Hornby Live Steam: A Review

I discovered the Hornby Live Steam Range early in 2006, at least two years after its release. I immediately searched for a review of the starter sets, or the technology in general, as you do for a book or a movie, but Google, Amazon and Ebay combined gave me nothing I could not get from the Hornby site: Hardly an independent word.

This is an independent word on Hornby Live Steam, a review based on researching, buying and using the Hornby Mallard starter set R1041, during March and April 2006.

Well, cutting to the chase, it works and it's a buzz, but it is not like normal HO-scale railway modelling. The electronics could have been arranged better.

You see here the Mallard running around our back yard, pulling a rake of four Hornby Pullman lighted coaches, emitting steam. The colour is wrong, because it is photographed during an overcast dusk to make the steam more visible.

Let me put the whole experience in context, and start from the beginning.

I shopped around a great deal. The starter sets were reduced in price during the time I was looking, and the R1041 Mallard version could be purchased new for GBP350 or even less as part of a large order from the right supplier or GBP415 without too much shopping around, compared to the previous RRP of GBP525. To those prices you must add shipping, anything from 50 to 100 more GBP ex-UK to the USA. They were available in the US for about US$679 including shipping.

I contacted Hornby and learnt that the 110V and 240V versions differed only in their wiring, so while the user is not supposed to change them, as an EE I knew I could buy either and use it on whatever voltage corresponded to the country in which I resided. This meant that I could buy in either the USA or the UK, and run the model both here in CA and in NZ when we get there later this year. In the end I spent about US$850 buying the starter set, a rake of Pullman coaches, and extra track including four points, shipped by air from the UK to me in the USA.

The promotional video is positively appetising, and I still replay it occasionally when I have not got the time to pull the whole set out and fire it up. Hornby Live Steam starter sets include manuals on CD, and the high-res version of this video is included on the CD. More on this soon.

When you get the set, you realise that it is beautifully packed and presented, as it should be for the price. Although made in China, like most Hornby stuff, it is clearly being manufactured with close control from the masterminds in the UK. The box is neat and beautiful, the contents complete and comprehensive. It contains everything you need to start, apart from rolling stock and distilled water. The starter set contains the locomotive and tender, two heavy metal instrument cases, track enough for a large oval with radius-3 curves, controller, oil, syringes for water and oil, lovely printed manuals, tools, a very excellent animated manual on CD, heat-proof gloves, and all required cables. One of the instrument cases is the power supply that takes in mains supply voltage and provides about 17V at 7A, the other is the controller that contains the electronics and knobs and levers.

There is also a sheet warning you that you MUST read the instructions, and it is not kidding, there are unusual aspects to this model. They are not all stated as plainly as I do in the next paragraph, but they are there in the instructions somewhere. What is unusual?

Most notably, even though it runs on about 15V, you cannot mix with ordinary HO/OO locomotives, so the track must be isolated, and for Live Steam models only, no sharing. You must ensure the locomotive's oil supply does not run out, refilling at least every five steamings. The current drain is so high that you cannot rely on points carrying the current, but you must wire power separately to each branch of the layout. The track where the power is delivered to the rails is special, with heavy terminals that can take the current. All the interconnect cables are thick; they have threaded, heavy-duty connectors unlike any you have ever seen on a model train. (In fact, I had not seen these threaded, multi-pin connectors since using my mother's British, 8mm-movie projection system as a kid.) The thing gets hot, so do not touch when in operation without the gloves. The thing emits steam and hot oil, so do not run it on carpet or quality floor. Finally, if you derail, be ready to leave it alone for a while because the wheels run for a good half to a full minute on the energy stored in the boiler, all the while punishing with heat and steam and water whatever surface the locomotive is lying on. Oh, and yes, you will probably have a derailment, even on the large-radius curves supplied, for reasons that will be clearer below.

