Friday, February 17, 2017

Chris Mears, a model railroader of distinctive taste

I regularly read Chris Mears' Prince Street blog for the model railroading, but his posts often hint at his off-layout appetites and interests. If he lived in Washington DC, he's probably someone my wife and I would run into at a music show or in a craft beer tap room.
In a post titled "Here we go again", Chris talks turnout building and name-checks two of our favorite musicians, Reverend Horton Heat and Melody Gardot. Just to clear up, one is a raucous acid-soaked rockabilly act from Texas, the other a sultry jazz lounge chanteuse--not two music names one is likely to hear in the same breath. Nonetheless, both of these performers have provided the soundtrack to building Dunes Junction and the Old Line Corridor, and it was validating to hear that another modeler out there is jamming to the same tunes.
In case you're interested in hearing what Melody and the Reverend are all about, check out these clips:
Here's the Reverend on the Conan O'Brien show in the 90s, around the time this song, "Big Red Rocket of Love" was used in a Mazda commercial.

In the same post, Chris mentions the intriguing sounding Hell’s Bay Brewing Dark Cream Ale, and in a post titled "7 Days of Beer" (mentioned in my Man Craft/Tree Making post), he gives a good summary of the Prince Edward Island craft beer scene. Chris, if you're reading this, let me know if you find yourself in Washington, DC, the beer will be on me.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Industrial Scale Man Crafts, AKA Tree Making

Even a relatively small layout portraying the Northeast like the Old Line Corridor requires a lot of trees. Fortunately, I really enjoy making them! Here's 80 or so SuperTree armatures drying; they've been soaked in matte medium and spray painted with Montana Gold 'Dark Manila', a washed out, muddy gray brown color. Paging Chris Mears of the Prince Street blog: note the use of recycled craft beer packaging is here, in this instance a couple of empty Southern Tier Choklat four-packs. (Awesome chocolate stout, well balanced bitter chocolate flavor set off by high gravity flavor)

A batch of 60 or so cheap Ebay trees and Woodland Scenics plastic armature trees already planted as a background treeline. I used Kathy Millatt's cheap Ebay tree improvement techniques to pretty up these wire-armature trees. I made a package of the Woodland Scenics plastic armature trees and found them confounding to make as well as too coarse to place next to delicate-looking SuperTrees.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Next Generation DCC: When Does It Come to North America?

Since I started this blog and throughout the construction of my current Dunes Junction and Old Line Corridor layout projects, DCC has been a series of surprises and delights: it continues to add unexpected joy and focus to the operation of my trains, and has occasioned a significant bit of fun learning. Nonetheless, every step in my DCC evolution seems to point the way to more and better ways of doing DCC.

I'm not the only model railroader who has noticed that DCC adds to train operation. Tom Barbalet of the Model Rail Radio podcast said it best when he described (more or less, and I'm paraphrasing) analog DC control as operating a circuit, but DCC as control of a model train. To elaborate on Tom's observation, DCC adds additional dimensions of realism such as sound, lighting, and other features, and also other less obvious realism opportunities such as consisting (MUing), speed limits and tables, and various compensations for poor or erratic operating characteristics.

Fun learning first focused on wiring and track for DCC but quickly progressed to decoder installs and programming. More advanced programming and the appeal of wireless walkaround control using smartphones led to use of the Java Model Railroad interface (JMRI). The more DCC tinkering I've done, the more DCC gear I've accumulated. My first DCC system was a Digitrax DCS51 Zephyr, and to facilitate its use with JMRI and WiThrottle, the Zephyr was joined by a Digitrax PS3 module. The Digitrax Zephyr is an ideal starter system, particularly for a small layout such as Dunes Junction or Old Line Corridor.

