Val Ease Central Railroad by Jeffrey MacHan

Northstar '99
1999 NMRA National Train Show, St. Paul, MN

Warning: the following is biased personal opinion of the basest nature and may not come even remotely close to reality as perceived by those unfortunate enough to be mentioned here within ;-)

  1. NTS Report, Day 1...
  2. NTS Report, Day 2...
  3. NTS Report, Day 3...
  4. NTS Report, Day 4...
  5. NTS Report, Conclusion
NTS Report, Day 1...

River Center Convention Hall Four days and 4000 km after departing Vancouver, BC, the Val Ease Central Railroad roadshow arrived in Saint Paul, MN at 7:15 pm on Thursday, July 23rd. Stepping out of the car and into the 99 degrees, 95% humidity was like sinking into a bath of molasses. Fortunately the Miami, er, Saint Paul convention center was air-conditioned. We had timed our arrival to set-up early before the official opening the following morning at 10 am.

Despite the heat, we were warmly greeted at the exhibitor registration desk by Ms. Dottie Finch, wearing a green NTS shirt and a friendly smile. She provided me and my crew with our NTS badges. NTS1999-crew, L->R Me, Marthe, my mother, my nephew, my sister and my father My family from Winnipeg, Manitoba had come to provide severe heckling, to create general havoc and to embarrass the family name in front of complete strangers. In order to help the police make identification easier of our gang, we all wore custom embroidered Val Ease Central T-shirts in slate blue - from L to R: yours truly, my wife - Marthe, my mother - Joan, my nephew - Lee, my sister - June, and my father - Ray. Our Lhassa Apso, Titi, was stashed under the table in order to nip toddler's kneecaps and curious adults ankles.

NTS-dolly With our suitcases in hand we set off on our quest for space #894 (Yes, I had been moved for a third time!) which was somewhere in the far reaches of Wilkins Exhibit Hall. Fortunately for my crew, I had invested in a heavy duty luggage dolly which took care of my two VEC suitcases and the emergency supplies box.

We eventually made it to a likely spot and began to arrange the tables and chairs in preparation for set-up. We were surrounded by vendors on the front and right, modular layouts were to our left and back. The Susquehanna Division layout did not show so our open space grew to a very comfortable size. Noticing an even better spot in front of me that had a better table and a tubular crowd barrier, I began to wonder if I couldn't change places...I decided to ask the NTS exhibitor coordinator, Mr. Dean Dickerhoof, if I could make the move. He kindly informed me that I had been setting up in the wrong space and that the area that I coveted so unabashedly was reserved for the Val Ease Central Railroad!

Set-up took until closing, 9 pm. The track was cleaned and tested, the signs that I had prepared were in position, the new halogen lights I had kit bashed gave an even accent light to counter glare from the huge vapor lamps on the convention ceiling and the skirting that my wife had charmed from the NTS maintenance staff had been installed. The layout looked great...but don't take my word for it!

Val Ease Central RR at NTS 1999, ready for judging.

The last item on my list before leaving the NTS was to inquire about entering the VEC in the NTS layout competition. I was anxious to have the layout judged on a national basis against some of the best in the business. I also wanted to become familiar with the NTS organization in preparation for the year 2000 train show in San Jose, CA. Mr. Dickerhoof, who was also the NTS competition coordinator, told me that one of the competition officials would be by the following morning to fill in the paperwork. Note: I had already prepared the NMRA module competition forms, but the NTS runs a separate competition with its own prizes and judging.

I went to bed exhausted but satisfied and excited about the days to come.
To be continued...Day 2.

NTS Report, Day 2...or...The Show Must Go On!

As you may recall during the week of July 23-25, a large portion of the US was in the grip of a major heat wave. Saint Paul felt like downtown Miami, hot, humid and very hot and did I mention humid? Fortunately, the Rivercenter was air conditioned. As a result, my train crew grew to include our Lhassa Apso, Titi, who spent the entire train show under the skirting of the display table. Every once in a while she would poke her nose out to sniff the ankles and knee caps of a young train admirer. She made quite a few friends and was really quite comfortable on her "blanky", with her water dish, dog biscuits and "pigs ears" to chew on. She made the trip in and out of the show in the basket of my wife's walker. Titi riding royally!

