Monday, February 13, 2023

Bay Area PCR Layout Design and Operations Meet: Full video

Every year, the Bay Area has a model railroad meet dedicated to model railroad layout design and operations. As I've said many times, this is my favorite event. It's got a mix of interesting talks, layout tours, and chances for folks to participate in operating sessions on local layouts.

This year, as in previous years, TSG Multimedia handled simulcasting the show to remote participants, and shared the video on YouTube. If you're curious what sort of talks happen at a meet, check it out!

(Or view on YouTube.)

Movie Night XXIX: The Santa Cruz Mountains Come Down

Winter was a hard time for the railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The region can get a lot of rain, often at biblical levels. The area's unstable geology also ensures that the mountains really want to get to the beach as soon as possible. Every season will have some mudslides, washed away roads, and hillsides moving in ways that hillsides aren't supposed to move. However, in the bad years - the year of the Santa Cruz line's closure in 1940, the winter of 1982, and several other instances - the Santa Cruz Mountains won't get back to normal for months... if ever.

This winter has been a wet winter - worse than most, but luckily not quite to the level of 1982 or 1940. The recent fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains don't help for ground or tree cover though. As a reminder of how bad this winter was, and how much the Santa Cruz Mountains don't want to continue being mountains, we can look at this "Tour de Disaster video by Larry Rairden. Larry biked around the Santa Cruz Mountains last month to check out the damage, and his photos and videos highlight last year's damage and hint at why the Los Gatos-Santa Cruz branch of the SP isn't around any more.

When you're watched that, check out this video from a PG&E lineman watching a full sized redwood tree and hillside moving in ways neither should move.

Read more about Larry's adventures in the San Jose Mercury News's article about his adventures.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Tech Bros and Orchards

It’s Christmas, so it’s time for another anachronistic, inappropriate model!

If you’ve been in the San Francisco or Silicon Valley area in the last several years, you’ve seen long chains of large, unmarked buses during rush hour on our local freeways. These buses are the private buses for tech companies. Many of the large employers provide these buses as a way for their workers to commute. They’re especially important for convincing younger employees who want to live in San Francisco to come down to suburban office parks in the Santa Clara Valley. Facebook, Apple, Genentech, Salesforce, and others effectively run their own regional bus lines. The official term is usually “corporate shuttle”, but folks generically refer to these as “Google Buses” for the first company to run the buses.

Tech workers board a shuttle bus in San Francisco. From KQED article.

The “Google buses” are an interesting operation. They provide a way to get employees into offices that might be hard to reach because of the region's notoriously bad traffic congestion, allows the companies to fill the offices beyond what the parking lots or local roads can handle, and gives employees a nicer commute experience by giving them a way to work during the commute, minimize transfers, and be able to have confidential conversations without a competitor’s employee overhearing.

The buses are also a band-aid on Silicon Valley’s suburban growth. Because many of the tech campuses were built in former industrial areas far away from existing public transportation, the buses let employers use older buildings rather than fighting to develop large campuses near existing Caltrain, light rail, or BART, and allows them to recruit employees living in suburban areas that don’t have easy access to existing public transportation. The buses also cause conflicts in neighborhoods. Residents get frustrated by the large buses on previously-quiet streets, the buses often block traffic and city buses when waiting to start a route, and there have been many reports of rents going up in San Francisco neighborhoods when a corporate shuttle route arrives. Although there's less buses around post-pandemic, the corporate shuttles are still running.

Even though the corporate shuttles are much different than your typical city bus, the problems faced by corporate shuttles are the same problems faced by public transit providers. The companies need to create departments to decide on routes, negotiate for potential stops with parking, hire contractors to operate the bus, and negotiate with the cities when they complain about the new traffic. Employees get unhappy with route changes if a particular site refuses to keep providing parking and a bus stop, complain about the infrequent runs, and yell loudly when the Internet connection on the bus isn’t perfect when crossing a mountain range. Riding the buses can teach riders a lot about running a rapid transit service - factoring in the time between arrival at the destination and time needed to get back to the start for the next run, planning capacity and driver hours when most riders want only one or two preferred times, and noticing how most of the time for the route was spent on the surfaces streets before and after the freeway miles. The corporate shuttles also need to plan for disaster - handling broken-down buses, or re-routing buses. Google's bus system melted down one Friday when a concert at the Shoreline Amphitheater clogged traffic so much that the Google buses from the first campus stop couldn’t reach the rest of campus.

It’s hard not to see the buses around here during commute hours. You’ll see the white, silver, blue, and black buses on the carpool lanes, dashing around the streets near the offices, and clustered in parking lots during the day as they wait for the trips home. The buses started out as smaller 24 seat buses back in 2005 or so, but by 2010 most of the company was using full-size (and sometime double-deck) bus coaches. Back in 2012, some San Franciscans got curious about the big white buses going down their neighborhood streets, and started mapping the buses. They ended up drawing an unauthorized route map of the buses used by the different companies.

I spent several years working for one of those Silicon Valley tech companies with a corporate shuttle system, and most of my commutes to and from work was on a “Google Bus”. For the bus spotters among you, most of the routes I was on had the 2012-vintage Van Hool buses that a certain tech company had made to order, mostly single level but I occasionally was on routes served by the double-deck buses. Other routes and companies used the Prevost or even the Turkish-made Temsa. (All three companies are European; I’m sad that the Bay Area’s own Gillig never got into the Google bus business.) When my parents came to a “Bring your parents to work” event one year, they got to tool around between my company’s buildings on one of those same Google buses that I rode every day.

But, of course, I model the 1930’s, so a 2010-era bus carrying tech bros to former orchards and truck farm land in Mountain View isn’t quite my setting.

