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?

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