In order to beat the heat and to make sure that everything was in perfect working order before the official opening of the show, the VEC crew arrived at the show at 8 am. We knew that we were in for a long day. The schedule was as follows:

9:00 - 12:00 = industry and trade representatives toured the displays;
12:00 - 16:00 = NMRA delegates were free to visit the displays;
16:00 - 21:00 = the general public was invited to the train show.

We had 12 full hours of running trains and interacting with train enthusiasts to look forward to. But first, we were looking forward to receiving the judges of the NTS layout competition. I had taken special pains to impress the judges with my previous awards. (Please note that the wrinkles and folds appeared when unpacking back home. They were perfectly flat and unblemished during the show, really, I swear!)

Awards Prizes

Now, my esteemed fellow Z scale enthusiasts, I must tell you a sad, sad 8:30 am, Mr. Dean Dickerhoof, NTS show and contest coordinator informed me that the JUDGES had decided "NOT" to accept any more entries and that the Val Ease Central would not be part of the layout competition!

I was in a state of shock and for once, unfortunately, speechless. I couldn't believe my ears. To think that I had travelled 4000 km, brought my family along to share in the NTS experience, invested time and money in crafting the best layout presentation that I was capable of only to be refused without any valid reason minutes before the opening of the train show. To make matters worse, the eventual "Best in Show" went to the "professional" HO display layout built by Westside Lumber Company, a scenic materials manufacturer. Talk about encouraging "amateur" model builders!

I was too stunned to make a scene. However MEEK and POLITE I was at the time, once I had returned home and had a long, long think about the whole episode (I felt so badly about this that I couldn't bring myself to write "Day 2" until I had come to a decision), I decided to take the matter to Robert Charles, President of the NMRA, parent organization of the NTS. Depending on the answer I receive, I will decide what further action I will take against the NTS and the NMRA.

Well,as they say, the Show Must Go On!

Day 2 until 4 pm was generally boring, yes BORING, and we spent our time watching the vendors around us dozing off. I am not kidding! Why, because the first 4 hours of the show were for the trade people. As a result, the modelers of larger scales walked right by the layout or only slowed down slightly on their way to meetings with colleagues.

From noon to 4pm, the show was open to the National convention attendees who, as you must understand, do not model in Z scale. There was the rare individual who stopped by to say that he had an Nn3 line on his N scale road.

The general theory of why model railroaders "seem" to be such antisocial personalities in train shows is that they are in a terrific hurry to find the GREAT BARGAIN in their preferred scale. My own observations tended to confirm this theory since the vendor tables in HO were attracting a lot of attention. A second theory of model railroader behavior patterns at train shows is that no matter how good a layout or technique is, if it is not in their preferred scale, it is of no interest!

Oh well...fortunately at 16:00 the doors opened for the unbiased, unprejudiced, unabashedly frank and curious hordes known to train show organizers as the GENERAL PUBLIC. They loved my layout! From 16:00 to closing at 21:00 the flow of wide eyed, smiling people of all ages continued without letup. It was great!

I also love talking to the GENERAL PUBLIC. The last hours of Day 2 were so enjoyable that I was looking forward to the next morning.

The trains ran without a hitch although I found that there was a lot of dust in the air. I had to move my one-and-only track cleaning car from one circuit to another to keep the track polished. Fortunately, John Claudino, owner of Aztec Manufacturing, was somewhere in the train show. I decided to sneak off for 5 minutes and see if John had any Z-scale cleaners at his booth. It was more like 15 minutes later that I returned with the track cleaner. The bystanders at the layout were very interested in seeing the Aztec car in operation.

In the next two days I hoped to meet a) Micro-Trains, b) Märklin, c) Model Railroader and d) any other manufacturer or vendor of Z scale.

