Sunday, October 29, 2017

Upgrading Athearn auto cars

I have written several posts over the years about how (and whether) to upgrade Athearn “Blue Box” freight cars. (You can find them by using the search term “Athearn upgrade” in the search box at right.) I have said more than once that in today’s climate, I don’t believe it is worth the effort, because there are far better starting points in most cases. But back in the day, I did indeed do such projects, simply because then those better starting points did not exist. So, partly in response to questions I have been asked, here is how I went about that kind of upgrading. And I do recognize that some may still wish to go this way, for whatever reason.
     The present post is about the 50-foot double-door automobile car Athearn produced for years (and still does). My own upgrading thoughts immediately neglect the cast-on ladders, as these are far more trouble to remove than the model deserves. Likewise, the roof with one too few panels is just plain wrong (and hard to imagine how it came about), but certainly not worth the work to change. So what would a person change to make one of these models at least a “mainline” or second-class model?
     First, I always start with the roof. Most model railroads offer a viewing perspective of freight cars which is from above, and what might not be evident from ground level is way too obvious from above. In the case of the auto cars discussed in this post, like all the Athearn “Blue Box” house cars, the running board is hugely thick and really quite poorly rendered as a representation of a steel grid running board. I would immediately remove and trash it. There are two alternatives to replace it, a wood running board, for cars built before 1944, or a steel running board for cars either built after 1944, or rebuilt or upgraded after 1944, thus receiving a replacement running board, Obviously here you need information about your particular prototype.
     For wood running boards, I have usually used individual strips of scale 1 x 6-inch wood, though styrene strip works fine too. The Athearn body is molded with a kind of representation of the diagonal supports under the ends of the running board, and though these are crude, they are pretty invisible under the end of the board, so I rarely replace them. The steel running board is well represented with an etched metal board, such as those from Plano (see their line at: ), and nowadays there is also the option of the Kadee Apex plastic running board, available in 50-foot as well as 40-foot versions. I personally don’t think it is as prototypically “lacy” as the Plano product, but have used both.

This photo shows a Plano running board in the foreground wood 1 x 6 strips in the back.You can click on the image to enlarge it.
     Next up would be the Athearn side doors, which like the ones on the Athearn box car are way too short. Athearn molded the lower door tracks up on the car body too far, making the doors too short. I usually do not replace them, but it is easy to use sacrifice doors to provide a panel or two to extend the kit doors, should you wish to do so. More important to me are the immense “claws” molded on so that the doors can slide easily, which in addition to being an unsightly size, have no prototype equivalent. They have to go, and are easily sliced off.
     But in addition, the lower door track, especially prominent on a double-door car like this, is a giant ledge with no prototype equivalent. I have usually sliced it off, leaving either nothing, or a piece of scale 1 x 4-inch styrene strip in its place. With that bottom track gone and the claws removed, the doors are at least presentable, if still too short. In the photo below, the shadow shows how minimal the track becomes when replaced with styrene strip.

     My third area of concern is the hand brake area of the B end of the car. The Athearn brake wheel has an oversize rim and represents no actual hand brake. I have used a wide range of brake wheels over the years, from Precision Scale brass ones to the several fine wheels available from Kadee today, accurately representing the distinctive products of several manufacturers. I also never liked the stubby Athearn brake step nor its crude supports. I usually extend the brake step by gluing a piece of scale 2 x 4-inch styrene to the edge of the existing step, cutting off the molded-on supports, and replacing with styrene 1 x 3-inch strip. If nothing else, these visible improvements distract attention from the molded-on ladders and the brake rod and retainer line.

