Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fixability and O Gauge Trains

Many new trains that are only four or five years old are sidelined indefinitely. Owners cannot get parts, Replacement boards are not available. Meanwhile, owners of original Marx, Postwar and MPC Lionel can take "lost causes" and have them running almost as good as new. Parts for the older trains are available. Why do the modern trains have so much trouble?

Perhaps a change in culture and technology tells part of the tale. There was a time when every neighborhood had a fix-it shop. The owner was a master at repairing appliances. He could fix a toaster, repair a lamp, or get the vacuum cleaner working correctly. People with broken items came to him. He had his various tools, electrical tape, all kinds of wire and cabinets with all kinds of screws and nuts and spare parts. There were no electronic boards to snap in or out in those days. Indeed, appliances were made very sturdy so that they would last. Part of their manufacture included making them fixable. People did not throw things away the way they do today.

Akin to the fix-it shop was the TV and Radio repair. The shop had all kinds of tools and testing equipment. It also had a stock of every kind of tube and component available at the time. A good technician could diagnose a problem in seconds and start to work on the repair. The broken TV, radio or record player would be back ot normal. Old TVs, radios and electrical gadgets were made to be repairable.

The cost of repair was far less than the cost to replace the entire unit, be it an electric egg beater or a console TV. These stores started to phase out in the late 70s. What hurt them were the new products with"Planned obsolescence" that could not eb repaired. They could only be thrown out and replaced.

Lionel Prewar, Postwar, MPC, Marx and American Flyer trains were designed in the era when things were fixable. In the Kughn era of Lionel, fixability went out as they sought cheaper ways to remake classic trains. The move from mechanical E-units to electronic ones was significant. Mechanical E units could be fixed. Electronic ones had to be disposed and replaced.

Cheap plastic gears and other cost-cutting measures also eroded repair-ability.

Having already heard of people whose treasured locomotives from several years ago have become shelf queens, I feel fairly certain this will become a much bigger problem in five years.

I predict that part of the problem will be solved by some electronic genius who can make a general set of replacement boards that are cheap and easy to install. They might not have all the features, but they will have enough to draw customers. You can be sure his boards will be stronger and made to last. If he backs that up with great customer service, a lot of shelf queens will become runners again.

Another side market will be those who find a way to repair and restore new trains. What with the emerging 3-D printers, parts will be easily replicated. Granted that most 3-d printing available to the public has been of plastic. New materials such as metals will be available in a few years.

As a nation and a culture, we need to return to the mindset that builds fixability into the things it makes. The disposable technology is not doing us any good. It is choking our landfills, depleting our bank accounts and feeding into insanity of a merchant-driven society. Making things that can be repaired and upgraded mauy not seem as profitable. In the end, it is the only reasonable way to proceed. With the coming of 3D printers and scanners, things will slide toward fixability as the technology becomes affordable. I believe that manufacturers will have no choice but to return to making repairable goods.

Spare parts will be as easy as downloading a CAD file online.


Despite all the fancy details, sounds and command control in new locomotives, they cannot match the reliability of the old trains. The proof of quality is obvious. 70-year-old electric trains are running smoothly while their modern counterparts are becoming shelf ornaments. The old trains ran and ran. Any breakdown could be remedied. Modern locomotives seem not to run as long. Repairs and placement parts are rare.

I find it amusing that the $1,000 locomotive sits on a shelf for lack of replacement parts, while the old Lionel #671 you can get off Ebay for under $100 will run almost as wel las the day it left the factory.

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