Whew, another Bay Area Layout Design and Operations meet has happened, and once again it's been a great weekend. Great talks, great conversations, and a full set of layout tours and operating sessions. Seth and Chris's description of using RFID tags to automatically make switchlists for trains showed that a long-desired bit of technology is ready for model railroading prime time. Tom Knapp described his latest Nn3 layout based on the Pacific Coast Railway in San Luis Obispo, and his lightweight modules made from 1x1 oak frames and 1" styrafoam definitely started me considering a couple module and shelf layout ideas. I missed some of the later talks as part of helping with layout design consulting, but got to talk with some fun modelers planning some neat shelf layouts and Bay Area prototypes - the advising experience was as much fun for me as I suspect it was for the designers. If you didn't make it this year, make your plans to visit San Francisco next January!
The weekend was also a bit of a whirlwind for me; I had the Vasona Branch layout open on Saturday night, and then hosted an operating session Sunday afternoon, and it was all dizzying, tiring, and fun in so many ways.
Making the layout presentable's always a struggle. There's the prep of clearing out the stuff that normally lives in the garage, the cleaning and cobweb patrol, and the effort of testing the layout to make sure it's running ok... which is a big challenge if it's been months since I last hosted. This year was a little worse than usual; although I'd been doing prep for the last few days, a bunch of gremlins must've crept in during the last few nights. A couple switches started sticking and shorting out the power supply when thrown. Well-behaved cars seemed to be derailing more often. Worst of all, one of the key switches on the layout started tossing cars off last night.
That last story is worth some detail. Normally, I'll test the layout by running a partial operating session on my own and watch for parts of the layout that misbehave. I'd done a bit of that this time, but perhaps not enough. I've also learned that it's hard to be a talkative host and run trains, so I'll usually catch an unsuspecting visitor, give him a throttle, and ask him to switch some industries while I say hello to visitors.
Last night, the poor guest took out one of the cannery jobs, and started pushing and pulling twelve cars over the spur leading to Del Monte Plant #51, the dried fruit plant in West San Jose. It seemed like every car was derailing on that switch, and each time there'd be a spark and the short circuit alarm would beep. He'd re-rail, go to do another switch, and there's be another car on the ground, another spark, and another beep. He later said he still enjoyed the job, but I was embarrassed with how badly the layout was operating - more than a few cars derailing during a session takes away any feeling of actually being a railroader.
I spent a good part of Saturday night and Sunday morning trying to diagnose what was going on. I coupled up all a good twenty cars, and ran them back and forward over that switch over and over, and cars were derailing constantly. Forward, back, derail, curse. Forward, back, derail, curse. I tried adjusting the track, I tried pulling out badly-behaving cars, I tried reasoning with the badly-behaving switch. Nothing.
Helpful hint: if you want to have a large, operating layout, it'll help if you're also willing to stand in a cold garage for hours on a wintry Saturday night running trains back and forth over a single stretch of track. Stock up on the curse words too.
With a couple hours before showtime, I was seriously considering extreme methods: pulling up the switch and replacing it with a length of flex track. I even marked the section to cut and had started curving the replacement track. Luckily, I reconsidered my odds of having a working railroad by 1:30, and decided I wasn't that brave. Instead, I pulled out the several of the worst behaving cars, replaced the trucks on a couple, and did some careful shimming, and got the failure rate down to every few trains or so. Whatever I did must have helped; the switch did decently all afternoon, and what failures it had were no worse than some of the hiccups around the layout. I'm still curious why the trucks were the problem for a couple of the cars; it looks like the springs in a couple trucks weren't keeping the sideframes level. Pitting on other wheels might have let bits of metal that could cause a wheel to climb a rail. For the rest... well, that's a mystery.
That switch (and the scenery around it) are still destined for some Serious Attention, though. I suspect a sharper-than-usual curve and slight downgrade just before the offending curved turnout is part of the problem, so some extra care at keeping vertical curves and grades gradual mught help. My current thought is to rip out the scenery and track there, do a better job of laying the track, and then redo the scenery and structures. Luckily, that switch is in front of the Abinante and Nola packing house which I learned was completely unlike the actual location. Now that I've got that 1934 photo of the J.S. Roberts packing house that I found down at the San Jose library, I've got a ton of great, photogenic detail to try to incorporate into the layout. Stay tuned for progress reports.
Even with the Mystery of the Derailing Boxcars, the weekend was still amazingly fun. The open house and operating session over the weekend brought some interesting folks by; the pictures of the operating session show their smiling (and occasionally pensive) faces. This open house also brought some folks interested in San Jose history, so I had some great conversations about about the layout. I heard about the fun of stacking cans at the Del Monte cannery, and how my Plant 51 model matched memories of taking the Daylight from San Jose to visit Grandma in San Francisco.
Thanks to all the folks who stopped by, stay tuned for maintenance progress, and I'll see the rest of you at the Layout Design and Operations meet next year!
[Photos: operating session on Sunday. I managed to shoehorn six operators onto the layout this time, including one new operator who I hope will become a regular on some of the local layouts. I also got enough questions about operating that I really need to think about getting back to regular operations...]