Monday, March 18, 2019

OMG, the layout is almost finished

With the near completion of the N Scale Architect curtain wall factory (an upcoming post will give a detailed review and lessons learned), the Walthers tractor dealership, and the Pikestuff warehouse, the Old Line Corridor is getting closer to completion. Already thinking of how additional trees and vegetation, right of way details, signage, and vehicles will give the layout a completed look.

A "drone" shot of the suburban Maryland-inspired industrial area with principal structures roughly positioned in. Next steps are to blend into the surrounding scenery and add some additional atmospheric details.

The purpose of that large-ish N Scale Architect factory is to block the view of the staging yard from the front of the layout, as seen in the background here. A fence and additional vegetation will enhance the blocking effect.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Catching the White Whale: Amtrak ICE Trainset

Finally laid my hands on one of the reasons I started out on the Old Line Corridor in the first place: Fleischmann's N scale Amtrak ICE train set. This is a 'best of both worlds' model: an interesting European prototype that actually ran on the Northeast Corridor. It was second hand, in excellent condition, and as evident in the video, runs reasonably well.
It does have a few quirks. As noted by the encyclopedically tireless tester of all N scale locomotives, Spookshow, it has some tricky close couplings, which turn out to be simple drawbars with NEM coupler plugs and sockets.
Its early 90s production also predates 'DCC ready', so DCC installation will be either old school with lots of soldering and whatnot, or expensive, as Fleischmann's recommended DCC conversion is to remove the Amtrak ICE shells and install them on the drives for a separately offered equipped ICE loco set. That DCC-equipped ICE loco set, is, of course, even rarer than this ICE Amtrak set and usually fetches an even higher premium price. Nonetheless, glad to have this prize running on the Old Line Corridor.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

How many HO locos to pull an actual loco?

A lot of HO locos, apparently, but it’s certainly possible. German language, but go to 11:30 or so to see the money shot. A lot of amperage going on there.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Model Railroader Magazine Project Layouts Can Be Bought, Apparently

A Kalmbach Publishing acquaintance mentioned to me a few months ago that Model Railroader project layouts were taking up valuable space around the Kalmbach offices, and as a result, MR editor Hal Miller was keen to sell them off. The Virginian, Salt Lake, and Red Oak layouts, among others, could be had for bargain prices. Transportation would, of course, be the buyer's responsibility.

I wasn't sure if I was having my leg pulled, or if this was some Model Railroad Industrial Complex gossip that would not be appropriate to share, so I more or less forgot about the conversation. Then I heard this interview with MR Video editor David Popp, and heard it from him:

Other fun facts: David Popp is a war gamer (did you know this, Trevor Marshall?) and slot car racing fan. Who knew?

Monday, February 18, 2019

Random Developments and Thoughts

First, that moment when 200 or so seemingly random and abstract parts transmogrify into something recognizable as a model. In this instance, the transformation was particularly rewarding because of the medium of this N Scale Architect kit--the parts are all cardstock strips and rectangles that were difficult to envision as a factory.
Second, it's time for another pontification about how the Europeans do DCC. I've done a couple of DCC installs on European prototype N scale models in the past couple of months, which used the Next18, AKA NEM 662, decoder socket. The decoder socket and plug --see above, 'Buchsenleiste' is one the locomotive, 'Stiftleiste' is on the decoder--is only a quarter of an inch or so across, making for a tiny little decoder. Which leads me to wonder why Atlas, Walthers, and Kato DCC installs still involve special replacement printed circuit boards instead of Next18 or another standard socket, like the NEM 651. Intermountain, for its part, does use an NEM 651 socket in its ES44 models. Seems like an opportunity for efficiency and reduced production costs that would benefit modelers and the model railroad marketplace.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Structure Making Weekend

