How I Got Involved in this Mess!
Oh its true. I've loved trains since before I was able to walk. Unfortunately I never really had space for a permanent train layout. My uncle Dave had a nice HO layout he built on top of a pool table for a long time, which I used to love playing with when I was a kid. Later on he built a great little N scale layout on a piece of plywood, which I thought was fantastic. After that I remember I had built a very small N scale "layout" on a large cutting board that I kept under my bed. I think it had a Chessie System F7 loco (probably Bachmann or Life-Like) and a few cars. I'm sure it broke and got thrown in the garbage long ago.
Fast forward to 1999. I took a trip to Japan. Wrong place for a train fan to go. I rode the Shinkansen which I thought was simply the coolest thing ever. I went to a department store, checked out the toy section for goodies, and in a display case sat an N scale series 500 Shinkansen by Kato. I had to have it! Simply put, my previous experience with N scale was that it was nice, but not incredibly detailed, but this was different. I plunked down the cash and I had myself a cool little train.
It wasn't until a year later that I actually ran the train. In the meantime I had done a lot of research into the state of the art in N scale. I looked with great interest into what Kato was doing. Their stuff runs fantastic, looks great, and is expensive as hell. I was particularly interested in the Unitrack system. I liked the fact that you can set up temporary layouts and tear them down in a few minutes. So, I picked up enough to make a couple of loops and I had my Shinkansen running. That was fun, but I always liked big, dirty, smelly diesel freight trains. I noticed people selling Bachmann Dash-8 diesel locos on Ebay for $20 or so, I picked up a few to try them out. I added a few cheap Industrial Rail boxcars at $3.50 a pop and there you had a cheapo N scale trainset.
Obviously, things didn't stop there. The thing that ended the relationship between me and my money was DCC. In short, by adding a computerized decoder to your locomotives, you can run multiple trains simultaneously on the same track without any need for multiple blocks and complicated wiring. I got the MRC Command 2000 system, which was cheap and easy to use. I managed to figure out how to add decoders to the Bachmann engines (what a major pain!) and even add such things as white LED headlights.
Then, I figured out that it was easier and less painful to buy a Kato locomotive and plug-in decoders from Digitrax. I got myself a Kato C44-9W (CSX I think) and that was the end of any Bachmann purchases. I also discovered Micro-Trains couplers. I always thought the Rapido couplers were too big and ugly, and here was a perfect solution. Not long after I took a close look at the Micro-Trains rolling stock and decided that a $15 box car really does look a whole lot better than the $4 cheapies you buy at the toy store.
It didn't stop there- since then I learned about painting your own rolling stock and locomotives. Also, even simple weathering techniques really add that dimension of realism that I was looking for.