An ops session with Mark and Emily

Mark and Emily Visit photo Mark-Emily-Ops_zps05e5f8e3.jpg

Last night my friend Mark Zagrodney and his teenaged daughter Emily came over for dinner and an operating session. I met Mark many years ago through the Layout Design SIG and he’s one of the most well-informed people I’ve ever met when it comes to operations, so it’s always a treat to have him over to run a train.

Mark headed for the van as conductor, while Emily took on the role of engineer. I perched out of the way and played host, tour guide and historian, with only the occasional need to step in and solve a problem: We had one derailment (a caboose that gave me trouble before, so it’s going to come off the layout for a closer inspection) and one spot where the rails needed a quick touch from my graphite stick. The layout is working better now that we’re out of the stupidly hot and humid weather we had earlier this month.

I’ve had many friends come for a visit to run trains, but this is the first time I’ve had a father-daughter team and it was really interesting to watch two people who know each other so well work together. They were like old hands on a job on a real railroad – one that they’ve done for years together. Granted, the layout is still relatively new to Mark – and it was Emily’s first visit – but they weren’t also trying to learn how to work with their fellow crew, so they could focus on the task at hand.

I know Mark will come back – and I hope Emily does too. She’s an excellent operator. She watched her speed and she made sure she knew where she was going before she started moving the locomotive, so she committed no operator errors. That’s something very few experienced layout operators can say about a session on an unfamiliar layout. (Well done, Emily!) Those of us who think we know everything about running model trains should take the time to teach an interested teenager. Chances are, we’ll learn as much as our student.

The newly-installed fast clock system worked well – I set the session’s start time for 11:00, and the session wrapped up at 15:28, so there was a real sense (for me, at least) that time had passed. And as Mark noted in the comments on my slide-out work desks, having a place to organize his thoughts about the work at hand helped him achieve “a relaxed and deliberate state of mind”. I’ve noticed that too, already, in my own solo sessions, so I’m really glad I built them.

I’m looking forward to the next visit from Mark and Emily!

For dinner, we enjoyed delicious burgers with potato salad and coleslaw. I can call them “delicious” without sounding like I’m praising my own cooking because I didn’t have time to make burgers from scratch – and in any case, the patties from Rowe Farms are very hard to beat. My wife and I did make the salads, based on a couple of favourites we’ve picked up from Cook’s Illustrated. A bottle of vino verde was a delightfully refreshing pairing for a summer evening.

While we often go out for dinner these days, I used to cook a lot more when hosting work nights or operating sessions and I need to get back to doing that. For one thing, dinner was timed perfectly – Mark and Emily had just pulled Extra 80 West into Port Rowan, checked for waybills, and written up their switch list, when we all decided we were hungry. The time on the fast clock was about 13:00 if I recall correctly, and I know from reading about the prototype line that the crews would take a break in Port Rowan for lunch – and even a nap, if time permitted. Talk about a relaxed way to run a railway – and a stress-free way to operate a layout!

My fast clock system

I’ve had a couple of questions about the fast clocks I’m using. The clocks are a system from GML Enterprises:
Fast Clock (GML CLK-4B/W) photo FastClock_zpsb0a8b996.jpg
(Click on the clock to visit the GML website)

I bought these about a decade ago for my On2 layout and I’m pleased that they’re still available. (In fact, my friend Pierre Oliver recently added a GML system to his HO scale Wabash layout.)

System components are purchased a la carte. Each system requires one Fast Clock Controller (FC-6), which I’ve mounted at the entrance to the sector plate staging area:
Fast Clock (GML FC-6 Controller) photo FastClock-Controller_zpsc1e4b254.jpg
(The plug and sockets to the right allow me to assign power to each staging track individually, and have nothing to do with the fast clock system.)

