best to run, but it needed some TLC and maintenance before it was going to work. I knew nothing about maintaining a locomotive. I had to learn quick.

I quickly found out that model railroading is not a mainstream hobby, and the big box hobby stores are woefully inadequate to supply the model railroad hobbyist. Michael’s has absolutely nothing for trains and Hobby Lobby only stocks two or three boxed train sets, but no individual pieces or models. As a matter of fact, a Google search turned up only two hobby stores in the entire Houston metroplex that serves the train community.

G&G hobbies is a general purpose hobby shop in Rice Village that does have a few locomotives, track, models, and even some box sets. It even has parts to repair trains, so that’s good. It does have a very large selection of rolling stock (trainspeak for train cars). Sadly, the focus of the store is Remote Control (RC) toys and plastic models, and apparently only one employee knows anything about trains. As such, G&G was unable to help me service my little Jupiter.

Papa Ben’s is a train shop in the Montrose area which offers nothing but trains. Its entire focus is model railroading. They even have a “club room” with a huge N-scale layout setup where members of the local train club come and play. One employee, a tall man named Steve, not only was able to educate me on how to maintain my Jupiter, he even fixed the broken coupler on the tender for me. I was able to get several ideas for my train setup and all the part I need to complete it.

I also attended a train show in Stafford that had several stores from all over the country as well as many of the chapters of the model train club. I took my grandsons to this show and they had a ball controlling an HO switcher to put together all the cars needed to form a train.

An old high school friend of mine contacted me several months prior and offered me the chance to partner up with him in a hobby shop in New Hampshire. When he found out I like model railroading, he became very excited and declared I would be the train guy! Now, I am learning a lot about trains as a result of my efforts to fix my Jupiter, but I don’t know if I’m “the train guy.”

I learned about a new technology in model railroading that did not exist the last time I entertained the notion of trains. Digital Command Control equipped trains have a computer chip that allows the train master to run multiple trains on one track independently. With old DC technology, any train on the track would draw the current from the transformer and they would all run based on the amount of current. The train master couldn’t set independent speeds or stop a single train. It was all or nothing. Also, DCC allows the master to turn the train light on and off at will. Some trains even have a sound chip so it actually rings the bell, whistles and chugs along the track with realistic noises.

Now I have gotten the idea to retrofit my Jupiter with one of these DCC chips and an LED bulb to make it more realistic.

While I was in a train shop in New Hampshire, I found two flat bed cars with Army tanks on them. I thought they were clever so I bought them so I would have something more interesting than just plain old box cars or tanker cars. At a store in Austin, I found a surface to ground missile on a rail car. At a train show in New Braunfels, I found flat bed cars with other military vehicles and I got the idea of making an Army train. I bought two flat beds with a duce-n-half, two ¼ ton jeeps an M113 and an M577; all vehicles I drove in the my time in the Army. So now, I plan on having a Chessie System locomotive pull my Army train, my Union Pacific engine pull the box cars and I am thinking of getting some logging cars for my 0-6-0 steamer to pull. My Jupiter will pull my excursion train, which has a Pullman car and two open sided passenger cars.

All I had to do at this point was build a model train layout on which my trains could roll. I’m creating a new blog to document the development of my model. Have fun. I hope I will.

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