EQUIPMENT AND MAINTENANCE
The most important thing I can say about couplers is that you should standardize. If you buy equipment from more than one manufacturer, it adds to the cost of your equipment to replace some or all of your couplers to achieve standardization, but the returns in smoother operations will make a huge difference. We have converted all of our equipment to Kadee G-scale couplers. Kadee also makes a smaller large-scale coupler that is closer to scale, but the larger G-scale couplers are easier for young operators to use. Some of our cars have car-mounted couplers and some have talgo couplers (couplers attached to an extension on the truck.) Talgo couplers seem to work better when backing up a string of cars, and we use them whenever a car has trucks that allow their use. But talgo couplers are not prototypical. We have not had problems with car-mounted couplers and talgo couplers mixed together on our trains. Bachman and Accucraft also make couplers that seem to work well, but we were not happy with the result of mixing these couplers. I most strongly recommend that you not use the hook-and-loop couplers that come one many cars. These have the advantage that they rarely if ever come uncoupled unintentionally, but they are also very difficult to uncouple intentionally.
It is also important to adjust all of your equipment so that the couplers are all at the same height. If you do not do this, then cars will uncouple spontaneously when there are changes of elevation in your track. Kadee makes a tool for checking coupler height, checking track gauge, and checking distance between wheels. I highly recommend it.
Since we use Kadee couplers, we have the option of using magnets place in the tracks to uncouple our cars. However, we decided not to go that way. Track must be perfectly flat for the entire length of the train for these magnets to work properly. And you must position the cars exactly right to get them to work. Not all of our sidings are perfectly flat, and our youngest engineers may have difficulty positioning the cars correctly over the uncoupling magnets. So we use manual uncoupling. We leave a long, flat-bladed screwdriver near each siding which our operators use to uncouple cars. (Initially, we had crews carry a screwdriver with them, but we decided it was not a good idea to have 6 year olds running around with screwdrivers in their hands.) Kadee couplers uncouple easily when a screwdriver blade is inserted into the middle of the couplers and given a clockwise turn. Since we use manual uncoupling, the metal arc beneath the Kadee coupler that enables magnetic uncoupling is unnecessary. Worse, we found that these could hit bits of trash on the track and "pole-vault" a car off the rails. This was another reason we decided to use manual uncoupling. We remove these metal arcs with a cutoff wheel on a Dremel tool.
It's a good idea to have at least one more locomotive in your roster than you will need for your operating sessions. If a problem occurs with a locomotive, you will then be able to swap it out with a spare locomotive rather than have to try to troubleshoot the problem during the operating session. And no matter how well you maintain your locomotives, it's not uncommon to have some problem develop during operations that requires you to side line an engine.
The main issue in selecting locomotives for operating sessions is how well they will perform in switching operations. Our experience is that locomotives with powered trucks (diesels and geared steam locomotives) move through switches without causing derailments best of all. Since we like steam locomotives, we have an LGB Forney, a Bachman Shay, a Bachman Heisler, both Bachman Climax, a 2-cylinder Climax built from an Ozarks Miniatures kit, and a Hartland freelance geared locomotive on our roster. They perform extremely well in switching operations although the geared locomotives are by design rather slow and our operators prefer faster engines. Diesels would run faster.
After locomotives with powered trucks, the next most successful engines for switching operations in our experience are steam locomotives with 6 drivers. We use 3 LGB Moguls (2-6-0) and 2 Bachman Ten-wheelers (4-6-0) on our layout. These run faster than the geared locomotives and have almost as good pulling power. The Moguls work a little better in switching operations because their drivers are spaced a bit closer together and because the two-wheeled lead truck derails less easily than the four-wheeled lead truck.
We have 2 Bachman 0-4-0 locomotives and 1 LGB 0-4-0 locomotive. We do not use these for switching because they tend to lose power when moving over switches, particularly at low speeds. (We use Aristocraft wide manual switches.) These locomotives are restricted to our back-and-forth mining tram and to the separate circle of track with no switches which we use for training.
