“Instant on”

Car Storage Drawers under the Staging Yard

While I now have a lot of storage capacity under my sector plate staging yard, I also like to keep a full complement of trains ready to run on the four-track sector plate itself. In addition to the locomotives and rolling stock, I try to have all the paperwork for these trains ready to go.

In discussing an unrelated issue with a friend offline, I realized one of the things I like about this arrangement is that the layout is ready to go with the press of a power button. The electronics world calls this “instant on” and it has several advantages – particularly for simple, one or two person layouts such as mine.

The biggest is the ability to run short, frequent sessions as time allows. Lance Mindheim has written about breaking down operations into small chunks, and then operating several times per week, whenever one has a bit of time. Here’s how this concept applies to Port Rowan:

On my layout there are two towns and a total of 12 “spots” for freight cars – but as I’ve noted recently, typically less than half the spots are used at any one time.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume six freight cars are scattered throughout the layout, and only three of those are ready to be lifted: One in St. Williams and two in Port Rowan. To run a train from staging to Port Rowan and back, with all work performed, would typically take 75-90 minutes – and I do that fairly regularly with friends.

But what if I don’t have an hour and a half? What if I have 15 minutes this morning, and 10 minutes this afternoon, and another 15 minutes tomorrow, and so on?

Breaking the operation down into smaller chunks is the answer:

Let’s assume I have 15 minutes available to me this morning, I could grab my paperwork and throttle, and run a train from staging to St. Williams. I could also complete the paperwork at the station – figuring out what cars to drop and which ones to lift, writing up my switch list, and so on. Then I could go do the “real world” things that need to be done.

Van at St Williams station
(A freight extra stops with the van in front of the St. Williams station, so the conductor can confer with the station agent on the work to be done in town)

Again, assuming I find myself with another 10 minutes this afternoon, I could return to the layout space and pick up where I left off. With the paperwork ready to go, I could switch the cars in St. Williams. I might get all of the switching done, or I might only get the lifts taken care of, with the set-outs still to do. When I run out of time, I can put down the throttle and paperwork, and go back to the real world.

St Williams team track
(There’s switching to be done in St. Williams – not much, but some…)

Tomorrow, I can use my 15 minutes to run from St. Williams to Port Rowan, stopping for water along the way and arriving at the station. I can prep my paperwork for switching Port Rowan. And then I can walk away, knowing the next time I have time I can start on the switching.

Extra 80 West arrives in Port Rowan
(A freight extra arrives in Port Rowan. Before switching, it will continue ahead to the station so the crew can receive their orders)

It might take a week of short segments to run a “full operating session” in this manner, but it means the layout continues to entertain, and continues to be run – which seems to be the best way to keep any model railway in good shape.

However, there are several things to consider about running a layout in this fashion. These include:

The layout needs to be “instant on”. If one has to set up trains in staging, or even set in place a removable section of layout to allow for operating sessions, that can eat up a good chunk of the 10 minutes one has to run trains.

It works best for simple layouts – for example, this one, with one train on the line at a time. That said, on a more complex layout one could set up a branch line train to be used for these quick sessions, without disrupting the relationship of trains elsewhere on the layout.

One needs space to store paperwork and throttles, near the places where the train will pause between operating sessions. In my case, I have pull-out work desks at both St. Williams and Port Rowan that are perfect for storing ops aids between sessions.

St Williams Work Desk
(The work desk at St. Williams. Click on the image to read more about these)

I think it’s a worthwhile exercise for everyone to consider how their layouts can be “instant on” and how they can support these segmented operating sessions with activities that require no set-up, are quick to run, and can easily be walked away from when real life calls…

Stock Storage Solved!

Back in July, while building IKEA cabinets with storage drawers for my workshop, I mused that the drawers would work well for rolling stock storage under my sector plate. I was right:

IKEA stock storage
(A single 36″ wide drawer will easily hold approximately 25 pieces of equipment. With 12 drawers – or a 300-car capacity – I finally have more storage space than I’m ever likely to use.)

Sufficient storage for rolling stock has been a problem for my layout almost from the beginning. I like to keep the sector plate free for just the trains staged to run on the layout. And I also like a variety of equipment.

While I already have more rolling stock than I need for a layout of this size, I expect I’ll acquire and/or build more. For one thing, there are certain classes of equipment that should appear on my layout, but which are not (yet) commercially available. For another, I do like building and finishing rolling stock. (In the past, I’ve had my friend Pierre Oliver do a lot of that for me while I focused on building the layout. But I’ve undertaken several projects on my own, too – and I expect to do more of this as the layout nears completion.)