     Lastly, one may choose to replace the molded-on side grab irons with wire, and the overly heavy sill steps with A-Line or other metal ones. I almost always replace the side grabs, and usually but not always I replace the sill steps.
     The foregoing steps do improve the look of the car. But make no mistake about it, even an upgraded car still contains many compromises. As I said at the outset, Athearn automobile cars upgraded this way remain, in my estimation, mainline cars only, but my mainline trains do need this traffic, for both assembled automobiles and auto parts. These cars help fill that need.
Tony Thompson

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The role of mainline trains on a branch-line layout

My layout portrays a mythical branch line of the Southern Pacific, and is set in the Central Coast area of California. (This locale has been described in several previous posts; the most informative of those posts is probably the one found at: .) The main line on my layout serves primarily as a conduit to the rest of the world, for cars coming from or going to points on the branch. In the transition era, when I model, SP operated through or mainline trains from division point to division point, and those trains did no en-route switching; all switching was handled by local trains. So in this situation, through trains on my layout are really just passing scenery. Or are they?
     One important point is that mainline locomotives would necessarily be different (in particular, bigger and more powerful) than branchline ones. In 1953, the year I model, many Coast Route freight trains were pulled by 2-10-2 steam engines, and for mainline trains on my layout, such power obviously is quite appropriate. Here is an example of a westward train so powered, just passing the Shumala depot.

Diesel power for freight trains was becoming common in 1953, and on the Coast Route, most diesel-powered trains were either A-B or A-B-B sets of EMD F units. I have followed the same pattern, as seen on this eastward train on the main at Shumala.

     I have begun to incorporate through trains like these in my operating sessions, partly to increase the “beyond the basement” impression that is desired as part of the layout experience (see for example this post: ). I expect this to continue and likely to increase.
     Another factor in my use of through trains is that they can incorporate two kinds of freight cars that might otherwise not see operation on my branch. One kind is the group I call “mainline” cars, meaning cars not as well detailed or otherwise falling a little short of the cars that can withstand examination during switching (on the branch). I have discussed this distinction, which only applies to some cars, in prior posts, such as the one at this link: . Obviously viewing a car in a moving train is a different situation than scrutinizing it during switching moves.
     The other class of freight cars I can include in through trains are those which have no natural destination on my branch. An example might be a box car of auto parts. These were significant traffic on the Coast Route, but would only be found on the main line. Another example might be a flat car with a large transformer load. I can include such cars very naturally in a mainline train, though they would not be realistic on the branch.
     And one final point about these trains: few if any model railroaders don’t jump at the chance to “railfan” a passing train. Operating these through trains is fun in that way for both me and for visiting operators.
     What about waybills for these trains? If the train simply runs from staging back to staging, there would be no need for waybills; but if cars need to switched out of the mainline locals, the Guadalupe Local or the Surf Turn, some of the cars should have waybills for destinations other than my branch. Accordingly, I have been making up waybills for a limited number of “through loads,” both eastward and westward. Here is an example of each kind (you can click on the image to enlarge):

There are some handwritten marks on both bills, something that was commonplace on prototype waybills.
     Incidentally, the perishable bill here is for a Santa Fe refrigerator car. Sometimes modelers will ask how it would happen that SP would be moving a reefer of PFE’s rival, Santa Fe, but the answer is simple: shippers determined routing of cars, not the railroads. Photographs document that SFRD reefers were often seen in SP trains, just as PFE reefers were often seen in Santa Fe trains.
     I can’t speak for other kinds of layouts, but for my layout, emphasizing a branch line, the mainline trains are a useful and significant complement to the branch operations, and allow use of both locomotives and some cars that otherwise would be unemployed. That’s plenty of reason for me.
Tony Thompson

Monday, October 23, 2017

Cardboard cartons, Part 2

In the first post on this topic, I showed a way to use ordinary brown  paper bags to fold up into a representation of cardboard cartons in HO scale (see it at: ). But as intended, that post was only an introduction to this topic.
     For those interested in the background of such cartons and their foundation material, properly called “corrugated fiberboard,” since cardboard usually refers to a solid material, there is a fairly complete article on Wikipedia (here is a link to that article: ). In that article is a kind of obvious diagram of the exact kind I showed in my first post, which is how any cardboard box is designed and laid out (this is called a Regular Slotted Container or RSC):

Obviously in any scale, one needs merely to choose dimensions for this diagram, cut it out and fold up to glue.
     My own project began with closed boxes, or boxes with top flaps just partly open, as I showed in the post linked in the first paragraph, above. These boxes visibly lack what any shipping box has, namely shipping labels. There can also be additional small labels for delivery instructions or postage, along with warnings or other placard-like labels. One can look at modern boxes as a starting point for how these items look, but of course labeling has changed, not least with the central role today of bar codes. Transition-era period labels were in some way simpler, in some ways more complex.
     Here are three cartons, one with flaps open, all with various labels on them. I wanted to try a white carton, since some appliances come that way.

