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Date: 05/25/09 23:10
Trainorders.com Newsletter
Author: webmaster

Trainorders.com Newsletter
It has been a long time since I have sent out a newsletter so I figured this would be a good time to share some happenings around the web site.

The biggest news I have to report is Trainorders.com has signed on as a sponsor for Trainfestival 2009. For those that have not been following the event, Trainfestival will go down in history as one of the largest railroad festivals ever held. The event will take place in Owosso, Michigan July 23-26 and will be attended by three very large locomotives that include Southern Pacific 4449, Pere Marquette 1225, and Nickel Plate 765. There will also be several other steam and diesel locomotives in attendance too.

As part of our sponsorship arrangement, Trainorders will be recording the event in high definition 720p video. We will not be releasing a DVD, but will instead post a series of entertaining video clips that you may view on our web site. These shorts will not only feature trackside footage, but also interviews with those intimately involved with the operation. Judging from the download video counts, cab footage seems to what you guys want to see most. Although we will not have a booth, I encourage you to say hello to us if you see us out at the event. Just look for a guy with an expensive video camera and a teenager (Mason) dragging along a heavy tripod behind him. Mason hasn’t completely grown into the rebellious teenager yet and never complains about being overworked. His mom might disagree with me though.

Trainorders.com will donate 100% of all payments acquired from the creation of new web accounts opened later this month to help fund a permanent home for SP 4449, SP&S 700 and OR&N 197. We will donate the entire payment to the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation for every new Trainorders account created and paid for between Friday, May 29 and Sunday, May 31, 2009. This fundraiser does not apply to renewal payments.

Last March we performed an entire upgrade of our system. We brought online a new database and web server to handle increased demand being placed on our hardware. We also upgraded our discussion forums with new software and added a new search engine that allows for better data mining of our discussion and photo archives.
We are currently rewriting our video feature to make it easier to add videos and to better integrate it into the discussion forum. The new system will allow you to add your video clips directly to discussion messages, much like you add a static image now. It will also allow submittal of video clips in many different formats, with our system converting them to a standard mpeg-4 format. It will also support high definition video. For more information about the upcoming video feature read my announcement on the Electronics discussion forum: http://www.trainorders.com/discussion/read.php?9,1935362

We have made many updates to our software over the years, but most of you never take advantage of them. Our recent upgrade brought in a new feature that enables you to save a discussion message of particular interest, allowing you to view it at a later date. Just click "Subscribe To Thread" at the bottom of the message and it will be saved for you. You can find your saved messages by clicking "Followed Threads" in the upper left menu bar when logged in.

Another set of features allows you to set preferences on how messages are displayed. For example, tired of clicking on a thumbnail image to view the full sized image? You can have our system load all the full sized images by default. Just log in and click on "Forum Options" in the upper left hand corner of the menu bar and follow the links to enable the system to display full sized images by default. There are also other options that may also interest you.

I want to remind everyone that for customer and technical support issues that you utilize the contact us link in the left menu bar. This system collects information about your operating system, browser, and ISP that assists us in diagnosing technical issues that you might be experiencing. Although I am on the web site quite often, there are not enough hours in the day for me to handle the technical operation of the web site while addressing customer service concerns. For this reason we have Chris Toth who answers and works through issues you may have. Chris also tabulates reports and when he notices a trend that shows something is breaking down in our system he will sound the alarm bell. For fastest response always use the support link.

The most common question I get when I meet members away from the site is concerning how the site is performing in this poor economy. The good news is 96% of you are renewing. The bad news is we are not picking up very many new members. Those that are hooked stick around, but those that are not members are not joining. We did not see this behavior until early February. Before that we held on to continual gains. Up until March 2008 we were growing by 20% annually, but that has flatlined today. We have tried tweaking the site to show more ads to encouragge non-members to join, but that has not made a difference in getting people hooked for the first time.
I would not worry about Trainorders.com going away like the newspapers as we do not depend on advertising revenue. There really is no direct competition to Trainorders as we offer a service that cannot be found elsewhere on the Internet. Sure there are sites that offer discussion forums, but none are as large and congenial as what we have here. Most of our members have concluded that is not a big deal to spend another few bucks for a site where you spend the majority of your time when you are already spending $30-$50 a month for Internet access.

