Jason Shron on Making Trains

Jason Shron… and his bus, of course

Jason Shron, president of Rapido Trains, gave a talk in Winnipeg on August 16 on running a model railroad company. Jason has been in Winnipeg a number of times, sometimes meeting up with people at Ware House Hobbies, but it always seemed that I was out of town when he was here, or I heard about it afterward. This time, there was plenty of advance notice and I was able to attend.

Jason was giving the talk to the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club – and anyone else who wanted to attend – and wanted to talk about how Rapido manufactures trains, from start to finish, at their two factories in China. The story was especially topical, given that a major Chinese model train factory closed a week before his talk (Rapido’s production is unaffected).

A collection of Rapido goodies

He started with a history of model railroad production in China. Basically, modern model train manufacturing was built in China. Sanda Kan was the first factory and made trains for many manufacturers until it was purchased by the company that also owns Bachmann. The Life-Like Proto 2000 series was the first major line of model trains made in China, back in the late 1980s. Today, most ready-to-run model railroad locomotives and freight cars are made in China.

One thing people always say is, “make it in America!” But the economics aren’t there.

Jason talked about the Budd mid-train dome car and its economics. I don’t want to get into specific numbers, as I am not sure he wants those made public, but here is an overview. The car has a suggested retail price (MSRP) of $109 Canadian on Rapido’s web site ($98.95 on Canadian Express Line).

The first cost is the cost of tooling to make the molding to make the shell. Jason quoted a number, which I won’t repeat, but it’s in the tens of thousands of dollars. That’s a one-time price you have to invest before you make a single car, and you have to recoup that over all the cars you sell. This makes it very expensive to produce a small run of cars.

Each dome car has about 8 hours of labour in it, to do the pad printing of all the lettering, and add all of the detail parts. I think Jason said there are about 300 detail parts on each car. If you assume that this was done in North America, where the worker was paid about $20/hour (not including labour overhead such as employment insurance, Canada Pension, etc.), that’s $160 in labour alone. Add onto that the material cost and overhead to pay the 12 people who work full-time at Rapido, advertising, etc. and you’ll probably end up with a $400-$500 car. It’s simple math.

Tempo (L) and Amtrak cabbage (R)

Jason talked briefly about 3D printing, which is great for short runs, but it’s expensive and slow and not (yet) suited for mass production. Maybe someday this will change. That would only reduce the tooling costs, though.

He also mentioned that production costs in China have more than tripled since 2008, due to the rising cost of labour there. Someday it will not be cost-effective to make model trains there either!

After Jason’s presentation, he opened the floor to questions and answers, and there were a lot of them. I’ll mention a few. Jason was very open and honest and I appreciate that.

Q: Couldn’t someone buy the closed factory?
A: No, China really discourages foreign ownership. Also, Chinese owners know people – relationships go a long way toward working with local officials and getting things done.

N scale Dash-8

Q: Can’t you make cheaper, lower-fidelity models?
A: Yes, Rapido tried that with the “Prime Movers” line with the Dash-8. People demanded more detail, and the profit margin is smaller on those so they have to sell a lot more. In the end, people want high detail.

Scale Trains makes three versions of most models – Museum Quality, Rivet Counter, and Operator, and their experience, according to Jason, is that the vast majority of sales are the Museum Quality versions and they end up with a surplus of the lower quality versions.

Q: How are your sales split by the nationality of the model?
A: About 30% British models, 50% Canadian, and 20% American.

I was very glad to finally meet Jason in person. We have corresponded a few times over the years, and he sent me a passenger car once as thanks for providing some reference photos and other information for a project they had. Jason is a great guy in person, and a tremendous asset to the hobby. He is also a great advocate for, and user of, VIA Rail.

Thanks for giving this talk, Jason, and I hope to see you again soon!

Putting a DCC Decoder in a Proto 1000 RDC

BC Rail Proto 1000 RDC
BC Rail Proto 1000 RDC

I installed a TCS decoder in a Walthers Proto 1000 RDC today. It was pretty straightforward!

The basic process is as follows:

  • Remove the shell (and couplers)
  • Cut traces on the board inside
  • Solder decoder wiring harness to board
  • Tape decoder down
  • Replace shell
  • Program decoder… and play!

Here are the steps. Just a generic caution – there is a chance you could damage your decoder or your RDC. Be careful and proceed with caution. I’m not responsible if you break something or hurt yourself! 🙂

The Decoder

I used a TCS T1 decoder. This is a basic no-frills decoder that comes with a separate wiring harness. The decoder features auto-adjusting BEMF for slow speed control… not really required for a speedy RDC but it came with the decoder anyway.