This week, I went back to The IKEA Well, and purchased two 36″ wide six-drawer kitchen cabinets to install under the sector plate:

IKEA stock storage

I picked the Marsta drawer fronts because they have integrated, recessed handles: I didn’t want handles to project into the aisle, where they could catch on pant legs.

Instead of using IKEA legs and a hanging rail against the wall, I attached the cabinets to the layout legs. This required bracing the sector plate with some scrap pine temporarily screwed to the front of the benchwork, the removal of one leg set from under the sector plate, and the repositioning of other leg sets to match the cabinet widths. But by carefully thinking it through so as not to leave the benchwork unsupported, I was able to do this in an afternoon without any problem.

To finish the installation, I cut some half-inch thick plywood for “counter tops” to keep the dust off and the wiring for the sector plate from drooping into the top drawers.

While building and installing the cabinets, I pondered how I was going to keep rolling stock from rolling and/or sliding about inside the drawers. Previously, I used a thin acoustic foam – the kind used as speaker covers. The foam worked well, but it’s difficult to find and needs to be fastened in place or it’ll slide about.

I thought of several alternatives and in the end I decided to dry the mats that are sold to put under carpets to keep them from sliding about. There are several different styles of these available, but by shopping around, I found the right type: an open-weave made (I think) with a string net that’s then coated in rubber:

Non-slip underlay for car storage

I found these on sale for $7.50 per package at JYSK, a home accessories chain. Each package provided enough to line three drawers, and is easy to mark and cut to size:

Marker and Scissors

As the lead photo shows, no dividers are necessary to keep the stock in place. The anti-slip mesh stays put in the drawers, and the wheels on rolling stock nestle into the weave. Cars stay put, and with no dividers I have a lot of flexibility in how I use the space.

I should add that the drawers have soft-close features on them, so they won’t slam shut and they stay closed. Providing I don’t yank on the drawers excessively, the rolling stock won’t tip over. (Those who are worried about this could always arrange all cars like the two tank cars in the lead photo, so they’re in line with the direction of movement.)

With room for approximately 300 40-foot cars, I’m unlikely to run out of storage space now. In reality, I’ll use separate drawers for passenger cars and motive power. I may even divide up freight cars by type: CNR boxcars could have a drawer all to themselves, since they account for about half of my freight fleet.

I may also dedicate a drawer to storing other things that should be near the sector plate. These would include throttles, uncoupling tools, clipboards and blank switch lists, and other operations aids that one needs when starting an operations session.

Regardless, it’s nice to have the options that this massive amount of storage space has made available to me. I’m glad I upgraded my stock storage system.

Rolling stock storage redux

 photo ReadyToRun_zps6f85bd0c.jpg
(Filled to overflowing – again…)

A couple of years ago, I built some storage drawers under the sector plate to hold my growing collection of S scale rolling stock. Well, I’m sure there are railway modelling enthusiasts who can limit themselves to a set number of pieces of equipment – but I’ve yet to meet them, and it sure isn’t me.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, I seem to abhor empty trackage on my sector plate. Once again, I’ve filled my staging area to overflowing – and the storage drawers are full. What to do?

I realized that my home made storage drawers are not the most efficient use of space while I was assembling and installing the drawers for my new workshop:

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(Click on the image to read more about the workshop project)

The IKEA kitchen cabinets I’m using are well designed to maximize useable drawer space within the cases. And it occurred to me that the drawers just might have enough clearance for S scale rolling stock. Sure enough, I measured a drawer interior and came up with just shy of 4″ height – plenty of space for S, as a quick test proved:

 photo CarStorage-Ikea-02_zpsfrhcfepf.jpg

With rare exceptions (e.g.: a crane with boom raised), I should be able to fit any S scale equipment into a space with 3.5″ clearance, which gives me some space underneath the cars to add acoustic foam padding to protect details and keep cars from rolling about. I would also build dividers, similar to the ones used in my existing drawers:

Storage with walls and dividers photo EquipmentStorage-03_zps244941ff.jpg

I did my test in an 18″ wide drawer, which would hold anything up to a baggage car:

 photo CarStorage-Ikea-01_zpsac9bvtio.jpg

More likely, though, I would use the 36″ wide cabinets, which would give me the greatest amount of flexibility for storing equipment. I sense another trip to IKEA in my future…

