Monday, April 30, 2012

Shared Railroad Crossings

Me: "Where are you operating tomorrow?"

Jason: "Jim Providenza's Santa Cruz Northern."

Me: "You know you'll be running over this crossing here tomorrow, except in the opposite direction, right?"

Although hosting an operating session on my layout was my Big Event at ProRail, I also got a chance to operate on one of the other layouts - Jim Providenza's Santa Cruz Northern layout. Jim's layout is famous in model railroad circles. When interest in model railroad operations picked up in the late 1990's-about the same time that DCC control systems made running multiple trains on the same track trivial-Jim's articles in Model Railroader and other magazines about running trains with radios, dispatchers, station agents, and lots of meets got a lot of well-deserved attention and probably spurred a flock of great model railroad layouts for operations.

It didn't hurt, of course, that he's got a nicely scenicked layout with a long track run, all fit in half of a two car garage. Check out this video for a chance to see a video of the layout, though be aware the first minute focuses on the staging shelf across the garage from the best part of the layout.

The radios went away long ago, though. Now, Jim keeps trains safe via Timetable and Train Order Operation (TT&TO), the way that railroads in the first half of the 20th century kept trains from crashing into each other. Train orders, essentially, are logic puzzles that railroaders must solve before they're allowed to go home at night. All trains get a set of orders describing who wins out when two trains might occupy the same tracks. The orders are sent via telegraph to all trains (via telegraph operators at stations along the lines). The railroad crews interpret the orders (using the train orders, the rule book, and the timetable) to decide whether it's safe to move to the next siding, or if the other train might be coming at them. It's a great system when communication is challenging, but train orders required literate and sharp railroad crews to interpret the orders correctly.

Train orders also required a chain-smoking, caffeine-laden dispatcher sitting in an office somewhere with a telegraph key, papers for recording the orders sent and current location of trains, and a forceful personality to confidently hand out the orders.

Sadly, Jim didn't have one of those sorts of people, so I got to dispatch. And honestly, it was great fun; though I'd done it before, the SCN is larger and more elaborate than other layouts, so it made me think a lot more about the orders I was giving, whether I was planning ahead enough, and whether I was really writing safe orders. (Answer in at least one case: NO.)

I did poorly in one dimension: TT&TO was designed for difficult communication, so the best plan is to give out complete orders to several trains, and let them work out the details. "Train A gets to go down the hill first after 9:00; Train B can go uphill and Train C can go downhill as long as they don't get in A's way." This kind of a rule means that train B can start trying to get up the hill before 9:00 if they know there's a place to meet train A; once train A gets down the hill, then B and C rely on the rulebook to realize the train going up the hill always gets to go first without other priorities.

Assuming, of course, that all three trains realize there's a passenger train on the timetable going up the hill at 8:00, and has priority over all of them.

I instead tried to keep control and give permission only when I knew there was space - an appropriate scheme in the radio era of the 1970's, but an awful waste of paper. The cement train crew laughed about the stack of nine orders they'd needed to get their train up and back. I also ended up with three trains stuck at Fallon at the top of the hill towards the end of the session, but somehow they all got untangled just fine.

Jim's layout was a special place to visit for another reason: like me, he models the area from San Jose to Santa Cruz. He does have his own twist; Jim not only models the 1970's when he started railfanning, but he also models a personalized Santa Clara Valley where the Western Pacific had built a railroad going over the mountains. That gave him the freedom to model rough locations and the feel of the Santa Cruz Mountains without having to precisely model specific towns or the switchman's shanty next to the mainline switch at Diridon Station.

But on the edge of his Mac St. Yard in San Jose, just past the yard limits, you'll find the Southern Pacific crossing and interchange tracks. If you turn aside at the crossing and start walking up the SP tracks, you'll be on my Vasona Branch, looking at the Del Monte Cannery on one side, and Standard Oil's depot on the other. If you turn around and walk back down the unconnected WP tracks at the crossing, you'll be back here at a very busy SCN mainline looking at the Babbage Computer Company. Either way you turn, the smell of cooking tomatoes from the Del Monte cannery wins out over any other sensations.