The controller can synchronize up to 10 fast clocks – from panel-mount clocks like the ones I ordered, up to a wall-mount register clock with pendulum. I like the panel clocks – item CLK-4B/W. They’re highly visible, and can be mounted just about anywhere – including, as I’ve shown, on a slide-out work desk:
Desk-St Williams (Open) photo Desk-StW-Open_zpsc972a5a0.jpg
(Click on the slide-out work desk to read more about it)

Fast clock system buyers may specify six speed ratios for their clock controller – from 1:1 up to 20:1. I opted for 2:1, 4:1, 6:1, 8:1, 10:1 and 12:1 (although if I was ordering a system today I’d probably scrap the 10:1 and add 3:1 instead).

I am testing the 4:1 ratio for layout operations, so a minute of layout time passes every 15 seconds of real time. So far, it’s proven to be the right one – requiring 4 to 5 hours of scale time to run a session. The 12:1 ratio is very handy for confirming that the clock system is working correctly, and for fast forwarding the clocks to a set time if you’re only running a partial day. On my layout, I’ll reset the clock as appropriate when I’m distributing waybills and LCL freight receipts as part of my pre-operations set-up.

I am very, very pleased with GML’s fast clock system. I tested it extensively on my previous layout and it’s been very reliable. The system is also easy to wire: I ran two wires from a 9-volt “wall wart” transformer to the controller, and then daisy-chained my two clocks with another pair of wires. I used 22 gauge, two-conductor, heavily-insulated speaker wire for all connections.

My recollection is that service from GML was excellent as well. (Thanks, GML!)

Even though my current layout is based on a one-train-per-day branch line, the clocks add an important element to operations: Time. Railways are governed by time. A clock is an integral part of modelling them realistically. The clocks will be particularly important for correct operation of the mixed train. I will use them not only to govern movements according to the time table, but also to determine the length of station stop required based on the amount of LCL to be unloaded. Plus, it’s really nice to run a session and realize four scale hours have passed: It contributes, greatly, to the feeling that real work has been accomplished!

While I now have a fast clock system in place, I’m also looking forward to the fast-time pocket watches announced earlier this year by True Line Trains. Click on Speedy, below, for details, and I will post more information on this blog as it becomes available…
Speedy... photo Speedy_zps6fee2629.jpg

A place to work

Every layout designed for realistic operating sessions needs to provide conductors with a place to work. On Plywood Pacifics, this is often the layout surface, but that’s a really bad idea once scenery is in place.

I realized that there’s a lot of material to juggle during a session – including prototype waybills, switch lists and LCL receipts… not to mention, an uncoupling tool and a throttle. I found that I was putting things on a stool that’s tucked under the layout when working St. Williams, and using the top of a chest freezer as a desk when working in Port Rowan. Surely, I thought, I can do better: A nice, solid surface that one can use to spread out papers and organize one’s work.

But, I also wanted to keep such surfaces out of the aisles when not in use. So yesterday, I built a pair of slide-away work desks – inspired by the slide-away keyboard shelves found at many computer workstations. Here’s the desk for St. Williams, in the closed and open positions.

Now you see it…
 photo Desk-StW-Open_zpsc972a5a0.jpg

… and now you don’t:
 photo Desk-StW-Closed_zpsa3861f34.jpg

I recently removed a 16″ x 57″ solid wood shelf from elsewhere in the house and it became my donor for the two desks, so each desk is 16″ by 28.5″ (minus a saw kerf). I mounted each shelf on a pair of 20″ under-mount slides I picked up at my local Lee Valley Tools (item 02K33.20):
 photo Desk-Slider_zps5de24990.jpg
(A Lee Valley slide mounted under St. Williams)

I like these because they come in different lengths, they’re modestly priced, and they have stops to hold the shelf in the closed position so it’s not going to roll out by itself when not in use. This is particularly important at Port Rowan, which is in a narrower aisle. Not everybody will be able to use the full depth of the desk – it depends on each operator’s, um, “diameter”.
Desk-Port Rowan (Open) photo Desk-PtR-Open_zpse49c7a8f.jpg

