Tuesday, 2 November 2010

How much prototype is enough for Australian HO?

There has been an interesting exchange of opinions on one of the model railway listservs recently about HO scale models and accuracy to the prototype.

The focus of the discussion was the NSWGR S truck. However, the debate is relevant to all models of Australian prototype. But I want to concentrate on HO scale models for the time being, given the size of this market in Australia and the focus of the manufacturers to produce models to this scale.

I believe that HO scale model manufacturers in our hobby are committed to making their models as accurate as possible to the prototype. However, there are likely to be commercial and production considerations that make concessions to prototype accuracy necessary. These considerations might include the cost of production, the ease of construction during the production process, generic prototype fundamentals over individual prototype specifics, and whether detail items may actually be too fragile for the expected model railway use.

On the demand side of the equation, we hear that modellers want their HO scale models to be accurate to the prototype. We sometimes hear major debates about whether the sill detail is a scale 1 inch too wide on the model, or whether all the detail rivets in the undercarriage have been reproduced to "scale" thickness. On the other hand, models that have a number of omissions or errors are quite rightly criticised. But these are all value judgements.

The Australian manufacturers sourcing product from the factories in China, as well as a bevy of local "cottage industry" producers, all face the same scale-prototype dillemma - how much accuracy should be provided?

Austrains tries to make some differentiation between the level of detail accuracy with their basic (Basix) range and their more detailed "standard" models. This strategy is probably a good one. I do wonder, however, whether a significant portion of the buying public really care, and just purchase models based on the availability of their favourite or needed models.

Interestingly, I suspect that all scale model hobbies face the same issue: a commitment to produce accurate models with reasoned concessions to accuracy when applicable. For example, a few railway modellers I know have a penchant for model tanks. There are highly detailed plastic kits of model tanks in 1:35 and 1:72 scale, as well as a range of supplementary super detail items including turret assemblies and tracks.

The issue therefore becomes to what level of detail and prototype accuracy is required by the market (and the market is segmented to include collectors, rivet counters, "average" modellers, etc.) and what does this mean for the manufacturers who produce for this market? Should model railway manufacturers keep striving for even greater scale accuracy if the retail cost rises considerably, or the model becomes too fragile to handle? Is there an acceptable standard for prototype accuracy that could be enhanced with super-detail parts supplied by third party manufacturers?

I'd be interested in hearing from modellers and manufacturers what they consider to be acceptable tolerances for HO scale railway models based on the prototype, keeping in mind the differences in individual modeller's wants and the market realities in which the manufacturers operate within.


  1. Hi Brad, Interesting question. As a boy growing up in Melbourne in the 60's I was reasonably happy just to repaint Tri-ang and Hornby wagons in 'VR' paint schemes, pulled by the Tri-ang B class! There's no way in my wildest dreams that I could've imagined all the terrific products that we have now becoming available! I am more of a collector, rather than a modeller, and am very happy to operate all these great new items straight from the box, and for me they've got more than enough detail.I would not like to see them increase in price from what they are now, even with added detail.

    I think you said it all when you mentioned using the current models as a basis for adding super-detail parts, for those modellers who want to. After all, that's what 'modelling' is all about.

    I enjoy your blog!

    Cheers, Simon

  2. Hi Brad,

    As someone who was young teenage modeler 25 or so years ago, I remember being envious of the beautiful brass engines the older modellers had, whilst I made do with a Lima 38 and 422, and a Trax 48 Class.

    In relative terms a Lima 422 Class was probably worth about the same amount a Trainorama 44 Class, however, the difference in detail and running qualities of the 44 are worlds apart, and in all honestly it's as good as the brass engines of back then which were a great deal more expensive. Throw in being DCC and sound ready, as well as having superb paintwork (most brass engines weren't even factory painted) and how can you complain?

    Sure, there are still some annoying errors that creep in due to various reasons, but on the whole I think we are being given very high overall quality products at reasonable prices, and really don;t have too much to complain about, if you compare what we had a quarter of a century ago.

    I think there is a bit of "the more we get the more we want" scenario happening, and with the bar continually being raised, people are having to look even closer than ever before to pick out the errors, which are tending to be smaller and smaller things rather than big mistakes. Yes the odd glaring error still pops up, but on the whole I am pretty happy with what I have to choose from.


  3. Good question Brad. Personally, I prefer the challenge of adding my own detail and scratchbuilding things that I know will never be popular enough to turn up as kit let alone as a rtr model. If I do happen to be able to buy a rtr model, I'd like it to be as accurate as posssible with the ability to add extra detail as an add on if you want. If the detail can't be accurate or robust then leave it off. Nothing annoys me more than having to remove unwanted, sub standard detail before adding my own.


  4. Brad, I am very firmly with the thoughts of Rod here. I enjoy scratchbuilding and adding detail but what utterly detest is having to pull apart, butcher or totally rebuild a model to correct basic dimensional errors. Indeed it was the prime reason I gave up modelling the NSWGR and moved to modelling the GWR. While I model in P4 I could have accepted RP25/88 wheels. What I cannot stand though is throwing 75% of an S wagon away to correct stuff! While the current crop of RTR steam is a blessing all the ones I like have issues with them that would drive me batty to rectify. So, leave some of the detail off by all means but spend a bit more time and effort on getting the basic dimensions and details right

  5. Chaps,

    Thanks for the comments so far. I think we all agree we'd like accurate models, although the degree of accuracy remains a personal preference I would suggest. But we'd like a model with even basic detail to "get it right". So why do you think we get models that aren't right? Or are they "right" for the market?