[Photos from the SCN operating session this week are mine. First photo: SCN panorama. Second photo: after Fallon was unclogged. Third photo: SP Interchange on the SCN. If model railroad operations sounds interesting, drop me a note, or come to the Bay Area Layout Design and Operations meet, held every year the week before the Super Bowl.]

Friday, April 27, 2012

ProRail: Success!

As I've hinted over the last month or so, this week was the invite-only ProRail operating weekend, and the Vasona Branch was one of the layouts on the schedule. I hosted four attendees today for a half-day session, with participants from New York, Missouri, Nevada and California.

It was a great session - many fewer mechanical problems, and the sharp crew made it through the switching challenges with flying colors. Thanks to all the operators for a great session! Here's some action shots.

Deciding on the plan for Campbell.

Flashing brakeman signs to get the cars spotted correctly.

Two Operations Roadshow brakemen protecting the end of the Campbell Cannery Turn.

Cluttered tracks outside of Del Monte Plant #3.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Road Trip: Sunnyvale!

Although I'm working madly to prepare for the ProRail operating session later this week, I deserve a bit of a break. Let's take an imaginary road trip all the way out to Sunnyvale to look at another dried fruit packing house - the Del Monte building on Murphy Street in Sunnyvale.

As we all remember from previous discussions, the key design features of a dried fruit packing house (at least in turn-of-the-century California) was:

  • build big and barn-like (because the packing house had to store the entire year's crop until it could be sold),
  • three stories tall to hold the gravity-fed storage bins, and
  • a (preferably non-carnivorous) powered elevator to get the crop up to the top floor for sorting and storage.

The Del Monte Building fits the model nicely. Built in 1904 and originally located at 185 Evelyn Ave. next to the railroad tracks, it was the sole Santa Clara Valley outpost of Madison and Bonner, a dried fruit packer with multiple plants out in the Fresno area. The plant's location hints that M&B was willing to take a big chance to branch out from the raisin market into the prune, peach, cherry, and apricot market of the Bay Area. In the typical breathless fashion of the news media at the time, the San Jose Herald (as quoted in the September 15, 1906 Pacific Rural Press) claims "Madison & Bonner have nearly completed enlarging the dried fruit packing house and are installing new machinery. This enterprise will be second to none in the county." As a San Jose booster, I seriously doubt that claim, but I'll assume they had a nice plant that might have hoped to be the equal of one of the San Jose and Campbell dried fruit packing houses some day. Maybe.

Madison and Bonner - James Madison and Charles G. Bonner, for there really were two flesh-and-blood men behind that title - only lasted to 1911 when the two principals decided to dissolve the company. Bonner took over the Fresno raisin plants, changed the signs to "Bonner Packing" and started billing the company in the trade rags as "successors to Madison and Bonner." The distant Sunnyvale plant went to J. K. Armsby, a large San Francisco-based packer. I don't know what Madison was left with, but I'm hoping he took off for Hawaii with the proceeds.

The J. K. Armsby company, then run by J.K.'s son, George Newell Armsby, had multiple plants around California and the West at the time of the purchase. In 1913, they listed their presence in Fresno, San Jose, Armona, Visalia, Sanger, Suisun, Marysville, Los Angeles, Gilroy, Yuba City, Stockton, Ventura, Sunnyvale, and even an outpost in Vancouver Washington. The 1916 list in an ad omits Sunnyvale, with no hint whether the plant was closed, or if the printer just ran out of room for another name.

