Sunday 30 August 2020

Hogwarts Express

Today on the blog, a bit of garden-scale railway modelling.  Hornby have released a large-scale set of the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter film series.  It's made by Lionel in the United States as part of their 'Ready to Play' range, and imported here by the good old Margate toy behemoth.  I was quite intrigued by it when I saw the early pics, and The Childs are into the books and films, so I thought I'd pre-order a set; they'd get something to play with, I'd be able to do a couple of articles for "Garden Rail" magazine with it...

First, the obligatory comic.  Yes I know Wizard is misspelled, it's a nod to Rincewind in the Pratchett books.  Two literary references to do with magic in one blog?  How academic of me.  Ish.

Hooooo boy, is my timing as good as ever...

Addressing the elephant in the room (or Hippogriff in the Astrology Tower -and yes, I made that poor joke in the review article), the JK Rowling Gender Identity Controversy.  I don't want to get bogged down into the arguments over this frankly.  I don't agree with what she says, I know a lot of the Harry Potter fanbase are calling for her books and merch to be boycotted in protest; I ordered this set before the worst of this recent controversy kicked off, and at the end of the day I'm a model-making train nerd, and I don't want the blog to descend into being a place to discuss controversial gender politics issues.  I'm just going to stick to the trains and poor comics.

I rather wish that the whole gender argument thing is the ONLY problem encountered with this particular project; no, problems of a rather more frustrating but practical nature reared their head here...

So this is the set.  A rather nice caricature of the Great Western locomotive that was repainted to be the Hogwarts Express in the films; not unlike 60's Triang models really.  Chunky, seemingly quite robust, sound effects, and surprisingly responsive remote control.

Here's what you get in the box, for around 135-ish pounds depending on where you shop.  Loco, tender, controller, two MK1-ish coaches, and an oval of track.

The track is where the problems start.  Traditional garden railway modelling in much of the world takes places on track 45mm between the rails, known as Gauge 1 (1:32nd scale) or G Scale if you're doing narrow gauge prototypes.  Lionel USED to produce this set to run on G Scale tracks.  Then they re-tooled the set to run on wider tracks of their own devising, which is what is in the shops now.

Lionel are pretty much the masters of large-scale railroading in the US and the reason for widening the gauge seems to be commercial in motivation, to make sure their trains cannot be used on other manufacturers track.  I've heard some other reasons too, but to save antagonising a company from a nation that thrives on litigation, I'll keep my head below the parapet.

Sufficed to say, as the above pic shows, the train will not run on G scale track, and the little oval of flimsy plastic track won't cut the mustard.  Time to re-gauge this thing... 

Unscrewing the baseplate beneath the loco reveals that Lionel widened the gauge by making the steel axles longer, and manufacturing extended axle bushes.  In theory, a simple enough job to do to narrow the gauge.

Hah hah haaaaa... Here's where the trouble starts.

The ends of the wheels need drilling out to expose the axle ends.  A pillar drill would be rather useful, but being in lockdown, I didn't have one to hand so had to make do with a regular electric hand-drill.

Izzy Wizzy, Let's Get Busy, with a magical hammer.  In theory, at this point, you should be able to tap the wheels with a hammer and suitable device (I'm using an extension piece for a screwdriver, that has a hollow-centred cylinder on the end) to slide the wheel along the axle.  Speaking to a garden railroader in the US who'd already performed this operation when the sets were available Over There, this sounded pretty simple.

The problem is that the Canny Company seems to have cottoned on to garden railroaders reverse-engineering their efforts to bypass the need to buy Lionel track, and have thus made some modifications.  The metal axles are RIDICULOUSLY tight on the wheels.  Look at the size of the ridges on the coach axles!  Sufficed to say, that with a lot of hammering and swearing it is possible to move the wheels along, but by God does it take effort, and you skirt a fine line between snapping the plastic and making it move at all.