I decided that since each desk is located at a station, it would be an appropriate and convenient place to mount a fast clock, so I next marked out and cut a hole in each shelf to fit a fast clock from GML Enterprises:
Desk-St Williams (Clock) photo Desk-StW-Clock_zps950f9b90.jpg

The two-wire cable that controls each clock is attached to the underside of the shelf. It runs straight to the back of the shelf, where I’ve incorporated a loop of slack so the shelf can slide freely:
Fast Clock - Wiring photo Desk-ClockWiring_zps40f695d7.jpg
(Clock wiring – shelf in extended position)

I still need to get a pair of desk blotters to give conductors an appropriate surface for writing. But it’s already easier to organize the work, which will make operating sessions that much more enjoyable…

Time to tackle St. Williams

While working out how to handle the LCL traffic at St. Williams, it occurred to me that it’s probably time to focus more on this area of the layout.
M233 at St. Williams depot photo M233-StW-Depot_zps73d83bf1.jpg

M233 at St. Williams west photo M233-StW-West_zps28961473.jpg

I’ve done an overall first pass of scenery on the layout, but the Port Rowan area has received a lot more attention in this regard, with the addition of second-wave elements such as weeds and bushes. Port Rowan has also benefitted from the addition of a few finished structures such as the coal dump, the section house, and the team track barn.

St. Williams has crops, but no fences. There are no trees, no weeds, and no bushes. The team track area has one finished structure – the grain storage building I’ve relocated from Cheltenham – but the station area is still 100% mocked up.

And I’m in the mood to tackle the very modest St. Williams station. (Much more modest than the original, Grand Trunk-era station, which was similar to the one I have to build for Port Rowan.)

Interestingly, this web site says the station still exists as a storage shed somewhere…

No promises on when I’ll get this done. But stay tuned.

Clearing Charlotteville Street

Here’s an operations conundrum:

The picture below shows The Daily Effort heading westbound towards Port Rowan as it makes its station stop at St. Williams:
StW-Station Stop-Passenger/Express photo LCL-StW-Q-01_zpsf70a4d66.jpg

The train has just arrived. The combine is stopped just clear of Charlotteville Street, lined up in front of the station, so several things can happen. First, passengers can get off or on. Second, express can be loaded/unloaded. And third, the conductor can check with the station agent to see if any freight switching has to be done here. So far, so good.

But look at the boxcars in the train. The one behind the locomotive is a load or empty heading somewhere, so we won’t worry about that one for now. But the second boxcar – just in front of the baggage-mail – is in LCL service. (I know this because the paperwork tells me so.) Prototype photographs show that this is how the train was typically configured:

Locomotive — Freight car(s) — LCL boxcar — Baggage-Mail — Combine

The problem – at least, on my layout – is that the platform for the St. Williams station stop will end about where that first line pole is. Basically, across from the RPO section of the Baggage-Mail car. So, how will the agent and crew work the LCL boxcar?

Since this is all Yard Limits territory, the answer is relatively straight forward: After working the combine, the train backs up under flag protection to position the LCL boxcar in front of the station:
StW-Station Stop-LCL-BlockedCrossing photo LCL-StW-Q-02_zpscea8c222.jpg

The problem arises because Charlotteville Street is a (relatively) busy road, and this backing move blocks traffic:
StW-Station Stop-LCL-BlockedCrossing photo LCL-StW-Q-03_zps6bb1c828.jpg

Presumably, the crew can block the road for a short period of time. Railway rulebooks often have this specified, and it’s something like five minutes. That’s plenty of time to haul one or two packages out of the LCL boxcar and onto a baggage wagon – providing the packages are easy to locate in the car, easy to release from whatever measures have been taken to secure the load, are light enough to quickly haul to the wagon, and so on. But if there’s any significant amount of work, or if the LCL is heavy or awkward, then blocking the crossing would take much longer than is allowed. (And my look at a CNR freight receipt book showed that the many items moved via LCL on the railway included things like rolls of roofing paper, 100 lb bags of seed, mirrors, mattresses, stoves, a piano…)

One answer is to back across the crossing under flag protection, drop the passenger equipment in the clear to the east of Charlotteville Street, then pull forward to spot the LCL boxcar at the station:
StW-Station Stop-LCL-ClearedCrossing photo LCL-StW-Q-04_zps0a6ec4c3.jpg

StW-Station Stop-LCL-ClearedCrossing photo LCL-StW-Q-05_zps9ada13c3.jpg

Once the LCL work is done, the crew would have to retrieve its passenger equipment and conduct a brake test before leaving town.

