The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading
  NUMBER 118


© October 18, 2008   

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A Teenager's Live Steam Story


Mr. Sam Bassini and I on Memorial Day 2008. A beautiful spring day for the debut day of Erie #7401.

Written by Matt Phalon


I’m writing this on vacation right now coming from Altoona, PA at the world famous Horseshoe Curve. Okay, let me get this out of the way, join a club first, then build your own track. I found that out the hard way. I got for my 14th birthday a Mountain Car Co. 6’ flat car. WOW! I didn’t know what I was in for. I got the “Easy Kit” of it, and got it two days after my birthday. I found it on my front porch on my way home from the last day of school. That’s the way to start off summer! I threw the 65 pound package over my shoulder, literally, and ran straight to the garage and ripped it open, literally.

After unwrapping 2 inches of packaging low-and-behold, my first riding car!…in 5 million pieces, but still I was excited because I go to relive what railroaders did for over 200 years, build a railroad from the ground up.

My parents made an agreement with me that they would buy the car for me for my birthday, then when it was finished I would have to buy the trucks and couplers. Not a bad deal because I had the money for it, and enough for spray paint to paint it, and to get graphics from Miracle Railroad Products. The big part was out of the way, I had the car, and I was so excited for my very own railroad.

I thought “this is going to be so cool! I can run a REAL train on my schedule, and I get to see the freight cars I WANTED to see and when I WANTED to see it. I got to be a conductor, just how my Grandpa did for 40 starting on Erie Railroad, working freight trains out of Croxton Yard, then watched the transition and merger to form the Erie Lackawanna, then he made a transition to working passenger trains out of Hoboken and ran them out to Suffern, NY, then saw that taken over by Conrail, then eventually that was taken over by the NJDOT, and then that formed NJ Transit and finally retired in 1995 after 40 years of dedicated and hard, and I was just old enough to be on his last train. His coworkers and the president of the railroad gave him the name of “Nicest Guy on the Railroad.” I got to relive that with him, and learn how it did it all, step by step. THAT0S AWESOME!

Santa Clause! One of the first three NJ Transit conductors who started the annual tradition of the Railmen for Children "Santa Special".

Back to the flat car. So I ripped the packaging off, had everything spread out on the garage floor. My uncle who at the time just bought a former New York Central freight house happened to call me that day to say congratulations on me graduating 8th grade. And my graduation party was a week from that day, and I promised that the car was going to be finished to show off at the party. Might I mention I graduated with my two older brothers too who have absolutely NO interest in trains, one from high school and one from college, so it was safe to say there were going to be over 100 people there between family, friends, and friends of friends. A lot of people. But I realized something big, I had to rivet the sides and ends on.

There was a bag of things that looked like rivets (which turned out to be the screws for the stake pockets), and I didn’t know the difference because I was new at this. At the time, all knew about rivets was that one end has to be smashed to hold something in place. So after seeing that what I thought were the rivets were threaded, we had a problem, the rivet holes are now over sized, and most important, the car was not going to be done in that week time frame. Actually, not for the next 28 weeks. So off to the phone I went.

I had my dad call Jim at MCC and he sent them in the mail as quick as possible. So mean while I put the entire frame together, then finding I put it together backwards and upside down…twice, and stripped a couple bolts along the way, but in time the frame got done. Then the rivets came. The dummy ones went in with ease, then I got to the real ones and then discovered I had no clue how to do it. So that went on the back burner for the rest of the summer until I figured out a way to smash the backs to hold it in place. So instead of getting frustrated with it, I went to work on my alternate winter project, an O gauge empire in the loft of the garage.

Coming off the Susquehanna River bridge at the New Jersey Live Steamers on Memorial Day 2008.

It hit me on Christmas day when I found a C clamp in my tool box. “Hey, if I hold one end to the back and twist it, it will hold the rivets in place!” And finally, one thing worked out the way I planned! I finished the entire detail part of the sides in 3 nights. Then I set a date in February to show off my trains to my family. Yeah, you can say I got a little ahead of myself with only finishing the car. I still needed trucks, couplers, paint, lettering, and even track!

