Saturday, December 18, 2010

Straco, Cragstan, and Bandai -- the comparison

I've been puzzling over these three toy train sets that have come into my possession. They all share the same track, but not much else. I know that one set was made by Bandai, and that the other two were made by Japanese companies for American importers. Did Bandai make all three, or did they all buy their track from a Japanese subcontractor?

Front to rear: Straco, Cragstan (?), and Bandai sets

If anyone has any info about these sets, I'd love to see it!

In the meantime, here's a comparison of the three sets. All are approximately HO scale, and all three operate off a battery power pack. The Bandai set consists of a diesel, a tank car, a gondola car, and a caboose. The Cragstan(?) set (I'm not sure it is Cragstan) is made up of a diesel engine and two box cars. The Straco set has a fairly detailed diesel switcher, a box car, gondola car, and caboose. Here's how they stack up.

Cragston(?) diesel (top) and Bandai diesel (bottom)

While the Cragstan diesel is more proportionally accurate, the Bandai engine required more involved manufacture. Cragstan's engine is basically a flat surface with applied lithography. Although it's not very clear from the photo, the Bandai has windows punched in the frame, as well as embossed detail. Both have a two-part body assembly (although it's easier to see where the nose section attaches on the Bandai piece).

Bandai gondola (top and Straco gondola (bottom)

As you can see, the Straco cars are shorter than those in the Bandai set. It's difficult to say which was more expensive to manufacture. The Bandai car has the entire frame painted black, including the interior. The blue sides have raised details stamped into the metal. The Straco car has flat sides but is lithographed both inside and out. Plus the ends are a more complicated folded metal shape.

Bandai caboose (top) and Straco caboose (bottom)

As handsome as most of the Straco set is, the caboose almost looks like an afterthought, especially when compared to the Bandai version. Both have bent ends, but the Bandai caboose has punched out sections to better simulate railing. The Straco caboose has smooth sides and roof for easier application of the graphics, while the Bandai used a stamper to provide detail (and open windows). It seems to me that if Bandai was contracted to produce the Straco set, they could have saved money by reusing the frame of their older caboose, and just putting a smooth metal body on top of that.

So are these three sets all products of the same company, or do they all have different sources?


Friday, December 17, 2010

Straco, Bandai, and Cragstan -- the hookup

No, it's not a band -- nor a law firm. As near as my limited research can tell, these are the four firms involved with the three disparate toy train sets I own. As I explained last post, these three sets have little in common, save the track supplied with them (click on the images to enlarge).

Left to right: Bandai set, Cragstan set (?), Straco set
So here's it goes: the set on the right, the Straco Express was made in Japan for the J. Strauss Company (Straco). The one on the left was made by Bandai, while the one in the middle was made by Bandai for Cragston (perhaps -- my info on this one is a little sketchy). I've also seen Distler and/or Karl Bub credited with similar trains. In all cases, the names attached were those of either the supplier or the distributor. And the supplier was simply putting their name on product manufactured for them in Japan.

So did Bandai make all three sets? Not sure. The track is identical, but the designs are completely different. Did each company commission a new design from scratch? It's possible, but it seems to me that Bandai would have reused some basic parts for all three -- such as couplers, trucks (wheels), or even car frames. But as you can see from the following comparisons, that's not the case.

The Cragstan(?) set uses directional coupling -- each car has a hook on one end, and an eye on the other, so the cars can only be connected in the same orientation.

Detail of the Cragston(?) box car's couplers.
 The Straco Express features a similar concept, but a different coupler design entirely!

Detail of the Straco gondola car's couplers.
 On the other hand, the Bandai set uses a universal coupler, with both the hook and eye incorporated into the same piece of metal. These cars can be connected facing either direction. It's much cheaper to use the same coupler on both ends, so if Bandai did make all three sets, why not use this design across the board?

If the same track wasn't included in all three sets, I wouldn't be asking these questions, but it seems odd that costs would be saved with track, and not with other measures. It's what led me to wonder if Bandai got the track from another Japanese company. Curious.

Next post we'll compare and contrast the rolling stock of the three sets.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Straco Express and the Mystery Train(s)

The problem with being interested in ephemera is that few others are (hence the designation) -- even the folks that created it. Take, for example, the cheap train set I picked up at a toy train meet. I'd written before about the Straco Express, and how -- remarkably -- it shared some characteristics with another train I'd owned for years. Specifically, they had exactly the same track (like the section at left).

Recently I found another toy train online, and successfully won it at auction. I wasn't necessarily interested in the train, just the track. Because between the track that came with the Straco Express and that still with my childhood train, I was exactly one curved piece short of a completed oval. Although the trains were approximately HO scale, they wouldn't work on modern track. The flanges of the wheels were too wide. Only the track that came with the trains had rails tall enough to accommodate the wheels.

The strange thing is that this train bears no resemblance to either of the other two that I have, as you can see from the photo, below (click on the image to enlarge). My suspicion is that the same Japanese company was contracted by three different firms to create an inexpensive HO scale train set. It would explain the use of the same track.

But that's where the resemblance ends. Even if the trains needed to look a little different for each client, I would expect some elements of manufacture to be recycled to further cut costs. If all three had the same couplers, for example, no one would really notice. Or the same trucks. But each of these trains using completely different tooling.

A recent discussion in the Train Collector's Quarterly publication had some additional information about these trains. The one I recently purchased was made by Bandai back in the early 1960's. Did Bandai make the other two as well, or did they further sub-contract and purchase the track for their sets from yet another Japanese firm?

