N-scale questions from a mom with no brain for this

Hi --
I've read through some of the archives, but am still feeling quite confused; I am REALLY stupid about this stuff, so please be kind.
My parents and I are looking to buy an N scale set for my son for Christmas. He is 7 1/2 years old, and though I know that a larger set would be preferable, we simply don't have the space for it. Even a small HO layout would take every available spare inch of the room he shares with his twin sister, and she's not likely to be too thrilled at that development. Thus the N. He has been a complete train nut since he was two, and I suspect that this will be a long-term fixation for him. Thus I want a set that can grow little by little over the years, especially once he has (or if he ever gets...) his own room.
I am leaning toward a Kato, possibly the Chesapeake & Ohio F7 Unitrack set, or maybe the F3 set. (what does EMD stand for?) One website with the details on the F3 set notes that it's a "perfect starting point for DC or DCC layouts". I know that this means that it can be Digitrax compatible; can it also be used with a standard controller? Is that what DC means? With a child, is there any reason to start with one or the other? He will of course have only one train to start, and likely a simple oval; for his next birthday we will probably get some track to put a figure eight inside the oval, etc. He is already a computer nut, so I could see him possibly wanting to get a PC involved in the action in a few years.
Is there any difference between F3 and F7, or is that just a model number difference?
Is Unitrack compatible with other brands of track, or are you committed to it once you start?
Re the Digitrax, I take it that trains must have a control chip of some description, and there's a special controller? Can a "regular" train be easily converted at a later time? Down the line, he can use non-Kato trains on the track as well, right?
Any input into this would be appreciated. If I'm headed in the wrong direction and should be looking at a different brand, I'd appreciate hearing those opinions as well. We're looking to spend about $150-$175, $200 tops, and unfortunately we're in a rural area with no model stores nearby, so I'm sort of stuck with ordering on-line.
Thanks in advance for any input or for setting me straight.
Julie
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DC stands for "direct current," which what you get from conventional power packs. It drives the motors in the engine. DCC is "digital command control," an advanced system which provides AC ("alternating current") to the track; the AC is converted to DC by decoders in the engines. Digitrax is one maker of DCC equipment; there are many others. For a simple oval, there is no need for DCC; standard DC is fine. You can change to DCC later.
Kato makes high quality equipment, so that would be a good starting set. [FWIW, I use Kato Unitrack for my N-scale layout, and almost of my trains are Kato as well.] The track fits together well, gives good electrical contact, and looks good with its integral roadbed. You can join it to other brands of track with Kato's conversion track sections. Kato is a bit more expensive than other starter sets (Bachman, for example) but, IMO, worth it.
F3 and F7 are designations for two different diesel engines. I suggest you pick the one your son likes better. EMD is the manufacturer of the prototype diesel. So, you're talking about a Kato model of an EMD F3 or F7, just as you might talk about a Matchbox model of a Buick Regal or Skylark.
I don't think Kato train sets come with a power pack which, to my way of thinking, is a plus, because the ones that come with most starter sets are pretty poor. You can buy an inexpensive, but good quality, power pack like the MRC 220, separately. Kato is even selling a power pack in the US for the first time; it's supposed to be out this month.
I hope this helps a little. Good luck and happy RRing.
-- Bill McC.
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Julie wrote:

http://www.lifelikeproducts.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Codeu39&Category_Code=HSS
OR
http://shorterlink.com/?L2TG2Q
For comparison... you might have some $$ left over for more cars & accessories...
Rob
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Rob replied: http://www.lifelikeproducts.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Codeu39&Category_Code=HSS OR http://shorterlink.com/?L2TG2Q For comparison... you might have some $$ left over for more cars & accessories... ----------------------------------------------------- Julie, I agree with Rob. A Life-Like (or Bachmann) starter set would be ideal for your son. He can progress to the more expensive products as his model railroading interests grow. Here's a really good inexpensive book that is very popular:
"N Scale Model Railroad That Grows":
(Amazon.com product link shortened)
This book will answer many of the quesions you will encounter and your son will really enjoy the photos as he dreams about his railroad empire.
Good luck with the trains. I was five when Santa brought my first Lionel set and I'm 70 now and still enjoying them.
Bill Bill's Railroad Empire N Scale Model Railroad: http://www.billsrailroad.net Brief History of N Scale: http://www.billsrailroad.net/history/n-scale Model Railroad Bookstore: http://www.billsrailroad.net/bookstore Children's Books and Toy Trains: http://www.billsrailroad.net/bookstore-4 Resources--Links to 1,000 sites: http://www.billsrailroad.net/bills-favorite-links
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Good brand to start with - a bit pricey, but guaranteed of quality. You might also try looking at Atlas and recent Lifelike models (earlier Lifelike should be avoided), especially when it comes time to expand.
The Atlas website is an excellent resource for beginners. If you want to build up your own 'set', Atlas has a series of layouts starting at http://www.atlasrr.com/NOnlineLayout/n1.htm (click 'next' at bottom of page).
An important thing to watch for is the couplers. Basically, there are two types - Rapido style (a big clunky rectangular thing), and MicroTrains (MT) compatibles (smaller 'knuckle' couplers that have a metal pin hanging down). The two are not interchangeable. Most experienced N-scalers prefer the MT compatibles, and these days almost all quality N scale equipment comes with them.
Best regards, Ron McF
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Julie,
First of all, your post shows that you care not only about your son, but enough about wanting to buy the right thing that you are asking very intelligent questions. The old adage about the only dumb question is the one you don't ask...well, you are light years beyond that! I'll insert some comments along the way.

