Simple Structure Lighting

It’s been a REALLY long time since my last post, since I got caught up in several other things after I started this review. I also planned to do more real-world testing with the lighting system reviewed here. I haven’t found time for that either, but I kept procrastinating on posting hoping I’d find a spare weekend. I didn’t. So I’m going to post what I have, and I expect I’ll eventually do a follow-up when I’ve had a chance to light a couple of buildings.

Woodland Scenics came out with their Just Plug building lighting system a couple of years ago, and I’ve been meaning to take a look at it, and see how useful it would be ever since. On the surface, it appears to be a dead-simple plug-and-play method of lighting buildings that you can power off any low-voltage AC or DC supply, such as the AC accessory outputs on a DC power pack or a simple “wall wart” power adapter. And it is.

It’s not cheap. A pair of stick-on LED lights with wires sell for US$10, the basic hub goes for US$17 without lights, and the expansion unit for a similar cost, and they’ll happily sell you a 1 Amp power supply for US$20 (about three times what you’d pay from a good electronics shop). A large system, with two expansion hubs, eight light hubs, and 32 lights would cost about US$348, or US$10.88 per light (with power supply). You could build the same thing yourself for less than a tenth of the cost. Except for two things.

LCC, For Real

Well, it didn’t take long. The first useful commercial products based on the LCC standards are out, and I have a set. While I may have some reservations about the state of the standards themselves (see my earlier series of posts), I’m very excited to see real products, and at fairly reasonable prices. Well, somewhat reasonable; I’ll have some comments on that.

The Kato Single Crossover

It’s been a while since I last posted. I’m still out here, but the layout is on hiatus for now, and my attention is elsewhere. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on model railroading in general, or Japanese passenger trains in particular. Just taking a break.

This past weekend I went to a train show and saw that Kato had finally released the single crossovers that had been rumored for some time. Naturally I picked a pair up to investigate. Even if my next layout probably won’t be using Unitrack, I’m still interested in the stuff.

Compact Unitrack

was going to post something “soon”, and soon came sooner than expected. I went to a model train show today, and having Kato’s new compact track on the brain after working on my Unitrack pages last night, couldn’t resist picking some up. I bought a CV1 “Compact Oval” set, along with two R150 switches and a small pack of 150mm (6”) curves. This builds an oval with a short-cut inner curve that fits snugly on one end of my coffee table, with plenty of room for the Kato power pack.

MRC Tech 7 780

DC “Power Packs” for model trains tend to be designed for HO scale trains, at least in North America. There are separate ones for G scale, and some multi-scale packs catering to both HO and larger scales. But those sold for N scale are typically just HO models, with the usual HO “16 volt” or higher output, usually called “Universal” power packs.

Anyone who’s been involved in model railroading for any length of time knows the Model Rectifier Corporation, more commonly just MRC. They’re probably the dominant supplier of DC power packs for HO and N-scale model railroading in North America, aside from those included in starter sets, although Kato’s Unitrack power pack likely gets a fair amount of N-scale market share. But I’ll admit I don’t have hard facts on market share for anyone.

My first power pack, after a cheap Tyco one that came in a starter set, was an MRC Throttlepack 501, circa 1972 (yeah, I’ve been doing this a while, although I took a long break after High School). That 501 still works today, although one of the switches has finally started having problems. But it survived 40 years of damp basements, being thrown in boxes for moves, and running a large variety of trains. That kind of quality leaves a lasting impression. I’d followed it with another MRC, a Control Master II, when I got back into model railroading and needed a second power pack (back around 1992). It too has served well, and still works. But both put out relatively high voltages (19V+), so I’d rather not use them with N-scale trains.

So when I started looking to see what was available in a modern design suited to N-scale, and discovered the MRC Tech 7 line had a model with a rated 14.5 V, 10VA output, it didn’t take me long to decide I wanted to give it a try. It’s a dual-cab power pack, with two independent throttles in one box. But I’m going to use it on a double-track line where I’m normally the only operator, so that’s fine.

Tram Platforms

Kato recently introduced a couple of low-level platforms suitable for trams. There isn’t much info available on these, aside from machine-translated Japanese summaries, which don’t really explain much. And I thought they were interesting as possible candidates for my One Point Five Meter Line layout, even though that’s using Tomix FineTrack and they’re designed to be used with Unitrack. So I ordered a couple, and now that I’ve had a chance to play with them, I can provide my impressions.

Two Trams

A “tram” is a light rail vehicle. The word is British English; American’s still say “trolley” even though our light rail systems haven’t used trolley poles in decades. But it’s a word also used by the Japanese (who often borrow foreign words, either for marketing reasons or just because they like the sound).

