Thursday, November 2, 2006 at 9:05 pm

Cheap, Accurate, Easy: Pick Two

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Speaking of C-Liners, there’s been a bit of a stink on the CanModelTrains mailing list about True Line Trains‘s new model, a five-axle C-Liner in Canadian National livery. (The unusual five-axle units had a rear A1A truck to accomodate the weight of the steam generator; these were passenger locomotives.) The complaint, if I understand it correctly, is that these models are insufficiently true to the prototype — that all they did was take the shell from a Proto 1000 C-Liner and stick a different truck underneath it — which irks those who would rather not pay $170 for a “flawed” locomotive. (There were similar complaints about the accuracy, or lack of it, in Intermountain‘s FP7 models released last year.) Much of the debate has centred on whether the manufacturer is lazy or simply didn’t have enough experts helping them get the model right.

I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, it’s a bit of a crap shoot whether or not unusual locomotives get done in plastic, and a five-axle C-Liner is as unusual as they get. (Then again, there are models of Erie-builts and BL2s.) According to the C-Liner’s Wikipedia page, only 36 A-units and six B-units were ever built, and CN only got six of each; the others were essentially in and around New York. So a competing line of thought says that we should be grateful that a model of a five-axle C-Liner, or an FP7, is done in plastic at all: after all, you need to sell a lot of plastic models to make back the costs of tooling and assembly.

Then again, model railroaders can be pretty unrealistic: some people are demanding a plastic GMD-1, a Canadian-only locomotive (and essentially a CN-only one at that).

The fact is, there is a more prototypical model of a five-axle C-Liner coming out: it’s in brass, it’s from Division Point, and it’ll probably cost you more than $1,500. Which brings me to my point.

In software development, there is an expression: fast, cheap, good — pick two. When it comes to model trains, I propose a similar expression: cheap, accurate, easy — pick two.

Ready-to-roll (RTR) models, usually made of styrene and die-cast metal, are relatively cheap — some, to be sure, are more expensive than others — and relatively easy to get running, but they may not necessarily be accurate, because a single tooling has to make do for a lot of different variations. Brass models are extremely detailed and accurate, or at least can be, given the small production runs, but they are often extremely expensive — up to $2,000. As for accurate and easy, resin kits can give you the accuracy of brass at less cost — for example, a prototypically accurate passenger car might cost $375 in brass, but $135 in resin — but resin kits are the most difficult in the hobby.

The problem, as I see it, is that people want it all: the prototypical accuracy of brass models at Athearn blue-box prices.

Of course, there is the alternative explanation: that nitpicking the accuracy of models, and giving manufacturers a hard time about it, is a hobby in and of itself. Some people model; some people operate; and some people count rivets.

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