Telegraph article in June 2016 RMC

St. Williams - Trackside View
(The station at St. Williams includes a sign for the CNR’s telegraph service)

The June 2016 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine includes “Dots and Dashes”, a feature I wrote about the working telegraph network I’ve installed on my layout. Railway telegraph systems are rarely modelled, but were in use throughout the steam era. They were long-lived on lightly-trafficked lines such as my one-train-per-day operation to Port Rowan.

This article details how I set up the network, where I found the telegraphy equipment, and how I have created “cheat sheets” for operators to use when OS-ing their trains. It should provide any reader with enough information to set up such a system on their own layout.

I’ve seen a proof of this four-page article, and I’m really pleased with how the team at RMC has presented the work. (Thanks, guys!) If you get a chance to read the feature, I hope you’ll agree…

Click on the cover, below, to visit the RMC website:

RMC Cover - June 2016 - Telegraph feature

Railroad Morse

My thoughts are evolving about how to use the telegraph network I recently installed on the layout.

I originally planned to use International Morse for my layout. One of the advantages of International Morse is that the alphabet was rationalized so it’s easier to learn than Railroad (American) Morse. (More on this below.)

On the other hand, I’ve realized that it’s unlikely I – or my guests – will actually learn to pound brass like Morse enthusiasts.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I am creating telegraphy scripts to help operators OS trains during ops sessions. This is akin to creating a phonetic cheat-sheet to help someone properly pronounce a word or phrase, even if they don’t know what it means. If that’s the case, I might as well give Railroad Morse a go, right?

I’ve now created scripts in Railroad (American) Morse for us to try:
 photo Telegraph-Scripts-D2_zps1f5924d3.jpg

In reviewing these scripts, one challenge which I have not yet addressed is that Railroad Morse actually has more than two sounds in it:

– In addition to the dot and the dash, there are spaces (no sound) used within characters. For example, the letter “O” in Railroad Morse is “dot-space-dot”.

– As well, some dashes are longer than others. For example, the letter “L” in Railroad Morse is written as two dashes – but keyed as one long dash. And the number “0” in Railroad Morse – three dashes as written – is keyed as a dash that’s even longer than an “L”.

Given that we will be novices with the keys, it’ll be stretching our talents just to key a dot versus a dash – never mind developing perfect timing. For this reason, I’ve kept the International Morse scripts too – adding a label in mice-type to each sheet so I can tell which set we’re using. If Railroad Morse proves to be too challenging for occasional users, we’ll go back to International Morse.

I’ve also made a first attempt at creating a script sheet for the dispatcher:
 photo Telegraph-DispatcherScript_zps3b833d36.jpg

This looks complex, but the reality is that the dispatcher on my layout has but three responses to transmit. What’s more, with the exception of which station he’s answering (Port Rowan or St. Williams), the responses are always the same. The operator could key “Arrived” successfully, or it could come across the telegraph as “I’ve just set my elbows on fire”: Regardless, the dispatcher will give him an “OK”.

That said, I’m still working on my ideas about how to organize the scripts to make it easier for operators and the dispatcher to use because I do want my friends and I to be able to communicate successfully via the telegraph network. If we can’t, then we might as well be pressing a button on the fascia to send a pre-recorded string of dots and dashes – and there’s no fun in that.

Naturally as the system develops, I’ll share the progress via the blog. Stay tuned…

Telegraphy scripts

Telegraphy scripts photo Telegraph-Script_zpsaf741ca1.jpg

My friend Chris Abbott dropped in for lunch this week, so I had a chance to give him a quick tour of the layout. It’s been a couple of months since we got together so I had a lot to show him.

Before Chris arrived, I had time to create and print some test scripts for using my recently-installed telegraph network. These are crib notes to help an operator (or a layout owner!) use the telegraph key to transmit something legible, and understand any replies.

I’ve mentioned the article by Andrew Dodge on his telegraph system a few times now. It was in the June 2001 issue of Model Railroader magazine and I based my scripts on the ones he crafted for his layout. I modified the system to work better for my own layout. For example, Andrew used his telegraph system for a simplified form of dispatching, appropriate to his 19th century narrow gauge layout. My 1950s-era CNR branch line layout operates under very different circumstances – for example, it’s entirely within Yard Limit territory and there’s only ever one scheduled train on the line at a time: The M233/M238 mixed train. The time table and rulebook provide all the information necessary for the mixed to do its work, and for any other trains – operated as extras – to stay out of its way.

