Sunday, December 24, 2017

Movie Night XXVII: The Track-Pull Tractor Survived

Earlier this year when I reported on the Bean Spray Track-Pull Tractors, I'll admit I didn't think the tractors had changed the world. Even if one of the tractor startup guys had spoken at a Bean Spray employee all-hands about how "Our Tractor" would change the market, there wasn't much evidence that the tractor had much of an impact. Sure, Jim McCollough did another startup with a similar tractor in the 1930's. Sure, Alf Johnson was still testing tractor designs into the 1950's. But it's not like Bean Spray, and later Food Machinery Corporation ever built more tricycle tractors... right?

YouTube proved me wrong. It appears the Track-Pull design influenced Bean Spray products for years afterwards. Food Machinery Corporation, the name for the company after multipler mergers, was selling a similar three wheel design as late as 1945. This 1945 tractor isn't the same design: it uses rubber tires rather than a Caterpillar track, the engine is front and center instead of on one side, and the tractor is surprisingly tiny compared to the tractors that rolled down Julian Street in 1918. But it's still the same, with a similar fork supporting the two wheels, and similar huge wheels to control steering. I suspect it was a great tractor for a small orchard, or for cleaning up a large yard.

1945 Food Machinery Corporation tractor for sale. $6K OBO.

1945 Food Machinery Corporation tractor for sale. Part 2

For a crazy Sunnyvale tractor startup, it's pretty neat to hear their design was still in production 30 years later. A bunch of us out here in Silicon Valley can't claim such a victory.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Market Street: The Train Departure Board

Short shameful confession time: I built the Market Street layout because it was easier to build than a video game.

A non-trivial bit of my inspiration for the Market Street layout came from the railway switching games made by SIAM Railway Simulations. These mostly-British prototype games provide accurate simulations either of a station or for dispatching a long set of track. The station simulations put you in the role of the tower man and switcher at anything from the end of a country branch to the busy through station at Crewe. The dispatch sections include British settings (Scottish Highland line) as well as realistic versions of Tehachapi Pass, either in the 1920’s or the 1960’s. I’ve played some samples and bought other games.

SIAM's samples page lets you get a taste of the games by downloading demonstration, reduced versions of their simulations. The samples include dispatching the Highland line and Tehachapi Pass, and handling switching in the stations at Crewe and Penzance. The Tehachapi dispatching game gave me a great appreciation for getting trains over Tehachapi Pass in the steam era.

Penzance, 1987 game from SIAM Railway Simulations

Of course, I wanted to try some more American prototypes - handling the traffic coming and going from the Oakland Pier, perhaps. Or why not the San Jose Market Street station? I got a fair way through making an iPad game so I could switch those places, but I found it difficult to control all the switch engines and car movements I wanted to include. After enough tries, I found myself asking "so what would a layout set up like one of these games look like?

So, I’ve built the layout, and I've got an answer to that question.

However, to make the layout operate like the game, I need to know what trains need to come and go. More importantly, if the layout is being exhibited, I want folks to see the names of the trains coming and going so they can understand the sheer number of trains that could be handled in the 1920’s, even if the station was a creaky old Victorian barn.

Suddenly, that way-too-large display on the Raspberry Pi has a use.

Snippet of departure board. Click here to try it out for real.

My inspiration was a European-style flip-card station sign; it’s not quite prototypical for the era, but anyone who’s been in a large train station has seen one of these, so showing a listing of trains should both inform and hint at the sheer number of trains they’re seeing.

And luckily, making such a sign is easy. One of the neat habits of programmers these days is to share programs they’ve written so others can use those programs. A friendly guy named Paul Cuthbertson liked the idea of drawing flip-style departure boards, and based on an inspiring article, went off and wrote a web page to draw one.

Now, I need more than just the departure board graphics for the Market Street layout. I need a sped-up fast clock to show the current simulated time on the railroad, for the compressed track plan means trains won’t take as long to move around as on the real thing. I’ll need a way to control the board when trains arrive and leave. I’ll need a way to manage problems - backing off accidental train departures, or stopping the clock in terms of problems.

I took Paul’s code and created this departure board for San Jose Market Street. (See this Github project for the source code itself.) Pressing a number key (1-9) causes the nth train to move to its next state; a train that’s on its way will go to “arriving” on the first press, then “arrived” on the second, then will be removed from the board on the third.

Paul’s card-flipping web page turns out to require a lot of computing horsepower to flip through all 26 characters for each change. The poor little Raspberry Pi, being the size of a credit card, couldn't keep up. Instead, I changed the program so that the board only performs 6 flips per letter, instead of flipping though the whole alphabet like the real flip board.

So now, when I set up the layout, I just need to set the box containing the DCC electronics somewhere both the audience and operator can see. The stationmaster can use a keyboard to advance the departure board as trains arrive and leave. The operators know what trains they're building; the audience gets an understanding of how easily they could commute from San Jose to San Francisco (or Salinas) in 1928.

And I get a modular layout that's inspired by a video game.

The modern practice of sharing sample code and reusable libraries is a great part of modern programming culture. Great thanks to Paul Cuthbertson for the core of the departure board code!

If the departure board idea might work for your layout, download the sources from GitHub and customize it for your own use. Drop me a note if you find it useful!

Market Street: Electronics and DCC

From the start, I knew I wanted the Market Street layout to have multiple operators working in parallel: switch crews making up and breaking up trains at the station, road engineers coming from the roundhouse, and taking a train out, and freight crews switching the cannery and packing house on the layout. That meant I needed to choose a DCC system for controlling the trains, and I needed to decide what kinds of throttles to use. There were two obvious choices: I could go with Digitrax, the standard for Free-Mo modules, or I could use the same system I had at home - EasyDCC. Neither was attractive. I’m not fond of the Digitrax system; I’ve always had trouble understanding how to use their controls, and have seen too many cases where an errant button press disabled a throttle. EasyDCC would allow me to reuse my existing throttles, but I’d still need to buy a new command station and booster, find an enclosure for both, and then wire all the modules with coax to allow wired throttles to be plugged in around the layout.

Another engineer running a train on the Silicon Valley Freemo-N layout with a phone

Luckily, I was reminded of the local Silicon Valley Freemo-N group. They’d set up their dozen modules (most based on Bay Area scenes) at the 2011 NMRA convention up in Sacramento. When I stopped by to check out the layout, Dave asked if I wanted to run a train. “Sure, but I don’t have a throttle.” “Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “You’ve got a phone - just install WiThrottle.” They were using the iPhone-based WiThrottle, all talking to some random command station connected to a computer. I downloaded the app, and within a few minutes was running a streamliner across their layout.

Fast forward to last year. At the Bakersfield NMRA convention, one of the vendors had the SPROG 3 - a tiny DCC booster and command station that can power smaller layouts. It could be driven by the dirt cheap Raspberry Pi computers and the JMRI software, making for a full DCC system in less space than a cigar box. This seemed like the perfect choice - wireless throttles for the layout meant no wires for a throttle bus. Operators came with their own throttles, so I didn’t need to shell out hundreds for throttles. It could all fit in some tiny box.

Back: Electronics

Front: Monitor

The Sprog / Raspberry Pi plan won. The Raspberry Pi is a full Linux computer; with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, it could do anything a big computer could (though a bit slower). I wandered over to Fry’s to pick up the Pi ($50). At the same time, I picked up a cheap flat panel monitor with an HDMI plug; the cheapest, at $99, was a 22 inch display - bigger than I expected. It turns out smaller monitors are speciality items now. That monitor set a minimum size for the electronics box.

