Interior Lighting Kits from HKTILC for your N-scale Models
by Dan Owen – JNS forum member @SuperAzusa
Adding lights to the insides of your trains is perhaps one of the single most impactful upgrades you can do to your collection. Having your trains cast a gentle light through their windows as they trundle around your layout is certainly one of the more cost-effective ways to add to the delight of this hobby.
Luckily, for most Japanese train models, there is a standardised mount within the cars that allows for quick and easy installation of lighting kits, meaning it’s not too onerous a task to take your models to the next level.
The major brands in the Japanese N-scale market, KATO and Tomix, have long produced lighting kits to install into their models. Usually, this takes the form of a LED (or a bulb in very old versions), installed at one end of the car, shining its light down a plastic prism or diffuser. This diffuser has notches cut along it, catching some of the light and redirecting it downwards. The final effect is of bright lighting spread all the way through the car.
However, this longstanding method is not without its drawbacks. Lighting through the diffuser can appear uneven. Lights can flicker when the train travels over dirty track, or the infinitely small dead zones between pieces of track. If you mess up lining the LED with the diffuser (on KATO versions at least), you end up with a car that is bright at one end, and dark at the other. Certainly disconcerting for any N-scale passengers who might be in it!
So, it’s clear that there is a lot of scope for innovation here, especially with the ever-decreasing costs of LEDs and printed circuit boards. And the idea of adding capacitors as a “stay alive” anti-flicker system has been around for a while. But for the longest time, such things were the preserve of homemade lighting kits by dedicated hobbyists.
It seems that some of that innovation has since come to light (pun intended) for the mass market. Nowadays, we’re seeing increased presence of aftermarket lighting kits compatible with KATO and Tomix models, which slot into your models just as easy as a KATO or Tomix lighting kit.
The two most prevalent manufacturers are TORM and Popondetta. These both offer a PCB strip of LEDs, which obliterates the problem of uneven lighting throughout a car. First came TORM, in 2014, offering a PCB with 12 “white” LEDs, and subsequently releasing a “warm” lighting variant in the following year, both in packets of 1pcs and 10pcs.
But in 2018, Popondetta released a game changer – a PCB strip, with capacitors neatly mounted onto the board itself, interspersed with the LEDs. Again, it was completely compatible with the usual mounting methods, and the capacitors small enough to be hidden away when the model was viewed at normal angles.
The capacitors (branded with the sexy name of “Energy Charger”) effectively made flickering a thing of the past, which was the light’s real selling point. Now your trains could confidently zoom around your layout, with every car displaying a rock-solid light from within.
Popondetta also offered these lights in three different hues – 青白色 (Blue White colour), 黄白色 (Yellow White colour), and 電球色 (Light Bulb colour. Literally “ELECTRIC SPHERE COLOUR”, which I think sounds more impressive, but would probably cause confusion!) There is even a switch on the light itself, allowing you to choose between a brighter light or more reliable anti-flicker functionality.
However, such capability has a cost.
To outfit a KATO 16 car Shinkansen model with Popondetta “Energy Charger” equipped lights, your wallet will have lighten by at least 12,900JPY (current prices on Hobby Search as of 18/10/2020 for 7pcs x 2 and 1pcs x 2.) At the time of writing, this is equal to $122.36 USD, £94.87 GBP, or €104.40 EUR. A not inconsiderable expense.
Happily, however, this is the part of the article where I switch from exposition to useful anecdote.
One day in September, browsing Facebook and dodging the typical political hand grenades that everyone seems to be chucking these days, I stumbled across an URL - https://hktilc.com/
A website of a Hong Kong based manufacturer of N-scale lighting kits et al. They offer similar PCB LED strip lights as mentioned above, compatible with both KATO and Tomix models. Versions offered include “Standard” and “ADVANCE” (the difference being the inclusion of capacitors/anti-flicker capability), both available in four different hues:
And the most marvellous thing? The price. Using the same example above, equipping a 16 car KATO Shinkansen with capacitor lights from HKTILC comes to a pretty good price of 610.00 Hong Kong Dollars (current prices on HKTILC as of 18/10/2020 for 7pcs x 2 and 2pcs x 1). At time of writing, this equates to $78.71 USD, £60.99 GBP, and €67.16 EUR. A considerable saving, given it buys you good, flicker-free lighting for a beloved model. (For those curious, 610 HKD is equivalent to 8,295.49JPY.)
