Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Market Street: Construction

A couple months ago, I needed a project that I could really focus on, and preferably one that required hammering lots of 2x4s together. In a feat of poor judgement, I just started building. The result was this Market Street Station layout, a modular layout in the british exhibition layout style.

This new Market Street Station layout is a big change from what I’ve built in the past. It’s modular, so I need to worry about how the pieces connect up. It’s intended for longer passenger cars, so I need to use different standards for curve radius and switches from my garage layout. It needs to be portable, so I need to be able to move the pieces, set it up accurately, and break it down quickly.

From the last layout and planning for this one, I knew that a complex design would just mean I'd spend too much time planning and rethinking. Instead, I decided to get some minimal bench work up as fast as possible so that I could test out module width, track position, and composition of the scenes as fast as possible. With some quick building, I could figure out if I were on the right path.

First Problem: How to Build Fast. In order to get modules built quickly, I decided to try out hollow core doors. They’re available - one short trip to Home Depot got me most of my benchwork - and require minimal other carpentry. Doors often don't seem appropriate for a model railroad because building terrain lower than the tracks is difficult. That's not a problem with Market Street, where most of the area is completely flat. Using doors also cuts some of the work to build a self-supporting structure - they’re pretty stable on their own. By building on a flat surface, I also don’t have to plan every exact curve and track location (as I might with a cookie cutter plywood layout), and can instead start building and worry about exact track locations later.

Underside of door with leg pocket and wiring.

I used 28” doors (Home Depot, $25 each), framed them with 6” wide birch plywood (3/4” for the end plates, 1/2” for the sides). I added pockets to fit 2x2 legs inside, with the pockets glued and nailed to the sides. I placed the layout at a nominal height of 50 inches. Cutting the plywood side pieces accurately was a challenge without a table saw, but I got close enough with a rip guide on my circular saw. The first two modules took two and a half days to build, with most of the time taken up trying to figure out how to build stuff. I’m relying on glue joints a bit too much, but I’m thinking it’ll work. I also learned a couple tricks on the first doors. The door I got was already primed; I had to use a plane on the edges to get down to raw wood for gluing. I also expected that everything would be suitably square if I built it on our patio concrete, but found I still needed to check squareness constantly and adjust. I used 1x2 scraps to reinforce corners. The final modules weighed about 30 pounds each.

Second challenge: the track arrangement. Once I had the modules built, I started laying out track just to get an idea of what would fit.

Experimenting with track arrangements.

As with my Vasona Branch layout, my first goal was to define my average train length so that I could ensure most trains would fit on the sidings, passing tracks, and staging tracks. I ended up choosing four car trains with three coaches and a baggage car or RPO. Although I’m expecting to use shorter Harriman cars for most of my trains, I sized the spurs for eighty foot cars. I've collected modern commute cars over the years; running those Gallery and Baby Bullet trains will help folks understand that the Market Street station is part of San Francisco-San Jose commute history.

With the train length set, I could start placing track on the doors and figuring out track arrangements. I quickly found that 29 inches was an awfully wide space. Even with the Freemo suggestions to keep track six inches from the edge, there was plenty of room for tracks and for surrounding structures and scenery. Door length, however, was an issue. The trackage on the module to the left of Market Street station needed crossovers to allow trains to and from the station to go to either track, the switch for the mainline bypass around the station, and switches at the end of the baggage sidings. This resulted in five switches placed end to end which had to fit in the 6’8” space of the single door.

Track plan near 4th Street Tower

Another essential bit of track was the area east of Market Street station where the tracks diverged to head towards Oakland and Los Angeles. Modeling the Oakland track wasn’t a big priority for me - there weren’t a lot of trains going that way. However, the split was memorable because it was the location of the Fourth Street interlocking tower (controlling track on the east end of the station), the venerable Golden Gate cannery sitting between the tracks (later run by Hunts and Richmond Chase), and the unusual sharp curve of the eastbound track towards Los Angeles.