With the monitor and electronics, I made a plywood box to hold them all in - the monitor set just inside, facing one way, and electronics the other. The box also contains the power strip, extension cables to reach the modules, and power for switch machines - all nice and compact, and easy to transport. Once it’s plugged in, I can use the monitor to start up JMRI and the command station; with some quick clicks on my phone, I’m running a train. All I need to do now is get some additional plywood to make lids for both halves of the box, and I’ll be all set.

Interesting aside: my nephew came over a couple weeks back and wanted to see my trains. The big layout was a mess, so I laid the Market Street modules on the floor, plugged things in, and we ran trains. When we went back inside, he beamed. "Mommy, we ran trains with a phone!"

Now, that 22 inch monitor is too large to use just for starting up JMRI; check out our next episode to hear what else I can do on that screen.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

My Yardmaster Has a +4 Rulebook of Smiting

When I was a kid, I played a fair amount of Dungeons and Dragons.  At its core, D&D is interactive, co-operative storytelling.  You get a bunch of folks together around a table; one person (the “game master”) describes a situation (usually something dramatic from a fantasy novel involving saving the village from a dragon, or breaking into the Thieves’ Guild, or exploring an underground labyrinth full of monsters and treasure). You each describe what your character does, and the gamemaster describes what happens. At its best, it's like writing an adventure novel on the fly.

Dungeons and Dragons - the initial version - was originally created by war gamers. That lineage shows up as lots of statistics and lots of dice. How much damage can my fighter take before he’s disabled? How much extra damage does my extra-good sword give? What saving throw must I roll to avoid being turned to stone by a medusa? The randomness adds to the fun of role-playing, but it's easy for the dice-rolling to take over.  Worse, some folks start thinking the points are what matters rather than the story.  Min-max'ers start making decisions on the game based on the probabilities, acting out of character in order to get the best results.  “Why rescue the princess? It won't give me enough experience to reach level 7.” Munchkins - the stereotypical kid playing only to score more than their buddies - ignore the puzzles and atmosphere in order to kick in the door, kill the monsters, and collect a +16 vorpal sword.

Dungeons and Dragons is a good forty years old now.  (Note to self: keep an eye out for retirement communities with active gaming groups).  Those forty years of game play also means that role playing games have evolved. The latest versions of Dungeons and Dragons still have voluminous rule books, odd dice, and lots of mathematical tables to decide whether your thief can climb to the top of the castle wall. Other games go much more towards the story telling. One of the more extreme examples, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, has the players pretend to be the famous Baron von Munchausen of tall-tales fame; each tries to tell a story to outdo the others in the 17th century German tavern…. er, sitting around the table.

And some games stress the interactive storytelling but still have some of those random mechanics. One example is Fate Core. In Fate Core, you still create an alter-ego, and catalog down some of that character’s attributes on a “character sheet”. However, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, you generally use words instead of numbers. You choose a subset of skills that your character is good at (“Very good at athletics and investigation, poor at deceiving.”) You name aspects of your character - one liners - naming both how you generally respond, and an obvious weakness. (“Thief with a heart of gold”, “always jumps in to help the underdog”, “afraid of zombies”). Fate Core uses a simpler mechanic for deciding if you succeed, with simple dice with pluses and minuses for the random angle, and a range of success where you get to narrate the result.  Most importantly, the Fate Core rules includes the simple statement:

“Both players and gamemasters have a secondary job: make everyone around you look awesome. Fate is best as a collaborative endeavor, with everyone sharing ideas and looking for opportunities to make the events as entertaining as possible… Fate works best when you use it to tell stories about people who are proactive, competent, and pragmatic. A game about librarians spending all their time among dusty tomes and learning things isn’t Fate. A game about librarians using forgotten knowledge to save the world is... Characters in a game of Fate always lead dramatic lives. The stakes are always high for them, both in terms of what they have to deal with in their world, and what they're dealing with in the six inches of space between their ears.”

After all, isn't that what we want in fantasy stories? Conan the Barbarian fighting off the invading hordes? Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser thwarting the evil Overlord? A conflicted Batman deciding whether to go after the Joker? Academic psychologists defeating the Blatant Beast in the world of Spencer’s Faerie Queene?

Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop show on YouTube shows what an actual game is like; if I’ve made you curious, go check it out.

But this blog is about model railroading.

I’ve said before that model railroad operation is pretty close to roleplaying - a bunch of us come together in a scenario planned by someone else, and try to tell a story about a day on the railroad.  Switchlists and train sheets give some of the war-gaming randomness.  But we also have a much different mission than Fate Core.  We don't want drama and excitement - we want to be recreating the action of the model railroad in a day-to-day, get-it-done model. We’re coming together to get the jobs done and keep the trains moving.

I think of it as more than a game; I’d like folks to get an appreciation of working on the railroad in the 1930s - what the jobs were like, how busy the railroad was, and where the other San Jose residents was working. The role playing is also a reminder of the difficult parts of railroading - the times you're stuck at the top of Tehachapi Pass at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum,  and can't get permission from the dispatcher to leave the siding, or wondering what a switch job would have been like in the rain or snow. It also determines whether we just re-rail those cars that fell in the canyon, or if the dispatcher immediately shuts down the railroad and sends the Big Hook to fix the derailment.

A war-gaming style doesn’t work for us; Joe can’t be a level 5 hostler; if you run over your switchman, that doesn't mean you have a half-effective switchman. But we can try to name ourselves by adjectives, just like in Fate Core. A particular tower man might be “crotchety” and "slow". A yardmaster might be “helpful”. An engineer may be “selfish” and try to tie up his train ahead of others; another engineer may be “know-it-all” and may push the schedule and safety to get to the next siding. A brakeman might be “sleepless” after ten days working without a break. The jobs might have Fate-style aspects, too. A switch job on the edge of the layout might be slow-speed: “don’t sweat it too much”, while a switchman working in the yard might want to feel as if he’s “micromanaged”. Chuck Hitchcock’s Argentine Industrial District Railway sets adjectives like this for certain jobs, with the AT&SF tower man encouraged to favor his own trains and ruin the plans for the crossing railroaders.

But just like the real railroad jobs, some of the role-playing on the layout comes from our own experience. If I operate on Rick Fortin's layout, I know there's experienced crews who know what they're doing, and newbies who make lots of mistakes, and I’m likely to plan for that behavior when I switch the yard. Some of that role-playing falls back on indivdual personality; there's going to be crochety members of the operating session, and mellow coworkers.  If Sam’s the yard master at Keyser on David Parks’ layout, then the yard’s going to be run strictly by the book. If Falkenburg is an engineer, he'll be no-nonsense. If Seth's running the yard, we'll be working double-speed, but he’ll be teaching the newbies out the whole time.

So we're kinda not role-playing - we're just running trains and letting some of our own personality bleed out. That’s not surprising; I suspect the folks who tend to play thieves in D&D probably tend towards the clever and sneaky personality, and the folks playing a paladin probably have a strong sense (or secret inclination) to make sure Things Are Done Correctly And Properly.  We'll role-play a bit outside our normal roles, but most of us probably tend towards acting in a way that has some parallel with our real self.

But model railroading is still role-playing; we need to describe a setting and provide some hints. Our operators need to know whether the rulebook is “more like guidelines” on this layout, or if breaking a rule gets you banished. Our operators need hints about the job and the role, both so they know if it’s a character they want to play, and so they know how to behave towards the others in the session. We can have a bit of randomness to make the system heroic. Perhaps some maintenance work shuts down an important stretch of track, and we all need to pull together to make it through the day. Maybe we should imagine that it’s a winter day, and getting the trains over the hill is a bit of heroism.

