From Tonight’s "Big Bang Theory"

Spoken moments into the show by character Amy Farrah Fowler:

I have no interest in model trains, stores that sell them,
nor their heartbreaking clientele.

I resemble that remark!

We find out later in the episode that Sheldon is a “trainiac.”

If I wasn’t so good natured, I would think that my fellow O Gauge model train fans have been insulted. 
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Getting Started in Model Trains

A portion of my train layout
As many readers of this blog know, I love trains – the big ones and the model ones. I have found that model trains help children with imagination…something that is important for success later in life. 
I am occasionally asked how people can get started in model railroading.  So, since I’ve been posting about Christmas gift ideas that might be beneficial for children, here are some tips. 
I recommend O Gauge (“Lionel-size”) trains for kids. The smaller scales, while very nice for adults, are often too small and fragile for children.  
Start by taking a look at some of the manufacturers’ web sites. Lionel has a good “getting started” section on their web site:   MTH’s getting started section is not as comprehensive but worth a look: .
While I like sets (packages with locomotive, cars, transformers, track, etc.) as a fairly economical way to get started, they usually have one serious flaw: lack of track. Kids quickly get bored watching trains simply going in a circle.  Add enough track to have at least a layout like this and maybe add a siding to it as well along with some sort of industrial building. Make sure the set has a locomotive horn and bell effects. 
Take a layout like this and add a spur track with a toy factory (below)
The photo at the top of this post shows an industrial siding on my layout. You can make a game out of transferring cars from one industrial siding to another.

Lionel has a couple of especially nice sets this year:  CSX and BNSF. I’ve done a little shopping and some retailers are selling those sets for well under $300. Considering that everything you need is included (but, I would add track as outlined above) that is a great price. 

If you want more information visit your local train store or hobby shop. There are two good magazines to help you get started: Classic Toy Trains and O Gauge Railroading. They are usually available at Barnes & Noble or a hobby shop. 
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Attention Model Train Stores!

Huge layouts of model trains at Kansas City’s Union Station yesterday 

Over the next ten days, I’m going to have several blog posts about science-related toys and others that I believe will help children become more creative and/or come to love science.

One of the areas I’m going to bring up is model railroading. Building scenery, wiring, etc., teaches many useful skills. Plus, running the trains is fun. That posting will make suggestions for how to get started in the hobby, etc.

Before that blog posting goes up a few days from now, I want to say a few words to the local train stores that are in many cites. I have been in three of those stores this week, two yesterday on Black Friday. All three had in-store layouts none of which we running! I couldn’t believe it. If there was ever a time to be running the layouts, it is Black Friday. Not surprisingly, there was little traffic in the stores.

Meanwhile, in downtown Kansas City, Union Station’s multiple — and beautiful — layouts were jammed with kids and their parents having a wonderful time. If someone had a display of starter train sets, they’d have sold out by the end of the day.

I know a train store owner and he complains about competition from the internet. OK, I’m sure it is a challenge. But, the internet can’t have a layout. It can’t give lessons. It can’t do service.

So, lets get those layouts running! Maybe consider rigging the controls so children an push a button to sound the train’s horn.

I’m giving you a few days to get those layouts in shape then I hope to send you some customers.

Steam Power in the Rockies

There are few things more impressive than watching a steam locomotive pull a train. AccuWeather’s Alan Reppert was in Colorado and caught these photos (click to enlarge) of the Union Pacific’s 844.

After a nice weekend, the area is now under a winter storm watch. Their second winter storm of the season is already on the way.

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December issue of "Trains"

The December issue of Trains will be out next week. I have an advance copy because AccuWeather’s Steve Pryor and I helped them put together their “Map of the Month.” This map shows the areas where the weather is typically worst on U.S. railroads.

If you pick up the magazine, don’t miss Don Philips’ column on DHS and its ridiculous crusade against photography on page 9. Yes, even I have been approached and questioned by a policeman while taking train pictures.

You might also have heard the news that the TSA is expanding its program of stopping vehicles on the nation’s highways. You used to be able to avoid the TSA by not flying. That is no longer the case.

As much as I’d like to say it is just the TSA doing this it is not: get a load of this quote from Long Beach, California:

Captain Steven M. Roller of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has told Long Beach Post that it is standard practice to detain and pat down photographers for “potential terrorist” activity such as photographing a courthouse.

How long are we going to continue to put up with these threats to our liberties?!

Don ends his column by quoting Benjamin Franklin, Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Agree 100%! Thanks, Don.

