Friday, March 24, 2017

Great Video of a Visit to Lance Mindheim's CSX Downtown Spur Miami Layout!

Tolga E, a.k.a brickbuilder711, recently visited Lance Mindheim's CSX Downtown Spur Miami layout. I have visited Lance and his layout in the past and this video captures the experience nicely.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Old Line Corridor Progress Report, March 2017

It's been a while since I've posted progress shots of the Old Line Corridor. Have been away on a lot of business travel this spring, but I've been very disciplined about making progress on the OLC on my weekends at home. In this wide shot, the masonite fascia and  progress on scenery and roughed-in roads and structures is evident.
A hundred or so trees make up that treeline and view block. Most were made using SuperTrees, but there's also a substantial number of Woodland Scenics plastic armature trees and 'cheap Ebay trees' in the background. Don't forget the fun and fanciful train running: an Allegheny Midland unit train meets Amtrak Regional service. That ACS-64 is reaching its pantograph up proudly; one day soon it will look right at home under a picket of Shapeways/DesignDyne NEC catenary towers.
It's that 70s show over on the other side of the layout. In the upper right of the photo, there are a failed road experiment and two blank tan places for more structures. Another tall-ish curtain-walled factory will go into the spot next to the tracks, further blocking the view down the road to the other side of the layout. The spot across the road, currently occupied by a plastic cup, will be one of those mysterious dilapidated trackside businesses with dozens of abandoned containers, trucks, and construction machines. The new ESU ECoS 2 command station and a repurposed iPhone controller is visible on the bottom left; the shelf is a clamp-on keyboard drawer that is just deep enough to accommodate the ECoS 2.
The in-progress highway bridge is kitbashed from Rix components and Evergreen styrene strip stock, and temporarily pinned to the foamboard with T-pins. This is one of my favorite features of foam benchwork, though I'm not sure I'll use foam as extensively for future layout construction. 
Trains run through it. Even though the scene is incomplete pending installation of catenary towers. more trees on that cut on the left, and right-of-way details, this photo shows that you really can do big-time railroading in a modest space in N scale. I find myself spending significant time just running trains, something I never do on my HO scale Dunes Junction.

Friday, March 10, 2017

That Didn't Take Long: Populist Politics and Model Trains

In the latest Rapido trains newsletter, Jason Shron coolly and factually explains how Brexit has already negatively impacted Rapido, and what negative impacts prospective changes in US trade and China policy--such as increased trade tariffs--are likely to have on Rapido and across the model railroad industry. 
Jason is the energetic boss of Rapido Trains Inc. and the Rapido News is a must-read email whenever it comes, always informative and entertaining. He is a tireless explainer of how the model railroad industry works and he is transparent about Rapido's project status and delivery schedule--including bad news about delays, setbacks, and disappointing sales.
"We're proud of the open relationship we have with our customers," writes Jason in his latest  email newsletter. 
Read Jason's thoughts on the topic here:
Rapido News Vol. 86 - Big order deadline and new videos

Friday, March 3, 2017

Visit to Ed Kapuscinski's N Scale Conrail Layout

Ed Kapuscinski blogs about his Conrail modeling in N scale at his Conrail 1285 blog, and his layout and modeling showcase the potential for prototype modeling and operation in N scale. Ed is strongly connected to the Conrail Historical Society, and it shows. His layout certainly evokes a gray mid-80s winter/spring day in the York, PA-Baltimore area,  and this post in particular caught my attention because of the catenary bridges.

Here's a view across Windsor Street Yard on Ed's Conrail layout. The overall impact is an immersive and convincing experience: his scenery and weathering, photo backdrop, and rolling stock choices make it difficult to tell at a glance just what scale this is, and set the time and place. I was feeling a cold wind and and thinking of bad 80s top 40 radio just looking around! 
I had a chance to see Ed's layout when he graciously hosted an open house on a recent Saturday (that's the back of me in the black hat and gray shirt). Ed and his friendly crew not only showed off the awesome and a-building layout, but made sure everyone who visited were welcomed and oriented. No small feat managing a crowd during an N scale layout tour--even a generous-appearing space is deceptively small on all but the largest N scale layout. Ed generously spent time chatting with me, mostly about NEC catenary and scenery modeling. He showed me his indestructible catenary tower mounting method, which uses magnets to 'fail beautifully'--will be experimenting with this approach myself for my Shapeways/DesignDyne catenary tower installation.

My biggest takeaway from my visit to Ed's Conrail layout had to do with atmosphere. Ed's layout transported me to a time and place. He accomplished this with color and composition--particularly scenery choices, weathering, and photo backdrops. The number, size, and shape of his trees particularly impressed me, and vindicated some of my own scenery strategy--I feared that many of my trees were too big but both my reference photos and now Ed's layout show that 3-5" trees are appropriate for the mid-Atlantic seaboard in N scale. Ed didn't have layout sound (that I noticed, anyway) but during our conversation about the NEC and wire, Ed brought up 'singing wire', a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has been trackside on the NEC or any other electrified mainline. We wondered if it had ever been modeled--and now I think I might need to figure that out for the Old Line Corridor!

Looking forward to seeing more of Ed and his work in the future!
Crossing the bridge near CP Loucks (I think). The blending of colors, texture, and weathering gives Ed's layout a prototype feel. And his trees are appropriately proportioned! 

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!