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Getting Started with Lego Trains 93

honestpuck writes with his review of Getting Started with Lego Trains from No Starch Press. "I have a confession to make. There is one small part of my childhood that is constantly returning; every few years it breaks out and I find my apartment covered in small pieces of brightly coloured plastic: Yes, the Lego addiction strikes. One of those recent episodes involved a train set (perhaps I indulged in a few pieces of track and an extra car or two - but that's all, I swear) so I was pleased to see this book." Read on for the rest of his review. Note that the Bricks on the Brain site is down at the moment; you might want to try the google cache instead.
Getting Started with Lego Trains
author Jacob H. McKee
pages 101
publisher No Starch Press
rating 7
reviewer Tony Williams
ISBN 1593270062
summary Good book on building Lego trains. Not terribly large.

Getting Started with Lego Trains is a fairly good guide to designing and building Lego trains. The writing is a clear, simple style that should be understood by anyone, the layout is clear.

Jacob McKee, the author, is webmaster at Bricks On The Brain, a good site which acts as a portal to build instructions. He also has a section devoted to the book which has three example pages and some links to other sites useful to Lego train builders. Both the book and the site itself promise at least a couple of articles by McKee but these are still "to come." I hope they come soon as McKee promises (in the book and on the site) an article on using decals and I'd like to know his sources and methods.

The book starts with two chapters that are absolutely basic; most of the information here is included in the Lego documentation you get with the train kits, such as how to hook up the electrical power and the different train and carriage sets available. There are still some useful nuggets such as the 'Studs Not On Top' technique for getting bricks pointing away from the vertical and interesting trivia such as a short history of Lego trains. McKee also adds some details that may be hard to glean from the Lego manuals such as how an active passing line can cause a short circuit in your track.

The third chapter is only two pages, which once again detail some fairly obvious information such as the various parts of the train couplings and bogies. From that point on, the book gets interesting. The real core of the book consists of the three chapters that McKee has devoted to three different train models. Instead of just giving you the plans to build the locomotive and two carriages, McKee has shared the design process itself and gives some useful design and building tips before showing you the instructions.

The first model is a glorious model of a GP-38 locomotive (if you want to see the finished models then you can get decent-sized pictures on McKee's site). It might have been better to have had this model last of the three, as it is the most complex and I found it the hardest to make with my Lego collection - there are more specialized parts in this model and I to change the design in a couple of spots. Given the great look of the finished model, this isn't too much of a complaint.

The second example is a refrigerated car (or "reefer car" in train yard slang). I found that I couldn't build this car in the all-green of the book design but had the parts to build it in red. Since, as McKee points out, these sorts of cars are to be found in dozens of different paint jobs I don't feel this was a problem. There are considerably fewer specialized parts in this model.

The third example is a container car (with containers), which is the easiest to build and uses few specialized pieces you are unlikely to have if you own a train set already. Once again my only real problem was one of having exactly the same colour as the book -- one of my containers has red doors instead of white, for example.

I hope from my descriptions of the chapter you can see why I think the model order is wrong -- I'd completely reverse the order of these three chapters.

For an early teen (or older) reader, the strength of this book is the tips and encouragement McKee gives in these three chapters for designing your own locomotives and carriages. There are dozens of little tips and tricks on creating a visually pleasing and playable model design. Younger readers may not appreciate McKee's excellent advice on creating your own designs as much as older readers, but they will enjoy building the models all the same.

There is a final chapter on building track layouts, including some useful tips on building track inclines, and finally two short appendices, one on where to buy Lego and a glossary (McKee labels it "terminology").

Originally (before publication, that is), this book was advertised at $24.95. The actual cover price is $19.95, though, and No Starch have dropped the price again. At the new price of $14.95, it becomes much more attractive and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in designing and building their own Lego train locomotives and carriages. The readable, simple style and clear build instructions make it enjoyable for quite young readers and older, more dedicated builders will appreciate the design tips. Lego have train sets that they advise are for 8 years old or older, and I believe the average seven-year-old would have no problem understanding the build instructions in this book.

You can purchase Getting Started with Lego Trains from (They're asking the full cover price for now, but that may change.) Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Getting Started with Lego Trains

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  • by Anonymous Meoward ( 665631 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:10PM (#8684085)

    Party-goer: "So I build model trains in my spare time."
    Dullard: "I like model trains! Why, without the model trains, how could they build the real ones?"

