Hand brakes and Air Hoses

Air hoses and hand brakes photo OpAids-07.jpg

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of the approach Lance Mindheim is taking for his modern-era CSX Miami layout. Lance and I seem to think along the same lines – especially on the subject of finding ways to help model the job of railroading.

Modelling the job changes the focus of a layout – from the trains, to the people who operate them.

My use of garden-scale switch stands with padlocks to control the turnouts on the Port Rowan branch is a good example of this:
Lock it up photo SwitchStand-Installed-05.jpg

I could have used more conventional methods of turnout control – anything from ground throws to stall motors with fascia-mounted push-buttons – and from the perspective of the trains, the job would’ve been accomplished: The turnout would line for either route, as required.

But with the switch stands, the brakeman on my layout enjoys the experience of unlocking the switch stand, lifting the lever, rotating it to the other position, and dropping the lever… then locking up the stand after the work is done.

Another example of modelling the job is the recent addition of waybill boxes – also with padlocks. These perform the same function as the pigeon holes traditionally employed in car-card operating schemes. But the waybills and empty car bills I’m employing look and feel more like the real thing, and the waybill boxes duplicate the actions a real conductor would undertake to deposit or collect waybills at an un-staffed station, yard office or junction point.
Waybill Box: St. Williams photo WaybillBox-StW-01.jpg

Paperwork - Load to Staging photo LoadToStaging.jpg

Paperwork - Empty to Staging photo EmptyToStaging.jpg

Which brings me to my next enhancement for operating sessions – something I picked up from the September 11, 2012 entry on Lance’s blog. (Thanks Lance – I hope you get ideas from reading my blog, too!)

Lance wrote about the importance of setting (and releasing) hand brakes, noting it’s a part of almost every switching move and therefore should be duplicated during operating sessions. As Lance notes, the easiest way to do this is to pause while switching to represent the time taken to set or release the hand brake on one or more cars. But let’s be honest, how many of us will remember to do that? Similarly, how many of us will remember to connect air hoses between cars when switching is finished and our train is ready to head to the next location?

Lance solves the handbrake problem by mounting valve stems at strategic locations around his layout to allow the brakeman to actually model the job. I liked this idea and decided I could do something similar for my layout. At the same time, I also came up with a way for brakemen to connect air hoses.

My solution involves detail parts manufactured for large scale (ride-on size) railroad equipment. A few minutes with Google directed me to Paul Vernon at Precision Steel Car. (Service was excellent, and the parts are beautiful. Thanks Paul!)

I’ve now mounted hand brakes and air hoses on the facia at four locations on the layout where they’re easy for crews to reach when performing switching moves. These serve as visual reminders for brakemen to pause to set brakes or connect air hoses – but I also assembled them in such a way that they can be a tactile reminder too: The brake wheel is 2.5 inches in diameter and turns, the release lever on the housing can be pulled, and the glad hands on the air hoses can be connected:
Air connected photo OpAids-08.jpg

To make the brake wheels turn, I needed to drill out the hole in the centre of the brake housing. I screwed a housing to a scrap of plywood and clamped this to the table on my drill press. I started with a smaller drill bit and worked my way up to a Number 20 for final drilling. This was almost – but not quite – a slip fit for an 8-32 bolt. In fact, it allowed me to use the steel bolt to cut threads in the brass casting.
Drill set up photo OpAids-01.jpg

Drilling the housing photo OpAids-02.jpg

(The mallet in the first image helped make minor adjustments as I was centering the housing under the drill bit.)

I also cleared the hole for the release lever mounting. To mount the lever, I found a brass tube that fit inside the hole in the lever, then cut a short length of of this and secured it into the brake housing with CA. This protrudes from the front face of the housing enough to slip the lever over:
Fitting the release lever photo OpAids-03.jpg

Assembling the hand brake photo OpAids-04.jpg

Here are some notes:
– The wheel and release lever are laser cut steel and were shipped with a protective coating of oil. A quick trip through my ultrasonic cleaner removed this.
– To install the lever, I slipped it over the tube. I then slipped a brass hex-head bolt and washer in place, and ran a nut onto the bolt on the back side of the housing. I adjusted the tension so the lever can move, but doesn’t flop about, then added a drop of CA to the nut to secure it in place.
– For the brake wheel, I glued a steel washer over the hole in the housing with CA to give the wheel a larger surface to bear against, and added a plastic washer between the brake wheel and bolt head. On the underside, I added a lock washer and a nut. I adjusted the bolt until I could turn the wheel, but it won’t spin freely. Again, I added a drop of CA to the nut to lock things in place.

