Sunday, 29 November 2015

"Model trains and their reviews: time for a shake up?"

Now that Warley is almost over, and the big announcements of the year are out of the way, I feel I can post freely again on my own blog and ask a few questions of the hobby.

In the last week, you may have noticed an email published on MREmag. You can find that email here, but here's a full transcript of the email (which was published unedited).

Kernow 02

The stories and reports circulating around the Kernow commissioned O2 model are getting more and more curious. One video in particular has been circulated around and this is the one by Andy York from RMweb which was posted on YouTube showing a Kernow O2 running with a train of coaches.

The train of coaches are the older type of Hornby's Gresley LNER corridor coaches (most recently used by Hornby as part of the basis for their Railroad range, and still in production to date).

I can see that all of the coaches used in the video match the types I already have in my collection. Therefore it follows that the coaches I have should be reasonably identical to those the O2 pulled in the video, and therefore reasonably representative of the same train Mr York put together for the Kernow O2. These are all moulded plastic coaches, made in a small number of clip together parts, which originally came with plastic wheelsets (but for a time turned metal wheelsets before a return to plastic wheelsets for the Railroad range).

I have weighed my own coaches and they range from 90g to 100g (the former a composite and the latter a brake third). Therefore on the basis that we take the lowest possible coach weight, and the highest, we could make some reasonable assumptions of the train weight in the video.

If we extrapolate the information that Mr York has provided for the train lengths he put his sample O2 to work on, and assume that his test trains comprised these type of model coaches only (as shown in the short video), we get the following representative train weights:
  • 6 coach train: low = 540g and high = 600g
  • 7 coach train: low =650g and high = 700g
  • 8 coach train: low =740g and high = 800g
I also have in my possession samples of Hornby's more modern Gresley teak coaches. These are far closer in weight and detail to the coaches a modeller would most likely run behind his Kernow O2 (the forthcoming Gate stock, for example, has little in common with the Railroad Teak coaches that we have seen the O2 pull). My sample coaches of this type weighed in at 120g and 125g for a composite and a brake third coach.

So, using some reasonable assumptions, based on the same assumptions above, we get these potential train weights for a more detailed and more likely sample train:
  • 6 coach train: low = 720g and high = 750g
  • 7 coach train: low = 840g and high = 965g
  • 8 coach train: low = 960g and high = 1090g
You can see that even accounting for the lowest possible and highest possible sample weights, there is a huge discrepancy in the potential train weights between the older, much simpler and lighter construction LNER Gresley coaches and the newer, more modern and detailed, heavier equivalents. The 6 coach Railroad rake could be as low as 540g and as high as 600g, but a more likely, detailed rake could be as low as 720g (or to put it another way, another coach heavier) and as high as 750g. Taking into account the heavier coaches the weight differences get bigger.
Now, we all know that the vast majority of these O2s being bought are unlikely to be pulling trains of this length. That's a given, we all accept this. The longest trains on the Isle of Wight were around 6 coaches, I am reliably informed. So in the interests of balance, you could say that the train weights above are irrelevant, because they're not going to be pulling anywhere near the like on a daily basis. Fair enough, as long as we're all agreed on this.

However you will agree with me, I hope, that such a defence of a model's performance will have viewers asking why this was necessary. There are reports a plenty on the Internet regarding the performance of the O2 and Chris Leigh of Model Rail also raised this as an issue. Bearing that in mind, I have to question the validity of the video produced in regards to the performance of the O2 on that basis.

Pulling a train of these extremely light weight coaches is not proof of the potential performance of this sample model with more likely rolling stock. Furthermore, there's no video to show the locomotive starting the train and/or stopping it and then starting it again, so we have no frame of reference to the model's overall potential performance here either.

I would hope Chris Terise - who I know as a very reasonable chap - would be able to take any constructive criticism on the chin if it should arise for any of the products he markets. The O2 model looks lovely and has a wealth of detail. That is not in doubt. That it is being sold at a competitive price and comparable to other similarly sized and detail models is also not in doubt.

But is such a video as that shown above really in the best interests of Kernow? I remain sceptical. Muddying the waters further with such productions does not help the case of those defending the models' potential performances. It raises more questions than answers.