But George wanted to run an even more massive organization, and in 1916, he headed east to New York, convinced a New York banker to lend him 16 million dollars, and headed back to purchase and merge five companies into his new California Packing Corporation, better known to us as Del Monte. Those five companies were:

  • his own J. K. Armsby company, with local plants in Sunnyvale, Gilroy, and San Jose,
  • Griffin and Skelley, who started out packing oranges in Riverside and moved on to raisins and prunes with a large plant in San Jose that became Del Monte #51,
  • Central California Canneries in San Jose (the Japantown cannery), Tulare, and (I'm sure) other places,
  • California Fruit Canners Association, itself a conglomerate merged from 18 canneries in 1899, including the San Francisco Plant #1 (the Cannery), the San Jose Fruit Packing Co. (which brought the large cannery on San Carlos St. in San Jose), Oakland Preserving Company, and others, and
  • the Alaska Packers Association.
Note that four out of five of those companies had a presence in San Jose, so it's not unfair to say that San Jose was pretty much a Del Monte town.

The Sunnyvale packing house served as a receiving station for Del Monte from 1916 to 1926. However, good roads and easy access to cars probably hinted to the bean counters at Del Monte that they didn't need as many receiving stations scattered over the countryside, and certainly didn't need the Sunnyvale location. The Planning Department for Sunnyvale says that Del Monte opened a new dried fruit packing house in San Jose in 1926 - Del Monte's Plant #51 on Bush St. just west of Diridon Station, and the former Griffin and Skelley plant. The new plant got rid of the need for the local receiving stations, and so the Sunnyvale receiving station was closed and mothballed as a warehouse.

Luckily, the Del Monte building got a second lease on life in 1930, turning into the Corporate Seed research lab for Del Monte. Del Monte only left it in 1986 - well after the rest of the valley had started growing silicon wafers instead of prunes. In 1993, it even lost its location next to the railroad tracks, but was moved onto the one block remnant of Sunnyvale's main shopping street, Murphy Ave, where it serves as the endcap for a small but fun downtown.

And with some luck, you might get invited to a wedding up on the third floor of the now-restored building, and you can think of all the prunes and apricots that got sorted up there when the decor was a trifle more rustic.

[Image of the Sunnyvale Del Monte building from Sunnyvale Historical Society. The building has its own web site for its banquet business.]

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

SwitchList: Move Cars By Shuffling Waybills

One of my early decisions when designing SwitchList, the Mac program for creating lists of freight cars to move, was to make it real. I wanted paperwork that looked like the real thing, and I wanted paperwork that looked handwritten. I'd declared:
Make it beautiful. SwitchList's paperwork shouldn't look like it was printed on a twenty-year-old IBM PC (unless the real switchlists were). Forms should be handwritten. Bonus points for adding greasy fingerprints automatically.

Now, beautiful and realistic is a nice goal. But real railroaders didn't always start off with switchlists. The decisions about which cars a train would move started when the conductor picked up his stack of waybills, the official record of what the car was carrying and who was being billed for the cost of transportation. The switchmen might use the waybills to make their own switchlist cheat sheets, but the waybills were the primary source of truth.

Tony Thompson has written several blog articles over the last year about how the car cards he uses are meant to resemble the look of a typical waybill, or some of the other typical railroad paperwork. They look great... but I don't use car cards, I use switchlists. So could SwitchList generate waybills like it generates switchlists?

With SwitchList's custom switchlist templates and a bit of web savvy, it's certainly possible. The photo shows the result of a few day's work - an example waybill with values filled in straight from SwitchList. Making this required the same kind of work as making a web page - describing the waybill's graphic design using HTML, using SwitchList's template language to indicate where car initials and numbers get filled in, and a little magic code to make a guess at the car's potential route.

I've made the custom template to generate Waybills public; it's experimental and a bit rough, but if you're interested in making a complex switchlist template, it might give you some hints. You can copy the template from It isn't yet included with the SwitchList program; instead, copy the files down and install them as mentioned in the README file.

Better yet, if you have an iPhone, then you can see the switchlists in detail when you connect to SwitchList through its web interface. Best of all, you can swipe with your finger to look at the previous and next waybill.

Try out a demonstration of the SwitchList Waybill template on your iPhone (or computer) by clicking on this example. (If you load it into your computer's web browser, change which waybill you're looking at by pressing the mouse button and dragging the mouse.) I'm still a big fan of giving my operators a paper switchlist, so I'm probably unlikely to encourage people to browse waybills on their phone, but you might find this just what your layout needs!