Sometimes we just play up the drama. I often describe my own Vasona Branch model railroad as a "high speed, thrill ride switching layout", for I personally like challenging switching puzzles, and I want to invite operators who are interested both in the prototype and in the switching challenges. Like Fate, most of my operators are "proactive, competent, and pragmatic", and if they're not saving the world with their switching, at least they're removing a bit of chaos from the tracks next to the cannery. The real crews, with thirty years of experience switching these same tracks, were probably just as adept at dispelling the chaos.

If I want to inspire my operators with a bit of drama, I can be blunt in my introduction to the layout:

"It's June 15, 1932; apricots are ripe, and everyone's running full-out to can the crop. The canneries have been running double shifts since April on different crops, and you all have been working with hardly a break since then. You've got all the shifts you would want; you don't dare try to take time off, and you've had enough practice so you're confident and working together as a team.

It's six in the morning; the canneries start up in two hours. You need to get the boxcars in position so all those guys on the dock can load the cars up. Go show those guys on the loading docks how railroaders get things done.

But not all my operators are like that; some of my visiting operators, either by choice or by a random roll of the invite list, can be sedate, challenged by puzzles, or are new model railroaders getting thrown into the deep end of the San Jose extra board switching pool. Sometimes, those folks play the role of the new hire on the railroad, destined in his or her first shift to decide whether railroading is the right profession, or if he's going back to the farm where they won't need to distinguish between thirty boxcars in various shades of brown. Some folks might play the character of the old hand who needs some help in the role, which might frustrate the other folks on his train, or might remind folks of how the railroaders protected their own. Hopefully, no one's playing the rest of Ed Gibson's crew on that infamous trip on the Hayward Turn. Sometimes the operator having a hard time on the layout reminds us of crews the real railroad. Sometimes, we hope they'll fall asleep under the layout. Sometimes we'll just want to scream - just like on the real railroad.

To help our operators play the correct role on the railroad, we need to give them hints. We can suggest the tone of the operating session in our introduction and in how we explain our layout, the way the game master does. Just like Fate Core, we can use adjectives to give our operators hints about their roles or their characters. We can also let each operator's personality reflect into the game, either by letting the operators be themselves, or carefully inviting the folks who match the tone for our layout. No matter which way we provide those role-playing hints, our operators will end up making the operating session awesome, and as entertaining as possible... even if they're not a level 5 hostler.

Interested in other story-style role playing games? Check out Tabletop's video of Dread, where characters need to pull a block from an unstable Jinga block stack to avoid bad things happening, or Fiasco's story-telling based on 1970's dance clubs. And if you'd prefer that +16 vorpal sword, check out the card game Munchkin.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Just Scan It.

The biggest challenge for recreating a prototype railroad in miniature is finding enough information about the real thing. I've been lucky with the Vasona Branch. Maps of the railroad are common. Newspapers and city directory help me spot the location of businesses. The local historical associations have lots of photos. Folks who worked on the modern SP tell stories that suggest that operations in the 1930's sometimes matched operations decades later.

That doesn't mean there's enough information; sometimes I've had to search official archives (such as finding out about the rebuilt Hart gondolas from the University of Texas, El Paso's collection of SP files), or poke around California State Railroad Museum's collection for maps of Wrights.

Still, I'm always hoping there's more documentation out there, so I occasionally go searching on Google for new documents, or even check eBay for interesting railroad paper.

Last year, for example, I found an eBay auction for a document from the Ogden Union Railway and Depot, which I assume controlled the tracks around Ogden Union Station. I was hoping the document might give some hints about local switching in the 1930's. Instead, it turned out to be primarily an accounting document, setting the rules for how traffic from each of the owning railroads - the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific - counted towards upkeep of the depot area.

Now, although it's not too interesting for me, it might be interesting for others. There’s also a bit of detail about operations. There’s hints about the routes that trains take (discussing UP routes), lists of major industries on the industrial track and branches operated by the Ogden Union, and details about when the Ogden Union gets a switching allowance for handling a car.

So, just in case there's someone out there modeling Ogden, I've scanned the document and put it up on Flickr. You won't get to enjoy the crackling of cheap paper and mimeographed text, but it's one more bit of research available to someone interested in modeling Ogden, or understanding how a jointly-owned belt line might think about the railroads that own it. (The San Francisco Belt Line folks might check for any similarities with how the Belt Line operated.)

The document is “Rules Governing the Counting of Freight and Passenger Cars at Ogden Utah between the Southern Pacific Company, the Ogden Union Railway and Depot Company, and the Union Pacific Railroad Company. It’s dated June 27, 1938. It also includes sample register check forms for the railway.

Go check it out, and if you see anything interesting, let me know! And if you've found some odd document in your research for your own prototype, how about sharing it online so that a future researcher can discover new tidbits from it?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Market Street: Construction

A couple months ago, I needed a project that I could really focus on, and preferably one that required hammering lots of 2x4s together. In a feat of poor judgement, I just started building. The result was this Market Street Station layout, a modular layout in the british exhibition layout style.

This new Market Street Station layout is a big change from what I’ve built in the past. It’s modular, so I need to worry about how the pieces connect up. It’s intended for longer passenger cars, so I need to use different standards for curve radius and switches from my garage layout. It needs to be portable, so I need to be able to move the pieces, set it up accurately, and break it down quickly.

From the last layout and planning for this one, I knew that a complex design would just mean I'd spend too much time planning and rethinking. Instead, I decided to get some minimal bench work up as fast as possible so that I could test out module width, track position, and composition of the scenes as fast as possible. With some quick building, I could figure out if I were on the right path.

First Problem: How to Build Fast. In order to get modules built quickly, I decided to try out hollow core doors. They’re available - one short trip to Home Depot got me most of my benchwork - and require minimal other carpentry. Doors often don't seem appropriate for a model railroad because building terrain lower than the tracks is difficult. That's not a problem with Market Street, where most of the area is completely flat. Using doors also cuts some of the work to build a self-supporting structure - they’re pretty stable on their own. By building on a flat surface, I also don’t have to plan every exact curve and track location (as I might with a cookie cutter plywood layout), and can instead start building and worry about exact track locations later.

Underside of door with leg pocket and wiring.

I used 28” doors (Home Depot, $25 each), framed them with 6” wide birch plywood (3/4” for the end plates, 1/2” for the sides). I added pockets to fit 2x2 legs inside, with the pockets glued and nailed to the sides. I placed the layout at a nominal height of 50 inches. Cutting the plywood side pieces accurately was a challenge without a table saw, but I got close enough with a rip guide on my circular saw. The first two modules took two and a half days to build, with most of the time taken up trying to figure out how to build stuff. I’m relying on glue joints a bit too much, but I’m thinking it’ll work. I also learned a couple tricks on the first doors. The door I got was already primed; I had to use a plane on the edges to get down to raw wood for gluing. I also expected that everything would be suitably square if I built it on our patio concrete, but found I still needed to check squareness constantly and adjust. I used 1x2 scraps to reinforce corners. The final modules weighed about 30 pounds each.

Second challenge: the track arrangement. Once I had the modules built, I started laying out track just to get an idea of what would fit.

Experimenting with track arrangements.

As with my Vasona Branch layout, my first goal was to define my average train length so that I could ensure most trains would fit on the sidings, passing tracks, and staging tracks. I ended up choosing four car trains with three coaches and a baggage car or RPO. Although I’m expecting to use shorter Harriman cars for most of my trains, I sized the spurs for eighty foot cars. I've collected modern commute cars over the years; running those Gallery and Baby Bullet trains will help folks understand that the Market Street station is part of San Francisco-San Jose commute history.

