Saturday, September 29, 2012

Meanwhile, in San Francisco...

Thanks to my interests, I follow a bunch of history and map blogs. That blog list often turns up articles like this gem, tracking down the source of a nicely-tiled entrance to a now-missing building at 7th and Hubbard in San Francisco.

You can't say enough nice things about people who combine pictures on the modern-day ground, Sanborn maps, and a good bit of gumshoe research to pull out a story.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Better Brakemen

You've got to admit that model railroad operations does tend to focus your mind. Many have said how running on a double-deck layout isn't that distracting; usually you're so focused on your own train that you don't know the action happening on the lower level.

That's also true for keeping track of what's happening near you. One of my first operating sessions almost ended in disaster when the crew switching Campbell started pulling a long train of cars towards San Jose, and a crew in San Jose started pulling a long train of cars towards Campbell. Because there's a curve between the two stations, the crew didn't notice that they were trying to occupy the same track until it was too late.

Soon after, I printed out some of the Operations Road Show paper flagmen, and I keep a few scattered around the layout so crews can guard track and avoid another crew intruding into space they need. Usually this works, though we've got a few flagmen with wheel marks showing that even careful crews sometimes run over flagmen.

John Plocher liked the paper flagmen on my layout, but felt they were insufficiently noticeable. John came up with the elegant solution of the DCC Brakeman, a little PC board cutout of a brakeman with a base that could touch both rails to power an LED. His little brakemen are both human-shaped and light up nicely - a great idea and very nice implementation.

John has put the plans up on his website, but he also had a set of brakemen built and assembled. They're currently for sale at the Train Shop in Santa Clara for around $7; the only work is to solder the figure onto the base, and attach the weight to the base. Go pick a few up for safety!

Monday, September 3, 2012

SwitchList: Suggesting Cargos

When I first started doing model railroad operations, the worst part (after fixing all the rare derailments and mechanical problems) was writing up the car cards. I had to write down a couple hundred possible cargos and routes to name all the possible things that boxcars could be carrying on my railroad. Canned fruit from Del Monte to the East Coast. Cattle being unloaded at Alma. Crates going to the packing house in Campbell. It was tedious and annoying work, and when I realized I didn't have the amount of traffic right, I had to go and write more cards. After all that, I created SwitchList so I wouldn't have to write all those cards.

SwitchList cuts the effort, but while I don't have to make twenty cards for all twenty cars of dried fruit leaving from Plant 51, I still have to decide what shipments might be received or sent from each industry. It's possible to learn what each industry might ship, either from books or from the OPSIG industry database, but that's stuff the computer ought to know how to do well, right?

Time to make that computer work a bit harder.

SwitchList-1.1.1 now contains a "Suggest Cargos" feature where you can name an industry, and it'll suggest some potential cargos that can be shipped from or received by the industry. SwitchList will guess at your industry based on its name, let you adjust its guess, then suggest several cargos that would be appropriate from that industry.

For now, the feature's simplistic; not all kinds of industries are listed, and some that are listed only have a few suggestions. But I think this could be helpful; I'd love feedback on whether you find this to be a useful feature, and I'd appreciate suggested cargos to include.

Check out the latest version of SwitchList over at the main SwitchList site, try it out, and if you like the Suggest Cargos feature, make some suggestions of your own about potential industries and cargos that SwitchList ought to know about!