Comments and suggestions welcome.

[Photo: Jack Delano photo for the Farm Security Administration, 1943. From Library of Congress.]

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Update: BUSTED! (Was: New Scenery Products for California Modelers )

Ouch - I'm embarrassed to have to say this, but it turns out California Natural Scenery Co. was too good to be true - it looks like their product isn't made from the real California plants as they claim.

I was really excited about their HO-301 Toxicodendron Diversilobum (that's Poison Oak, for those of you who didn't learn the latin names when you went to summer camp), and I like the look of their bushes… but they didn't actually make it from Poison Oak like they said. I figured this out when I accidentally put my elbow in the pile of bushes I was planting on the railroad last night. When I didn't get the characteristic rash by this morning, I knew something was up. A closer examination of their product shows it's actually mostly ground foam, and not Poison Oak.

I am very disappointed, and apologize if I got anyone else excited about their new products. It's too bad, for the Pampas Grass looks pretty good in my Vasona Junction scene, as seen here. They're a little short, but they'll do.

And if you do see some of California Natural Scenery products in the store, make sure to test it before you buy any significant amount. Rub a bit of one of their bushes on your skin, and if you start itching uncontrollably the next day, you know they're really making the product they're claiming.

[First photo: What I thought I was getting - real Poison Oak, as seen on a hike in New Almaden a while back.]

New Scenery Products for California Modelers!

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know my pet peeve. I've always been frustrated that there aren't enough model railroad structures and scenery products that are appropriate for California. You can buy brick downtown buildings appropriate for New York and short trees suitable for Arkansas, but finding appropriate Coast Live Oaks or Mission-style downtown storefronts is more of a challenge.

Luckily, some manufacturers are working on this. Our local hobby shop just got some new products from the California Natural Scenery Co., and they're definitely filling a greatly needed niche. While Faller or Scenic Express might have cabbage fields and flowers, California Natural Scenery is going for the California plants we're most likely to see along the railroad tracks. I just bought their Scotch Broom (HO-303) (which looks more like Spanish Broom, in my opinion), and Pampas Grass (HO-302) - both very common plants near disturbed soil or abandoned areas, and perfect near a railroad line.

Best of all, they're also selling the plant that every California schoolkid learns to identify early, the amazingly-common Toxicodendron diversilobum (HO-301). T. diversilobum is great for a model railroad - often seen in disturbed and unkept soil, and great from a model perspective because it can be a bush, a small tree, or a vine, and is equally suitable in woodlands, on hillsides, and in sunny patches near the tracks. California Natural Scenery captures the reddish leaves that are so representative of the plant in the late summer. Even though my layout is probably more an early-summer layout, I'll deal with the slight anachronism.

Best of all, California Natural Scenery is using the actual plants to make their T. diversilobum, so it's not only realistic, it's real and certified organic. That'll require a bit of care when putting in the scenery and working near the tracks (and they do explicitly warn on the package that you really should use gloves when handling it), but I'm willing to go through the effort to really make some great scenery. I suspect it'll also be a great way to encourage visitors not to touch the layout!

Here's a photo of the Alma hillside area with some quick applications of the new products. Both T. diversilobum and Scotch Broom are really common in the Santa Cruz mountains, and anyone who's hiked in the area can certainly notice the extra realism in this scene. The Pampas Grass will be going in the abandoned lots down in the Valley. I don't have a place for the bushes yet, but definitely wanted to buy them before they sold out.

I'm really happy with California Natural Scenery's new product line, and I can hardly wait to see what they come up with next! (My wish-list would be thistles and ice-plant.) California Natural Scenery Co. doesn't appear to have a website yet; check with your hobby shop to see if they'll carry the brand, or drop the company a note at P.O. Box 7325, San Narciso, CA 92011-7325.

And don't forget to keep your elbows off my layout from now on!