NTS Report, Day 3

When we last left our story we were heading into day 3 of the National Train Show adventure. The layout competition disaster had taken place, the dog was happily making new friends under the table, the HO and N scale enthusiasts had hunted down their BARGAINS and the First Wave of the GENERAL PUBLIC had rolled through the show.

I had plans to meet the Big Guys of Z, none other than the major players in American prototype manufacturing: Micro-Trains Line Company and Märklin USA Inc. I have a dream...a dream that one day Model Railroader will run an article about Z scale...the last one they printed dates back 11 years to the "Feather River Canyon" layout series.

The GENERAL PUBLIC began arriving at 10 am. We had been in position since 9 am. That being the case, I had had time to make a quick run about the train show keeping a keen eye out for anything Z or of use there unto. I was happy to meet the folks at Aspen Model Inc. who were introducing a new line of Z and Nn3 steam locomotive conversion kits and assorted detail parts. The most impressive of all, for me at least, was the valve gear details for Z scale locos. I had a wonderful conversation with the boys from Aspen: Achim Buerklin representing Westmodel, Billy Dittmar representing Aspen Model Inc. and Klaus Bachman, the producer of the new products.

Further down the aisle I ran into a large Z-scale vendor, Robert Haney, the owner of Bob's Model Railroad Supplies. His stand was one of two offering Z scale and the only one exclusively offering Z! Well Bob had some mighty nice stuff, such as the new Miller Engineering Microstructures Z-scale drive-in theatre with the color LCD screen! There was no price tag? He also had a nice selection of Pennzee conversion kits selling for much more than yours truly would ever dream of paying! There were Märklin UP F7 A-B-A units, Micro-Trains cars and quite a good selection of Märklin accessories and track. I was especially interested in the Märklin Z yard lights. In fact I asked Bob how much discount he would give me if I purchased 5 at the show. His answer: "I never give discounts". My reply: "Too bad, I'll just make them myself."

To Bob's credit, he did come by the layout the next day and told me that it was one of the best he had ever seen. He took several pictures as well. I told him that I thought his prices were still too high!

Märklin VPs When I got back to the Val Ease Central from my wanders around the show, I was greeted at the layout by Jeff Stimpson and Riley O'Conner from Märklin USA.

They had a very close look at the layout and played a game called: I spy with my little eye something made by...Märklin! We had great fun! Jeffrey Stimpson told me that the president would be by on the last day of the show and that he HAD to see the layout. In the meantime, he sent the Märklin USA photographer over to take a few pictures.

Visitors to VEC could sit and take their time enjoying the layout. Lots to talk about with visitors.
Marthe and I had several interesting conversations with members of the GENERAL PUBLIC who continued to spend 10 to 15 minutes in front of the layout.

The nice thing about having chairs in front of the VEC was that even the youngest, and the oldest or most tired train enthusiast, could relax and enjoy the trains.

Me at the controls. From my vantage point to the side of the suit cases, I could operate three trains, make the turntable rotate, open and close the round house doors, blow the steam whistle or the diesel horn and switch trains out of the Val Ease West station.

It was time for another quick run around the show. My mission: get close to and invite Andy Sperandeo, editor of Model Railroader Magazine over to the layout. I headed for the MR booth and I was in luck. Not only was Andy S. there but he had Jim Heidiger with him. Jim is the publisher of MR and the editor of Great Model Railroads Annual Magazine. I managed to rudely interrupt a fan in order to get Andy's attention. After a brief introduction of the Val Ease Central's pedigree, I invited Andy and Jim over. Both said they wouldn't miss the opportunity and would be over later in the afternoon. Well, I practically floated back to the layout where I informed Marthe and Titi that MR would be over later. Finally they would see my layout and naturally they would offer to publish an article, heck, a series about the VEC and it's builder, of course. Marthe laughed out loud. You're dreaming, I remember her saying. "They'll never come, so get used to disappointment!"

I think I replied rather weakly, "Oh yeah!"

Believe it or Not, Marthe was RIGHT! Not only did they not show up, they left the show all together. My beef is that they didn't simply say that they didn't have the time, or that they had to catch a plane, or that they didn't give a sh__ about Z scale. Anything but making me look stupid in front of my wife. On second thought, she is used to that anyway. I guess we'll just have to wait a while longer for an article. (SIGH, I hate it when she's right!)