The curve of the Los Angeles track was a particular bit of reality I wanted to capture. The tracks heading east from Market Street slowly came together and curved towards the south. At Third Street, just as the tracks approached the Golden Gate cannery, the tracks curved sharply, cutting through several backyards until popping out onto Fourth Street and heading defiantly towards the heart of downtown San Jose. Those tracks ran down the middle of Fourth Street, passed homes, offices, and San Jose State University, and finally hit the cannery district south of downtown where Fourth Street ended but the tracks continued. Those tracks are interesting, not only because of the specter of freight trains running past San Jose State, but also because of the political fight between San Jose and the Willow Glen neighborhood about how to get the SP off the city streets.

Because this section of layout couldn't be rectangular, I built it using more traditional construction: plywood roadbed surface and cookie-cutter framing underneath. I found the construction more challenging, time-consuming and tedious, and I ended up getting the curves wrong so that the track to Oakland didn't actually end up in the middle of the end plate. It was a heck of a lot of work just to keep a favorite scene.

Third Challenge: Laying Track The cheap doors use masonite or hardboard for the door surface, so spikes and nails can't be used to hold track down. I decided to try gluing down track using acrylic caulk. (M.C. Fujiwara's video on laying track on Freemo-N modules convinced me to try this out.) I used Walthers code 83 track and #6 switches - matching the Freemo track height, but using sharper switches than Freemo allows on mainline modules. The caulk approach went down quickly, but I’ve already had a couple places come loose, so I’m a bit concerned that it won’t handle abuse as well as spiked track. I did drill holes to put spikes into the masonite door surfaces to hold switches in position; we’ll see how those hold. Next time, I may get doors faced with lauan plywood, or glue thin plywood onto the doors.

Keeping track on the module in place is one challenge, but modules also need track to align at joints accurately. For joining the three key modules, I used steel pegs to ensure all track joints would be in alignment. I turned these pins by hand on a lathe from 3/8" steel rod, making a male and female pin. I clamped the modules together in alignment, drilled a single 3/8" hole, and epoxied both pins in place.)

For the sections leading to staging, I used the Freemo approach of ending tracks 2 inches before the end of the module, and then using bridge rails to cross the joint. One advantage of the bridge rail approach is that there isn’t a rail at the very end of the module that can snag when moving the modules. I've already snagged a rail end once while moving the modules.

But Is It Freemo-Compatible? I'd intended to make the modules fit Freemo specifications, but early-on was forced to break away from the Freemo specs. The modules don’t have the required 26” end plate with tracks centered, though that’s not a big deal; I could always create transition modules to shrink the end plate to the correct size and location.

The bigger problems were curve radiuses and switches. Freemo mainline modules require 42 inch curves and #8 turnouts on the mainline.U I couldn't make either requirement work. The broad curves would have narrowed the Golden Gate cannery scene too much. The #8 turnouts just wouldn't let the track plan fit on the two doors. My specific problem was on the door representing the area west of the station. That track required five consecutive switches - the switch for the baggage tracks, crossover from east to west main, switch to the bypass around the station, crossover from west to east, and far switch for passenger rip track. Making any of these switches #8 would keep the track from fitting on a single door and would stretch the track over a second module. Because I’m also not aiming for modern era, I wasn't sure my modules would be particularly interesting in a standard Freemo setup, and decided to give up on Freemo track standards.

Wiring I did wire the modules in the Freemo style, with an accessory and DCC bus both joined between modules with PowerPole connectors. I didn't bother to wire for signals on the main - the whole scene, in the 1920's, would have been unsignaled (west side), or controlled by the interlocking in the Fourth Street Tower (east side).

I did power all the switches, as I do on my garage layout - it avoids damage to the switches, allows me to power frogs, and helps suspend disbelief by keeping operators' hands out of the scene. Instead of using venerable Tortoises, I tried using the MP-5 switch machines. These new switch machines, imported from the Czech Republic by Richard Brennen and sold by Seth Neumann's Model Railroad Control Systems, are a great improvement. They're much tinier than tortoises, easier to adjust, and so low profile that they hide inside the door. To mount the switch machines, I cut a hole in the underside of the door, then glued a piece of 1.5 inch 1/2 inch plywood to the skin just below the switch. I found that the supplied stiff piano wire didn't work well with the short distance to the switch machine; the 6mm throw pushed the switch points too hard, and occasionally the switch machine wouldn't move far enough over to hit the limit switch to allow throwing the other way. Fixing this required pushing the mechanism a bit further to get it to a s point where it could throw again. One particularly nice feature for a Freemo layout is that these switch machines don't need to be continuously powered. Instead, I can have momentary throw switches on both sides of the layout so operators can work from any side.

