Copyright 2001 T. Sheil & A. Sheil All Rights Reserved
How to have a super O gauige layout and railway for peanuts!
People have the impression that O gauge has become a rich mans hobby. Indeed, the promotion and proliferation of high-priced models aimed at well-heeled hobbyists would reinforce that image. Catalogs ffom Lionel and K-line show page after page of their most expensive fare. The hear some of the hobbyists talk, it would seem that the only way to properly run O Gauge is tri have the latest expensive technology and the top-of-the-line trains.
Nothing is further from the truth!
O gauge was never quite cheap. It has always had a higher price tag than other toys and hobbies. Today, however, it can be had affordably. Perhaps you wont be able to buy the high-priced, fancy diesels and large scale steamers. That is no problem whatsoever. If you can be satisfied with smaller, less ornate equipment, O gauge is open to the budget-minded hobbyist.
How? Take it from a fellow who prefers train sets to the pricey locomotives and passenger cars. There isnt all that much difference between the locomotives and cars in starter sets, and those going for $300 plus. The simple train set locomotives are just as sturdy and reliable as the big, expensive models.
You might think that you dont have the money on hand for a super layout. Perhaps you dont. You might only have enough for a starter set, materials to build a table and a few pieces of extra track. If so, you have enough! The trick is to build your layout gradually. You do not have to wait to run trains. If you build in stages, you will eventually have a fascinating layout and plenty of trains to run it.
A simple layout for you:
A simple 4 by 8 or 4 by ten layout is enough to make a great O gauge layout. What you need is to build a simple table, and start using what you have. Fancy scenery and complex trackwork can come later.
Begin with your loop of track, and extend it. Add some inexpensive switches. (If you use manual switches, you can replace each one later as you add automatic ones.) The simplest scenery would be to paint your board the right colors, such as green and brown, and then spray with Plasti-kote Fleck Stone paint. This gives the look of earth and grass without the ness. It might just be a loop of track on a board for now, but as you expands it will become a fine layout.
Some scenery can be added from the start. Work on those places which will not be affected as you add track.
Roadbed is a big thing with many O gaugers. Some just tack it down, others paint it, and others add ballast. You can take a half measure, painting it gray and then spraying it with gray Plasti-kote Fleck Stone paint. That will tide you over. Ballasting should only be done when all your trackwork has been added. The gray roadbed with mottled gravel-like finish will look good for now.
(Plasti-kote Fleck Stone os available t craft stores like Michaels. It works best when sprayed over a base coat of regular paint. The green colors are a better substitute for modelers grass, the brown is superior to earth. East, affordable and the results are great AND the grass doesnt flake off!)
Because the process of layout building is gradual, you can take your time preparing other parts of your layout for the added trackwork and accessories. Here are a few money-saving tips you can use to get a great-looking layout for a bargain price:
1) Buy lichen and make trees by using twigs found outdoors. These twigs should be coated with a clear wood preservative, found in any hardware store. Merely drill a hole in the board and glue in the tree. This makes fine-looking model trees ate a budget price.
2) Look outside the hobby for things that can be used as scenery. You can find many toys that can easily be used. Discount stores are great places to find cars, trucks, and other cheap toys which would work for you. The trick is in painting them and adding your own details. A toy soldier playset can yield things like small boats, fences, and even small bridges. Farm sets can provide corral fences and critters for the stockyard. Again, it is important to paint them to get the effect of a good miniature, since plastic colors look toyish.
3) Pet stores offer a variety of things that work. Cheap plastic molded aquarium plants can be used for foliage. Aquarium gravel makes great miniature coal and gravel.. Some folks use cat litter for ballast, but if you have a cat, it might inspire kitty to leave something behind on the layout.
4) Light #15 Felt tar paper can be cut in strips and used for blacktop roads and streets. For roads, dont forget to make a shoulder by gluing a strip of gravel alongside, about ½ wide. Play sand is cheap and can be used for sand loads, beaches and deserts .and the sand trap in the golf course. Larger, rough gravel can be used at the base of rock cliffs or as boulders and escarpments in and along rivers.
5) Good figures come in the strangest places, from Yule village sets to cheap toys. A smaller type toy solder about 1 ½ size has been showing up lately in those big dollar bags. They can easily be adapted into non-military figures with a craft knife and paint. You can make miniature construction crews, winter figures and a host of others.