Therefore, the scripts provide the notes for a conversation in code so that operators can report their arrivals and departures as necessary.

– Port Rowan is a register station, so all trains will have to report there.

– Whether to report at St. Williams depends on the circumstances. (For example, regular reader Monte Reeves – a great source of information about St. Williams – has pointed out that the St. Williams station agent used to alert the appropriate dispatcher when M238 rolled through, headed for Simcoe and the Cayuga Sub.)

We’ll work out the details as we incorporate the telegraph system into the rest of the operating scheme. But to give you an idea of what a telegraph exchange might sound like, I’ve put together a short video showing how the script is used to report the arrival of (to “OS”) Extra 80 West at St. Williams:


(You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to view it in different sizes. I’ve also noted that on occasion, the video goes blurry, which makes it hard to read the captioning. This is a problem at the YouTube end – my local copy looks fine. I’ve found that pausing the video and letting it buffer more fixes the problem.)

In the video, I’ve used an uncoupling tool to indicate the line on the script that the operator or dispatcher is transmitting. Obviously, that’s not necessary when actually using the system, which means actual use of the telegraph is even quicker than what’s shown on the video.

I’m looking forward to trying out this system with visiting operators.

After the tour, Chris and I retired to Harbord House for lunch. It has, indeed, been a while – and we indulged. Crab cakes, a bacon-cheese-ale dip with bread, chicken curry, a pulled pork sandwich and sticky toffee pudding – all washed down with pints of Stationmaster’s Stout from Junction Craft Brewing.

Chris – great to see you, as always. Looking forward to the next one!

“Dash-Dash-Dash Dot-Dot-Dot”

Yes, that’s a telegraph key on the operator’s desk at St. Williams…
Telegraph at St. Williams photo TelegraphNetwork-01_zps6b9fe836.jpg

Anybody who has run into Morse Code probably knows the signal for SOS, and therefore would deduce that the dashes and dots in the title of this post are the signal for “OS” – which is the railway dispatching term for logging a train as it passes a station. This information – communicated by an operator to the dispatcher – is essential for confirming the location of all trains on a line, so that trains may meet and pass each other in a timely yet safe manner.

The 17-mile Port Rowan branch was entirely within Yard Limits and therefore governed by those rules. To over-simplify the rules, this means that trains could move on the branch without special authority from the dispatcher.

Still, both stations that I’m modelling had working telegraphs and my copy of Time Table No. 3 from 1953 notes that the St. Williams call signal was “S T”, while Port Rowan was “P R”. (The dispatcher who controlled the Simcoe Sub was in Hamilton, with the call sign “N I”.)

In the comments section of my recent post on adding the telegraph wire to my pole line, a couple of interesting points were made:

First, regular contributor Steve Lucas noted that trains were required to register at Port Rowan, and that information would’ve been passed to the dispatcher.

Second, regular contributor Monte Reeves recalled that Dickie Thompson would OS the eastbound train at St. Williams – presumably to give the dispatcher a head start on figuring out where to slot CNR Mixed Train M238 into the parade of Wabash Red Ball fast freight traffic on the Cayuga Sub between Simcoe and Jarvis. (The Cayuga Sub was under the authority of the dispatcher in St. Thomas – call sign “D I”.)

Hmm. The wheels start to turn…

Back in 2007 I had the opportunity to operate on a now-dismantled On3 layout built by Andrew Dodge, which used a working telegraph system for train control. Andrew wrote about this in the June, 2001 issue of Model Railroader magazine, which is still available from the publisher. (I have a copy of the article as part of the complete MR archives on DVD.)

Andrew used a simplified system to OS trains, with shorter, two-digit codes for most communications. Cheat sheets provided guidance to operators. And he used International Morse and tones, not American (Railroad) Morse and clicks, because the International Morse alphabet is considered easier to learn and with tones, the timing of one’s keying is less of an issue than with clicks.

I exchanged emails with Andrew about his experience with his system. He offered some good advice about keeping it simple, and says many of his operators became comfortable enough with the system that after three or four sessions they no longer needed the cheat sheets. He’s also going to use telegraph again, to dispatch on his currently under-construction Proto:48 layout. (Thanks for your time, Andrew!)

Fond memories of that 2007 ops session convinced me: I’d add a working telegraph system to my layout.

Last week, I took delivery of a parcel from Marshall Emm at Morse Express. The box included three Speed X keys from NyeViking plus a Code Practice Oscillator kit (OCM-2) from AMECO. (Great, great service and after sales support – thanks Marshall!)