    • Geez Louise! Model railroaders are being picked on in the Slashdot community of all places. The same place where people collect model toys of VIDEO GAME characters and swords modelled after VIDEO GAME weapons.

      I am personally proud to be a model railroader. And, yes, I own Trainz, Trainz Sim 2004, and Microsoft Train Sim. In my case, the video game is modelled after REAL LIFE, not the other way around.

      I really wish that the /. community would stop being such hypocrites....
    • by kfg ( 145172 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @06:05PM (#8684703)
      When I owned an R/C car racetrack people used to ask me what my wife did. I told them, "She makes trains from kits provided by the parent factory."

      Extrapolating from the context in which the question was asked, that of model cars, they usually responded with something like, "Oh, yes, I understand that model trains are still a big business. People like trains."

      Then I had to correct them.

      "No. You don't understand. She makes trains. Locomotives to be specific. She goes to work in the morning, picks up huge slabs of plate steel, and turns them into trains. She's a welder."

      Kinda like Flashdance, only different, since she's a belly dancer.

      The cool part is that once she's "assembled a kit" she often gets to drive it out of the assembly shed into the yard.

      Can't do that with a Tyco or Lego.

      They won't let me take a crack at one though. When the subject comes up they just mumble some legal crap about "liability" or something.

      Damn lawyers and insurance underwriters won't let anybody have any fun anymore. I'd really like to have a go at it, there's this move I saw in a cartoon once, and I think I can do it.

  • Slight Error (Score:3, Informative)

    by Wise Dragon ( 71071 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:12PM (#8684114) Homepage
    There is a slight error in the article body. "No Starch Press" is mispelled once as "No Start Press".
  • Hmmm. (Score:5, Funny)

    The second example is a refrigerated car (or "reefer car" in train yard slang). I found that I couldn't build this car in the all-green of the book design but had the parts to build it in red

    Who knew the fast-paced and glamorous world of Lego trains would carry such a dark, drug-driven underside?
    • Re:Hmmm. (Score:1, Offtopic)

      speaking of reefer and legos...nothing beats my mindstorms powered bong! fans and light sensors rule, all i have left is to hack together a heating element :)
  • No, really? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Some Dumbass... ( 192298 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:18PM (#8684183)
    Note that the Bricks on the Brain site is down at the moment

    Is it just me, or should this disclaimer be a part of every story posted on SlashDot?
  • LUGNET (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:19PM (#8684188)
    no story on non-childhood Lego is complete without a link to LUGNET [], an online forum site dedicated to, um, "older kids" who make all kinds of cool stuff with Lego as an artistic medium -- and of course as a toy.
  • Legos (Score:2, Interesting)

    by joeware ( 672849 )
    I am sure there are a lot of us that played with, or still occassionally play with Lego. My parents just made me take my old Lego bins and I played with them a bit. Now they are into my closet for long term storage.

    My question is, of those of use that played/plays with Lego, who actually cares about Lego trains?
    • Re:Legos (Score:5, Interesting)

      by mattdm ( 1931 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:22PM (#8684244) Homepage
      My question is, of those of use that played/plays with Lego, who actually cares about Lego trains?

      Are you serious? Check this out [], or this []. In summary, this answer is: lots of people, that's who.

      PS: those lego bins in your closet for long-term storage -- I could maybe find a better home for them.....
    • Just think about how many people are just fanatical about model trains. I mean it is just huge. The fascination has always escaped me for the most part. This at least makes a little more sense- you can build your own train, modify designs, etc. At least you dont just buy a car, hook it onto the rest and watch it go. I like mindstorms better - but I can see how this would be huge.

      • Re:Legos (Score:5, Insightful)

        by smagoun ( 546733 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @07:14PM (#8685336) Homepage
        When building model trains, virtually all serious modellers will customize everything (locomotives, rolling stock, structures, etc) or they will build stuff from scratch. There's plenty of build-your-own-train and design modification going on. No serious modeller will just buy a car, hook it onto the rest and watch it go. Instead, they will:
        • Change the couplers
        • Perhaps change the trucks to something that's smoother/more appropriate/etc
        • Change the road name and other markings
        • Add stanchions, brakes, lights, and other details that the manufacturer didn't include
        • Weather the car so it looks like it's been around for awhile
        • Add ballast so the car behaves properly and produces the correct load on the locomotive
        • For a passenger car, the modeller will often scratchbuild an interior including seats, people, baggage, stove, lighting, shades, etc

        For locomotives, in additon to the above modellers will often:

        • Replace the running gear
        • Add a sound system
        • Add Digital Command and Control (DCC) so that they can control the specific locomotive without affecting others on the same track
        • and so on.