So that’s construction. I’ve set up and torn down the layout several times successfully; my biggest challenge is that the combined length - 25’ - is longer than my garage. I’ve set up parts of the layout inside when I’ve been doing track work or installing switch machines. Testing the whole layout, though, requires setting it up in the back yard. Luckily, California weather means I can set the modules up most weekends. I’ve got little chance of rain or humidity. For a weekend of work, I’ve been able to set up the layout on Saturday and keep the benchwork outside through Sunday or Monday. The rest of the time, the modules lean up against the wall of the garage. That’s not a good long-term solution (especially as I do more scenery), but it’ll work for now. Considering the layout is intended for operations and transportation, minimizing the amount of detail on the layout might be a reasonable decision. I’ve got some mock-ups of buildings in foam core which give the impression of rolling through the city.


Coming Up: Electronics, Software, and Operations.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Movie Night XXVI: Buy a Bit of the South Pacific Coast!

And for all you fans of the Santa Cruz branch of the SP who have a bit of money burning a hole in your pocket, be aware that the south end of the Summit tunnel (the Laurel end) is up for sale at $1.6 million for 110 acres. (That's less than what you'd pay for a 3 bedroom, 2 bath rancher on a 6000 SF lot in Sunnyvale!)

Property listing for 23411 Deerfield Road available on Redfin, or check out this video showing your potential new home. Note that if you plan on laying some track and running some trains, you'll need to rebuild a wooden trestle immediately in front of the tunnel. And if you do run some trains up there, invite me over.


Spotted by Derek Whaley, and originally posted on Santa Cruz Trains. If you haven't already checked out his Santa Cruz Trains" book, go get a copy.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Come See the Market Street Exhibition Layout

By the way, if you're a member of the National Model Railroad Association's Pacific Coast Region, note that we're having layout tours in the San Jose area this Saturday.

I'm showing the Market Street exhibition layout as part of the tour. The layout's still new and incomplete, but if you're interested in prototype operations or portable layouts, come by and see the choices I made and what you might do the same or differently.

NMRA PCR Members can find the list of layouts on the Yahoo e-mail list for the group.

Sometimes You've Just Got To Build

One of the common problems when I build things is that I might not always want to build what’s top on my priority list. Take the Vasona Branch layout, for example. I’ve got a list of projects to do there - scenes to decorate, structures to build, track to tune, freight cars to replace, engines to detail. I might call that finish work, kind of like finish carpentry. Houses, you see, need two kinds of carpentry - rough carpentry (to put the walls up, provide surfaces for plaster or sheetrock walls, and provide support for plumbing and electrical fixtures), and finish carpentry (to install trim, decoration, and built-in furniture.)

Yep, sometimes I just want to hammer together a bunch of two by fours, and that’s not the time for me to build fine cabinetry.

For model railroading, that rough carpentry probably could be interpreted as building something new and large - thinking through a new design, building new benchwork, laying new track. Perhaps a new section of layout. Perhaps a whole new layout. That’s what I’ve been doing lately.

The Market Street Exhibition Layout

I’ve had the idea of a modular layout kicking around for a while. It’s not like my garage layout is complete, or that I want to start from scratch, but my visit to Maker Faire got me thinking a lot more about some way of sharing my modeling and the hobby. I’ve instead wanted to build a modular layout for the shows, and perhaps build some stuff outside my usual modeling areas. The original idea was to build a quick modular layout for the San Jose Maker’s Faire in September - showing off Santa Clara valley history, and showing trains moving. My general idea is something like a British display layout - a small scene with staging to generate enough trains for interesting operation.

