EPTCThe East Penn Traction Club

Introduction to Trolley Modeling

By Chuck Crouse

Ding, Ding! The gong sounds twice as the trolley starts up, bearing a crowd of happy passengers. Come along! Discover the fun of model traction. "Traction?" That's a term from the turn of the 20th century, covering many forms of electric rail transportation. And it still does: streetcars, country trolleys, interurbans, rapid transit and today's light rail. As with the prototype, model traction embraces many forms, nostalgic and contemporary. And it includes all scales, from tiny N scale through the dominant HO scale and detail-rich O scale, to hefty half-inch scale and even larger. This trolley has room for all!

Who's included: Although fewer in number than modelers of steam and diesel railroads, trolley modelers find enjoyment in many ways. Some build sprawling basement layouts including cities, villages and open country. Some find room for compact layouts in a spare corner, running only one or two trolleys at a time. Others build easily-portable modules that bolt to modules built by other modelers, to form large but temporary layouts open to the public. Depending on their interests, modelers of all ages may specialize in old-time trolleys, stately interurbans, state-of-the-art light rail, big-city elevated lines or even trolley freight. Some pursue their hobby alone, while others enjoy the company of like-minded modelers in clubs or informal groups. Does one of these sound like you?

Availability of trolley models: Because of the prohibitive economics of small production runs, there are very few ready-to-run trolley models. Some do exist, and are the quickest way to get into the hobby. More common are kits and limited-run unpowered bodies, with trucks and other details purchased separately and installed by the modeler. Experienced modelers build cars from scratch or convert existing kits and bodies to match their favorite prototypes. There are excellent custom builders for those with deep pockets. And since most well-built models last for decades, there's an active trade in pre-owned models.

Layouts vs. Modules: Trolley layouts are usually permanent, and located in the basement, attic, spare room or garage. Because trolleys operate on sharp curves, and don't require trains of cars, layouts require less space than do steam or diesel layouts - or allow more operation in a given amount of space. Scale is a factor, since it's easier to find space for an N or HO scale layout than for one in O scale. A layout is always in place, so you can operate for a few minutes whenever the mood strikes. Modules, on the other hand, are pieces of a layout, built to standards shared by others, and assembled into layouts. A typical module, regardless of scale, is four feet long, allowing for easy transportation. Modules need only minimal storage space, making them well suited to apartment dwellers. And modular layouts involve a higher degree of social interaction. Some modelers enjoy the best of both worlds by integrating a module into a permanent layout in such a way that it can easily be removed.

Overhead: The overhead power wires are what make the difference between electric traction and conventional railroads. In both prototype and model, power flows from the overhead wire through the trolley pole (or pantograph) to the traction motors geared to the axles, and then to ground via the rails. Most common is direct-suspension trolley wire, in which the contact wire is suspended directly from bracket arms attached to single line poles, or from span wires strung between pairs of line poles. Catenary, in which the power contact wire is suspended from a curving support wire called a messenger, is for heavy duty service. It was rare in the past, except on main line electrics and a few major commuter rail systems. It is now becoming more common on light rail systems. With models, overhead power delivery is fun to watch, but many find it challenging to build. It requires a steady hand, moderate soldering skills and lots of patience, but is generally considered worth the effort, producing great satisfaction. However, it is optional, and some modelers (and virtually all those in N scale) skip it and run two-rail. Trackside third rail is used for rapid transit in both prototype and models. Tinplate (toy train) modelers simply use the center third rail.

Additional Resources:

Trolley FAQ
Trolley Glossary
Sources of Information

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