Two of these cartons are the same ones shown in my first post on this subject, at the link shown in the first paragraph of the present post.
     Another use for cartons is as discarded packing, where the flaps have been opened, the contents removed, and the box flattened.  To make an example, I chose something like an appliance box, six scale feet tall and three feet square in cross-section (in other words, all four panels are 3 x 6 feet). Here is the paper, marked and cut, before folding.

The pencil lines will be folded to be on the inside.
     I wanted to add a label from a classic maker of appliances. I chose General Electric, which continues to use a classic logo (images are readily found by Googling same). I just reduced one to a size that would fit on my carton.

Finally, I added a couple of labels and tags to make the appliance carton look like it had gone somewhere. Despite the small size of these items, the “busy-ness” conferred by these little bits is surprisingly effective, and takes hardly a minute to do.

     I have enjoyed the challenge of designing and making a bunch of cardboard cartons for the various loading docks on my layout. These are really quick and easy, and add something in the way of detail for your layout.
Tony Thompson

Friday, October 20, 2017

Some old metal tank car kits

Back in the 1940s, several model railroad manufacturers began to offer all-metal (or almost all metal) freight car kits. Some had separate sides, ends and roof which were assembled to a sub-body; some, such as the first Varney metal kits, had each side plus end as a single pressed metal piece; and of course there were cast white metal kits of several kinds. Some of the all-metal kits were carefully scaled to prototype cars, such as the Thomas Trains tank cars I have discussed in previous posts (for example, see: ). In the present post, I want to discuss Athearn and Globe.
     Athearn has long been a giant presence in model railroading, particularly in my own scale, HO. It’s well known that founder Irv Athearn got his start in the 1940s and ran the company himself for many, many years. But origins are less clear. Originally Irv Athearn was a retailer of model train products, not a manufacturer in the beginning. He didn’t begin to offer products of his own until 1948. But on July 2, 1951, he purchased Globe Models of Chicago, a producer of freight car kits with wood substructures and metal shells.
     Typical model railroad legend has it that Globe had already produced a styrene F7 locomotive body, and that Athearn wanted that product. But in fact, that plastic F7 was not introduced until 1954, long after the purchase of Globe by Athearn, and the Globe name was simply used for the new product. It’s often said, and may well be true, that Athearn wanted to see if plastic models would be accepted, and the Globe name was a “stalking horse” to test the idea, without any blowback on Athearn if it proved unpopular. Athearn had a strong reputation at the time for its metal freight car kits.
     But who was Globe? Begun in 1942 by Frank Taylor, who had served as editor of Model Railroader magazine, and Carl Traub, a well-known model maker and scratchbuilder in O scale, it was originally located in Milwaukee (at 4224 Lincoln, Milwaukee 15) before moving to Chicago right at the end of business. They made both O scale and HO scale models, and were among the pioneers in the latter scale.
     Most of their house car kits were assembled by building a wood box, to which stamped metal parts were attached. Roofs, sides, and ends were all separate pieces. At the outset, their freight car line in HO comprised box, automobile, refrigerator and stock cars. (There were even aluminum box cars with real aluminum sides.) The only Globe catalog I could find on the internet showed only those car types. But later they did add tank cars to the line.
     Until their sale to Athearn in 1951, they actively advertised in model magazines and issued several catalogs. Late in their time, in the fall of 1950, was when they added several tank cars. Shown below is an ad from Model Railroader, page 10 of November 1950, showing two sizes of tank, three different dome arrangements, and two types of domes (different safety valves). The original ad was 4 x 6 inches. (You can click to enlarge.)

The tank cars are clearly called out as 8,000 gallon and 10,000 gallon sizes. Note also the recently released stock car.
     Meanwhile, Athearn had also introduced its own metal tank car kits. But they were larger, about 12,500 gallons. Though their catalog called them 12,000-gallon tank cars, measuring the actual models proves them to be 12,500 gallons. Here is a page from the 1948 Athearn catalog (found on-line), showing these tank cars. Again, you can click to enlarge.