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“Running Trains” with Chris

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Chris Abbott visited yesterday and since it was one of the first really nice days of Spring, we spent the afternoon in the layout room. Well, we’d planned this get-together a couple of weeks ago and that’s just the way it goes…

I’ve had some problems recently with derailments, so I invited Chris for a work session. The idea was simple: We’d run a couple of trains and look for problems. We wouldn’t worry about prototype paperwork, proper switching procedures or any of the stuff that we employ during a normal operating session. Rather, we’d cover the line, using the “Mother may I?” method of dispatching and working through all the spurs and other secondary tracks in the process. If we found a problem – a repeatable problem – we would stop and fix it.

Having another person help me with this task would accomplish two things:

– First, Chris was a second set of eyes and fresh opinions about the nature of any problems.

– Second, I would be less likely to overlook or downplay a problem that would require a major rework. (An example of this might be the need to pull a switch point and fabricate a new one. I hate doing that – especially when working over finished scenery – so I’m more likely to wonder “What’s on TV?” when I run into that kind of repair.)

The good news is, we each ran a train to the end of the line and back, working through various sidings – shoving and pulling cuts of cars – and only encountered one problem: A derailment during a backing move through the turnout in front of the Port Rowan station. What’s more, we were unable to repeat the derailment. It could be an issue – or it could’ve been a bit of dirt or loose ballast in the frog. We don’t know. But we left it alone and will keep an eye on that turnout in case it causes more trouble.

For now, it looks like I’ve managed to fix the derailment problems that were plaguing me earlier this year.

And while we didn’t uncover any major problems, it wasn’t a wasted effort: We had a lot of fun – not holding an operating session, but just “Running Trains”…
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Chris and I did other things, too:

– We discussed plans for adding a hand crank to control the sector plate. Chris has been thinking about this since we built the plate, but many other things have gotten in the way and it’s never been a priority for either of us. But Chris would like to tackle it now so he double-checked some measurements and has retired to his work shop to build the mechanism. Stay tuned.

– I solicited his input on some plans for future scenery projects in the Lynn Valley and I can now proceed with those. Again, stay tuned.

– We realized that Chris had never tried TouchCab – an app that allows one to use an iPhone or iPod Touch as a wireless throttle. He was impressed, and it was good for me to get reacquainted with the system. I’m going to make a point of using it more often.

– I introduced Chris to Night Train – a dark ale from Junction Craft Brewing. It went down very well.

My wife joined us as we wrapped up the day with a visit to The Caledonian – an always-fun Scottish pub. It’s about a 20-minute walk from home but owners Donna Wolff and David Wolff always make the place feel like a second home – and the walk encourages one’s appetite.

Sundays at The Caledonian mean a traditional roast beef dinner – and this Sunday was particularly special as The Caley celebrated Tartan Day. The whisky-tasting was sold out and the place was busy but Donna found us three spots at the bar. There were Highland Dancers to entertain the crowd – and we had three pours left in our bottle of Edradour Caledonia 12-year-old behind the bar, so it was all good.

(Thanks for the great day of work and fun, Chris – I look forward to the next one!)

Safe Stock Storage

With yesterday’s delivery of a box of air, I made significant progress on the equipment storage shelves I started earlier this week.

It started with an assessment of needs, then a trip to the trim section of my local building supply store. I picked up some poplar “strip wood” (the full-size kind, not the stuff we use for models) in 0.5″ x 3.5″ and 0.5″ x 0.5″ sizes, plus other supplies. When I got home, I set to work adding sides and ends to the previously built shelves.

To keep rolling stock from rolling about on my shelves, I cut sheets of 0.25″ thick acoustic foam to fit the shelves. I then cut lengths from the 0.5″ square stock and screwed them in place, through the foam, to form four divisions on each shelf. The dividers are spaced with 2.5″ between them – plenty for my S scale rolling stock.

Here’s how the shelves look now:

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Equipment sits on a soft bed and doesn’t roll. Perfect!

I have not yet added a back to the shelves. And I may cut more pieces of the acoustic foam and attach them to the tops of the dividers, to extend the dividers the full height of the boxes I’ve created: While equipment doesn’t roll, some of it does rock a little. I don’t expect this to be a problem but one should always expect the best and plan for the worst, right? I am also considering options for a cover to keep dust off stored equipment.

