On June 3, 2000, the date of my oldest daughter’s open house for her high school graduation, the New Boston and Donnels Creek railroad received the ultimate stress test, as over a dozen elementary school children took over the scenery and operations department for four fun (and sometimes hair-raising) hours.
It is important to note that Molly Race, who lives on the grounds of the NB&DC RR, is the only member of the test team who had ever seen, much less operated, a garden railroad before. In addition, many of the other members of the test team did not know each other, or only knew one other member of the team, so their level of cooperation was impressive, to say the least.
Nearly every visitor to the open house spent at least a few minutes watching the test and asking questions about the environment and the systems being tested. Many commented on how "cute" or attractive some element was, or on how well the test team was cooperating. A few seemed to be amused by animals on rooftops or other incongruities that occurred during the test period.
Since the day was going to be pretty and most of the seating was going to be in the back yard, I knew the railroad would draw at least some attention. (Let’s face it: even when you don’t plan to have an operating session, most visitors will at least want to see a train go around the tracks a few times.) So I cleaned the track extra well, and made certain three of my 0-4-0s were ready to go in case one gummed up or was damaged. I selected the 0-4-0s because kids can get them on the track easier, they’re cheaper to replace than my bigger locomotives, and when the track and their wheels are clean, they are just as reliable (if not more so) than some of my bigger locomotives.
As soon as the majority of the track was in the shade, I hooked up a power supply and put the first test rolling stock on the track. As it turned out, they lasted nicely the whole afternoon and were still in excellent condition when I took them in that night, so I never needed my backups. (Of course if I hadn’t been ready with a backup, Murphy’s law dictates that the first train would have gone into the pond).
When the first batch of test personnel arrived, I showed them how to make the train go around the track. Since the north loop of the NB&DC RR doesn’t exist yet (and all of my Aristocraft turnouts are too flakey to use without an adult watching the points) the train can only run continuously around the south loop, circumnavigating the pond. The early arrivals considered this boring after about three trips. However, Katie Martin, who arrived in her wheelchair, liked being able to start and stop the locomotive from her chair. She kept the engineer position for the better part of an hour until one of the other children took over and she turned to stress-testing the goldfish with tiny pieces of hurtled gravel from the roadbed.
To hold the other children’s interest, I began handing out buildings for them to place (except for the wooden birdhouses and feeders, which I leave out all year long). Then, when they had the buildings in place, I handed them the barn-shaped vinyl mailbox that I use to hold the people, animals, and accessories. Matthew Magee’s eyes especially lit up when he saw the accessories, and he spent over an hour arranging things "just so."
Within about thirty minutes, the test team had set up three towns with their citizens, roads, cars, signs, and various accessories. Many of the animals (including a 32:1 Jersey bull) found their way into one of the storefronts, which was labeled "Molly’s Pet Shop." Several of the ducks were placed on lily pads in the pond. A herd of cheap imported deer were placed under the Mugo pines, where they looked better than you’d think they would. The rest of the animals were distributed throughout the landscape.
During this phase, the plants received a high level of stress testing, especially the woolly thyme and the miniature sedums which were planted along the tracks or between the tiers of stone that were convenient for the test team to use as stair steps. In fact one patch of woolly thyme was smashed quite flat by the end of this stage.
Among the accessories were several crates, which test team members placed on the Bachmann B&O flatcar. Then the team got the idea of using the train to deliver people and goods among the three towns and the second phase of stress-testing began in earnest.
For the better part of an hour, the test team, divided into three to four sub-teams at any given time, crouched over or knelt beside the "towns" they had created and took turns loading and unloading crates, people, and animals on and off the train. Because they were operating in such a small area, just fitting everybody in without someone stepping in the pond or inadvertently kicking the train off the track was an accomplishment.
After watching several attempts to place or snatch items while the train was moving, I asked the team to add or remove items only when the train was sitting still. The engineers then began stopping the train three to four times on each circumnavigation of the pond. The ad hoc procedure that the team established fell generally within the following guidelines.
It is worth noting that virtually every start and stop was abrupt, what automobile drivers call "jackrabbit" starts and stops. Yet the locomotive and power supply seemed none the worse for wear by the end of the test. In addition, the would-be loaders and unloaders would occasionally neglect to wait for the train to stop and would attempt placements or removals while the train was running. To my knowledge, the only damage this caused was a roofwalk handhold coming loose on the caboose, which was quickly snapped back into place.
