Purchasing Equipment

"Although there are some good train sets out there, there are many more that are very poor quality aimed at a quick sale to the Christmas crowd. We would recommend that you take the time to visit a reputable hobby shop and talk to the owner or a knowledgeable clerk about what you would like to do. The two of you should be able to build a custom 'set' one piece at a time from his stock, using all high quality components. The first cost to you may be a little higher then the typical discount store train set, but it will more than make up for that in the long-term satisfaction you will get (and the frustration you will save!) from using components that will work well right out of the box and that will continue to serve you well for a long time." - Ross Pollock

Purchasing Model Railroad Equipment

Orginal Text By Richard Dilley and modified by Clark Kooning, MMR

As in any hobby, the quality and variety of equipment available is great. When deciding what to buy first, consideration should be given to quality. In most instances, quality and price are closely related.

There are two distinct types of model railroad equipment available. Those that are produced for the serious model railroader and those that are produced for the "toy train" market. The big difficulty is that no one wants to spend a lot of money on a hobby particularly if they are buying for a youngster as he/she may lose interest in it very quickly. Unfortunately, most of the model railroad equipment visible in toy stores, department stores and many local hobby shops are of the "toy train" group which is designed to be sold cheap and runs accordingly. The poor operation of this equipment in most cases discourages the owner before any serious interest can develop.

Many Train sets have such poor locomotives that when you turn on the power nothing happens until you push it. Then when it goes, it goes so fast that it jumps the track at the first turn. Now you have to get up, put it back on the track, turn on the power, push it and off it goes to the next turn and... This does little to encourage the user to seriously consider the hobby. There has been some improvement in recent years where starter sets have very reasonable equipment included and the cost of those sets reflects this change. Some manufactures have done this for the exact stated reasons above, they want to encourage the user to continue in the hobby.

There are two main reasons for this poor performance in equipment. First and most importantly, is the quality of the locomotive and secondly, the quality of the power pack or transformer that came with it.

Let's look at the locomotive first. To run, electricity from the rails (track) must be picked up by the wheels then transferred to the electric motor in the locomotive. The motor then turns and through a series of gears, the locomotive wheels turn pulling it down the track. The more wheels that pick up power from the rails the greater the ability of the electricity to get to the motor. The more wheels the motor is connected to with gears the greater the pulling power.

Several other options are available to improve this basic operation such as quality of the electric motor, weight and flywheels. The better quality of the motor, the smoother it will turn with less electricity applied to it. Weight will assure better contact between the wheels and the track thus improving both the electrical pick-up and the ability to push the locomotive down the track without spinning. In the best quality locomotive, small flywheels are added at one or both ends of the motor. Flywheels slow down the initial rotation of the motor so that it starts smoothly instead of lurching forward. Once running, a flywheel smooths out the rotation of the motor and when the electricity is turned off, the motor will slow down smoothly not just stop suddenly. All of these features both increase the cost of producing the locomotive and contribute significantly to its overall performance.

Locomotives designed for the serious model railroader include all of these features. The cream of the crop are produced both in HO and N scale locomotives and feature all metal wheels, every one of which both pick up electricity from the track and are gear driven by the motor. The motors are of a superior "cans" type of construction, which draw very little current and turn with the precision of a Swiss watch. While the bodies of made of plastic for superior detail, all have solid metal frames to provide the required weight for best electrical pick up and traction and have flywheels to prevent sudden stop and starts when the power is turned on or off.

Locomotives designed for the "toy train" market do not have flywheels, have poorer quality motors, and usually have plastic frames, only some of the wheels pick up electricity and/or are gear driven. Some are overall very light, others have one or more metal plates glued somewhere inside to increase the weight.

When considering whether to buy a specific locomotive, take it out of the box and examine it. The store personnel may not like it, but do it anyway. Remember, if you drop it or break it you must buy it. Look to see that all wheels are metal. All metal wheels does not necessarily mean that they all pick up electricity but plastic wheels DO NOT. Try to turn each wheel with your finger. Those that turn easily are not gear driven. Those that do not turn or only turn slightly before locking are gear driven. If you are in a hobby shop have them test run the locomotive. Any good hobby shop will have a 3 foot test track. If the locomotive has to be pushed to start after the power is turned on, don't buy it. The clerk may say the track is dirty and that's why the locomotive didn't start. This is possible. Have him wipe the track with a rag. If the locomotive still does not start do not buy it.

Rolling Stock
Care must also be exercised when purchasing rolling stock. The most important thing to look at is the wheels. They must turn freely and must not wobble. Turn the piece of rolling stock over and spin the wheels. They should continue to spin several revolutions after you stop spinning them and they should not wobble. If they stop spinning immediately or only after one revolution or they wobble, do not buy it. It doesn't matter if the wheels are plastic or metal. The best are usually on a metal axle. Wheels must be a specific distance apart on the same axle. If the wheels are too close together they will fall inside the rails. If the wheels are too far apart they will not sit on the rails correctly. While it is not practical for you the check the gauge of the wheels (the distance between them on the same axle), if they are plastic wheels on a metal axle the wheels could be moved closer or farther apart if necessary. On some equipment the wheels and axles are molded as one piece. These should always be treated with caution particularly if the equipment is inexpensive. If you spin the wheels and they wobble it's because the axles are not straight.

When buying any model railroad equipment for yourself or in particular for youngsters, stick with short locomotives and short freight cars. The longer equipment can have trouble getting around the relatively sharp curves normally used (most sets have an 18 inch curves). The overhang of the ends of long equipment on these curves looks wrong and can cause derailments. Stick with diesel locomotives. Steam locomotives are great for us old folks that remember them but generally because of their length they also create problems on curves and short turnouts (switches). Also, they are much harder to put on the track than a diesel as they have so many wheels. Stay away from the very short 4 or 6 wheel steam locomotives and the 4 wheel diesel locomotives as they usually run very poorly. Avoid passenger cars, as they are very long and will cause problems on small (under 24 inch) tight curves. Some manufacturers make short passenger cars just so they will run on the small curves but you will find they look strange as they are out of proportion to the real thing. Also, stay away from those very long tank cars and automobile carriers as they are just as long as the passenger cars.

When you are looking at Locomotives or rolling stock ask your local hobby shop salesperson what they think of that product. In addition ask the following questions...

  1. Will this locomotive or rolling stock operate well on my layout with (fill in your radius here) Example 18 inch radius.
  2. Will it operate smoothly through my (fill in your Turnout size #4, #6 etc. here) Example I have #4 turnouts or switches will it work smoothly through them? Even backing up?
  3. If I do take this piece of equipment home and find it will not run smoothly on my layout can I return it? ( In salable condition of course!) These simple questions can resolve a lot of problems before you walk out of the store

I trust this information proves useful and does not turn you away from the hobby by making everything seem too complicated. It won't take long before you get the hang of it and feel confident when purchasing equipment.

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Page last updated December 2, 2014