Reviews

So, we've used a bunch of model railroad-related products (and many others that weren't originally intended for model railroad use); now it's time to tell what we think about them.

Adhesives

It's sticky, it's goopy, it's messy, and it sometimes cures so hard you'll never know the two pieces were once separate. Here are the stories on the adhesives we've tried.

Books

I like to read, especially using the extra time I have at lunch after I'm done eating. Here are some thoughts on books that I've read recently.

Review: "Playing With Trains"

Playing With Trains cover image

I recently finished reading Playing With Trains - A Passion Beyond Scale by Sam Posey. I received a paperback copy of the book as a Christmas gift this year, and as I had just finished reading Rumpole and The Penge Bungalow Murders, another similarly sized book seemed to fit well into my reading list. Overall, the book was a pleasant diversion through one man's experiences in learning about model railroading and building his own home layout, but I was left both wanting to read more about the layout and with a rather pessimistic view of the hobby's future.

Synopsis

In Playing With Trains, we are autobiographically taken through the life of a model railroader from his first Lionel set as a pre-teen through the discovery of scale modeling, finally settling on a specific prototype and era and constructing and operating a layout to fit it. At various points along the journey, there are detours to provide a little historical background on, for example, a brief history of Lionel train development and the construction of the Colorado Midland Railroad. The reader is also invited to tag along on the author's visits to the railroad empires of some of the hobby's more well-known participants like Tony Koester, George Sellios and Malcom Furlow. There's a small section of photos in the middle of the book that shows vignettes of the various "finished" layouts that are visited in the text.

Book contents

  • Part One
    • The Mighty ZW
    • Lionel Dad
    • The Gorre and Daphetid
    • John James Hagerman
    • Thin Air
    • In The Zone
    • Short Notice
    • Engleman Canyon
  • Part Two
    • Fountain of Youth
    • Ruling an Empire
    • The Holy Grail
    • A Railroad to Run
    • Borrowed Time
    • The Silver Meteor
    • Powered by Steam
  • Epilogue

Although the author splits the contents into two parts, in reading it I thought it worked better in three parts: the author's youth, building the Colorado Midland layout and examining other modelers' approaches to the hobby. Each part is written with readers who are not necessarily modelers in mind.

The Good

The book overall is an easy read, even for people who aren't model railroaders. He doesn't go into too great detail on the more technical aspects of building a model railroad, but adds enough (and explains the more esoteric terms and concepts) that the reader is able to understand what he's working on and how he's doing it. The story itself flows logically from his first childhood Lionel layout through building (although not really planning) his version of the Colorado Midland in HO scale to what appears to be the present. The author presents a wide range of modeling styles through visits to other well-known modelers' layouts and refrains from stating that any one style is "best"; rather, they are described merely as different ways to participate in this wide-ranging hobby.

The Bad Not-Quite-As-Good

I wouldn't say that there was really anything bad about the book, but as a model railroader myself, I wanted to read more about the technicalities of the model railroad. In the book he wrote that the layout was featured as a cover story in a past issue of Model Railroader Magazine, but didn't explicitly say which issue it was; I had to run over to the Model Train Magazine Index to find out that it was the February 1995 issue. He also wrote about a followup article titled The Magic of Illusion, and it was back to the index to find it in the December 2001 issue. I also would have liked to see more photos throughout the book rather than a smattering of pages segregated to the middle of the text. I would especially have liked to see more photos of the layout as it was being built. The author tells us all about the photos that he took during his layout's construction, but there are only a select few in the image gallery. Toward the end of the narrative, the author describes the current state of the hobby. The mood turns a bit somber here as the author laments the fact that so many model railroaders are beyond middle-aged and will soon be leaving the hobby to hang out in the great crew lounge in the sky. He also takes some words to describe the attendees at a model railroad show, but rather than looking at the great number of people attending the show, we get a description of the sometimes over-obsessed railfan and modeler that we've all seen drooling over the layouts at a show. In the Epilogue and Acknowledgements at the end of the book, we discover that the editor thinks of the entire hobby as an obsession and its participants as people that do not quite fully fit in to normal society. All together, I was left with a sense of foreboding ill for the future of the hobby.

