Two features in the August RMC

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(Click on the cover to visit RMC online)

I have two features in the current (August, 2015) issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine.

The first is my report on the 2015 New England Northeast Railroad Prototype Modelers meet, which Pierre Oliver and I attended at the end of May. I had a great time and I look forward to going back to that meet in the future.

The second is a feature on using an iPhone or iPod Touch as a throttle, as I do on my layout. This distills and organizes a lot of the information I’ve presented previously on my blog into a feature that addresses what’s needed, the advantages and disadvantages compared to a regular throttle, and some considerations to make such a migration successful.

If you pick up a copy, I hope you enjoy the stories. I enjoyed writing them and it’s a pleasure to work with Stephen Priest at RMC.

Fighting Dirty Rails

The May, 2015 issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine is now online and ready for reading – including an article I submitted on how I use graphite on the rails to improve electrical performance.

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While I certainly didn’t come up with this solution, I’ve been using it for many years and am an enthusiastic advocate. It’s made a huge difference to how well my layout runs.

Click on the image, above to start reading the feature online. To complement this feature, I also produced a short video* to show how I apply the graphite to the rails. Enjoy if you watch!

(*I’m not sure I would’ve called this solution a “miracle”: It’s science, really…)

No more “Silver Streak” incidents

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(Runaway locomotives are never a good idea, but especially not when one’s layout includes a sector plate)

As reported last month, I was having a problem with the TCS WOWSound decoders I’m now using for all of my steam locomotives. If I started a locomotive at speed step 1, it would take off at full speed.

I wrote to the manufacturer and was advised to not use the user-loadable speed table feature on the decoders. Okie dokie.

(I like using my own speed tables because the top speed on most locomotives is way too fast for our layouts. The result is, operators end up working with the bottom third, or bottom quarter, of the throttle. It’s kind of like having a speedometer that reads up to 500 kph (310 mph) when the vehicle can’t go more than 50: The rest of the dial is wasted space, and there’s no fine speed control available at the low end. By writing my own speed tables, I’d given operators full use of the throttle.)

However…

This morning I turned off the speed tables, and decided to see if I could achieve acceptable performance using the starting/mid/max settings of CVs 2, 6 and 5. I did – quite quickly, in fact – and the locomotives no longer tear off at full throttle if set to Speed Step 1.

While few others will benefit from knowing the settings, I’m putting them here so that I can refer to them down the road.

CNR Moguls 80, 86, 908: CV2 = 2; CV5 = 60; CV6 = 30.

CNR 10-wheelers 1532, 1560: CV2 = 5; CV5 = 50; CV6 = 25.

Why the differences in settings between the two classes?

Well, I set CV2 – starting voltage – so that the locomotive would just start to move at speed step 1. The 10-wheelers needed a little more power before that happened.

At the same time, the 10-wheelers run much faster than the moguls – so trimming their top speed a little more severely helps keep their speed within reason on my layout.

It was a simple fix and I feel more relaxed about running the layout knowing there will be no Silver Streak incidents…

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“Best Toys Ever!”

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(All trains on deck: The sector plate, ready for an operating session)

Chris Abbott had business in my part of town yesterday, so he dropped in for a visit. It was his first chance to see the layout since I’d upgraded all of my locomotives to TCS WOWSound decoders, so while we did not hold a formal operating session we did run a few trains…

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The decoders give me more options for replicating the operation of a real locomotive, so they’ll take a bit of getting used to. As an example, here’s what’s involved in going from a full stop to moving forward, with throttle function buttons noted:

Blow two short whistles to indicate forward direction (F3)
Turn off blower (F4)
Turn off injectors if running (F8)
Open cylinder drain valves (F5)
Start bell (F1)
Release brakes (F6)
Open throttle
Turn off bell once moving (F1)
Close cylinder drain valves (F5)

It sounds like a lot to remember, but Chris and I have both spent some time in the cab of a steam locomotive, working as a fireman’s apprentice at a tourist line, so we appreciate the ability to duplicate this sequence in miniature. We know the process – we just need to remember which button does what. It occurred to me last night that the TouchCab throttle app for the iPhone may solve this problem, since it includes icons that one can map onto the various function buttons.