Guess what? While I was wasting my time with Andy Sperandeo at MR, George Menzie, esteemed Z_scale forum member, and marketing manager from Micro-Trains Lines came over to the layout in the company of Eric Smith, VP sales. Marthe had a good chat with them! Fortunately for me George said that he would be back later in the show. This time however, I didn't take any chances...after making sure that all was well with the trains, I left the VEC in Marthe's capable hands and went right over to the MTL booth.

(Sorry, I did take pictures but I can't find the film!!!)

At the MTL booth, I introduced myself to George and Eric and thanked them for Micro-Trains sponsorship of the Val Ease Central in the miniature exhibit at the Québec Museum of Civilization from April 1997 to April 1998. MTL supplied 2 F7's in UP colors and 8 freight cars also in UP colors as well as motor brushes and periodic servicing. (Aside: to MTL's credit, the F7 ran 8 hours a day, 6 days a week for a full 12 months without failure. Every 2 weeks, a technician would swap the F7's for an occasional wheel cleaning.)

Home-made VEC lapel pin As promised, I presented George with an exclusive Val Ease Central lapel pin as a souvenir of his visit to the VEC during the National Train Show. George and I took a few minutes to discuss the future of North American Z scale. We commiserated over the premature demise of Rogue Locomotive Works and we wish Don Bouchard a rapid return to health. George said that MTL is committed to Z scale and that several new products were in development. Under an oath of secrecy, he confided in me about some of the projects. When MTL finally announces the NEWS, remember that you almost heard it here first! (Hey George, why don't you make your announcements on the Z_scale list. Now there's an idea!)

The crowds were heavy all day Saturday. Sunday was looking like more of the same. I still had hopes of seeing the president of Märklin USA and maybe finding something to buy!

The show closed at 6 pm. We covered up the layout, packed up Titi and headed out to the 85 degree heat of Saint Paul. One day to go...and here are two close-ups of the layout. Sorry about the picture resolution.

Val Ease East This is Val Ease East showing the ISM heavy Pacific conversion on the turntable. You may also notice on the Left the yellow UP Russell snow plow that I built starting from a Märklin caboose. Later I brought out the UP 4-6-0 #1243 steamer that I had been working on. The water tower and the coaling station in front of the round house are scratch built from styrene and aluminum foil. The chimney of the heating plant (left) produces smoke and the large station in the back has platform lighting, a blinking warning beacon and provides a uniquely inventive solution to hiding the 3% grade up to the rear bridge section.

Val Ease West The second scene is an aerial shot of Val Ease West looking left towards the bridge section. You can see a UP freight on a passing track, the passenger train making its way downgrade to the right and the tourist excursion train at the VEW station. This train is made up of a UP railbus pulling a scratch-built open tourist gondola followed by the Märklin UP Golden Spike caboose.

A bright young girl asked me why there were people in the gondola but nobody in the railbus, caboose or in any of the passenger there's a good question!

NTS Report, Day 4

Day 4 began sunny, hot and humid. Once again we were ready to go at 9 am, an hour before the doors opened to the GENERAL PUBLIC. The layout had performed flawlessly and the trains had stayed on the track for the most part. One small set of fingers had managed to upset the regular flow of traffic but there had been no damage nor missing objects from the layout.

In addition to the sounds, lights and moving trains to attract the little ones' attention, I had placed a series of 1/220 hand painted pewter dinosaurs in the forest and clearing overlooking "Iphtaynt" brook, christened by the intrepid Val Ease pioneer, Don Ficksit.

The 7 dinosaurs included a mother triceratops and two babies, a tyranosaurus rex, a diplodon, and a male and female brontosaurus. Just to confuse everyone, I added a woolly mammoth to complete the scene. The kids just love to point out the beasts to their siblings and parents and, in their enthusiasm, clip a passing train. It all adds to the excitement.