The verdict

The strong opening and layout construction sections seem to fall on their face a little as the author moves into describing where the hobby could be heading. I was left at the end with more of a sense that model railroading is a hobby that is losing practitioners faster than it is gaining them. Seeing the large number of excited children at some of the train shows that I attend, however, I'm not sure if that's really the most accurate assessment for the hobby. But, in the way it was presented in the book seems to be the opposite of the showmen's creed "always leave the audience wanting more."

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So, to put a number on it based on a scale of 1 to 5 spikes where 5 spikes is best, I guess this would rate 3½ spikes. I enjoyed reading about the layout development and construction, and I wanted to go through my library of Model Railroader back issues to find and read the author's two articles, but the mood turned a little too somber for me at the end of the book. If you receive it as a gift, it's worth reading, but given my own experience reading it, I don't think that you need to buy it unless you really want to.

Motive power

Your trains need something more than a string tied to the couplers to get them moving. These are some of the locomotives we've tested.

Rolling stock

Your model freight and passengers don't move themselves, they're carried in your model rolling stock. Here's what we think of our rolling stock.

Out of the box review: N scale 60-foot Harriman baggage cars from Wheels of Time

The box and two cars

One of the manufacturers that we had a chance to talk to at the national NMRA convention this year was a small company called Wheels of Time. They were showing preproduction samples of 60-foot Harriman style baggage cars in N scale. As I've become more interested in modeling specific passenger trains recently, I was pleased to find someone taking N scale passenger train modeling seriously. I'm working on models of a few Milwaukee Road and Pennsylvania Railroad passenger trains while my wife is now putting together one of Southern Pacific's Daylight trains (well, the Kato GS-4 she bought last year has to pull something!). I was impressed with the preproductions enough that we each ordered a set when reservations opened in September. We saw the manufacturer again at Trainfest in November and we talked a little more about the cars and the company's upcoming city bus models. Our baggage car order arrived yesterday, so let's take a look at the final products...

Packaging

I've purchased my fair share of rolling stock multipacks in the past (and I have a couple others on my Christmas wish list), so I was expecting to find the cars packaged more like Kato or MicroTrains does with many of their multipacks where each car is packaged in its own plastic box and the multiple car boxes are packaged in one outer box. The Harriman cars were all packaged in the same size box for the two sets. Within the box is one large foam insert with contoured cutouts to fit two sizes of baggage cars, either 60-foot or 65-foot cars. The foam is actually wider than these cars are long (as you can see from the two cars in front of the box here), so the company has the option of using the same boxes for 80-foot cars by just making larger cutouts in the foam. The cars are a snug fit in the foam, so there is little danger of them banging around and getting damaged just from the packaging. Also included in each box is a slip of paper with brief information about the cars' prototypes. In the UP set that I purchased, this page describes three sets of UP models, while in the SP set, this page describes three sets of SP models. In all, the packaging gave me the sense that the company is being frugal and doing what is necessary to reduce costs while concentrating on the quality of the models themselves.

Sample UP Harriman baggage car
Sample SP Harriman baggage car
Harriman car ends
Harriman car underframe

Body and details

So, the next step is to take the cars out of the box and take a closer look. The UP set that I ordered included four cars: OSL 1827 and 1831 and UP 3008 and 3011. The OSL cars are four-axle cars while the UP cars are six-axle. The SP set that my wife ordered included two cars: SP 6318 and 6034. On all the cars, the rivet and small details are quite well done and the paint is crisp and thin enough that it doesn't hide the details. The stripes and lettering all appear straight, even for the stripes that continue across the doors of the SP cars, and I don't see any hint of any decal film nor do I see any bleeding of any of the colors applied to the cars. The stirrup steps under the side doors are separately attached, but the steps at the corners appear to be part of the main body molding. However, the corner steps don't have that horribly-out-of-scale look that many less expensive cars include, so I don't think I'll be shaving them off for etched brass steps any time soon. These steps certainly pass the two-foot rule (they look right from two feet away). On one of the UP cars, one of the door stirrups seemed a shade misaligned, but again, they pass the two-foot rule. Now, I may be old-fashioned, but I think operating doors in N scale are still way cool, and all of the side doors on these cars slid open and closed very easily (the end doors are all molded shut). It seems like the doors are recessed a little farther than they might be on the prototype, but looking at various prototype photos around teh intarwebs, there is an easily noticeable depth between the car side and the door. I don't have detailed car plans with me, but it seems like the model should have a smaller recess depth. On the model the doors are recessed from the car sides by about six scale inches, so this is probably correct after all. On first glance, the car ends look completely undetailed. They are in fact detailed, with rivet lines on the ends and door details within the diaphragms. These details are hard to see in the thumbnail photo. Click on the photo to see the enlarged version and you can see what I mean. Looking under the cars, the underframes are also detailed. The various beams and support structure of the underframes look appropriate for this type of car. The pipes for the steam and brake lines are included, but molded into the underframe. The brake details include the air reservoirs, triple valve, cylinder and control bars. There is also an electric generator and a pair of battery boxes attached to the underframes. The reservoirs, triple valve and battery boxes are molded into the underframe, but the cylinder and control bars are applied separately, as is the electric generator. The details on the underframe are included but designed in a way that they are less likely to be broken off and not to impede the cars' regular operations on the layout. Looking at the car in operation, the details that extend below the floor are clearly visible from the side and provide enough of a hint that there is much more detail there to add to the illusion.