This is four or so N Scale Architect curtain wall factory kits under construction, assembly line style. It is made up of a laser cut 'task board' (1/16" card) base layer with self-stick brick and task board overlays and Grandt Line windows. It will be formed into a large generic factory approximately 12' x 4" x 6", the main purpose of which will be to form a view block at the end of the Ivy Cith visible staging yard. This might be my first craftsman structure kit in decades and construction so far has been rewarding if not laborious. I spent most of the weekend prepping the wall base layers and painting the brick, concrete and window parts, which number (seemingly) in the hundreds. However, assembly seems quick now that the painting and prep is done; that end wall in the lower left went together in about 10 or 15 minutes. 
The Walthers tractor supply kit got some finishing and weathering love. The decal sheet is substantially different than what is depicted on the box art. Painting and weathering brought out the kit's excellent masonry detail. Next comes final assembly, including window glazing and downspouts.

I tried a new weathering product on the Walthers kit: Ammo by Mig Oilbrushers. These are oil paints mixed and thinned for  model weathering and finishing, in a fingernail polish-like applicator. They are easily blended with odorless thinner or white spirits. Not only is this an excellent weathering product, the most useful color in my Oilbrushers set has the truly awesome name of  'Starship Filth'. Luckily Starship Filth is a similar shade to Northeast Corridor Filth.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Varieties of Model Railroad-ious Experience

Karl Gebele's Kompakt-Anlagen ('Compact Layouts')
book. Cynical North American modelers probably
notice the unweathered rolling stock and roller coaster
curves and grades first, but miss Karl's genius: pure
wonder and romance, expressed in virtuoso scenery
as well as artfully rendered slices of German life. Like
it or not, Karl's work is more achievable, connects
with the public better and will inspire more partici-
pation in the hobby than basements filled with fleets
of era-specific rolling stock and stylized operations.
My venture into overseas model railroading is yielding new insights into not only new models and modeling techniques, but also into alternative approaches to and philosophies of model railroading.

Or put another way, I'm learning that the ideal of model railroading as put forth in the major US model rail magazines ain't the only way to do model railroading.

Tom Barbalet of the Model Rail Radio podcast and others have pointed out the elements of the 'orthodoxy' of the US model railroad industrial complex: fixation on a few major US prototype railroads; idealization of recent past railroad eras; large lifetime layouts with expansive fleets of locos and rolling stock; virtuoso prototype- and period- specific rolling stock modeling; idealization of advanced over simpler functional techniques (i.e. disdain for sectional track in favor of difficult handlaid or flex track); DCC, sound, and state-of-the-art electronics, including signaling and detection; and finally its apotheosis in complex, formal operations sessions. A look through the big magazines and the offerings of the major US model rail manufacturers strongly support Tom's 'orthodoxy' thesis.

Tom and others have also pointed out that there are alternatives to the large lifetime layout, such as modules and smaller layouts. A look through European model railroading magazines, books, and videos (check out Pilentum TV on YouTube) further reveals that superdetailed, era-specific prototype modeling is not the only satisfying end-goal of model railroading. Indeed, there's a strong case to be made that an alternative end-goal for the hobby is communicating with the public and capturing the imaginations of non-model railroaders.

Karl Gebele is a fixture of the German model railroading press, and his new book, Kompakt-Anlagen: Viel Modellbahn auf wenig Raum ("Compact Layouts: Much Model Railroading in Little Space"; available in North America from Amazon Germany) showcases such an accessible and imaginative approach to model railroading. A quick Google search will turn up numerous photos and videos of Karl's work, which demonstrates that excellent model railroading can--and does--routinely take place on tiny layouts with sharp-curved sectional track with ready-to-run rolling stock equipped with pizza cutter flanges and oversized couplers.

The genius of Karl's work is that he visualizes and models contemporary German life and culture, leaning heavily into excellent scenery, painting, and finishing techniques. For non-model railroading Germans, and for anyone who is familiar with Germany from travel or military service, Karl's vignettes and visual idioms are instantly recognizable. For example, the opening photograph of the book depicts--unmistakably--Germany's wine country.