With the train length set, I could start placing track on the doors and figuring out track arrangements. I quickly found that 29 inches was an awfully wide space. Even with the Freemo suggestions to keep track six inches from the edge, there was plenty of room for tracks and for surrounding structures and scenery. Door length, however, was an issue. The trackage on the module to the left of Market Street station needed crossovers to allow trains to and from the station to go to either track, the switch for the mainline bypass around the station, and switches at the end of the baggage sidings. This resulted in five switches placed end to end which had to fit in the 6’8” space of the single door.

Track plan near 4th Street Tower

Another essential bit of track was the area east of Market Street station where the tracks diverged to head towards Oakland and Los Angeles. Modeling the Oakland track wasn’t a big priority for me - there weren’t a lot of trains going that way. However, the split was memorable because it was the location of the Fourth Street interlocking tower (controlling track on the east end of the station), the venerable Golden Gate cannery sitting between the tracks (later run by Hunts and Richmond Chase), and the unusual sharp curve of the eastbound track towards Los Angeles.

The curve of the Los Angeles track was a particular bit of reality I wanted to capture. The tracks heading east from Market Street slowly came together and curved towards the south. At Third Street, just as the tracks approached the Golden Gate cannery, the tracks curved sharply, cutting through several backyards until popping out onto Fourth Street and heading defiantly towards the heart of downtown San Jose. Those tracks ran down the middle of Fourth Street, passed homes, offices, and San Jose State University, and finally hit the cannery district south of downtown where Fourth Street ended but the tracks continued. Those tracks are interesting, not only because of the specter of freight trains running past San Jose State, but also because of the political fight between San Jose and the Willow Glen neighborhood about how to get the SP off the city streets.

Because this section of layout couldn't be rectangular, I built it using more traditional construction: plywood roadbed surface and cookie-cutter framing underneath. I found the construction more challenging, time-consuming and tedious, and I ended up getting the curves wrong so that the track to Oakland didn't actually end up in the middle of the end plate. It was a heck of a lot of work just to keep a favorite scene.

Third Challenge: Laying Track The cheap doors use masonite or hardboard for the door surface, so spikes and nails can't be used to hold track down. I decided to try gluing down track using acrylic caulk. (M.C. Fujiwara's video on laying track on Freemo-N modules convinced me to try this out.) I used Walthers code 83 track and #6 switches - matching the Freemo track height, but using sharper switches than Freemo allows on mainline modules. The caulk approach went down quickly, but I’ve already had a couple places come loose, so I’m a bit concerned that it won’t handle abuse as well as spiked track. I did drill holes to put spikes into the masonite door surfaces to hold switches in position; we’ll see how those hold. Next time, I may get doors faced with lauan plywood, or glue thin plywood onto the doors.

Keeping track on the module in place is one challenge, but modules also need track to align at joints accurately. For joining the three key modules, I used steel pegs to ensure all track joints would be in alignment. I turned these pins by hand on a lathe from 3/8" steel rod, making a male and female pin. I clamped the modules together in alignment, drilled a single 3/8" hole, and epoxied both pins in place.)

For the sections leading to staging, I used the Freemo approach of ending tracks 2 inches before the end of the module, and then using bridge rails to cross the joint. One advantage of the bridge rail approach is that there isn’t a rail at the very end of the module that can snag when moving the modules. I've already snagged a rail end once while moving the modules.

But Is It Freemo-Compatible? I'd intended to make the modules fit Freemo specifications, but early-on was forced to break away from the Freemo specs. The modules don’t have the required 26” end plate with tracks centered, though that’s not a big deal; I could always create transition modules to shrink the end plate to the correct size and location.

The bigger problems were curve radiuses and switches. Freemo mainline modules require 42 inch curves and #8 turnouts on the mainline.U I couldn't make either requirement work. The broad curves would have narrowed the Golden Gate cannery scene too much. The #8 turnouts just wouldn't let the track plan fit on the two doors. My specific problem was on the door representing the area west of the station. That track required five consecutive switches - the switch for the baggage tracks, crossover from east to west main, switch to the bypass around the station, crossover from west to east, and far switch for passenger rip track. Making any of these switches #8 would keep the track from fitting on a single door and would stretch the track over a second module. Because I’m also not aiming for modern era, I wasn't sure my modules would be particularly interesting in a standard Freemo setup, and decided to give up on Freemo track standards.

Wiring I did wire the modules in the Freemo style, with an accessory and DCC bus both joined between modules with PowerPole connectors. I didn't bother to wire for signals on the main - the whole scene, in the 1920's, would have been unsignaled (west side), or controlled by the interlocking in the Fourth Street Tower (east side).

I did power all the switches, as I do on my garage layout - it avoids damage to the switches, allows me to power frogs, and helps suspend disbelief by keeping operators' hands out of the scene. Instead of using venerable Tortoises, I tried using the MP-5 switch machines. These new switch machines, imported from the Czech Republic by Richard Brennen and sold by Seth Neumann's Model Railroad Control Systems, are a great improvement. They're much tinier than tortoises, easier to adjust, and so low profile that they hide inside the door. To mount the switch machines, I cut a hole in the underside of the door, then glued a piece of 1.5 inch 1/2 inch plywood to the skin just below the switch. I found that the supplied stiff piano wire didn't work well with the short distance to the switch machine; the 6mm throw pushed the switch points too hard, and occasionally the switch machine wouldn't move far enough over to hit the limit switch to allow throwing the other way. Fixing this required pushing the mechanism a bit further to get it to a s point where it could throw again. One particularly nice feature for a Freemo layout is that these switch machines don't need to be continuously powered. Instead, I can have momentary throw switches on both sides of the layout so operators can work from any side.

So that’s construction. I’ve set up and torn down the layout several times successfully; my biggest challenge is that the combined length - 25’ - is longer than my garage. I’ve set up parts of the layout inside when I’ve been doing track work or installing switch machines. Testing the whole layout, though, requires setting it up in the back yard. Luckily, California weather means I can set the modules up most weekends. I’ve got little chance of rain or humidity. For a weekend of work, I’ve been able to set up the layout on Saturday and keep the benchwork outside through Sunday or Monday. The rest of the time, the modules lean up against the wall of the garage. That’s not a good long-term solution (especially as I do more scenery), but it’ll work for now. Considering the layout is intended for operations and transportation, minimizing the amount of detail on the layout might be a reasonable decision. I’ve got some mock-ups of buildings in foam core which give the impression of rolling through the city.

Coming Up: Electronics, Software, and Operations.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Movie Night XXVI: Buy a Bit of the South Pacific Coast!

And for all you fans of the Santa Cruz branch of the SP who have a bit of money burning a hole in your pocket, be aware that the south end of the Summit tunnel (the Laurel end) is up for sale at $1.6 million for 110 acres. (That's less than what you'd pay for a 3 bedroom, 2 bath rancher on a 6000 SF lot in Sunnyvale!)

Property listing for 23411 Deerfield Road available on Redfin, or check out this video showing your potential new home. Note that if you plan on laying some track and running some trains, you'll need to rebuild a wooden trestle immediately in front of the tunnel. And if you do run some trains up there, invite me over.

Spotted by Derek Whaley, and originally posted on Santa Cruz Trains. If you haven't already checked out his Santa Cruz Trains" book, go get a copy.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Come See the Market Street Exhibition Layout

By the way, if you're a member of the National Model Railroad Association's Pacific Coast Region, note that we're having layout tours in the San Jose area this Saturday.

I'm showing the Market Street exhibition layout as part of the tour. The layout's still new and incomplete, but if you're interested in prototype operations or portable layouts, come by and see the choices I made and what you might do the same or differently.