Trading the Airlines for Amtrak

My Airline Survival Guide is my 6th most popular blog post ever. In it, I state,

In a catastrophic situation (September 11 or the Christmas Blizzard in NYC), don’t even go to the airport or, if you are there, get out!  According to a news story as I am writing this Continental Airlines had still cancelled 170 flights to Newark, five days after the blizzard!  If you were camping in the Newark Airport, you (and the airline employees) had no way to know on, say, Sunday, the flight they rebooked you on Wednesday would be cancelled four days later!  In these catastrophic situations take a cab, a rental car, a hotel shuttle bus or whatever it takes.  Get out!

Once you are out, what next?

In a catastrophic situation, forget the airlines. Find another way. Amtrak, Greyhound, rent a car – but do it quickly. I’d rather have my blog readers safe and sane! Wouldn’t you rather take a leisurely 2.5 days to get from (say) Chicago to L.A. on Amtrak rested and refreshed than risk seven frantic days trying to fly?

Here is the story of one man who did exactly that. Three years ago he got to O’Hare in a winter storm, found just about every flight cancelled and turned around and left. He then called Amtrak. His, and his family’s, lives have never been the same.

A comment: I disagree with the author of the story as to the friendliness of Amtrak employees. I have found them to be uniformly pleasant and friendly. Not once have I ever been “nagged at” by an Amtrak employee.

A Ride on a Luxury Rail Car

Our WeatherData team in front of the same Union Pacific steam locomotive featured in the video.

The Wall Street Journal has the story, with video, of a rail car you cannot buy a ticket on. You have to be invited.

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You Are Welcome, Moms!

OK, Moms, listen up. 

How would you like to get Dad and the tribe out of the house tomorrow in a way that INCLUDES fresh air and sunshine and DOES NOT include video games or television?  You’ll be able to take a nap, read a book (hopefully, Warnings, here’s another great review at Amazon), plant a garden, or just have a few minutes to yourself. Sounds good, right?

So, all you have to do is get Dad over to the computer, have him click on the link below, and you’re all set. Happy Mother’s Day!

Dad, click on the movie link below. It is very short and it’ll set the mood for the rest of this post. This was inspired by a article in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Kinda gets your blood going, doesn’t it?

According to the article, things trains and railroads are having a revival. Your kids love Thomas the Tank Engine, right?  OK, since it is now fashionable to go watch trains, take the kids tomorrow!

Go find an active train line (if you don’t know where one is near your home, just call your local model railroading hobby shop, they’ll be happy to guide you), gather up your girls 3 to 9 and boys 3 to 11 (younger, the horns and bells might alarm them; older and this is a dorky idea, Dad), turn off the Blackberry, and go have fun.  Caution: Everyone stay off the tracks and a safe distance away.

On some heavily used lines, you can expect a train about every 30 – 40 minutes (more on Fridays and Saturdays, usually). In between, you walk hand in hand with your kids and pick daisies, look at clouds, whatever. Then, take them to Dairy Queen for a mid-afternoon cone (don’t tell Mom, you’ll spoil their dinner!) and they’ll be asleep in the back seat on your way home with a smile on their faces.

You, and they, might get hooked and have a new father-son and/or father-daughter activity. Regardless, you’ll have a great time doing something different tomorrow.

So, take the kids. And, thanks for being a great Dad for spending quality time with your children!

UPDATE Sunday Morning:  Parade magazine today has another story about train watching with kids!

Three Perfect Days, Wichita. Day Two.

Day One is here. Day Two needs to be any day of the week but Sunday.

Have the Marriott pack some snacks for you and the kids, you are going to spend the day in the car touring the Flint Hills, my favorite part of Kansas.

You are going to head east of El Dorado on U.S. 54 up Kansas Highway 177.  You’ll pass El Dorado Lake, keep going for now. Just north of the Lake you’ll intercept the BNSF Railway’s “Transcon” line from Chicago to Los Angeles. It is a great place to watch trains or even pace them in your car as the tracks are right next to 177 in places.

Your destination is the Tallgrass Prairie National Park just north of Strong City on 177. You can watch the National Park Service’s presentation about the Tallgrass Prairie in the giant barn and/or hike the trails and visit both the mansion and the one room schoolhouse, both preserved and furnished as they were when they were in use.

My nephew, Andrew Vogliardo, in front of the one room schoolhous

After spending the morning at the Park, it is time for lunch and you are in for a special treat. Double back south down K-177 into Cottonwood Falls and stop at the — Four Diamond! — Grand Central Hotel and Cafe. Owner Suzan Barnes will take great care of you. Their rice & beans is to die for and they go perfectly with a hamburger.  Kansas is the #1 beef producing state and you can tell the difference in taste.