You also need to brace the opposite end to the one you're hammering against a firm surface, as I found out the hard way.  I ended up using two miniature G-clamps and a steel bar.

Here's one I buggered up earlier; the plastic boss securing the motion to the centre driver shattered whilst I was trying to move the wheel along.  Repairing and replacing was a further nightmare.

The exposed axle ends need trimming down.  My contact in the US suggested a slitting disc.  Being as I was working at the opposite end of a kitchen table to three home-schooling pre-teens, I decided risking them being hit by high-speed metal shrapnel was a risk too far, so used a razor saw.

The bogie wheels on the loco are hard to do, as you cannot dismantle their housing easily.  The tender wheels on the loco were even harder, as one shattered quite spectacularly.

Ten minutes trying to re-gauge the first of 16 wheels on the coaches, I snapped (snapping nearly as quickly as the tender wheels did) and took the sensible approach of buying some very reasonably priced replacement wheels from Binnie Engineering.

The Binnie wheels are a bit smaller, but do the job nicely and saved sooooo much time.

Hurrah!  With a little further tweaking of the wheel back-to-backs, the ensemble will now run on G-Scale track and actually becomes a useful toy for garden railway use.

Is it do-able, and worth the bother?  Well I was slightly bodging things, being in lockdown and without access to a proper workshop.  With better tools, it might be do-able a bit easier.  At the end of the day it's rare to find a decent garden-sized set to a UK prototype, even if it is a mad mis-match of scales and gauges like this one.  It has conversion-fodder potential; I know of at least one modeller doing cut'n'shuts of the coaches to make scale-length Mk1's for example.

Lionel appear to have cottoned on to modellers doing this sort of conversion, and newer issues of some of their American-outline locomotives have been further engineered to stop this sort of bodgery (if you can call super-gluing it all together so you cannot dismantle it 'engineering'), so be warned, if you fancy having a go get in quickly.

It's such a pity, as Hornby could so easily have used this to be the foot in the door into the garden scales.  With Echo Toys, Playmobil, and so on pulling out of the toy railway market, there's a gap they could have occupied.  Imagine this set in BR (Western Region) green!  But alas, no.  The weird wide gauge stops it being readily useable on pretty much any existing garden line and thus limit the value of the set for introducing people to the joys of trains in the garden.

Still, it should sell by the bucket load at the Harry Potter Experience Gift Shop (I know, I'd have happily bought one when I visited last year), as long as JK can avoid pissing off the fanbase any further.  A couple of pics from our visit here, about two years back.

The real thing; very literally the real thing, as "Hogwarts Castle" ("Olton Hall") is stuffed and mounted at the Harry Potter Experience in That London.  I was glad we got to see it, as we'd meant to see the loco on the mainline in Bingley but the fire-risk that summer saw it replaced with a decidedly less-magical diesel loco, to the disappointment of The Childs.  Interestingly the Americans have carried out a bit of 12in to the Ft model making for their theme parks, with some nice replica versions of the loco instead from fibreglass.

The first piece in Garden Rail, the review, though slightly narked that Phil the Editor put me Hufflepuff House.  Really?  I know I'm not evil enough for Slytherin or Try-Hard enough for Gryffindor, but Badger-Cuddling House?  I didn't realise I'd hacked him off so much recently.

Hornby also featured some pics from this on their Twitter feed too.

The re-gauging article, somewhat dripping in sarcasm (as I wrote it straight after completing the practical process, and was thus feeling very ill-disposed towards a certain American toy company and their sneaky manufacturing skills) will be in the October Issue, and will go into rather more nauseating detail than this blog.

So yeah, anyway, go buy Garden Rail.  Even if Mister Parker doesn't do a good job as the Sorting Hat (yeah, still annoyed about the Hufflepuff dig) he edits an excellent magazine, and more people should buy it, so go on, both of you who read this blog.

Either more trains (in the Top Left Corner of Wales) or Airfix quick-kits out on location shoots next time, probably.  Depends what gets published first.



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