        And that's just what they do for storebought locomotives and rolling stock. Scratchbuilding a locomotive can take weeks or months, depending on the level of detail.

        Then there's the matter of scenery. Running trains around a circle of track gets pretty boring (unless you have a cat....). The good news is that you can build scenery to surround the trains. You get to build entire cities, towns, farms, rivers, mountains, hills, canyons, and industries from scratch. Basically anything you can imagine can be incororated into a model railroad. It's world-building in your basement (or garage, or spare room, or bookshelf).

        For the electrically-minded, there are all sorts of fun wiring problems to be solved, and you can do many interesting things with computers if you want to (train scheduling, locomotive control, switch control, lighting, etc).

        If you like spending time outdoors, you may enjoy harvesting plants, rocks and dirt for your layout so that it has authentic colors, shapes, and textures.

        If you're a people person, you and your friends may enjoy operating sessions where everyone has a train and you're working cooperatively to service the industries along your route without creating gridlock.

        If you like brainteasers, there are [railroad car] switching problems that can keep you busy for hours or days.

        Model railroading is one of those rare hobbies where there's truly something for everyone. You can be as involved as you want, and since you're inventing as you go nobody can tell you that you did a bad job.

    • Re:Legos (Score:4, Insightful)

      by mr. methane ( 593577 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @08:24PM (#8685852) Journal
      One of the expected benefits of having a son who is going to be ten years old is, I can go into any toy store and buy anything I want, without embarassment.

      (And yes, I do have my own 1,200-piece bucket of legos, which is off-limits to the kids)
  • by Bombcar ( 16057 ) <racbmob@bom b c a r . com> on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:20PM (#8684208) Homepage Journal
    A good book, but a little short.

    Highly recommended for children who like trains, or adults getting into Lego Modeling for the first time.

    But it is not as advanced as some of the Lego mindstorm books, but still, at the price it is a good deal.

    Note that Jake McKee works for the Lego company, but this is an unofficial book.

    See LugNet [] for more information on Lego!
  • Wow (Score:5, Funny)

    by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) <bittercode@gmail> on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:20PM (#8684215) Homepage Journal
    now I have a great new project in my mind for my mindstorm set- train wrecking killer bot! It can't be too hard to make people who fret over the color of their train cars matching the book cry. muhahahaha

    • You know, you could combine chemistry and power a pneumatic set with dry ice + water, giving you pressurized CO2. You just need an automated way or releasing the excess pressure, so you don't blow those damned rubber hoses off.
  • Pretty good book. (Score:3, Informative)

    by James A. M. Joyce ( 764379 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:20PM (#8684217) Journal
    This book is, obviously, by no means perfect. But McVee's enthusiasm is most definitely infectious on the subject and certainly won me over from Scalextric and Tomy electronic trains. The useful tips are really the defining feature of the book, and helped me overcome the slight obstacle of the sets of track having dicky connections due to bad metal foil imprinting on the inner curvatures. Great book for the beginner.
  • by bcolflesh ( 710514 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:21PM (#8684221) Homepage
    - Amtrak Press
  • Mod me Off-topic... (Score:4, Informative)

    by The-Dalai-LLama ( 755919 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:23PM (#8684262) Homepage Journal

    if you must, but someone's gotta do it.

    Brick Testament []

    Abston Church of Christ []

    Brick Movies []

    The Dalai LLama
    glad his kid's old enough to start digging on Legos

  • Pricey sets! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by GillBates0 ( 664202 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:24PM (#8684269) Homepage Journal
    Originally (before publication, that is), this book was advertised at $24.95. The actual cover price is $19.95, though, and No Starch have dropped the price again. At the new price of $14.95, it becomes much more attractive and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in designing and building their own Lego train locomotives and carriages.

    Ofcourse, they should also be able to afford the Lego sets. I love Lego, and had 2 sets when I was a kid...they used to keep me engaged for days at a stretch.

    Sometimes, I feel like going out and buying a set or two, but they're too expensive for my liking. For any decent sized model train set (stations, wagons, etc) , you could end up paying around $200.00.