The Toyama Light Rail line, a company jointly owned by the Toyama city government and some other investors, operates light rail vehicles over a former freight railway running between the city center and the waterfront. This is officially known as the Toyamakō Line, but the locals know it as “Portram” (for Port Tram), and the vehicles introduced in 2006 have come to be known by that name. There are seven of them, all of basically the same design but in different colors. A separate railway operates a city-center ring using similar vehicles, known as the Centram (“Central Tram”, I presume).

Tomytec, the parent company of Tomix, has been making models of these as part of their Railway Collection series since about 2009. These are intended to be collectibles for display, and they’re just empty shells. They cost around US$15 - US$20. But Tomytec also makes a motor unit that replaces the underbody, the TM-LRT01, which goes for around US$30. So for under $50, you can have an operating model. They’re not as nice as Kato’s Portram models, which sell for about US$85 in Japan, but they’re still quite good models.

I had been thinking about getting one of these, just to see how they compared with the Portram (I have one of Kato’s Centram models), but hadn’t gotten around to it. Then, while I was wondering what I’d run on my One Point Five Meter Line layout, I saw this new pair of them and decided that a model tram with a replaceable motor was the perfect thing for a layout that may do a lot of running back and forth. I ordered the pair, and two of the motors (thankfully those were available; they often sell out and can’t be found for months on end).

Model Railroad Photography IIIb - The Camera

Well, that didn’t take long. After my post a couple of weeks ago about the advantages of cameras with smaller sensors, I continued looking at what was available, and quickly discovered that RAW-capable point-and-shoot cameras were much more common now than they had been even two years ago. At the same time, cameras with tilt-and-swivel rear LCDs were rather rare. And then I stumbled across the Samsung EX2F. And what I found was compelling enough to get me to buy one (it helped that they’re on sale at present, significantly marked down perhaps in advance of a new model).

Now Samsung isn’t a name that comes to mind when you think about cameras, or at least not when I do. They’re a big company with a lot of different lines of business, but I think of them (outside of major appliances) as a smartphone company. And many of their point-and-shoot cameras are smartphones-without-the-phone with better lenses.

But the EX2F is something different, although it clearly shares that genealogy. It has a number of features aimed at “enthusiast” photographers, and its performance (in RAW anyway) has been rated very highly by professional photographer reviewers (like this one). Nothing is perfect, particularly in a device that’s as much of a compromise as any small-sensor enthusiast-oriented camera has to be. The camera has both good and bad. I think the good parts outweigh the problems or I wouldn’t have put down close to US$350 for the camera, memory card and accessories.

Tomix JR E1 MAX Toki

My latest model, which actually arrived back in March, is this Tomix model of JR East’s E1 “MAX” Shinkansen. Trains of this series operated on the Jōetsu Shinkansen line, north-west from Tokyo to Niigata, from 1994 until 2012 when they were replaced by the E4 series. Both the E1 and E4 were branded as the MAX (for Multi-Amenity eXpress).

This train was designed (per Japanese wikipedia) to fill a need for increased capacity on this line, driven in part by commuters. Thus there was an emphasis on capacity over speed, with the double-decker design capable of holding 1,235 passengers in standard and green (first) class. A total of six trains were built, identified as sets M1 to M6.

This model is of the version that operated the limited-stops Toki service after 2003 (up until it was replaced by the E4 in 2012), identified by the color, and pink stripe. The name Toki comes from the Crested Ibis, an endangered species native to Niigata. The E1 was also used in the all-stops Tanigawa service. Both trains had a top speed of 240 kph (150 mph), with 410 kW motors on all 24 trucks, for a total of 9.84 MW (13,196 hp). However, this model specifically reflects the M6 set as decorated with a Crested Ibis logo after August 28, 2012 for one month, until the E1 was withdrawn on 28 September, making it a rather time-specific version of the E1.

A Clean Track is a Happy Track and February 2013 Monthly Status

Track gets dirty. Cleaning track is a nuisance. But if you want trains to run reliably, it’s an essential nuisance.

My layout is in an unfinished basement, with lots of boxes and other junk that collect a fine layer of dust, not to mention exposed joists with insulation, and power tools that kick up their own dust from cutting wood. A drop ceiling, drywall, and tile floor around the layout would be nice. But it’s not very practical in this basement. Maybe in a future basement...

So I clean. Often.

