Turning fifty is Super….Train!

By Mike McGrattan.

Supertrain. The very name indicates that it is something special; something big; something that will make an impact on you. Well, Dan and I were going to see if that was true as we boarded VIA Rail’s Train #1, The Canadian, at 9:30 PM in Toronto on Tuesday 8 April. As a matter of fact Dan already knew the answer; he is a veteran of Calgary’s annual model train show but I hadn’t attended in many years so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

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The trip to Supertrain would began on The Canadian and would be an adventure all on to itself and was a wonderful gift from Jason. You see; barely two hours after we boarded the historic transcontinental train I turned fifty years old; a half-century, most of which had been spent as a model train nut. Could there be any better way to spend one’s birthday than in the Park Car?

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Our good friend and “Johnny on the Spot” Matt Soknacki was also on the trip so the three of us were determined to make it a great trip. Armed with our Canadian Trackside Guide, Matt’s scanner and our cameras we did our best to do what three railfans do: watch trains! But we also had to take care of another rookie VIA Canadian passenger – “Littl’ Puddy” – my N scale boxcar that has gone around the world. (Click here to read more about Littl’ Puddy’s global adventures.)

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Through two days and three nights we showed Littl’ Puddy around The Canadian and across Canada! She enjoyed his time in the Park Car dome, the Mural lounge (watching TV with Dan no less…) and the Dining Car (Puddy ordered the veal chop and loved it but wouldn’t share…). Littl’ Puddy experienced the best The Canadian has to offer and seemed quite satisfied. (OK this Puddy business is getting just a little strange. -Ed.)

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It is difficult to adequately convey the awesomeness of travelling sleeper class on The Canadian: you see your country in a way that is impossible to do without riding this historic train. For a Canadian Pacific modeller it is a link with the railway’s storied past, even if it now runs on CN rails. You can still see where the raised beaver shields once adorned the car sides and the level of service and attention to your needs remain second to none. It is the most relaxing and visually simulating way to travel that I can think of.

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Photo by Morgan Turney

The four-hour stopover in Winnipeg provided Dan, Matt and me with the chance to meet our friend, Morgan Turney, publisher of Canadian Railway Modeller magazine  at the Winnipeg Railway Museum for a tour. Housed in the historic VIA station, the museum is an outstanding and heartwarming encapsulation of Winnipeg and Manitoba’s railway past.

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Of particular interest to me were the two wooden Canadian Pacific passenger train express reefers. These are cars I have modeled for my own CPR Dominion. The reefers are only a part of an outstanding collection that includes a GMD-1 in that beautiful green and yellow scheme (YUCK! -Ed), several CN head end cars, and the 4-4-0 “Countess of Dufferin” steam engine. If you have an opportunity to visit this museum make sure you take it. And of course we all need to support Canada’s only model railway magazine, so please order a subscription of CRM. You can order it here.

The journey through the Prairies was just as special as the first part: beautiful scenery (much of it snow covered); outstanding food (Mmmm… lobster-stuffed ravioli, covered in a crème sauce and chunks of crab…) (YUCK! -Kosher Ed.) (Sounds delicious to me – Non-Kosher Webmaster & Admitted Foodie Ed); and great entertainment. Montreal-based jazz and blues artist Richard Carr played in the Skyline and Park cars throughout the journey and we spent quite a bit of time chatting with him about Canadian music. Richard is a talented and inspired musician and is a downright nice guy. Check him out at http://www.richardcarr.org/

Arriving in Edmonton we collected our bags and bid The Canadian “adieu”. We caught a cab to pick up our rental car for the drive to Calgary. The cab took us to the wrong place. Thankfully, the concierge at the wrong place – Don – is a member Edmonton Model Railroad Association who graciously drove us to the right place.  We were then off down the Long and Not-Very-Winding Road to Calgary.

Loading into Supertrain wasn’t nearly as hard as we thought it might be – thank you, Supertrain organizers – and we had the Rapido booth set up and ready for business in short order. And now we had more important things to take care of: an operating session on Grant Eastman’s SAR N scale railroad. This was one of the highlights of my trip.

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Littl’ Puddy rides the rails of Grant Eastman’s SAR layout.

Grant isn’t a model railroader; he is a railroad modeller. Operations are king on the SAR. Crews of two (conductor and engineer) are challenged just like prototypical railroaders are. Long sulphur and grain drags fight their way up prototypical grades and through mountainous passes. Helpers are cut in and out, DPUs are used, and conductors work with the RTC to ensure that crew safety, on time delivery and efficency are all maintained. Other assignments include locals, way freights and yard jobs. These test the operating crews’ nerves and abilities. Grant’s trackwork, locomotives and rolling stock are several cuts above the norm and frankly push the standards of model railroading to the max. It was an honour and a pleasure to run on the SAR and to meet Grant.