I’m not sure if there was ever a situation on my prototype where this was necessary, but on my layout this is something that will add a unique bit of business for the crew of the mixed train – and that’s never a bad thing…

Interlocking the derail

I had a question on a forum about whether it would be possible to interlock my Coal Track derail with the Coal Track switch:
Derail Overview photo Derail-Overview_zpsd9f5c60f.jpg
(Click on the image to read more about the derail)

Real railroads sometimes (often?) did this – so that when the crew lined the switch for the siding the derail cleared automatically, and when they lined it for the main again, the derail set itself. This was accomplished through mechanical means – rodding and bell cranks, like at an interlocking plant.

The easiest way to do this on a layout would be to use stall motor switch machines – for example, Tortoises – to control the switch points and the derail. Then, simply wire them to the same controller – push buttons, toggle switch, DCC accessory controller, etc.

Add some cosmetic rods and bell cranks between the switch stand and the derail, and the installation would look great. It would also operate just like an interlocked derail on the prototype. However…

From the perspective of the layout operators, the derail would become invisible. On my layout, switching the Coal Track would be no different than switching the Team Track. This is why I did not even consider interlocking the derail to the switch. By having it independently controlled, train crews must perform two steps to work the Coal Track: unlock and line the switch, then unlock and clear the derail.

Whether one builds a working derail, and how it’s controlled, depends in large part on what one wants to accomplish during operations. At the micro level that I’m working, on this modest layout, it makes sense to introduce elements like the derail – providing they contribute, in some way, to the experience of working a short freight or mixed train on a branch line.

(It was a very good question – it made me think about why I’m doing this the way I am – so thank you for asking!)

Derail Detail

Derail Overview photo Derail-Overview_zpsd9f5c60f.jpg

Reader Steve Lucas sent me some interesting information to help me detail my recently-installed derail on the coal track in Port Rowan. (Thanks, Steve!) Here’s a look at what I’ve done.

In a comment on a previous post, Steve noted that in the 1950s, the CNR would add a “D” to the target on the switch stand if it lead to a track that had an independently-controlled derail (i.e.: one that was not linked mechanically to the switch stand). They would also add yellow paint to the switch stand handle to remind the crew that there was a derail to unlock and clear. I found a “D” in an old set of HO Scale Herald King decals for a CP Rail gondola. The “D” actually came from the decal set identifier, which now reads “GON OLA”. Thanks, Herald King!
Coal Track switch stand photo CoalTrack-SwitchStand_zps8e67c6e1.jpg

It occurred to me as I was painting the handle of the S scale switch stand that I should mark the fascia-mounted turnout control for this switch in some way as well. Yellow paint wouldn’t do it, as most people don’t have to look too closely at the garden-scale switch stands to operate them. In fact, I can do it pretty much by feel. In any case, the turnout controls tend to be in a low-light situation when we’re operating the layout – in the shadow of the fascia itself. Therefore, I decided to mark the stand that controls the Coal Track switch in a tactile fashion, by adding a length of heat shrink tubing to the handle:
Coal Track turnout control photo CoalTrack-TurnoutControl_zpsd03e5c08.jpg

We’ll see if it feels different enough to remind people that there’s something special about the coal track siding. If not, I’ll cut this off and try something else – perhaps, a couple of narrow bands of heat shrink instead of a solid length of it.

