NCat: A Brief History


Practically every modeler has an affinity for a particular railroad; sometimes it's real and sometimes it's imaginary. Take NCat member Jim Blattau whose model pike is " 1947", or your editor Corky Whitlock whose pike is "The Gilpin Central"; each of these is imaginary. Or a modeler might have an affinity for a real railroad but, although modeling its location and features, will call it something else. That's what happened in the case of your's truly who had a liking for the Milwaukee Road but called it the "Penn Valley & Sierra Western"! That happened because of ANR, the Association of N Scale Railroads, predecessor to Ntrak at that time. I sent in my registration check, name and address but was then informed that I didn't join but rather my model pike joined (though I paid for it.) I hadn't yet thought of a name for the layout, let alone name it, so quickly had to come up with something. Any railroad in the west must, by tradition, include "western" and so, living on the west slope of the Sierra and in the town of Penn Valley it was a natural that the PV&SW would follow.

But it had to represent, in part at least, the Milwaukee Road and anyone knows that when you speak of the Milwaukee, you immediately think of its electrified portions in several of the western states. That became my guiding light: the N scale layout must have some of its trackage under wire.

But there was nothing I could buy: no poles, no catenary (I hadn't yet heard about the Sommerfeldt or Vollmer systems), no electric locomotives with operating pantographs save the Pennsy's GGI which would look a bit absurd in the Belt, Rockies and other mountain ranges of Montana, Idaho and Washington.

The pike started a-building in 1973. No overhead wire. No Milwaukee locomotives or passenger cars, but a few Milwaukee boxcars. ANR dissolved into Ntrak soon after I started and thus modular railroading was started. I joined with Ntrak's first ever module with live overhead operation, a short length of about 4' of track on a standard Ntrak module. Laugh if you want, but the overhead was made of 1/8" brass welding rods for the poles, the arms from the tails of capacitors and resistors and the wire itself a single strand untangled from a length of lamp cord. I made a little mining electric loco from an HOn3 thing, put a trolley pole on it and was operating at the first Ntrak convention in San Diego in 1974.

The full history of NCat has been detailed elsewhere, but that one module grew to five made by four different modelers as part of the 1978 Denver Ntrak Convention at which time Ntrak's "electrified" modules got the name of NCat.

Twenty five years span the crude beginning of N -scale electrification and this summer (1996) a nine foot long layout was displayed at the NTrak convention in Long Beach, CA.. which, in essence, demonstrated the complete range of common types of electrification. Overhead wire under which pantographs operated was the first; successful operation with trolley poles under a live overhead was the second, and 3rd rail collection was the last. The NCat layout showed all three of these to be viable N scale model railroad operations.

The Long Beach layout consisted of a modified standard NCat module with special units added to each end, which created two loops, one inside the other on which all three methods of current collection were demonstrated. We were on view for the three days of the convention, but did not transfer over to the NMRA's convention for the week's remainder.

Many people saw the layout and most were amazed as they watched the little locomotives, interurbans and trolley cars strut their stuff. Flawlessly too.

Behind this layout lay many hours of devoted service to develop the items it used; primarily Corky Whitlock, Jim Stanley and myself early on and followed by much help from Jim Brewer and Larry Ede in more recent years.

The Pantograph:

For years we relied on those made by Sommerfeldt which worked well, but were built to European standards and thus smaller, with a shorter reach, than American prototypes. Many times modelers had to raise the reach by building some sort of platform under the pan. Even so, when standards were first thought of, they took into account the smaller pans and wire height above railhead was a scale range of 18-20 feet. The NMRA had no standards for N scale electrification and we of NCat got involved in that, at which time we changed the overhead wire height range to 19-22 scale feet. This and other aspects of live overhead operations as we developed them were finally adopted as NMRA standards.

Keith Reinschreiber has taken over production of the NCat designed pantograph as well as a fine trolley pole of his own design. Both work very well as has been proven out by years of use. The pantograph is available as RTR or as a kit.

The Trolley Pole:

Jim Stanley and Corky Whitlock deserve credit for the impetus in developing operating poles for trolley cars, with Jim Brewer contributing significantly later on. A couple of us joined them in the effort trying out different types of springing for upwards force, different amounts of such force, various designs for the shoes, and various ways of mounting the poles atop a car, and so on. There were several basically different pole designs, some of which worked very well and some less well.

Along with this work ways had to be devised to cancel the current collection from rail to one side of the motor for a connection with the overhead wire. No one type of chassis was used so each new modification meant devising a new way. Although standards can he accepted for things like the pantograph, the overhead system, etc., no such standards can be developed for re-wiring the variety of chassis used and that still remains a puzzle for the modeler to solve himself, unless he's following one of several "how-to's" described.

Lastly, the 3rd rail system This was developed during the of  1996, as the final and last project to tackle for current collection. Jim Stanley helped in the early stages, but for the most part it has been my effort. While what I have designed worked well at Long Beach, there undoubtedly will be further development and simplification. Of the three ways just listed, the 3rd rail is the trickiest. But if one is careful in adjusting the components and in handling the cars, they will run perfectly. The several, we had ran for more than 3 hours each and without a hitch at Long Beach.

Any of these three ways to collect current will be easier to build, to maintain and to operate on a home layout than as one or more modules of a modular layout. With the latter there are the breaks between modules to contend with, set-up and take-down and with the repeated connections to be made each time. Yet it was with modules that the whole system was developed and the specifications for modules provide a pretty fool proof, satisfactory way whereby cars and locomotives can run over as many or as few modules as exist at the time without problems. NCat's specifications apply equally to modular or permanent layouts. (See "NCat Manual")

The Overhead System:

Of all the different factors of the NCat live overhead operation, the overhead system was necessarily the first to develop. It consisted of these parts:

1) The lineside poles

2) The contact wire

3) Frogs where needed

4) Connectors between modules

These are the items. Installation is a separate matter.  Fortunately the first lineside pole design proved quite satisfactory and has been in use since. In the mid-1980s Don Spencer simplified this design which, though easier to make, does not operate satisfactorily in all situations.

In the earlier days when only pantographs were in use as current collectors, connections between modules were made through loops in the contact wires at each end of a module. When trolley poles started to be used, this was changed to a design that functions for trolley poles as well as pantographs. Also, when trolley poles were used, the system of just crossing the overhead wires over turnouts and crossings necessitated frogs and x-ings in the overhead wire.

Chassis modification for pan or pole use

Since a variety of motive power chassis are used it is not feasible here to attempt an explanation. This includes scratchbuilt locos or trolleys as well as RTR electric type locos with only dummy pans. Each chassis will need to be studied by the modeler and modifications made for that particular chassis. Several are detailed in the  NCat Project Book #1, and will give the modeler a general idea of what is involved. Simply stated, but not so simply achieved, it is necessary to break contact between the motor and wheels on one side of the chassis and substitute power from either the pan or a trolley pole. A switch can also be installed allowing both 2-rail and overhead operation.

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