Specifically, I wanted to model a place I’ve already modeled in a small shelf layout - San Jose’s Market Street station, the original mainline station for the Southern Pacific in San Jose It’s a place lost far in the past; Southern Pacific abandoned this station in 1935, replacing it with the new Diridon station on the west side of town along the former South Pacific Coast narrow gauge right-of-way. The former West San Jose station, often known as the “narrow gauge” station for its South Pacific Coast railroad heritage, replaced the “broad gauge” mainline station. With the change, the area north of downtown changed from an active transportation hub and commuter terminal to a warehouse and industrial district; by the 1980’s, a good deal of the land was cleared for redevelopment, and it’s only been in the last ten years that new construction’s gone up around San Jose’s formerly busy main station.

And the Market Street station was quite busy. During its heyday, the Market Street station was a busy place for San Jose, the station had 72 arrivals and departures a day. (In comparison, Diridon handles around 90 trains a day today.) There were 60 commutes leaving, starting at 4:45 am and going until 11:00 pm. Six name trains - the Sunset Limited, Daylight, Padre, Lark, and Coaster - all stopped at San Jose. Some trains had cars switching to Oakland versions of the same train. There were multiple lesser trains heading to Santa Cruz, Monterey, or Salinas. And all these trains passed through a two-platform Victorian train shed, with approaches on both ends crossing multiple city streets - quite a chaotic scene during the morning commute.

The Market Street station area has a fair amount of operational interest. Because it only had two platforms, trains had to be put together and taken apart quickly to leave space for the next train. Small yards on each side of the station provided a place to stage passenger trains. Industries nearby - a cold storage warehouse, cannery, assorted warehouses, and a freight station - add freight business. Historically, the location also tells about a time when the downtown station was downtown, and where trains running down the middle of Fourth Street.

Now, I’ve built this station before. My current Market Street station scene sits on a 24” by 7 foot shelf layout in my office. I’d started it before I’d begun the Vasona Branch layout, and I’ve shared some of the models I built for that layout in the past. But it hasn’t been satisfying. It’s too small to do any operations and switching. Even if I could do minor switching, I can’t reproduce all the complexities of trying to get the entire morning commute fleet out. Although I was able to build some large buildings, the shelf is too cramped to build the massive buildings that surrounded the railroad tracks. And even though the current shelf layout isn’t quite enough, the models I’ve built for it means I already have some of the structures I’d need for the new layout.

The Track Plan

So how to start? My first aim was the track - decide on a realistic track arrangement, figure out the tracks needed for handling the passenger traffic, and finally add the sidings and freight tracks to set the location of industries and add some additional operating interest. I’d been sketching out plans for a Market Street scene for months - sometimes imagining

There’s a reasonable number of sources for the track layout around the old Market Street station. There are valuation maps from the 1930’s where the SP drew in every track, compressed air line, drain, and property boundary. There are the Sanborn fire insurance maps showing both track and buildings. (Sanborn maps are often declared as inaccurate, but they look pretty decent for the area around the station. I suspect they’re less accurate if tracks changed frequently, or if there was a huge number of tracks.) There are SPINS railroad maps listing spurs for the railroad employees from the 1960’s - long after the station was gone, but hinting at what was there before. And there are photos, including the George Lawrence aerial photos from 1906. Only the valuation maps really declare what was there in 1930, but the other maps hint at track and use.

Deciding on the purpose of each track is a bit harder. Which tracks were important for passenger service, and which for freight? The George Lawrence aerial photos hint at which tracks had boxcars and which had passenger cars. A 1931 track list for San Jose gave additonal hints; it showed four cars as “passenger spur”, likely to hold coaches waiting to be put on trains, on the north side of the tracks, and two tracks listed as passenger work tracks on the south side of the tracks. Photos of trains moving through the station showed baggage cars on the southern spurs, trains waiting under the train shed, and locomotives rolling every which way.

At this point, the track plan showed I’d need the three tracks for the station (two tracks under the train shed, and freight track bypassing the station). I’d need two small yards: the north yard for storing passenger cars, and south tracks for baggage and more holding tracks. On the west end, I’d need two tracks leaving the yard to the left to represent the tracks to and from San Francisco, and to and from the Lenzen St. engine terminal. On the east end, I’d want the tracks splitting to Oakland and Los Angeles, with the 4th Street Tower and Golden Gate Cannery between them.

