The importance (and the frustration) of standards

Aaron's new "Amquipment" on the PMRRC test track. Note the #6 switches and 2% grade.
Aaron’s new “Amquipment” on the PMRRC test track, which features #6 switches and a 2% grade.

Real railroads run on standards, and so does the Sierra Pacific Lines. A train car is a train car on a 4×8 tabletop layout, but when you are pulling a 50-car train up a 2% grade, any car that isn’t in tip-top shape has a good chance of going on the ground. PMRRC has developed a strict set of standards for rolling stock, and all cars must pass inspection before they are allowed on the railroad.

Our trackwork is so good that if anything derails, the problem is almost always with the car. When a train goes on the ground, our standard operating procedure is to place the affected cars in the bad order tray for re-inspection and get the train moving again. In most cases, the train continues without a problem and we almost always find something wrong with the car.

As a newbie car inspector, I’ve been amazed at the things that can cause a car to kiss the ties: Dirty wheels, worn trucks (a big problem due to all the scale miles we put on our equipment), couplers that are sagging or will no longer center properly. Every once in a while someone will try to sneak an uninspected car onto the railroad, but such crimes are self-policing: There’s a good chance the car will end up in the bad order tray.

What kind of things do we look for? Cars must have metal wheels and metal-shank couplers (many of those “Kadee compatibles” won’t cut the mustard). Truck-mounted couplers are prohibited; they can (and will) cause a heavy train to derail when the slack comes in hard. Cars must meet NMRA standards for weight, but they cannot be too heavy. Low rolling resistance is paramount; freight cars must roll down a 2% grade unassisted.

The couplers have to be spot-on for height and in working order, and cabooses and designated end-of-train cars must have a resistor installed to trip our track detectors. Lighted and EOT cars can’t draw too much power; with three or four hard-working locomotives on the head end of most trains, we have to budget our amps lest we overload the electrics.

Problematic equipment is re-inspected and returned to the owner with a bad order slip. (Yep, we know "gauge" is spelled wrong...)
Problematic equipment is re-inspected and returned to the owner with a bad order slip. (Yep, we know “gauge” is spelled wrong…)

Most cars will pass standards with little modification, but some of them can be really problematic. At the recent Great Train Show in Costa Mesa, I scored a killer deal on some old (new in box!) Walthers Amfleet cars and an Amtrak material handling car. The MHC posed no problems: I swapped the EZ-Mate couplers for genuine Kadees, added a bit of weight, and it flew through inspection.

The Amcans, on the other hand, are going to be a huge headache: Their inside-bearing trucks couldn’t have more rolling resistance if you glued the wheels to the truck frames. It’s probably going to take some careful massaging to get them qualified for operation the Sierra Pacific Lines. We do relax some of our rolling-resistance standards for dedicated trains, but I want my Amtubes to mix and mingle with the other equipment, if for no other reason than to irk a couple of fellow members who don’t believe railroading exists east of the Rockies.

Oh, and if the Amcans aren’t enough of a challenge, I also found some old (and almost complete!) Front Range Front Runner kits. You should have heard the groan from a fellow club member when I showed them to him — he knows these flyweight four-wheel cars can be a huge headache. Getting proper wheels and enough weight on the cars will be a challenge, but I’m up to it!

The standards are no big deal with 95% of the equipment on sale today, but they can be frustrating when you’ve found something super cool (and/or super obscure) and want to see it out on the high iron of the Sierra Pacific. My Amtubes will be tricky, and it’s possible the Front Runners will never make it onto the railroad. But I’m okay with that, because I know that if do I get them onto the rails, I can be confident that they will stay on the rails — and out of the bad order tray. — Aaron Gold

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