When you are buying the set, get rolling stock if you do not have it, because it is much easier to drive with a good rake. Also, buy distilled water, never use tap water or deionised water. Hornby say in online advice that while any distilled water should be satisfactory they have tested some brands (presumably in the UK) and found that they are not pure enough, so they "recommend using Hornby-supplied distilled water".

The animated and printed manuals both go through the procedure to drive the locomotive, so I won't duplicate that here. You will need to read it, though. The controller basically supplies power to a boiler in the tender, and control signals to an electric motor in the locomotive that controls the steam. The control boxes are made of solid, heavy metal, very pleasing to hold and heft. The controller has solid brass controls that are a pleasure to use. One control basically sets the energy delivery, with four settings that are effectively off, simmer (for waiting at stations), run (for normal cruising), and superheat (for getting up steam quickly, or for running in cold air or with a great load). The second control moves the locomotive's control valve one way or the other via a small electric motor. It shifts from "stop" state where a red lamp glows in the cab (see picture below), to "whistle" that signals the opening of the valve, on to progressively wider throttle settings. It will eventually go "all the way round" so that the steam phase is reversed and the train travels in reverse if you are not careful. Reversing is supposed to be achieved by leaving "stop" in the opposite direction, but there is ambiguity because of the circular nature of the control.

So far this review has been totally positive. Now to the two hard parts of the design.

First problem: Whenever you make a change to the throttle, the power to the rails momentarily blinks out while the control signals are sent. This means that coach lamps blink out, but I guess this is not so unusual for steam-age coaches! You can hear relays click in the controller. The real negative aspect is that throttle control is not fine. The manual says adjust in a series of "flicks"; with practice you can judge it in longer signals, "flicks" that hold the lever for 500ms to 1500ms, but there is a dead time for which you must allow. A real locomotive driver sets the valve position, but in driving this model you will be setting the period of time the valve spends moving, and the movement has an inherent delay. You control a valve movement you cannot see, and you want to set a valve position, and you cannot see that either. The only indication of the valve position is the cab lamp that glows read at stop, green elsewhere.

Second problem: The throttle is basically setting the torque, not the engine power or RPM. Steam engines are like this. So are cars to some extent, but it does not cause a big problem in real life, meaning at 1:1 scale. Consider what would happen if you set the throttle (accelerator) at some point in your car. The car would continue accelerating, getting faster and faster, but of course you pull your foot back as things get up to higher speed. When you start to climb a hill, you press down more, on a descent you pull your foot off the accelerator completely. You have time to make these changes, because of the size and weight of the vehicle. Same in a real steam train. However, in a model at 1:76 this acceleration can get away from you quickly, especially as throttle adjustments can involve these flicks, with several being required to make a significant change at 600ms per flick or so. This is why you are likely to have a derailment in practice. This is the reason that HO-gauge model train controllers that try to set torque in an attempt to be realistic are not popular (see my ETI-1508 design from the early 1980s).

Having coaches, at least 4, damps down the rate at which the torque speeds up the train and the change in final speed with throttle setting. Practice with a full rake!

Next a word on grades. Go back and look at the sumptuous promotional video. There are no grades; there are bridges, but while lines cross bridges there are no places where trains climb. This is because the mass of the model is low, so a grade soon overwhelms the small mass of the train, and you must increase throttle (torque) for all climbs (flick, flick, flick) and decrease on descent (flick, flick, flick, flick!). Even 1% demands driver response to avoid a stall.

Now a word on where to set up. I started outdoors, on concrete. Now I have ordered a 4'x10' olefin mat. The stuff should withstand steam and will not produce fluff, and is soft enough to do no damage in the case of derailment. If you use a layout, see the warnings above: You will need special wiring, no grades, plenty of soft landing room.

Both of these problems stated, I still like the Live Steam system. The driving is difficult, but it can be mastered. The sound, the smell, the atmosphere are absolutely great. Check out the videos below! I still miss that old-smoke smell that lingered in tunnels long after steam trains stopped using them in Sydney, so if you have a wood-burning stove, fire it up at the same time and you have it all.

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