This still left a fair amount of space. Just west of the station, the San Jose freight station sat with multiple tracks in front of it, and a freight yard behind it. These tracks would be useful for additional switching, so it was an obvious bit to add. Some more freight spurs would give me more places for freight traffic, so I added a packing house behind the station, Santa Clara Valley Cold Storage just to the east, the spur to the Golden Gate Cannery, and a track behind the freight station as a place to hide cars going to the yard. 
The above track plan shows my attempts to shoehorn all that into three separate sections.

Next time, a bit about construction.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Podcast: Concrete Utopia

If you’re interested in minutiae about transportation and transportation policy - how a freeway or bridge ended up where it did, here's something worth a listen.

Matthew Roth, the historian for the Auto Club of Southern California, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of Los Angeles freeways. The common wisdom is that LA was car-crazy, but Roth argues that every major road project has faced major opposition and obstacles.

Back in 2009, he spoke at the Huntington Library about a few specific projects: the Ramona Boulevard highway leading from downtown Los Angeles to points east, the Aliso Street viaduct, and their effect on what became the San Bernadino and Hollywood freeways. Roth talks a bit about politics, funding, and how civil engineers get projects built.

The Huntington Library shared that lecture as a podcast; you can listen to it on the internet. If you’ve got a Mac, you can also subscribe to the Huntington’s California and the West podcasts, or download the lecture to your iPhone or iPad for easy listening.

If you want to learn more, you can read his PhD dissertation, Concrete Utopia: the development of roads and freeways in Los Angeles, 1910 - 1950.

There's a bunch of interesting audio recordings - podcasts and oral histories - out on the Internet these days, and they're an interesting change from radio or music.

  • I've been enjoying East Bay Yesterday which has done a great job of sharing stories about Oakland and Berkeley. The show covers topics as varied as Dorothea Lange and her photos, early baseball in Oakland, Richard Pryor's comedy, mudflat art, Bruce Lee, and the 1990's East Bay punk scene.
  • The Los Gatos Museum has shared oral histories with long-time residents of Los Gatos, letting us hear Jack Panghinetti, Richard More, and others tell us about the Hunts cannery, railroads, and accidentally igniting dry cleaning fluid.
  • The Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley often shares the raw tapes for their oral histories, letting us listen to Frank Nutting talk about the founding of Sun-Maid, or John Parr Cox talking about the Parr Terminal on the Richmond waterfront.


[Photo showing widened Ramona Blvd. highway at Mission Road, just east of the L.A. River, in 1935. Fun fact: Del Monte’s former Los Angeles cannery would have been behind you to the left between Aliso St. and Macy St., between Mission Road and the Los Angeles river. Photo from the USC Digital Library / California Historical Society, from the Title Insurance and Trust / C. C. Pierce Photography collection..

Monday, August 21, 2017

3d Printing in Model Railroading: The New Normal

Corey's D&RGW steel gondolas

A couple months ago, I shared my experiences selling 3d printed freight cars made in my garage. One of the first points in my talk was "you’re going to see lots more folks making kits this way in coming years."

And of course, we do see more folks making cars this way. Corey Bonsall recently told me about his drop-bottom-gondolas that he’s making on a Form 2 Printer. Corey’s model is the uncommon 42 and 46 foot GS gondola used by the Rio Grande and Utah Coal Route. It’s an uncommon prototype needed by D&RGW modelers. As I found with the Hart cars, gondolas are well-suited to 3d printing because of the complicated mechanisms and frames, need for inside-and-outside detail, smaller cross-section.

Corey is selling his models on eBay - $95 for a pair, which after my experiences seems like quite a decent price considering the labor involved.

