Val Ease Central Railroad by Jeffrey MacHan

The Sinsheim Chronicles: Prologue

Dear Fellow Valeasians,

Today begins the telling of a wondrous tale of adventure, discovery and delight. It is the incredible story of a long journey of 2 Z scalers, Terry Sutfin from Vancouver, Washington and yours truly from Toronto, Ontario to the birthplace of Z scale, Germany, as operators of the Val Ease Central Railroad.

From March 16 to March 30, 2002 we lived one adventure after another which combined to produce an unforgettable and supremely enjoyable voyage. First some background information on how this trip of a lifetime came to pass.

Setting the scene:

Small step #1 - Early in 2001, as moderator of Z_Scale I had become more and more aware of the international reach of the forum membership. My personal emphasis in contributing to the information circulating on the group was essentialy US-centric and I realized that I was completely out of touch with our European friends and their activities. I wanted to add European train shows to the trainshow database that I had begun to compile on Z_Scale. In the meantime, a strange idea began to tickle my brain. I wondered if it would be remotely possible to exhibit the VECRR at a major European train show. The ball started rolling with a call to Märklin USA. Taking a small first step toward the impossible, I contacted Fred Gates, President of Märklin Inc., to test his interest in offering some form of support for my project. Without hesitation he said yes with the details to be worked out later. WOW!

Small step #2 - On March 26th I sent a message to the list asking for suggestions for major European train shows where Z scale layouts might be seen.

In less than two days I had received four replies concerning model train shows in Europe. One of the responses, from Dieter Nolte of Essen, Germany, provided the name of the person coordinating a biannual US modelers train show to be held in Sinsheim, Germany as part of Faszination Modellbau, March 21-24, 2002. Faszination Modellbau - Sinsheim, Germany 2002. Dr. Werner Zuendorf, the show coordinator for BDEF, the Friends of German Railways, was in the process of putting together the 2nd annual meet of US prototype modelers in Germany. Time to take another small step...

Small step #3 - On April 5th, I sent an email to Dr. Zuendorf offering to display my layout in Germany as part of his meet. I also asked him what, if any, financial contribution his organisation could provide to help cover my costs. BDEF Friends of American Railroads - Germany welcomed the VEC at their 2002 show. Much to my surprise, on April 10, he replied that he was very interested in having the VECRR as part of his show and that there was a standard financial contribution schedule for invited layouts. He sent me the schedule and I immediately did some figuring and sent my offer back by return email.

Then followed a couple of back and forth negociations that rapidly arrived at a mutually acceptable contribution from BDEF to help cover my costs. Essentially the BDEF accepted to pay for two economy class plane tickets from Toronto to Frankfurt, return, insurance for the layout in Germany, a fee for wear and tear as well as their standard per diem for living expenses and a double-occupancy room at a nearby hotel during the show. The bottom line was that thanks to the BDEF and Faszination Modellbau I had enough funds to cover travel and living expenses for two people during the six days of the exhibition. This was one really BIG step towards getting the VECRR to a European train show.

Now I had a real show to go to, real money to help me get there and a real target date. Eleven months lay ahead of me to get organized and to tackle the challenges of getting the layout to Germany and back, of course.

Intermediate step #4 - Followed shortly thereafter a call to Fred Gates to inform him of my good fortune with the Sinsheim show. He and I agreed to discuss the details of Märklin's support at the St. Louis, MO, NMRA National Train Show in July 2001.

John Selkird, Chief NMRA Judge, presents Jeffrey MacHan the Best in Show award at the NMRA 2001 NTS. Fast forward to NTS2001 and BIG step #5 - lo and behold the VECRR won Best of Show at the National Train Show. This was much more than a national championship for model railroading, it gave the VECRR enormous credibility and allowed me to approach other prominent corporate sponsors for the still very undefined trip to Germany that was now only eight months away.

BIG step #6 - George Menzie, Marketing director for Micro-Trains Line, agreed wholeheartedly to provide support for the trip. George sat down with my wife, Marthe, and Helen Sutfin to discuss the PR strategy for a trip to a major German train show. The marketing crew came up with a substantial list of promotional elements to create an impact at Faszination Modellbau. Micro-Trains Line is a long-time sponsor of the VEC. George insisted that our efforts be directed toward promoting the layout above all else. The list included uniforms for the operators, business cards, a full-colour multilingual brochure presenting the layout, a banner sign and collector pins.

Whew, I had quite a bit of homework to do if I wanted to complete this list. Fortunately I had help along the way.

BIG step #7 - Fred Gates makes a decision. Taking advantage in a lull in the crowds at NTS2001, I managed to talk to Fred about his promise of support for the trip to Germany. Fred Gates and I agree on terms for the Märklin sponsorship of the VEC trip to Sinsheim. Of course I mentioned that the VEC had just won Best of Show. It couldn't hurt, right? Fred told me that Märklin had a policy of not contributing to requests for financial assistance for travel expenses. It seems that Märklin was sollicited quite frequently and he didn't want to set a precedent. His decision was to provide the custom shipping case to get the layout to Germany in one piece, or should I say in 3 pieces! All I had to do was find a firm that could build an appropriate custom shipping case. Easier said than done, but I had 7 months to get it done. I'd need all 7 as it turned out.