I would be interested in the thoughts of other readers to MREmag. What constitutes a reasonable test for the model railway media to show the performances or otherwise of a model locomotive? It could be suggested that across the board in the model railway media, there is no clear objective way of showing this as yet.

Simon A.C. Martin

I'd like to express at this point that there was, is, and will always remain the fair point here about consistency of message and what constitutes a fair and consistent test of model train haulage. That was my sole purpose for writing the email. Nothing more, nothing less. 
The response from the editor was interesting and goes as follows:

Editor: Perhaps I can clear this up a little since I was the one who set the train up and drove the loco, and presumably should also be in the same firing line for the attacks in this letter.
There have been many people saying that the 02 isn't the strongest loco in the world so as Andy was doing a photo shoot at the Leamington clubrooms, while we waited for the layout to be set up, the opportunity was taken to test Andy's own model with some coaches available on a continuous run layout.
The first set available were the old Hornby LNER set so that's what we used. I simply hooked the model to the entire set and gave it a run. The model pulled them perfectly well but stuggled a bit more when hanging more on the back.
You are correct that all it proves is that an O2 will haul 6 light coaches around a layout. That's all it was intended to show. It was not "necessary", the video was shot for fun. There are no extra questions, the video is what it is.
In no way was it intended to be the comprehensive test you are making it out to be, if it had been we'd have put some numbers of drawbar pull on the model and considered rolling resistance of the stock - far more relevant than the overall weight. We'd also have put more effort into the filming than simply pointing a mobile phone at the train.
Perhaps we all need to stop having fun. Perhaps all discussion should be passed through a committee of "the great and good" before it is allowed to be released to everyone else. Or perhaps if anyone else had shot this video, and I'm sure the are plenty of other films showing O2's running on the Internet, these comments wouldn't have been made.
I have said before, MREmag is not the place to come if you just want to take potshots at other forums, no matter how veiled. There are plenty of other sites for this, we'll stick to talking about railways.

I won't legitimise the viewpoint suggested that my email was in any way about taking potshots at other forums: because that would infer that I regard any other railway forums as fair and balanced places to discuss model trains, and that I in any way care for their way of doing things. No, I'm afraid that was quite far off the mark this time!
That video was originally posted - I am told - as a direct response to complaints about the haulage capacity of the Kernow O2. It was made to show that it performs on the track. I'm happy with that: it's a legitimate response but my point was that the model railway media can - and really should have done by now - some research into what constitutes a fair and reasonable test of a model's abilities.
There is no standard across the board in the model railway media in terms of reviewing model trains. There are no clear ways to define the ability of a model nor any clear way of defining how prototypically correct it is or whether its finish can be considered fine, heavy or whatever. There just isn't any clear guidance or thought into what consumers need to make informed decisions on their purchases.
I've tried before when making videos for YouTube. The following video is a little old now, certainly very dated, but it and the other review videos I made followed a format and they were fair and consistent across each video.

This to me is the fundamental issue. Consistency. If reviews in the model railway media were fair and consistent in their appraisal, then naturally you wouldn't get accusations of collusion every so often and complaints that they don't go into enough detail. If you had agreed tests for performance (such as a weight test for haulage, speed trap test to show a model's gearing) then you're not going to be pulled up for treating models from different manufacturers differently: it would be a level playing field for reviews, and you'd be more fair and impartial as a result.

For me, it's not good enough - as it seems to be the case elsewhere on the net - to be seen to be impartial. It's about actually being mature enough to know that you have to be impartial, because it's the right thing to do for all parties.

Chris Leigh recently wrote a review for the Kernow O2 for Model Rail Magazine and was pilloried for it across the internet. 

I have read the review and can't get my head around the response. 

It was one of the most fair, balanced and constructive reviews I've ever read. I can only conclude that because it was a commissioned product, and that many people seem to have had their hearts set on the model, that Chris' review was attacked because the truth is sometimes difficult to hear, or because there's something more sinister going on.

There's something of a cult of personality about the model railway media at the moment, and one wonders how long this will go on. Hornby took the unusual step this year to ramp up their own marketing and communication direct with their consumers. I have praised this previously, and will continue to do so because by opening up their lines of communication direct to their consumers, they're getting the actual story and not a potentially edited one. 