NMRA PCR Members can find the list of layouts on the Yahoo e-mail list for the group.

Sometimes You've Just Got To Build

One of the common problems when I build things is that I might not always want to build what’s top on my priority list. Take the Vasona Branch layout, for example. I’ve got a list of projects to do there - scenes to decorate, structures to build, track to tune, freight cars to replace, engines to detail. I might call that finish work, kind of like finish carpentry. Houses, you see, need two kinds of carpentry - rough carpentry (to put the walls up, provide surfaces for plaster or sheetrock walls, and provide support for plumbing and electrical fixtures), and finish carpentry (to install trim, decoration, and built-in furniture.)

Yep, sometimes I just want to hammer together a bunch of two by fours, and that’s not the time for me to build fine cabinetry.

For model railroading, that rough carpentry probably could be interpreted as building something new and large - thinking through a new design, building new benchwork, laying new track. Perhaps a new section of layout. Perhaps a whole new layout. That’s what I’ve been doing lately.

The Market Street Exhibition Layout

I’ve had the idea of a modular layout kicking around for a while. It’s not like my garage layout is complete, or that I want to start from scratch, but my visit to Maker Faire got me thinking a lot more about some way of sharing my modeling and the hobby. I’ve instead wanted to build a modular layout for the shows, and perhaps build some stuff outside my usual modeling areas. The original idea was to build a quick modular layout for the San Jose Maker’s Faire in September - showing off Santa Clara valley history, and showing trains moving. My general idea is something like a British display layout - a small scene with staging to generate enough trains for interesting operation.

Specifically, I wanted to model a place I’ve already modeled in a small shelf layout - San Jose’s Market Street station, the original mainline station for the Southern Pacific in San Jose It’s a place lost far in the past; Southern Pacific abandoned this station in 1935, replacing it with the new Diridon station on the west side of town along the former South Pacific Coast narrow gauge right-of-way. The former West San Jose station, often known as the “narrow gauge” station for its South Pacific Coast railroad heritage, replaced the “broad gauge” mainline station. With the change, the area north of downtown changed from an active transportation hub and commuter terminal to a warehouse and industrial district; by the 1980’s, a good deal of the land was cleared for redevelopment, and it’s only been in the last ten years that new construction’s gone up around San Jose’s formerly busy main station.

And the Market Street station was quite busy. During its heyday, the Market Street station was a busy place for San Jose, the station had 72 arrivals and departures a day. (In comparison, Diridon handles around 90 trains a day today.) There were 60 commutes leaving, starting at 4:45 am and going until 11:00 pm. Six name trains - the Sunset Limited, Daylight, Padre, Lark, and Coaster - all stopped at San Jose. Some trains had cars switching to Oakland versions of the same train. There were multiple lesser trains heading to Santa Cruz, Monterey, or Salinas. And all these trains passed through a two-platform Victorian train shed, with approaches on both ends crossing multiple city streets - quite a chaotic scene during the morning commute.

The Market Street station area has a fair amount of operational interest. Because it only had two platforms, trains had to be put together and taken apart quickly to leave space for the next train. Small yards on each side of the station provided a place to stage passenger trains. Industries nearby - a cold storage warehouse, cannery, assorted warehouses, and a freight station - add freight business. Historically, the location also tells about a time when the downtown station was downtown, and where trains running down the middle of Fourth Street.

Now, I’ve built this station before. My current Market Street station scene sits on a 24” by 7 foot shelf layout in my office. I’d started it before I’d begun the Vasona Branch layout, and I’ve shared some of the models I built for that layout in the past. But it hasn’t been satisfying. It’s too small to do any operations and switching. Even if I could do minor switching, I can’t reproduce all the complexities of trying to get the entire morning commute fleet out. Although I was able to build some large buildings, the shelf is too cramped to build the massive buildings that surrounded the railroad tracks. And even though the current shelf layout isn’t quite enough, the models I’ve built for it means I already have some of the structures I’d need for the new layout.

The Track Plan

So how to start? My first aim was the track - decide on a realistic track arrangement, figure out the tracks needed for handling the passenger traffic, and finally add the sidings and freight tracks to set the location of industries and add some additional operating interest. I’d been sketching out plans for a Market Street scene for months - sometimes imagining

There’s a reasonable number of sources for the track layout around the old Market Street station. There are valuation maps from the 1930’s where the SP drew in every track, compressed air line, drain, and property boundary. There are the Sanborn fire insurance maps showing both track and buildings. (Sanborn maps are often declared as inaccurate, but they look pretty decent for the area around the station. I suspect they’re less accurate if tracks changed frequently, or if there was a huge number of tracks.) There are SPINS railroad maps listing spurs for the railroad employees from the 1960’s - long after the station was gone, but hinting at what was there before. And there are photos, including the George Lawrence aerial photos from 1906. Only the valuation maps really declare what was there in 1930, but the other maps hint at track and use.

Deciding on the purpose of each track is a bit harder. Which tracks were important for passenger service, and which for freight? The George Lawrence aerial photos hint at which tracks had boxcars and which had passenger cars. A 1931 track list for San Jose gave additonal hints; it showed four cars as “passenger spur”, likely to hold coaches waiting to be put on trains, on the north side of the tracks, and two tracks listed as passenger work tracks on the south side of the tracks. Photos of trains moving through the station showed baggage cars on the southern spurs, trains waiting under the train shed, and locomotives rolling every which way.

At this point, the track plan showed I’d need the three tracks for the station (two tracks under the train shed, and freight track bypassing the station). I’d need two small yards: the north yard for storing passenger cars, and south tracks for baggage and more holding tracks. On the west end, I’d need two tracks leaving the yard to the left to represent the tracks to and from San Francisco, and to and from the Lenzen St. engine terminal. On the east end, I’d want the tracks splitting to Oakland and Los Angeles, with the 4th Street Tower and Golden Gate Cannery between them.

This still left a fair amount of space. Just west of the station, the San Jose freight station sat with multiple tracks in front of it, and a freight yard behind it. These tracks would be useful for additional switching, so it was an obvious bit to add. Some more freight spurs would give me more places for freight traffic, so I added a packing house behind the station, Santa Clara Valley Cold Storage just to the east, the spur to the Golden Gate Cannery, and a track behind the freight station as a place to hide cars going to the yard. 
The above track plan shows my attempts to shoehorn all that into three separate sections.

Next time, a bit about construction.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Podcast: Concrete Utopia

If you’re interested in minutiae about transportation and transportation policy - how a freeway or bridge ended up where it did, here's something worth a listen.

Matthew Roth, the historian for the Auto Club of Southern California, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of Los Angeles freeways. The common wisdom is that LA was car-crazy, but Roth argues that every major road project has faced major opposition and obstacles.

Back in 2009, he spoke at the Huntington Library about a few specific projects: the Ramona Boulevard highway leading from downtown Los Angeles to points east, the Aliso Street viaduct, and their effect on what became the San Bernadino and Hollywood freeways. Roth talks a bit about politics, funding, and how civil engineers get projects built.

The Huntington Library shared that lecture as a podcast; you can listen to it on the internet. If you’ve got a Mac, you can also subscribe to the Huntington’s California and the West podcasts, or download the lecture to your iPhone or iPad for easy listening.

If you want to learn more, you can read his PhD dissertation, Concrete Utopia: the development of roads and freeways in Los Angeles, 1910 - 1950.

There's a bunch of interesting audio recordings - podcasts and oral histories - out on the Internet these days, and they're an interesting change from radio or music.