RDC and TCS T1 decoder
RDC and TCS T1 decoder

Removing the Shell

In order to remove the RDC’s shell, you have to remove the couplers on both end, as well as four screws.

Screws to remove
Screws to remove

On one end, you have to turn the truck to remove the screws (one per side, as shown in photo above).

The other end is easier as the screws are closer to the end of the RDC.

Coupler removed, other screws to remove
Coupler removed, other screws to remove

Once all six screws have been removed, the shell slides off pretty easily. It should look like this:

Proto 1000 RDC with shell removed
Proto 1000 RDC with shell removed

 

Cut Traces on the Board

There are three traces on the circuit board that need to be cut to enable DCC operation. They are clearly marked with an X.

X marks the spot(s) to cut
X marks the spot(s) to cut

Some instructions say to use a knife to make multiple cuts and eventually break the trace; some suggest using a pin drill to break it. I decided to throw caution to the wind and use a cordless drill.

There are a couple of risks, of course. You could drill right through the board and break a trace on the other side… or you could put too much pressure on the board and snap it. So be careful!

I used gentle pressure, with my free hand on the bottom of the board to support it, and pulsed the drill quickly to remove a bit of material at a time. I found that as long as I was careful to have the drill perfectly perpendicular to the board, it worked very well and the drill bit didn’t wander. A few minutes work and the traces were cut.

Traces cut by drill
Traces cut by drill

Naturally you must test to ensure they are actually cut! I used my ancient digital multimeter to test on each side. You test P2-P5, P1-P8 and P4 to one or the other end of the long trace that runs the length of the board.

Testing resistance
Testing resistance

All I was doing was checking to ensure there was no connection between the two points. Simply set your multimeter to measure resistance, and touch the two points. The multimeter should blink or otherwise indicate that it can’t measure resistance, meaning that there is no connection. Make sure you touch the leads together to get a zero resistance reading to confirm that your multimeter is actually working correctly.

Measuring resistance with multimeter
Measuring resistance with multimeter

My Micronta multimeter blinks “30.00” when there is no connection.

Solder the Wiring Harness

The next step is to solder the wiring harness to the board. DCC wiring harnesses use standard colours so every decoder should have the same meaning assigned to each wire colour. These are the correct colours for this particular board:

  • Orange wire (motor positive) to P1
  • Yellow wire (rear headlight) to P2
  • Black wire (left rail pickup) to P4
  • Grey wire (motor positive) to P5
  • White wire (front heading) to P6
  • Blue wire (common) to P7
  • Red wire (right rail pickup) to P8

I did not use green (function F1) or violet (function F2). These could be used for interior lighting, ditch lights etc. if desired.

You may or may not want to cut some of the wire off the harness, as the TCS harness’ wires are quite long. I elected to leave them as is.

Wiring Connections
Wiring Connections

 

Tape Decoder Down

You can’t have the decoder floating around inside the RDC, so you need to secure it somehow. The TCS T1 decoder is already in a sleeve so there is no need to cover it. I stuck a piece of double-sided tape to the circuit board and stuck the decoder to that, then coiled up the wires and used Scotch tape to secure the wires.

Decoder secured
Decoder secured

It’s important to not cover the decoder to allow it to dissipate heat.

Replace Shell

Replacing the shell is simple. Slide the shell back on, ensuring that it is oriented correctly – it won’t go on backwards. Make sure you don’t pinch any wires.

Put all six screws back in and you’re ready to program!

You might want to leave the shell off until you confirm the decoder is working

Program the Decoder

You’ll have to refer to your DCC system manual to learn how to program decoders. The TCS T1 comes programmed with address 03 so you will want to change that to something more appropriate, like the number of the RDC itself. In my case the RDC is BC-31 so I programmed it to use 0031.

I had a rising sense of panic when programming this decoder. It wasn’t responding properly and would sometimes show CANNOT READ CV VALUE on my NCE controller, yet I could tell the decoder was responding because it was twitching the motor when I was sending commands. I couldn’t get it to accept the new number…

Finally I realized that the wheels were probably dirty and that was interfering with the decoder receiving the commands. I cleaned them and everything was smooth as silk after that. Lesson learned.

Play

I drove the RDC around for a bit, then coupled up an old Athearn dummy RDC as a trailer and brought it to the CN station in Georgetown.

Proto 1000 RDC at station
Proto 1000 RDC at station

I even took a little video so you can see and hear it run. Note the headlight being turned on at the start.

So that was fun! All told it took about an hour.

For other instructions, you can follow this one from Tony’s Trains which includes replacing the lights with LEDs, or this one from TCS themselves.

PS if you want to wait, you can get Rapido’s new super cool RDC! Check out this great video from Rapido Trains.