While we had a lot of fun playing with the new sound decoders, we found a curious feature – one we need to avoid for now, and fix down the road:

I use Lenz throttles with keypads. There are four buttons for the throttle: coarse deceleration (-16 speed steps); fine deceleration (-1 speed step); fine acceleration (+1 speed step); coarse acceleration (+16 speed steps).

Normally, I operate using the coarse buttons: I have momentum set fairly high (CV3 = 50), which helps sound decoders produce a dynamic chuff sound. But Chris was being more cautious so he started a train by tapping the fine acceleration button once (to the first speed step – V1 – of 126).

We were both surprised when the train took off at full speed!

Fortunately, nothing was damaged and Chris stopped the train quickly. But further experimentation showed us that…

1 – V1 put full speed to the locomotive.
2 – V2 brought it to a complete stop.
3 – V3 and beyond behaved normally.
4 – The reversing switch worked properly, so the same thing would happen in reverse.
5 – It happens with all locomotives, not just one.
6 – Analogue (DC) operation is turned off on all decoders, so the decoder should not be reacting to the pure power on the rails with no signal.

The short-term solution is to avoid using the fine acceleration/deceleration buttons. The long-term solution is to contact TCS to inform them of the issue and see what they come back with. Meantime, if anybody else using these decoders has had this same problem and found a solution, I’d love to hear about it!

That said, we still had a great time and I look forward to Chris’ feedback on the new decoders.

Afterwards, we retired to Harbord House for pints and fish: Salmon Wellington for me; classic fish’n’chips for Chris. Very, very tasty and we’re definitely favourites with the staff there.

As for the title of this post…

While we might think our trains are the best toys ever, my dogs know better. They are great fans of Chris on any day – but especially yesterday, as he brought them each a new frisbee:

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(Jack and Mocean say, “Stop taking pictures: Let’s play!”)

Thanks Chris! We’ll put them to good use in the dog park this weekend!

10 days … and counting!

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(An under-construction level crossing for Division Street :: The remains of an interurban line parallel the road)

I might have mentioned it here once or twice already, but I’m building a pair of modules in S scale and taking them to a railway hobby show in Laval, Québec to participate in the S Scale Workshop exhibition layout.

That show – Salon due train rive nord (or: The North Shore Train Show) – happens October 4 and 5. So I’m down to the wire.

Fortunately I’m now done with the wire, too: I invited Chris Abbott over last night, and we got everything soldered up and ready to go. (Thanks, Chris!)

Today, I turned to scenery on two more four-foot sections. Here’s a quick picture of the sections – forming the heart of the Division Street module – taken while the glue dried:

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With the work done earlier this week on the Judge Farm module, I now have basic ground cover and ballast on four of these sections – 16 feet in total. I have six more feet to do, then I can turn my attention to seeing how many details I can add before the show.

If you’re in the Montréal, Canada area two weekends from now, why not come out to the show and see how I made out?

Before last night’s wiring session, I knocked out a huge pot of chili – excellent, if I may be immodest – and laid in a few bottles of Funnel Blower from Box Steam Brewery in Wiltshire UK. Together, they got us through our six-hour wiring marathon.

If you want help with wiring, cook something hearty and buy good beer.

“And such an instrument I was to use…”

“Is this an Olfa knife which I see before me / The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.”

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(Chris recites the Olfa knife soliloquy)

Over the weekend, Chris Abbott joined me in the TrainMasters TV studio to demonstrate some best practices and neat ideas for wiring the two modules I’m building and documenting for the show. We covered a lot of ground – from installing drop feeders and track power mains… to using Anderson Power Poles for connections… to building our own cables for the throttle network and mounting the throttle panels… to adding strain relief to all wires and cables.

