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Free-mo stands for "free modular" and is a relatively new modular standard in the hobby of model railroading.
Free-mo is a derivation of FREMO, a European modular standard. Free-mo's emphasis is on flexibility in track design and prototypical scenery and operations. Free-mo was developed with the idea that a set of standards focusing mainly on module end plates would enable faithful modeling of prototype track plans and operations in a modular environment. The length and track configuration of a Free-mo module or module set is up to the modeler. Free-mo modules may be long or short, straight or curved. Free-mo modules may even be composed of several sections, forming a module set. The advent of Digital Command Control has simplified the electrical wiring requirements for controlling trains, and thereby gives Free-mo layouts unprecedented flexibility. There are Free-mo groups all over North America.
Modular model railroading developed as a means for hobbyists who lack a permanent layout, want to meet other modelers and share their hobby, or have a desire to learn more about the hobby. These modelers participate in clubs or groups where members construct various modules that typically form an oval or square design. Free-mo layouts, on the other hand, are point to point or point to loop and can be operated prototypically. Free-mo modules typically have a single mainline, enabling realistic operations. Some modules feature a double-track mainline, often used for the busiest area of the layout, or as passing sidings in a single track layout.
Free-mo also differs from traditional modular layouts, as Free-mo is a continent-wide standard, allowing groups or individuals from Mexico to Canada to combine their modules to create a larger setup. This is in contrast to traditional modular layouts that have many different localized specifications for linking modules, and use different types of electrical control systems.
In traditional modular layouts, modules have to be in increments of 1, 2, or 4 feet and be straight or turn 90° to form a closed loop, but in Free-mo, modules can be any length and with tracks that can curve at any angle. While some Free-mo modules are the typical 2 by 4 feet (0.61 by 1.22 m) because of available materials, combining these modules with non traditionally shaped modules offers an infinite number of layout possibilities. Free-mo modules could also be built to fit the vehicle or storage space that a modeler has available to them. 45° Free-mo curve modules can be arranged in "S" curves, or set up to form 90° curves, so they are extremely flexible. Free-mo modules can have a single end, as in a yard or end loop, two ends, as is the case with most modules, or three or more ends in the case of a junction. Due to this design, Free-mo is well suited to prototype modeling, or creative module designs that resemble a realistic prototype, both in appearance and operation.
"Mini-mo" modules are a subset of the standard that allows modules to be as narrow as 8 inches (200 mm). These modules can change the total curve or a layout, offer a passing siding, allow a layout to get around a post or wall in a room, or serve a variety of other purposes. Mini-mo modules have to be used in conjunction with traditional Free-mo modules, as they are not stable on their own, and offer little space for scenery.
Free-mo modules are designed so that they can be flipped 180°, so the layout design is flexible. This also allows operators to operate from either side of a module, and designate "public" and "private" space as needed. In traditional modular layouts, "private" space is inside the loop, and "public" space is on the outside, so larger loops may waste valuable show space.
Free-mo can be utilized easily in either a club or a group. A club is a formal non-profit organization, while a group is simply a number of like-minded friends or acquaintances. Traditional modular layouts often require a club to own a complex centralized power supply system that includes DC throttles or DCC equipment, large staging yards, a set of four corners to form a closed loop, and a trailer to haul everything. Due to Free-mo's design, however, it is easy to have an informal group where individual members bring their own modules and Digitrax DCC equipment.
Some Free-mo meets take place at public train shows or train events, while others are private. Both types of setups typically operate trains in a prototypical fashion, often with a dispatcher who uses two-way radios to communicate with train crews. The crews can walk along with their train, using radio or walk-around Digitrax DCC throttles to control their trains.
Free-mo is a growing form of modular railroading, with new clubs and informal groups being formed and older traditional module groups converting to the standard across North America.
The Free-mo standard
The Free-mo standard defines module ends and electrical control systems as well as certain other aspects. Free-mo modules have no "front" or "back".
Key aspects of the HO standard-gauge Free-mo standard include:
- Module width is 24 inches (610 mm) (single-track main) or 26 inches (660 mm) (double-track main) at the Free-mo ends.
- Code 83 rail on the main line.
- Six inches (152 mm) straight and level track at the Free-mo end.
- LocoNet-compliant DCC Control systems. In North America, virtually all LocoNet equipment is made by Digitrax.
- Module viewable and operable from either side.
- Railhead 50 inches (1.270 m) from floor.