    The issue really is the degree to which accuracy is wanted in the model railway market (i.e. the demand) and the degree to which manufacturing costs and engineering tolerances impact the production of a model. Perhaps a manufacturer could enlighten us as to these engineering and cost constraints.

    Craig makes a good point about the frustration of having to ditch 75% of a model to make up for the inaccuracies. And of course that begs the question as to why was the model produced to this standard in the first place? Or perhaps, why did railway modellers buy it at all? The latter question might be explained these days since pre-ordering is so prevalent, even in the US and British markets.

    In economics there is Say's Law (named after a French economist from yonks ago) which says: supply creates it's own demand. Is this the market in which Australian railway modellers find themselves?

  6. Where does one start with all of this? Like others I've been in the hobby for over 50years, & have seen a lot through those times, the Dockyard brass models, Kits that were a joke, a piece of wood here & wire there a good file to get things to fit, & hope they ran.

    Over time things have improved humongrously, but there are still issues, even though in the past few years technology has gone even further, & whilst few if any models come without any issues associated with them, & dare I suggest even the better kits are not for the beginner. I enjoy building what I can, in both kit & freelance, so good & accurate plans are essential for the later, just as much as good & accurate plans for the assembly of kits, & I think we are let down in those areas, just as much as we are with aspects of accuracy with RTR models.

    At my age, & am beyond trying to finish off everything that I would like for my layout, even if they were available, so maybe I am prepared to compromise a bit more as a result. Having said that I see no valid reason why R/S items should not be produced these days with accuracy & attention in particular to the length, breadth & heights of the models.

    Given that so many models have issues with fragility of parts, & having tried the path towards producing models myself, before coming to my senses, it was obvious those 4-5 odd years ago that some aspects of model prodructions just cannot be done in pure scale sizes, & that applied to the thicknesses of open wagons, such as the S truck, perhaps today it may be better.

    Other aspects that producers have to give consideration to is who are the people who purchase their products? In the main they are not scale modellers, whereas those who are, & prepared to pay the exrra money needed are not in the majority, it therefore comes to a point for these producers at what cost can they go to in order to achieve the scale fidelity that some are desirous of, & that equates to how much they can charge the modeller themselves.

    As for detail, my gripe is with detail that is now applied at factories, is that the bits are so easy to fall off, no matter how gently you handle them, but try glueing them back in place, as its almost impossible to buy glues that will do the job. I would prefer the main body of the model that has detail to be added on, be produced in some plastic that can not only show up needed fine detail, but also of a type that bits can be refitted & glued in place.

  7. Thanks, Col, I certainly agree that the basic dimensions of a model railway loco or item of rolling stock should be correct.

    And the detail parts issue is also of note. Some US loco manufacturers used to have a packet of detail items that the modeller could add themselves to the loco. However, I understand that the mass market didn't like this extra work and the manufacturers now get the Chinese factories to produce locos with the detail parts already added. Not sure if this really adds too much extra to the manufacturing cost or not.

    In Australia, I know a few of the people involved with the research for the models produced by a couple of the manufacturers. I believe they do an extraordinary job in seeking to get the most accurate information for the factory in China. What happens after the research has been completed and discussions with the Chinese factories take place is something a manufacturer will have to enlighten us with.

    regards, Brad

  8. I would like the kits or RTR models to be accurate. Wheels should be accurate as well with 23.8 mm axles at least.I get tired of buying models that are WRONG,and correcting them someone please make an S wagon or RU/K wagon that is correct dimensionally.The current BWH,BCH etc are fantastic so there is hope on the horizon.Best regards Peter H

  9. Brad

    From comments made by several of the importers, I get the impression that even though all the drawings that are done for models are checked out, & approved before full production is done, the first samples are checked & then any alterations checked against the agreed drawings.

    When final approval is given to the corrected models to enter the production stage, the importers believe they have it right, each stage of the process costs more money, thus the need to get them right very early on.

    Problem is, that even though they have checked, rechecked & reached agreement etc it is not uncommon for the models to show up without corrections being done, even though paid for. Thus a bun fight can take place to get a refund of the money paid for corrections not carried out.

    Thus what is experienced is the factories are actually letting down the importers, not good but having to pay up front, they have nothing to gain by refusing to accept them.

    I have heard of those old models in the US, similar things were tried by Triang & Hornby with the TKD & partially assembled models, when all the main stuff was done such as body, frame motor, motions etc came assembled & the modeler finished off the detailing. Was not a real succes so dumped.

    The Chinese wages for migrant workers who assemble the models are intergral to the companies & as such, I would imagine that we would be flat our savinga dollar or two at the most for a model that has not had the detail added on.

    It still comes back, at least for me to ensure the models are produced in a material that is condusive for fitting/glueing parts on to models. As previously stated the amount of detail items that drop off models made from Delrin/POM type plastics, will not accept commonly available modellin glues & that includes the greater proportion of Super Glues.


  10. I started modelling NSWGR in the late 1970s, and we welcomed kits that took away the necessity to scratchbuild everything. Adding details, and making improvements added to the skills of the modeller. However, the accuracy of todays RTR models makes my previous efforts look amateurish, although on a moving train, I doubt anyone will notice. But it is affecting my modellng attitude - no longer am I prepared to build a half baked model from a kit, when for a few more dollars I can have a superb model. This should give me more time to build layouts.... Another upside, perhaps it is the chequebook modelling that is turning people to adopt other scales, and prototypes. This has to be a good thing!!