I built the Oscillator over the weekend, making some modifications to the kit to add external connections for power, multiple keys, and multiple speakers. It now sits on a very temporary shelf at the end of the aisle that runs behind the Port Rowan backdrop to provide access to our furnace:
Telegraph at Temporary Dispatcher's Desk photo TelegraphNetwork-03_zps7f7284d0.jpg

I made the modifications to the OCM-2 so I can quickly unplug the dispatcher’s key and the oscillator, for times when I want to practice keying elsewhere in the house. Each connection is unique, so they can’t be interchanged. And I made sure to use a plug-socket set for the power that could only be connected one way, since polarity is important for keeping the factory smoke inside the OCM-2!

Now that I know the system works, I can build a proper shelf and install the speaker permanently.

I checked with Marshall, and he did not anticipate any problems with driving multiple speakers with the OCM-2, so I did some tests with three 8 Ohm speakers, wired in series and then in parallel. I liked the sound of the speakers in series better, so that’s how I wired them on the layout. The keys are wired in parallel, so any key can activate the OCM-2, which then transmits tones to all three speakers installed on the layout.

At St. Williams and Port Rowan, I added a speaker to the bottom of the fascia, pointing down and positioned directly in line with the telegraph key. The key is screwed to the desk next to the fast clock, and I’ll add a label with the station call sign at some point in the future. I left space for this on each desk when installing the keys.

Instead of using the binding posts I wired the station keys under their bases, so the wires are completely hidden. These pass through a hole in the desk and are fastened to the underside of the shelf in a manner similar to that used to wire the fast clocks. The image below – the underside of the layout and slide-out desk at St. Williams – shows the relationship between various bits:
Under the St. Williams Desk photo TelegraphNetwork-02_zpscc87ad79.jpg

Note that I’ve bundled the fast clock wires and telegraph key wires into a cable, with enough slack that the desk can slide in and out freely.

Next up: I need to make up some cheat sheets for operators and the dispatcher so we can put the system through some tests during operating sessions. Andrew’s article in MR has some good ideas about how to do this. My implementation should be fairly straightforward, since there will be rarely be a call for issuing train orders: For the most part, operators will simply OS their trains as appropriate.

But that’s for a future post. For now, as Morse Code enthusiasts would say, “73”!

Before texting, there was…

… Morse Code!

There’s a segment from The Tonight Show that’s made the rounds online, featuring a showdown between text messaging and Morse Code. If you haven’t seen the video, Google is your friend…

Morse vs Text on The Tonight Show

Of course, Morse Code was also used to control train movements, and on less trafficked lines it lasted well beyond the introduction of telephones and radio dispatching.

But it’s rarely used on model railways. The notable exception – notable because I can think of it – is the lovely On3 Denver, South Park and Pacific layout built by Andrew Dodge. Andrew lives in the Washington DC area and I had a chance to operate on his beautiful layout a few years ago. He uses a simplified version of Morse and provided lots of cheat sheets, and even those new to the system (like me) picked it up fairly quickly. I expect one’s “fist” would improve with practice. Ever since operating on Andrew’s layout, I’ve wanted to incorporate the use of telegraphy into my own operating sessions.

(Andrew has since decided to switch to Proto:48 – standard gauge – to build a finescale layout based on the Colorado Midland, so this On3 layout must go into the “fallen flag” category. I expect – actually, I hope – the new layout will also use Morse as part of the dispatching scheme.)

I was going to do this on my Maine two-foot layout but that railroad is now gone. Can I do it on Port Rowan? I’m not sure I even need to – the traffic was really light. But that may also make it an ideal place to play with building a working telegraphy system.

Regardless, learning a new skill like telegraphy is always a fun challenge, and having an easy way to practice would help me decide whether I’d like to actually explore this further. So when I visited George’s Trains this week and found a vintage practice set in the display cabinet, I snapped it up:

Telegraph practice set.

From left to right, the board holds a sounder (by JH Bunnell and Co), a box with a 9v battery to power everything, and a key (marked simply “Speed-X”).

Nothing fancy, but it works!

..-. — .-. ..-. ..- -. -.– — ..- -.-. .- -. – .-. .- -. … .-.. .- – . — . … … .- –. . … .. -. – — .. -. – . .-. -. .- – .. — -. .- .-.. — — .-. … . -.-. — -.. . …. . .-. .