Building the layout in stages is easier if you have a track plan that allows you to add incrementally. Here are some examples which you can expand to your hrearts content.
There are a few tricks to building a layout in stages:
1) Be aware of where track will be replaced or added, and which sections will be removed I nthe future to accommodate switches / turnouts, operating track, etc. Do NOT tack down those section, nor any adjacent sections. Tack dwown as little as possible, in fact.
2) Using the track plan, place scenery that will not have to be moved when you add more track. You can give the scenery a full job of it, working gradually, while you wait to begin expaning with more switches.
3) The examples we have given show the layouts growth in stages, not necessarily step by step. You decide which pieces to add as you go along. Just remember to consuolt the complete track plan before adding scenery or other objects. If what you want to add will have to be moved when you expand your track, then wait until the track is added.
4) Our plan did not show blocks, operating accessory track sections, uncoupling tracks or foliage scenery. You can use our Basic O/O267 Manuals to learn about blocks, special track sections and fancy wiring tricks. You place special track sections where you want them. Use our plan as the overall scheme and adapt it to suit yourself.
5) If our layouts do not suit you, look around. There are other layouts shown on this site. You have seen examples of how a layout is built incrementally. Find a layout you like, and think of how you might break it down into manageable stages for yourself. In effect, mentally take it apart and render it to its most basic center section, and then think of adding in stages to make the full layout.
6) We did not show signals, lights or roads. You can plan your own signals and other accessories. If you want, add them incrementally as well. You need not have everything at once. Adding even a piece at a time is progress.
7) At the very least, get up a basic section so you can start running trains right away. Dont put of enjoying your trains. As you add to your layout and have more trackwor, you will enjoy it all the better if you have already been running trains.
8) If you choose to combine O27 and standard O (O-31) track, buy extra O27 pins. Never insert an O pin into O27 track. Rather, when you combine, use O27 pins. When inserting them into O track, crimp the rail tight afterward. You might have to shim up some O27 sections that are adjacent to the O sections. You can use cardboard pieces or very thin slats of wood to do this.
9) Our layouts use standard track that accompanies train sets. The first layout uses O27, the second starts with O27 and adds O, and the third uses O. You can use O in place of O27, and O27 in place of O. Adjust for the changes in trackwork, such as curve diameter.
Click here to see the layouts : O and O27 Layouts on a Budget
I recommend that people have some idea of what they want before starting out. There are many, many factors that go into each individual building his railroad. Some prefer steam locomotives, some want diesel power, and many want both. Since O Gauge is fun and art rather than scale model railroading, you choose what you want. Here are a few ways that people build their personal railroads:
1) Your regional roads: many of us in this hobby prefer the railroads in our region, past or present. We like having trains we used to see close to home. You can usually find something affordable that represents a train from your region. If not, one will eventually turn up. You can start with something close.
2) Cool trains: many O Gaugers buy the trains that they think look best, regardless of history or region. This is why the Santa Fe Warbonnet paint scheme is so common in our hobby. It looks cool. Maybe you saw a train in a movie or in a book that you liked, or even I nthe hobby shop. If you prefer cool over region and history, enjoy it.
3) Locomotive type: we have folks who have favorite types of locomotives. There are fans of big steam and small steam,. Big diesel and small diesel, old trains and new ones. With al ittle research to help yo ualong, you can get the kind of locomotives that fit your style ch0oise, AND get them in colors and markings that you prefer.
4) Operational type: there are folks who buy trains for different kind of rail operations. Most of us do a mix of freight and passenger. Some break it down even further. Freight fans might go for long-haul or short drills or even smaller switching operations. Others may prefer long-distance passenger runs or local commuter trains. Choosing one does not mean giving up the others. (in my case, I like them all) There are coal railroads and mining pikes, streetcar lines and hotshot express trains. If you like one of these much more than the others, you can find trains to fit your preference
5) Whats Cheap: the worst way to buy is to glom whatever is cheap right now. You will think you are getting a deal, and thats all. Once you get it home, you might find that it wasnt exactly what you wanted. Shop around a little. Get something affordable that you like. Try using the 14-pound rule: if it doesnt strike you with all the impact of a 14-pound maul, dont buy! Rest assured that there are many affordable trains you will like.
