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Modeling - Italian Style


Diorama using lineside signals and other details available from il Treno

Descending the southern Alpine cordillera into the Po river valley, the Lombardy plain, or the Veneto lowlands, one will likely be amazed at how quickly Teutonic formality and precision give way to the ambiguity and simplicity of the Italian peninsula. Likewise, the Italian railroad-modeling scene is quite different from that found further north in Europe. Local interest in miniature trains is miniscule compared to that in Germany, Switzerland, or even Austria. As a result, product variety is lacking, particularly in scales other than H0. And this is true even considering that Italy was the home base of the Rivarossi Group, once one of Europe's largest manufacturers of model railway items.

Modeling - Italian Style, demands a bit more patience, a bit more ingenuity, and a bit more observational skill. Over the years, a decent variety of Italian rolling stock and motive power has been produced - certainly not everything - but several reasonably representative consists can be assembled with relative ease. Granddaddy among the marques was Rivarossi, although H0-ers need to be warned that many early Rivarossi locomotives were modeled in 1:80 scale (running on H0 track) with freight cars at or near 1:87 but the longer coaches truncated to roughly 1:100 length.

In my opinion, Italian manufacturers have been notoriously lax at responding to advances in model railway technology. Until the Nineties, the average new release continued to be plagued with oversize details, an unsophisticated mechanism, and lackluster performance. Then, Roco raised the bar by producing several top-rate H0 models of Italian diesel and electric locomotives as well as several of the distinctly Italianiate pre-UIC passenger cars, and the challenge has not gone unanswered. Both Rivarossi and Lima responded with vast improvements to their newest H0 product offerings and even retooled some of their old items.

Tibidabo's E424 in one of four available liveries
N scale is another matter. Italian N scalers had high hopes following the 'Limarossi' purchase of Arnold Rapido several years ago. Being the widely recognized founder of N scale, Arnold mechanisms sitting under Rivarossi body shells promised the best of both worlds. Among the announcements were a series of three-truck articulated electric locomotives (VERY Italian!) and a reissue of the E444 series locomotive. However, disappointment set in following the cancellation of these items (in favor of revamping several Swiss and German models).

Lima was once the most prolific producer of Italian N scale. Still, its offerings were rather toy-like (though not much worse than the Arnold, Minitrix, and Roco models of the period). Mechanisms left a lot to be desired, and coaches were foreshortened. Lima partnered with Hobbytrain to produce some scale length UIC-X cars and improved Swiss EW1 coaches. Much of the Rivarossi, and some of the Lima rolling stock later appeared in Arnold boxes with improved paint and operational qualities, but other cosmetic improvements (like flush-fit windows) were still lacking. When this article was first written (December 2002), the future of the Rivarossi Group was somewhat up in the air. Britain's Hornby has since acquired the company, but it has only just begun to re-release some of the Arnold and Rivarossi N models.

Availability of suitable line side details and other scenic elements is problematic and makes building a proper Italian-themed layout difficult. Again, some items do exist, but the predominance of northern-European structures and accessories is hard to ignore when you're looking for a typical stucco-walled station with gently pitched terra-cotta tile roof! Happily, Italians are slowly discovering kitbashing and scratchbuilding, and the expanding availability of realistic scenery materials has helped revolutionize the hobby.

More on Structures

Tibidabo's E444 (rebuilt) Electric
The establishment of the Amici Scala N (ASN) several years ago has accellerated the pace of N scale modeling. By promulgating modular standards (which lead to the display of operating layouts at public venues), ASN has brought modelers together to their own mutual benefit and is generating some interest among the younger crowd.

The organization and its president Antonio Rampini have played a key part in bringing several new and reissued products to market. With ASN encouragement, Tibidabo regrouped, dusted of its 30-year-old dies, and put their E626 electric loco back into production for a short while. That company also teamed with Mehano to produce state-of-the-art models of the E424 and E444R locos, which were released in the Summer and Fall of 2002. One can only hope that Tibidabo's Signore Bianco will now turn his efforts to designing a six-axle articulated chassis to bring affordable models of the E636/645/646/656 locos to market.

LO.CO's etched metal Vicinale commuter coach
Necessity is the mother of invention, and within the relatively free market Italian economy, "mother necessity" has given birth to a host of home-based small manufacturers producing needed items from simple Mediterranean-style structures to complete, working locomotives otherwise unavailable from the major manufacturers. To be sure, some of these items are not all that they might be in price or quality, but they do provide a happy alternative to going without.

Linea Model's D 245 Switcher (Photo from Linea Model)
Though a very small percentage of Italian modelers are comfortable with anything less than ready-to-run, the company Linea Model is doing a brisk business in etched-brass kits to build a variety of otherwise unavailable rolling stock. Their line also includes signals, catenary poles, and other lineside details.

In the fall of 2004, the Madrid-based company Del Prado Collections brought out its "Locomotives of the World" series in Italy (about a year after doing the same in the UK). This newsstand-sold series consists of 100 models of various locomotives of all types, some of which were quite obviously copied from commercial models (like the LifeLike GP-18 and the Lima FP-45) but others of which have never been produced in plastic in N scale. The Italian locomotives included in the series are the E402B, E424 (rebuilt commuter version), D345, ETR.480 end car, ETR.500 power car, E550 triphase electric, the massive E428 (2nd series), Aln.556 diesel railcar, Gr.691 steam engine, vintage 'Vittorio Emmanuele II' steamer, and the fantastic ETR.300 Settebello end car.



A Del Prado competitor, Compania Internacional del Libro, also got into the act, producing a smaller run of similar-sized locos including an E645 (incorrectly identified as E636) and a Gr.880 tank engine. Finally, the Chinese toy company "New Ray" markets battery powered N scale models of the ETR460, ETR480, and ETR500 high-speed trainsets, albeit in shortened consists.

As might be imagined, these new toys/collectables have caused considerable stir in the community of Italian N scalers resulting in several home-brewed solutions at motorization. Some have even gone as far as to scratchbuild the five intermediate cars to create the full "Settebello" trainset. Naturally, others are content to simply park them on a spare siding.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned limitations and the creeping industrial conformity that comes with membership in the European Union, interest in Italian railways is apparently on the rise. At least three major monthly magazines, iTreni, Mondo Ferroviario, and Tutto Treno, are published, and in 2000 Tutto Treno spawned a quarterly modeling magazine (Tutto Treno Modellismo) as well as a quarterly rail history magazine (Tutto Treno Storia). Mondo Ferroviario also inaugurated a modelling magazine named MF Plastici. Railfan interest is traditionally more focused on powered units, but articles on passenger and freight cars are appearing with increased frequency. Unfortunately, Italy's railroad history is not well documented, due in no small part to arcane and confusing laws classifying rail equipment and other property as strategic to national defense and therefore not a permissible subject for extensive photography.

CLM's brass E646.054 three truck, articulated electric
Though North American interest in Italian railways is slight, aficionados without a command of the Italian language are not totally cut off. For over ten years, the U.K.-based "Italian Railway Society" has been cultivating and nurturing a following among Britons and other English speakers. The Society publishes a quarterly magazine, Binari, and has recently embarked upon a recruiting effort here in the States (just don't let the Society's initials scare you off!) - contact me for more info.

I used to think that I was the only North American with a serious interest in modeling Italian Railways in N scale. As it turns out, there are at least three of us: one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast, and me here in the New Mexico desert. There's also a fourth in Colorado who is planning to add an Italian section to an already large European N basement layout. Hey! Everything starts out small! Even Microsoft (and that started in Albuquerque as well).

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