Decoder Wars II - Lightboards

Comparing decoders for cab cars is actually relatively simple. These don’t need to do very much, so it’s really about checking basic functionality. I’ve laid out the full testing details on my Decoder Comparison Testing page, and here I’m going to summarize the findings for the capabilities of interest to me.

Configuring The EM13 Part I

Kato’s EM13 DCC decoder (29-351) is a specialized decoder used for the motor car in an EMU/DMU model or other “DCC Friendly” models made by Kato. DCC Friendly (the English term is used even in Japanese, rendered as “DCCフレンドリー” or “DCC furendorī”) isn’t the same as “DCC Ready”, and it is a phrase used by others to simply mean that a model is relatively easy to convert to DCC. But when Kato uses it, the phrase means “will accept Kato FR11, FL12 and/or EM13 decoders”. And the models that do so are primarily Kato’s N-scale Japanese prototype models: commuter trains, limited express trains and Shinkansen (bullet trains). They also use it in some steam locomotive models, including the American-prototype GS-4.

Imperial Train

Japan’s Emperor is the head of the world’s oldest continuing hereditary monarchy, reputed to have been established in 660 BC. He is also the last monarch in the world reigning under the title of Emperor. Japan’s current constitution stripped the position of emperor of political authority and, although it still has formal duties, the holder of that title is largely relegated to a ceremonial role. However the Emperor, both the office and the individual, is still highly regarded in Japanese society, and his duties include diplomatic ones such as “receiving foreign ambassadors and ministers”.

When the Emperor or his immediate family travel, they do so like any head of state, with a great deal of security, press coverage, and attention. Mostly such travel today is by car or plane, but given the predominant role of trains in Japanese transportation, this mode is sometimes used as well. If the Emperor travels by Shinkansen, a reserved car will be used. But for travel on the narrow-gauge network, there is a special Imperial Train. Since 2007, the E655 shown above has been used.

New Kato Catenary Sets

Kato recently introduced several new sets of model catenary poles for its N-scale Unitrack. Like the earlier ones, these are non-functional plastic castings that snap together, and clip to bases that align them with the track. Two of the new contributions stand out: one is a set of four-track catenary supports, and the other is a set of platform detail parts, including catenary, for a Shinkansen station. I’ve updated my Kato Catenary page with new photos and details, but I wanted to say more about the interesting ones here.


No, I’m not writing about the ones from the 70s TV series. These are the electrical kind, Kato kit 23-401, which is actually a Heljan-produced model, although apparently not one sold directly by that company. The kit contains material for three high-voltage electrical towers of a common design. In fact, they’re nearly identical to those in a photo of Shin-Yokohama described as owned by JR East (see my Electrical Reference Images page). List price from Kato USA is US$19, but I’ve seen them for less. Frankly, they’re overpriced for what you get. Read More...

The Kato Grade Crossing

While I still plan to build my own grade crossing eventually, Kato’s update of their automatic grade crossing (model 20-652) to be compatible with DCC gave me an excuse to put that off some more (see Kato’s Japanese page for some pictures and a video of it in operation). Or at least, that was the plan. What I forgot in my enthusiasm is that I’d put my layout’s one grade crossing on a curve, so Kato’s straight crossing can’t be used. I can move it closer to Riverside’s commuter station, and I think I will. But I may end up using it somewhere else (perhaps on the “subway” tracks where they run at ground level under the Urban Station). I need to think on this some more, but I’ll outline my current plan after describing the crossing itself.

Kato Subway Train and December 2011 Monthly Status

My latest Kato model is another subway train, the Tōkyō Metro 10000. I already have a model of this train made by Greenmax, which I have mentioned briefly a few times (it featured in the “first run” video of the subway, see my Subway First Run musing for more on that). It’s not a bad model, but it lacks an interior and requires wire-in decoders for conversion to DCC. And while I’ll eventually get around to that, it’s not high on my priority list. So trains that are easier to convert to DCC, and that means Kato, are at the top of my list for actual operations once I finish up installing all the DCC electronics for the Commuter and Subway loops.

For the above-ground Commuter loop, I have lots of Kato’s commuter EMUs, but trains for the underground Subway loop are another matter. As mentioned back in October I’d hoped to have the Kato Ginza Series 01 be one of those, but it ended up not supporting the EM13 motor decoder (probably due to the narrower width of the cars).

The Kato 10000 had been on my must-buy list anyway, but with fingers crossed that this one would be “DCC Friendly”, I eagerly awaited its arrival. Kato hadn’t actually said it would be DCC Friendly (meaning compatible with their Digitrax-made proprietary decoders) although they rarely do, and there was a cryptic reference to some issue with the interior lighting that had me worried it was some kind of one-off design. I’d previously bought several of Kato’s new “version 2” LED light sets (which I describe more on my new Kato Interior Lighting page) planning to install them in the Ginza train, but hadn’t gotten around to that after it turned out not to support the DCC motor decoder. So my plan was to use them, if I could.