What you need to start the hobby is the following:
Train: a train consist of a motorized unti called a locomotive and several non-powered units called cars. For G Gauge, you need an AC-powered locomotive made to run on 3-rail track. That means it will have either pickup rollers or a pickup shoe in the middle of its underside, between the wheels.
Track: you need three-rail track on which your train can run. Except for pre-1955 Marx trains, pre-1945 American Flyer and those traisn too long for 31 curves: all O trains will run on O Gauge track and navigate O gauge switches. All O27 traisn can handle both O and O27, but some O cannot take O27 curves. You need track on which your train can run. The basic type of track is called tubular. It is the cheapest and most common. Some manufacturers make their own style of track, Though almost all O trains can run on it, the track cannot connect to other brands of track without special adapters. For this reason, it is suggested that you stick with one track type for your layout. (Explain incompatibilities with accessories)
Transformer: you need an AC transformer that converts household electricity to the lower 6 20 volt range used by trains. The transformers provided by modern train sets are adequate for running the train with which it was packed. It is enough to get you started, but not enough for a larger operation with accessories, more switches, etc.
The average train set train in O gauge tends to be sturdy and reliable. Very few made in recent years were dogs. A good locomotive has the following qualities:
Steam: diecast body, smoking unit and the ability to change direction. Most steamers come with a tender, though a few yard types do not have them. Steam sets should have some kind of built-in whistle. K-Line And MTH pack good locomotives in their sets. Lionel steamers are good if they have the reversing capability and smoke. There have been very cheap Lionel sets that had neither.
Diesel: a good diesel has two motors. I have seen good ones with horns, and good ones that had no horns. Always, the deciding factor in a good-running diesel was having two motors rather than one. K-line and MTH sets have dual-motored diesels. Some of the cheaper Lionel sets have only one motor. Better Lionel sets have two, but most are much pricier than competing products.
Freight cars: freight cars should have operating couplers. The better ones will have diecast trucks and couplers; others have plastic. Cureently-produced trai nsets tend to have good cars.
Passenger cars: good passenger cars will have operating couplers and be illuminated. In other words, the inside is lighted. Most have diecast trucks.
Transformers: the basic transformers included in Lionel, MTH and K-lien sets range between 40 and 50 watts. They are adequate for running the train, but not much more. Wattage is a factor. Use them to start, but be prepared to upgrade your layout to something with more watts. The affordable K-line 110 watt transformers run under $100 and provide enough power for a train and some accessories. (Dont throw the old 40 watt trannies away: they can be used later to power accessories.) The accepted lore among O Gaugers is that $1.00 per watt is the average price pay for a good transformer. Most of us prefer more wattage, usually 90 watts or higher.
For running a layout on a budget, stick to affordabl;e transformers that give plenty of wattage. K-Lines 110 watts would be enough for most trains in the affordable price ranges. You may want to try buying an older transformer, but beware. Make sure it is in good running order. Always buy from a legitimate source who stands behind his products. Always use transformers with a built-in circuit breaker. I use older Lionel and American Flyer transformers that have been checked out thoroughly.
Affordable trains do well on 75 watts, but 90 watts and higher assure super performance of trains and accessories.
Command systemns: you might hear of TMCC, DCS and other command control systems. Those who use them rave aboutthem. Of course, they can afford a system that runs $300+ and adds anywhere from $100 to $250 to the cost of a locomotive. You do not need these systems. Some old hands dont like to use them (like me). Transformer control works. When upgrading to a command system, the costs mount. If youre doing thids on a budget, you can do it without pricey command systems.
Sounds: Some trains include various sound-making systems such as Lionels Railsounds or MTHs Protosounds. They sound great, but after fifteen minutes you might want to turn them off. Sounds add an average $100 to the cost of a locomotive. Many boards require a separate battery. That can be an added problem. If you are out to buy on a budget, you dont need sounds. Again, they get annoying after a while, anyway. If you want them, there are alternatives. Lionel makes sound-equipped boxcars that you can run behind a locomotive to make sounds. With these, you dont need sounds in every locomotive. Just pop the sound boxcar behind the train you are running, and you get the noise you want.
Be aware that command systems and sounds use electronic boards. If they go bad or get a spike, replacing them costs around $100 to $125. Some affect the operation of the locomotive. A bad board can freeze up a locomotive. A dead battery has the same effect. If you want more trains, you can avoid added costs by forgoing sounds. And if you insist, several companies sell trackside sound systems and other items that give the same effect for much less money.
