The Val Ease Central Railroad ©

Taking Z Scale to the Public Around the World
(Text and photos © Copyright Jeffrey MacHan)

Last Spike: The Val Ease Transportation System

Some of you may not yet have heard that the Val Ease Central Railroad (VEC) is a portable layout. Well it is, and since March 1993 the VEC has criss-crossed North America several times in the back of the family minivan, twice in the back of a Fedex truck and flown a total of four times (air freight AND checked baggage). The layout has been packed, moved and unpacked over 130 times getting to and from 65 train shows and exhibitions. In all this time, over many tens of thousands of kilometers (I'm Canadian!) the VEC has never suffered any major breakage or needed anything but cosmetic repairs. How did this miracle happen?, you ask. The "Val Ease Transportation System" is the answer.

Pack your troubles away

Before I even contemplate moving the VEC, I carefully pack the insides of the suitcases. The VEC's trackbed and scenery are built on free-floating styrofoam insulation. The suitcases are made of a semi-rigid plastic which flexes somewhat. In order to keep the base from bouncing around and taking hits from the flexible suitcase lid, I place ordinary household kitchen sponges above and below the base. When the lid is closed the sponges compress and act as shock absorbers. They also keep an even pressure on the base which helps to prevent warpage during storage. If rough handling is a possibility, I add a second pair of sponges.

The author glides through the reception area of 
the Kalmbach Publishing offices in Waukeesha, Wisconsin following a photo shoot 
for Model Railroader Magazine in August 2001.
The author glides through the reception area of the Kalmbach Publishing offices in Waukeesha, Wisconsin following a photo shoot for Model Railroader Magazine in August 2001.
Dolly to the rescue

The vast majority of trips with the VEC have been in the back of the minivan. The three VEC suitcases are transported upright and, of course, never stacked horizontally. Once the VEC reached the two-suitcase stage, it was time to find a heavy-duty luggage cart. It took a while but I finally discovered the perfect tool for the job. This quasi-industrial-strength, 250-pound capacity folding dolly also came with an extra set of fold-down wheels which allow it to balance itself at an angle. Even when fully loaded with three suitcases, a folding stool, the backdrops, a tool box and a cooler, the whole shibang rolls along easily. I have been the envy of many train show exhibitors as I glide through loading ramps, convention centre lobbies and many other show venues. Only the rare narrow doorway and even rarer stairs! have presented an obstacle.

A case for air travel

When it became apparent that the VEC would cross the Atlantic Ocean in March 2002 for Faszination Modellbau, I consulted an acquaintance, who also happened to be a baggage handler for a major international airline, about shipping options. I was concerned about putting my layout into the sure hands of airline employees both in Canada and in Germany. My friend's advice was to definitely load the VEC in checked baggage if I never wanted to see it again in one piece! Okay, a point to remember. I could always ship the car to Germany with the layout in the back but that seemed a little extreme. Time to go to the pros.

The VEC suitcases slide into place like drawers in a cabinet.
The VEC suitcases slide into place like drawers in a cabinet.
The best and cheapest insurance against rough handling is lots of signs and warnings!
The best and cheapest insurance against rough handling is lots of signs and warnings!
With the support of Mr. Fred Gates, President of Märklin Inc., I was able to design and have an industrial-quality shipping case custom built by a professional shop specializing in crating delicate equipment for the electronics and film industries. The case functions like a set of drawers on wheels. The VEC is loaded horizontally into the top three foam-lined shelves where they are held firmly on all sides. The bottom shelf is for the heavy hardware: 2000-watt mains transformer, cables, lights, literature, all securely stored inside a fourth suitcase. Putting the weighty items in the bottom shelf lowers the centre of gravity and helps prevent tipping of the case. A vertical storage slot holds two 4' folding tables, a folding stool, the backdrops for the layout, a 4' x 2' acrylic mirror (suspended at an angle over the layout to help crowds better see the layout), the crowd barrier posts and the hangers for the banner and the mirror. The front of the case is held in place by four locking latches which protect the contents from the curious.

The shipping case did it's job perfectly for the trip to Germany and will be put to the test again next October when the VEC takes to the air for Eurospoor 2003 in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Damn the torpedoes...Checked baggage it is!

Despite the best advice available I did travel with Val Ease West in checked baggage on a flight to Calgary, Alberta last October. This time however I took things into my own hands and built a shipping crate putting to good use, I thought, the construction principles used in the VEC airfreight case. Although I built the crate to withstand the worst handling I could imagine (steel reinforced edges all around the 1/2" plywood panels) I took three extra precautions. First I put large handles on both ends of the crate. Second I installed rollers on one end to encourage airline employees to keep the "right" end on the ground. Third, in a flash of genius, I wrote "Miniatures" on all sides and put "Fragile" stickers and "arrows" everywhere. Certainly, I had insurance. I'm only half crazy! The foam-padded interior holds one suitcase vertically and is long enough for a background panel. There is also room for a small tool case, a backup transfo and handouts. Once the padded lid is screwed into place, nothing is free to move around inside.

It may not look like much but this home-made crate protects one suitcase even in checked luggage.
It may not look like much but this home-made crate protects one suitcase even in checked luggage.
The crate was a success with the two baggage handlers who delivered it to me at the Calgary and Montreal airports. They both used the rollers and said that the handles made their work much easier. I may need to install slightly bigger rollers for the next trip but I am more than satisfied with my home-made effort.

A new case for the London Festival 2006

When I received confirmation that the VEC (Val Ease West to be more precise) was expected at the London Festival of Railway Modelling in March 2006, I had to make a choice between using the home-made crate (cheap) or going to the expense and trouble of having a custom case made for the trip (expensive but dependable). Before making a final decision, I contacted a local custom case manufacturer who took measurements and provided me with an estimate. I finally went with the custom case for reasons of convenience, i.e. professional build quality, integrated rollers, locking latches and a snap-up handle.

The case is easily trundled about in airports and going to-and-from subway stations etc. I placed it in checked baggage. The total loaded weight was 30kg, under the limit of 35kg. The extra baggage charge was $35 CAD each way flying Lufthansa.

The custom case had aluminum reinforcing along every edge and on the corners. Once again, fragile stickers and multiple ID tags were used in generous quantities.

The case maker had some terrific ideas on how to make my life easier while transporting a very fragile layout. He suggested an integrated snap-up handle and heavy-duty rubber feet to protect the bottom and prevent the handle from being damaged. All of the locks and other hardware are recessed.

The interior is heavily reinforced with sturdy foam sheets. There is enough room for an international voltage converter and plug adapters placed into notches in the foam on the left-hand side. The latches were equiped with fixtures for locks. I used a pair of combination locks to prevent unauthorized access to the contents. I placed posters and signs on top of the suitcase once it was snugly settled into place.

The Val Ease Transportation System can now safely deliver the VEC (in one, three or four sections) to any place in the world. The single-module case is easily transported in checked luggage. The entire layout must be handled by a bonded freight transportation company due to the weight and the insurance requirements. It is nice to know that the VEC is just as mobile as ever. Why? Because there are more assignments in store!