Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Prepping for an Operating Session

My layout lives in a garage. It's not a great environment for a model railroad. The garage holds a car, so the garage door gets opened and closed a lot. The garage door slides sideways, so sealing the bottom isn't possible. The layout gets dusty, and the spiders that find their way in spin webs across the tunnel portals to catch the occasional locomotive. Trying to ensure the layout operates well has been a struggle. Here's some of the work I've had to do.

When I started trying to host operations at my layout, I found this was a great way to frustrate friends. My small steam locomotives, tight curves, and garage environment meant that I had tons of stalls. Poor track caused derailments. Seth and Byron probably spent half their time that first night nudging the locomotives over dead spots.

After that session and a couple other unsuccessful ones, I got religion about making the layout operate smoothly. I'd originally used Shinohara track switches with Caboose ground throws to hold the points in place. This worked for about six months, but after a while, dirt got in the way and power didn't make it to the switches. I ended up replacing every ground throw on the layout with a Tortoise switch machine, and used the contacts on the Tortoise to make sure power got to the switch correctly. Then I found that the Tortoises would switch power too quickly and cause shorts, so I had to crawl under the layout, remove every switch machine, open it up, and grind the PC board traces down so the power wouldn't get switched til the points moved. If you didn't understand any of that because you're not a model railroader, don't worry - just understand I did a huge amount of painful work because I wanted to make sure people enjoyed operations on my layout.

I also figured out that my small brass steamers weren't behaving great either. In these locomotives, the wheels on the right hand side of the locomotive would pick up power from one rail, and the wheels on the left hand side of the tender would pick up power from the other rail. If dirt and uneven track kept a couple wheels from making contact, it wasn't hard to have the locomotive stall. I found Lenz's power modules could let a locomotive run for a couple seconds without power, so I put one in a locomotive and enjoyed the lack of stalls. (That locomotive moves beautifully and smoothly; the only problem is that it doesn't have a sound decoder so it's a bit quiet. Come and see it anyway!) Mark Gurries also pointed me at a web page which describes how to connect a capacitor to common decoders to get similar stall-proof behavior. Both helped, but the operating sessions still had stalls.

Finally, I realized I'd have to be strict on layout cleanliness. I ended up writing up a checklist of cleanup tasks before an operating session. I assume everyone with an operating layout has a similar list, but I've never seen anyone talk about their list. My list (which takes a few hours to complete) includes:

  • Sweep the garage, and vacuum the sections of indoor-outdoor rug around the layout.
  • Go on cobweb and dust patrol on areas around the layout.
  • Vacuum all track on the layout, hidden and not hidden.
  • Vacuum particularly dusty parts of the layout.
  • Wipe down all track with a cloth soaked in alcohol. Keep wiping til the rag comes off clean.

  • Clean all locomotive wheels with alcohol, then wire brush them with either a Kadee driver cleaner or with a wire brush in a dremel tool. Without the wire brush step, I haven't been able to get reliable operation.
  • Clean all plastic car wheels by running them across a paper towel soaked in alcohol. Usually, the metal wheels are clean, but some of the plastic wheels are always amazingly dirty.
  • Check that every track switch moves correctly when the switch on the fascia is thrown. Check that all the frogs are powered by manually touching the switch points the wrong way and listening for a stall.

For a final test, I'll take a balky locomotive (usually a small switch locomotive), and set it loose on the layout. If it stalls, I figure out what happened and clean the track there.

Then there's the general straightening up:

  • Remove unrealistic or inappropriate buildings on the layout.
  • Remove damaged or unrealistic trees.
  • Move garage clutter out of the garage.
  • Hang the drapes hiding the clutter under the layout.
  • Check that all layout signage is in place and readable.

What's in your cleanup checklist for your layout?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Scenes from Wrights

Here's some photos of Wrights, both the real location and my model. The first two show the final station site on the north side of Los Gatos Creek (across the bridge over Los Gatos Creek from the tunnel under the summit. The second two pictures show the area in front of the tunnel. The real photo shows the original station site in front of the tunnel, and, across the tracks from the station, the general store, post office, and hotel. The model photo shows the same location (from a different vantage point) looking across the tracks at the general store.

The Perils of Modeling a Prototype

One of my favorite parts of my Vasona Branch layout is researching what the area was like in the 1930's, then building models based on photos, track plans, and other details about what was really there. Now, I can't actually match reality; building a model railroad in this way requires occasional compromises to figure out what will fit on the layout, what makes the layout fun to operate, and what makes for an interesting scene.

Occasionally, I get caught and learn that my idea of reality was completely wrong. The last time this happened, I found out my nice shed-style building for Borcher Brothers building materials near the old San Jose Market Street station had been torn down and replaced with a nice Spanish revival facade in the 1920's. Oops.