  • I've been enjoying East Bay Yesterday which has done a great job of sharing stories about Oakland and Berkeley. The show covers topics as varied as Dorothea Lange and her photos, early baseball in Oakland, Richard Pryor's comedy, mudflat art, Bruce Lee, and the 1990's East Bay punk scene.
  • The Los Gatos Museum has shared oral histories with long-time residents of Los Gatos, letting us hear Jack Panghinetti, Richard More, and others tell us about the Hunts cannery, railroads, and accidentally igniting dry cleaning fluid.
  • The Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley often shares the raw tapes for their oral histories, letting us listen to Frank Nutting talk about the founding of Sun-Maid, or John Parr Cox talking about the Parr Terminal on the Richmond waterfront.

[Photo showing widened Ramona Blvd. highway at Mission Road, just east of the L.A. River, in 1935. Fun fact: Del Monte’s former Los Angeles cannery would have been behind you to the left between Aliso St. and Macy St., between Mission Road and the Los Angeles river. Photo from the USC Digital Library / California Historical Society, from the Title Insurance and Trust / C. C. Pierce Photography collection..

Monday, August 21, 2017

3d Printing in Model Railroading: The New Normal

Corey's D&RGW steel gondolas

A couple months ago, I shared my experiences selling 3d printed freight cars made in my garage. One of the first points in my talk was "you’re going to see lots more folks making kits this way in coming years."

And of course, we do see more folks making cars this way. Corey Bonsall recently told me about his drop-bottom-gondolas that he’s making on a Form 2 Printer. Corey’s model is the uncommon 42 and 46 foot GS gondola used by the Rio Grande and Utah Coal Route. It’s an uncommon prototype needed by D&RGW modelers. As I found with the Hart cars, gondolas are well-suited to 3d printing because of the complicated mechanisms and frames, need for inside-and-outside detail, smaller cross-section.

Corey is selling his models on eBay - $95 for a pair, which after my experiences seems like quite a decent price considering the labor involved.

Corey also detailed how he prints the models on the Formlabs discussion board. He made some different tradeoffs than I did. Corey 3d printed solid grab irons and steps rather than holes for wire grab irons. I'd gone with wire grab irons to match the resin models I've made; I love the detail, but I find drilling all the holes and placing the wires takes way too long. Corey's models shows quite acceptable detail, and also shows he added more detail than just a featureless bar. Corey also oriented the model for printing in a more clever way. He managed to tilt the model and add enough support structures to print the model in a single piece, with good detail inside and out. He widened the center channel for weight. Corey not only suggested usual lead weights, but pointed out that 3/16” tungsten cubes are pricey but available (about $6 / ounce as Pinewood Derby weights, but I assume there's cheaper sources. They're 1.7x the density of lead!)

These cars appear close to the SP’s G-50-9 series gondolas that Ulrich’s metal kits were based on. The Ulrich kits are still around, but like a lot of 1960’s models are getting scarcer. It would be neat to have another alternative for another of the SP’s iconic gondolas.

Meanwhile, I'm keeping my eyes peeled to see which other 3d printer owners decide to get into the model railroad manufacturing game.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Maker Faire in San Mateo: This Weekend!

If you're within driving distance of the San Francisco Bay Area, don't forget that the Bay Area Maker Faire is at the San Mateo Fairgrounds this weekend (May 19-21). Billed as the "world's largest show and tell", it's a huge, amazing World's Fair of crafty entertainment: multiple buildings full of folks showing off garage projects, manufacturers showing off the latest in electronics and tools, and tons of wacky and just plain interesting creations. I'd held off going for years because I wanted to spend the time on my own projects... but I finally went last year and found it quite amazing.

More importantly - for us as model railroaders - it's a gathering for our people. Much of Maker Faire is non-commercial; it has normal people showing off the things they've made with electronics (belly dancing outfit with an Arduino), machined metal, crazy Rube Goldberg devices (garage-sized spirograph that draws on the pavement with chalk), ham radio folks building high speed data networks, and parents helping kids understand biology by building cells out of Fimo clay.

And then there's all the crazy stuff that comes straight from Burning Man, like the Live Action Mousetrap game (with 5,000 lb safe crushing a car at the end), strangely lit art projects filling the darkened main hall, blacksmithing classes, oddly-shaped cars and conveyances, and sculptures shooting twenty foot high flames into the air.

More importantly, if you've had any questions whether the younger generation wants to make things, Maker Faire will convince you that the younger generation not only wants to build stuff with their hands, but is building some pretty amazing things. You'll see it both in the sheer number of kids watching and participating, and in the various clubs, and robot leagues, and craft projects that encouraging more kids to build things. Many booths are even interactive, allowing kids (and adults) to make something right there as a first step towards filling a garage with large metalworking tools.

Note that Maker Faire takes over most of the parking lots at the San Mateo fairgrounds, and the crowds are huge. Plan to either park at satellite lots and take shuttle buses to the fairgrounds, or take Caltrain to the show. Buy the tickets in advance, and bring comfortable shoes and a sense of wonder.

Details, details...

Now, if all that description didn't convince you to go, how about a quick run-down of what I saw last year, and what Maker Faire says about how we ought to be promoting our hobby?

Make Things, Share Things

Like I said, these are our people - many of the folks demonstrating at Maker Faire (or attending Maker Faire) have the same love of building things with their hands that we as model railroaders do. One maker space (shared shop and club) in Sacramento, for example, loved the idea of forming a team and working through a challenge. They built a spaceship bridge with multiple computer displays, and they'd have evening "operating sessions" where four people would work through some challenge set up by another - one person on navigation, another on engineering, weapons, life support, and someone sitting in Captain Kirk's chair. As a fan of model railroad operations, I can understand exactly what buzz they got out of a team co-operatively pulling through a problem.

Other booths were full of all the vendors selling Arduino, Raspberry Pis, and all sorts of other electronics that can run model railroad signals, or create a "working" car scale. I brought home a little Wi-Fi enabled microprocessor for a yet-to-be determined project on the layout. Other folks sold little boards that could be used to build a handheld device that could communicate with a cell phone over Bluetooth - just the right innards to make my own wireless throttle. Others showed off snap-together electronics kits to help kids get interested in electricity, or robots, or programming.

The folks selling all the modern shop tools were also there, with multiple 3d printer companies, laser cutters, huge CNC cutters that could carve full sheets of plywood at a time (now that would speed up benchwork!) For me, I found it great to compare the different printers and talk with the manufacturers. For folks less familiar with the different kinds of 3d printers and laser cutters, Maker Faire was the perfect way to see these machines in action, understand how they really worked, and what the resulting parts looked like.

There were also the crazy inventors that reminded me of a lot of my model railroader friends - folks making home-brew electronics for monitoring your car's diagnostics port, or some guys who had made their own pick-and-place machine for doing garage manufacturing of electronics.

We've all been enjoying many of the perks from the same electronics crowd in model railroading. In our local group, I know folks who are doing small-scale electronics manufacturing, or building CTC panels run off some of these bits of electronics. We're all quite happy about our garage manufacturers using those laser cutters to make finely detailed brick or designing kits for Southern Pacific stations. The crowd at Maker Faire are the same sorts of folks.

One Interest, but a Bunch of Directions to Explore

There's also the kindred spirits from near and far. This year, like last year, the Bay Area Garden Railway Society will be showing off large-scale live-steam locomotives. The historians and collectors were also represented, with the Computer History Museum bringing many 1970's era personal computers for anyone to come and try programming. For all of you who got a start programming on BASIC on a TRS-80 or Apple II back in 1977, getting to type "10 PRINT "HELLO"; 20 GOTO 10" can bring back some awfully fond memories. The Computer History Museum's larger projects have a lot more in common with railroad museums; Computer History Museum's restoration and operation of a 1950's IBM punch card-based computer probably has many of the same restoration stories as the folks getting an SD-9 running again... only with slightly lower amperages, and less grease.