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TrainMasters TV brass hat Barry Silverthorn captured the process in electrons and seemed most pleased with our presentation, too. He even bought us lunch! (To be fair, he does that for everyone who takes part in the show…)

And of course, there are always trains to watch, since the studio is located next to one of the busiest mainlines in Canada:

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(Me and Barry, taking a break from making TV)

When we got home, my lovely wife invited Chris for dinner and – knowing that wiring is thirsty work – she’d even slipped out to grab some Cameron’s Auburn Ale for us. (Yay – beer!)

I’m really pleased with how the day went – and, it gets me closer to being ready for the exhibition at which I’ll join other members of the S Scale Workshop to entertain the public for two days. Thanks again, Chris!

The time is running out, however, so I’ve been working ahead. Today, I added ballast and started on basic ground cover on the two four-foot sections that are now wired:

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(Brown areas will receive crops while some of the green areas will be further enhanced with static grass – and a lot of fence lines will be required…)

I don’t consider this anywhere near finished, but if I get all sections done to this point they will at least be respectable enough to show.

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(I will have to go back over my track to scrape the ballast off the tie tops once the glue has dried: A single-edge razor blade makes a great scraper)

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(I opted for a gravel road through the underpass: The surface needs more work but this is a good start…)

I may have to cover some scenery-building techniques after the exhibition – fabricating dioramas as needed to demonstrate various approaches. We’ll see how things go.

Chris is coming over this week to help me with the wiring on the rest of the module sections. With luck and focus, we’ll get it done in an evening. That will give me some breathing space to demonstrate some basic ground cover during my next visit to the TrainMasters TV studio.

The clock is ticking…

Ops and Clubs with Jeffrey

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Yesterday, Jeffrey Smith visited. Those who know the name will appreciate that I was very excited about this.

Jeff runs the CNRy in Ontario website – an amazing source of information for railway historians and modellers. Jeff is a transplanted Canadian – he lives in Missouri right now but still has family in southern Ontario. He got in touch to say he’d be doing a bit of research at the University of Toronto – which is just a few minutes from my house – so we arranged to meet up for the afternoon.

Jeff and I started with a typical operating session – working a freight extra to Port Rowan and back. As is typical of recent sessions, we used the TouchCab application and an iPod Touch as a throttle, and put the Sergent Engineering couplers through their paces.

Overall, things went well and continue to trend in the right direction – although I still need to do more work before I’m happy with the couplers. (I have an idea about that…)
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As it was his first time at my place, I was keen to get Jeff’s impressions. He noted that he’s seen the whole layout on this blog so it was pretty much as he expected, but it was still nice to see everything in person – and to hear the ambient audio. The bird calls seem just right for setting the season and place, and quickly fade into the background as the train starts to roll.
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After our session, we retired to Harbord House for club sandwiches and pints of Conductor’s Craft. Jeff and I discussed many things, but the subject that sticks most with me this morning is the role that prototype modellers play as railway historians.

It’s not just what we do with the material we find – but the fact that we go looking for it and then organize and share what we find with others. I think of the information that’s in the heads of the people I know in this hobby – and how easily it can disappear. I know this first-hand, as I’ve witnessed great researchers – friends – who have passed on and I appreciate how much of their knowledge has been lost to us.

Unfortunately, many non-rail historical societies are not that interested in aspects of history that extend beyond genealogy. The good news is that the Internet has given us an excellent distribution channel – one that Jeff is putting to great use with his website.

For my part, I need to do more to share the information I have that’s publicly available, but perhaps hard to find. Jeff has given me some great information over the past couple of years – much of it from public sources like Library and Archives Canada.

A mountain of info is available – it just needs someone (or to be more accurate, “many, many someones”) to dig through it, catalogue it and share it. If we can figure out ways to co-ordinate our research so that we don’t spend as much time reinventing the wheel, so much the better.

To that end, Jeff gave me copies of a few documents from the archives about my branch. I’ll share that information via this blog once I figure out how best to do that.

A great discussion and a great visit, Jeff – I look forward to the next time we get together!