Micro Ace E231-800

As any regular reader knows, the JR East E231 is the train the sparked my interest in Japanese trains, and in particular in the commuter trains of Tōkyō. I’m not really clear why myself. Objectively they’re simply boxes engineered to move large numbers of people rapidly. Perhaps it’s the simple functionalism of the design, coupled with the fact that it represents the culmination of fifteen years of re-engineering the commuter train, begun by the Japanese National Railway in the 80’s, and leading through several intermediate designs to one that now numbers over 2,700 cars. The E231 is hardly the end; evolved designs are already out there in the E233 and the prototype E331 (Japanese Wikipedia). But with the E231, JR East reached a point where the design achieved the original goal of “half the cost, half the life”, meaning a reduction in both initial cost and maintenance, at the expense of a reduced lifespan (15 years versus 30).

The E231 has been produced in many variants, but one of the most interesting lacked a model until now, the E231-800. This train, of which only seven 10-car trains were made, was produced to provide run-through service from JR East’s Chūō-Sōbu Line to the Tōkyō Metro Tōzai subway line. These replaced older 301 and 103 series trains dating from the 1960’s. For this use, the standard E231 body was reduced from 2.95m to 2.80m, giving the front a more squared-off appearance. Also, end doors were added to the cabs for in-tunnel emergency exits.

Two Greenmax Trains

Recently I’ve picked up a couple of new Greenmax trains, the Tōkyō Metro Tōzai Line Series 05 and Tōkyū Corporation Series 6000. The models are very similar in a sense, although the prototype trains are different in a number of ways. Both operate well, and look good from a distance, although not quite as good close-up in some ways.

The Tōkyū Railway Series 6000 is a relatively recent (2008) train, formed of six-car sets, operating on the surface Tōkyū Ōimachi Line on the south side of Tōkyō. The Tōkyō Metro Series 05, on the other hand, is a subway train dating from 1988 (but still in service), operating on an east-west axis underground route through the center of the city (it goes above ground away from the center). Both trains operate on narrow gauge track, from overhead 1500 Volt DC catenary, and are 2.8m wide, 20m long. The one difference is height, but not in the way you might expect: the subway train is actually 4.0m high, while the 6000 is 3.6m.

Model Comparison: Kato and Micro Ace E231 Commuter Trains

The train that got me started in Japanese modeling was the JR East E231, and specifically a Kato model of the Yamanote line version. The E231 is a workhorse of the Tōkyō scene, with over 2,600 cars built since its introduction in 1998, gradually displacing many older commuter and suburban trains to secondary uses or the scrap pile. The train itself is a DC design, typically used in 10-car trains, although the Yamanote line uses 11-car trains and some suburban lines use 10+5 sets that split into 10-car and 5-car trains away from the city. Internal seating is along-the-wall in commuter models, and a mix of that and transverse “booth” seats in suburban ones. In both applications, this is a no-frills train designed to move masses of people efficiently. The Chūō line commuter trains (which use the later E233 variant on Rapids and the Chūō-Sōbu E231 on Locals) carry over 90,000 people per hour at peak hours, in standing-so-close-you-can’t-move crowds.

Kato, Tomix and Micro Ace all make models of these, but not all of them model every variant. Kato tends to model the “current” consists in use on major lines, but they have some gaps. One significant one is that Kato has no model of the Sōbu Local (aka., Chūō-Sōbu) E231-0 version. Tomix has modeled many of the standard versions as well as a couple of specialized ones. And Micro Ace has modeled several specialized variants.

Inspection Train

One of the reasons I like to collect Japanese trains is that they have such a variety of forms. Although a few models, such as the E231 commuter trains, are commonplace, a plethora of different-looking trains can be seen in and around Tōkyō on a daily basis.

One of the more distinctive trains out there is known as “Doctor Yellow”, a bright-yellow Shinkansen (bullet train) used to inspect the high-speed lines. There are actually two Doctor Yellows in existence at present. These could be seen in Tōkyō, inspecting the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line. JR East also has it’s own inspection train, (although it is white rather than yellow, and is called “East-i”), which is used on the lines running north and north-west from Tōkyō. JR East’s train is based on the E3 Mini-Shinkansen, allowing it to inspect both Shinkansen and conventional lines converted to standard-gauge.