     I have a couple of these Athearn cars, easily recognized because of their large tanks, and two of the Globe cars, equally easy to recognize because of their smaller tanks. Both companies had construction style differences from the tank cars offered by Thomas Trains (as described in a prior post, which is at the link shown in the first paragraph of the present post). Shown below are two Athearn models, a single-compartment car and a triple-compartment car. Both tanks measure out to 12,500 gallons. Note how much bigger the domes are on the three-dome version than on the later plastic car of this size that Athearn produced.

The foreground car has lost its trucks, and the background car has lost its hold-down tank bands, but both could be restored, if I chose to do so. But the three-compartment car has no prototype, and I cannot find that Mobil ever had a 12,500-gallon tank car. Moreover, there are easier routes to a single-compartment car of this size (as I have noted in a post awhile back: ).
    The last Globe ad I could find in Model Railroader was in the March 1951 issue (Athearn bought them in July of that year). It shows two of their tank cars, a box cars, and a stock car. The ad is smaller, 3 x 4 inches, perhaps reflecting financial stringency in the last months of Globe.

As far as I can determine, Athearn did not continue to produce any of the Globe tank car models after the purchase.
     Shown below is the Globe tank car I have, which is lettered SHPX 312, and still with the Mantua loop couplers it had when I bought it. The model is at least 65 years old, maybe more. It originally had elbow safety valves on each dome (as is visible in the ad above), but two of them have broken off and would have to be replaced. Paint would of course need to be touched up.
     But whether I will do a restoration remains to be seen.Today Tangent offers an excellent model of an 8000-gallon tank car with three compartments (though different proportions than the Globe model), and Southern Car & Foundry has an excellent three-compartment resin model also, so there is not much incentive to work on this model — other than its genuine historical interest.

     It is fun to research these old models, to help understand some of the classic HO cars I have picked up from time to time at swap meets. But whether or not to restore them is an entirely separate issue. I am not yet sure if I will restore the Globe model, and definitely would not restore the Athearn metal tanks. I just enjoy owning these old soldiers.
Tony Thompson

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

An op session with through trains

I hosted operating sessions on my layout on October 14 and 15, and re-introduced a feature not included for a number of sessions, namely through trains operating from staging. I want to say a little about that feature in addition to describing the sessions.
     On October 14, the crews who were marked up were Bill Kaufman, Jon Schmidt, Leo Pesce, and Chuck Hakkarinen. This was the first time on the layout for Leo and Chuck, and being experienced operators, they did just fine. Bill and Jon are, if anything, even more experienced than Leo and Chuck, and they too handled all the assigned work with aplomb. Here are Bill and Jon (left to right), organizing the paperwork at Shumala. Bill was the conductor and is figuring out the moves that will be needed.

Meanwhile Leo and Chuck were taking care of the switching at Ballard. Here we see Leo uncoupling a cut of cars, while Chuck, who was engineer, looks on.

     The second day, October 15, saw five crew members signed up, Ray deBlieck, Otis McGee, Seth Neumann, John Rodgers, and Pat LaTorres. John was a little late arriving, through no fault of his own, and took turns in the two-man crews. Below are shown Ray and Otis (left to right) at Shumala, with Conductor Ray studying a waybill.

The team on the other side, at Ballard, were, from left, Pat, Seth and John. The scenic divider between the two halves of the layout intrudes into the photo at left. Seth is completing a switch list, by the look of it.

     Most aspects of the session went off smoothly, but as notoriously happens with guests present, some new layout gremlins reared their ugly little heads. Luckily none were serious, though they all pointed to more maintenance needs. I think a few of the track problems probably stemmed from some high daytime temperatures we had last month, and I am already working on them. Problems such as an area of tight gauge in the track, where none has been present for years in that area, clearly reflect some kind of layout structural change or shift.
     Now how about the through-train part of the story? I previously had constructed a timetable for the Guadalupe Subdivision of the Coast Division, removing many station names remote from the area of my layout, but keeping all the train times. I showed this as Figure 12 in one of my “Getting Real” columns in Model Railroad Hobbyist, the issue for October 2014 (you can download or read on-line this or any issue of MRH, for free, at their website, .) That column also presented numerous details about the rest of my timetable document. Reproduced below is that compacted timetable.(You can click on the image to enlarge it.)