People can be - and are - more honest on Facebook, Twitter, and similar than on model railway forums because they only have to justify their view to Hornby and remain accountable to themselves.

 In my day job I am expected to take both sides of the story from two parties with a dispute, and make a decision based on the evidence available which is fair and reasonable to both parties. It's not enough for the decision to feel vaguely fair: it has to be fair. My test of fairness has been tested a lot over the last few years with model railways, and when all is said and done I have observed some woefully inaccurate and unfair commentary from those who are in positions of authority and should know better.

I couldn't care less what anyone thinks of me in terms of model railways: anyone who has met me knows what I am about and that I do not care for politics. I'm one man, acting alone, so you'll always know on this blog that what I am writing are my own views.

If you are reading this blog and feel that I've picked on you in the past - perhaps you're a manufacturer, or a reader, or someone somewhere who has taken offence to something I've said - maybe the question to ask on reflection is: did I make a good point - and was it fair and right to raise it?

If you can say yes, then I've done my job and I can rest easy. 

For my regular readers, a side note. I apologise for the lack of updates this year. I had no idea how 2015 was going to go. It's been both amazing and heartbreaking; terrifying and exciting. I love my chosen career and I am working hard to become the best adjudicator I can be. I take my role seriously because it lines up with my core values: hearing both sides of the story and bringing balance to a debate.

Thanks for reading today: there'll be a Christmas update on The British Railway Stories and a few modelling bits and pieces, but that's mostly it for 2015 now. Roll on 2016 when normal service can be resumed in earnest.

Particularly as the boards are finished for my model railway and the track is finally laid! I hope to be running test trains and starting the full scenic work in the new year.

Until next time,


Saturday, 28 November 2015

"Hornby 2016"

Today saw the announcement of two very impressive new locomotives for the Hornby 2016 Range, and I think you can safely say that I am naturally thrilled at the inclusion of more London and North Eastern Railway locomotives and rolling stock.

I wrote to Hornby a few years ago and the Gresley J50 and Holden B12 were at the forefront of my comments. I fell vindicated in my choices and assuredly the new B12 really looks the part.

Some will say the B12/4 should have been the first choice variant, as they were longer lived and wider spread (several of the class making it to Scotland in fact) but in reality the variations between them probably render the B12/3 the easiest to tool up. With the existing Great Eastern tender behind the B17 and D16 already produced, a B12 was never going to be too far away in any event.

Then there's the Raven Q6, a stunning example of a well kept trade secret and one product that is going to make a lot of people very happy.

The times are changing and Hornby have improved on the production and delivery of their stock over the last few years. I personally feel both the J15 and the S15 have shown that Hornby are capable of producing some extremely high quality models, and the way they've communicated with their customers this year has been nothing short of superb.

I would add a caveat that I would like to see improvements in the relationship with their stockists, however, in the new year and would welcome any opportunity for both sides to get together and talk things more.

Otherwise, the future looks very bright for Hornby and rest assured, there'll be some space for some B12/3s made for on my layout...the Q6 is not one which would have visited my chosen part of the London and North Eastern Railway, but I doubt I'll pass up the chance to add one to my stock for something different.

If you want to read more on Hornby's new range of models, please visit their web page here. Better getting the news from the horse's mouth!

Until next time.

Monday, 23 November 2015

"Rēru no hīrō - レールのヒーロー"

Or better known as "Hero of the Rails!"

This October gone, I went on an adventure with a friend to the land of the rising sun. Whilst we were there, we came across a railway with lots of lovely 3ft gauge steam locomotives.

The Oigawa Railway!

I was hoping for a first glimpse of an intact D51 steam engine. I hadn't seen one the whole trip aside from the chopped up one in Tokyo's Railway Museum! We didn't see one at the start of the trip at Kanaya when we had to take a small heritage electric train to the steam shed...

But we DID get to see several wonderful old steam engines posed around the yard. I persuaded my friend to let us take a train up the line and stay over night in an old logging town nearby.

(Nearby turned out to be a 40 minute taxi ride away - but that's another story!)

Our steed for the day was a magnificent 3ft gauge 2-6-2T numbered C108.

I loved this engine: even though it was 3ft gauge, everything about it seemed well proportioned.