BIG step #8 - Kalmbach Publishing gets on board. Becoming quite brazen in my requests for support, I took advantage of a photo shoot at Kalmbach's offices in Waukesha, WI following NTS2001. Kalmbach Publishing / Model Railroader Magazine offered support for the trip to Europe in the form of a commission to write a feature article. Now that the VECRR was relatively well known amongst the top brass at Kalmbach, I sent an email to Russ Larson, editor and publisher of Model Railroader Magazine. I asked for a financial contribution that could take the form of a sponsorship or an advance on a future article. Mr. Larson opted for the advance. As a result I would be on assignment for MR at Faszination Modellbau...Wow again!

I now had enough financial support to cover shipping costs and PR elements. Now I had to get to work and produce the deliverables in time for the show.

This is the shipping crate built by Clydesdale from my design. BIG step #9 - Over the following months I found a supplier of custom shipping cases, Clydesdale Custom Cases of Pickering, Ontario. I set to work designing a case that would best protect the layout and provide space for tables and hardware. Clydesdale immediately understood what my sketches depicted and a month later they had built a case to my design with superb professionalism.

In the meantime, while driving home from a Christmas excursion to see Santa at Sherway Gardens Shopping Centre in Mississauga, I noticed a sign for the Bossa Embroidery Company. Fortunately the person who happened by luck to be in the shop said that they did do custom embroidery and would be open for business January 6, 2002. Over the holiday, I ordered a 2000 watt tranformer with 4 power outlets to handle the 220-volt to 110-volt conversion needed to power the layout in Germany. This transfo was the single heaviest piece of equipment I had to pack for the trip. It weighed about 10 kilos!

Small step #10 - a shopping we will go! Boxing day sales are always fun in Canada. Boxing day is December 26 when many stores offer sales to get rid of overstocks from the Christmas shopping season. One of my favourite stores is Tilley Endurables, a local manufacturer of adventure and travel clothing. Marthe wanted me to pick up some special pick-pocket proof pants for the trip so we decided to drop by on sale day. To our delight they were having a big sale on polo shirts, pants and sundry items. I bought 8 polo shirts (4 for Terry in medium and 4 for me in large). The other items included 3 pairs of pants and fast drying socks and travel underwear. Yes it does exist and it is very convenient when travelling abroad...wash in biosuds in the sink, wring out and hang to dry overnight. Wonderful things.

The VEC embroidered crest Small step #11 - the embroidery shop opened and I was ready with my logo design and the polo shirts for embroidery. The owner needed 3 weeks to produce the file and to embroider all the items that I had chosen for the logo: black baseball caps, the 8 shirts, 2 black baseball style jackets. We had the complete uniform.

Small step #12 - thanks to a referral in late February 2002, I found a printing house that could produce a canvas banner with the VECRR web address as well as several sets of stencils to be applied to the shipping case. It took me a day to apply the stencils but the case could be seen from several blocks away!

Applying the signs to the shipping case door! Time was rapidly running out. Only a few weeks before the departure date, Micro-Trains Line provided the brochures and business cards at their expense. The final product was terrific. I had supplied the digital photos and texts in English, French translation by Marthe Simard and German translation by Dieter Nolte. MTL graphic artists and staff did the layout and provided a couple of galleys for my correction and approval.

BIG step #13 - reserving the airline tickets was a challenge since Air Canada announced a seat sale just as I was making the reservations. Luckily I got through to the sales agent after only 4 tries and a 30 minute wait on hold. Once the deal was done there was no turning back. The tickets were non-refundable! Good thing too because I couldn't get through to Air Canada for the next 2 weeks!

BIG step #14 - finding a shipping agent was a learning experience. I didn't have a clue how to hire an freight forwarding complany. Schenker gave door to door delivery service. After several calls and conversations with understanding booking agents, I started to understand how air freight forwarders work with small clients. They don't! Everyone I contacted sent me to the official shipping agent for Faszination Modellbau. I finally understood that I should do business with Schenker! After a few false starts with the German head office, I finally connected with the Toronto agent, Anita Meyer, who took care of everything. There is nothing like doing business with people who know what they are doing!

Small step #15 - Märklin sent along a box of literature for the show. The box arrived on March 11, the very day that Schenker Eurocargo was scheduled to pick up the case. Fortunately I had a few minutes to stuff the documents into the case and close it up again before the freight truck arrived.

REALLY BIG step #16 - On March 11th I finally waved goodbye to the VECRR strapped securely, I hoped, in the back of a large panel freight van. Coincidentally, replacement wheelsets for my F7s arrived from Micro-Trains a few hours later!

By March 15th, the day that Terry Sutfin stepped off the plane from Portland, Oregon to join me in the next phase of our Z adventure, all I had left to do was find my passport, airline tickets, go to the bank get some Euros and pounds, get my hair cut and pack my single carry-on bag.

There were many other transactions, exchanges and emails across the ocean in preparation for the trip. By the time departure day came around practically a full year from the first small step towards Europe, I was confident that the trip would be unforgettable in many ways. I was right!

Stay tuned for Episode 1 of the Great European AdventureZ 2002. | Return to Sinsheim Chronicles Home.