     With that timetable in mind (and in the hands of the crews), our railroad starting time was 9:30 AM. This meant that mail trains no. 71 and 72 had both departed, along with freight no. 911 which followed 71. There were no more trains before the westward Daylight at 12:26 PM, except freight no. 914, which is the through train that I operated.The rear of that train is shown below as it entered Shumala, with the four automobile-type cars prominent in this view (along with the large gondola load of a green tank, seen just ahead of those cars).

     I will have more to say about development and use of through trains in my operating scheme, and will return to the topic in future posts. For now, though, I’ll just say that it was fun to include them in last weekend’s operating sessions.
Tony Thompson

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Mind the gap, Part 2

Using as my title the phrase familiar to anyone who has traveled on the London Underground (or on other British train systems in more recent years), I described how I undertook the correction of a rail gap between my staging drawer and the main layout. That post can be found at the following link: . But as I knew even when making the rail gaps shorter, as described in that post, it is still essential in HO scale to align the rails even more perfectly.
     I already had an idea of how to achieve that better alignment. It is not an original idea at all, but is something I observed on Roger Nulton’s S scale layout in Tacoma, Washington, when I operated there last year during the SoundRail event (see my description at: ). Roger has a sort of “drop door” section to allow entry into the layout interior, and when the door is raised to close it, alignment of the rails is completed by sliding a sturdy wire “bolt” through tubing that is soldered to the outside of each rail on each side of the gap. I didn’t get a good photo of the arrangement, but Roger was kind enough to send me one. As you see below, his arrangement has the further complication to be located in a scenicked area.

     I have now shamelessly stolen Roger’s idea, and have added essentially his arrangement to some of the tracks on my staging drawer, and may eventually add it to all of them. For this design, I used K&S brass material, first their 3/32-inch x 0.014 inch round tubing (stock no. 1144), and for the “bolt,” their 1/16-inch brass rod (stock no. 1160). Once the tubing is cut into appropriate lengths with an abrasive cut-off disk, and the ends cleaned up, the pieces can be tinned, along with the rail sides. (Some pre-fab track has high spikes which may need to be cut away for the tubing to fit.) In HO scale, this 3/32-inch tubing fits nicely alongside Code 100 rail, which is what I have on my staging drawer. In the photo below of the right end of my drawer, the nearer track (the staging drawer side) has tubing attached, as does the far track (the layout side).

The drawer of course has not been aligned with the layout trackage, but is positioned for photography only.
     I then experimented with the 1/16-inch rod to make various “handles” for the sliding key. My first try at the key or “bolt” part has a small “handle,” as you can see in the photo below, but there is no reason for it to be this small. These tracks are at the left end of the staging drawer.

To make all this work more conveniently,  I simply made new bolts with longer handles, similar to the one shown on Roger’s layout. They looked like this (and yes, that’s a train at right):

When connected,  my tracks then look much like Roger Nulton’s arrangement, as displayed in the photo at the top of the present post, as you can see in the photo below. I sometimes use a small flashlight to get a good view while connecting these, as the lighting in my staging area is not the greatest. Below you see the right end of the staging drawer as connected.

     This system works great and so far has not caused even a single derailment (knock on wood!), and of course that means I’m really satisfied. I think this easy connection could work in lots of layout situations. Lastly, let me say one more time that this is not my idea at all, but was totally copied from the way Roger Nulton does it on his layout.
Tony Thompson

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Produce shipping boxes, Part 4

The previous post in this series presented a source of information, entitled Containers in Common Use, about the dimensions of prototype shipping boxes for all kinds of produce, from all corners of the United States. It also contained some illustrations of California boxes (you can see that post at: ).
     On the other hand, a number of vegetable types were shipped in a more upright-shaped box, including carrots and celery. The label below shows the proportions of the box end since of course the label was meant to be readable with the box in its preferred orientation. Like the tomato label in the previous post, this is a scan of an original label in my own collection.

