Philosphy of Operation

Gods versus Heroes

Tom Hebert

I suppose that it was inevitable that European model railroaders and American model railroaders would approach the same subject in different ways. But after listening to my blather about these two model railroad approaches, graphic designer Tom Hebert quickly distilled things down to the above statement. It is accurate.

That said, European model railroaders generally envision themselves as a signal tower operator with numerous trains under their control. The major model railroad manufacturers in Europe all offer signal systems which allow for such control.

The above picture pretty much says it all.  This photo was used in the catalog of a model train manufacturer from the country formerly known as East Germany. This Teutonic cutie is clearly in control and more than a few model railroads in Europe feature such impressive control panels.

On the other hand, Americans view themselves as being the engineer of a specific train traveling through the model railroad world that they have created.  This is entirely in keeping with the general attitudes in these two markets. The Europeans like a controlled environment (you can’t wash your car or cut your grass on Sundays in Germany, for example), while the Americans have a certain independent zeal (consider that many riding lawn mowers in America have headlights, which would indicate a certain laissez faire attitude).  When railroading technology was new and ascendant, the dime novel about brave railroad engineers was currency in America. You don’t see as many such novels about brave signal tower operators. But, I digress...

This general philosophy carries over into model railroad control, and clear examples can be seen in the early days of Z-Scale. Consider this layout from the 1970’s issued 0290 Märklin mini-club plan book:

This medium sized Z-Scale model railroad is set up in the typical European approach.  Two of the transformers control the outer loop of track (one for a locomotive using both rails for power and the second using one rail and the catenary wire for power).  The second pair of transformers control the inner loop, rails and overhead both. Note that all four transformers have their throttles in the same position. Train control is primarily through the use of the signals, which are controlled by the three small light blue boxes on the left side of the control panel.  Further, locomotives are stored in the engine house and on an adjacent siding by turning off short segments of track through one of the larger dark blue control boxes. This control box is connected to the transformer controlling both rails of the inner loop of track. In practice, the transformers’ speed controls are left in one position and rarely are used except during switching.  Larger layouts would have even more transformers, each controlling their own loop of track.

In comparison, a typical American layout would have two transformers and a series of single-pole, double-throw (center off) toggle switches which would let the operator choose to control a specific section with one of two transformers.

It’s an interesting matter with outcomes that show up in interesting places.  For many years, the Märklin Z-Scale transformers had very coarse speed controls because it was felt that this was unnecessary. In America, speed control became a big issue, with throttles having finer speed control and momentum features so that the engineer would gain the feel of handling a real train.  Americans were first to use walk-around throttles, and when the Europeans finally got onto the idea, they chose infrared walk around throttle, which were fine when used singly but were impossible when used with a second infrared throttle. In the early days of digital command control of trains, it was felt that 14 speed step were more than sufficient for a model railroader.  This was true for the Europeans, but the Americans demanded much finer control, which led to 128 speed steps.

In any case, the arrival of serious command control has brought the two groups together because the technology allows for either approach within the command control environment. Advanced decoders have load compensation features which further enhance train operation, and command control allows for the operation of signals and such. The only problem remains that command control has yet to enter the Z-Scale market. There are indications that this is about to change, but that’s what I said in the Greenberg book in 1988.....

     There are indications that things are changing a bit. The newer Märklin 67271 transformer has finer speed control.

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