We do not have any articulated locomotives on our roster. I would expect these to work about as well as our Moguls since they have two sets of drivers which swivel and each set of drivers is fairly short. However, I wouldn't use any non-articulated locomotive larger than a Ten-wheeler for operations on our layout or on any layout using switches smaller than #6. We have had to reconfigure our layout in a few places to get track geometry which would allow our Ten-wheelers to back through the Aristocraft wide switches without derailing. I would expect more problems with locomotives with a longer wheel base.
Maintenance for locomotive is simple but should be performed regularly. I would recommend that each locomotive should be lubricated after every 50 hours of operation. A good procedure would be to keep a chart of your locomotive roster and mark the running time whenever you run a locomotive. It probably wouldn't be a problem if you ran 100 hours before lubricating a locomotive, but you do want to set up some sort of procedure to make sure your locomotives get lubricated sometime. When lubricating, you need to grease the drive gears with a plastic-friendly grease sold specifically for use with model trains. You should also be sure to lightly oil the running gear of steam locomotives with a light oil designed for use with plastic model trains.
It is a good idea to inspect all locomotives for loose or rubbing parts after every operating session. Steam locomotives in particular can develop problems with their valve gear. Check for loose screws and for twigs and bits of trash caught in the gear. You should also check the couplers to make sure they are opening and shutting properly. Kadee couplers have a small spring on the outside that occasionally get lost. If you don't replace missing springs, the couplers won't close properly and may uncouple at the worst time. A drop of oil will sometime loosen up a stiff coupler.
When selecting rolling stock for operating sessions, there are several factors to keep in mind. First is cost. You will probably want to have a variety of car types and you will want to have enough cars to allow frequent switching. Particularly if you have young operators, you will want cars that can take a fair bit our sometimes rough handling without a rise in your blood pressure. I recommend buying inexpensive cars for these reasons. All of our rolling stock are from Bachman's inexpensive line of cars. We normally run three short freight trains (up to three cars plus a caboose) during an operating session. We own twenty-seven cars: four long cabooses (the four-wheel cabooses don't stay on the rails as well,) seven boxcars, five flatcars, four reefers (refrigerated cars,) two stock cars, two gondolas, and three ore cars for the mining tram. We also have two passenger cars and a combine which we rarely run. This is plenty of cars for our operating sessions and allows us to divert 4-5 five cars to our training areas. We usually have only about twenty cars, including three cabooses, involved in the actually operating session at a time.
The second consideration in selecting cars is wheels. You want metal wheels. Period. Light plastic wheels do not stay on the track as well as metal wheels. Most of Bachman's cars come with metal wheels. Some have shiny wheels with large flanges and others have dark wheels with smaller flanges. We find that the dark wheels that come on Bachman flatcars and the shiny wheels that come on Bachman boxcars work well. For some reason, the larger dark wheels that came on our Bachman gondolas derail more easily than the other Bachman wheels; so we replaced them with the shiny Bachman wheels. Bachman does sell some cars with plastic wheels, and we always replace these with the metal wheels that you can buy from Bachman separately.
A third consideration in selecting cars is the car markings. If you like to run cars from a variety of railroads, then this may not matter to you. Since our railroad is in Tolkien's Middle Earth, we repaint all of our equipment for the Lake Town & Shire (LT&S), the Middle Earth Railroad (MERR), or the Dunland & Rohan Great Western (D&RGW). To make this easier, we usually buy cars without any railroad markings. We can also convert Denver and Rio Grande Western cars to our own D&RGW while keeping most of the markings.
Car maintenance is vital to smooth operations. During an operating session, you may find that a particular car uncouples spontaneously or derails more often than the rest of your cars. When this happens, pull the car out of the session and mark it somehow as needing maintenance. You should also plan to examine all of your cars for needed maintenance every three or four running sessions.