As this label illustrates, one naturally needs to know the kinds of information about size and shape of shipping boxes that is available from the Containers in Common Use booklet cited in the previous post (see link in the first paragraph, above).
     I spoke about making stacks of shipping boxes, as would logically be present at a packing house before loading into reefers. But how about individual shipping boxes? At least for orange crates, they are available in 3-D printed form. Created by Ken Harstine, they can be purchased from Shapeways through the following link: . I bought a set of these crates, and they look very nice. When I get them painted them to represent new wood, and have added their labels, I will show the results.
     I might mention at this point that during the early 1950s (I model 1953), the changeover from wooden shipping crates and boxes, to cardboard cartons, had begun.  I want to include at least some cardboard cartons on my various shipping docks, and will the method to make them that was shown in a previous post (it is at: ).
     Finally, I have assembled some styrene boxes to look like stacks of shipping crates.  I just used 0.040-inch Novelty styrene sheet (Evergreen no. 4083). The material’s indented grooves look like the spaces between side pieces on wooden crates. The styrene box stacks were dimensioned to match the end of the stack I showed in my first post on this topic (see it at: ). The size of the box representing a stack is obviously multiples of the dimensions of individual boxes. For example, I chose to make a stack four boxes wide and three high, for the Bikini labels shown in the post just cited, and two boxes deep. I then painted the “wood” areas with Star Brand No. 11, “Natural Wood” color. Here is that stack, with the appropriate number of the labels on one end.

     I chose this smaller stack (compared to the images I originally created, of 5 x 5 stacks) to fit realistically on the platform at Phelan & Taylor in my layout town of Shumala. Even so, the relatively narrow loading dock of this model is pretty much blocked by the stacked crates (see photo below). Of course workmen loading reefers need not pass by the stack, and could take crates to load from one end of the stack, but it still might look better if the stack were only one box deep. I plan to make more Phelan & Taylor stacks that have that depth.

     It has been fun to research packing crates and their labels, choose some suitable ones for my layout locale, modify them if need be for my model packing houses, reduce to HO scale, and build box stacks on which the labels are applied. I plan to develop a number of additional labels this way, and particularize them for others of my packing houses,  and will show them in future posts.
Tony Thompson

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A few more Richard Hendrickson models

Last month my wife and I paid a visit to Ashland, Oregon, to take in a few plays in the superb theaters of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival there. For our visit, we were able to enjoy the hospitality and guest room of Richard Hendrickson’s widow, Sandra, as we often do when visiting Ashland. That personal connection is part of our pleasure in such visits. (Anyone not knowing, or not remembering, much about my good friend Richard may like to read my tribute to him in an earlier blog post, which can be found at: ).
     After Richard passed away in June 2014, his collections of freight cars and other rolling stock models, his layout and workbench, his books, and his huge photo archive were cleared out of the house (and passed on or donated), but a few mementos, a short train and a structure, were left behind, as Sandra had requested. With the passage of time, though, she felt those reminders had done their job, and it was time for them to go, and she asked me to take them. I thought it might be of interest to show what they are.
     I will begin with the locomotive, something I know was of great sentimental value to Richard, because it is a very accurate model of an individual Santa Fe Mikado, from the 3160 Class, one he had memories of from his days hanging around the Santa Fe operations in Oceanside, California. It’s a Key brass engine, with full cab interior (and cab curtains), crew, working lights, and white flags.

As a Southern Pacific modeler, I can’t really operate this on my layout (ah, but maybe an excursion?), but it can occupy a place of pride in my display case.
     One of the cars was a handsome tank car model of Richard’s, which began life as an undecorated Tangent model, their three-compartment General American tank car. The model was painted and lettered with Black Cat decals to represent a car repainted before 1946 with lines above and below the reporting marks and numbers, lettering features not originally offered by Tangent. Weathering includes dirty wheels with treads polished, rust
stains around the tank bands, chalk marks, spillage on the domes, and rusty couplers. This model was also shown in Richard’s article on multi-compartment tank cars in the February 2015 issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist (this and all other issues of MRH can be downloaded or read online, at any time, at their website, ).

     There was also an interesting 44-foot high-side gondola, kitbashed from origins I don’t know, with a full load of what looks like iron scrap. It has braced plate ends and a lever hand brake, both interesting details of appearance. It represents part of a 700-car series, built by Standard Steel Car for the Erie in 1923-24, cars 44000–44699, with drop doors. They were rebuilt in 1937-39 with solid steel floors and new AB brakes, and renumbered 45000–45699, as you see here with the model of car 45061. (You can click on the image to enlarge it if you wish.)