The good news is, the equipment seen in the above photo represents most of my excess stock – and it all fits on one shelf. That means I have a second shelf that’s mostly empty and ready for more equipment.

Even better, the sector plate is now much less cluttered – and therefore more functional.

Here’s the sector plate as it looked earlier this year – with excess stock tucked behind almost every train, and on the base behind the sector plate:

Full Staging photo FullStaging-02_zps2fd626b3.jpg

The situation has actually gotten worse since that photo was taken, as I’ve been adding boxcars to the fleet.

Now, here’s how the sector plate looks today. There’s one train out on the line, but no extra stock in the scene. (Well, except for The Flying Yankee, which I need to return to its display case in my office.)

Staging without Clutter photo Staging-Decluttered_zps0b30ec9e.jpg

Much better!

I have a third shelf, which I have not yet fitted with dividers and foam. Before I do that, I’m going to think about how I want to use that third shelf. I mounted it with enough clearance to hold my waybill box and other tools necessary for hosting operating sessions.

I’m pleased with how this project is turning out, and with the space I’ve freed up in staging.

Equipment storage shelves

With four trains staged and ready to go, my four-track sector plate is getting pretty full. There’s little space to store extra equipment on the rails – and if I store it there, it’s in the way when I want to build new trains. Something needed to be done. So I’m doing it:
Equipment Storage Shelves photo EquipmentStorage-01_zps101c4171.jpg

Following the success of my two slide-away work desks, I decided that the 20″ under-mount slides I picked up at my local Lee Valley Tools (item 02K33.20) could be used to create slide-away shelves under the sector plate to hold additional equipment. Accordingly, I purchased three more sets, plus three laminated pine project boards from Home Depot. These are 16″ x 36″, but I cut them down to 31″ to fit between existing layout legs.

Based on 40-foot boxcars, each shelf will hold four rows of three cars with plenty of room to spare, so the three shelves give me capacity for approximately 36 pieces of rolling stock – depending on length. I mounted the first shelf 6″ down from the layout benchwork, to give me room for the box I use to hold waybills: I might as well keep it where the cars are stored and trains are built.

The lower two shelves are mounted with 4″ of vertical clearance – plenty of space for my S scale equipment:
Equipment Storage Shelves photo EquipmentStorage-02_zps854098b7.jpg

This is a work in progress – obviously, the shelves need walls to prevent equipment from rolling over the side – and in fact, something to keep the equipment from rolling at all. I’ll also want a cover for each shelf to protect the equipment from dust. I have a cunning plan…

Stay tuned.

A full plate

All of my steam locomotives are now equipped with brackets to hold classification flags – something about which I’ve already written – so the full roster is now in regular service. Here’s the lineup at the start of a session:
Curtain Call photo FullStaging-01_zps7487614a.jpg

CNR 1532 is on the mixed train today, so it’s not carrying white flags. CNR 1560, 80 and 86 are ready to run as freight extras. (CNR 902 is parked behind one of these trains so is not in the picture.)

I can now stage four trains at a time, which means I can run the layout for several hours before I need to re-stage. The sector plate is getting pretty full, though:
Full Staging photo FullStaging-02_zps2fd626b3.jpg

I will have to do something about that.

I’m looking for a suitable set of drawers to put under the layout, below the sector plate. Since they need to be pretty shallow to make best use of the space, I expect I’ll have to build my own. No rush on this.

I should remove some of the excess equipment from the sector plate area – including that beautiful (but entirely inappropriate) S scale version of the Flying Yankee. (What can I say? I used to model the Boston and Maine in HO and thought the River Raisin Models import would make a lovely mantlepiece model…) I need to paint and finish the brass tank cars too – but in the meantime, they can go back in the display case in my office.

First trains from Simcoe

My friend Chris Abbott visited last night after work, and we worked on the sector plate that represents Simcoe, Ontario and points north. By the end of the evening, we had our first trains running across the entire railroad.

To keep rails aligned, Chris cut and installed large pads of copper-clad printed circuit board material. This photo shows the four tracks of the sector plate plus, in the upper right, the mainline to St. Williams:
Aligning rails across the sector plate photo Simcoe-Copper.jpg

(Chris also cut plates for the other end of the sector plate tracks, plus the two ends of the locomotive cassette. We didn’t get those installed last night, but we’re that much further ahead for the next work session.)