Sam & I on a Bangor & Aroostook local . My dad taking his hand to the throttle of the 0-8-0, and did a fine job on August 10 at the NJLS.

But I ordered the trucks and couplers from MCC also, and for some reason they didn’t come for 2 months. I ordered 30’ of rail from Real Trains, and that came right on time in a week, except the wrong track gauge came So then I thought to order tie plate and gauge bar sets from RMI Railworks. They also came right on time. Then came the “you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole” kind of thing, you can’t gauge standard rail on West Coast rail plates. Woops. So then I just decided to use a tape measure instead. That one worked. Once that was done, I ordered 30 more feet of West Coast rail to use on the other tie plates, and to extend the line. That came, then found out again, the rail was 2 different sizes. Out came the grinder, and that problem was solved. Once I started getting on a roll, things went down hill from there.
I got a bad case of Bronchitus and had to be out sick for a week staying in bed, and when I got better, my grandma passed from Alzhiemers. The day of her funeral, the trucks came. Very weird, but I know my grandpa had something to do with that up there. But with all my family there, and 20’ of track done, I was able to show off my flat car to everyone, but still didn’t have paint. So the next day, I rode to the local hardware store and got a spray can of Rustolium in Goss Black, and it was perfect. The gloss faded just enough to look perfectly real in about a week.
Then that’s when I broke my foot in two places and couldn’t walk. Doctors said it was bad enough to be on crutches for 6-8 weeks, and may even require surgery after that. He said that, and I laughed, thinking he wasn’t serious. Later that day when I got home, I hobbled out of the car and went straight to the backyard. “Matt, where are you going?” my mom asked me. “To work on the Greenwood Lake, Pequannock Sub!” I yelled back. Then she looked at me like I had two heads. I was happy to find one of those gardening seats on tires to move around on, and also my brother did some good work of putting the car on the trucks (we tested a custom car the day before and it needed some adjustments) and a bucket on it for me to sit on.

Sam Bassini taking my brother Kevin and I on a "Fast-Freight" local at the NJLS.

Well turned out, I was off in 2 weeks and back working on my trains after I got back from the doctor. After that was done, I finally got to join the NJ Live Steamers, some of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet in the world are there. I went to the steam up (but didn’t bring the car because I didn’t know anyone yet, and the first 2 guys I met there let me operate their steam locomotives, one of which now has turned in to be my best friend there.

I ordered graphics from Connie Miracle at Miracle Railroad Products. I ordered ERIE 7401. That also came out perfect, and a nice surprise was that where it said to return the car to the agent, it had my home town. Really cool! Thanks Connie! And those came on May 25th, just in time for the May 26th Memorial Day Run at the NJLS. And sure enough, the car was an official lettered freight car, ERIE 7401 and then we loaded in, and off my father and I went to the club, for the cars inaugural public run. People saw it and said to my father, “Hey, did you build that?” and every time he turned and looked at me and said “No, he did!”

After figuring out after all I can conquer that, I bought a MCC Bobber Caboose. There isn’t much to tell that because believe it or not, that went without any problems whatsoever. Now having 2 riding cars, its time for an engine. And as I type, an order from Railroad Supply Co. is headed my way containing all the necessary machined parts to build the main frame of a 2-6-0 Mogul. This project is not going to be all I focus on because of money and costs, this is going to be an “As-I-Go” project, hopefully to be finished by the end of next year, and have the frame on-air” done by the spring. Remember, it is all machined so it shouldn’t take a million years to do. Anything can happen and anything is possible. Updates on the engine will come!

Doing a little seat and fire box adjustments in the station to prepare for the impending rain.


Written by Matt Phalon

Editors Note:  Information contained in this article is for reference only. 
We at and our authors are not responsible for any loss that might occur from the practical application of ideas presented here.



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