    Take a look at the prices on their Train set page []. Any decent sized kit is $150+

    In general, I wouldn't mind paying around $100.00 for a *general* set of bricks....but these specialized kits are *too* restrictive, and after building the model, you usually have to buy a different set to build anything else.

    • Re:Pricey sets! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mattdm ( 1931 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @06:01PM (#8684677) Homepage
      Take a look at the prices on their Train set page. Any decent sized kit is $150+

      The train sets are actually pretty good for parts. Of course, if you want to build your own stuff (and of course, you do!), it helps to have a lot -- Lego parts are exponentially useful. A lot of the new Lego sets are increasingly "juniorized" (a plague for the last decade at least) with one-use pieces and uncomplicated designs, but the trains tend to be better, since they're geared at an older audience.

      But anyway, you're missing something -- these are electric model trains. That's an expensive hobby. It's not uncommon for a non-Lego engine alone to be over $500. And even the cheap crap [] is approximately comparable in price to an infinitely more versitile Lego train set.

      After you have the core parts from sets to get started, I recommend shopping at BrickLink [] -- an online bazaar specifically designed for the sale of individual Lego pieces in bulk (or in small quantities -- whatever!). Get just the parts you need for the project you're working on.
    • by ryanr ( 30917 ) *
      Problem is, the train set is electric, and it's difficult to generate electricity with just the plain plastic bricks.

      I mean.. it just takes a *ton* of rubbing, and the cat gets annoyed pretty quickly.
    • Then go buy yourself five $20 buckets of 1000 bricks. They're available at any Toys R. Us.

      I'm so tired of hearing people cry about "specialized" pieces. Use some imagination. The new pieces are great. You can build things that were not practical with just the old ones I had when I was a kid.

      Are 4" by 4" pieces of wall good Lego? No. But an interestingly-shaped angle brick can be used for any number of things.
  • Heh, I had a lego train set, which ultimately became just a power source for all my other electrical implements, it was quite an educational toy. I was pretty young but I found things got more interesting when you connected some 9 volts to it just right.
  • have you seen o'reilly's lego train hacks []? l33t! check it out.

  • "reefer car"

    Imagine how cool it would be to put an oz. in the car and have it go around your track. It would really be cool if you built your "reefer car" out of psycedelic colored blocks.

  • did you know that lego is short for "leg godt" which in danish means "i assemble", and also means "play well" in latin.
  • by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Friday March 26, 2004 @05:51PM (#8684556) Journal
    My Legoherpes Simplex III broke out a couple of years ago when the Star Wars legos started to hit the market.

    It led to my catching eBayphylis, which led to PayPal Withdrawal symptoms.

    Now I limit myself to 4 "Funny" karma points a week. They don't do anything, but somehow they still make me feel good.

    Please. Help me out by modding me "Insightful" instead of just "Funny".
  • cause I never had enough legos to ever get "addicted" to them. I preferred cold war artifacts like GI Joe.
  • "Zach was a Legomaniac. Then they treated him with Thorazine. Now all he does is watch T.V."
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Getting Started with Lego Trains:

    step 1) Give up any and all chances of getting laid


    Profit - not having a life is cheap... you will however spend whatever profit you make on a) Lego b) a klingon outfit c) an extensive collection of pr0n or d) all of the above...

    I am posting AC, so I'll admit to c :)

  • Here [] is some more information on the book. You can even download a part of Ch5. Also, it can be purchased on this web site for $14.95 instead of $24.95 (USD).
  • BN Price - 19.95, (You save $5)

    yet in the publisher's description (on the BN website), it shows the price as $14.95
  • It's a *railway* with *trucks*, *wagons*, *vans* and *coaches* and the swivelly things with the wheels on are *bogies*. We ought to know we invented the things. [1]

    "Britain and America, two nations divided by a common language" - Oscar Wilde

    [1] Actually I believe it was the greeks who first invented a tracked wagon way. We came to them late, the 18th century. [2]

    [2] My local village railway station is 161 this year. It was opened in 1844.
  • wouldn't all the leggo become unstable and lead to a horrible derailment, the loss of life would be shocking, all those lifeless looking beadly little eyes and those little legs detached from those hard little torsoes. Oh the humanity!!!!

Never worry about theory as long as the machinery does what it's supposed to do. -- R. A. Heinlein