Corey also detailed how he prints the models on the Formlabs discussion board. He made some different tradeoffs than I did. Corey 3d printed solid grab irons and steps rather than holes for wire grab irons. I'd gone with wire grab irons to match the resin models I've made; I love the detail, but I find drilling all the holes and placing the wires takes way too long. Corey's models shows quite acceptable detail, and also shows he added more detail than just a featureless bar. Corey also oriented the model for printing in a more clever way. He managed to tilt the model and add enough support structures to print the model in a single piece, with good detail inside and out. He widened the center channel for weight. Corey not only suggested usual lead weights, but pointed out that 3/16” tungsten cubes are pricey but available (about $6 / ounce as Pinewood Derby weights, but I assume there's cheaper sources. They're 1.7x the density of lead!)

These cars appear close to the SP’s G-50-9 series gondolas that Ulrich’s metal kits were based on. The Ulrich kits are still around, but like a lot of 1960’s models are getting scarcer. It would be neat to have another alternative for another of the SP’s iconic gondolas.

Meanwhile, I'm keeping my eyes peeled to see which other 3d printer owners decide to get into the model railroad manufacturing game.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Maker Faire in San Mateo: This Weekend!

If you're within driving distance of the San Francisco Bay Area, don't forget that the Bay Area Maker Faire is at the San Mateo Fairgrounds this weekend (May 19-21). Billed as the "world's largest show and tell", it's a huge, amazing World's Fair of crafty entertainment: multiple buildings full of folks showing off garage projects, manufacturers showing off the latest in electronics and tools, and tons of wacky and just plain interesting creations. I'd held off going for years because I wanted to spend the time on my own projects... but I finally went last year and found it quite amazing.

More importantly - for us as model railroaders - it's a gathering for our people. Much of Maker Faire is non-commercial; it has normal people showing off the things they've made with electronics (belly dancing outfit with an Arduino), machined metal, crazy Rube Goldberg devices (garage-sized spirograph that draws on the pavement with chalk), ham radio folks building high speed data networks, and parents helping kids understand biology by building cells out of Fimo clay.

And then there's all the crazy stuff that comes straight from Burning Man, like the Live Action Mousetrap game (with 5,000 lb safe crushing a car at the end), strangely lit art projects filling the darkened main hall, blacksmithing classes, oddly-shaped cars and conveyances, and sculptures shooting twenty foot high flames into the air.

More importantly, if you've had any questions whether the younger generation wants to make things, Maker Faire will convince you that the younger generation not only wants to build stuff with their hands, but is building some pretty amazing things. You'll see it both in the sheer number of kids watching and participating, and in the various clubs, and robot leagues, and craft projects that encouraging more kids to build things. Many booths are even interactive, allowing kids (and adults) to make something right there as a first step towards filling a garage with large metalworking tools.

Note that Maker Faire takes over most of the parking lots at the San Mateo fairgrounds, and the crowds are huge. Plan to either park at satellite lots and take shuttle buses to the fairgrounds, or take Caltrain to the show. Buy the tickets in advance, and bring comfortable shoes and a sense of wonder.

Details, details...

Now, if all that description didn't convince you to go, how about a quick run-down of what I saw last year, and what Maker Faire says about how we ought to be promoting our hobby?

Make Things, Share Things

Like I said, these are our people - many of the folks demonstrating at Maker Faire (or attending Maker Faire) have the same love of building things with their hands that we as model railroaders do. One maker space (shared shop and club) in Sacramento, for example, loved the idea of forming a team and working through a challenge. They built a spaceship bridge with multiple computer displays, and they'd have evening "operating sessions" where four people would work through some challenge set up by another - one person on navigation, another on engineering, weapons, life support, and someone sitting in Captain Kirk's chair. As a fan of model railroad operations, I can understand exactly what buzz they got out of a team co-operatively pulling through a problem.

Other booths were full of all the vendors selling Arduino, Raspberry Pis, and all sorts of other electronics that can run model railroad signals, or create a "working" car scale. I brought home a little Wi-Fi enabled microprocessor for a yet-to-be determined project on the layout. Other folks sold little boards that could be used to build a handheld device that could communicate with a cell phone over Bluetooth - just the right innards to make my own wireless throttle. Others showed off snap-together electronics kits to help kids get interested in electricity, or robots, or programming.