Operation

I put them on my layout to test how well they couple and roll. All the cars are equipped with MicroTrains couplers and low-profile wheels, so they coupled to my existing rolling stock and they worked on my code 55 track. In each of the two sets, I found one axle on one car was a little stiff and prevented the cars from free-rolling and some of the truck pins were a little tight which prevented those trucks from swinging as easily as the others. A little tweaking on the axle boxes and truck pins should resolve these issues. The cars ride high enough above the trucks that they don't bind on the underframe and the wheels don't rub on the car floor. The coupler positions keep the cars closely coupled, so much so that when the slack is pushed in, the car diaphragms touch. With the slack pulled out, the diaphragms are about a scale 8 inches apart (about 1/16 of an inch). The cars operated around the 18-inch radius curves on my layout both being pulled and pushed without binding. With truck-mounted couplers, it looked like they would negotiate tighter curves when being pulled, but as the diaphragms touch when the cars are pushed, this might cause a problem.

Conclusions

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In all, I'm pleased with these models. They will make excellent additions to the passenger train models that we are building. I'm giving these cars four out of five spikes (with five being best) because they look super out of the box, and the little bit of adjustments needed to two axle boxes and a couple truck pins seems reasonable to me. We'll see how well the close coupling holds up without derailing the train once the cars are in regular use on the layout. The biggest drawback that I can find on these models is their price and availability. These sets retail for an average of $40 per car, so I won't be able to afford a complete set of all the UP-painted or SP-painted cars, and their limited production runs means that the baggage car sets are all sold out at the manufacturer. A quick search on eBay today found one UP car in kit form, but no ready-to-run sets listed yet. Wheels of Time has a dealer list on their website, so a few phone calls might find the specific set you're looking for.

Operations update: Wheels of Time 60' baggage cars

The sideframe burr

It wasn't that long ago that I wrote about the new baggage cars from Wheels of Time. Well, over the weekend, I finally had a chance to give them a workout on an NTrak layout. I had mentioned previously that some of the wheelsets didn't roll as easily as others, so I took a closer look at the trucks. The wheelsets that didn't spin as easily all had a little burr (circled in the picture to the right) on the sideframe pushing against the wheel sides, acting like a brake. A quick shave with a sharp hobby knife solved this and did not appear to hamper their operation in any way that I could tell. The cars tracked well around the layout for quite a few laps and looked perfect nestled between the express freight cars and passenger carrying cars of the train that I ran. I coupled all six of the baggage cars in front of a string of about ten standard type Kato and ConCor passenger cars and three of the recent SP articulated passenger cars from Kato; the weight of these cars behind the baggage cars did not seem to give any trouble to the baggage cars. So, these baggage cars are definitely keepers.
 

Structures

Whether they come in kit form or built-up, commercial structures get checked out here.

Other products / services / whatevers

So there are a lot more products and services that we use as model railroaders. Here are a few that we've had a chance to write about...

New toy, trying to get back to posting here...

Okay, so I've been busy and not getting anything posted here for quite a while. Well, a new toy arrived in the mail today. It's called "Lens in a Cap" and it gives me a near pinhole aperture on a very small lens. The entire lens is about the size of a body lens cap and it has a setting for f/64. While it's almost impossible to see through the lens to compose an image with the aperture so small, using that and the optional Lubot 10x loupe, I got some amazing macro shots of some models....