confused;
Christmas.
can
ever
That's one of the reasons N Scale exists...you CAN do some nice things in small spaces. Yes, it is delicate to handle, but my 5 year old does pretty good with it. Because of its small size it is most important that things be kept clean...no running track on the carpet and make sure the trains (esp the engine) are properly stored and the track kept free of lint and dust.

set,
Kato is one of the premier manufacturers of N Scale equipment. A bit pricey, but if you have the $$$ to spend, it can last a lot longer. Atlas, Life-Like, Bachmann and Micro-Trains are the main others that make "train sets" as well as a lot of individual pieces of equipment (engines, freight and passenger cars). All make some quality products, although a lot of Bachmann's engines and some older Life-Like's were not the best runners, and this is one of the greatest frustrations and turn-offs to people young and old about the hobby. DC is the traditional railroad operation where a power pack or transformer controls the power to the track. DCC basically powers the train engine itself and is a more advanced system just now coming into its own. I think it is the way of the future (in actuality it is easier to use) but to start out, DC is fine. You can often times add a micro-chip adapter to an engine to make it compatible with DCC.

F3 and F7 are 2 different styles of diesel engines (think of a Honda Civic and Honda Accord for example).

Unitrack is NOT 100% compatible with other track, although I think there are some adapters available. That being said, for someone starting out, there is NO BETTER track to be found. It is easy to put together, sturdy, durable, reliable and electrically as good or better than anything out there. It has a built in roadbed which adds to the sturdiness and sound dampening. Because of the grayish color a lot of serious modelers are turned off by it, but I think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks in your situation. It is also fairly expensive. Atlas is by far the #1 track maker, and they even have 2 different incompatible versions. Lots of other track makers as well, notable Peco and Mcro Engineering.

trains
As far as regular DC operation, and N Scale train engine (diesel/steam, freight/passenger, Atlas/Kato, etc) should run on any track. For DCC operation, engines must be fitted (either included when bought or added later) with the adapter...and as DCC is still evolving, there are some compatibility standards issues at this time.

hearing
tops,
I'm
I think you are doing great so far! Picking a favorite roadname, whther C&O or Santa Fe, UP or BNSF or whatever will be a good start. There are a good number of excellent online stores that provide N Scale products and great service and do so at better prices that you would get from a local hobby shop, though it is important to support the locals when and where possible. 2 other things to think about, and I think others may have mentioned them 1. Couplers - there are many different types, some of them incompatible. Older stuff and some current lower end models use "Rapido"-style couplers. Many of the newer and high-end tains use a more realistic-looking "Micro-Trains" coupler, and there are similar styles which are compatible (Atlas calls theirs "Accumate"). Be aware of what you are getting. 2. Power Pack/Transformer...the train controller. Some train sets do NOT include the controller, so be aware of that and spend the $$$ to buy one. MRC (Model Rectifier Corp) is a leader in this area and they make many models, some which are quite reasonable $$$ wise and will do a more than adequate job.
Finally, once he gets beond the running a single train in a circle stage, you/he will need to decide which direction to go. Buy some track and switches to let him "play", or try to build a starter layout. Nothing wrong with either. If it's the first, then Kato Unitrack is great...you can put it together, hook it up, tear it apart and start over. If you are looking at a starter layout, take a good look at the Woodland Scenics products, particularly the "Scenic Ridge" layout system. Kids (and parents) can learn a lot in creating a pretty nice 3'x6' layout that feautres multiple train operation and a chance to learn how to do wiring, scenery and more. Also, another small company makes something similar...I think it's called Terrain for Trains.