Several ham radio clubs also showed up last year. I'm a little ashamed to say my mental image of ham radio operators is a bunch of guys tapping out morse code and trying to contact folks halfway around the world.

Their huge booth did match the stereotype a bit; they were offering ham radio license prep *and* license exams in the booth. But they also described themselves as "Not Your Grandfather's Ham Radio". The members pointed out that ham radio was a hobby for folks that liked building, experimenting with, and sharing technical projects that involved radio. These days, a ham radio operator is much more likely to be experimenting with high-speed Internet over radio than crowing about contacting a fellow operator in Russia.

I like that message. "We want to make things. Our hobby gives us a structure to figure out what to build next, past projects to build on and expand, and a community that will encourage and inspire us." Model railroading's a lot like that. We all have some interest in railroads, of course, but we all have our own reasons for being in the hobby: constructing models, experimenting with electronics, learning about geology, historical and architectural research, photography, or motors and mechanical engineering. We've got long-lived projects like our home layout or our particular subject interest that keeps us going. We've got a bunch of like-minded friends who understand our fascination with a particular locomotive, or freight car, or long-gone industry.

Like I said, Maker Faire is our people.

Be Interactive.

Maker Faire booths are often interactive; the goal isn't to get you watching someone doing something, but for you to do it as well. A friend from Apple, for instance, made a human-sized spirograph from bike parts, conduit, 3d printed parts, a scooter, and chalk. He sets it up outside one of the halls, and lets the kids ride around on the scooter while drawing patterns on the concrete. Like the Exploratorium, the infamously hands-on museum in San Francisco, Maker Faire is all about letting people touch, try, and make.

A booth last year was a bit more involved; they wanted to teach kids about the parts of a human cell, so they brought some Fimo clay and showed kids how to make little models of the cell by forming all the different bits in a multi-colored log. Slice the log apart, and the kid has a bunch of little clay cells. For a $5 donation, they'd go through the project with your child and send her home with a little reminder that biology was fun.

The fiber arts community went all-in, with a huge booth area and many volunteers teaching anyone interested how to crochet or knit. They even brought lots of spare knitting needles, crochet hooks, and yarn so folks could be sent home with a just-started project and the tools to complete it.

With model railroading, we're often not good at that kind of interaction and teaching. We can have a train show, but kids don't often get a chance to touch the models, let alone try building something themselves. Years ago, I remember a Canadian model railway show where one club had several modelers constructing models right there on the show floor, answering questions about the hobby, materials, and techniques the whole time. I loved it - both the chance to see how someone else models, and the chance to share tips while motioning with the specific model and tools. The modeling classes at model railroad conventions show how this interaction can draw people into the hobby more. I'd love it if we could find ways to introduce kids to model railroading - perhaps making a first freight car, or switching freight cars on a Timesaver (the PCR division's timesaver got me interested in switching as a teenager), or getting to make a quick cardboard building or hillside.

The breadth of Maker Faire is also stunning. I'd go from 3d printing or weaving projects from college art students, to a glowing robotic giraffe from Burning Man to scientists from Oak Ridge National Labs answering any and all science questions while making a supercomputer out of cheap Raspberry Pi computers. There was an entire section on living off the grid, gardening, and structures - I didn't even make dent that section last year.

And again, everyone was working to make their exhibits interactive. The Crucible, a shared shop for blacksmithing and metal arts, was doing their usual "shoot flames twenty feet in the air" schtick, but was also demonstrating blacksmithing, and letting kids paint and fire clay pots.

Next door, the civil engineering students from San Jose State were showing off their prototype for a monorail-like city transportation system. At a quarter scale, it must have taken several trucks to bring the vehicles, track, and supports, but they had it running automatically under computer control. Better yet, the students could talk about what they'd learned as they fabricated the rails and support, coded the computer controls to keep cars from crashing into each other, and worked through the economics. The students were obviously having a blast describing their work, even as the Crucible was setting off blasts of propane and flames forty feet away - with noticeable heat.

About Model Railroading

Honestly, I think model railroaders ought to be better-represented at events like this Maker Faire. The folks attending are our folks: interested in building stuff, in experimenting, in learning skills, and in sharing what they've learned with others. Maker Faire also shows the breadth of all the tinkerers and builders in society, from experimenting with lasers or modern computers to those who want to play around with tintype photography or blacksmithing, or the jury-rigged magic of the giant spirograph and live-action Mousetrap game. The focus on interaction - on letting kids and adults touch, and ask questions, and get a chance to see what the hobby is all about - seems essential to introducing new people to the hobby. Not everyone at Maker Faire might be interested in railroads. Those twenty-something kids who make the spaceship console, as much as they might be great candidates for yard master on a few model railroads I can think of, might never have caught the railroad bug. But if I brought out an operating layout of a yard and gave them a throttle, I suspect they'd appreciate the hobby and the games we play with model railroad operation.

How should our hobby interact with something like the Maker Faire? I don't think we need the NMRA at a table handing out brochures; we need to be interactive. We need to bring models, the people building models, and people operating trains. A couple friends and I talked a bit about an exhibit for the smaller Maker Faire run in San Jose every September. We thought about setting up a booth that could show the variety of directions in model railroading. We could bring some modules to show trains in operation, and talk about the historic research for Dave's model of the Santa Fe ferry slip in San Francisco. We could bring electronics, and talk about how John or Chuck built their CTC panels, and how the railroads kept trains from crashing into each other. We could build models with paper or styrene, give kids a paper building to cut out, put on the layout, and later take home. We could set up a timesaver to explain switching problems, and a loop of track so kids could handle a model train and get a sense for the fun of trains.

We never got around to that plan, but I think the idea is sound: share our hobby, share the fun of building things, and remind kids that they can make things too.

Again, the San Mateo Maker's Faire is May 19-21, 2017 at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds, just south of San Francisco. The San Mateo Maker's Faire is one of the largest in the country, if not the world - think of it as the equivalent of the huge Springfield, Massachusetts model railroad meet for the Maker community. If you're not local, keep an eye out for similar events in your area. Although there are similarly huge events in New York and elsewhere, there's also a ton of local, smaller Maker Faires that still capture the informal, show-and-tell feel. San Jose's Faire, for example, may not require multiple days to explore, but there's more time to talk with the participants, and wander, and just enjoy the kids and adults getting excited about laser cutters, balloon rockets, pressing flowers, or making music on home-made instruments. If you're part of a railroad, science, or historical museum, consider hosting a Maker Faire to get all these sorts of weird folks together to show what they're making.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Bakersfield and 3d Printing

I gave a talk on mass-producing freight cars with a 3d printer at the NMRA's Pacific Coast Region 2017 Convention; I've put the slides for that talk on-line, along with some hints about using SketchUp for making 3d models.

It was a fun talk to give - sharing the high points and low points of starting a 3d printing business out of a bedroom. If you read my article last year, you already heard my stories and opinions. 3d printing is closer to manufacturing than crafting, so trying to run off twenty - or even ten models - requires problem solving for the issues you might have expected getting a new production line running. I also mentioned last year how the labor required with tending the 3d printer was more than I'd expected. Finally, I'd been surprised by just how many one-off tasks needed to be done to get a new kit out the door, and how much time that took. Making a new pilot model took the same effort as building a good resin kit, and the time required was hard to justify when only selling forty or fifty kits. I've had a great time getting the Hart gondolas on the market, and I'd do it again for the right model... but it's not a path to riches.