All of the models that I shot are N scale factory painted, unmodified models.

The first model that I shot was an unlettered Atlas GP9 in Union Pacific style yellow and grey (Milwaukee Road used this paint scheme on their later passenger trains too).

Macro test 3

I never noticed those T joints molded on the handrails until I saw this image on my computer screen. Way cool!

Next, I grabbed a MicroTrains covered hopper...

Macro test 4

Wow! Even the microprinting on the lower side sill is crisp and readable. Sure, MicroTrains costs more, but with this kind of quality, it's definitely worth it.

For comparison, I next looked at a Precision Masters covered hopper.

Macro test 5

Well, it's pretty obvious that they will need to work on their paint application process if they want to bring up the quality of their models, especially when compared to the others that are shown above. There is some bleed from all the lettering and it looks like there's dust in the paint itself. Using the 2-foot rule, however, I'm not going to run out to strip and repaint them.

For a little something different, I looked at Athearn's N scale fire truck.

Macro test 6

Nicely done on the painting here too, and nice detail, Athearn. I knew these looked good in the blister packs, and now I know they'll look good as foreground models too.

The last model I looked at today was a LifeLike C-Liner.

Macro test 7

The Milwaukee Road logo is a little bubbly at this magnification, but the lettering at the lower edge of the side is crisp and the color separation line is nice and straight without any visible bleed. Nice work.

I bought the Lens in a Cap with model railroad photography in mind, and after trying it out today, it looks like it will become a handy tool when I really get into superdetailing and painting my models. If I can get the flaws so they aren't noticed at this range, they'll really look great on the layout.

What am I working on?

Long time readers of this site will know that I had hoped to put up one review per month. Obviously, I'm far short of reaching that goal. So, I think it's time for an update on the items that I'm looking at for review material. Rather than an in-depth on each item, I'll give you a quick first impression on each item. (Read more to see my initial thoughts)

Tools and adhesives

Right Clamp
I haven't had a chance to really try this out yet, but I've wanted to get one for some time. For those who don't know about it, a Right Clamp is a 90° clamp specifically designed for model building. Built into the inner angle is a slot through which you can apply glue to the inside of the joint. I plan to use the clamp on my next project. I'm currently using a set of small machinist's squares for aligning right angles. While the squares work, I sometimes end up performing some wild prestidigitation to hold all of the pieces in place, open the glue bottle and apply the glue to the joint.
Gorilla Glue
This adhesive is advertised as the only glue that you'll ever need. I kind of doubt that claim with all of the disparate materials that we need to fasten together, but I've heard a few modelers sing the praises of this widely available glue. However, I've also heard stories about slow set time and about it expanding after the joint is set and that it works better when it's wet. I bought a bottle of Gorilla Glue at the local big box, I just haven't opened it yet.
Sprue cutters
I didn't know I needed this tool until I received one as a Christmas gift. Sprue cutters look like the result of a mad scientist experiment gone somewhat weird; the tool is sort of a cross between tweezers, fingernail cutters and rail nippers. I have actually used this and I like the flush cuts that I can get in small materials and that the blades can fit into tighter spaces than my rail nippers, but I've found that it's more difficult on thicker materials.
Cold Heat soldering iron
The name is a marketing gimmick. In reality, this is a resistance soldering iron powered by five AA batteries. My quick assessment, after using it to solder about 40 rail joints, is that this is a useful tool. It allowed me to heat the joint, apply the solder and remove the iron very quickly, so I didn't need to clamp on a couple heat sinks to keep the ties from melting. The quick burst of heat at the joint also helped the solder flow into the joint without using any additional solder flux. A handy feature of this iron is the bicolor LED light behind the iron's tip that changes from white to red when current is flowing through the joint, so I know when the heat is working on the joint. One caveat that I've found is that the tip doesn't cool quite as quickly as they show in the TV ads; it's still a soldering iron, and the tip still gets hot enough to burn flesh, so be careful.
Ott Light
I managed to pick up one of the portable models of Ott Lights when the local craft store had them on sale earlier this year. Now that I have one, I wonder how I got along without it. My first impression on this is that you definitely need one of these. Wow!

