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Improving Holiday Train Displays


Every year, hundreds of model trains come up from the basement, down from the attic, or just out of the closet to become part of an annual holiday train display. How can you get the most out of your model trains when you only see them once a year?  Here are ten tips to keep your holidays happy.

1. Pre-cleaning.

Clean Wheels
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After a year in storage, your trains could probably benefit from a little cleaning. In addition to brushing off the dust, track and wheels need to be thoroughly cleaned. Older, steel track is prone to rusting if stored in humid locations. If your track shows signs of rust, save your time and just replace it. Clean wheels with paper towels and cleaning fluids.

After extended periods in storage, it may be necessary to disassemble, clean and re-oil locomotive gearboxes. Do not over-lubricate.

Check power supplies and wires for any signs of wear or distress. Replace if needed.

2. Leave the Floor Behind.

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Of all the possible good places to build a train display, the floor is not one of them. Any floor, but espescially carpeted flooring, becomes the final resting ground for all of the dust, pet dander, and other things we don't want to think about sharing a home with. Throw in the kids and housepets responsible for most of that mess and you've got a very hostile environment.

You could build your train display on its own table, but what if you really want that floor-level layout? Even elevating the track a few inches above the floor itself can do wonders. Use tracks with attached roadbed and/or build a small riser from plywood. Just this little rise will keep carpet fibers from finding their way into locomotive gearboxes. It also reduces noise.

3. Track

Bad Track Joint
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Permanent or seasonal, any train will run better on good track. Follow the tips for laying sectional track even if you'll only have the layout in place for a few weeks. If you are building on a base, nail the tracks down to keep them from shifting.

After seperating and rebuilding tracks repeatedly, the metal rail joiners can become loose. Even if the attached roadbed keeps track sections alligned, a loose joiner will rob your trains of the electricity they need. Tighten loose joiners with needle-nose plyers or replace as needed.

4. Keep It Simple

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Temporary displays don't have to be circles, but a simple plan will go together faster and require less maintenance.

If you are adding more than one track circuit, keeping them separate is almost a must. Multi-level layouts are also possible, but elevated tracks should be achored to prevent creaping out of alignment.

Ultimately, you can make a layout as complicated as you desire, just make sure you can maintain what you create.

5. Let It Snow

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It wouldn't be a holiday layout without snow, right? Artificial snow comes in many forms, from large "flakes" to granular powders. Flour, baking powder and plaster can work too. Besides the rodent invitation posed by some of the kitchen alternatives, snow presents an added problem for your trains.

Snow on the rails, or worse yet around the contacts and gear of the locomotive, can cause very unreliable operation. Like any scenery material, it is best if your snow can be fixed to the platform to avoid drifts and squalls. An easy way to do this is to paint the train board white and sprinkle in a little fake snow before it dries. If you still desire loose snow, choose a larger-flake product and try to keep it clear of the tracks.

6. Kid Friendly

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Holiday trains are meant to be enjoyed by all ages, and they can be a great introduction into the hobby for children. One easy way to make any model train display more kid-friendly is to make them part of the action. In addition to running the trains, kids will want to help build and decorate the platform. Incorporating kid's toys into the display is a great way to make it personal and still keep a holiday feel.

For younger kids who can't master the controls, adding a pushbutton will make the trains easy to run. Simply insert the button (a doorbell will work) on one of the wires between the power supply and the tracks. Set the power pack to the speed you want and let them go.

Make sure the trains are at a height kids can enjoy safely.

7. Needles

Christmas tree
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If your trains are running beneath a Christmas tree, you'll probably find yourself pulling needles off the tracks by the end of the season. There is no great secret to keeping needles off the tracks (even an artificial tree will probably lose a few.) It is important to keep the need to clean in mind however when locating the tree and trains.

Make sure you can reach all the way around the tree to clean. Make sure vacuming needles won't result in losing other scenic material or details by gluing them to the base.

One additional concern for under-tree-trains is the power supply. Make sure your electrical circuit can handle the needs of both the trains and the tree lights. And make sure the cords for both don't interfere with the tracks.

8. Think Modular

Sure a train platform is the best way to go while the trains are running, but what about the other 11 months of the year?

Building a platform in sections, or modules, will not only make it easier to store it will also speed set up and tear-down times. A modular platform is also easy to expand later if desired.

9. All in the Family

family trains
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Family and tradition should be at the center of any holiday. Trains are often a part of that tradition, but the tradition can also be part of the trains. From commemorative cars, to models of the family house, there are many ways to incorporate your own family's heritage into the train display.

10. Packing and Storing

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Next year's display begins when you put this year's away.

  • Before you pack, take the time to clean track and wheels again.
  • Pack trains, tracks, power supplies and all accessories carefully. Use original boxes if possible.
  • Store your trains in a dry place. Store fragile items where they will be safe.
  • If possible, give your locomotive a brief break-in run periodically throughout the year.
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