The Japanese have a real flair for design, and the brass numberplates on the cab sides had me in mind of the Great Western Railway back home.

You can see that C108 has two sets of outside, Walschaerts type valve gear. This is a single bar type, not unlike the Thompson L1s I'm so fond of.

The front lamp and spartan stove pipe were other attributes I particularly liked.

 After some time spent admiring the locomotive, we took the train up the line.

And I promise, I will get around to putting together the video for this, but suffice to say it was a beautiful railway, running along the banks of a river and through many tunnels and across several bridges.

Arriving in Senzu, we were greeted by a band - although they were there for WATTRAIN and not us!

The engineer on the locomotive was very kind and let me have a potter about the cab. It was in some respects similar to our standard 2MTs back home, though the firebox was amazingly thin and small. You don't need much coal to keep the firebars covered on this steam engine!

Truth be told, the electric engine on the rear had done most of the work, but the steam engine had put on a good show.

So that was it, I thought, sadly. Until Matt tapped me on the shoulder and said "have you seen what's in the yard?"

And there he was!

The first D51 I had seen the whole trip - and of course, it was none other than "Hiro", in full Thomas & Friends guise. Naturally I had to take a few photographs!

They even had a Percy, made from an 0-6-0T!

If I'm honest, as much as I was thrilled to finally see a D51, the real stars of the holiday were these beautiful steam locomotives:

Class C11, no.190 was our engine for the return trip and she was rather better than C108. For a start, I suspect the electric engine at the rear didn't have to do anything on the return trip...!

I spoke with one of the Oigawa Railway's volunteers whilst Matt and I photographed the engines.

They reckon Hiro's introduction to Thomas & Friends saved their railway. The Japanese engine, together with his British friends, has thousands of visitors, mostly families with children, come every year for Days out with Thomas events. Hiro is their favourite exhibit aside from their Thomas locomotive.

Of course the day we picked was the day of a private charter, but I was told Senzu comes alive when the Days out with Thomas events come around. I can well believe it, given the ambience of the place. Where else in the world can you find live steam locomotives and heritage electric traction, AND a heritage electric rack and pinion railway with this kind of beautiful mountain scenery and scorching weather? Nowhere, in my opinion.

The volunteer said they had immense pride in the fact that Japan's contributions to railways had been recognised in this most famous British children's show. So obviously I had to climb up and thank Hiro personally.

When all is said and done, who would begrudge them this one Japanese character when - frankly - having travelled the length and breadth of Japan, I can say categorically that they have the greatest railways in the world.

So it turns out that "Hiro", the lone D51 on the Oigawa Railway, is something of a "Hero of the Rails" after all. I knew he was my favourite of the non-Awdry characters for a reason!

I hope you've enjoyed this one off blog - we will be back to grumbling about British model railways soon enough! Although we will return to Japan for a blog extolling the values of their amazing Shinkansen trains.

Until next time.

Monday, 9 November 2015

"Raising money for The Railway Children Charity"

Firstly, my apologies for the severe lack of updates. I have been away in Japan and I have many stories, railways and their trains to relate!

However I have a more important story to tell today. I'm raising money for The Railway Children Charity in December, and it would mean a lot if I could hit my target of £250. 

It's been a year full of 5km runs but none quite so important as this one. I can't stress enough how much I want to hit this target and to match my ambitions in the run itself. My aim is to break 22 minutes and to raise £250.

Just leaves me to say thank you to my regular readers for their patience and support over the course of this year. Please help me in my aim to make the lives of children in the UK, India and Africa better through the help of The Railway Children Charity.

Until next time.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

"Nitpicky - Simon's Response"

Morning all!

Some of you may be aware that on occasion I do some blogs for my good friend at the Sodor Island Forums, Ryan Hagan. I actually did a review of The Adventure Begins for him recently and you can find that blog here.

Some of you may also be aware that overnight there was a "review of a review". Bit of a strange concept to me, being reviewed for my reviews...! You can read that piece here.

But hey, it's a free country and we're all allowed a right of reply, so here's mine.

One of the things that was brought up was railway realism. Unless you have actually done some research into Awdry's work, you wouldn't necessarily understand how much historical writing went into his stories. The Real Lives of Thomas the Tank Engine has a fantastic database with almost all of the original stories and their origins covered, here.