But before I deployed my credit card in excitement, I did a bit more digging.
A surprise awaited me on the website’s “Feature” page. Embeds of screenshots from Twitter and Youtube Videos, of Japanese hobbyists presumably praising… a Popondetta product?
Popondetta are even given “Special Thanks” on the “About Us” page. You can imagine my excitement; Had I stumbled across the Original Design Manufacturer for Popondetta’s highly desirable N-scale lighting (without Popondetta’s pricing?)
(For the record, HKTILC did not deny or confirm that they had any relationship with Popondetta. Regardless of my belief, I hope that you trust that HKTILC’s lighting kits stand up on their own, as I will describe in a moment.)
Without hesitation, I purchased a KATO/ADVANCE version of every colour they offered. I wanted to see what the lights looked like in person before spending the cash to outfit my collection.
HKTILC did charge me 250HKD for “Global Shipping”, but this has since fallen to the “normal” price of 80HKD, much more reasonable! HKTILC impressed me with their customer service at this point as they advised that they were adding a 7pcs STANDARD Light set to make up for the expensive shipping (which I’ve been subsequently informed was due to the impact of COVID-19 on HK Post. However, shipping rates have now normalised as I write this.)
Now, onto the lights themselves.
The PCB Lights themselves come in a smart white colour, and are quite stiff to the touch. On the underside you will see the circuitry and capacitors, and the switch for brightness.
Installation was no problem, being mounted the same way as the KATO standard. Included in the box were the copper strips needed to make the connection between the lights and the pickups in the wheels.
The strip is cut to length to fit in your cars. Simply take a pair of scissors and cut the space between the LEDs to make it fit. They will fit in a N700A car without any shortening, but for most of my other trains, one LED needed trimming off the end to fit.
The angle of the join between the pickups and the LED strip is such that the strip will be lifted into the roof of the car, meaning no issues with lack of support pillars that some models have.
The pictures below give a good indication of the colour hues on offer, but a written description is always handy. Note that I use HKTILC’s own nomenclature for the colours of the lights, to better aid you when you, hopefully, make your own purchase on their website.
青白色 / “WHITE COLOR” - This would properly be called "Blue White". It is white with a bluish hue. Imagine a normal plain white colour with a tinge of blue mixed in.
暖白色 / “WARM WHITE” - This is, I believe, the closest to an absolute plain white out of the 4 colours they do. It has a very slight yellow tinge I think. VERY slight. I had to look extremely closely when it was lit up to tell. But I reckon most people would see this a middle-of-the-road white, neither warm or cool.
黄白色 / “Lite Yellow” - It's white lighting with a yellow hue. Smack bang in the middle between "WARM WHITE" and "LIGHT BULB COLOUR". It looks to be a good equivalent for 80's/90's era flourescent lighting, but your mileage may vary.
電球色 / “LIGHT BULB COLOR”- Similar to “Lite Yellow”, but the hue is shifted to an orange colour which looks very warm and suitable for replicating incandescent lighting (or warm lighting in Green cars.)
The lights will reach full brightness with only a small amount of power being pushed through the tracks, and will remain at this same brightness regardless of how much more power you set your controller to. This is very pleasing to the eye, as it allows for slow operation of your trains without the measly dim lighting that one would have to suffer through when using the “big brand” lighting kits. Conversely, it also allows for super high speed operation without looking like each car contains a minature sun.
For DCC-modellers, I am informed by HKTILC that these lighting kits will handle up to 18v, so they should be suitable for use on your layouts.
Lastly, the anti-flicker function. Not much to say, other than it works splendidly. Lights will remain steady regardless of any errant dirt on your tracks or gaps in the rails. If they do flicker, as mine did initially, simply reseat the lights to make sure there is a good electrical contact, and the lights should function properly.
I am certainly impressed enough with the quality of these lights (and their pricing!) that I intend to outfit most of my collection with them. I hope this article gives you some food for thought, and let’s you take the plunge and light up your beloved models, without breaking the bank. My recommendation? Type your preferred series of train into Youtube, and add the character “夜”to your search to find night time videos – great for determining the correct hue you need.
Finally, as we are all aware, Hong Kong itself is at a crossroads in history right now. It’s innovative people and businesses deserve our support at this precarious time. I know for certain that HKTILC will be happy to serve you when the time comes.
Questions asked of HKTILC on Facebook, 19/10/2020. Please note, that the answers given are NOT direct quotes, and are paraphrases –