Track? All of the accessories out there work with tubular rail. Some new track types such as Atlas or MTH require adapters when working with older type accessories. If you are going to spend as little as possible, tubular rail works. You can add wooden tires later to make it look more realistic. Gargraves flexible track is also economical, but requires some skill to use. The fancy track systems by MTH, Atlas and K-line cost two to four times the price of tubular rail. Use them if you want, but understand that expansion will be slower due to the added cost of track and switches.
Be aware that you might have to swap out the track included in a train set for something else. At this time, Lionel includes O27 or O tubular in its sets. Pre-2001 K-lien sets have O27 tubular, while later ones have an O-31 track that snaps differently. MTH uses Realtrax in its sets. Connecting the K-line and MTH track to tubular requires special adapter sections. Your trains can run on all these track types, but the track itself cannot work with other brands without special fittings.
Scale: Most O trains are not built to scale. The native scale of O is 1/48,. But trains are scaled somewhat smaller. Low-priced sets tend to be Classic O or O27, and these run smaller than scale. (finish the thought)
If you are working on a budget, it is natural to seek the lowest price. Unfortunately, the lowest price does not often include service and support. You are better off paying a little more and having the vendor stand behind the product. If your product has a problem, a good vendor will replace it. On the other hand, sending it back to the manufacturer might take months before it is returned. (Lionel can take over 12 weeks, and MTHs wait is very long ,too.) Before you buy, ask knowledgeable O Gaugers about the different dealers.
One thing that is NOT for the novice is the train show. You need to have someone show you around in order to get a good deal. Some show vendors also do mail order, and stand behind products. Some dont. Take a knowledgeable O Gauger along if you visit a show.
Avoid buying old trains just to get a bargain. Many are overpriced; many are barely operable. A high percentage of the old stuff at the shows is rail junk. The same vendors bring the same junk to shows sometimes for years, hoping some newcomer will take the bait. The art of buying old trains requires a degree of knowledge and common sense and a price guide.
Only in O Gauge are the train sets as high a quality as the separate sale items. If you start with a set, make sure it is something you really like. Dont get the first thing thats got a nice price. Shop around. The set gives you enough to start. If you have the $$$, you can pick up track and switches and other items to start making your layout.
One train is okay, two is fun, three is a blast. It helps to have a little variety. Once you have your basic track down and art started, you might want to pick up items both to run and to dress up the layout. Here is where you can get great stuff at great prices:
Affordable freights: three of the best deals in O gauge are Industrial Rail, MTHs Rugged Rails and K-luines Train 19 lines of cars. The yare priced lower, yet offer nice quality and are attractive. Street prices run from $15 to $20 per car, which is less than half the price of scale cars.
Affordable Passenger Cars: Passenger cars tend to run in higher price ranges, and many are too long for O27. K-Lines plastic O27 streamliners handle both O27 and O track. MTHs Railking O27 is priced about the same (street price is about $140 to $150 for four cars). Williams O27 streamliners are great for O27 and O track, while their Madisons are fine for O. All of these brands have interior illumination, diecast trucks and nice detail.
Affordable Locomotives: separate sale locomotives are not usually cheap, However, K-lines Classic line offers steamers for about $125, double-diesels for around $175 and MP15 switchers in the $100 range. MTHs Railking has some nicely-priced locomotives from tiem to time. Williams has larger locomotive types ranging from $150 to $300. If you shop around, you can get a 44-tonner switcher for under $100, a GP7 or GP 9 at $150 or under, and other comparably-priced locomotives. All these are of sturdy quality.
Miniature people and buildings: it is cheaper to paint your own. Model Power and K-Line make sets of unpainted trackside people. Bachmann and K-Line make plastic building kits for a variety of trackside structures. Prices are pretty good (street prices tend to be under $20) for these kits. You can add structures incrementally.