     Another model was a largely stock Proto2000 model of a Mather reefer. Richard supplied much of the information used by LifeLike in producing their excellent series of Mather cars (stock cars, box cars, and reefers), and naturally he had a full set of them. This one is nicely weathered, with noteworthy features being the scuffing in the dirt above the ladder rungs, caused by trainmen’s boot toes when climbing the ladder, along with his usual chalk marks, route cards, and repainted reweigh and repack data.

     Finally, there was a structure, to the best of my knowledge the only one Richard ever built. It’s the Santa Fe depot for Rivera, California (located in Pico Rivera). I know he worked with the kit manufacturer, Laser-Art Structures, to produce this kit, and it’s understandable he built it as soon as he received it. It was located on the Third District of Santa Fe’s Los Angeles Division, the exact area he wanted to model on his layout, which is why he encouraged Laser-Art to do that particular structure. It is very nicely assembled and painted.

Again, this one will have to be a “display only” for me, but here too, I’m proud to have it.
     I was happy to accept a few more of Richard’s models, once Sandra no longer wanted them in the house, and will strive to give them the best home I can.
Tony Thompson

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Interviewing for oral history

I have had a couple of questions about this topic recently, and was able to answer on the basis of my own experience, interviewing Pacific Fruit Express retirees for the PFE book (Thompson, Church, Jones, Pacific Fruit Express (2nd edition), Signature Press, 2000), and also interviewing various former Southern Pacific employees for understanding of SP practices. In this post, I will pass along some of those experiences.
     I began this kind of interviewing while I was collecting material for the PFE book. I had arranged to fly out west (I lived in Pittsburgh at the time) to meet up with, and interview, Pete Holst, long-time Assistant General Manager of Car Service for PFE. It occurred to me that I needed to know more about the interviewing process I was going to attempt, and accordingly consulted a colleague in the Department of History at Carnegie-Mellon, where I was teaching at the time, to give me some pointers.
     He told me that he believed there were three keys to effective interviewing of this kind. First, do record the conversation; it seems vivid while you’re hearing it, but it fades terribly quickly. Recording can be an issue, because some interviewees are made nervous or uncomfortable if they are staring at a recording device. He suggested simply putting it under a coffee table, or on the floor alongside a chair, to get it out of view of the interviewee.
     Second, he urged me to take along lots of PFE photos, nice big 8 x 10-inch prints if possible, because these really stimulate the memory of the person you are talking to. I did this, and just as he had stated, almost every one brought forth a story. This little technique is something I have used in every interview since, and it always works very well.
     One of the photos I took along to show Pete Holst was a Don Sims print of icing in progress (shown below), and it triggered tremendous memories for Pete. He must have gone on ten minutes or more, with all kinds of reminiscing about icing, car supply, and perishable trains, and naturally on his first glance at the photo, he correctly recognized it as El Centro, California.

I’ve always loved the clerk at the bottom of the image, holding a clipboard and chalking info onto the cars.
     Third, my historian colleague warned me that at least 90 percent of the “facts” I would be told would be wrong. Yes, the person interviewed may know a great deal about how things were done, and why, and of course that is information you can get nowhere else. But facts? He said that we all remember things far less well than we believe. Someone will say, “we did that shop program in 1938, and I know the year, because my sister got married that summer.” Sounds like a strong memory, right? But it will turn out his sister didn’t get married that year, or if she did, the shop program was a year later. So he urged me to let the conversation flow however it would, and to not worry about chasing down any facts, but let the stories give you the “how and why.” You can get the facts later with your own research.
      To my surprise, he was entirely right about the bad facts. Both with Pete Holst, and later with Earl Hopkins, retired Chief Mechanical Officer of PFE who knew car design and construction forwards and backwards, there was just a whole series of wrongly-remembered numbers and dates and places. But as suggested, the “how and why” was terrific. I hadn’t set out to collect that kind of thing, but I feel lucky to have had the guidance, so that I did get some great information.
     My longest interview with an SP person was Malcolm (Mac) Gaddis. I filled up two 60-minute tape cassettes and we ran a little beyond even that (memo to self: take far more recording capacity than you expect to need). I was especially interested to interview Mac about San Luis Obispo, where he had worked in the early 1950s, and had lots of 8 x 10 prints to spread out on his coffee table. Wow, did we ever cover a lot of ground! Here’s one I remember he really enjoyed, a Richard Steinheimer photo of the blue flag being taken down from the Daylight’s helper at San Luis Obispo before departure (from the DeGolyer Library, used with permission).

