Monday, August 26, 2019

A Satisfying Locomotive Project - CV 4550

I've been wondering if I should use "fun" in this post title... and felt it wasn't exactly the right word. What I feel when modelling is a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Model railroading isn't fun... it's satisfying. I don't care about fun, it comes and goes... satisfaction is a more durable commodity.

I recently complained how I felt betrayed by RTR high end models that promises a lot of fun and deliver very little in terms of accomplishment. I discussed the matter with a well-known fellow modeller over the last few week and we agreed we felt better trying to make something out of a less than perfect model than fueling our lives waiting for disappointing pre-orders. Modeller and author Mike Cougill even went further, positing it was often better to start from scratch than try to fix what can't be fixed when you took in account the time and resources required.

In that regard, many will recall I mentioned a long time ago how I was still proud of my super detailed lowly Bachmann CP Rail RS3... a cheap model with an EcoTsunami decoder I bought for over $100 a few years ago. It was a fun project that provided hours of research and modelling.

That made me reflect on how we can approach locomotive modelling. Some people like long and tedious work on locomotive that last for an eternity… Months, if not years, collecting detail parts in hope of starting the project sometime… Dealing with complex drive and shell surgery, until every little detail has been altered. Been there, done that... and still likes it. Unfortunately, very few models came out of that protracted approach for obvious reasons.

Others prefer to simply buy and live with compromises. Something I also indulge in. However, sometimes I only want a fun modelling project, a no brainer that yields satisfaction at a decent cost and that can be done in a timely and efficient manner. It’s not a matter of winning a contest, but rather of accomplishing something of honest significance over a decent span of time. The kind of project you try to go as far as you can, pushing the limit over the "good enough" approach yet being aware of obvious pitfalls and that hard choices must be made to reach a conclusion.

After my recent trip in Maine and Vermont, I was ready for such a project and wanted to model some classic New England locomotives for the fun of it. Most of my custom locomotives for the club are done (except the SW1200RS which missing parts issue dried out my remaining interest in the short term) and I’m looking for new modelling challenges.

Green & Gold CN scheme surviving on CV (credit:

While browsing, I became aware Central Vermont rostered GP9s in classic green and gold livery well into the late 1970s (at least 1978) until they were repainted in the attractive Larson Green scheme. A quick analysis of pictures shown me I had most required details parts on hand and the missing ones were in stock in Canadian hobby shops and could be readily ordered from reputable sources at a decent price. Also, Central Vermont GP9s were fairly generic models and didn’t require extensive shell surgery. I also had the paint on hand (old Accu-Paint stock bought years ago in bulk) and could order quickly a set of decals.

Bachmann GP9 shell is sturdy and is decent enough to be superdetailed

Then, it was time to select a model to work with. I had several options: old Proto 2000, Athearn Genesis, Atlas, etc… but having recently ran my pair of customized Bachmann geeps on the layout, I kind of liked their performance and appearance. Bachmann geeps can be bought for about $60 online and provide a sound base for modelling. As for the decoder, technology changes so fast with sound decoders, I prefer to custom install something I will select myself to my specifications when I’ll need it rather than purchasing blindly.

Yes, I certainly won’t say it’s the best GP9 out there, but Bachmann did a decent job for what it is, particularly for customizing. On the mechanical side, the model is fairly reliable, quite heavy and performs well, particularly when you add a quality decoder. The shell lacks details such as grabirons, but for people interested in customizing, this is a plus. Indeed, no need to remove unwanted details and fill holes. In fact, drilling new holes with a custom template and adding wire grabirons only take a few minutes. Another interesting aspect is the shell sturdiness. It makes for a quite solid model that can take abuse when doing some kitbashing. No flimsy underframe details that explode or poorly glued parts. You can drill, hack and saw without fearing to ruin your investment.

Details such threadplate really add a layer of realism when dealing with budget locomotives

While crude in some respect due to lack of separately applied details, the tooling is simple but quite sharp and accurate.  One thing I like is the flush window panes. Their design is sturdy and they can easily be removed. Basics, but far superior to Athearn Genesis poorly glued glazing I had to deal with recently. In short, I would apply the phrase "good enough" to this model, in the sense it is a sound foundation to lay your work on. No profusion of weird details, annoying delrin parts or models that can be taken appart without removing a dozen of screws in the most unlikely places. Just a good plastic shell you can hack as you wish and glue everything you want.