I am going to talk about maintenance for Kadee couplers since that is what we have on our equipment. The main problem with couplers is that sometimes they will not stay coupled. There are two common reasons for this: the couplers are at different heights or the couplers do not close properly. You correct the first problem by using shims to adjust the coupler height. But first you need to establish a universal height for your couplers and enforce it. With Kadee couplers, this is easy to do using Kadee's coupler height gauge. The gauge sits on the track and has a coupler attached. You put your car on the track and couple it to the gauge. Then it is easy to see whether the coupler on the car is at the same height as the coupler on the gauge. If it isn't, fix it. Unintended uncoupling occurs with Kadee couplers either because the outside spring has been lost or because the movable part of the coupler is not moving easily on the pivot pin. Replace missing springs and try a little light oil for stiffness. If these don't help, then replace the coupler.
Wheels can cause derailments if they are too close together or too far apart. You need a wheel gauge to check wheel distance. The Kadee coupler gauge has a wheel gauge built into it. Most wheels can be twisted and moved a bit farther apart or closer together. Do this until the each pair of wheels fit the gauge properly. We have also found that some wheels cause more problems with derailments than others for reasons we don't really understand. For example, we have had problems with the metal wheels which come on Bachman's gondolas. If you continually have problems with a set of wheels, replace them. Finally, put a drop of light oil on the end of each wheel axle every few months. Don't overdo it. Too much oil will collect dirt.
Sometimes cars wobble excessively going around curves. This can cause uncoupling or even derailment. The cause is usually that the screws holding the trucks to the car are too loose. It is usually a good idea to tighten one screw fully (but not so much that the truck can't swivel!) and leave just a little play in the other. This will allow the trucks to adjust to small variations in the track without wobbling.
Weight is another factor that affects car derailment. If you have a car that derails frequently and you have done all you can with the wheels, try adding a little weight. You can buy small weights at model train shops which have an adhesive on them. These can be applied directly to the truck where the weight will do the most good. If there is not enough room for this, you can put some weight inside the car itself over the trucks. Glue some fishing weights inside a boxcar where it can't be seen.
Checking couplers and wheel alignment should be part of a regular maintenance routine. The other suggestions are for dealing with a car that is causing special problems. You should also check for missing or loose parts periodically. We don't worry if a brake wheel gets broken off a car or if a side step goes missing. Again, with young operators this will happen. And if you replace them, it will happen again. You are going to have to find a happy place between equipment in pristine condition and equipment that runs smoothly. We like to make our layout accessible to young operators and we don't worry about some of the details.
You must clean your track of leaves, twigs, and other trash before operating your trains. In the process, check all switches to make sure small stones or other trash does not interfere with free movement of the points. If you use track power, you will need to make sure any oxidation has been removed from the tops of the rails. We use a drywall sander with a long handle for this. You should also check to make sure rail has not pulled loose from any of your rail connectors. We can prepare 600 feet of track for an operating session in about 45 minutes to an hour.
Besides track cleaning, you need to keep plants within boundaries and to keep ballast in good shape. Walk around the track and trim back any plants hanging over the rails. Pull any weeds or ground covers that have grown into the track. Look for disturbance by squirrels or other animals. And check to be sure ballast is in place and supporting your track at all points. Ballast settles and washes away over time, leaving one side or another of a stretch of track without proper support. The track can drop at these points when a train passes over, causing a derailment. We have built a bin using bricks on an out of the way spot in our yard where we store extra ballast. So we always have ballast on hand to replace and repair.
The most serious problem we have with track is that it sometimes gets twisted, perhaps where people have repeated stepped on it. A twist in track, especially in a curve, can cause derailments. You can remove lateral bends in track with a rail-bender, but it is very difficult to remove vertical bends or to straighten twisted track. If the track is too badly twisted or bent vertically, you may have to replace a section. Don't throw away pieces of twisted track. It's much too expensive, and you can often cut shorter pieces from a long piece of twisted track that can be used in various places on the layout. And you can place the worst pieces on the layout as track-side clutter.
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