Happy Holidays to you and your fanily.
Bob in RSM, CA
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Oops -- just realized that in my follow-up post I misunderstood this to be referring to track rather than trains. Which sort of coupling do the Kato trains use, if we do wind up with Kato?
(have to add anecdotally that the kids didn't use the words "connect" or "attach" or "fasten" until they were four or five years old; they always used the word "couple". "So I coupled the Legos together..." or "Mama, can you couple my necklace?").
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Ah, Christmas memories! I put my Mom (R.I.P. 2002) in the same position in the mid-70's; I was older than your son (11) and could guide her somewhat; coming from a family of career railroaders helped tremendously, but they had all passed on by that time. If she only had a resource like this to help her with her questions! You have received some excellent responses, so I just have a word of caution here - if your son really gets into it, he will ask for nothing but model RR items for every Christmas and Birthday from now on! Your learning process will not end with the starter set you are about to buy. See if you can find one with a better power pack (MRC is one brand, try to get one with a total output of 10-20VA so he can add locos and accessories, and more track. You may become familiar with things you never thought of learning - railroading terms like different models of motive power as you already know; Ohm's and Kirchoff's law equations for electricity - don't worry, they're basic! -and much more. But most of all, the process can be fun, especially with a sibling involved! Best of luck to you all.

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First, thanks to ALL who replied. I'm combining additional questions/comments into one post here, just using Frank's as a jumping off point.
Having read through the archives a bit and seeing a lot of discouragement years ago against kids and N-Scale, I'm very glad that this thread didn't turn negative in that regard. N-Scale is what we can do, and there's really no other choice. My son actually has very good fine motor skills, and he has been wanting a train set for so long that I know he will be very respectful of it. I bought the kids a beater computer when they were 5, thinking it would last a week, but they've taken good care of it and had no problems at all. Probably the ONLY concern might be a dropped train, but it will at least be on a table on a carpeted area, so hopefully that will help.
As for his sister getting involved, she does still play with his wooden set with him about half the time, but I still don't want the set to dominate the room in fairness to her. I did appreciate the link to the Woodland site, and I might at some point buy one of their learner kits -- maybe a waterfall -- and see if it piques her interest, but I do need to leave her some space of her own in their room.
Rob and Bill -- thanks for the LifeLike suggestion. I'm leaning away from that, as our son really loves to create tracks with his wooden set, and the LifeLike looks like it is what it is -- can't be altered or expanded. For him, building and storytelling as he plays is a good portion of the fun.
Bill McC -- thanks for the Power Pack explanation. The website I've been looking at suggests an MRC 1370, which is what I think I'll go with. My current thought is that the track will start on a simple table, but that we will at some point down the line get a board and work on a layout. At that point, can the Unitrack be used for the track, assuming we're just working on a board and that we haven't bought a kit (Woodland or Terrain for Trains) that requires a track without a built-in roadbed?
Frank -- you are probably correct that we will be adding stuff before you know it and that by Valentine's day he will be getting more train stuff instead of chocolates. The Easter Bunny will likely also ditch that whole chocolate thing. This happened with his wooden set, which he's had for four years. Relatives actually LOVE the ease that his wooden train hobby has lent to gift-giving. No one has EVER given him a train gift that he doesn't love. As for the difference between F3 and F7, I would actually bet he probably knows (he reads every train book he can get his hands on, most of them geared towards adults), but since this is going to be a huge surprise -- we've told him repeatedly we just don't have the space -- I'm not letting him choose as CoyoteGlide's mother did, as I don't want the surprise ruined (I can't WAIT to watch him open it; he truly has NO idea). I'll probably sit down with him this evening with a train book and draw him out as to what his favorites are and order accordingly.
Ron McF -- thanks for the Atlas link. Something else to think about, and I loved their track diagrams.
Just to confirm: other N-Scale trains will also run on this track? I do realize that for now it's one at a time, but if he decided he wanted a different sort of engine, and a relative with more limited means wanted to buy it, I could suggest one of the less expensive brands, yes? I do want to stick with one of the more reliable brands for starters, since as Bob Hayden mentioned, I don't want his first "real train" experience to be frustrating.
Bob H -- you mentioned the Rapido and Micro-Trains coupling; is Unitrack considered one of the above or a third type?
Bill -- thanks for the book recommendation. I will definitely pick up a copy of this.
Finally, do I need anything special for track cleaning? I've seen both a track cleaning car and a spongy sort of thing. Any input here appreciated as well.
Again, thanks SO much for everyone's input. You'll probably see me popping in and out over the next few years, and my son perhaps as well as soon as his typing speed exceeds its current two words per minute.
Julie
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Just two comments to add...
1) While I agree that DC is OK to start with, there are two major benefits to DCC with young children: a) the fwd/reverse switch is always with respect to the front of the loco, not some abstract concept of how the track is wired, and b) each loco can be programmed for the top speed at 100% throttle, which helps a lot with keeping things on the rails, especially if visiting youngsters want to try out the train. As someone mentioned, if you are thinking about DCC be sure to get locos where the conversion is easy ("drop in") or get locos with built-in decoders. N scale DCC decoder installation can be a challenge in the more difficult to convert locos.
2) Getting a 5 year old to be careful with delicate things is simply a matter of education. My 5 1/2 year old has never done any damage to her violin in 2 1/2 years of playing. I'm the only one that has ever dropped it and broke a bridge :-( ....
-dave
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If all the track is open (no tunnels/obstructions) a quick wipedown with a lint-free cloth moistened with a cleaning fluid (please make sure to not leave residue behind!) will do.
If you're planning a (semi)permanent layout with lots of scenery; an investment in the Atlas Track Cleaning Car is golden (It's a the US version of the Tomix track cleaning car - I have one, and I wouldn't want to trade it for ANY other method of cleaning my tracks) ..
--
JB/NL < snipped-for-privacy@xs4all.nl>
Self-confessed Japanese-prototype N Scale nut
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Julie wrote:

Both of my children grew up with trains. Brio and watching dad run his, then running his trains too. My son was 7 (he's 16 now) when he wanted to switch to N scale. I bought him the starter set and let him play. He soon developed a nice layout. When he was 9, I taught him to use a soldering iron. He then built his own railroad and needed to extend some wires.

I agree. She should have some space. Is there another part of the house where she can go to get away from the trains when she wants? (Other than the bathroom)

The lifelike track is the same concept as the Kato. Encourage the creativity.

The Woodland scenics can use the Unitrack.

I wish I could be a fly on the wall to see his expression. My parents did something similar for my 11th birthday. The day I was introduced to HO. I had Lionel until then. They had the set in the trunk of the car and asked me to bring it what was in the trunk. The rest, as they say, is history.

Yes, N is the scale, the reduction from life.

Neither, Rapido and Micro-Trains are the couplers that hold the cars together. Micro-Trains look like the real coupler and most new products are being released with them. Some will include the Rapido inthe box in case you want to switch them.

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Well, she can go to the livingroom where the Thomas train table is! An N-scale isn't going to dominate the room; it will dominate one side of the room, leaving some space for her on the other side. I would imagine that our son will be outgrowing the wooden set within a couple of years (which is, of course, what I was saying when he was 5...).

The link that was provided was to a boxed layout though, that didn't appear to be changeable or expandable in any way.

Thanks -- I didn't realize that. His art skills aren't quite up to doing a layout yet, but in a couple years I think he'll be up to it.
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Julie wrote:

It's just regular Life-Like equipment all set up Ready-to-Run. It's infinitly expandable once you have the equipment & $$ to go "outside the box".
Rob
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No matter when he starts, his first one is unlikely to be his best. Practice, practice, ...
If you have a chance to take them to train shows with modular N-scale I would recommend it highly. Even if they aren't ready just yet, you are just planting the seeds ... so to speak.
Enjoy, Paul
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Factlet: You can get the Thomas trains in N scale ....
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JB/NL < snipped-for-privacy@xs4all.nl>
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JB/NL replied: Factlet: You can get the Thomas trains in N scale .... ----------------------------------------------- Yep! Brooklyn Locomotive Works has Tomix N Scale Thomas & Friends:
http://www.blwnscale.com/Tomix%20Thomas%20the%20Tank.htm
Bill Bill's Railroad Empire N Scale Model Railroad: http://www.billsrailroad.net Brief History of N Scale: http://www.billsrailroad.net/history/n-scale Model Railroad Bookstore: http://www.billsrailroad.net/bookstore Children's Books and Toy Trains: http://www.billsrailroad.net/bookstore-4 Resources--Links to 1,000 sites: http://www.billsrailroad.net/bills-favorite-links
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Thanks. I read that in my foray through the archives of this group, but since we're keeping the wood set for him, I think we'll start with an "older" setup for him. Down the line if he expresses interest in adding a Thomas item, we'll think about it, but at 7 1/2, he's GOT to be growing out of this Thomas stuff soon (uh, right?).
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wrote in message

Probably :)
But I thought it'd be one of those 'nice to know' things :)
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wrote in message

Definitely nice to know. Just don't tell my son! :)
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