However, the Zephyr, PS3, and a laptop with JMRI installed--along with all of the 'wall warts' and power cords--was a space-hogging eyesore, particularly for a compact layout like the Old Line Corridor. To streamline my JMRI and control rig, I acquired a SPROG3, which is essentially a small USB box (less than half the size of that Digitrax PS3 module) that turns a JMRI-equipped PC or Mac into a mini command station. It's a fairly elegant solution but requires a little fussing and DIY spirit to get working correctly, and it does require use of WiThrottle for multiple train operation. In other words, the JMRI-SPROG3-WiThrottle combination rarely turned right on and worked without a reboot of host computer, iPhones, or other tinkering with JMRI settings.

I alluded to my next and latest bit of DCC gear in my locomotive mugshotting post: I recently acquired a second-hand ESU ECoS 50200 command station. Trevor Marshall's blog posts on his adoption of the ECoS system pointed me to this system, and subsequent research helped cement my decision to add the ECoS to my model railroading wishlist. The big color touchscreen was a draw, as well as simply executed but extensive controls, including color photo loco icons. However, an even more attractive feature was the ECoS' built in networking and connectivity features--this modern DCC command station would also tame the rat's nest of cables, adapters, and wall warts that accumulated when I connected my previous DCC systems to my network and computers, and hopefully simplify interfacing JMRI with my DCC.

As Trevor noted in his posts on the ECoS, its capabilities are overkill for most North American modelers. It supports graphic control of a whole layout--imagine a digital, on-screen display of an entire layout, not unlike an old-school analog control panel with switches and whatnot. It also supports a number of legacy European alternatives to our NMRA standard DCC--imagine a DCC command station that could also handle Hornby Zero One, PSI Dynatrol, and DIY CTC16, in addition to DCC. It will also handle Maerklin three rail trains and communicate via a few different proprietary European network standards. All of these features and capabilities give the ECoS its hefty street price--around $700 in the US--which made this a 'wishlist' rather than a 'buy it now' item. So when a used ECoS at a bargain price came calling, I answered.

So far, my ECoS is living up to its promise. Its home is a keyboard drawer under Ivy City yard on the Old Line Corridor, and it joins my home WiFi network via a single IoGear Ethernet-to-WiFi adapter--no more ungainly direct cable connection between my railroad and network. It joined immediately with JMRI, warts and all (more on that shortly). When I'm feeling frisky and want to do walkaround operations, I use the TouchCab iOS app on a pair of decommissioned early model iPhones. (The Android-powered ECoS Mobile Control II is still very much on my wishlist, needless to say). And I'm pleased as punch at those color loco icon mugshots!

What hasn't lived up to the promise is access to the ECoS via computer. ESU has made it easy to view and backup configuration settings via web interface, and the web interface is how color photo loco icons upload to the ECoS. But changing the ECoS' configuration via a connected computer is not straightforward--aside from uploading loco icons, there is little that can be changed or added to the ECoS via ESU's 'stock' web interface. JMRI, once properly configured, does access the ECoS over a local network and in its current build will allow what amounts to a one-time upload of the JMRI roster to the ECoS. However, the ECoS and JMRI do not truly synchronize after that initial upload. I am currently working with the JMRI user community to develop a repeatable, on demand capability to upload JMRI roster entries to the ECoS, which will be an important step toward achieving true synchronization between JMRI and the ECoS.

This standout piece of DCC kit and my troubles getting it to work comprehensively with JMRI point the way to the future of DCC.

First, the ECoS' look, feel, and user experience (UX, in industry parlance) are superior to practically everything currently on offer from US DCC manufacturers. The touch screen and graphic user interface should be more or less standard in the industry--Ring Engineering is the only North American train control product I know of with such an interface, but it is not DCC. While the ECoS is admittedly expensive in comparison to US starter DCC systems, I strongly suspect that its compatibility with multiple control and networking standards and dual controls are more expensive cost components than its main UX features, the color touch screen and menu-based user interface.

