Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Andy Gautrey's "Wiley City" on YouTube

Andy Gautrey's work floored me the first time I saw it.  What a tremendous combination of elements at work here: excellent wire work, great running models, and the great look of it all. I've watched it on the 'big screen' in my living room a bunch of times now. More here and here.

Friday, March 27, 2015

On My Workbench: Thrall Coal Gondola Assembly Line

Taking a break from motors, decoders, and washers.  Those are 80s era MDC Roundhouse Thrall coal gondola kits in the NORX paint scheme. The detailing is a little long in the tooth on these kits, but the reporting marks and data are right for 70s/80s-era unit trains on the South Shore. These have been renumbered with dry transfer lettering and are now in assembly. I'm looking forward to putting a string of them behind Little Joe 802--there's a great picture of an 800 dragging a unit train of these Thrall coal gondolas through Burnham yard on pp. 98-99 of Middleton's South Shore book.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Demise of Model Railroading Will Always Be Greatly Exaggerated

One thing model railroaders have always loved to talk about is the demise of the hobby. Go look through letters to the editor in 40- or 50-year-old Model Railroader magazines (easier than ever now, what with MR's new paywalled archives) and you'll see how the unstoppable menace of plastic ready-to-run locomotives or slot car racing or whatever was killing the hobby.

Nowadays, lamentations over the decline of the hobby take place on the internet and assume the form of a variety of recurring concerns:
  • The gradual extinction of the local hobby shop
  • The move of manufacturing to China and attendant uncertainties due to insuperable market forces and long distance logistics
  • The increasing trend of pre-ordering, short runs, and direct sales for new products
  • The disappearance of good old fashioned solvent based paint, lead in solder, and whatever other hazardous material we used to use
  • The high price of everything
  • Greedy, profiteering manufacturers who routinely choose to dupe earnest and serious model railroaders with deeply flawed and inaccurate models
  • Mediocrity and/or decline of flagship model railroad publications
  • Aging/dying model railroaders
Joe Fugate, publisher of Internet-based upstart online model railroad magazine Model Railroad Hobbyist, took on that last recurring concern about aging model railroaders in the magazine's latest "Reverse Running"column. As the name implies, Reverse Running typically features an unusual, unconventional, or unpopular take on some aspect of the hobby.  Joe's March column, titled "The End of Youth in the Hobby", takes aim not at the number of old dudes at your typical train show or club, but at the closed-mindedness of many older model railroaders when it comes to new-fangled tech things.

In particular, Joe chastises the old guard for not being more receptive to innovations that might interest younger tinkerers and nascent model railroaders, such as mobile phone apps for controlling trains or using mainstream social media like Facebook to connect and share with other model railroaders. The comments about Joe's column are, as is often the case with good internet-based opinion writing, as interesting as the column itself.

A significant part of the problem Joe points out is internet manners. The internet allows people to express all kinds of regrettable things one would never say face-to-face to other humans. The internet also allows one to find oneself in an online community or mob of like-minded ignoramuses who make hostility or studied stupidity seem normal. It's hard to imagine model railroaders of a certain age at a public layout exhibition, club, or hobby shop actually saying something confrontational, insulting, or dismissive to  directly to a young or new model railroader, though I wouldn't rule it out. I've known some anti-social and combative modelers and model railroaders over the years, but they are a rare exception rather than typical or dominant--warmth, encouragement, and geniality are more the norm among model railroaders.

But Joe's main point is that the anti-technology stodginess of model railroading's old guard is (potentially) killing the hobby. By my lights, it's self-evident that our hobby has been slow to join the internet and digital revolution. We still have a few holdout manufacturers who steadfastly refuse to have an internet presence. A significant number of suppliers have web sites that are so poorly designed that they do their own fine and wonderful products injustice, and they miss an important sales and marketing opportunity by not offering e-commerce. There are clubs and associations that only take personal checks via snail mail, and don't avail themselves of any of a variety of electronic payment methods. The Android and iOS app stores have a tiny number of model railroad-related apps available. Model railroad-specific uptake on the big social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is tiny. We have only one native digital model railroad publication.

