Monday, March 31, 2014

The X(2F)-Files

There was a time in HO model railroading when there was neither a standard coupler nor a standard coupler pocket. It was a dark time. Modellers were building kits from scratch, using ingredients like basswood, brass and other organic elements, or building rudimentary commercial kits. But how could the newly-popular HO-scale kits be coupled together and operated like tinplate, Lionel and larger-scale trains - quickly and reliably, often at high speed?
Most early HO car kits came packed with a pair of cast metal, dummy AAR-type couplers and rarely would the couplers of one manufacturer work with those of another. Mantua, K&W, Baker and Walthers offered automatic couplers, though none was compatible with another. European manufacturers had their own designs. At the same time, early Kadee, Hobbyline, and American Flyer had their own designs. Then, the horn coupler, of which the X2F was only one of several specific models, was developed by an National Model Railroad Association committee headed by Paul Mallery. At the time of its development, the coupler was a significant advance over certain other coupler designs in its various capabilities. The coupler committee was outside of the standards committee, perhaps realizing even then that creation of a standard coupler might never happen. Paul Mallery even denied he headed the committee, nor would he admit what type of coupler he preferred! Nevertheless, the new X coupler, X1, early X2 through X2E, and finally X2F variants were developed. The X2F coupler was unveiled at a manufacturers' meeting in New York City: the Hobby Industry Association of America model railroad section, in February, 1957.

NMRA, however, being a reasonably democratic organization, put the question of coupler standardization to a vote of its membership and the membership at large decided against using the horn coupler as a standard. The NMRA, however, does have the S-2 coupler standard. The NMRA would not even call the X2F its official coupler.  Most members preferred the idea of standard coupler pockets which would permit use of any coupler. This was perhaps a longer-lasting, more important development to 'serious' modellers, since many 'serious' modellers considered the X2F a horror. [Ed note: I use the term 'serious' here loosely. I also use the term 'loosely' loosely. I consider myself a serious modeller, though I associate the term 'serious' modeller with one who is stodgy, snobbish and condescending.]

The horn coupler did become a near 100% standard on most HO train sets. Athearn, Model Die Casting, Varney, Mantua, AHM and others soon packed X2F couplers with their major kit lines.  In my experience, almost invariably, whenever two cars refused to couple to each other, they were MDC cars with the cast metal underframe pockets. An agonized cry of "Must be Roundhouse cars!", would echo throughout the HO scale yard. Preferred by manufacturers because the couplers could be produced cheaply, cast on a sprue with other plastic kit parts, the coupler was not proprietary, its use being free from royalties. Various forms of the X2F standard included the 'large hole' Athearn body mount style, and the 'small hole' Tyco Talgo truck design:                                                         
Standardization was desirable to get maximum effectiveness from the horn design, since the many plastics and metals used in the coupler's manufacture by various producers have different frictional properties when coupling, especially when spring tensions also vary because of the use of different springs: brass or steel spring, hair spring, nylon, plastic, etc. The X2F was a significant achievement and because of its low production cost and satisfactory operating capability, did permit interchangeability of thousands of HO cars and locomotives for the type of buyers not generally capable of making such conversions themselves. Paul Mallery said that the X2F never reached its full potential because almost every manufacturer deviated from its original design and tolerances. Kadee evolved into its present form through the 1960's and became the de facto standard for the great bulk of 'serious' modellers. Due to patent expiration, McHenry, Accurail and Intermountain, Bowser and Bachmann have introduced new, almost-compatible couplers.

(at least on my layouts, for over 30 years)
Five reasons I still use the X2F coupler:
1. Supplied with the vast majority of cars I've bought. No retro-fit required.
2. Works well, especially when body-mounted. Truck-mounted styles tend to derail more, especially on backup movements. (Note to self: convert or sideline these cars.) I recommend snipping off the lowest part of the coupler for better operating through turnouts.
3. Works on a variety of radii, tight curvature, turnouts and crossovers. Weatherable, but try not to paint the coupler faces - too much friction!
4. One piece. Simple. Oh, and a nearly-endless supply.
5. No need for layout-mounted magnets or giant fondue sticks descending from heaven, in order to uncouple cars. (Certainly, while effective and time-honoured, my X2F uncoupling method is just as unrealistic. But it too works.)
I get some unusual reactions when I admit (My name is Eric...and I use X2F's) that I still roster a complete fleet of well over 300 X2F-equipped HO cars and locomotives. This includes the only X2F-equipped Rapido Trains Angus van in all of Canada, perhaps the world:
Fellow modellers contact me to offer me free Kadees. They genuinely want to help me. They tell me, "X2F's? You're a rebel!", or "I assume it's due to budgetary restraints". While I appreciate their generosity and good intentions, I'm firmly committed to using X2F's and I'm OK with their continued use.
To reinforce the above, here are a couple of recent photos showing a load of X2F's arriving on my Vancouver Wharves layout. CN road repair truck crewmen from the car shop work at unloading them:
Loading X2F's one-by-one into the section hirail boom truck:
To remove any temptation to switch over, I've just shipped my small stockpile of Kadees to fellow modeller Taylor Main in PEI.  UK modeller Keith Webb recently wrote to express solidarity, "I have a big pot of X2F's for you. I'm quite happy to give these to you, as in my eyes, if you're having fun, why change what you do?" A very welcome and enlightened viewpoint, Keith!
Just email me when you find one...mile179kingstonATyahooDOTca.
PRIZE UPDATE: Congratulations to speedy Trackside Treasure readers Elijah Hall and Troy Melody for their sharp-eyed, rapidly-returned entries. You both win a Trackside Treasure prize that will not be a bag of X2F's. Special honourable mention to Roman Ptashka for keeping me honest and providing the following graphic proof for his entry:
While not initially planning a contest, my intense inspection of my coupler graphic made me realize that I could lose precious credibility if some hawk-eyed reader pointed out the presence of (horrors!) non-X2F couplers in the photo. (pssst...I think I spotted various non-X2F couplers in each letter). Great to have such faithful, interested and engaged readers aboard!