The hobbyist who came in from the cold

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(Heading home after a busy day on the branch, with Jeff Young at the throttle)

On Tuesday, my friend Jeff Young came over for an evening of fun and trains.

Jeff is a live steam enthusiast, with a lovely garden railway. He’s well-known in the water boiling community, thanks in part to the column on live steam that he writes for Garden Railways magazine. He runs his garden railway in all sorts of weather – fair and foul:

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Jeff has been working in the garden since well before I met him. But at one time, way back when, he worked in the “indoor scales”. Jeff admitted that it’s been ages since he’s participated in an operating session: It’s not unheard of for live steam enthusiasts to hold such sessions, complete with car forwarding and dispatching systems. But it’s rare. That said, one time when visiting for a non-rail activity Jeff mentioned he’d like to have a go on the Port Rowan branch, so I invited him over.

We had a great time, and Jeff needn’t have worried about his operating chops. Apparently, operating a model railway is like riding a bike – once you master it, the skills are with you for a lifetime. Jeff took on the role of engineer and by the time we had checked the bill box at St. Williams and were ready to switch the team track spur, he was whistling and bell-ringing like a veteran.

Jeff was really impressed with the TouchCab app that converts an iPhone or iPod Touch into a Lenz DCC throttle. (Follow this link to read all of my posts on TouchCab.)

(Recently, I’ve been using TouchCab more and it’s getting a lot of positive reviews from visitors. Not surprisingly, those who use Apple products elsewhere in their lives love it. But also, those who do not have a DCC system of their own tell me that they find the interface a lot more intuitive than a standard DCC throttle.)

Since I’m still testing the Sergent Engineering S scale couplers on my layout, I’d set up a freight extra with a fair bit of work to do. If the real branch had hosted as much traffic as we switched on Tuesday, it might still be in business today! As it was, we ended up with one car we couldn’t position into its final spot in Port Rowan – so we left it on the run-around:
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That’s the only run-around in town, so the gondola will add an interesting complication to the next operating session. (And no, we could not leave it on the head of the team track: There’s a sign just beyond the last boxcar in the above photo that prohibits this and we do play by the rules.)

Curiously, when pulling a tank car and placing a hopper car on the elevated spur in Port Rowan, engine 80 slipped its drivers and stalled on the incline. It’s never done that. I’ll have to investigate. Things to look at include:

1 – The drivers (slippery?)
2 – The track (slippery?)
3 – The pony truck and tender trucks (sticking wheel sets?)
4 – Other cars that were in the train (sticking wheel sets?)

The Sergent couplers continue to improve. We had a sticky coupler on my Milwaukee Road rib-side boxcar, which gave us some grief. I’ve made a note of it, although the problem may work itself out as the car gets switched more frequently. Other than that, uncoupling was faultless and the few missed couplings could be attributed to brakeman (Read: Me) error.

I’m now confident enough of the operating reliability of the Sergents that I will place a bulk order to do the rest of the fleet when they return to the market – hopefully later this summer. (Follow this link to read all of my posts on the Sergent couplers.)

And the couplers sure do look great. They’re a nice complement to small rail and small wheel flanges:
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All in all, a great evening running trains – and I’m pleased with how well the layout performed. Come back anytime, Jeff!

Before our operating session, I introduced Jeff to the wonders of Harbord House. Knowing that we share a love for beer, I’m surprised that in all the years I’ve known him I haven’t taken Jeff there before.

Jeff and I had a great discussion about the live steam hobby – something that also stokes my coals, although my participation at steam-ups has plunged since starting this layout.

That said, I have some ideas to inject some enthusiasm into that aspect of my hobby and I discussed these with Jeff. Plans are afoot…

Couplers and throttles :: A visit from Hunter

Last week, my friend Hunter Hughson dropped in for an operating session – another opportunity for me to put the Sergent couplers and TouchCab throttle app to the test.