Rolling stock

Kato F40PH
Kato has done it again with this release. I bought three of the Amtrak painted F40PHs when they came out, and I am very pleased with them. I take them to shows and normally use two of them to power my version of the Empire Builder on the NTrak layouts that I'm exhibiting with. The close coupling and small profile couplers really look good and work well, and they mate well with MicroTrains couplers. I've had them running for most of a day without problems. Sure, they get a little warm, but at prototypical speeds, the heat generated by the motor has not been a problem.

Structures

DPM Gold Night Life
This kit is a combination of three individual DPM city structure kits. The structures themselves are all available separately, but the DPM Gold packaging includes a bunch of extra details that you don't get if you buy the structures on their own. For example, the theater is designed to be modeled with many of the side and all of the rear windows bricked over, so there are a bunch of brick inserts to add to the windows. I've actually started building this. I found that the brick inserts need to be filed a little to fit into the windows, a task that is currently slowing me down on completing the structure. Well, I'd rather have to remove material than have to substitute my own brick material, so the time spent is worthwhile.
DPM Gold Olsen/Larsen's
Like the other DPM Gold kit I'm working on, this one includes a couple of DPM structures with a bunch of extra details. This kit is advertised as a farm equipment dealer, but the prototypes that I drive by here in Wisconsin have about 5 to 10 times as many tractors and implements out in the yard than are included in the kit. I'll need to add a bunch more details to make what I think of as a realistic looking implement dealer.

Details

BLMA Grade Crossing
BLMA has been doing some really nice etched metal details in N scale for a while, and with the new details to model rubber grade crossings, it was time for me to try some. The parts look superb and the etching is right on. I bought enough to add the detail onto my NTrak modules where I've got two roads that cross the triple-track mainline. I haven't installed the details yet because I'm trying to get the modules working as perfectly as possible before really attacking the scenery tasks (and there's still a bit of subroadbed work that needs to be done). The next step on this part of the project will be to blacken the parts. I plan to use a chemical blackener on them rather than paint. What worries me is the flangeway space between the detail and the rail. If the flangeway is too small, older equipment will short out as they go over the crossing. But, I haven't measured anything yet, so this may be a false worry. We'll see.

Books

Empire Express (David Haward Bain)
It seems that every time I finish off a magazine, another one arrives to keep me from my reading list. This book is thick, at about 800 pages of text (and about 30 of them are taken up with the endnotes, bibliography and index). On a first skim through and picking out a couple of subtopics from the index, the prose is accessible and easily readable. I'm planning to start a thorough read of this book later today, so it'll probably take me a few months to get through it with my lunch reading times. This is a book for the real history buff. What I'm hoping for is a more thorough treatment of the motives and interrelations between the railroad construction and competing interests in building the transcontinental railroad link across the US. I'll know more as I get into the read.

Why I joined, and stay in, the NMRA

There have been quite a few letters written to various publications about the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) and its value to the average modeler. Many of the letters that I've seen boil down to the question "what's in it for me?" For me, personally, there's quite a lot in it. So why did I join the NMRA and why do I stay a member? Read more to find out...

Supporting standardization in the hobby

One of the core responsibilities of the NMRA is to develop standards for the hobby. The most visible result (although not an official standard) is probably also the most put-down, the HO scale X2F (the "horn-hook") coupler. Yeah, the horn-hooks are wildly out of scale and look pretty bad when compared to some of the more modern knuckle couplers, but what if this standard didn't exist?

Without the X2F, model manufacturers could each build their own style of couplers for the models that they create in an effort to "lock-in" hobbyists to their particular couplers. The couplers from competing manufacturers very likely would not be interoperable, and don't even think about converting them because every item of rolling stock would have its own method of attaching the couplers. You'd have to maintain a fleet of coupler conversion cars in order to operate all your equipment at any time. With all these conversion cars, you wouldn't be able to have anything remotely similar to prototype switching in operating sessions.

What's happening today is that so many HO scale modelers have chosen to use Kadee's coupler for any of a number of reasons, and now that Kadee's patent has expired, the coupler market is beginning to resemble the hobby before the X2F. Some brands of knuckle couplers do not mate well or do not mate at all with other brands. We're also starting to see the same issue appear in N scale models with so many modelers opting for MicroTrains' couplers. I've spoken with a couple NMRA officials at various levels about this (among other topics); the NMRA sees the potential for a fractured market and has begun the process of re-taming the new coupler market.

