“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!

9 thoughts on ““Best Toys Ever!”

  1. Indeed, with sound, you become aware of how much needed to happen on the footpath to make happen a move. Remember, though!

    Cylinder cocks did not need to be opened every time you stop, only when long enough for steam to condensate.

    Injectors normally weren’t on for very long. Usually, only long enough to bring up water level. However, on long pulls, the injector might be on for a prolonged period.

    Use of the blower is open to debate and is subject to road conditions. Often, at a stop, you want to preserve coal, so you open the fire doors to cool the fire while waiting. Close just before departing, and the exhaust will bring your fire back to life very quickly. Of you’re carrying a very thin fire, you might want to use the blower to keep everything alight,

    • Hi Bill:

      Interesting comments. Some notes from my (admittedly limited) experience…

      Yes, cylinder drains only needed to be opened when stopped for a while. We tended to err on the side of caution and open them always when starting up to develop good habits. Better than blowing the end off a cylinder!

      We used injectors whenever the water level was down in the boiler, obviously. But adding cold water to a boiler would do two things.

      First, it would cool down the boiler, so you’d be making less steam.

      Second, it would reduce the surface area of the water in the boiler – which in turn reduced the ability to turn water into steam.

      So we tended to use the injectors whenever making steam was not an issue – for example, while stopped or while drifting downgrade. Rather than add a lot of water at a time, we’d try to add a bit over several injections – whenever the engine was not working hard.

      We always, always used the blower when stopped for two reasons:

      First, to keep air moving over the fire.

      Second, to keep firebox gases out of the cab! It was stressed to us that we open the blower before opening the firebox doors for this reason.

      The blower only needed to be cracked open – not wide – to do the job.

      As for opening the firebox, we left it open as little as possible. Drawing massive amounts of cold air through the open firebox door would place undue stress on the boiler flues. The rule was open-glance-shut, then reflect on what you had seen in the box, plan your shovelling, then open only as you shovel.

      Now, this was on a preservation railway (MNGRR) in the 2000s – and things might have been done differently back when steam was in regular service. But this is how I learned it, so this is how I do it on the layout.


      • As a (fairly regular) fireman on our local 2-8-2s, I can attest to Trevor’s comments – but agree that actual practice may have been different during the steam era. Preserving an 80 yr old locomotive likely requires different considerations than “just using” a normal everyday tool of your trade.

      • As a lineside observer of the preserved Welsh Narrow Gauge lines, I can confirm that the cylinder drain cocks are used frequently on these lines, and the steam clouds are particularly noticeable from the Garratts used on the Welsh Highland Line.


  2. Can you program the “start” steps in sequence up through cracking the throttle to a single function?

    Looking forward to your reports and TCS response to full speed issue.

    Dogs are definitely cute!

    • Hi Bill:
      I don’t think so – although some functions (eg: cylinder drain valves) can be set up to occur automatically. Regardless, though – I don’t want to set these up to occur automatically because they don’t on a real locomotive. There’s a lot of valve-wheel-spinning and lever-pulling in a cab to get from “stop” to “go” – and I’m trying to replicate that on my layout.

  3. Okay, so I have worked with 2 oil burners – ex-CPR 4-6-2 No. 1201 and ex Swedish National Railways 2-8-0 No. 909. When starting either, we opened up the blower to overcome the effect of the exhaust extinguishing the fire; at the same time, we would be advancing the atomizer and then the oil feed valve to try to ensure good combustion of the oil so that we would not lose too much steam at the start. The 1201 had an water pump and an injector and we always used the pump as it was quite reliable, quite steady and not nearly as nosy. The injector was like a “fail safe” safety device. The 909, on the other hand, had 2 injectors. Both were noisy as all get out and their use was dictated by the amount of water in the boiler and the vagaries of the road. In this case, the road was the former Maniwaki Subdivision with a number of grades that would make a roller coaster envious. We would try to hit the bottom of all grades with about 7/8th of a glass, shut off for the pull which required maximum steam use and the use of steam was governed by the tonnage and rail conditions; at some point near the top – learned by experience and watching the glass, we would keep firing hard but also turn on the injector to be ready for when we topped the grade and either levelled off or went downgrade as our next priority was not only to recover our steam pressure but also to ensure that we had water still visible in the site glass given that most of it would run to the front of the locomotive. With excessive tonnage, I have seen us have to run both injectors at times in addition to maintain a good fire and certainly with excessive tonnage we would pretty well have at least one injector on all the time just to maintain an adequate level of water in the boiler as well as have enough steam on hand to make the engine work. One thing about it, you really had to know the road. When we had the 1201 on main line excursions, we were always asking the engineer (a regular employee) about the terrain as none of us would have the detailed knowledge as to the track profile and it would not be long before you would get in trouble with either too much water and not enough steam or (worse) too much steam and a questionable level of water. All great fun. One other function that you might look for when running would be the boiler blow down. It can certainly make for exciting times. BTW, the use of the bell would also be a function of where you were , i.e. in a station area and you would have it continuously ringing or at a public crossing at grade, again continuously running. With respect to whistling, there would also be Signal 14a – 1 short, “apply brakes, stop; 14H – 3 shorts, when train is standing – back or response to a back up signal; then since you use a brakie you could have 14j, 4 shorts, – call for signals. 14m is one long which is one mile from train order offices, flag stops, end of two or more tracks, junctions, railway crossings at grade and drawbridges. These all come from the 1962 Uniform Code of Operating Rules; you would have to get an earlier version of the book given that you are steam era. I really enjoyed your recent film.

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