I’d known there were folks making model buses, but I didn’t know there were folks making accurate modern buses until YouTuber Interurban Era showed off one of Iconic Replica’s 1960’s era Flxable bus in Alameda County’s own A/C Transit colors. I’d seen these buses whenever we went to visit grandparents, so the models caught my interest. “I wonder if they have more modern buses?”

Yup. Iconic Replicas made models of Prevost coaches in HO in a variety of paint schemes, as well as the two level Van Hool buses. The buses aren’t perfect for a rivet counter; the single-level coaches lack the second exit door halfway down the sides seen on most corporate shuttles, and the models mostly tend to be available in eye-catching paint schemes. It looks like the company has made white buses occasionally, but they’re collectible and rare. They certainly haven't done the other colors often seen on Facebook and Apple shuttles.

Once I saw the models, I knew the layout needed some Google buses, regardless of how anachronistic they are.

I managed to find a pair of these models - the Prevost model in a Greyhound paint scheme, and a double-deck in a bright green “Tornado” paint scheme, and decided I’d try to convert these to Google buses.

The first challenge was disassembling. For the single-level model, there were screws on the bottom, and the clear plastic used for windows hinted that the model was actually a lower metal chassis with the upper half printed onto clear plastic. Unscrewing the screws wasn’t enough; it required a little bit of force to pull the two halves apart. The disassembled photo shows the latches holding the clear window section into the body.

Next challenge: how would I paint these? I tried several ways to remove the paint (alcohol, paint thinner, Dio-sol) and none moved any of the factory paint. I considered getting some real paint stripper and “doing the job right”, but decided this was a silly enough project that perfection wasn’t essential. I ended up masking both the chassis and windows carefully, primed with Tamiya primer, and painted with a gloss white from a Testor’s rattle can.

The final step was detailing. Most of the Google buses you see are stark white with a small reporting marks on the right side near the front door. (One common is "WEDRIVEU", referring to the contractor operating many of the buses.) I'd thought of pulling out the inkjet printer decal paper to make some custom, tiny decals, but decided anything I'd print wouldn't be readable. Instead, I grabbed some random text from a sheet of freight car info decals. Some black plastic parts (cargo hatches) break the monotony. I ended up dotting black paint on the model as appropriate, put some orange dots on the running lights I’d painted over, and called it a day. My spray can paint job didn’t hit the nose of the bus, so there’s still a Greyhound logo if you look carefully. I also couldn’t figure out how to strip the paint on the clear plastic, so my bus is going to “NEW YORK NY” instead of the more appropriate and cryptic “MPK” (Facebook) or “MTV” (Google). That's going to be a long commute from Campbell!

My Google Bus isn't my best modeling, but it was a fun project over Christmas. It's also reflects nicely on how Silicon Valley's changed from the 1930's to modern day, and highlights one of the iconic scenes seen in modern day Silicon Valley. I've still got a double-deck bus to do, but need to figure out how to strip the paint off the clear plastic safely first.

I’ll be interested to see whether I’ve modeled a Santa Clara valley detail which is just a reminder of the busy 2010’s, or a sight that future kids will immediately recognize. Although the corporate shuttles have returned to the Silicon Valley, they’re not to the volume of Before Times. Most of the tech companies are having trouble getting employees away from working-from-home and back into the crowded offices. There have also been plans to move tech offices closer to traditional public transportation. Former shopping centers near Sunnyvale’s train station were torn down and converted to office towers for tech companies. Facebook put in considerable effort to help rebuild the Dumbarton railroad bridge from Redwood City to Newark. They’d hoped the line could bring employees from San Francisco straight to their offices via the existing Caltrain line, or bring employees from Pleasanton, Newark, and Fremont across the bay. Google has been working actively on their Downton West plan for West San Jose, buying up properties and preparing for several blocks of offices near the Caltrain station. If I was redoing my layout to model 2020, I’d need to put in some Google office towers. All those projects could allow employees to use existing public transit, and make the Google Buses disappear just like the orchards did.

Got suggestion on how to strip the paint off Iconic Replicas models? Add a note in the comments!

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Bay Area Layout Design and Operations Meet: February 3-5, 2023

My favorite model railroad event, the Bay Area Layout Design and Operations meet, is happening this year in Richmond, California, February 3-5, 2023. Like always, the meet's a mix of talks about design and operation, layout visits, and opportunities to try model railroad operations on layouts in the Bay Area. Friday will have a tour of the real Richmond Pacific industrial railroad. Saturday's talks will be at the Golden State Model Railroad Museum at Point Richmond. We'll get to tour layouts in the East Bay on Saturday night. Operating sessions at local model railroads will be on Sunday. Like last year, you can also attend virtually if you're not in the Bay Area or want to enjoy the presentations from your home.

Get more information at You must get tickets in advance at EventBrite. In-person tickets include a boxed lunch. Virtual tickets give you access to watch the presentations and ask questions via a Zoom video conference. In-person tickets also include the Zoom link in case you decide not to go up to Richmond.

I love the Layout Design and Operations meet because it pulls together a fun group of folks: interested in modeling specific locations, railroad history, imitating the real railroads' operating practices, and just interested in understanding what the real railroads were about. It's also a great meet if you're curious about any of these topics. The invites to operate on local model railroads got me interested in model railroad operations, and helped me understand the differences between running trains on my own versus working with a dozen other people to get trains moving on a large layout. Like past years, we'll also offer layout design and operations consulting. If you're considering a new layout, or thinking about operations on an existing layout, you can sign up for time to talk with others about what you're building and what options you might consider.

I'm planning to have the Vasona Branch open for a Sunday operating session, so if you're interested in visiting and joining in, sign up for the meet and put the Vasona Branch down as one of your choices for an ops session!

Hope to see you there!