Next post I'll go into more detail about what I've discovered so far about these mystery trains, and how they differ from one another.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

CD Review: Ferdinand Ries - a kinder, gentler Beethoven

Ferdinand Ries: Piano Concertos, Vol. 4
Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Uwe Grodd, conductor

Ferdinand Ries is best remembered today (if at all) as Beethoven’s  personal assistant.  Although he served that role well – securing performances, publication deals and more – that wasn’t originally why their paths crossed. Ries came to Beethoven in 1803 to study composition.

Like his mentor, Ries was a piano virtuoso as well as a composer. His piano concertos were written primarily for his own use, to provide material he could use in performance – a standard practice of the day for any touring virtuoso.

Naxos has released four volumes of Ries’ concerti, the most recent featuring two of these works plus a shorter fantasia for piano and orchestra. So what does Ries’ music sound like? Sort of like a kinder, gentler Beethoven. His works have the same general structure, with some of the same harmonic turns that Beethoven favored. You’ll also hear big orchestral chords hammering away at important cadence points. But there the similarities end.

Ries is more concerned with tuneful melodies than delivering pronouncements from on high. His motifs are light and appealing. While the solo piano part is challenging technically, it’s more about taking the listener along on a thrilling melodic journey rather than fully exploring the potential of either the instrument or the motifs.

Stylistically, Ferdinand Ries straddles the late classical and early romantic era. The Introduction et Rondeau Brillant Wo54 which appears on this release, is a good illustration of that. While not entirely free of Beethoven’s influence, Ries’ work seems more Schubertian in its free-form development.

Pianist Christopher Hinterhuber turns in a top-notch performance on this recording (as does Uwe Grodd and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra). His playing is light and fluid – perfectly suited to this material – yet it has power when it needs to. Hinterhuber really makes the cadenzas sparkle, and gives the impression that Ries’ music is actually fun to play.  An appealing collection of works for piano and orchestra!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Get ready for the reviews

One of the things I used to do quite frequently was review recordings. Most of them were published in 9X Magazine, the in-house publication of the Plan Nine Music record retail chain. It was a lot of fun, and a great excuse to sit around and listen to music. Recently, I've been given the opportunity to review again, this time for various sites across the Internet.

Since I don't know who will run across these reviews, I'll also be publishing them here as kind of a way to archive them. Plus, with the amount of writing I'm currently doing, an opportunity to have a piece do double-duty is more than welcome! Please feel free to add your comments about my commentary...

Monday, December 06, 2010

WTJU and the Fatal Fund-drive

The big news today (at least in the world of non-commercial broadcasting) is an article published in the New York Times.Waning Support for College Radio Stations Sets Off a Debate profiles two college radio stations on the chopping block: KTRU (Vanderbilt University) and WRVU (Rice University). Why? It's a way to cut expenses, and the perception is that no one listens, anyway.

It's a situation we know something about at WTJU (University of Virginia), having lived through a proposed format change that would have turned us into the third American/Roots station in our market.

WTJU is now entering it's Winter Fund-Drive, with our traditional Classical Music Marathon. For the next six days and nights, the classical department will take over the station (as did the jazz department in the fall, and the rock and folk departments will in the spring) and ask for the financial support of our listeners.

During the summer, when classical programming was on the chopping block, many people stepped forward to show their support for our multi-formatted station. But will they be there with the dollars? That's the question that we'll answer over the next six days.

If you're a listener to WTJU, either through our on-air signal or over the Internet, now is the time to step forward with a pledge. We need to raise $40,000 to make up the shortfall in our operating budget. I'll be on the air fund-raising of course, and even hosting all of the overnight segments!

Will we be part of the New York Times' self-proclaimed trend, or the exception to it? That will be up to our exceptional listeners.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Democracy Inaction

As I've mentioned before, I've been following the Twitter feeds of my elected officials (those that tweet, that is). Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) has really picked up the pace with his Twitter feed. I've been getting something from him every day and then some.

While he -- or most likely his staff -- have got the broadcasting part of Twitter down, they don't seem to do so much with the conversational part. Early on I did receive a response to my reply of one of his tweets, but not recently.

And that's a shame. Because while Twitter isn't the be-all-end-all of communication (or even social networking), it can be an effective way to have an ongoing conversation with constituents. I admit I don't share a lot of Rep. Cantor's views, but I try to be respectful in my conversations. But, alas, we don't seem to talk anymore. Here's our conversation over the past two days.

 GOPWhip: Take note: Members who vote "yes" on the rule for Dems' Tax Bill are voting to raise taxes & kill jobs. I'm voting "no."
10:51am, Dec 02

  RalphGraves: @gopwhip Just curious: is there *any* legislation you'll vote "yes" to? I understand what you're against. I don't know what you're for.  
10:58am, Dec 02 

[No reponse]


 GOPWhip: GOP majority must take incremental but significant steps to earn back public trust on fiscal issues starting w/common-sense spending cuts  
2:16pm, Dec 03 

 RalphGraves: @gopwhip This might be a good place to start. What about the Tea Party Caucus taking $1 billion in earmarks?

[No response]

Gee whiz. Even the equivalent of the form letter would be nice. Something along the lines of "Thank you for your tweet.We value your opinion."


I guess sometimes it's hard to hear the voices outside the echo chamber.

But I remain hopeful.