Operating Accessories: K-line has the most affordable prices for operating trackside accessories. They make street lamps, automatic crossing gates, and some fun-to-operate accessories. The barrel loader, diesel fueling station and operating switch tower are fun, action accessories. Lionel and MTH tend to cost more. One good source of cheap accessories in the under $20 range are old Marx trackside accessories. You can often find them at lower price (under $20) in operating condition. (See the Marx Accessory Instructions on our website)
Budget-minded folks might like to look at operating cars that do something. Coal dump and log dump cars work like operating accessories, and can be used in conjunction with other items. For instance, load coal dump cars via the barrel loader, then have the cars dump them when they get to the delivery point.
Motorized Units: these are fun-filled single items that have motors, and include hand cars, trolleys and various railroad work cars. Industrial Rail makes one of the best trolleys out there, as well as a very affordable hand car. K-lime makes nice hand cars, speeders and trolleys.
Vintage Trains for the Budget
If you want to run genuine antiques at a budget price, the original Marx trains made prior to 1975 are right up your alley. They are cheap, easy to maintain, sturdy, and you have the pleasure of having a genuine old-time electric train.
The problem is getting the best price and an item that is in good shape. Forget auctions. That is a gamble, even under the best circumstances. I have found the best set prices at www.trainmarket.com. That company offers many vintage Marx pieces at nice prices, and he also rates them well. Another source that is a tad more expensive is JDP Limited at www.jdp-ltd.com . They sell mainly individual units. Their prices on Marx locomotives and accessories are great. I would recommend that you do a little research before buying. Check out some of the Marx-oriented websites run by hobbyists.
Note that even in the best sets, Marx track and transformers do not age well. Many of those trannies have no circuit breakers. So be prepared to buy new tubular rail and a new transformer. A 75 watt transformer will run Marx trains well.
For many Marx trains, there is one problem: the fat wheel. It is on older trains and it makes it impossible to run them through Lionel or any modern switch. You can find Marx switches for sale from time to time, and the prices are generally good. The Plastic Marx switches will handle both Marx and other brands, but the metal ones require a little fix before they can handle trains equipped with rollers. (See our online Marx sections for information). By the way, trains that never have the Fat Wheel are the #666 and #1666 2-4-2 steam locomotives, #1829 4-6-4 Hudson steam locomitive and the S3 switcher and the 70 ton small industrial switcher. If you buy from the above dealers, you can ask before buying if a locomotive has the fat wheel. (Tell them we sent you they are very helpful to newcomers to the hobby.)
Be aware that some Marx pieces are considered rare and command higher prices. If you stick to the lower-priced ones, you can build a very nice vintage railway at less than you would pay for new trains. BUT before venturing into Marx, four things:
a) Check out the articles on this website about Marx trains. Read up on them.
b) Visit Jasons www.tinplatemarxists.com and Walts Marxtin sites to learn more of these trains.
c) Get a copy of Greenbergs Marx Train price guide. Though you usually pay a bit more than book list, it helps keep you from getting snookered on a deal
d) Use established dealers rather than auctions or classified ads. Let the dealer know that you are new and that you intend to run the trains. He can assist you better if he knows what you want to do.
Maybe, just maybe, you already have some O Gauge that you inherited, or found in the attic, or that you squirreled away when you were a child and recently uncovered. Thats a good start. Most older Lionel and Marx trains come back to life easily. Even damaged ones can be restored with fresh parts. Track, if rusted, is replaced easily and cheaply.
You can get information about your old trains here www.postwarlionel.com They list most types of older Lionel trains and any peculiarities about them.
The thing that makes O Gauge seem expensive can be summed up in one word: hype. First there is the urban legend of old O Gauge trains being worth ridiculous amounts of money. Most older trains get a moderate amount, and thats all. Youre better off keeping them as a family heirloom rather than selling them for a few dollars. Next, there is the hype of the hobbyists themselves as they ooh and aah over the high-priced top-of-the-line models. Truth is, most can only talk about them because only a few have the money to buy them. Most O Gaugers have trains from the middle and low price ranges. Some have perhaps one piece priced a bit high. The $600+ pieces go to a smaller number of collectors and rich folks. After all, not many can justify paying the price of a major appliance for one toy train. Finally, theres the hype over the new command systems like TMCC. Again, not everyone has these not everyone wants to have them. They are costly, they increase the price of locomotives and they have their limits. You will hear from those who love the systems, but not much from those who dislike them. Thats because those who dont use a product dont mention it, while those who do are caught up in all the latest news, hype and promotional offerings. The truth is that a relatively small percentage use command systems like TMCC. You dont need them. Besides, why spend on a command system when you can spend to make your layout better and add more trains and accessories?
