Ops with Mark and Dan

Yesterday, my friend Mark Zagrodney and his son Dan came over for an afternoon operations session on the layout.

I try for perfect operations sessions – zero derailments, zero electrical problems, etc. – and for the most part I have succeeded. But this session wasn’t one of those. Everything stayed on the rails, but I did have some electrical gremlins.

Once or twice, my DCC system kicked into short mode. I suspect, but can’t confirm, that something on a brass locomotive is touching something else that it shouldn’t – and that the lightning-quick circuit protection in the ECoS 50200 is catching the short before it clears itself. I’ll investigate that.

More frequently, though, the Mobile Control II wi-fi throttle would lose its connection with the base station. A while ago, I talked to Matt Herman at ESU about this and he suggested moving the Wireless Access Point (WAP), or replacing it with one from another manufacturer. I’m going to try mounting the WAP higher in the room – right now, it’s in the drawer with the DCC system. If that doesn’t work, I’ll look at a more robust WAP.

In part, I know the problems occur because I haven’t run the layout in a while (and I say that a lot lately on this blog). Unlike in the early days of Port Rowan, I’m less inclined to hold solo operating sessions these days. There are other things to do, and when I have hobby time, I try to work on something (such as the CNR 2-8-2 project).

I don’t know if that’ll change. The hobby is a social one for me, so I’m really happier hosting operating sessions than I am running solo. I guess I’ll have to book more sessions to keep things rolling smoothly.

Despite these DCC issues, I had a lot of fun. Dan took on the engineer’s role, while Mark played conductor. I helped out with brakeman’s duties as required. It’s always interesting to watch people solve the problem of switching what appears to be a very simple, straight-forward town like Port Rowan…

As an aside, Dan is a teenager and has grown a lot taller since the last time I saw him – he’s now taller than his dad, and definitely taller than the bulkhead that runs up the middle of my layout room. I’m glad I installed foam pipe insulation along the edges of this ages ago…

Afterwards, we headed to Harbord House for dinner – of course! And I sent Mark and Dan home with a banker’s box full of back issues of MR, RMC and other magazines that I no longer need in my space. Read and recycle!

ESU CabControl on TMTV

TMTV - CabControl pt 1

As mentioned previously on this blog, I recently hosted Matt Herman from ESU on TrainMasters TV, to discuss the company’s new DCC system. CabControl is a based on the ECoS 50200 that I use on my layout.

You can click on the image, above, to view* the first of two parts about CabControl. Enjoy if you watch!

(*TrainMasters TV is a subscription-based service, but subscriptions are quite reasonable. For example, as I write this you can subscribe for as little as 83 cents (US) per week.)

Matt and Me at TMTV

Matt and Me - TMTV
(State of the art throttles – in their eras)

I spent the day yesterday at the TrainMasters TV studios with Matt Herman from ESU (the “Loksound” people). Matt and I shot a number of segments together for future episodes, including two that will focus on ESU’s CabControl – a new DCC system designed for the North American and Australian markets. (I wrote more about this system in an earlier post.)

In the photo above, Matt is holding ESU’s Mobile Control II throttle. This is essentially an Android-based tablet, enhanced with a throttle knob and some physical buttons. I use a pair of these with my ECoS 50200 system from ESU and they’re the nicest throttles I’ve ever encountered. They combine the flexibility of a software defined throttle with the tactile feel and convenience of hardware-based controls to access the most commonly used functions while running a train. What’s more, the feel of the throttle itself is quite high-quality – like a high-end smart phone. They’re just nice in the hand.

The CabControl system has many attractive features, which we will delve into on upcoming segments of “DCC Decoded” on TrainMasters TV. But here’s a sampling:

– Support for at least 32 mobile throttles. (The system can probably handle more, but as Matt said, “We gave up opening packages at 32.”)

– An incredibly intuitive user interface based on common smart phone gestures. Swiping left or right lets you switch locomotives from your stack. Swiping up or down lets you scroll between the function button screens for the active locomotive.

– Artwork for decoder-equipped locomotives and rolling stock. The user can choose from a selection of stock photos, or create and load their own. It’s a great way to confirm, at a glance, what locomotive is active on the throttle.

– Icons that may be mapped onto any function button. Need to know where the headlight is? You don’t need to remember it’s at F0 – just look for the lightbulb symbol.

– Custom menus for each decoder-equipped locomotive or car. If you have a model that doesn’t have a bell, you can hide the bell function button from the menu, keeping more of the function buttons that you do need on the first menu page.

