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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden TrainsTM and Garden Train StoreTM

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The Thomas Chronicles

Book 3: A Pretty Useful Railroad

In Thomas Chronicles Book 1 we described the invitation from Holden Arboretum to present some "how-to" sessions on Garden Railroading. We were also asked to use Thomas The Tank(r) and his friends to interest the younger visitors. In Thomas Chronicles Book 2 we described the preparations we made to bring Thomas, James, and a lot of other stuff, to Kirtland, Ohio. That article ended with taking trains, trestles, towns, track, tools, viaduct, and about 300 pounds of lumber to Kirtland, Ohio, and setting up on Saturday morning, July 14. (Lord willing, we'll be doing the same thing on August 18, 2007, in case you want to come watch.)

Yes, I know this is Thomas, not James, but I don't have any photos of James on this loop for reasons we'll describe in a moment. Click for bigger photo.We started out by setting a 4'-diameter loop of track on the ground, with the idea of using it as a "holding track" for whichever "Thomas and Friends" train wasn't running at the time. Then we set up a raised 4'x9' railroad complete with viaduct. We had to take a break at noon to attend a donor event. But fortunately, A: the food was good, B: the people were nice, and C: the event ran a little shorter than we had planned, so we were able to get back to the pavillion and start finishing our preparations about 12:40.

I hooked a power supply to the raised railroad and set Thomas on it. He ran around just fine for several minutes, then derailed. Then I set James on the 4' loop that was on the ground, with the one Troublesome Truck we have. (I had brought some other cars that would have worked, including an AristoCraft 4-wheel gondola that is almost exactly the same height and width as the Troublesome Truck, but they had Aristo couplers on them - one of many things I hadn't taken into account.)

Then kids started asking why James wasn't running. Then parents started asking why James wasn't running. In the meantime, we tried putting Annie and Clarabelle on the raised track behind Thomas. They kept derailing. I realized that there were some kinks in the track and worked on those, but a bigger problem seemed to be the wind. The roofs of those cars come off, so my helpers (with my permission) put a little gravel on the floors of the cars. But they still kept derailing. So we took Thomas and Annie and Clarabelle off the 4'x9' raised James wound up on the upper loop because Thomas' coaches Annie and Clarabel kept blowing off in the high wind. Click for bigger photo.railroad and put them on the 4'-diameter ground-level loop of track. We put James and his Troublesome Truck on the upper track, as you see in the photo to the right. In addition, James' pilot seemed to help him navigate the all-but-invisible kinks in the upper track.

For a few minutes I wondered if I had overestimated the importance of the viaduct to Thomas fans (and maybe should have spent my time doing something else). But then a 3-year old who spotted the railroad from maybe 40' away yelled to his mother, "Look, it's the viaduct," and came running over. Many other kids during the course of the weekend mentioned the word "viaduct." So I'm guessing that there is a Thomas episode that has to do directly with the viaduct, since that word's never mentioned in the episodes I watched. Still, it seems like an awfully big word to be coming out of all of those 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old mouths.

Although it was 1:00 and time for me to start my presentation, I finally gave into public pressure and hastily attached a spare (but under-powered) power supply to the lower track so Thomas could run as well. I hadn't had time to get extra connectors (not to mention that I hadn't planned to have 3 railroads running, including the bigger one we would actually be building during our demonstration), so I took the expedient of running wires directly into the rail joiners and shoving the track pieces together.

Once Thomas was running on the ground, he was just as much an attraction as James running on the raised railroad, and maybe more attractive to really small children. Click for bigger photo.Overall the children were very careful not to bump either train or the railroad, even when they were somewhat crowding the viaduct. Most of the parents were also good about saying "Look but don't touch." But no one seemed to understand why walking over the power supplies and wires was a problem. So Molly spent much of Saturday re-attaching wires. Sunday, when we were setting up, Molly left some storage containers where they would block access to the power supplies, and things went much more smoothly.

Molly also felt that the little power supplies (both of which were labeled for "Large Scale" or "G Gauge") were overheating and shutting down on their own from time to time. So we'll try to have better power supplies when we come back in August. Shelia also mentioned having the power supply for the raised railroad INSIDE the loop, another good idea. I also have some ideas for improving the "traffic flow" problem more attractively.

Click for bigger photo.At any rate, most of Saturday and all of Sunday we really had two "demonstrations" going on - the demonstrations I was doing under the pavillion using big curves, big trains and big words, and the little Thomas railroads going on at the outside edge (and usually out of my peripheral vision). We kept having to tell kids to let their parents take them to the big Paul Busse railroad (the "main" garden railroading event of the summer); otherwise, some of them would have gladly sat watching James cross the viaduct all day long. Also, kids that went to see the Paul Busse railroad and came back past us, wanted to stay forever, as well.

So there was lots of hard work, and lots and lots of happy faces, so it was worth it. Next time we do this, we'll have more reliable track connections, more reliable power supplies, and better-planned traffic patterns. But we hope to have just as much fun.

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