I accidentally stumbled into Japanese model railroading while browsing around an online Japanese hobby store. They had some Bandai B-Train Shorty products on sale, and I really liked the way the compact models looked. At that point, I had no experience with model railroading and had no intention of actually building a layout. I thought I would be content with a few non-running Bandai Shorty cars. Of course, as soon as these trains arrived in the mail, I began to research and learn about model railroading voraciously to figure out how to actually make these trains run in the limited space I have. Serendipitously, these were the perfect cars to run in a small layout where space is a concern.
There are two main parts to this article. I'll first go through the technical aspects of these Bandai Shorty trains and what additional parts you need to get them running. Then I'll turn to how I put together a small 2.5' x 5' layout where these compact cars (along with other short wheel-base locomotives and freight cars) can dramatically increase your layout and scenery space (Part 2 - My B-Train Shorty Layout).
Getting and Running Bandai Shorty Cars
As far as I know, Bandai Shorty products are only available from Japanese exporters. Bandai Shorty can be purchased online at places such as Hobby Search or Hobby Link Japan. These trains come in pre-painted, snap together kits. Hobby Search has an instruction page that gives you a good sense of what the Bandai Shorty kits and assembly process looks like. The kits usually come with either 2 or 4 cars per box. 2-car kits usually go for USD 13 each. And 4-car kits usually go for USD 26 each. Note that different train sets are sold with different configurations and add-on possibilities. For example, the N700 Shinkansen is sold in an A and B set, each with a head car and then 3 middle cars to form an 8-car configuration. On the other hand, the 581 Sleeper Set comes in a base 6-car set, with additional 2-car middle car sets available. As with most Japanese hobby products, manufacturing runs and inventory are both limited. Thus it's usually a good idea to purchase kits to make full train sets to avoid out of stock problems later on.
Each kit allows you to build non-running models with plastic trucks. To actually run these cars on your layout, you'll need both a power unit and running trucks. When Bandai first produced this series, Kato produced the motors and trucks for them. Kato has 3 motor choices, but the only difference is in the color and style of the truck reliefs (1, 2, 3). These are all 2-axel (out of 4) drive and each sells for USD 25. Kato also sells pairs of running trucks (2 needed per train car) in the same variations--3 types where again the only difference is the color and style of the pre-attached truck reliefs. These run USD 4 for each pair.
After some time, Bandai also released their own running trucks and power units. Bandai's trucks don't come with pre-attached truck reliefs and allow you to slot in the model prototypes that come along with the Shorty kits. The Bandai trucks run USD 14 for 3 pairs. Bandai's power units also allow you to slot in the prototype relief trucks. It is important to note that their Power Unit 3 is a second generation motor and features 4-axel drive, as opposed to the 2-axel drive of their Power Unit 2. This newer unit can pull significantly more cars than the earlier generation and costs USD 28.
A separate issue is the light weight of the Shorty cars, which reduces tractive power and might lead your motor wheels to spin without moving. The Bandai power units come with 4 pre-formed weights that fit in the chassis and around the motor. Note that the Kato power units do not come with weights and you would need to add your own lead weights to increase tractive power. Even in the case of the Bandai power units, you might want to experiment with adding additional flat weights to see if it improves pulling performance.
After comparing these two brands of trucks and power units, my recommendations are for the Kato trucks and the Bandai Power Unit 3. The Kato trucks are significantly more free-rolling than the Bandai trucks and cost the same. The downside is that they come with pre-attached reliefs. And the Bandai Power Unit 3 has the best pulling power of the current motors.
As an estimate of cost, let's use an 8-car N700 Shinkansen as an example. The two kits for the 8-cars cost USD 52 in total. One Bandai Power Unit 3 costs USD 28. And 7 Kato trucks for the remaining cars totals USD 28. That comes out to USD 108 for a running 8-car Skinkansen.
Passenger vs. Freight
The Bandai Shorty line largely focuses on passenger train sets, with very few freight offerings. Individual electric and diesel locomotives are sold, but are now usually offered only in single unit blind box collections they refer to as "Best Repeat Collections". Note that these locomotives use the Bandai Power Unit 1 to motorize.
It is worth pointing out that it is fairly easy to create a freight complement to the Bandai passenger-centric cars because Japanese manufacturers produce many short wheel-base options for both locomotives and freight rolling stock.
In terms of locomotives, consider the ED16, ED75, ED79, or the petite Deki 300. In terms of rolling stock, short freight cars are produced by Kato, Tomix, and Micro Ace. For example, see Kato's closed hoppers, Tomix's container wagons, or Micro Ace's open hopper cars. All of these will look proportionally correct next to a Bandai Shorty train.
In the next installment, I'll talk about how I created a layout that takes advantage of these compact trains.
Acknowledgments: A big thank you to all the helpful folks at JNS Forum, and a special thanks to "nickhp" who gave me the heads up on the differences between the Bandai and Kato running trucks.
Article and Photographs all copyright 2011 Nick Yee