But certainly, for this price, you must live with some short comings: obvious errors in paint scheme, lack of thread plate on running board, somewhat flat rendition of truck sideframes, etc. And yes, I did take that into account before starting the project. I knew I would have to live with a big shortcoming: it was a GP9 Phase II model while I needed a phase III. It meant the fuel tank was wrong, fuel filler in the wrong position and overall  grill placement on the body wouldn’t fit exactly my prototype. Also, handrails wouldn’t replicate standard Canadian practice, something Athearn Genesis Canadian GP9 did. However, I knew I could address most of these issues without too much effort and the model would be about 95% accurate when I would be done and with a price tag under $100. Certainly, I'm not eager at moving louvers, but I have no choice!

Not the correct pilot? It can be improved and made more prototypical in few minutes.

My biggest complaint with the shell is the shallow fan grill details on the roof. I honestly don’t know why Bachmann didn’t make them with more relief according to prototype. It wouldn’t have been hard and could have improved greatly the final appearance. That said, I had three Details West EMD GP9 see-through fan grill left from my Donohue switcher project. By luck, the fourth fan would be covered by a winter hatch.

A change of phase: a new fuel filler and sanded down louvers to be replaced with resin decals. 

Another shortcoming was the lack of thread plate. This detail does make a difference on models. Fortunately, I had Archer’s early EMD thread plate resin decals on hand and quickly improve the shell with them.

The biggest modification was relocating the fuel gauge and tank cap while reshaping the skirting to fit the prototype. I wasn’t sure I would do it at first, but it does better capture the feel of the real locomotive.

Once done, most of the project was about adding correct details to the shell: sunshades, horn, bell, spark arrestors, rerailer, brakewheel, air and mu hoses. It wouldn’t take long before the model was ready to visit the spray booth.

I certainly won’t get a museum-quality model out of a Bachmann GP9, but I’ll get a sturdy and reliable engine for layout use.  I took care to use durable materials and to cement them with glues and mechanical means that will withstand layout use (and abuse). I know my details will survive instead of popping out of the shell each time my finger touch them. No place for flimsy assemblies because this model was custom made for specific needs. Maybe my needs will be different next time and my methods will have to be adapted...

Also, I’ll see the end of the project before my retirement and I had already several enjoyable hours thinkering with it. As I discussed with a friend recently, I’d rather have a lot of fun doing actual modelling and bashing with a lower end model than get frustrated with a highly priced locomotive that doesn’t live up to my expectation. When I pay $60 for a Bachmann, I know perfectly what I’m buying and the obvious shortcomings. With some love and dedication, I get a pretty model I’m proud of. On the other hand, for $325 my expectations are far higher and each small issue adds up to months of dissatisfaction. At the end of the day, for each dollar invested, I’ve got to ask myself where I get the most joy out of my investment… It may no longer fashionable to buy cheap models and turn them into head turning locomotives because we have been spoiled by manufacturer, but it is where I have fun…

Blending everything under a good coat of primer.

I’ll be honest, the reason why I'm writing about this is quite simple. I was saving money last Spring to pre-order a well-known and long awaited classic Canadian model which I had to kitbash several time in the past. However, my recent experience with museum-quality models made me reconsider this move. Instead, I used this money to purchased a few low budget Bachmann GP9/S4 and Atlas Classics RS11 locomotives that were on sale with decals and detail parts. No, I won’t feed social media with unboxing videos of fashionable models… but I know I have still a few interesting modelling weekends in front of me… Expect a lot of classic Central Vermont, Maine Central and Vermont Railway modelling soon… just for the fun of it! 

Let's not kid ourselves, it isn't museum-quality, but an honest replica.

And that brings us to something more fundamental that varies from modeller to modeller. What do we get out of that hobby. No one knows that when he picks up this hobby, but over the years, patterns appear and it is dumb to fight against them. It has been clear in this blog I take pride morphing cheap models into more prototypical objects. I like analyzing the potential of a model, looking for a suitable prototype (or vice versa) and bringing that vision to life. This is my solace, in a very monastic way. It soothe my mind and inspire me to get better at what I do. I certainly don't believe it is the only way, but it gave me countless meaningful hours in the past, learning about railroads and their history.

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