What North American modelers could take away from Karl's work--and what the North American Model Railroad Industrial Complex should be championing--is how to work with the limitations of space and resources to do inspiring modeling that tells stories and engages non-model railroaders. In particular, Karl shows how to work with small radius curves, steep grades, and sectional track--without ending up looking cartoonish or whimsical. The major magazines occasionally showcase excellent small layouts that forthrightly incorporate sharp curves and grades while evoking a place and time, but such coverage is rare enough to be remarkable. Rick Van Laar's CSX layout, featured in the February 2011 Model Railroader (also available here in a compilation of 4x8 layout stories) is one of those layouts, and so is Steve Campbell's HiTop layout, which was also featured in MR in March 2016.

Europeans do have it easier, in one particular way, with their small layouts: most of their model rolling stick, regardless of scale, is engineered to run on much tighter curves than North American equipment. This is partly a function of smaller prototype equipment--the largest European electric or diesel is roughly the size of an Amtrak ACS-64 or AEM-7, there are virtually no large articulated steam locos, and few freight cars are longer than 40'. But it's also a function of market expectations. European manufacturers want to make their wares usable by as many model railroaders as possible. This approach is democratizing, in its way, because anyone can run virtually any car or locomotive, regardless of layout size. One of the qualities I have always admired about my MTH HO South Shore Little Joe is its 18" minimum radius--would that I could have had this locomotive on my first HO layout, built of course with sectional track back in the 70s. Instead, the brass models of that period were not only expensive, they ran poorly and required impossibly broad curves.

My own takeaway from Karl's book and from the European approach to model railroading is a validation of how I plan to move ahead with my own hobby. A basement empire is not in my future, but modules and small layouts are. And I particularly enjoy modeling that results in a 'wow' not from other model railroaders, but from lay non model railroaders. When my sister, who thinks model railroading is silly, immediately recognized Dune Acres (AKA Mineral Springs Road) on my Dunes Junction layout, I knew I had been successful. Same when my wife noticed that the different parts of the Old Line Corridor actually correspond to various sections of the actual Northeast Corridor. "That looks like Jersey, but this other part looks like Maryland between BWI and Union Station." She also thinks my tiny trains are ridiculous, but I managed to connect them to her world.

And connections--like the ones that Karl Gebele makes--are what I want from my model railroading.

Monday, January 28, 2019

What’s Happening on the Old Line Corridor, January 2019 Edition

Smells like team spirit: Operation Lifesaver is in the house--this Conrail Operation Lifesaver GP15-1 was a gift to my wife, Rachel, who is Operation Lifesaver's national Executive Director. Finally got a DCC decoder into this gem of a model over a recent weekend so it can run on the Old Line Corridor layout.  
A tiring chore completed: this sound-equipped Bachmann GG1 in Congressional Silver threw a traction tire, which needed to be replaced. Traction tires are an unfortunate fact of life in N scale. Can't live with 'em because they interrupt good pickup and make rerailing a hassle, can't live without 'em because when they inevitably come off, the wheels are won't track or roll well because of the big ol' groove in the wheel profile. The model required complete disassembly to replace that one errant traction tire. This problem also afflicts Kato's otherwise excellent GG1 model as well. Would that some aftermarket manufacturer devise some ingenious method of replacing traction tires permanently with solid metal tires.  
And a fun structure build: this Walthers farm equipment supplier kit fits together especially well and is well engineered, unlike Walthers massive papermill kit which suffers thin, flimsy, translucent walls and confounding windows. Walthers could improve the instructions for all its current structure kits. 

Monday, January 21, 2019

Texas Interurbans

This old freight motor, Interurban Express Motor #330, is on display at the Visitor's Center in downtown Burleson, TX. I visited family there recently, and they took me to see the partially restored car, the interior of which also serves as a museum exhibit.

Side view of 330. Looks like it rolled right out of the Crooked Mountain Lines shop. Particularly striking was the gaunt, small scale of the cars on display in comparison even to modern light rail vehicles, let alone to modern mainline passenger and freight equipment. 