Meanwhile, I continued to work on the wiring for the staging area. Having already installed drop feeders, I decided I wanted a way to route power so I could turn off tracks where trains are stored between runs. I’m still pondering my options for this, but in the interim I installed a temporary panel with four mono 1/4″ audio jacks, arranged to correspond to the four staging tracks:
A working staging area photo Simcoe-TrackPower.jpg

I ran a common wire from the track bus to one contact on each of these jacks, then individually wired the leads to each track to the other contacts. Finally, I connected the two contacts in a 1/4″ plug with a short piece of wire.

When the plug is inserted into a jack, it completes the circuit to the corresponding track – and only one track can ever be powered at a time. In the photo, the plug is in the jack for track 1, and the headlight is lit on the train on that track. Easy peasy. I’ll play around with this for a while, enjoying running trains, while I decide what form of track power assignment I want to install on a permanent basis.

Now that I can run trains in and out of staging, I am thinking about how I’m going to disguise this non-prototypical but necessary area on the layout. I do not like hidden staging – not in the least – so it’ll remain visible. However, this photo illustrates two techniques that will help minimize its presence during operating sessions:
Evergreen view block photo Simcoe-Viewblock.jpg

First, I designed the lighting system so the light would fall off as staging is approached. Note how bright the closest tobacco kiln is, compared to the one in the distance. That bright side also draws the eye, so I’ll emphasize that when I build the structures – perhaps by doing full detail on the closest kiln and making the other four less visually busy.

The second technique involves the addition of a wind break of trees across the layout at the entrance to staging. I’ve temporarily installed some evergreens and I’m pleased with the effect. I think a row of deciduous trees will work even better.

Having a working sector plate means I can clear the tracks in St. Williams – and that means I can start holding real operating sessions!

Progress in Simcoe

All rail in Simcoe photo Simcoe-Rail.jpg

Over the past few days, between other commitments, I have spiked all the rail on the four-track sector plate. It’s not completely spiked – only every sixth tie or so – but it’s enough to test the track. I will go back and spike it every second or third tie as time permits.

There are a few ties that need to be replaced – they came loose while sanding, but I can stain them and slip them under the rails. There are also gaps at the ends of each track – these will be filled with squares of printed circuit board so I can solder the rails to them. This will keep everything in alignment across the gaps to the main track into St. Williams, and to the cassette used to turn locomotives.

I have also added drop feeders for each track on the sector plate. I removed the plate from its base, then drilled holes for feeders next to each rail, near the pivot point. I made sure these holes were in two lines – one for lefthand rails, the other for righthand rails. I then used a router to cut two slots on the underside of the moving section of the plate, connecting each row of four holes. I then soldered a drop feeder to each rail and bundled the wires in the slots:
Wiring the sector plate photo Simcoe-Wiring.jpg

I wired each track separately, so that in the future I can add switches to automatically power only the track that’s lined up with the mainline into St. Williams.

While the sector plate was off the base, I cut a square opening in the base to pass the wires through, with enough space to pass a plug as well. As the photo shows, I’ve added labels to the gold wires so I know which track they power. The silver wires will be wired together as a common return.

I am very, very close to having all track done and wired.

Onward to Simcoe

Simcoe, Ontario is where the line from Hamilton splits into two branches to serve Port Rowan and Port Dover. It’s also the start of yard limits on the Port Rowan branch. So it’s as good a name as any to apply to the staging area on my layout.

For a number of weeks now, I’ve had all ties down but the end of rail has been the #10 switch by the depot in St. Williams. This week, I’ve started the last of the track work – the main north of St. Williams (all five or six feet of it) and the four tracks on the sector plate.

The work started with staining and distressing the mainline from St. Williams to sector plate:
Onward to Simcoe photo Sector-HalfStained.jpg

The mainline is the section in front of the radio on the benchwork, and it’s now ready for rail.

Also seen here is progress on the sector plate. All four tracks have received an initial stain of grey, and the two back tracks have now been overpainted with oils. I’ll finish the other two tracks, then let everything dry (oils take a bit of time to lose their stickiness) before starting to spike.

I’m still debating whether to add ballast on the sector plate. I might, because the ballast/glue combination does a great job of locking things together. On the other hand, I will have to be extremely careful to not glue the sector plate to the benchwork! Fortunately, the whole plate lifts off, so if I decide to ballast I can do this off the layout to prevent accidents.

My goal is to have all track spiked, wired, tested and running by the end of August. That gives me about five weeks…