The folks selling all the modern shop tools were also there, with multiple 3d printer companies, laser cutters, huge CNC cutters that could carve full sheets of plywood at a time (now that would speed up benchwork!) For me, I found it great to compare the different printers and talk with the manufacturers. For folks less familiar with the different kinds of 3d printers and laser cutters, Maker Faire was the perfect way to see these machines in action, understand how they really worked, and what the resulting parts looked like.

There were also the crazy inventors that reminded me of a lot of my model railroader friends - folks making home-brew electronics for monitoring your car's diagnostics port, or some guys who had made their own pick-and-place machine for doing garage manufacturing of electronics.

We've all been enjoying many of the perks from the same electronics crowd in model railroading. In our local group, I know folks who are doing small-scale electronics manufacturing, or building CTC panels run off some of these bits of electronics. We're all quite happy about our garage manufacturers using those laser cutters to make finely detailed brick or designing kits for Southern Pacific stations. The crowd at Maker Faire are the same sorts of folks.

One Interest, but a Bunch of Directions to Explore

There's also the kindred spirits from near and far. This year, like last year, the Bay Area Garden Railway Society will be showing off large-scale live-steam locomotives. The historians and collectors were also represented, with the Computer History Museum bringing many 1970's era personal computers for anyone to come and try programming. For all of you who got a start programming on BASIC on a TRS-80 or Apple II back in 1977, getting to type "10 PRINT "HELLO"; 20 GOTO 10" can bring back some awfully fond memories. The Computer History Museum's larger projects have a lot more in common with railroad museums; Computer History Museum's restoration and operation of a 1950's IBM punch card-based computer probably has many of the same restoration stories as the folks getting an SD-9 running again... only with slightly lower amperages, and less grease.

Several ham radio clubs also showed up last year. I'm a little ashamed to say my mental image of ham radio operators is a bunch of guys tapping out morse code and trying to contact folks halfway around the world.

Their huge booth did match the stereotype a bit; they were offering ham radio license prep *and* license exams in the booth. But they also described themselves as "Not Your Grandfather's Ham Radio". The members pointed out that ham radio was a hobby for folks that liked building, experimenting with, and sharing technical projects that involved radio. These days, a ham radio operator is much more likely to be experimenting with high-speed Internet over radio than crowing about contacting a fellow operator in Russia.

I like that message. "We want to make things. Our hobby gives us a structure to figure out what to build next, past projects to build on and expand, and a community that will encourage and inspire us." Model railroading's a lot like that. We all have some interest in railroads, of course, but we all have our own reasons for being in the hobby: constructing models, experimenting with electronics, learning about geology, historical and architectural research, photography, or motors and mechanical engineering. We've got long-lived projects like our home layout or our particular subject interest that keeps us going. We've got a bunch of like-minded friends who understand our fascination with a particular locomotive, or freight car, or long-gone industry.

Like I said, Maker Faire is our people.

Be Interactive.

Maker Faire booths are often interactive; the goal isn't to get you watching someone doing something, but for you to do it as well. A friend from Apple, for instance, made a human-sized spirograph from bike parts, conduit, 3d printed parts, a scooter, and chalk. He sets it up outside one of the halls, and lets the kids ride around on the scooter while drawing patterns on the concrete. Like the Exploratorium, the infamously hands-on museum in San Francisco, Maker Faire is all about letting people touch, try, and make.

A booth last year was a bit more involved; they wanted to teach kids about the parts of a human cell, so they brought some Fimo clay and showed kids how to make little models of the cell by forming all the different bits in a multi-colored log. Slice the log apart, and the kid has a bunch of little clay cells. For a $5 donation, they'd go through the project with your child and send her home with a little reminder that biology was fun.

The fiber arts community went all-in, with a huge booth area and many volunteers teaching anyone interested how to crochet or knit. They even brought lots of spare knitting needles, crochet hooks, and yarn so folks could be sent home with a just-started project and the tools to complete it.