Parlor Car #411 is also on display--a much fancier specimen than that rugged old freight motor. Unfortunately, appears to be missing its pilot and steps. The wood restoration on both 411 and 330 is excellent but both were missing traction motors wiring. Wonder what the prospects for full restoration to operability are?

Monday, January 14, 2019

Catenary Towers, Part 3: Blending In and Finishing Touches

What it's all about: the finished result. Scenery materials and weathering blend the painted Shapeways/Designdyne towers into the layout as described below.

Principal blending materials: Vallejo Earth Texture; ballast, soil, and green blend materials in seed dispensers; and water. Stole the idea for the seed dispensers from a recent Model Railroader article. I found mine on Amazon in a pack of five for less than $10, and I'm not sure how I did scenery work without them. The medical irrigation bottle for water was another cheap Amazon find, handy for work on the layout and at the workbench.
First step is to apply the Vallejo Earth Texture around the mounting nails to fill obvious gaps, build up terrain around the nails, and provide an adhesive surface for ballast and ground cover materials
Here is Vallejo Earth Texture covering the gouge in the scenery that resulted from leveling the towers back in Part 1, with some fresh ballast already applied to the Earth Texture. Soil and grass blend colors will cover the remainder of the Earth Texture. The seed dispenser affords precise application of the scenery materials with minimal waste.
A wet Q-Tip ('cotton bud' in UK-speak) cleaned excess Earth Texture and scenery materials off the mounting nails.

Ballast and scenery materials in place. After the Earth Texture sets, the shop vac will make short work of excess materials. after vacuuming up the excess ballast, I used the seed dispenser to touch up and fill in any remaining gaps, followed by wet water and Woodland Scenics Scenic Cement. The touching-up/filling process also allowed the ballast to fall in more naturalistic distribution around the tower bases.
After the clean ballast spots dried, I airbrushed a fog of muddy gray paint to blend them into the already weathered ballast. The flat gray enameled nail heads also blended in during this step.
A quick snapshot looking down the main line, showing off the rusty and dark variations in tower colors.  

Gray and galvanized effects looking down into the visible staging yard.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Catenary Towers, Part 2: Painting and Weathering

My improvised painting rig made good use of the towers' magnetic bases. I applied masking tape to a particularly magnetic steel ruler, and then taped the ruler to my Tamiya spray painting stand. I first touched up my original primer paint job, which I applied with a Rustoleum rattle can a year and half or so ago. The rattle can did not effectively reach the many nooks and crannies of the very detailed Shapeways/Designdyne towers, so I airbrushed another coat Badger Stynlrez black primer to make sure the many undercuts and complex shapes got adequate coverage. If Shapeways could use a black material for these particular items, it would be a great help as the white FUD material is quite challenging to prime. After the Stynelrez primer dried, then Vallejo Air rust, grey, and concrete colors were then applied. I used folded paper masks to ensure a sharp demarcation for the concrete footings and occasional sections of unrusted galvanized column. This is an all-rusty tower with no new galvanized column sections added, commonly found on the Washington-Philadelphia section of the 90s-present Northeast Corridor.   
This retired cookie sheet has been a staple of my magnetic mounting technique, and I used it to facilitate my painting production line. Here are all of the Old Line Corridor's catenary structures, in order of placement on the layout, ready for the next stage of painting. At this stage, the main structures and concrete footings have been painted; some of the insulators have been brush painted. Note that some towers are all 'rust', while others have new, galvanized sections added. A light gray color simulates the galvanized replacement sections. One of the four track signal towers received more gray than any of the other towers; this style of tower, for some reason, maintains more of its original gray/aluminum color and does not rust through as thoroughly as the more common non-signal K-braced towers.

Before: roofing nails used for catenary tower bases are sufficiently magnetic and form a good grip into the sandwich of ballast, cork roadbed, and styrofoam baseboard, but they sure are shiny! 