Being the last day of the train show, I was determined to do some shopping. On my list were two books: 1) UP Color Guide to Freight and Passenger Equipment by Lloyd Stagner and Robert Yanosey 2) UP Color Guide to Freight and Passenger Equipment Volume 2 by Lou Schmidtz. I wanted these reference books in order to more accurately model a UP work train and non-revenue cars. I was able to find the first one at Ron's Books at the show and the second, eventually, at the Great American Train Store at the Mall of America, no less!

Also on my shopping list was an electronic flickering campfire circuit by Miniatronics. I discovered them by way of the NMRA special edition bulletin which had a map of the vendor locations. I will soon be able to add a hobo campfire under the foreground traffic bridge. Unfortunately, Aspen only had preproduction samples at the show. Otherwise I would have equipped my steam locos with valve gears.

Begin Personal Commentary: As for MTL or Märklin rolling stock and locos, there were no bargains to be had at the show. I have often found good prices at Great American Train Shows (GATS). One vendor in particular, Internet Trains, has always offered competitive prices. I would therefore not recommend a National Train Show to anyone looking for swap meet prices. If you can't get to a GATS or the Springfield, MA train show try eBay. I have found the eBay personal shopper function very useful in spotting the items I am looking for. End Personal Commentary.

The major event of Day four was the much anticipated visit by Frederic Gates, Fred president of Märklin USA. Once again I had made a quick shopping expedition and had returned to the layout to find a distinguished gentleman peering through the view finder of his camera taking pictures of the Val Ease Central.

Once he had finished struggling with his camera, Mr. Gates and I began an earnest discussion of the state of the Z scale industry. We touched upon the prevailing business model of short runs, collector editions, spare part availability, new product design, competition and market share and so forth. Curiously enough, both Mr. Gates and Mr. Smith of MTL agreed that they viewed each other as complementary in the market place and not as competitors. So much for cut throat capitalism as practised in scale model trains.

What Mr. Gates really wanted to talk about was the possibility of generating enough interest for a Z scale convention in the USA. He hoped that the members of this forum might reflect on this issue and make suggestions. JRM with Fred Gates, CEO of Märklin USA. Since he asked me for my opinion, I told him that I was all for it of course and I think Hawaii would be an ideal venue. The dates would naturally correspond with my next holidays...

Eventually the crowds got more demanding and I had to return to the layout. Then all of a sudden I came face to face with a red haired imp who wanted to run the trains, blow the whistle, move the cars, rotate the turntable and count the dinosaurs, all at the same time!

It was my 4-year old nephew Dustin, accompanied by my brother Jordan, Tracy, Samantha and Dustin Jordan, his wife Tracey and my niece Samantha. They had managed to stop by the train show on their way back home to Winnipeg, Manitoba from a 30 day motor home tour of the southern US.

The National Train Show finally came to an end at 6 pm Sunday, July 25, 1999. The official attendance was 19,222.

My brother and family helped us pack up the layout. About 30 minutes after the end of the show, we were on our way to the Old Country Buffet just a spit from our motel. We pigged out on the food while complaining about the heat and the poor organization of the train show.


I came away from the experience with the realisation that I derive my pleasure from showing the VEC to kids. The VEC is first and foremost a display layout. Seeing the big smiles on the kids' faces and the wonder in their eyes is the best reward in the world as Samantha, who is modelling a VEC cap, demonstrates. My niece, Samanth, proudly models the VEC baseball cap!

The next morning Marthe, Titi, Io (our 13-year old female Cornish Rex cat who had spent the week in the air conditioned comfort of the motel room) and I bid farewell to Saint Paul and began our two week return voyage home via La Crosse, WI, Rapid City, SD, Cheyenne, WO, Denver, CO, Boise, ID, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA and points in between. As a reward for Marthe's support and patience we planned to stop at every art rubber stamp store on the way home. There were probably 15 to 20 of them and there was Caboose Hobbies in Denver!

I hope that you have enjoyed this subjective and very personal account of my National Train Show experience.

Jeffrey MacHan
Chief Imagineer: Val Ease Central Railroad

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