Second, networking and computer access for configuration and programming should not be an afterthought in DCC products. The ECoS' built-in Ethernet should also be a standard feature of DCC systems, and for that matter, WiFi would likely be easier, cheaper, and more user-friendly to incorporate. Networking and WiFi are currently built into a dizzying array of technology today--the 'internet of things' we've all been hearing about--and it should now be easy to cheaply incorporate wireless connectivity into new DCC products. 

An aside: I'm surprised that JMRI still hasn't been joined in the marketplace by either a standalone competitor, or by a manufacturer-specific alternative to or customized variant of JMRI. The web-based computer access to the ECoS offers a tantalizing glimpse of the possibilities here--I, for one, would pay money for a "it just works" PC/Mac software product with the functionality of JMRI and the simplicity of ESU's web interface.

I'm thinking of a Digitrax Zephyr- or NCE Touch Cab-like starter system with basic, small layout capabilities that dispenses with the keypad and LCD/LED alphanumeric display in favor of a touch screen and menu picks, and adds WiFi. An interface that works with common home computing devices (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android) would allow access to advanced system settings and loco rosters/ If nothing else, such a system would appear more contemporary with other common non-model railroad devices and have greater appeal to beginners and younger model railroaders, in addition to be being more intuitive and fun to use than endless key presses and cryptic abbreviated messages on LCD or LED displays.

Already, European manufacturers other than ESU, such as Piko and Roco are introducing a new generation of basic yet graphic-intensive, network-enabled DCC system that take their design queues from the ECoS--when will American manufacturers like Digitrax, NCE, MRC, and CVP join the trend with next-generation DCC?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Friday, January 20, 2017

Locomotive Mugshots, My Latest Hobby Within A Hobby

Amtrak 621, a Kato ACS-64, poses for its mug shot. Turns out one 'needs' locomotive mug shots when one uses fancified German DCC. When I first read Trevor Marshall's posts about how much he likes his new ESU ECoS 50200 DCC rig (here, and here), little did I know I would be learning to enjoy loco mugshotting . . .
The result, a tiny BMP file (that's actual size) that serves as the icon on the ECoS controller. Made 20 or so of these things, kind of like picture day in elementary school or maybe a precinct house after a riot by small fleet of N scale Northeast Corridor electric locomotives and their sympathizers. Look for a more comprehenisive post on my DCC adventures in a coming post.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Trains I Saw in 2016, Veteran's Day Twilight at Railroad Park

CSX freight captured at Railroad Park near Crystal City, Virginia, on Veteran's Day around twilight. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Mass In Motion, AKA the Sensory Surprise of N Scale Trains

When I started my N scale Old Line Corridor experiment last year, one of my objectives was to be able to run trains--whole trains, MUd locomotives, maybe even have meets and passes on the layout. In short, I wanted the OLC to be like railfanning somewhere on or near the Northeast Corridor, where big railroading happens.

Across the basement over at the HO scale Dunes Junction, there are trains running, to be sure, but the experience is decidedly unlike railfanning a former Pennsy (or any) mainline. It's more like a visit to a South Shore or Northwest Indiana railroad museum, where lovingly restored vintage rolling stock does 'over-and-back' moves around a section of restored right-of-way.
Running trains around the a-building OLC has already become an unexpected and satisfying pleasure. I had imagined that once scenery was more complete, perhaps with weathered rolling stock, I might feel a sense of realism. My test runs, however, surprise with the sense of mass in motion and the evocation of being in the presence of moving machinery and bigger-than-life technology. Have a look at this short video for a sense of how freight is moving around the OLC.

It's mostly the small size of N scale that is allowing me to see and experience the trains similarly to how I see and feel them in reality. Rarely do I actually see individual rolling stock up close, as at a museum; I'm more likely to see a locomotive or two trailed by freight or passenger cars that extend beyond immediate my field of view, passing through the landscape of suburban Maryland where I live or in the places I visit.

