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2001 - A Sound Odyssey
Views from the Underground
January / February 2001

When I was a young boy, older people used to say, "someday you are going to need a college degree even to get a job as a ditch digger". We know it still hasn't come to that in today's job market. However, I think you need a college degree to operate some of the trains today. Command control, proto sounds, signal sounds, loco sounds, programming engines are all part of today's jargon that relates to running the toy trains of current manufacturers.

These new sounds and operating options are really neat, "when they work". But, there seems to be no middle ground in this technology, they either work well or they don't work at all. There is nothing more frustrating than to see a 500 or 1000 dollar engine sitting there on the track not moving at all. That's what happens when a board shorts out, the engine is out of program, a light bulb is not working, a broken pin in the teather between the engine and the tender, the battery is weak, or a number of other problems that could be impossible to find by the average train collectors.

A bad board is a major problem because local service stations usually do not carry a supply of these items and that the costs average about $150.00 just for the part. We are talking at least 3 to 4 week turnaround just to get this fixed and if it is over 1 year old, $150 to $200 repair charge. Now that's scary considering the thousands of engines that were sold over the past few years that contained these new boards.

Another major problem is that none of these boards are compatible with other engines even made by the same company. Recently I took in a repair of an engine that was purchased from our store in 1995. This engine sold for $800.00 and only had the sound of steam a bell and a whistle. The sound board was bad and a new board would need to be installed. Luckily the engine still had a mechanical reverse unit so the piece could still operate, only with no sounds. I will not name the company because this problem is somewhat similar to all manufacturers. In any event, I was told by the company that the part I needed would cost $175.00 and they do not have any left for sale. Now I had to tell the customer this bad news, worse news scenario. Needless to say I have one angry customer and we are now trying to get a part from another company to substitute. The engine will no longer be in original condition and the customer will be $200.00 poorer.

Something has to be done by the manufacturers of toy trains to address the issue of cost of replacing electronic components, as well as the availability of replacement parts in the future. I still feel that the trains today are far superior to those available prior to 1970. However, the costs on maintaining of the electronics may be a major factor in the future value of today's trains.

Christmas Season of 2000 was another banner year at our shop in both the number of sales and people. I saw many old customers as well as new folks getting into the hobby. Its always nice to see the youngsters getting their "feet wet" in toy trains. I continue to see many grandparents buying trains for the grandchildren, but keeping the trains at grandpa's house so he can play with them when the grandchildren go home.

I still don't know why the train manufactures don't put any accessory terminals on the transformers of the starter sets. This seems to be a problem and limits any expansion for a new train buyer.

I sold many starter sets this year and in my store , MTH out sold Lionel and K- Line starter sets. However, I had more than a few MTH engines returned and quite a few remote power supplies also went bad. All of them were fixed and returned by MTH with a 3 or 4 week turn around. It seems that the U.S. Mail and U.P.S. are the big winners here. We pay to have the trains shipped to us at the time of purchase and it then has to be returned to the factory when it breaks and again sent back to us when it is repaired. We should get some frequent flyer miles or something for all of the time these trains spend on the road. Many of these problems could be solved if the factory would have parts available so that the service station can do the repair on site.

Thanks for visiting my website at www.undergroundrrshop.com. We have now put an up-to-date inventory list online and we'll try to keep it updated monthly.

T.M. Books and videos have been real good friends and we are sharing information so I will try to keep you folks up to "snuff" with all of the new train B.S. that I can get from time to time. So keep the T.M. website on your list of regular visits to read the latest "Views from the Underground".

I see where Lionel is threatening the union in their Michigan plant to settle up or they will be moving their operation to the orient. I really don't have a side in this one because I don't have all of the details but from this vantage point it looks like the Lionel factory will be located in the orient. If you would have said that in the 1940's they would have said you were nuts. One never knows.

Well that's it for now, I'll be heading south in February. I'll be writing my next column in March.

    Lou Palumbo

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