And as Joe points out, for all the wonders and capabilities of smart phones and the rising 'internet of things', there is a persistent digital divide between model railroading and the general direction of tinkering and making things in the real world. Why aren't we controlling trains or programming DCC decoders with our smart phones or from a web browser? Why aren't our operations and planning gurus regularly modeling and simulating on computers to determine how long that passing track should be, or how much staging is needed, before ever building benchwork or laying track? We can print a whole HO scale interurban, but not a white or yellow decal? Why isn't anyone building super lightweight benchwork from some new resin fiberboard or plywood material cut in a CNC rot or laser cutter down at their local community maker center? (I think I might look into that last one . . . )

I agree with Joe: model railroading should catch up to the 21st century. In the last century, our big magazines and associations helped bring seriousness and legitimacy to our hobby. This century is different and we need to make sure we evolve our media, technology, and organizational tools to keep our efforts contemporary, modern, and resonant. I've always imagined that the presence of Model Railroader or Railroad Model Craftsman on newsstands in the sixties and seventies as a kind of ambassador to the public that put our hobby's best foot forward.  Our 21st century digital presence should also be a worthy ambassador, and how we make and control our trains should be as well.

But I don't think model railroading is dying. Some old standby institutions are changing, but the hobby is not dying. I'd rather be model railroading today than any other time I can think of. Connecting, sharing, and transmitting knowledge between modelers across the miles has never been easier thanks to online communities, blogs, podcasts, social media groups. The latest RTR offerings compare very favorably to even the best, factory painted brass of two or three decades past. Local hobby shops may be fading away, but the new commerce of model railroading favors model railroader consumers in many key respects. An ecosystem of online hobby dealers--many associated with Ebay and Amazon---make sourcing materials and supplies even more convenient than ever, in some particular ways. Ebay also gives individual model railroaders a way to connect supply and demand for the rare and specialized that had previously not been possible--I can't imagine how I would have built a roster of South Shore passenger equipment without Ebay to provide a more or less safe and reliable way to buy and trade across the miles.

The demise of model railroading will always be greatly exaggerated. But we could do a better job of welcoming new ideas and putting the hobby's best foor forward.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Electric Railroads of Italy . . . Who Knew?

My wife and I traveled to Italy in November for a rainy visit with our younger son, who was in Florence on a study-abroad program. The trip was a minor rail adventure--Italy's trains were a pleasant and civilized surprise. Here are some photos of electric railroads we encountered along the way . . .
Ancient cathedral in the background at the Florence station

The Italo high speed train that brought us from Rome to Florence,
next to a local commuter train. Best train ride, ever--smooth, clean,
comfortable, and fast.
That's not the fastest the Italo was going--
it crept up to 300km over several stretches
between Florence and Venice
An Italo snakes through the main Rome train station. An old-school steward/stewardess service brings red wine to your seat. Civlized, or what?
More action at the Rome station, easily one of the busiest hot spots I've ever experienced. Train watching was interrupted
by visits to various ancient ruins, medieval and renaissance architectural wonders, awesome food, and other distractions
that litter this city.

Suburban train sporting the national colors in Rome. The colors of the equipment as well as the right-of-way caught my eye--note that the rails are actually painted grey, I suspect to assist in track inspection and maintenance. 

Rome tram lines crossing in the shadow of an ancient wall in the Porto Maggiore neighborhood. The white and yellow cars on the right are meter-gauge; the green cars on the left belong to the main standard-gauge Rome tram lines.

Rome trams meet near the Circo Massimo ruins, where an excavation is underway.

Rome tram stop. The tram system is extensive and somewhat complex in comparison to Rome's subway system. Our hotel
concierge tried to dissuade us from riding the tram, but we found it to be reliable, safe, and fairly easy to use.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Brass South Shore Coach Remotoring Progress

The Nickel Plate Products South Shore modernized coach remotoring project has completed successful initial testing, including integration of a late-generation DCC decoder with 'keep alive' technology.