Realistic and controlled movement play an equally important role. The overall high quality of contemporary N scale locomotives is key to this measured movement of implied momentum and mass, but DCC deserves significant credit as well. The fidelity of control offered by DCC--particularly enhancement of lower speed control but also the ability to program lower top speeds--means that trains move more like the prototype. I've never experienced better or more versatile control of my trains.

Not sure I have ever experienced this sensation of realistic, massive movement on a layout of my own, and if I have experienced it with HO trains it was at a club or museum layout, such as when I visited the San Diego museum layout a few years ago. But I am surprised and delighted to see big ol' trains on my modestly-sized home layout.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Monday, December 26, 2016

Getting Back Up to Speed and Catching Up the Blog

A lot has happened on the Old Line Corridor and in real life since my last post back in September. I am now fully recovered from a serious but happily contained health crisis in early September, and also getting back in the groove of my work in the power utilities industry and travel. As my brother-in-blogging-arms Trevor Marshall recently described in a post on his 'Port Rowan in 1:64' blog, sometimes real life can divert attention away from our hobbies, or at least specific aspects of our hobbies. 

My health recovery afforded me some time to make some progress on my Old Line Corridor project--track is all but complete, scenery roughed in, a rolling stock fleet a-building, a few structures built, and my DCC knowledge and practice is advancing. However, my appetite and attention span for blogging (and frankly a lot of other sedentary computer activities, such as photo editing) is finally starting to return to normal. Let's catch up a bit with the high points, and some future posts will delve into some of the details.

The "front" of the Old Line Corridor with terrain completed, track ballasted and weathered, and the beginnings of ground cover.  Am thinking of calling this "Goldsboro"--seems like every town here in the Old Line State has a street named Goldsboro. 

Trackwork is completed, including ballasting and weathering. I used Peco's Fine Scale track, which some N scalers find problematic for its decidedly UK appearance and non-conformance with NMRA turnout standards. Aside from the quirks of joining the double-webbed rail, I have found it to be durable and fault-tolerant. For example, Arnold's recently released U25Cs and U28Cs are slightly narrowly gauged and other N scalers have reported that these locos derail on NMRA-conforming Micro Engineering and handlaid code 55 trackwork. I have had no such problems with Arnold U-boats on Peco track. My one complaint about the Peco turnouts is that the points require some fiddling and cleaning to ensure good, solid conductivity--nothing unmanageable or discouraging, however. Were I to build another N scale layout or expand this one, I would seriously contemplate another track system, probably using Fast Tracks system for hand laying or possibly Central Valley's recently released tie strips.

This part of the layout--the "back"--has a name, and it's 'Ivy City', named after the prototype Amtrak facility in Washington DC, and a favorite railfanning spot. It'll also be my visible fiddle staging yard (a concept that admittedly might give fits to any operations enthusiasts who read this post). 

Terrain and ground cover are now roughed in. I haven't done anything adventurous or unorthodox--stacked and carved extruded foam, sculptamold, latex paint, and the usual mix of ground foam. One thing not apparent in the photos is the industrial scale tree making that will transform the look of the layout. While many model railroaders express dread at the concept of making scores or hundreds of trees--even choosing modeling subjects and specific seasons to minimize the need for tree making!--I find tree making to be quite satisfying, as noted here previously.  So far, I have made a batch of Woodland Scenics plastic armature trees that will be background fillers, along with another batch of some cheap eBay trees that were improved using Kathy Millatt's techniques for improving cheap eBay trees. A couple of boxes of tried-and-true Scenic Express Super Trees are up next.

Other things not readily apparent from the photos are the continued build out of the OLC fleet and changes to my DCC rig. The fleet focus is the broadly defined Penn Central-Conrail transition period of late 60s through early 80s but the reality is that anything that ever ran on the Northeast Corridor is finding its way into my collection. Plus a few things that never ever ran on the NEC, notably a pair of Allegheny Midland ES44s, which will look awesome during a modern op session when they go into a siding with a unit train to yield to an ACS-64 or P42 with a Regional Service in tow.

