by Lou Palumbo

When I was a young boy, older people used to say, "someday you are going to need a college degree just to get a job as a ditch digger." We know it hasn't come to that yet in today's job market. However, I think you need a college degree to operate some of the trains today. TrainMaster Command Control, ProtoSounds, RailSounds, programming engines are all part of today's operation of toy trains by current manufacturers.

The new sounds and operating options are really neat, when they work. But there seems to be no middle ground in this technology. They either work well or they don't work at all. There is nothing more frustrating than to see a $500 or $1000 engine sitting on the track not moving at all. That's what happens when things like the board shorts out, the engine is out of program, a light bulb is not working, a broken pin in the tether between the engine and the tender, the battery is weak, or a number of other problems that could be impossible to find by the average train collectors.

A bad board is a major problem because local service stations do not carry a supply of these items and the cost averages about $150.00 each. We are talking at least three to four week turnaround just to get this fixed and if it is over one year old, $150 to $200 repair charge. Now that is scary considering the thousands of engines that were sold over the past few years that contained these new boards.

Another major problem is that none of these boards are compatible with other engines even made by the same company. Recently I took in a repair of an engine that was purchased from our store in 1995. This engine sold for $800.00 and only had the sound of steam, a bell and a whistle. The sound board was bad and a new board would need to be installed. Luckily, the engine still had a mechanical reverse unit so the piece could still operate, only with no sounds. I will not name the company because this problem is somewhat similar to all manufacturers. In any event, I was told by the company that the part I needed would cost $175.00 and they do not have any left for sale. Now I had to tell the customer this bad news. Needless to say, I have one angry customer and we are now trying to get a part from another company to substitute. The engine will no longer be in original condition and the customer will be $200.00 poorer.

Something has to be done by the manufacturers of toy trains to address the issue of cost of replacing electronic components, as well as the availability of replacement parts in the future. I still feel that the trains today are far superior to those available prior to 1970. However, the costs on maintaining the electronics may be a major factor in the future value of today's trains. 

Christmas Season of 2000 was another banner year at our shop in both the number of sales and people. I saw many old customers as well as new folks getting into the hobby. It's always nice to see the youngsters getting their feet wet in toy trains. I continue to see many grandparents buying trains for the grandchildren, but keeping the trains at grandpa's house so he can play with them when the kids go home.

I still don't know why the train manufacturers don't put any accessory terminals on the transformers of the starter sets. This seems to be a problem and limits any expansion for a new train buyer. 

I sold many starter sets this year and in my store, MTH out-sold Lionel and K-Line starter sets. However, I had more than a few MTH engines returned and quite a few remote power supplies also went bad. All of them were fixed and returned by MTH within three to four weeks. It seems that the U.S. Post Office and U.P.S. are the big winners here. We pay to have the trains shipped to us at the time of purchase and it then has to be returned to the factory when it breaks and again sent back to us when it is repaired. We should get some frequent flyer miles or something for all of the time these trains spend on the road. Many of these problems could be solved if the factory would have parts available so that the service station can do the repairs on site.

TM Books and Video have been real good friends and we are always sharing information so I will try to keep you folks up to "snuff" with all of the new train info that I get from time to time.

Happy trains!
Lou Palumbo

Visit Lou Palumbo's Underground Railroad Shoppe.