Adapting the NPP coach for installation of the Stanton drive required some cutting of the main floor and the vestibule floor in the body shell, and installation of a new raised floor section for mounting the drive. The Stanton's profile is 1/8" or so higher than the original NPP power truck. After cutting away enough main floor and vestibule to allow the Stanton to swing, I made a new floor section from 1/16" (.0625") brass strip, and offset it from the main floor using 2-56 screws and nuts and a stack of seven #2 washers. I also drilled new mounting holes in the main floor and and drilled and tapped new mounting holes in the body shell to ensure that the floor attaches securely to the body shell.
Side view of the new raised floor section for the Stanton drive truck. The offset is created by a 2-56 nut and a stack of seven #2 washers. The Stanton drive is in the background.
Bottom view of the main floor showing cut to accommodate truck swing, new body mounting screws holes, and four 2-56 screws.
The remotoring project uses a North West Shortline Stanton drive. During DC-only tests, the Stanton performed fairly well after a break-in of 30 minutes in each direction. The Stanton picks up power on all wheels, but consistently stalled on turnout frogs. One of my next steps is to install pickups on the trailing trucks will get pickups; the materials are enroute.

Meanwhile, I have been seeing increasing references to DCC decoders featuring 'stay alive' or 'keep alive' capabilities. 'Keep Alive' decoders use a capacitor to compensate for interruptions in current caused by dead frogs, dirty track, or otherwise inadequate contact. Several DCC makers are offering variations on this capability. 

In addition to seeing references on the bulletin boards and Yahoo groups, Trevor Marshall mentioned the technology in his blog posts on installing DCC in an S scale doodlebug and then in an Overland S scale RS18. Trevor's motive power features sound, and the Keep Alive decoders also ensure that sound doesn't suffer any 'skips' or unprototypical interuptions.  

Testing ain't pretty: the floor of the model and DCC harness
resplendent in electrical and drafting tape used for temporary
mounting. Once the trailing truck pickups and lights are
installed, I will make permanent splices and neat and
functional harness.
Bernie Kempinski's recent post on the topic discussed how Keep Alive decoders added new enjoyment to his modeling by imparting new reliability on his Civil War-era 4-4-0 steam locos, and removing the tedium and expense of powering frogs either via switch machine/throw contacts or DCC frog juicers.

Keep Alive DCC decoders seemed almost too good to be true, but I wanted to experiment with one for the NPP South Shore coach repowering project. I acquired a Train Control Systems KAT22 decoder for this project and temporarily wired it into the model for a test. Other DCC manufacturers offer comparable DCC decoders. I ensured that my test rig wouldn't short or foul the running gear, and then got it on the track.

The results of my test of the KAT22 decoder in the South Shore car did not disappoint.  The car moved smoothly at low speeds, and straight through dead frogs and patches of dirty track--all without the addition of new pickups on the currently dead trailing truck. Its overall performance on DCC vastly improved on my DC tests, which probably says more about the quality of my DC test controls than anything else.

See for yourself: check out the YouTube video below for the test of the coach under DCC control.

With DCC installation under control, I turned back to cosmetic features of this model. I added styrene mounting pads to the Stanton drive for truck side frames, and mounted new, functional pantographs to the roof. Next steps include fitting pickups to the trailing trucks and working out LED lighting.
Evergreen .060" x .250" strip cut cemented to the Stanton mounting pads with liquid styrene cement. The Stanton case is ABS and thus glue-able.

Functional Model Memories pantographs mounted to the roof with 2mm screws. They sit a little high to my eye and some detailing will be needed for the bases--these pans are intended for a Northeast Corridor prototype that mounted with a bit of standoff from the roof. But better than no pans, or non-functioning pans!
New pans reaching for the sky, just like they're supposed to do.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

South Shore, Virtually

This is certainly one way to do it. Not sure I've seen any one model the South Shore in a rail simulator before.

Rail sims are an on-again, off-again interest for me. I wrote an article about the Trainz rail sim for Model Railroader in 2003 (link behind paywall). After the article and since, I've heard from folks around the model railroad press that coverage of train sims tends to meet with vehement objection.