After: to kill the shine of the roofing nail heads, I sploshed (check out my UK vocabulary, maybe the Continental Modeller subscription and Kathy Millatt videos are rubbing off) some old-fashioned Testor Flat Gray enamel on each of the heads to subdue them in preparation for ballasting and blending them in. Smell evokes powerful memories, and the whiff of solvent-based enamel transported me back to my earliest days of model making. That now-rare smell of and the modest challenge of tracking down a store that still carries a stock of Testor enamel reminded me that solvent-based paints are no longer part of the model making mainstream.
In our next installment, Part 3: Re-installing and blending in the catenary towers on the Old Line Corridor.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Catenary Towers, Part 1: Truing Up

A key element of the Old Line Corridor's visual character is its picket of Pennsy-style catenary towers. As previously described here over the past year or two, my imaginary, impressionistic Northeast Corridor catenary towers were primed black and their magnetic mounts roughed in. Some extended holiday modeling time became available, so I used the opportunity to complete my catenary. In the next three posts, I'll show how I how I took the catenary towers on the Old Line Corridor from 'roughed in' to 'more or less finished'.  

First step: ensure that the roofing nails used as magnetic mounting bases are square. Bar magnets placed on the mounting bases were checked with a plastic square. Adjustments to roughing nails were made using a pliers to twist and shimmy the nails into square and level positions.  

At the entry to the Ivy City visible staging yard, the double track catenary tower was too narrow, so I fitted a four track tower instead. This improvisation necessitated carving away some terrain for square and level installation, as seen on the right side of the photo. 

In the time since I primed and roughed in the catenary mounts and towers, many of the 3-D printed towers warped. Not sure if some of the rough, crooked mounts caused this warping, or if the warping is a natural outcome of the characteristics of the Shapeways FUD material in combination with the thin, near-scale cross sections of the main tower structure components. However, the material is responsive to gentle heating. Here is the cross structure of one of the bridges clamped to a scrap of 1x1 hardwood in preparation for heating.

Straightening a particularly badly warped tower cross bridge section using my festively-colored heat gun. I did this completely by feel and instinct, keeping the heat gun moving and 3-4" away from the catenary bridge, with occasional pauses during which I would touch the assembly. When it felt very warm but not yet hot enough to not touch, I stopped the heating and let it cool back to room temperature before unclamping. Nearly all the towers have developed some degree of warpage, in either the horizontal bridge or 'K' section or in the vertical uprights; I straightened only the half dozen or so that showed the most noticeable warping.
Next up: painting and weathering the catenary towers.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Look What Drove Me Home from New York

I had a bit of an obsession with Amtrak ACS-64 642, the special veterans locomotive, a few years ago when Amtrak first rolled it out. I had at least two tantalizing glimpses of it in 2015 or so, and was either without camera or too slow on the draw to meaningfully capture it. So imagine my surprise an delight as I stepped off the 55 Vermonter in Washington Union Station after a week on client site and realized I had been riding behind 642! Bachmann makes it in HO, and an N scale version has been rumored since Kato released its ACS-64 a few years ago. This is another Sony RX100M2 capture; this image is remarkably high quality for such low-light conditions.

Looking the other way down on the platforms of Union Station, more NEC trains. This image would really never have been possible with film--today's digital cameras extend the reach of photography in ways that would have seemed miraculous 20 years ago.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Launching a T-Trak Side Quest

This single T-Trak module is the most basic and original building block of the T-Trak table top N scale module concept. Note the line of holes for attaching Kato Unitrack, which is an integral element of the T-Trak standard. The module bases shown here were constructed from Masterpiece Modules kits, each of which comprise nine CNC router-cut 1/4" Baltic birch parts. The precision-cut parts fit together like 3-D puzzle pieces; carpenter's wood glue is applied to the mating surfaces. Per the instructions, gentle hammer taps moderated by a block of scrap wood ensure the precisely milled tabs fully seat  and form  square, super strong joints. The resulting module boxes are extremely rigid and sturdy.
Life comes at us fast, says an advertising campaign, and my wife, Rachel, and I are anticipating major changes to our living and working situation over the next five to ten years. In particular, we have the good fortune of a likely early retirement in the next five years or so.