– A motorized throttle knob that automatically resets itself to the last-set speed when switching between locomotives. This knob also has built-in reverse (by rotating counterclockwise past the zero speed point) for true one-handed operation.

– Four physical buttons that may be assigned to any function. I use these for the functions I access most frequently during an ops session, such as the whistle and bell.

– The ability to load other apps onto the throttles. For example, one could load a fast clock app, a car forwarding app, and so on. The throttles could even be loaded with Skype, and used for radio communication between crews and a dispatcher – who does not even have to be in the same country! (The throttles include a jack for headphones/mic.)

– Easy programming via the throttle, using menus written in plain language instead of CVs – and full compatibility with JMRI/DecoderPro, of course.

If it sounds like I’m a fan, it’s because I am. If you’re in the market for a DCC system – or looking to upgrade the one you already have – then CabControl should definitely be on your list.

I’m really happy with my ECoS 50200 from ESU, although it has a number of features that I will never use – for example, support for command control protocols from Marklin, Motorola and others in addition to the NMRA’s DCC standard. But the new CabControl system does everything that I need for my layout, so I would’ve gone with this one had it been available.

I know some friends are already looking at CabControl, and I’ll be happy to bring along my two Mobile Control II throttles to future operating sessions.

ProtoThrottle

RDCS-IowaScaled
(Click on the image to visit the throttle’s discussion page on the MRH Forum)

I’ve been following the development of the ProtoThrottle – a realistic diesel control stand designed for DCC – since Michael Peterson of Iowa Scaled Engineering and Scott Thornton first floated the idea over a year ago on the Model Railroad Hobbyist forum. Today, I had the opportunity to get my mitts on one for the first time – and I think it’s great. I didn’t even power it up – just played with the levers and buttons – and I’m already sold on the concept.

For those unfamiliar with this project, I suggest you read the forum thread – which you can find by clicking on the image, above. But briefly, it’s a wireless throttle designed to interface with any DCC system via a receiver that’s connected to the DCC system.

While this throttle does not emulate every control in a real diesel, it does a much better job of representing the controls than a standard throttle with push buttons and/or a knob. The best part is, a number of DCC sound decoder manufacturers are working with Michael and Scott to figure out how to configure their decoders to work with this control stand. For most, it’s primarily a matter of figuring out the best values to program into CVs governing acceleration/deceleration, braking, speed curves, throttle notching, and so on.

The throttle is not yet on the market – look for it, hopefully, early in 2018. It’ll definitely bring diesel fans closer to an in-the-cab experience than anything on the market to date. I’m looking forward to it – and even though my layout is set firmly in the steam era, I do have a few diesels (including an MLW RS18 and a GE 44 tonner), plus many friends with diesel-era layouts where such a throttle will be a welcome addition.

As the saying goes…

Shut Up And Take My Money

Cooling the DCC drawer

From the moment I purchased it last year, my current DCC system – the ECoS 50200 from ESU – has lived in a cabinet under my staging yard, which is also how I store my large and growing collection of S scale rolling stock.

The rolling stock storage cabinets are kitchen drawers from IKEA, chosen for their capacity and their soft close mechanisms:

Car Storage by IKEA
(Click on the image to read about my car storage solution)

Ordering from IKEA is like eating at the gourmet burger bar. You build your own – mixing and matching cabinet fronts, drawer sizes, and so on. For my stock storage cabinets, I chose the Marsta drawer fronts primarily because they have recessed handles: I didn’t want people catching their pant legs on handles that projected into the aisle.

But I also picked them because the fronts have removable inserts to allow one to choose the colour of the recess in the handle. I didn’t care about the colour – but I did like the idea of being able to leave the handle open to allow air to circulate in the drawer where the DCC system resides.

Air circulation through the drawer front.
(That’s the glow of the DCC system, seen through the open drawer front)

This has worked fine for 10 months of the year, but this summer it got so hot in the layout room – despite it being in a basement – that the ECoS was overheating and shutting down. Obviously, some active cooling was required.

I talked over the problem with Matt Herman from ESU and based on that discussion, I picked up a pair of computer case fans from a local electronics supply house, plus a 12-volt wall wart to power them. I’ve attached them to the drawer with double-sided foam tape (to dampen vibration), and aimed them so they blow directly on the back of the ECoS 50200:

DCC Cooling fans.
(Not pretty – my wiring never is – but effective!)

The power supply for the fans is plugged into the same power bar as the DCC system, so they run whenever the DCC system is turned on. There’s a gap between the top of the drawer at the back, and the top of the case, so fresh air is drawn in from the back of the drawer and blown out through the drawer handle. I can definitely feel the breeze blowing out the front of the drawer, and they’re pretty quiet – especially with the drawer fully closed.

