Keeping the Minions under control

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One of the things I’m pleased about is that – despite the plaster dust and disorder kicked up by an extensive home renovation – the layout is running well. That’s not by accident, of course…

Layouts, like Gru, come with thousands of Minions. They’re all the little things that can go wrong, and keeping them on a short leash is one of the biggest tasks for a layout owner. It’s also one of the most important.

I was reminded of this earlier in the summer while re-watching the “End of the Line” segment on TrainMasters TV, in which three layout owners tear out large portions (or all) of their creations.

Two of the lessons I took from that segment were:

– How important it is to stay on top of the many little maintenance tasks any layout requires, and

– To be vigilant against the phenomenon of “Creeping Normality”.

Of course, there are many positive reasons to tear out some (or all) of a layout, as the “End of the Line” segment also makes clear. But if left unchecked, Minions will take over one’s layout – at which point a dumpster (and a good pesticide*) may be the only option.

As I prepared to show off the layout to visitors earlier this week, I gave the track and equipment a quick dusting with a soft brush. I also tested all track switches and loosened up the mechanical turnout controls by operating each of them back and forth about a half-dozen times. And I test-ran the locomotives that would be in service during the session.

It took perhaps 10 minutes to do this, but it made all the difference. If there were Minions about, I was able to keep them under control, and prevent them from creating havoc…

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(*No Minions were harmed in the writing of this post)

Coffee, couplers and cord-cutting

My friend and neighbour David Woodhead was interested in a couple of things I’ve written about recently on this blog and elsewhere, and he wanted to experience them first-hand. So yesterday I put on a big pot of coffee and he dropped in for a visit.

First, David wanted to know more about TouchCab – an app that interfaces with the Lenz DCC system to let one use an iPhone or iPod Touch as a wireless throttle. I’ve written about this before on this blog, but David – who also uses Lenz DCC – hadn’t had a chance to try out the system.

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(An iPhone makes an awesome throttle)

I was really pleased David’s interested in this, as I tend to not use the system as much as I thought I would when I first installed it. There’s nothing wrong with the system – but I also have Lenz wired throttles and they’ve always done a fine job for me so I tend to reach for those first.

So, David’s visit was a great opportunity to get reacquainted with TouchCab. And I’m going to have to use it more often. I was pleasantly surprised at how intuitive the interface is and I was able to use it with confidence in almost no time, and with no need to refer to manuals. I will need to keep this in mind for future operating sessions. It’ll be nice to cut the cord.

The second thing David wanted to know more about was my experiments with Sergent couplers. We ran a train (the one seen in the above photo), and switched a fair number of cars in Port Rowan. The work included swapping two cars on the elevated coal track, which is the least accessible track on the layout.

The Sergent couplers worked fine. We had a few issues that were related to human error – namely, not checking that knuckles were open before trying to couple up. Those will resolve themselves as I become more comfortable with the couplers.

We were both impressed by how little slack there is in these couplers:
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A train of a half dozen cars has about as much slack as two cars with Kadees – and that’s after modifying the Kadee couplers to remove slack action in the draft gear.

Finally, I took advantage of having a second set of eyes around to investigate why one of my passenger cars was derailing near the west siding switch at St. Williams. David and I determined that it was a tight gauge problem near the headlocks, which was forcing the troublesome bogie to ride up and over the rail.

After David left, I grabbed the track-working tools and made some adjustments. I appear to have solved the problem – further tests will tell.

Thanks for dropping in, David – it was great to see you as always, and the layout is better for it too!

“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!)

Back to Zero Derailments

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As mentioned previously, after a couple of weeks of tuning track I finally flipped over CNR 80 earlier this week, to give it an inspection. And I discovered a fair build-up of dirt on the wheels.

I scraped away the gunk, and have now run the locomotive through all of the former trouble spots about a dozen times in each direction. And it’s performing without any problems. I’m back on track towards my goal of Zero Derailments.

Now, it’s true that I found some issues with the track – so my work on that was not in vain. But in focussing on the track I forgot a cardinal rule about railways:

Wheels and rails are a system – they work, because they work together.

I should make this into a nice sign and stick it near the sector plate, where all equipment begins and ends an operating session. And next time I experience derailments (and I’m sure there will be a next time, because layouts are not static things), I will check both sides of the relationship – just to be sure, and to maybe save me a bit of grief.