For the air hoses, I found some appropriate tubing (in this case, copper – because that’s what I had on hand). I cut eight pieces and then inserted a piece of coat hanger wire inside each. This kept the tubes from collapsing when I introduced a 90 degree bend into each pipe. I then secured a bent pipe into the back of each valve housing with CA – being careful to create pairs so that when mounted on the fascia, they would face each other.

I then found appropriate places to mount these operations aids and laid them out as seen in this photo:
Op Aids laid out photo OpAids-06.jpg

The brake wheel is secured to the facia with four Number 4 screws. To mount the air hoses, I glued wood blocks behind the fascia, marked and drilled mounting holes that are press fit, then added a bit of CA when I was happy with their location to secure them.

I gauged the spacing of the two air hoses by what worked when trying to connect the glad hands and found 7.5 inches was ideal. (At some point, I would like to add a button between the two air hoses that, when pressed, would run a sound sample of an air brake test to represent that function.)

Two inches down from the top of the fascia keeps the gear below the scenery.

As this view of the south end of St. Williams shows, I also made sure they were not too close to other fascia elements, such as throttle panels and switch stands:
Op Aids photo OpAids-05.jpg

I mounted a hand brake and paired air hoses at each end of the siding in St. Williams. I also added a set of these operation aids at the yard throat in Port Rowan. The fourth set is located near the Port Rowan depot, making it handy for setting brakes on the passenger equipment or on cars left at the feed mill at end of track.

I’ve already started an operating session using these aids and I’m very pleased with how they help represent the work. When I need to set brakes, I reach over to the nearest brake wheel and give it five or six turns for each car I’m setting. To release brakes, I pull the lever up and return it to its resting position. I normally leave the air hoses connected so when I need to represent that activity, I disconnect then reconnect the glad hands, repeating for each car that needs to be connected.

Most importantly, with these aids in place I’m now thinking more about when I need to set or release hand brakes, or connect air hoses. That’s adding more play value, and more time, to my operating sessions.

20 thoughts on “Hand brakes and Air Hoses

  1. Hey I like this addition!

    Do you have any plans to build a scaled down loco cab and connect it to the DCC so that the loco can be driven properly from regulators and reversers, and the fireman has a real job of balancing the boiler controls?

    I think that Jack Burgess (?) built such a cab (quarter scale I believe) way back in the 1970’s,


    • Hi Terry:
      Thanks – I like it too.
      No, no plans to build a scaled down locomotive cab. Engineers already have enough on their plate with the DCC hand-held throttles – and a replication of a locomotive cab would have to be mounted on a cart or somesuch to allow for walk-around (roll-around?) operation.
      Yes, it was Jack Burgess. I was fortunate to visit his layout in 2005 and on the way to the train room I said to the friend with me, “I remember Jack did an article in RMC on this quarter-scale locomotive cab he built…”, and then we entered the family room and there it was, on the coffee table!

  2. Trevor,

    Wow! The idea of installing “working” brake equipment on the fascia is one of the most interesting, if not paradigmatic examples of model railroad operation and design I have ever seen. Wonderful stuff. Did you envision this idea when you designed the size of the fascia when you designed the layout originally? This seems to give your layout a museum aesthetic which I very much like. I have been thinking about trying to doing something “different” with water tank operations and your approach may lead to some new approaches.

    For the record I have been reading your blog for quite sometime and am always impressed with the beauty and level of craftsmanship of your work.

    I can’t wait to see what you do next,



    • Hi Gerry:

      Why thank you! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog and I’m glad it’s inspiring you with your water tank project.

      I can’t take credit for the fascia-mounted brake wheels. As I mentioned in my write-up, that goes to Lance Mindheim, who uses valve stems on his layout. I took his idea and ran with it – doing searches online for “ride-em scale” brake wheels and housings.

      While looking at the brake wheels on Precision Steel Car’s web site, I spotted the air hoses and realized I could make use of those as well. This isn’t to say that I originated the idea of using these miniature parts as I have – merely that I haven’t seen anybody else doing it. For all I know, I’ve merely reinvented the (brake)wheel.

      I would love to say I planned this from the start and therefore sized the fascia to accommodate the parts. But I didn’t. I simply like the look of a deep fascia (in this case, about 9 inches).

      I did know that I’d be mounting switch stands as turnout controls and wanted them below the top of the fascia so that did factor into my choice.

      Again, thanks for you nice words and thanks for reading!

  3. I’m writing this a bit late, but hope that you’ll bear with me. The padlocks are a good idea, but I’ve often wondered if it was possible to make miniature versions of real switch padlocks and keys, just to have the prototype feel enhanced a little.

