RTR ups and downs

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I have enjoyed some distance from the model railway hobby this year, and I am just starting to rekindle some interest for those long, dark winter months. Having been absent from the usual model railway forums for a while, I revisited and saw much discussion of quality control issues and demands for improvement from unhappy consumers and this got me thinking…

Are we modellers?

My collection of Ready To Run (RTR) models is far from immune of quality control issues, but very few have been returned to the manufacturer or shop, ‘Why?’ you ask, because I can resolve some of the problems myself. Be it: clipping off flash; swapping wheels sets around; re-positioning pick-ups; re-seating motors; pressing loose wheel-rims back onto axels; I can do these things (and have done). Building brass loco kits and chopping up different RTR models to create weird new locos can give you a clear perspective of running performance and the issues that can occur.

Even the simple act of removing the body of a loco to fit a DCC chip helps build confidence in tackling certain issues. I can only assume how difficult it must be for someone to approach these running problems or cosmetic issues if they fear to fiddle with the internals of these expensive models. But how fair is it to pass this back to the manufacturer?

Manufacturing RTR models

Let’s be honest about this: we are discussing a highly complex and highly detailed miniature with circuit boards, cogs, motors, pick-ups and fly wheels. They are a strange hybrid of analogue and digital technology. How many similarly complex items are sold by manufacturers on mass? Watches and cameras are all I can think of. Cars, I suppose, but they are a tad bigger and a tad more expensive.

Mobile phones, tablets and PCs don’t really count because they don’t have any moving parts these days, and just think how many issues are reported for these devices (just look at the software issues associated with updates to Apple devices and Windows etc.). Apple and co. can fix many problems on the fly, after release, by remotely sending fixes and updates. We are not in a position yet for this to happen with our trains.

Some questions for you:

  • Would you pay much attention to a noisier-than-expected servo in a camera lens or a loudly ticking watch? – Maybe.
  • Do you compare the running of your car against a friend’s one?  – I suppose some car-addicts do.

The decision to keep or return a model train might hinge on similar questions to those above. I completely agree that it is our right as consumers to receive accurate running and functioning models, and I think it would be brilliant, but I am not so sure how realistic these expectations are. What testing procedure would remove 98% of failures and deficiencies? We would have to wait even longer for our models and they would be unsustainably expensive, thus is this actually a possibility? Hornby’s recent retro-grade approach is about reducing costs of manufacturing. How much of this decision is based around quality control requirements?

Companies like Heljan, Dapol, Bachmann are not monstrously sized businesses. Every returned model surely imposes a cost to their business. Do we ever consider how much the Heljan Clayton engine failure episode financially impacted Heljan? I don’t really want to be a part of destroying these companies. Thus I try to separate any problems associated with my models into two groups:

  • Actual manufacturing faults, which jeopardise the prolonged life of the model and things that are beyond my ability to fix, which will ultimately result in product returns.
  • Issues that are just unsurprising results of an industrial manufacturing process on a miniature, which I can fix or resolve.

RTR examples

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I have a few new models on my workbench.

  • My Heljan Class 16 diesels operate perfectly and silently, just bliss to watch.
  • My Heljan Class 15 is a tad noisy, I have taken the motor out to investigate and have found the chassis to run quietly when the body is not on, thus I am putting this down to the vibration of the plastic body. I may also lubricate the cogs a bit more. I might also put it through a haulage test to make sure that the motor is sound.
  • My Heljan Class 14 teddy bear wouldn’t move at all. No lights, nothing. However, it did seem to be receiving electric current. I quickly decided not to attempt cranking up the voltage (this is based on previous experience with loco chassis construction). I unscrewed the chassis keeper plate (which is screwed down very tight). The little loco then lurched into life and is a lovely smooth runner.

Granted the Class 14 is based on previous experience, this being my second one for my layout… well… technically it’s my third! My first model was bought at product launch and went up in a puff of smoke! The replacement came and attempted a similar death, until I discovered that the chassis cogs seemed to be locked up by the overly tight keeper plate screws. I could have thrown all three models back at Hattons/Heljan, but there is nothing wrong with the model. It just needed a little tweak. A tweak I was able to diagnose and resolve. I have to confess to finding this process quite fun.

Somebody on a model railway forum recently proposed that it is better to consider our RTR models as almost completed kits, which might need a bit of ‘tweaking’. I am 100% behind this analogy.

I do not know how many of my fellow railway modellers are happy to fix these type of issues, but I do wish we would be more open and acceptant of these problems and try to resolve them, rather than bang the drum of our ‘trading standards’ act. Much like the H&S legislation that we laugh at for its pedantic approach, maybe our ‘quality assurance’ and ‘consumer rights’ policies and legislation can be just as senseless and unrealistic.

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