Running extra...

Frank Milotte's Ottawa Northern and Western layout was recently featured on blog partner Chris Lyon's Lyon Valley Northern. Some aspects of Frank's layout grew on me a bit slowly, but one thing I came to appreciate was the dogbone layout design. Specifically, the 'centre-stage' aspect that allowed trains to appear at various levels, parading in front of the operator in runpast fashion.
Fitting in with the classic, some would say anachronistic, I say timeless theme of this post, Part 1 of Chris' series is entitled 'A Step Back in Time'. Part 3 is a Layout Tour.

My wife finds Pinterest very useful for her hand-made greeting cards, as well as getting and sharing new ideas. She told me it was easy to use, and as often happens, she was right! I've found it the perfect spot to keep photos I intend to use for modelling, as well as prototype photos that don't appear on trackside Treasure. Check out my I Should Model This! and other boards. Perhaps you will also find it a useful medium.

What's on your layout? Mine will eventually look just like this: my Pinterest Vancouver BC Modelling board, into which I've been 'pinning' interesting digital images of Vancouver railroading and urban scenery. On the board you'll find this Phil Mason photo of CP Rail's 'N' Yard, taken in 1982. This photo started it all for me, changing my modelled locale from western Canada (Winnipeg) to very much farther western Canada (Vancouver-below). Watch for an upcoming layout tour of my HO scale Vancouver Wharves layout.


Unknown said...

Great post Eric. I found it to be a great read with a lot of humour involved. The funniest part for me came when I came across my name and then read another sentence before having the "wait a sec" thought and found myself having a double take.

Eric said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Taylor. I'm glad the other couplers went to a good home!

I also enjoy checking out The Mighty Diesel Whine. I've just added a couple of your switching layout ideas to my Pinterest New Micro-Layout Ideas board.

It's great to make connections with fellow modellers and share ideas, and yes, the occasional bad pun. But I'm getting off track...


Unknown said...

Those switching layout ideas are actually those of Chris Mears. I took his old layout and modified it so that about 1/3 of the track work is his and 2/3 is mine. I have all the track laid as of now and I really need to do an update. I'll be finished finals here in a week and a half so once those are done I should have the whole thing finished including scenery within the month.

Eric said...

Yes, I remember Chris' post about sending the layout on to a new home, and it's almost going to a third home if I can adopt some of his/your ideas. I'll probably be working on a new laptop switching layout for my front porch this summer.

Good luck on finals, and keep us posted!


Anonymous said...

Since I mostly grew up on Life-Like, I am familiar with those X2F couplers. But I will admit, as simple as they are, they do look weird and not prototypical, and there's the derailing problem mentioned. I did upgrade many of my cars to knuckle couplers as I do like them better, but I still have a couple of "conversion cars" for if I don't have enough knuckles to go around, or if keeping the X2Fs is easy.
Life-Like makes a nice knuckle coupler that will work well with the Life-Like, Mantua, Tyco and IHC talgo trucks, AND it's easy to install (though with the Hong Kong-made trucks, a little trimming on the springs is needed for it to fit right.)

Eric said...

Thanks for your comments, wile. Weird looking and unprototypical to be sure, but we have to sacrifice something in the name of model train operation. Have you seen my track? Did I also mention the unprototypical uncoupling of all manufacturers' couplers?

It's just that I have been blinded to their appearance, concerning myself more with operation. Granted, in today's DCC, super-detailed, unit-specific modelling world, the X2F does seem like an anachromism.

And that's okay with me. As long as we find a method that works for each of us...I like your conversion car idea.


Claus said...

Hello Eric,

so nice to read your blogpost about X2F. I am a German hobby friend with a tiny North American Section on my layout. Since I was given a Canadian Tire train set when I was 15, I stick to the therein delivered X2F wagons and the F-series locomotive. All recent purchases (especially Roberval-Saguenay locos and wagons since I lived in Roberval (Qué)) I converted to X2F to be freely interchangeable. It is not so easy to find X2F couplers here but I managed to convert all. And the spare Kadees sold incredibly well... The only thing I miss is a X2F coupler with a NEM slot to add European-made North American wagons to my vehicle park.

Greetings from Essen, Germany


Eric said...

Good to hear from you, Claus.

We have to go a long way to find a fellow modeller using X2F couplers, don't we?

I can't see myself every changing away from X2F's, and have enough to convert more cars. While some train show sellers still sell X2F-equipped used cars, even the used market is filling up with Kadee-equipped cars now.

Thanks for your comment,