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.

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