With model railroading, we're often not good at that kind of interaction and teaching. We can have a train show, but kids don't often get a chance to touch the models, let alone try building something themselves. Years ago, I remember a Canadian model railway show where one club had several modelers constructing models right there on the show floor, answering questions about the hobby, materials, and techniques the whole time. I loved it - both the chance to see how someone else models, and the chance to share tips while motioning with the specific model and tools. The modeling classes at model railroad conventions show how this interaction can draw people into the hobby more. I'd love it if we could find ways to introduce kids to model railroading - perhaps making a first freight car, or switching freight cars on a Timesaver (the PCR division's timesaver got me interested in switching as a teenager), or getting to make a quick cardboard building or hillside.

The breadth of Maker Faire is also stunning. I'd go from 3d printing or weaving projects from college art students, to a glowing robotic giraffe from Burning Man to scientists from Oak Ridge National Labs answering any and all science questions while making a supercomputer out of cheap Raspberry Pi computers. There was an entire section on living off the grid, gardening, and structures - I didn't even make dent that section last year.

And again, everyone was working to make their exhibits interactive. The Crucible, a shared shop for blacksmithing and metal arts, was doing their usual "shoot flames twenty feet in the air" schtick, but was also demonstrating blacksmithing, and letting kids paint and fire clay pots.

Next door, the civil engineering students from San Jose State were showing off their prototype for a monorail-like city transportation system. At a quarter scale, it must have taken several trucks to bring the vehicles, track, and supports, but they had it running automatically under computer control. Better yet, the students could talk about what they'd learned as they fabricated the rails and support, coded the computer controls to keep cars from crashing into each other, and worked through the economics. The students were obviously having a blast describing their work, even as the Crucible was setting off blasts of propane and flames forty feet away - with noticeable heat.

About Model Railroading

Honestly, I think model railroaders ought to be better-represented at events like this Maker Faire. The folks attending are our folks: interested in building stuff, in experimenting, in learning skills, and in sharing what they've learned with others. Maker Faire also shows the breadth of all the tinkerers and builders in society, from experimenting with lasers or modern computers to those who want to play around with tintype photography or blacksmithing, or the jury-rigged magic of the giant spirograph and live-action Mousetrap game. The focus on interaction - on letting kids and adults touch, and ask questions, and get a chance to see what the hobby is all about - seems essential to introducing new people to the hobby. Not everyone at Maker Faire might be interested in railroads. Those twenty-something kids who make the spaceship console, as much as they might be great candidates for yard master on a few model railroads I can think of, might never have caught the railroad bug. But if I brought out an operating layout of a yard and gave them a throttle, I suspect they'd appreciate the hobby and the games we play with model railroad operation.

How should our hobby interact with something like the Maker Faire? I don't think we need the NMRA at a table handing out brochures; we need to be interactive. We need to bring models, the people building models, and people operating trains. A couple friends and I talked a bit about an exhibit for the smaller Maker Faire run in San Jose every September. We thought about setting up a booth that could show the variety of directions in model railroading. We could bring some modules to show trains in operation, and talk about the historic research for Dave's model of the Santa Fe ferry slip in San Francisco. We could bring electronics, and talk about how John or Chuck built their CTC panels, and how the railroads kept trains from crashing into each other. We could build models with paper or styrene, give kids a paper building to cut out, put on the layout, and later take home. We could set up a timesaver to explain switching problems, and a loop of track so kids could handle a model train and get a sense for the fun of trains.

We never got around to that plan, but I think the idea is sound: share our hobby, share the fun of building things, and remind kids that they can make things too.


Again, the San Mateo Maker's Faire is May 19-21, 2017 at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds, just south of San Francisco. The San Mateo Maker's Faire is one of the largest in the country, if not the world - think of it as the equivalent of the huge Springfield, Massachusetts model railroad meet for the Maker community. If you're not local, keep an eye out for similar events in your area. Although there are similarly huge events in New York and elsewhere, there's also a ton of local, smaller Maker Faires that still capture the informal, show-and-tell feel. San Jose's Faire, for example, may not require multiple days to explore, but there's more time to talk with the participants, and wander, and just enjoy the kids and adults getting excited about laser cutters, balloon rockets, pressing flowers, or making music on home-made instruments. If you're part of a railroad, science, or historical museum, consider hosting a Maker Faire to get all these sorts of weird folks together to show what they're making.