In both the talk and the original article, I'd mentioned setting the price for my Hart gondola kits around $35 to make them comparable to a resin kit, and because I wanted a string of cars to be affordable. I realized after the talk that I also felt a bit of unexpected pressure from Shapeways. Shapeways would have charged $70 to make the Hart gondolas in Frosted Ultra Detail. That price set sort of an upper limit on the kits; if I found printing the kits on the Form One took too much labor for the price, I could raise them a bit... but as the price approached the Shapeways price, I had a pretty strong motivation to throw in the towel and just sell the cars on Shapeways with a small markup. Making the cars on my own printer... and in my own boxes... required beating the labor costs, yield, and quality that Shapeways could do.

The Bakersfield convention had many other great talks. Jack Burgess shared his own 3d printing experiences. He's been using Shapeways to make small parts for a few years now; one memorable project were Adirondack chairs for his Bagby Hotel. These tiny details might seem minor, but they do add an amazing amount of realism to a scene. Jack also remarked how 3d printing was addicting, and how he'd search around for another model to create. I've had the same feeling many times. Because 3d printing lets us make models we wouldn't have been able to make in any other way, it can be quite exciting to push ourselves for the next impossible model.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Coupon-Cutting Thursday II: Sweet Deals on a Track-Pull Tractor

One advantage of living in the early 20th century is you didn't need to go far to test-drive a tractor. Forget all those Internet-based car sales places that will bring a beige sedan for you to test drive at home; back in the 'teens, you could go down the block and test out a tractor at a local ranch.

November 3, 1916 San Jose Mercury Herald

Here, for example, is an ad from a November, 1916 issue of the Mercury Herald, highlighting upcoming demonstrations of the Bean Track-Pull Tractor:
  • November 3 at W. P. Lyon's orchard in Edenvale
  • the next day at Mrs. Post's ranch on McLaughlin Ave.,
  • the Flickinger orchard on Berryessa Road on the 6th,
  • November 7 at the Dutard ranch in Campbell ("Junction Santa Clara-Los Gatos Road with Payne Ave.", better known today as "that strip mall with the Togo's"),
  • F. E. Goodrich's ranch in Cupertino on the 9th,
  • the Thompson Ranch on El Camino near Santa Clara on the 10th, and
  • A. W. Ehrhorn's ranch in Mountain View, "just beyond the school buildings own November 10.

And place your order early, for there's only a limited number available for Santa Clara County. The Track-Pull was going for a thrifty $930, or $20 more for an installment plan - $50 down, $455 on delivery, and the remainder paid within a year. That's a sweet price for a tiny tractor, and with luck, you'd even be able to drive it around William Lyons' ranch to convince yourself it's just the right thing for the modern fruit ranch.

The Mercury Herald even did a three-column piece on the Track-Pull on November 1, 1916, interviewing the company general manager, J.D. Crummey ("he is enthusiastic over the possibilities of the tractor field and the new machine which his firm is now making... no machine has yet been put on the market that fills the requirements of the orchard and vineyard conditions in the west.") "It is the first tractor that drives as a horse pulls, and hence is able to do what is impossible with other tractors." Crummey also pointed out that the demonstrations were only the beginning, and would be repeated at fruit grower conventions in Napa, Davis, and Fresno in upcoming months.

Bean Spray Pump claimed to have sold $400,000 in tractors that first year, and $700,000 the next - meaning that at least a thousand of the Track-Pulls should have been clattering around orchards and small farms across the nation.

Machinists Needed. December 23, 1916 San Jose Mercury Herald.

And if your yard isn't big enough for a Track-Pull -- and ours certainly isn't -- there's some other ads to check out as well. Two days before Christmas, 1916, you would have found the Bean Spray Pump Company advertising for machinists to come build the beasts:

On account of the demand for Bean Track PULL Tractors, we find it necessary to increase our factory force, and also to run most of our machines nights. We therefore invite application for positions from the following trades: Expert Machinists, Tool Makers, Good Lathe Hands, Milling Machine Hands, and Experienced Drill Press Hands.

And there still wasn't enough labor for all the tractors that needed to be built. An ad in the December 20, 1916 San Jose Mercury Herald declared "Our entire output for all of January and up to February 10 is already taken", so a fair number of orchardists were going to be disappointed when they didn't find Track-Pulls under the tree at Christmas. Crummey noted in the San Jose Mercury article that a second plant in Lansing, Michigan would start producing the tractor in May, 1917. Even if Crummey was exporting jobs out of California, he noted "the Lansing factory is entirely owned by Santa Clara County stockholders, so that all profits from there return to this community."

Now, this may all seem quaint - tractor demos, comparisons to horses, and questions of exporting Santa Clara county jobs to the quite-dubious midwest. But other tidbits remind us how much things aren't that different from today. An Ebay seller was recently selling the program from the June, 1917 Bean Spray Pump Company's employee dinner.

Now, the menu has its own little surprises - the dinner started out with fruit cocktail, for example, which seems like the most San Jose way to start an employee dinner I can think of.

But the list of speeches looked awfully familiar for an all-hands meeting at any high-tech company. They led off with an outside speaker. The evening led off with Ernest Richmond, formerly of the J.K. Armsby Company, and just recently the founder of his own dried-fruit company which he would soon merge to form Richmond-Chase. As an outsider, his speech title - "Loyalty" suggests something motherhood-and-apple-pie as a soft opening. There needed to be something about the key company strength of manufacturing; H. C. Lisle spoke about "Our Factory in Lansing, Michigan". H. C. Lassen spoke for the sales force. The remote offices - Los Angeles and Fresno - had their boosters reminding the head office folks that there was more to the company than San Jose. H. L. Austin and J. H. Delaney talked about future plans, improvements, and new investments. J. D. Crummey's talk on "What We Are and What We Stand For" was a classic leadership talk.

And right in the middle of it was the talk on the crazy new product that might change the company. J. H. McCollough, one of the Track-Pull tractor startup guys, spoke on "Our Tractor". He surely sold everyone in the room on how the Track-Pull would pull Bean Spray into a new and profitable business. I'm sure he had PowerPoint slides of happy Track-Pull owners rolling around their orchards, and I'm sure he had some graphs of sales showing the hockey stick growth curves so familiar to Silicon Valley types. He probably even raised the point that the tiny Track-Pulls would change the economics of small farms and bring prosperity to every corner of the nation, and put up a photo of a smiling child in an orchard.

And we know how that talk went because anyone who's been in Silicon Valley for any length of time has heard that talk and that dream. Sometimes, it even came true. The Track-Pull tractor may not have been a home run or game changer for the Bean Spray Pump Company, but it's a nice reminder that this crazy place isn't that different from the Santa Clara of 1917.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Live in Bakersfield: 3D-Printing Freight Cars at Home

By the way, if you've been following my stories about 3d-printing the Hart convertible gondolas, flat cars, and those 1902-era Battleship gondolas, note that you'll get a chance to hear about them in person.

I'll be giving a clinic on 3d-printing freight cars at the NMRA Pacific Coast Region's annual convention in Bakersfield this month. If you've been reading the saga so far, you'll be familiar with what I've been up to. However, you're still likely to enjoy the specific stories about what went well and what went badly. I'll also bring many of the models so you can see the 3d printed cars in person.

Jack Burgess is also offering a clinic on Saturday morning with a nuts-and-bolts description of using SketchUp software and Shapeways print-on-demand service to print out detail parts.

The PCR's convention is April 19-23 at the Doubletree in Bakersfield; there's more information about the convention at the PCR web site. My talk will be Friday, April 21 at 2:30.

Hope to see you all there!