Never mind the haters, I'm still intrigued by the possibilities of testing out layout design and operations concepts using simulations, both the 2- and 3-dimensional kind. And also by the artistry of this modeling medium itself.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Getting Serious About Repowering Seventies-Era Brass

What's in that miter box? Just a rare, sentimental brass train
 from the seventies, soon to be hacked apart in a miter box 
With good progress on catenary and my workbench kinda sorta tamed, I've turned to my most ancient South Shore project, my Nickel Plate Products Modernized 80' Coach and Combine.

I bought both of these models in 1978, when I was still in middle school in Indiana. Naturally, my parents, siblings, neighbors, friends, and parish members were positively horrified that I plunked down fifty bucks for each of these beauties. The impracticality of these models for a brand new model railroader was underscored by their unpaintedness and their poor running. These models would barely make it around my 4x7 layout without stalling or surging, and making a hamster wheel-like cacophony.

Serious remotoring gear: Digital calipers
and Proxxon motor tool with drill press/
milling stand. I figured that if this rig
can be hacked into an actual CNC machine
tool, it might be precise enough for putting
hacking and boring into rare, expensive
brass model trains.
Proud as I was--and still am--of these brass treasures, I was learning then what many experienced model railroaders of a certain age know all to well: expensive brass trains of the seventies and eighties ran very, very poorly. Awful motors, slip-prone drive lines, noisy gears, poor electrical pickup, and inadequate and poorly balanced weight made many brass models beautiful-looking creampuffs. They also are ill-suited to DCC.

These NPP South Shore cars need new power trucks, reliable all-wheel pickup, and significant additional weight to meet modern performance expectations. Up-to-date lighting is also a minimum requirement.

I acquired a couple of Northwest Short Line Stanton drives over the past year or so for these two old cars. Test fits of these drives over the past few days made it clear that some serious cutting and filing and hacking would be necessary to get the Stantons into the NPP cars.

Cutting and filing and hacking my beloved old brass South Shore cars.

Repowering is getting serious.

I've been anticipating this serious moment for a few months, and have been accumulating correspondingly serious accoutrements of repowering. Digital micrometers are a fixture of many repowering articles on the web, and were cheaper than I thought. I wonder now what took me so long to add this miracle tool to my workshop. Amazon, Ebay, and MicroMark have numerous different digital micrometers on offer.

A miniature drill press was another must-have repowering tool, and some milling and grinding capabilities on the side would be a bonus. My workbench space is limited, so having a separate motor tool, drill press, and mill would not be practical. I homed in on the Proxxon motor tool system. This German-made motor tool system is known for it precision and high quality, as well as its standardized collar, which makes it a favorite for the 'maker' community to adapt to homemade computer-controlled machine tools. I'm not planning to start using CNC techniques for my model railroading (not yet anyway) but the Proxxon drill press/milling stand uses this unique collar for to transform the Proxxon motor tool into an extremely stable, precise, and versatile machine tool. It is also extremely quiet. My Proxxon rig came from Amazon.

The micrometer and the Proxxon rig are helping do more precise work, but they still haven't made it any easier to cut, drill, and hack a beloved old brass train.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Posing Under the Completed Catenary at Dunes Junction

Just as catenary was reaching completion, this rare custom painted Nickel Plate Products Sumitomo car joined the Dune Junction roster. It was barely out of the box when I staged this photo, which folks on the Facebook "Traction Model Railroading" and "Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend: the Last Interurban" communities enjoyed. Several Facebook users immediately identified the location as Dune Acres, Indiana--a gratifying modeling moment.

Not sure if a meet like this ever took place, as the 800s (Little Joes) were pretty much focused on switching East Chicago and Gary industries like Harbison Walker Refractory when stainless steel Sumitomo cars took over in the early 80s. Road freight duties east of Gary were in the hands of GP38-2s and GP7s. But I thought it would make a good image anyways. 

Another view of the all-electric meet, with a good view of the crossover catenary--my own little web of complicated wire.  The front of layout looks frightful--these photos might cause me to get some fascia in place sooner rather than later.