Returning to the Hobby…

Returning to the Hobby…

or, It’s All Gordon’s Fault!


By Fred Preller

Ever since receiving my first Märklin train-set in 1957 (Dad was stationed in Germany with the USAF), I have been an on-again, off-again MR hobbyist. I graduated from ad hoc floor layouts, to more sophisticated table-top layouts (none ever completed, however) over the years. But with my final work years pushing for retirement, the trains stayed in the boxes, moving from place to place – Virginia to California, to Maryland, back to California … you get the picture.

Then, my brother Gordon (aka “el Gato Gordo”) – at his wife’s suggestion – invited me to go on Reynauld’s “Toy Fair Tour 2015″ this past Winter. Everyone on the tour kept asking me “What kind of a layout do you have?” and “When are you going to open those boxes and build something?” Gordon, who had recently retired and gotten into modern N-Scale railroading, encouraged me to think small: “Just a 4×8 layout for the grandkids to play with.” Of course, it would have to be digital.

The situation at that point was that I had about 20 boxes (think office file boxes) of track, locos, rolling stock, buildings and kits, and a whole bunch of related hobby stuff. Some dated back to my original set, and the remainder was accumulated over the years – I had a LOT of “stuff.” Of course, it was all AC analog. So to begin, I had to learn just about everything. Fortunately, the Internet contains all the knowledge needed for anyone to do anything!

I set out to build a toy 4×8 layout that, hopefully, the grandkids can run when they visit – and which has some operating complexity to amuse me and some of the other retirees in the neighborhood. Having sold off my turntable and roundhouses in the late 90s, I decided there would be no steam, resulting in a “modern” emphasis – I think that means Eras IV/V. In addition, my experience with catenary convinced me I did not want to model it on the layout, even if my electric locos would have no visible means of power. After a couple of false starts – and after trying a couple of layout planning programs – I designed a simple double loop layout with two industrial siding areas, and a separate 2′x8′ staging area. As I do not intend to build the staging until after I gain experience with the main part of the layout, the main has to support interesting and realistic operations on its own. Of the two loops, the inner is designated for freight, and the outer is designated for passenger traffic, with right-hand running (freight goes CW, passenger goes CCW).

Tollbahn AG - LayoutDoes this model anything in particular? “Yes and no.” Or maybe “Kinda.” The place names are all genuine, and centered around the charming little town of Lichtenfels, the basket-making capital of Germany (it was our first stop on the tour). It has a basket college, and holds a basket market/fair annually at the end of September. But I digress… Lichtenfels is indeed on the line between Nürnberg and Leipzig, and is connected by branch line to Ebersdorf. Other names are also local. I chose the name “Tollbahn” to represent the great enjoyment one gets from model railroading. And overall you can consider it an acknowledgement to my brother Gordon, Reynauld’s (tip of the engineer’s hat to Rey and Roman for sponsoring the tour and making all the arrangements), and my fellow travelers on the “Toy Fair Tour 2015.”

I started construction in familiar territory, building a simple frame out of 1″x2″ pine (should have used 2″x2″) to support 2″ industrial foam, with a nicely finished 1″x6″ douglas fir rail around it. I assembled components so that the foam surface is a bit below the edge of the rail, which keeps small things – but not speeding locomotives – from rolling onto the floor. I will probably add some low clear acrylic barriers across parts of the ends of the layout to prevent speed-related tragedies. For layout support, I used folding tables from Wal-Mart: I found this to be a better choice for me than adding the weight and structural complexity that legs would have added. Latex gesso (colored with latex pigment, to prevent glaring white spots from the inevitable nicks and dents) and latex paint (left-over from painting the last bedroom) finished off the layout surface. It almost looked too nice to proceed.


I used my Märklin M-Track – did I mention I have a great deal of it? – enhancing the connectivity of the rail connectors with bits of 0.002″ stainless steel foil inserted into the rail joiners, and carefully checking the conductivity of the center contact – there were a few very bad ones, which I discarded. The track sections are held in place by long paneling nails, and the natural grip of the latex paint. The track gang (my brother-in-law Sal, from San Antonio) did a super job, but then he is a retired railroader… I had almost enough switches, crossings, uncouplers, etc., and for the few additional needed pieces, eBay came to my rescue.

Not knowing anything about digital control of model railroads, I had asked Gordon what he used, and why he selected it. His report on the Roco Z21 convinced me that it was simple enough for the grandkids, and capable enough to do what I wanted. This has been borne out in practice, too, although my brain can’t keep up with all the locos the Z21 can control. Of course the grandkids – no strangers to electronics – won’t have any problem.

A side note – I had originally leaned toward the Märklin Central Station, even buying a couple of ESU LokPilot v4.0 M4 (Märklin-compatible) decoders. However, in the end, I felt that my needs were best met by the Z21. Cost was a consideration, but I was primarily convinced by the openness of the Z21 system, that lets anyone with an Android or iOS device come play on my layout. Oh – and the M4 decoders work fine with the Z21,

Now, for controlling the accessories (switches, uncouplers, etc.), I intend to use all the original AC actuators, controlled by the original control boxes: in other words, they will NOT be digital. So I will have, in addition to the Z21 (and its associated wireless router), an AC accessories power supply. However, for the time being, all accessories will be operated manually. All the stationary electronics will (eventually) be installed in a small cabinet for easy setup, as well as storage.

I am in the process of converting all my locomotives to digital. First, of course, I have to retrofit the AC motors for DC operation. For this I use Märklin 5-pole armature/permanent magnet retrofit kits. Then I install the decoders, using NEM 652 plugs. I am mainly using the ESU LokPilot v4.0 multi-protocol decoders straight out of the box, although the small switch engines may (a) drive me nuts, or (b) require use of the LokPilot v4.0 Micro. Of course, when reassembling the motors I take care to clean and lubricate the gear train. Then I run them around for a while (both directions, of course) to ensure all is good. I have had to replace several pickup shoes to achieve good running. Then I use the automatic load compensation calibration feature of the Z21. I do it twice in succession, recording CV51-CV56 (the Z21′s load comp parameters). Then I test run them again to see if performance is improved: if not, I just set them back to defaults. Either way, I record the settings of CV51-CV56 for future reference. Then I amuse myself by running the loco on a measured course and adjusting CV5 to give a realistic top speed.

2015-08-29 Layout StatusNow that the track-laying is “complete,” I have been running trains for a while to prove out the design. Oddly enough it all seems to work pretty well, after a lot of track-cleaning and addressing some rather stubborn bits of rough track. I did have to add an uncoupler (the one near “Branch Station Lichtenfels”). The layout loops are designed for right-hand running, so a loco pulling freight from the interchange siding is behind his train, and he needs to uncouple (after clearing the outer/passenger loop) and go around to get in “front” so the cars can be delivered to their destinations (industrial switch engines are not permitted on either of the main loops). And before you ask, there is no real passenger-car interchange traffic, just the suggestion that thru trains on the Nürnberg-Leipzig line deposit and pick up local and branch passengers, at least that is what the lack of bumpers on those tracks is supposed to suggest…

The next chapter, or “Where am I going to put all the buildings?” will certainly be along in a year or two. Or three: hey, I’m retired, don’t rush me!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>