I have taken a different approach in the downturn by spending more money on the web site in an effort to improve the experience in hopes that we can pick up new members. One thing I can bank on is that when we do pick up a new member, the chances are that they will stick around a long time.

Even with the poor economy I have received a number of inquiries in recent months asking if we will be hosting a private car trip this year. Without doubt we offer the best PV fan trips around. Part of it is my wife’s cooking, but the main attraction is people love the opportunity to get together with other site members. Even with that vote of confidence I decided not to run a trip for 2009 as I did not think I could fill it in this economic environment. I am tentatively planning a two day California trip in March 2010. Stay tuned as I hope to have more information about the excursion this July.

Every hobby attracts strange personalities and railroading is no exception. I did not have to tell you this because most of us know this. In all 12 years of running Trainorders I came across the most bizarre personality back in April that will go down in the record books as the weirdest request. I don’t normally like to share stories about individuals, but this one is too good to pass up.

When we revamped the site we discontinued the former heritage program. These were members who had limited access to the web site, but were not full fledged members. Our new system was not compatible with a multi-tiered membership system without extensive code rewriting, and seeing that the number of heritage members had dropped to a few hundred I decided not to continue the program.

The first thing we did was shut off access to these members, except the private message system. We allowed the users to utilize the message system for two weeks. We figured some would join up during this time and a few dozen did. We made it clear the heritage system was going to be turned off and in April we deleted all the remaining accounts that did not upgrade.

Shortly after this we received an email from an upset former heritage member that had lost all his messages from the private mail system when we deleted his account. He told us he had a message from another member that told him where he could have his 2-meter radio repaired at a rate considerably less than what most shops charged. Since his messages were gone he wanted to hold us financially responsible for having his radio repaired at full price. He offered us a deal though. If we paid the repair bill difference between the retail and the phantom discount radio shop he would call it even. I laughed at the deal, but the lunatic kept sending emails to me before I finally blocked my server from accepting further messages from him. The crazy thing about the guy is not only was he never a paying member, but he admitted that he knew his messages were going to eventually be deleted, but did not think it would happen this fast. We have had some strange people on the web site, but this guy takes the award.

This year we have not decided on whether we will offer a photo contest. I will admit that last year’s contest was difficult to judge and difficult to manage. I came up with the first photo contest in 2003 as a way to generate interest in the forums when the site slowed down in October. We continued it every fall as that is traditionally the slowest period on the web site. Unfortunately for the forums, the contest become too popular and the huge volumes of photo postings created havoc as the index pages turned over too fast. This past year I received an increasing number of complaints about this and as a result I am studying a solution.

A few years ago I made mention that I was building a 5000 square foot traveling science center exhibition named "Signal Science" that educates the science of railroad signals. After more than two years Mason and I have refinished 19 railroad signals. We have a huge collection that includes vintage color lights, wig wags, cab signals, searchlights, a number of semaphores, and motor car indicators. We also have spare mechanisms and parts for everything. Most of our signals are broken down in a public storage unit awaiting assembly at a later date when the electronics are completed. I have two semaphores in my backyard and four in my garage as I am out of space in the unit.

Refinishing railroad signals is hard work. The process is not really complicated, but it is miserable and time consuming. Mason, my 12 year old son has been a huge help in rebuilding these signals. We spent many Saturdays at my Uncle’s plating shop in East Los Angeles sandblasting, painting, and reassembling signals. He has gotten pretty good and about six months ago he completely disassembled a rusty GRS 2a dwarf semaphore, sand blasted and painted it with polyurethane paint, cleaned up the mechanism, and reassembled it.

The next task is completion of the electronic control units that interface the signals to our custom built video kiosks. I have an electrical engineer that designed and built control boards that are programmed to perform various tasks. He is currently working on wireless control modules that allow the signals to be controlled from kiosks across the showroom. I have slowed work on the exhibition due to the economy, but I may have it done in 2010 if things pick up. Right now science centers are not in the best financial shape with endowment investments and public finances down. At the moment they cannot afford to rent exhibits like this, but hopefully the situation will change in a few years.

That is it for now. I hope to see some of you at Train Festival this July. From what I have observed from the ticket sales data there are a lot of Trainorders.com members attending.

Todd Clark
Canyon Country, CA

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