Finally, there is advertising. All of the train makers promote their highest-priced goods with great fanfare. Lower-priced things get less hype. Dont let that mislead you. The lower price ranges offer sturdy, reliable train whose only difference from the costly items are a few electronic baubles, added details and size. The biggest pieces are too long for average layouts, so only those with a lot of room and a huge layout can run them.
Hard Facts About Trains:
Internally, all trains tend to be similar. What drives costs up are the inclusion of electronics and special details, and special tooling for costly, short-run items.
Most train set locomotives are a handful of types that have been in production a long time. Being simpler and more robust, they last longer. Top locomotives in train sets are:
K-Line: MP15 switcher, Alco FA diesel, 4-6-2 diecast steam locomotive with tender. All three are reliable runners. The steam locomotive is tops! It is an improvement of the old Marx #333, which was around since the early 1950s. The MP15 is a detailed model with amazing power. The Alco FA is a great-looking locomotive with power to spare.
Lionel: the Lionel 4-4-2 diecast steam locomotive has been around for a very long time. One version has a feedwater heater in front, the other does not. The 4-4-2 is a fun little locomotive, very sturdy and very reliable.
MTH: My pick for MTH is their Docksider, a small 0-4-0 steamer that can haul a few cars easily on most layouts. Its smoke unit can make clouds of the stuff, and it runs reliably. I use one for holiday displays where it runs for hours at a clip, two days I na row.
One thing: buy sets from a dealer who stands behind his product. If for any reason something is wrong, he will replace it. That is much better than taking it back to the manufacturer, where it can languish for weeks. (Lionels repairs can take 12 weeks or more!) With the ongoing problems with repairs at MTH and Lionel, buying those brands is best done through a dealer who replaces defective items himself.
Bigger bucks: if you decide for a little more, Williams makes trains that are reliable runners. Their diesel locomotives range from $120 to $300, Steamers run from about $260 to $600. I have five of them and they are excellent. You get a solid, reliable, sturdy train that looks great. Street prices and run from $100 for a 44-tonner to the $200 range for double diesels like the F7.
The MTH Railking line and K-lines Classic Lines also offer affordable locomotives. MTH is a great deal if you go for Locosounds rather than Protosounds. Locosounds cost less and incur fewer problems, such as the battery replacement issue with Protosounds boards. K-lines Classic line offers different versions of the MP15, Alco and 4-6-2.
Avoid the Insanity
A loot of people enter the hobby, and immediately buy as much as they can. Depending on your budget, that can be a little or a lot. Either way, they usually end up with things they might have second thoughts about. Imagine spending money on one locomotive that was okay, to suddenly find that had you waited you could have had the locomotive that was perfect for you. I call it beginners frenzy.
First, almost everything you see, especially in the budget-priced range, will be around for a while. If not, you can be sure a comparable item from the same or another manufacturer will appear in due course. Second, look before you leap. If you take some time to look around, you can find an affordable train that is everything you want, and more. There is no need to dive on every cheap train and so-called good deal. Many so-called good deals arent all that good.
Another thing: dont feed into the game. There are many O Gaugers who wait for each catalogue in high anticipation, as if it will have THE train of trains. They spend hours poring over each new catalogue. Then comes the spending. What they do not realize is that for each of us, the train of trains is the first one you get. Thats the one that is getting you started. Anything afterwards is only icing on the cake.
Buy reasonably. Remember the 14-pound rule: if it doesnt hit you with al lthe impact of a 14-pound sledge hammer, DONT BUY.
You do not need the biggest train or the fanciest command system or the largest transformer. All you need is enough to run your railroad comfortably.
If you need help, there are a few free sources. One of the best is the OGR Forum at www.ogaugerr.com . There are many knowledgeable folks there. Any inquiry will get a load of advice. Avoid the AOL message boards, as advice there is usually tainted with whatever ongoing dispute has been raging for the past week.
You can find an O Gauge club nearby to help. Look for the NMRA directory, and check www.railserve.com for clubs near you.
Free basic manuals are right here on this website. They cover O Gauge trains from Lionel and Marx, and it applies to others, as well. Note that these manuals are where folks get their material for the many O Gauge books written since 1960. Instead of secondary sources, we have the primary ones right here.
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