As we have contemplated new living arrangements, possibly with multiple smaller homes while we transition between full-time work and retirement, Rachel has thoughtfully raised concern about how I can continue my modeling in smaller, transitory spaces.

I'm also thinking of ways to satisfy multiple different modeling interests. As mentioned here previously, I still have an abiding interest in modeling the prototypes of my home region of Northwest Indiana, as well as burgeoning new interests in European prototype modeling. 

An Operation Lifesaver T-Trak single
module concept. Will look awesome on
Rachel's desk!
Yet another project I have in mind is to modestly contribute to and support Rachel's new professional role as a railroad industry safety leader via my modeling. Put another way--she needs relevant railroad models for her desk and her rail industry events!

And I'm finding the fellowship of model railroading increasingly rewarding. I have uncovered the model railroad social scene in Washington DC area, and was pleased to find that we have a vibrant N scale modular model railroading scene, focused on the Ntrak and T-Trak standards.

T-Trak modular model railroading in particular offers a promising approach to meet these portability, versatility, and fellowship needs. To give the approach a test drive, I recently took the plunge and ordered T-Trak module base kits from Masterpiece Modules.

These kits are ingeniously engineered and produced, and were a delight to build--each went together in less than 30 minutes each with only sandpaper, carpenter's wood glue, a hammer, and a wood block. For future efforts, I may learn and use makerspace tools--such as laser cutters and CNC routers--to make modules and other benchwork of my own design.

In addition to an Operation Lifesaver module, I have in mind at least one Northwest Indiana-themed module, and also a European module. The Euro module is very likely to be a long quad, so I can build out a run of Sommerfeldt or Viessmann catenary.

Stay tuned for more on my T-Trak side quest.
A double T-Trak module--same number of parts, just differently sized. The ÖBB (Austrian state railways) Vectron loco is positioned over the row of Unitrack mounting holes to give a sense of proportion. If you were thinking, "that loco looks familiar yet more interesting," that because the four-pantographed ÖBB Vectron is the sexier Austrian cousin of Amtrak's ACS-64 Cities Sprinter. This Fleischmann model has excellent lighting and running characteristics, which I fully leveraged by using a ESU LokPilot 4.0 decoder with an Next18 plug.

Rear view of a quad T-Trak module. Note the small round holes intended for mounting the backdrop ('skyboard' in T-Trak parlance) and the large square holes for passing through wiring.  This module will likely be German- or Austrian-themed, with a run of either Sommerfeldt or Viessmann catenary. I’m thinking a Rhine cliffs or similar theme.

What's underneath: not much. The front, ends, and top fit together very tightly and squarely. Those corner gussets add more strength and are fitted with T-nuts for threaded ‘legs’ that allow for adjustment to uneven tabletop surfaces. Am wondering whether I should screw in more bracing to minimize twisting or torsion, but I suspect that would be overkill on an already excessively sturdy and overbuilt design. 

Sunday, December 16, 2018

New Job, New Camera, New (Casual) Railfanning

This speeding Long Island Rail Road DE30AC at Carle Place, New York, was the first railfanning occasion for my new Sony RX100M6 camera. I bought the camera to celebrate my new job, so it was fitting that traveling home from my first week in the field with clients presented this opportunity to break out the new camera. The end-of-day winter twilight did not help but this brave little superpowered point-and-shoot acquitted itself well in these challenging shooting conditions--it was dark, wet, and that outbound LIRR train was doing at least 60 mph.
A scant five minutes later this string of MUs blasted through. Trains magazine has tagged at least one major LIRR junction, closer into New York City as I recall, as a hot spot. The LIRR is very busy, and even though I was on an 'off-peak' train, I didn't wait and it was quite full. I will be on this client engagement, which also affords me an Amtrak ride from Washington to NYC, for another month or so--more photos likely.