Closer to the derail, I’ve added a couple of important details, seen here:
Derail Detail photo Derail-Details_zps9fb4bf16.jpg
(Click on the image for a larger version)

First, at left, is a length of rail spiked to the ties at an angle. Some CNR info from Steve notes that if a derail is placed close to the clearance point of the spur, or at the base of a steep downgrade, a guardrail must be installed to help divert successfully-derailed equipment away from the main track that the derail protects. I assume in this case that the farm crossing will get torn up rather nicely by derailed equipment, but that the equipment will eventually hit that guard rail and stay off the main track. In any case, it’s a very visible detail. I bent and filed the ends of the rail in the same manner that one does a traditional guard rail for a turnout frog and then glued and spiked it in place. I’ve given the rail a first coat of paint and will weather it after the paint dries.

To the right of the crossing, a yellow post marks the location of the derail itself. I cut a five-foot piece of S scale 4″x4″ lumber and shaped the top into a four-sided point using an emery board. I drilled a hole in the base for a .015″ piece of wire, and a hole in the scenery to mount it.

The photo also shows that I’ve painted the derail. I gave the block a coat of yellow, but the rest of it is painted with Neo-Lube. I didn’t want to use regular paint here, since that could gum up the sliding piece. As the name suggests, Neo-Lube actually lubricates the operating mechanism.

I’m pleased with these little details. All that’s left to do is mount a control on the fascia and connect it to the mechanical switch machine under the derail. Until I get that done, I’ll leave this detail in the “clear” position: I don’t want to put any cars on the ties by accident!

Ain’t no cure…

… for the summertime blues. Except, perhaps, dehumidifiers.

Whether it was the minor flooding earlier this month, last week’s super-hot weather, a combination of the two, or some other factor – the layout is not running well.

I’ve had a few derailments over the past couple of days, which is way more than normal (which is “none at all”). And yes, I’ve noticed the irony that as soon as I install a working derail on the layout…

In addition, one of my moguls obviously has a dirty sound cam so that sometimes it sounds like it’s beating out a military tattoo. Instead of a “chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff”, I get a “chuff-chuffity-ch-chuff-chuffity-chuff”. You get the idea.

I suspect a spike in humidity in the layout room is to blame. I have a vintage dehumidifier but it’s time to go looking for a new one – hopefully quieter!

Sliding derail installed

Today, I installed the derail on the coal track siding in Port Rowan:

Derail in set position:
Derail Installed - Set Position photo Derail-Installed-Set_zps15156853.jpg

Derail in clear position:
Derail Installed - Clear Position photo Derail-Installed-Clear_zpse385e94a.jpg

(Click on the images for larger versions)

I scratch-built the derail yesterday – here’s the story. I’ve also mounted a Bullfrog mechanical switch machine under the derail and tested it. The derail slides smoothly in both directions. I’ll “paint” the derail with Neo-Lube, which looks like oily steel and will help keep the derail sliding smoothly. The head will be painted yellow.

I still have to install a yellow post trackside to mark the derail. And my friend Chris Abbott is working on a control mechanism similar to the garden-scale switch stands we’ve used to control track switches. Stay tuned!

Flip derail idea

A few people have mentioned the flip-over style derail. I thought about doing one of these but could not think of a suitable mechanism to make it work. Bell cranks would not, I feel, do the trick: They don’t have the rotation that such a derail would require – it could be as much as 170 degrees.

However, this morning, I had a thought about how one could do this and thought I’d share it here in case others are interested in exploring this option further. I’ll start with a rather crude sketch:
Flip Derail - possible solution photo FlipDerail_zpsf1434b89.jpeg
(Click for a larger version)

The derail head would be soldered to a small – very small – brass pulley. Maybe something from the model shipbuilding hobby would do the trick. Below decks, a T-shaped mechanism – like two bell cranks back to back – would move a piece of EZ Line over the pulley. EZ Line is elastic and would provide good grip on the pulley – but it would also stretch when the derail head reached the end of its travel, so it would add some flexibility to the throw mechanism.

I haven’t tried this – and I’m not going to – but if you do then let me know how it works out!