This solution would work well for any DCC system, of course…

One of the nice things about the ECoS 50200 command station is that one can monitor its operation – including the voltage and current being drawn, and the internal operating temperature. Therefore, I’ll be able to easily assess the effectiveness of my cooling solution:

ECoS operation settings screen
(33 Celcius – and holding!)

Thanks for the advice, Matt!

ESU CabControl DCC system announced

Even though I don’t need one, I’m pretty excited to learn that ESU (the “LokSound” decoder company) has announced a new DCC system designed specifically for the North American and Australian markets. The new “CabControl” system offers layout builders the best of ESU’s ECoS system while removing some of the more “Eurocentric” features and dropping the price to make it competitive with other popular DCC systems.

ESU CabControl
(The ESU Cab Control system | Click on the image to read about it on ESU’s website)

Regular readers will recall that just under a year ago, I upgraded my layout with the ECoS 50200 DCC system. I’m really happy with this decision but I knew that the ECoS would not be for everybody, since it includes a number of features that are not in high demand in North America – specifically, the two case-mounted throttles. These add considerably to the price of an ECoS system, putting it in a different snack bracket from starters sets offered by other manufacturers.

Obviously, the developers at ESU have decided they’re missing an important opportunity here, because the new CabControl starter set deletes the case-mounted throttles (and the touch screen) in favour of a black box that houses the command station and a WiFi access point. It then adds the Mobile Control II – a WiFi-based wireless throttle that combines the best of a touch-screen Android-based tablet with a super-sweet servo-driven throttle knob and some programmable push buttons to give operators quick and intuitive access to commonly-used functions (such as the bell and whistle). I saw this new system in action at a recent train show in the greater Toronto area, and I was definitely impressed.

ECoS-01
(My current ESU DCC system – including the ECoS 50200 command station, a wireless access point, and two wireless Mobile Control II throttles)

I have a pair of the Mobile Control II throttles that I use with the ECoS 50200 and I love them, so it’s great to see that ESU has made this fresh commitment to the North American market. With a product more suited to our tastes in control systems – at a more competitive price – I expect more modellers on this side of the Atlantic will make the switch to ESU. And from a purely selfish perspective, that means my ECoS 50200 – which is already well supported – will be even better served in the years to come.

I see Matt Herman from ESU fairly regularly at local shows, and he’s a frequent guest on the “DCC Decoded” segment of TrainMasters TV. What’s more, I know that I’ll be hosting Matt in the TrainMasters TV studios before the month is out for an in-depth exploration of the ESU CabControl system. I’ll post about that here when I do – so stay tuned!

“Go on, what’s the THIRD verse?”

Well, look who’s moved into the neighbourhood…

Calvin - Hobbes - Tree Fort

This is a story four years in the making.

Back in November 2013, I built a tree fort in one of the trees behind the station in St. Williams. You can read about that project by clicking on the photo, below…

Tree Fort in St Williams, with GROSS sign

… but at the end of that post, I noted that I was inspired by Calvin & Hobbes, and wondered where I could find a suitable tiger.

Fast forward almost two years, and in October 2015 my friend Stephen Gardiner surprised me with a model of Hobbes, which he had designed, 3D Printed, and painted. Again, clicking on the image, below, will link you to that part of the tale (or, tail?)…

Hobbes by Stephen Gardiner

Since then, I’ve been keeping my eyes open for a suitable figure that I could modify into a Calvin – but without any luck. There aren’t any nice models of S scale kids around – and certainly nothing with Calvin’s Peanutsy proportions.

Still, when Stephen got in touch and suggested we get together for lunch, adding, “I have something for you”, it never occurred to me what that might be. So I was completely gobsmacked – and delighted – when we met up yesterday and he presented me with a 3D Printed Calvin:

Calvin model by Stephen Gardiner

I carefully added a pin to the bottom of his foot, and placed him in a patch of light in the backyard.

Everybody sing along with Calvin!

Calvin - Hobbes - Tree Fort Comic

If Hobbes ever lets Calvin into the tree fort, he’ll have a good view of the passing trains:

Calvin - Hobbes - Tree Fort

Thanks Stephen – what an awesome surprise!

The visit was grand: We went for lunch at Harbord House and had a great conversation about a number of subjects.