I had been using a Digitrax Zephyr and various old laptop and network adapter doodads to run JMRI and WiThrottle, but I streamlined that to a Sprog3. More changes are coming, with the goal of having a streamlined, user friendly, and reliable DCC control installation. The Digitrax system is reliable but has an ancient user interface; the Sprog, laptop, and WiThrottle are somewhat more user friendly but markedly fussier than what I prefer. Watch for a future post on a significant new direction for OLC's DCC control.

Thanks for sticking with the blog and apologies for the irregular postings over the past year--here's wishing you all the best holiday and a great new year! Hope to read, hear, and see you around! 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Catching Up with the Old Line Corridor After a Tough Summer

Apologies again for the tardy and sparse posts. It has been a summer of business and family health surprises. Nonetheless, more progress to show on the Old Line Corridor. All track is down, ready for weathering and ballast. One of those health surprises happened to me and has caused me an extended convalescence, time that I used to engage in some scenic conceptualizing.

The main line and staging tracks are in, with the industrial spur track laying underway. The DC power pack is out for testing purposes.

A crude sketch of the overall Old Line Corridor concept, overlayed on a photo of the layout. From this side, the scenic ridge will represent the gently rolling terrain of the rural/suburban stretches of the Washington-Baltimore segment of the Pennsy mainline/Northeast Corridor. The other side of the scenic ridge will be more vertical urban scenery, characteristic of the Baltimore and Washington city stretches of this line.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Progress on the Old Line Corridor

Work has me on the road most weeks, and we moved the younger son back from college in the last month, so spare time for model railroading has been especially scarce. Nonetheless, my Old Line Corridor project is making slow but steady progress.
The Old Line Corridor track plan plan fits on a 36" x 80" hollow core door (HCD). The plan draws inspiration from a variety of HCD projects that have appeared in Model Railroader and elsewhere. but especially Dave Vollmer's Juniata layout (which has a significant YouTube presence and several major magazine stories), and MR's Mohawk and Carolina Central project railroads.

Straight outta Marty McGuirk's Carolina Central, folding table legs under an HCD
Cutting extruded foam board to fit the HCD. I used a saber saw fitted with a special foam board blade--quick and neat.
Two layers of foam board, 2" on top, 1" on bottom, glued to the HCD. Per the recent Red Oak series in MR, the 1" layer is cut 2" shorter in length and width to form a wiring chase all the way around the layout. Roadbed is going in.

Roadbed is glued in, sanded level and smooth, and trackwork begins. This is Peco Code 55 Finescale, which balances appearance with good ol' fashioned sturdiness and reliability. Looks a little too British for some folks, but looks swell to me.
Another view of a-building track and roadbed. This is my first go-around with foamboard benchwork, and impressed so far. The quirks haven't driven me away yet!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Washington DC's New Streetcar

Car arriving as another departs the western terminus of the new DC streetcar line at Washington Union Station. The streetcar opened just a few weeks ago after literally years of legal and bureaucratic wrangling. My wife and I took a ride a weekend or so ago to check it out and have an afternoon out on the city's vibrant new H Street corridor, or Atlas, District.

Metro train crossing over the eastern terminus of DC Streetcar. Unfortunately the only
walk on transfer location is at Union Station--there is no Metro stop at this end of the line.
Turnaround at the terminus as a two-car set begins its westbound run.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Thoughtful Blog Post on the Near Future of Model Railroading

Titus over at the Some Railroad You Never Heard Of blog has a thoughtful post about the future of model railroading (look for more 3D printing and CNC cutting--laser cutters, Cricuts, and the like--but some things like track as we currently know it are here to stay) and model railroading media (streaming video is the future, print fading away). Stop what you're doing and go read it. He's got me wondering if I should have a YouTube channel alongside or even in place of this blog . . .