     When I got back to Pittsburgh after that first interview with Pete Holst, my colleague told me there was a fourth thing to face up to: I needed to transcribe the entire tape of the conversation. It’s fine to have that tape cassette there on your shelf, but access to the contents is really quite limited. Transcribing a tape or any other audio file is pretty tedious, and I just drove myself to put in the time to do it. And it’s worthwhile to do this soon after the tape was made, because there are always mumbles or unclear words or both people talking at once, and while your memory is fresh, you probably will remember what was being said at such points.
     I will be quick to admit that at the end of the transcribing you have something far more valuable than the tape itself — the conversation is entirely in words on paper, and you can read and refer to it easily. I later donated copies of all my PFE transcripts to the California State Railroad Museum, so that these records are available to other people besides me.
     With the Gaddis interview, I have extracted several relevant sections that have some bearing on the modeling I describe in this blog, and have put them out in previous posts. Here is a set of six links to those posts:

These segments do not exhaust anywhere near the entirety of my interview, but they are perhaps the most interesting in terms of my modeling of the SP Coast Route.
     I offer these pieces of advice from my own experience with interviews. They worked for me, so I wanted to pass them on to anyone thinking of doing such interviews. These interviews are in many ways priceless windows into a vanished world. If you get the chance to do one, don’t pass it up.
Tony Thompson

Monday, October 2, 2017

Mind the gap

This phrase, “mind the gap,” is familiar to anyone who has been to London, as it appears on station signage throughout the Underground system, warning you to be careful crossing the gap between platform and passenger car. One can even purchase T-shirts in London with this phrase on them. But in the present case, I am using it to refer to an unwanted gap that has developed in my staging system.

     I showed, some years ago, the development of my “staging drawer,” effectively a transfer table, underneath my layout town of Ballard. This idea came from something similar that was built for John Signor’s layout, as I indicated in my first post about my staging (that initial post from 2010 is at this link: ). Eventually my drawer held 12 tracks, and is seven feet long, as I showed in my fourth installment about the construction of it (see it at: ). When first built, this worked very well, and I operated test trains into and out of all twelve tracks without problems. Shown below is a view of the drawer pulled out to show its contents, with the town of Ballard above.

     But the entire drawer, or staging table, is built of wood, with 1 x 4-inch joists underneath and a 3/4-inch plywood base, supporting a Homasote track board. In hindsight, I suppose it was inevitable that this structure would shrink and distort as it continues to dry out. It still works all right, but increasingly there is a gap between the rails on the main layout, and the rails on the staging drawer. That’s the gap referred to in the title of this post. Here is how it looked recently, with the gap to the left of the photo. The staging table is on the right side of the gap.

Track 2 is aligned with the layout here, and you can see that the width of the gap exceeds an eighth of an inch. This can easily cause rolling stock to lose track gauge and catch a flange in the gap. I do have rerailers on each side of the gap, but these do not always suffice to correct derailments occurring at this large gap.
     I had several thought about how to correct this. But the simplest was to unsolder the rail joints at the inner edge of the rerailer (at the right edge of the photo above) and move the entire end piece of track toward the left. This worked well, as you can see in the view below. The gap is now less than one-sixteenth of an inch, and locomotives like this Consolidation, and all cars, roll smoothly over it.

     This correction will enable me to return to operation of mainline trains during operating sessions. I have often operated such trains when running the layout by myself, and could “baby” the equipment over the old gap. For an op session, though, I want to be able simply to run the train when desired, without the need to creep across the gap and manually re-rail any mistakes. The gap turned out to be fairly easy to repair, and I’m glad I could correct this problem.
Tony Thompson