My latest historical crisis came from History San Jose's Cannery Life on-line exhibition. Del Monte's Plant #3 on Auzerais St. finally closed down in San Jose in 1999l, and was torn down and replaced by housing last year. The article describes the history of the plant. It was once the largest cannery in the world, and some claim that fruit cocktail was invented there.

Del Monte used "the whole hog" when it processed fruit. The choicest pieces of fruit were sliced and canned in their own cans. Smaller bits and parts of damaged fruit went into fruit cocktail. Even the pits from apricots had value, so Plant #3 also had an apricot kernel processing plant which is visible on Sanborn fire insurance maps for the time.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps have a small problem. These huge books were used to help insurance companies figure out how much to charge an industry looking for insurance. If a business was next to a dangerous industry or if the containing building was shown not to have fire protection, the insurance company could charge more. Some of these books still exist (San Jose Public Library has several), and University Microfilm also sells access to images from these books. However, it's hard to find a "1930" Sanborn map because most books were updated with glued-in sections as facts changed. University Microfilm's collection, for example, has 1915 and 1950 versions of San Jose, so I have to guess what was there during my era of 1930-1935.

History San Jose kindly included this image from the 1930 map showing the kernel processing part of the plant. (It's labelled here as a separate company.) Unfortunately, there's also the nice pencilled note mentioning that the building burned down in 1932. Now, I don't model the kernel processing buildings, and the corner where the buildings existed holds the end of a siding, but should I be modeling these buildings? Should I be modeling the empty space?

Ugh... a little knowledge causes a lot of pain.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Few Lingering Projects

My new job has been cutting into my modeling time, but I managed to find some time last weekend. I ended up working on one lingering project, and one bit of detail.

First, the detail. My model railroad layout's gotten to a point where some of the scenes look complete - scenery, buildings, and track are in. Now, I've got time to add little details to make things look realistic. I've been installing working signals along the track. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, many of the signals were semaphore signals where an arm moves up and down to indicate whether a train can stop or go. Semaphores are real attention-getters, so the block boundaries where signals appear tend to get attention. Now, a real railroad signalling system is more than just the signals; there are also the telegraph poles that carry the wires between signals, and equipment cabinets, and, hidden in the weeds, battery boxes.

Battery boxes hold lead-acid batteries that power the signals when regular power goes out or isn't available. These days, there's probably a car battery stuffed in an equipment closet somewhere, but back in the old days, you'd see rectangular concrete vaults half-buried near signals. These vaults held batteries made from a glass jar and metal plates. The signal maintainers would stop by occasionally to replace the plates, refill the water, or add extra battery acid to keep everything running fine.

I thought these would make a neat project, so I made several from a couple pieces of styrene - a base, a slightly larger piece of sheet for the battery vault lid, and a strap to mimic the steel rod that would lock the vault lid on. In the picture of the signals at one end of the Glenwood siding, you can see one of the battery boxes in the dirt behind the signal. I still need to build the equipment closet that holds the relays that make the signal work, but that'll be a project for another rainy Saturday.

My second project for the weekend was building a searchlight signal. The model semaphore signals need a motor and mechanism underneath the layout, but I didn't always leave room for all the machinery. Luckily, the real Southern Pacific occasionally used color light semaphore signals in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1930's, so I can always model one of these signals instead.

When I last went to the hobby shop, the only signals I could find were some beautiful kits from Class 5 in Santa Rosa. These kits are a combination of plastic castings and etched brass, and make very detailed, realistic signals. Unfortunately, they don't have any way of actually lighting them -- there's no space in the scale light housing parts for an LED or light bulb. I've spent way too much time getting the signals to work under computer control and correctly change colors as trains go by, so I knew I had to light one of these signals.

After a couple false starts (and leaving the kit on my workbench for months just to annoy myself), I finally dived in with my soldering iron and a two-color LED. The pictures show the results. Rather than use the kit's light housing, I filed the LED down until it would fit through the hole in the brass target. I then soldered one of the LED's leads to the brass rod holding the signal up; the other got soldered to a thin wire that ran down the tube. The rest of the signal was assembled according to the kit's instructions. Unfortunately, the LED didn't quite sit in the same position as the kit's light housing, so the bracket for that is floating in air with nothing to support as seen in the side view.

Note the number plate on the signal indicating (in SP tradition) the number of miles and tenths of miles from San Francisco. (Here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 3 digits were enough for the number plates; in Texas, the signals had 5 digit numbers because of the distance from the home office.) Another number plate went on the signal near Glenwood as seen in the first photo.

This signal got installed near the station at Wrights. Now, I only need to buy a few more signals for a couple other locations on the layout.