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Running N scale trains too fast

Read the N Scale Insight column from the September 2015 Model Railroader
Tests at Model Railroader have shown that N scale locomotives can really scoot, but that doesn't mean you have to run them that fast.

Several years ago the N scale Enthusiast national convention came to town, and I was very pleased that, over the course of one day, four busloads of N scalers from all over the world came to my house to visit my layout. My friends Andy Sperandeo and Gordy Spiering ran trains for me so I could concentrate on hosting. Both are avid and experienced operators. (Andy writes Model Railroader’s “The Operators” column that appears each month on the last page of the magazine, and Gordy is one of the operators from the old Milwaukee, Racine & Troy club layout at MR’s former downtown offices.)

I couldn’t help but notice that some visitors were intrigued by how slowly Andy and Gordy ran their trains. The visitors would ask me how fast the trains were going, and the answer I’d give was around 25 mph, which I’m confident was correct, and as I’ve developed a good feel for N scale train speeds.

I think some visitors were interested because they’d never run trains so slow or seen it done. I think the speeds made a few others antsy. They just really wanted to see them go faster and would like to have grabbed the throttles and turned the trains loose.

It doesn’t come naturally. Most model railroaders run trains too fast, and most non-model railroaders run them even faster. (This, of course, is only true if you believe that model trains ought to go scale speeds.) Except for kids, who just naturally want to see how fast they can make anything go (Lionel didn’t make Magne-Traction just for the heck of it), most folks who are running trains too fast don’t realize they are doing it. It looks right to them.

And of course running slow enough in N scale means running really slow, because our trains are so small. In school we learn that traveling 88 feet per second (the approximate length of an auto rack car) is 60 mph, which sounds fast. But line up five auto racks and take five seconds to pass them and you’ll find that it’s pretty slow. And of course if you wanted to go 30 mph, you’d take 10 seconds.

You could use a watch to time the interval for one passing car, but the result would be woefully inaccurate. Set up a string of four or five 89-foot flatcars or auto racks on a seldom used spur, though, and you’d have a pretty effective speed trap.

How fast are N scale engines? It’s no secret that most N scale engines right out of the box can really scoot. In his review in the November 2014 issue of MR, Steve Otte clocked a new Kato F3 at 210.5 mph on 12 volts DC. The prototype could do 102, tops. (And actually 210 is on the low side for an N scale engine).

Quite a few N scalers think that a locomotive ought to run top scale speed at top voltage. I’ve talked to Kato representatives at shows about this and they really don’t buy that. (For that matter, I don’t either – just don’t open the throttle all the way.)

One Kato rep explained that for the sake of durability, they don’t want to use gears with even finer teeth. They didn’t say so, but I think another reason is that they know a lot of customers, especially kids, want to go fast, and in Japan kids are far and away the major market for N scale.

I’ve watched Japanese youngsters run their trains on the layouts in Kato’s Tokyo showroom, and they don’t poke along – of course their prototypes don’t either.

I found this is such an interesting phenomenon. Japanese N-scalers often have very little space for a layout, so they come to the showroom with a case of equipment, set up a train – usually a pretty long one – and run it for free.

I know for myself there are times I don’t want to run prototypically slow. Say I’m trying to diagnose or correct a
problem. If the locomotive has proceeded 20 feet down the track, I don’t want a long wait to bring it back to me so I can repeat my experiment.

How fast do real trains run? Most major railroads in the United States operate on Class 4 track, as determined by the Federal Railroad Administration. The speed limits on such track are 60 mph for freight trains and 80 mph for passenger trains. There is some Class 8 track on the Northwest Corridor where the limits are 135 and 150 mph.

Keep in mind, though, that for these kinds of speeds we are talking straight, level, well-manicured track. Trains seldom go so fast on a stretch of mountain railroad like my Tehachapi Pass, even though it’s extremely well maintained Class 5.

I have a 1987 Southern Pacific timetable that limits freight train speed in the pass to 65 mph. In reality, trains never go that fast because speeds on curves are usually restricted to 25 or 35 mph and there are a whole lot of curves. Typical trains could never get up to 65 before they had to start slowing down again.

Generally on a model railroad, slower is better, because we don’t have far to go, and going slower can make the layout seem larger.

The photo here shows my Model Railroad Technologies Accutrack speedometer. I bought it with two goals in mind: speed-matching DCC locomotives and scale speed training for me and anyone else who could use a little. Only a half-dozen passes will give you a good feel for what scale speed looks like – and what it looks like is slow.

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