A visit from Robert Thompson

I had a great evening last night with Robert Thompson, a modeller from British Columbia who was in town for work and was able to free up some time for an evening get-together. It was Bob’s first visit to my S scale layout but while he’s currently working in HO he’s worked in Sn3 in the past so he’s familiar with the scale.

I gave him the quick overview of the layout and we discussed some of the projects I’m working on, then we ran an operating session with a freight extra.

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I was disappointed with the performance of CNR 80 – my go-to mogul for running a freight extra. I’ve written recently about some derailments I’ve been trying to correct, and thought I’d fixed the problem – but if anything, the derailments were worse than ever. We limped through the session and Bob was quite gracious about the whole boondoggle. (Thanks, Bob!)

At the end of the run, I hauled out another mogul and we tried it through the same troublesome spots. It performed perfectly. Having suspected the track for the past few weeks, I’m now convinced the problem lies with the locomotive.

It was too late, and I was too tired, to investigate CNR 80 at the time, but I made a mental note to jump on it this morning and give its pony truck some attention. Almost as soon as I turned it over on the bench this morning, I found what I suspect has been the culprit all this time. In a word, it’s “dirt”. The wheel treads had a fair bit of gunk on them – so much so that it was forming a fillet between tread and flange. This of course changes the shape of the tire, which throws off the whole wheel/rail relationship. I’m surprised it stayed on the track at all!

Fortunately, it was quick and easy to fix: I grabbed my handy graver and carefully scraped the gunk off the wheels. Only the two wheels on the pony truck were dirty, and the whole process took less than a minute. I ran the locomotive through the problem areas a half-dozen times this afternoon without any trouble.

I’m hesitant to say it, but I think I’ve finally fixed the problem.

Bob – great to see you and I hope you had fun. Apologies for the fussy locomotive – I really should’ve switched it out after the first sign of trouble. Come for another visit next time you’re in town: We’ll try another operating session, and dinner’s on me!

Yes – Bob arrived at dinner time, so we went straight to Harbord House for food and drink. Bob had been to my house a few years ago – back when I was working in On2 – so it was a great way to catch up. And the braised pork belly with mashed potatoes and purple cabbage was delicious, especially when washed down with a pint of Conductor’s Craft…

MoW: Pony truck derails at St Williams team track switch

Today felt like a good day to tackle the maintenance and repair list I drafted after last weekend’s visit by Hunter Hughson.

I started with the intermittent derailment by the moguls as they pulled out of the team track in St. Williams:
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Sometimes – but only sometimes – the two-wheel pilot truck would go onto the ties as a mogul left the switch. This was a puzzler in part because the derailment was not consistent. I slowly pushed a mogul through the whole turnout and determined that when the derailment occurred, it occurred right as the pony truck left the points, as shown here:
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Further investigation revealed that the locomotive could waddle slightly as it traversed the turnout, and the derailment only happened when the locomotive was rotated as in “C” in the diagram below. Hitting the problem spot while straight – as in “A” – or waddling the other direction – as in “B” – caused no problems:
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That led me to look closely at the diverging stock rail. I determined that the rail need to have a smoother transition between the normal track to the right of the turnout, and the notched portion that accommodates the points when the switch is set for the normal (straight) route. If the pony truck of a mogul hit this area while the mogul was oriented as in diagram “C” (above), the flange on the wheel would catch on the stock rail, ride up and over it, and voila – a derailment.

The solution called for two tools – a graver made for me by my friend Chris Abbott, and a small file:
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I used the graver to carve away a bit of the inside of the head of the stock rail to make a smoother transition – one that wouldn’t catch the flange on the pony truck. I then cleaned up the transition with a file. The photo below shows the area that needed work:
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It’s amazing how tiny a spot can cause such trouble – and it took longer to diagnose than it did to fix. But I’ve run a mogul through this switch several times since making this small adjustment and I seem to have fixed the problem. Fingers crossed!

Since I want to keep better track of issues like this, I’ve created a new category for the blog called “maintenance and repair”. It’s located in the drop-down Categories menu to the right on the main page. I’ll use it to collect future notes about fixes. It should prove useful.