Toward the end of this phase, Katie Martin left for home, thus ending the stress test of the goldfish, which seemed to have survived without physical or emotional damage. Later, the majority of the remaining test team began engaging in procedures which didn’t seem to be directly related to the test. One of these procedures involved taking turns chasing each other all over the environs and shouting "You’re it!"
While most of the test team was so engaged, a few stopped by the controls from time to time, which led into phase three.
Even when the test team was not actually static at the testing site, certain individuals apparently wanted to see the train circumnavigating the pond every time they ran past. Consequently, the train ran unattended for the majority of the last hour. About twenty minutes into this period, the caboose disconnected from the flat car. Because the train was traveling at a fairly unprototypical speed for an 0-4-0 switcher, the next time the locomotive came around the track, it knocked the caboose off the tracks and followed it into a patch of stubby fingers sedum. The only damage seemed to be that the boiler front came off the locomotive; it was easily snapped back into place. The locomotive and caboose were rerailed, the caboose was recoupled, the speed was reduced, and the test resumed.
Several minutes later, one of the junior members of the test team took over engineer duties for a few moments. During this period, the train was seen going at speeds that could only be described as "breakneck." After a few circuits at high speed, the locomotive jumped a switch and smacked into the Artline bird feeder, which, being weighted down with sand, didn’t exactly make way for the locomotive. I glanced at the running gear to make certain the locomotive would still run and put it back on the track. I then cautioned the junior engineer to operate the equipment more carefully.
Except for a few more stops and starts when a test team member resumed a brief interest, the train ran uninterrupted around the pond for the last half-hour or so of the test.
As the test observers were leaving, several of them remarked how helpful it was that we had something to occupy the test team’s time while their parents were visiting.
Due to other responsibilities, like being nice to people, I did not have time to immediately evaluate the post-test condition of each item on my list, nor was I able to conduct a comprehensive census of all the miniature people, animals, and accessories. However, as I collected the small accessories at dusk, none of them seemed to be broken or damaged by exposure to the elements. I left the deer herd clustered under the mugo pine, where they seemed to fit. The only "damage" was that the Preiser people I had painted with acrylic paint had chipped badly. I would not be surprised to find a plastic duck or two in the bottom of the pond the next time I drain it, however.
The track and roadbed seemed intact, and the track seemed as clean as it had been that morning (thanks, no doubt, to the mostly metal wheels of the test train).
The buildings all survived nicely, even the Artline bird feeder that was struck by a speeding locomotive.
The caboose and flat car showed no signs of damage or wear. However, when I brought the locomotive in, I realized that the bell and bracket were missing. Initially, I suspected that they had come off in one of the "grab things off a moving train" exercises, and I looked in vain for them in a two-foot distance around the south loop. Later, though, it occurred to me that they may have come off in the collision with the bird feeder, so I concentrated my search in that quadrant. Eventually I found the bell and bracket four feet beyond the point of impact, where they must have been thrown by the force of contact with the feeder. They were both in excellent condition and I plan to glue them back onto the locomotive shortly.
For the next day or so, the trampled thyme, sedum, and chicks-and-hens continued to look, er, trampled. However, a rainstorm a day and a half after the test revived most of them to something like their pre-test state. The woolly thyme, which may have been trampled more than the other thymes, because if its location and innocuous profile, went completely dormant, a stage in which the leaves just get smaller and grayer until it becomes indiscernable from dirt. Woolly thyme does not always survive this stage (a fault that has caused some garden railroaders to abandon its use), but there is now new growth in several places, and hopes for overall recovery are high.
Finally, the night after the stress test, we heard the frog croaking under the waterfall. None of the goldfish have croaked, however. So even the pond life seems to have survived the test.
First I have to repeat my gratitude that the youthful participants all played nicely together and played fairly nicely with the equipment. I’ve had far worse experiences (including one time I came out to find a former friend’s boys dropping die-cast automobiles on a locomotive from a three foot height to find out which one would break first). So I’m quite aware that turning a garden railroad over to a bunch of kids you don’t know all that well won’t necessarily leave you with the same warm fuzzy feelings.
And as for the survival of the equipment, plants, and animals, there may still be hidden negative consequences of which we are unaware.
However, it is apparent that:
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