The points I would like to cover off from the review of my review are:

1) Engines don't have faces.

No they do not. Excellent spot that. However Awdry used these faces to make the engine characters more understandable to children. Emotions are very difficult things to establish without visual aids in children's writing, especially for the early years.

This does not mean that Awdry's stories weren't also complex, steeped in railway history, and in accordance with railway practices of the time. They were: so the idea that slapping faces on trains means it in any way invalidates the above is a straw man argument.

2) The majority of the stories from the original Awdry stories wouldn't have happened

Aside from the fact there is the perfectly good website which shows that all of the above were possible (here's that link again to emphasise this) and in fact in some cases have several historical precedents, I have to stand up for Awdry's "Wrong Road" story in particular and say that actually, I've found several examples where Awdry's work was spot on historically.

The most likely one Awdry would have been aware of in my opinion was an incident on the L & NWR. Though the locomotive concerned wasn't so big as a Gresley Pacific, the L & NWR Claughton locomotives were the biggest on the railway at that time, with a high axle loading and yes - there would have been many people in the permanent way department concerned at a very heavy locomotive traversing a more lightly loaded branchlike!

So the criticisms of Awdry's work here come from a lack of knowledge about the source material. That's okay, not everyone can know everything, but trust me when I say that Awdry's work has both historical basis in fact and also railway practice at the forefront of the writing.

3) We've had stories like the one described before

Well yes, that is sort of the point. These stories form a sort of partial reboot, a new starting point from which further new specials could emerge in this vein. So what exactly is your point here?

These stories aren't aimed at people such as the reviewer of my review, or me. They're aimed at the newest and youngest generations.

That doesn't also mean they can't be excellent pieces that take from the original source material and follow them carefully, updating them for a modern audience in a very positive way. I cited Winnie the Pooh as the best example in my review, and there are other examples of both adult and children's literature where they've been updated well for the modern day and bring a real flavour of the author's original intentions to the fore.

And yes, you can get closer and closer to the original style of the author with careful understanding and writing. Look at the "new" James Bond books that have been released by different authors in the last decade. They're not perfect Ian Fleming-a-likes but they are extremely close and very entertaining.

4) All it screams, to me, is a purist screaming "THIS ISN'T WHAT I WANTED!".

Er - what? I say on countless occasions within my own review that this is exactly what I wanted. So...?

No, it didn't live up to my own high expectations (and I say this explicitly too) but I also counter this with being positive about the special and pointing out that it is still by far the best special HiT Entertainment have produced under that brand. It's a positive step in the right direction (and I say this too).

I'm not going to apologise for lamenting certain things, and that it's still a flawed production. That's kind of the point: if it was perfect I'd say so. Yes I have high standards and I apply that to my life, my writing, my modelling, my day job, relationships and similar. That's not a bad thing. If your standards don't come up to mine, that's your hang up and not something I would criticise you for. If you enjoy it, by all means, enjoy it.

In this case I did enjoy the special and my godson will too, but I'm not going to shy away from being honest.

At the end of the day the "review of a review" with a hastily tagged on disclaimer at the end seems to me to be nothing more than the writings of someone who both didn't understand the source material, and certainly didn't read my review very carefully, sounding off because he seems to think the review is attacking HiT Entertainment's production.

It isn't - it hasn't - and though I lament some of the things missed out and perhaps not done as well as they could have been, that's surely the point of a review? It is my opinion after all.

You don't have to agree with it, but you could check to see if your own facts are right before throwing something out onto the internet both attacking my character and the intentions of my review (and I have to say, the disclaimer at the end is hilarious. The whole review is an attack on me and my character and yet there's this disclaimer, tagged on at the end, like some sort of "get out of jail" clause.

I know where I stand on this, frankly. It's not a great excuse and having thought about it overnight, decided to put my own view out there. This is separate to Ryan's work and has been done without consulting him, because quite frankly this review of a review was aimed at me, not Sodor Island Forums.

The biggest problem with that particular fandom is that anyone who knows anything about anything is derided. People with knowledge get slapped down for being rivet counters, effectively. It's a nasty undercurrent prevalent not just in that fandom but others too. Perhaps this is a worldwide trend.