Saturday morning meant the main event was here: Supertrain 2014. As we manned our booth and watched the crowds arrive it was clear that this was going to be something special. There were outstanding layouts and displays in every scale imaginable all over the place; there were vendors of every type, size and specialty; there were railway historic societies, interest groups and, of course manufacturers. The entire soccer dome was full and there was something for everyone.

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Our booth quickly became extremely busy and stayed that way until the end of Sunday. When you work a show for Rapido you get all kinds of visitors; hard core modellers who want to discuss the über fine points of our models, suggest (i.e. “lobby for”) future projects and share their modelling experiences with us. Many are long-time friends whom we have known for years; others are new purchasers of our products who want to tell us what they think of their first Rapido car or locomotive. Only a few people came to throw rotten fruit at us. Rotten fruit or no, we truly enjoy and value your input and the chance to chat about our shared passion.

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The GMD-1 was clearly the star attraction at the booth (both in HO and N scale – the “little guy” was very popular!) with numerous people commenting on the unit and asking for a delivery update. The NAR fans were out in full force (not surprising in Alberta) and there is a palpable level of excitement when talking to them as the GMD-1 was such a staple of NAR railroading. The VIA F40PH-2D sample certainly got lots of attention (click here to order it by the bucket load! -Ed.) VIA Rail fans are excited to see this locomotive, although being in Calgary we certainly heard the normal gripes about the Canadian no longer being a Calgary visitor!

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The “surprise” of the show was the LRC locomotive… Yes, it exists! The factory shipped a new, fully-painted sample direct to Calgary and we showed it for the very first time at Supertain. It was fun to watch people standing in front of the booth, scanning the new locomotives, the Park car, reefer and steam genny only to watch them freeze, stare and then gasp as they realized the LRC was sitting there coupled to a couple of LRC coaches. The new sample looks great and it certainly looks like Jason’s long-awaited and much-debated LRC is soon going to be a reality. (The order desk is open again while we tweak the final bugs out of the tooling. Click here to order. -Ed.)

Families are the backbone of train shows and as the father of a ten-year-old model train fan I really enjoy talking to the kids. They are, after all, the future of our hobby and bring back memories of going to train shows with my late father. I always bring Littl’ Puddy to shows with me because her adventures help me build an instant bridge with even the youngest child. Describing the around-the-world voyage of the little car to children always has them spellbound. Their vivid and powerful imaginations can take the brief description of a N scale car’s voyage and make it into a magical memory that they can take away with them. There is no greater satisfaction than watching a child leave our booth excited about model trains, just like I did all those years ago.

My teammate Dan is amazing; he can talk to anyone and make him or her feel at ease. He can do so with multiple people in the loud and crowded environment of a train show; and he can do all that while fixing a broken F-Unit, sitting on the soccer carpet floor, giving step-by-step instructions to several modellers. Yes, Dan is Superman.

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Super Dan at Supertrain.

Dan isn’t content to take the model and tell the customer he’ll ship it back to them when there is a chance he can fix the problem right on the spot. Remember, these are delicate and somewhat complex models and he doesn’t have a workbench, proper lighting or even a chair! I couldn’t have a better partner to learn from or a better friend to travel with from show to show. (Aw…… -Ed.)

We talked with a couple of thousand people over the two days. Everyone had something to tell us, ask us or often both. Questions and compliments, critiques and queries: they are all important and we take them all just that way. New suggestions are common and although many are not ever going to make it onto our new product list (how many Battery Charging Cars did VIA really have, anyway?) others are incredibly helpful and may lead to a future release. Modellers’ comments on existing products allow us to find solutions to potential issues and design improvements into our future products. Regardless, we love to hear whatever you have to say.

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Jon Calon and Dan show off the pretty Rapido booth.

Two days of Supertrain was tiring. Dan and I were ready to collapse but we found the energy to have a wonderful dinner with our good friend and show committee member Jon Calon and his wife, Michaelea. We spent Monday arranging to ship our booth and products back to Markham – Ottawa Train Expo is only two weeks away – and then we spent a few awesome hours railfanning Calgary, the holy mecca for CPR modellers.

We also got to thank one of our retail vendors, Bruce Shaw at The Dispatcher  for his 11th hour rescue of the Rapido team. Seems we packed everything we needed for the show… except a DCC system to power the display. Never fear! Bruce came to the rescue and fixed us up with a loaner – thanks Bruce!

We’ve just returned home and it’s back to the office and the massive backlog of emails, mail and phone messages that tends to build up whenever we are away for a few days. We will bring back all of our samples and the memories of a wonderful trip. More importantly we will bring back the ideas, comments and desires of the Rapido customers that we got to meet. I’m sure I speak for Dan as well when I say that meeting all of you has revitalized our commitment to do our best to support the model railroad community. After all, I’m just a railroad modeller who is lucky enough to be “living the dream” by working in the industry.

Not a bad way to turn fifty……

Mike.