The couplers are not yet operating at 99% reliability – but they are improving, so I’m pleased. And yes, I do expect them to work almost perfectly – at least as well as Kadees – because anything less will make running the layout less fun. I’m confident I’ll get there with the couplers. It’ll just require running trains to get them working smoothly, and train myself to line them up for coupling.

The pleasant surprise, though, was just how much Hunter liked the TouchCab throttle. It’s not for everybody – I really like some features (an iPod Touch is small and light, there’s no cord to tangle, and the function buttons can be overlaid with icons for bell, whistle and so on – which is really handy for guest operators) but I also like the standard Lenz keypad throttle because I can navigate around it by feel. That said, I’ll be using the TouchCab a lot more often, and I have a couple of suggestions I’ll share with the developer to see if we can improve it.

Meantime, Hunter has written his own impressions of last week’s operating session. To read more, click on his photo to visit his blog:
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After our operating session, my wife joined us for dinner at Torito, a terrific local Spanish restaurant. Torito specializes in tapas – small plates meant for sharing. My favourite is the padrón peppers, oiled and done on a skillet and sprinkled with sea salt. This is not Torito’s recipe, but it must be pretty darned close:

The best way to enjoy Padron Peppers

They wash down really nicely with glasses of mojitos…

Two days of trains and food

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It’s been a fun couple of days, running trains and enjoying meals with friends.

On Wednesday morning, Chris Abbott dropped in on his way to work. We set up his iPhone to interface with my layout via the TouchCab wireless throttle app. (On a technical note, I’ve now set up the TouchCab category on this blog, so those interested in this system can find all relevant entries in one place.)

While running a train via TouchCab, Chris also did some testing with The Galvanick Lucipher to get some first hand experience coupling and uncoupling the new Sergent couplers.

Overall, things went well. I had one or two couplers that gave me trouble but I suspect I can address the problem by adding some Neo-Lube to the pivot points for the knuckles, as shown here:
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Afterwards, we retired to Harbord House for lunch and discussed several things, including a weekend visit by Chris to the TrainMastersTV studio in Belleville and the wiring scheme for my S Scale Workshop modules. Chris will be helping me with the wiring portion and he’s come up with some innovative ideas that I’m sure TrainMasters TV subscribers will love.

Last night, Mark Zagrodney joined me for an ops session in which we did further tests. We had slight hiccups with both the TouchCab and with the couplers:

The TouchCab issue involved some lag-time between transmitting a command (e.g.: “Turn on the bell”) and having the system execute it (e.g.: “Ding-ding! Ding-ding!”). Later, we lost all input from the throttle. I think – but will have to confirm – that the problem was caused by having a regular Lenz throttle plugged into the system and assigned to the same locomotive we were trying to run with the TouchCab. For future tests, I will make sure the Lenz throttles are set to a different address.

The coupler problem may have been caused by two factors. First, I’ve converted a lot more equipment to Sergent couplers. This week, I added Sergents to a 2-6-0 and six more freight cars – several of which were involved in last night’s session. It could be that I need to work these new couplers more and (as noted) add some Neo-Lube to the pivot points. Second, to set up for this session I pulled all Kadee-equipped cars out of St. Williams and Port Rowan, and swapped in Sergent-equipped cars. I’ve found that cars that are set in place – instead of switched into place – don’t have the coupler shanks lined up for proper coupling. Once they’ve been coupled to and uncoupled, they are properly aligned.

Still, it was a most enjoyable evening.

Prior to our operating session, I met up with Mark at the downtown location of Lee Valley Tools. Then we popped next door for dinner on the rooftop at The Spoke Club. Beer and red meat were followed by elaborate desserts:

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(Phyllo baked chocolate banana bread with strawberry coulis and sorbet)

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(Lemon mousse delight with chocolate cardamom ice cream, vanilla tuile and macerated raspberries)

Back when I was working in On2, Mark, Chris and I used to get together once a month to either work on my layout or run trains. But then work and life got in the way. However, the planets may once again be coming into alignment so we can revive our tradition. I hope so – we have a lot of fun together.

Thanks for dropping in this week, guys – I’m looking forward to more!

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