People like the reviewer above forget how much of a positive contribution to the fandom the Sodor Island Forums have been. Ryan Hagan in particular has worked tirelessly to keep the Awdry name alive and without his influence and patience, you'd not see any improvements in the TV series at all.

Hell, without blowing my own trumpet, I know my reviews have had some effect over the last decade because - guess what - there's brake vans on trains again at last...! (I had to slip that in somewhere).

All I know is that where I'm asked for my views, I will continue to give them, with all the information I have at my disposal and with the unerring honesty of someone with ultimately good principles and a determination to make things better for everyone.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

"BRWS Ltd Update #9: Thompson's only design memorial"

One of the things that I find wonderful about this hobby is the research. You can turn up many interesting combinations of locomotive name, number and form. 

A case in point: Thompson's B1s. Built by Darlington, Gorton and North British, they all had some detail differences including smokebox rivets, style of and placement of works plates and the smokebox door type.

Bachmann's latest, unnamed, apple green Thompson B1 no.1123 was the subject for my latest round of modelling. Having purchased a number of these at a knock down price, I went through my preferred books for research on the class. The Power of the B1s, Yeadon's Register and the RCTS' LNER volume 2B all featuring some interesting prototypes.

I had already made a model of class pioneer Springbok and two more of the deer namers caught my eye for different reasons. 

B1 no.1039 was featured in Yeadon's Register with an unusual difference to its classmates. The photograph in the book shows it coupled to one of the ex-Raven/Gresley Atlantic six wheel tenders. These tenders were a close, if not perfect match for a V2's group standard tender. Since I had a number of these spare, I took the opportunity to remove the shaded LNER lettering using some water and a glass fibre pen, and add Gill Sans plain lettering instead. The base model's tender will go to another Thompson related project in due course.

1039 had electric lighting, but the base model does not. I removed the lamp irons and used some bits from a spare Replica Railways B1 body shell that did have the electric lighting fitted. It's not a perfect match for the original style Thompson lighting system but it'll do in terms of representation. Some wire was added to the right hand side of the boiler and fitted next to the stones generator on the running plate, also taken from a spare Replica B1 body shell.

The original chimney was cut off, and the smokebox filed down, for a brass cast Gibson's B1 chimney with a much nicer profile to be fitted. Superglue of the semi-quick drying kind was used to allow some time to fiddle around and make sure it was fitted properly. Fox Transfers provided the nameplates and works plates for this model and these were duly added using the same process.

One modification I have made to all of my Bachmann B1s is to remove the original, large, plastic coupling bar from the tenders. I use Hornby's Railroad Scotsman metal drawbar, available as a spare online, and these are coupled through the tender's drawbar and through the locos to be screwed in. This closes up the gap nicely without making it impossible for the models to go round corners.

The other B1 being worked on, Addax, was also shown in the same book with a very nice combination of BR numbering and full LNER livery. I repeated the process for this model, with the one additional being the smokebox numberplate fixed in the normal position. This will need repainting as the brass numeral effect isn't accurate. 

The nameplates and numberplate for Addax came from Modelmasters and though I dislike the brass effect on the smokebox door am ultimately happy with the shape and style of both. The comparison between Fox Transfers and Modelmaster etched plates is interesting. I can't say that I have a particular preference but it'll be Fox from now on as they have a better selection of the B1 names available at present. 

So here then are two variations on the same theme made that look similar and have similar detailing but ultimately are different and individual. 

Springbok, Steinbok and Addax will be joined by a few more in due course no doubt. For the moment, an older split chassis apple green B1 Sir William Gray keeps them company, making a quartet of named apple green B1s for my work in progress layout.

When finished, the three deers will be weathered and coaled and with crews fitted, and will no doubt enjoy a mixed bag of work on the layout. I am already imagining a few different freight and passenger formations they could be seen on.

Ultimately for me, the LNER has always been about Thompson's plucky B1s. Although only an LNER liveried locomotive class for around 6 years, they epitomise the post-war LNER rather well and they are - one must admit - very handsome machines.

Many say it's Thompson's only design memorial, both in actuality and in quality. I don't believe the latter myself, but one cannot argue with the fact that it's the engine Thompson is best known for. 

And when all is said and done, it's the locomotive the LNER needed - and got.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015