    • Hi Steve:
      That’s certainly thinking outside the box!
      I am not a locksmith, but I suspect that getting a custom lot of miniature switch padlocks and keys would cost more than all the rest of the layout, combined. If one had the skills, one could make them oneself – but then one’s hobby would be locksmithing, not model railways.
      These luggage locks were one dollar each, and they’re all keyed to the same key – so that’s close enough for me.
      Sometime if you come over you can try them out and let me know if they’re coming up short in “prototype feel”… 😉

      • I can’t question the cost of the locks–everything in our hobby costs money. And the C&O did use a Junkunc Brothers padlock that takes a regular cut key similar to yours as opposed to the barrel keys favoured by most roads including CN. By the way, it appears that the even today standard CN key and padlock is of an Intercolonial Ry. design.

        • Hi Steve:
          I think the question of cost is that bespoke miniature locks would cost more than all the locomotives, cars, benchwork materials, rail, ties and everything else I’ve done on the layout to date. It would be akin to watch-making. Great idea, as I said, but I think the return on investment would be so low as to make it impractical.

          • For now, the suitcase locks are a practical way to add some “feel” to the operation. Lucky you to find a bunch keyed alike!

          • Hi Steve:
            The locks were actually quite easy to get with a common key. In fact, I think it’s the only key that comes with them. I bought them at my local Home Hardware store – I don’t know who makes them but they’re branded as a Home Hardware product and they come in a two-pack for $1.99.
            I actually went back to the store several months later to buy more for the waybill boxes, and they were the same key. That’s why I expect there’s only one key for this brand.
            As I said earlier: maybe a bad idea for luggage, but great for one’s scale switch stands…

  4. If you run flex wire through the air hose you could electrify the glad hands so that they could trigger the air release sound effect. A flip flop circuit would alternate on and off function — open the brake wheel to put air into the system,, break the hose connection to release air.

    I really like what you have done with Lance’s idea.

    Bill Uffelman

    • Hi Bill:
      Interesting ideas, but probably beyond where I want and need to take this. I’m thinking of a “brake test” button to trigger a sound module, to run the brake test that’s required after switching is done and before the train can resume its journey.
      I’ve also pondered whether I could actually run air lines through the layout and use valves and a pressure gauge to allow crews to conduct their own air tests – perhaps driven with a small airbrush compressor. Mostly this is just toying with ideas – if you don’t explore the possibilities, you can’t discount them.

  5. Hi Trevor,
    Very cool concept, I really like the idea of emulating the jobs involved in switching. This fills a big hole in how to simulate this type of activity, as you say we can stand and count to 30 before moving the car after coupling, but this will give purpose and something concrete to do to simulate the requirements of getting a car ready to move.

    Now, about that turntable…..


    • Hi Mark:

      Thanks – glad you like the idea. I have more ideas on the way so watch the blog.

      I really like simple layouts – they’re easier to build and maintain, and money that would otherwise be spent on quantity can instead be invested in quality. But they do require extra effort when it comes to operating schemes if they’re to remain engaging and, ultimately, satisfying for the owner and his/her guests.

      Now… What about the turntable?


  6. Trevor,

    As you include devices for operational reality, or our modeler’s approximation, have you been privy to any discussions on implementing pole shunting?

    Your locomotive, as well as most if not all of the 2 Footers, has/had the pockets and I know it was practiced in Maine. It seems impractical for our scales, however I am curious.


    • Hi Rick:

      Good question but no, I haven’t. A quick Google search tells me railroads were banning the practice in the 1940s although it continued later.

      I’m not sure when the CNR would’ve banned it and how long (or whether) crews continued to do it (although a ban would’ve also resulted in the removal of poles from locomotives). But the crews on my Port Rowan branch have enough to keep track of during operating sessions so I’m not going to add a pole to their toolkit. It won’t be missed.


  7. T-
    Way cool idea about break wheel and air hoses. I too am a raving fan of Brother Lance. If I recall correctly, Lance uses garden facets/knobs to represent break wheels. This seemed to be odd looking on the layout for me. I had your idea of the “live-steam” hardware last summer while visiting a group of live steamers near Bloomington, Indiana. On my layout I made it a point to have very generous area for operators – so much that I would consider a rolling cart with an actual break wheel and air hoses. The question is not one of cost but how do I get the break wheel past the my wife?
    Great information. Thanks Trevor.

    • Glad this helped, Charles. I find the operations aids really add to a session. I should point out that I never insist people use these tools – but those who do use them find that they help simulate the work.

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