Before getting back in the car, shop for authentic western wear at Jim Bell & Son then cross the street and view the original art, photography and furnishings at The Gallery at Cottonwood Falls.

After shopping, you are back on the road…

The Flint Hills are a magical area with a wide open beauty difficult to capture with a camera. You are going to see it for yourself as you continue north on 177 to Alta Vista where you turn east on K-4 (danger, if you or your kids get carsick, stay on 177 to Manhattan, it is still a very pretty drive).

Going east on K-4 which then turns north to K-99, you will not only see the gorgeous green hills you will see miles and miles of restored stone fences and you’ll be glad you didn’t have to build them. In Alma, stop at the creamery and try their outstanding cheese.

Continue north on 99 to Wamego, then turn west on U.S. 24 to the home of Kansas State University, the Little Apple, Manhattan, Kansas. The campus is well worth a visit for its native limestone buildings.

Anderson Hall at KSU

By now, it should be time for dinner and you are in for another treat:  Harry’s Uptown in Manhattan. After lunch at Grand Central Cafe and dinner at Harry’s you’ll say to yourself, “I never knew they had restaurants like this in Kansas!”

Now, you are going to make your way back to Wichita by going south on K-177. Stop and watch the sunset as it sinks below the hills or behind El Dorado Lake. It is fine to get off the main roads unless it has been wet in which case you don’t want to try it without four wheel drive.

Get a good night’s sleep. Lots to see tomorrow in Day 3.

The TSA Strikes Back!

While the TSA isn’t very good at finding terrorists, they are good at harassing people who make fun of them. A pilot who (legally!) posted videos showing the gaping holes in airport security got a visit from the TSA.  Details here.

The YouTube videos, posted Nov. 28, show what the pilot calls the irony of flight crews being forced to go through TSA screening while ground crew who service the aircraft are able to access secure areas simply by swiping a card.
“As you can see, airport security is kind of a farce. It’s only smoke and mirrors so you people believe there is actually something going on here,” the pilot narrates.
Video shot in the cockpit shows a medieval-looking rescue ax available on the flight deck after the pilots have gone through the metal detectors. “This looks a little more formidable than a box cutter, doesn’t it?” the pilot asks.
Well, we can’t have people interested in real security can we?! (as opposed to “security theatre”)  Here’s what happened next,
Three days after he posted a series of six video clips recorded with a cell phone camera at San Francisco International Airport, four federal air marshals and two sheriff’s deputies arrived at his house to confiscate his federally-issued firearm. The pilot recorded that event as well and provided all the video to News10.
Here is his background:
The 50-year-old pilot, who lives outside Sacramento, asked that neither he nor his airline be identified. He has worked for the airline for more than a decade.
He is also a helicopter test pilot in the Army Reserve and flew missions for the United Nations in Macedonia.
Father south in California today, the intrepid TSA had apparently run out of salad bars to inspect and grandmothers to grope, so they apparently decided to take a field trip so they could see some “climate change.” Click to enlarge photo. 
Photo: Sign on San Diego
Have you communicated with your congresspeople yet?

UPDATE: Here is the video.

California Zephyr, Anyone?

I-70 is closed in western Colorado as a major rockslide has damaged the roadway near Glenwood Springs.  No word on when it will reopen.

However, Amtrak’s Colorado Zephyr, a wonderful train ride, is unaffected.

This Morning’s Trains

I love trains. When I need to get completely away, I park in an appropriate, safe area near the BNSF Transcon mainline in Butler Co., Kansas, turn off my cell phone, and work.  Had my camera with me this morning and got some good shots (click each to enlarge, especially #2):

The BNSF 4103 East is approaching as seen through the fog. It was hauling shipping containers (“stacks”) and truck trailers. You might be surprised to learn that UPS is a huge customer of the BNSF and these trains are “Z” trains, the highest priority.

On the rear of the BNSF Z train was the was the passenger car “Columbia River.” It is rare to see a passenger car at the end of a freight train. A BNSF “Z” train is approaching me westbound:

The Z train was pulled by the BNSF 626, one of the few BNSF locomotives left in the Santa Fe Warbonnet paint scheme:

A few minutes later, another westbound in BNSF’s latest paint scheme:

There was a lot of traffic this morning that I was really glad to see. Rail freight is finally turning up, which, hopefully, means the economy is improving!