For a more recent example of the NMRA's standardization work, take a look at the current DCC market. While it's not perfect, and there are some brands of decoders that work best with the same brand of base station; but as a new DCC user myself, I can purchase the base system that best fits my needs and add decoders from almost any manufacturer. It wasn't very long ago that this was not the case, but again, thanks to the work of the NMRA, I can more easily and affordably convert my own home layout to DCC.

Research on anything to do with railroads

The NMRA's Kalmbach Memorial Library, in a wing of the national headquarters building in Chattanooga, is a world-class specialist library. In the library's collection are more than 7,000 books, more than 100,000 photos and a huge amount of magazines, plans, videos, timetables and other reference material of railroad and model railroad subjects.

As an NMRA member, I get expedited answers to any research requests that I make. My requests are also at a significant discount off other research requests. I also get discounts on books published by the library, and if I'm at the National Train Show, I can usually pick up a copy right there at the NMRA Company Store to save the shipping cost.

Travel to places I might not have visited

Through my own membership in the NMRA, I've had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the US that I might not have visited on my own. Call me a convention junkie, but I always have a great time at every NMRA convention that I go to, be they regional or national. Sure, there are incidents like the shuttle bus that my wife and I rode back to our hotel from the convention hotel where the driver almost took us the wrong way on the Pennsylvania Turnpike because he wanted to give us a shortcut to our hotel (not to mention the infamous Pink Tour at the same convention or the bus that destroyed its oil pan while driving into an open pit mine on another convention tour five years later, both tours that we were fortunate enough to miss).

The first convention I attended was the 1991 regional convention in Sacramento, California, which was held in conjunction with Railfair '91. On that trip we got to see so much more of the rail scene in northern California than we would have otherwise known about or been able to see. Since then, on the national convention level, we've been to Valley Forge, Long Beach, St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Toronto, Seattle and the last weekend of Cincinnati, as well as Madison where we were able to participate as part of the host division. My wife and I are currently planning our visit to Detroit in 2007, where we'll also launch a second vacation to celebrate our 15th anniversary (already!). Looking further ahead, we're planning to attend the Anaheim and Milwaukee conventions (and I was already asked two years ago if I would present a couple clinics in 2010), and I'd love to go to Sacramento in 2011 as this would be 20 years after our first convention experience and in the same city, no less!

If I didn't go to these conventions, I wouldn't have been able to see as many home layouts as I have, and I would never have been able to gain the access to industrial areas at anywhere near the same quantity or quality as the tours I've been on. I might have made a vacation to the DelMarVa area if I wasn't attending the conventions, but I don't think I would have selected some of the other locations we've been to without the conventions.

The challenge to improve my own modeling

One of the more visible modeler programs of the NMRA is the Achievement Program. Through it, modelers are given a challenge to produce a number of exceptional quality models, which, if enough certificates are earned, leads to the Master Model Railroader achievement level.

At the 2006 Midwest Region spring convention in Schaumburg, I officially took the role of Region Model Contest Co-Chairman. As a direct result of this, I get to look at and judge many more models than I would have been able to view before. I can see examples of all the flaws that modelers get knocked for when they submit models for judging.

An instant group of friends

When we moved to the Midwest, my wife and I joined the NMRA. We were invited to attend the monthly meetings of the Rock River Valley Division. We were very warmly welcomed and very soon found ourselves involved in operating sessions, railfanning events and a number of other outings. Getting this involved in the local model railroad scene would have taken an extreme amount of time longer than it did had we not joined the NMRA. The events listing in the back of the national magazines really doesn't do much more than scratch the protective plastic lining off the plexiglass surface of the hobby. Sure, attending the events listed there can show you some of the portable layouts in an area, but you really don't know an area's modelers until you get involved.

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Is it worth it?

In my own experience, joining the NMRA is the most absolutely worthwhile investment that I have made in model railroading to date, and it continues to pay off in rewards that I wouldn't have known about without it. It's expanded my own knowlege of railroad history and modeling techniques and helped enliven a lifelong passion that I'm more than happy to share with my family. So, on my rating scale of 0 to 5 spikes, with five being best, NMRA membership for me rates a full five spikes.

Happy modeling, and see you at the conventions!