We discussed the announcement on Monday from Rapido Trains that it would be producing HO scale models of the iconic Canadian diesel switcher: The SW1200RS. Stephen was at the launch party, and had a lot of details to share. This is huge news for the Canadian hobby, and Rapido notes it is their most-requested model. The good news is, the Rapido Trains SW1200RS is more than vapourware – the company had test shots from the tooling on display, and a running sample. The models are due early next year, and already I know a number of people who are considering switching scales back to HO just to take advantage of these. The SW1200RS certainly figures prominently in a number of the Canadian prototypes I’ve covered on my Achievable Layouts blog.

After lunch, Stephen and I ran a freight extra to Port Rowan and back. Stephen took the engineer’s seat in CNR 10-wheeler 1532, while I headed for the conductor’s desk in the van. The layout ran well, with only a couple of misaligned couplers to contend with. It was Stephen’s first experience with ESU’s Mobile Control II wireless throttles – a combination of Ambroid tablet computer and throttle with physical knob and buttons. I switched to this system late last year and it’s been a terrific experience. (Stephen was suitably impressed, I think – but I’ll let him provide his thoughts if/when he reads this.)

All in all, a terrific day – and let’s do it again!

Chevron jumpers

Wiring problem - chevron jumpers

Layouts always act up when company comes.

On the weekend, I had a couple of friends over – two of whom are not in the model railway hobby, and were visiting my house for the first time. They wanted to see the layout, though – so at some point we went to the train room, and naturally I ran a train…

… which, just as naturally, hit a dead spot on the Stone Church Road overpass. I determined that one of the rails over the bridge was not receiving power. This is not the first time I’ve had problems on this bridge. It went dead on me once before.

Now, I know that I installed drop feeders – I did that for every length of rail on the layout, and when power disappeared on the bridge last time, I dug into the ballast, found the feeders, and resoldered them. It was a painful process – in part because of all the trees around this scene, and in part because the fact there’s a bridge here means there’s half a sawmill worth of lumber belowdecks:

Stone Church Road overpass - under construction
(The Stone Church Road underpass under construction)

Perhaps, because of these issues, my solder joints to the rails were cold last time I repaired this. I decided that this time, I would do something topside.

In the photo at the top of this post, sharp eyes will pick out a chevron-shaped piece of wire spanning the gap between adjacent lengths of rail. There’s one on each rail in this photo. I took short lengths of 0.015″ phosphor bronze wire – the same stuff I routinely use to add pick-up wipers to locomotives that need them – and bent them into chevron shapes with feet at each end. I then used a wire wheel in a Dremel Tool to remove the paint on the rail ends, tinned the feet on the chevrons and the rail ends, and soldered a foot to each rail segment so that the chevron spans the gap.

The chevron is important – it gives the wire some flexibility in case the problem here is that the layout is expanding and contracting with the seasons.

I brushed on some brown paint over everything and my bridge is once again in service. This has taken care of the problem – hopefully, permanently! I’ll find out this coming weekend, when I’m hosting members of the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers for an open house…

Full Throttle Steam on TrainMasters TV

The current segment on TrainMasters TV features my CNR 10-wheeler #1532, fitted with a LokSound decoder and loaded with Full Throttle Steam:

DCC Full Throttle Steam

Click on the image above – or follow this link – to start watching. You need to be a subscriber to TrainMasters TV to see it, but membership is quite reasonable.

(UPDATE: ESU has now released the first Full Throttle Steam file – based on SOO Line #1003, a 2-8-2. It’s at the top of the on ESU’s steam download page. For future reference, note that Full Throttle steam – and diesel – sound files are noted by the “(FT)” at the end of the name. Thanks to Matt Forsyth for alerting me that the first file is now publicly available.)

LokSound Love for 1532

CNR 1532 - LokSound installation
(Replacing the decoder in the 10-wheelers looks challenging, but it’s really just a case of mapping the wires and doing things one wire at a time)

Over the past week, I’ve done a fair bit to advance my hobby goals.

I’ve resumed working on trees for Port Rowan, and I’m pleased with the progress: I applied my bark mixture to nine more armatures this morning.

I had another work session at Andy Malette‘s place, as he and I convert USRA Light Mikados into CNR S-3-a 2-8-2s. (More on that in this post.)

And I finished converting the core fleet of steam locomotives to LokSound Full Throttle Steam, with the installation of a LokSound Select into the boiler of CNR 1532 this morning. With that, I’ve finished the two moguls and two 10-wheelers that I use in regular operating sessions. I’m loving the new sounds and the motor control. This is what I was looking for.

I have a couple other steam locomotives to convert, but I can do them as time allows.

All in all, a fine week!