Thursday, April 27, 2023

NCE's 2021 firmware upgrade & BN C636

I just read in the May issue of the magazine that NCE released a chip with new firmware on it for their Powerhouse Pro (PHP) DCC command stations. I don't know how that information escaped me previously, but I immediately ordered one and just finished installing it in my PHP. I don't have any pictures to show of it, but am glad to have it done. One benefit is a quicker response on the CAB06 throttles. Another is you can deactivate the "momentum" button on the Procabs, which reduces mischief during operating sessions.

The other big news this week is Brian Elchlepp brought over two of my BN Alco 636's that he batch-weathered along with one of his. Here's a picture of THAT! :)

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Upgrading the passenger E-unit fleet

I've never been a big fan of the E-units for some reason. I think it is the three axle trucks with the center axle unpowered. It seems so wrong to have an unpowered axle on a locomotive. There may have been good reasons for it, though. But the truth is that E units were the innovation that replaced steam locomotives on most passenger trains during the steam-to-diesel transition era. At least in the flatlands, where the lack of a powered axle didn't matter.

Anyway, I never bought an E unit in my life for model railroading purposes. But a few years ago my friend brought over a couple of his GN E units and let me borrow them for my passenger consists. So we naively put them on the "Empire Builder" train and ran it in to Seattle from "Chicago" (well, Skykomish). There are plenty of my YouTube videos out there with the Empire Builder speeding through that show these E units in action.

But more research found that the E units weren't used on the mountain grades - they used F units instead (with all axles powered, like I said). Out west here, they only used the E units on flat runs such as the International between Seattle and Vancouver BC. Oops.

Then, Rapido came out with E units painted for both Amtrak and CB&Q, and another friend came up with pictures proving that the CB&Q units were sometimes used out here on Amtrak's version of the International in the early BN days. Also, the GN gave up their E units before the BN merger even happened! So, what could I do but purchase the Rapido units and return the GN units to their owner?

We had grown fond of those GN units, though, so we decided to stage a goodbye ceremony to have the new shiny CB&Q E unit and some other engines escort the GN E units around the layout one final time. This grand event was captured on video and posted here. We hope you enjoy it.

The next time the International heads south from Vancouver BC, it's going to stop at the roundhouse in Everett for a locomotive change, so we can justify both of the new E units! And look for them in future videos, too. :)

Monday, February 20, 2023

A new crossover south of Argo yard


You can see a curved crossover in the lower part of this photo. The one with the flashlight shining on it is the one I finally just installed at the very south end of the layout, south of Argo yard. Let's unpack this photo and all these tracks. From bottom to top, in the street are the tracks to Lonestar Cement and the South Seattle Intermodal Terminal (truck trailers strewn all over for the installation of the turnout). Above that is what looks like a double track curved mainline with a (new, the subject of this post!) crossover in the middle of it. But appearances can be deceiving - the closer track to the right curves around in a reverse loop that eventually becomes the "Colorado Main" leading back to the Stacy St. yard. The farther mainline track heads into the hidden staging yard of 7 tracks representing Tacoma and Portland off the layout to the south. Heading off to the left, the nearer track is "Main 1" leading to Stacy St. yard, Seattle and northward, and the farther main track is "Main 2" which has the lead to the Argo yard and parallels Main 1 around the layout to the left (north) as far as Mukilteo.

Above Main 1 and Main 2 is the mainline between Everett and Mount Vernon to the north. Above that in the shadows is the Woodinville Branch (I forgot to turn its lights on, oops.). Above that, on the upper border of the photo, is the edge of the Skykomish staging yard, at the far easternmost point on the layout.

Well, I had to install this crossover once we built the "Black River Jct. yard" above Harbor Island (Legotown) because we needed to connect Argo yard to the reverse loop, in order to run trains "south" from Argo to BRJ. I procrastinated on this for months, if not years, but now it's done. Hurrah!

The next two pictures show track-level views of the crossover during glueing. I pin down the tracks and then drip liquid latex diluted 3:1 with water for attaching tracks. Then later when I put down ballast, the water-based white glue doesn't unglue the latex, which has dried by that time and is impervious to water. That's the good news. The bad news is that I've found that liquid latex deteriorates after 20 years or so (just like a rubber band does) so there are places I have had to re-do over time. I usually put weights on the track during glueing, too, but for some reason I hadn't done this when I took these photos.

So, here is a photo of the track with the weights on it...

And, finally, here is the new crossover after it passed the testing phase, with the trailers back in place and everything ready to go. (In case you were wondering, those white triangles are markers we use for measuring the length of trains entering each of the hidden staging tracks in the Tacoma staging yard off to the right.) It doesn't seem like much, but this crossover is an important key to the future operation of Argo yard, the Lonestar Cement switching area, and the new Black River Jct. yard. It's great to finally have it in operation!

Friday, February 10, 2023

Adding "just one more" caboose to the roster


One of the advantages of, if not the point of, modeling the BN in 1973 is that you need a caboose on almost every train. So, in addition to hundreds of different models and paint schemes of locomotives to collect, there are a lot of caboose variations. I started out collecting your basic Athearn and Atlas models and pretty soon I had more than enough cabooses (not to mention staging tracks) to run a typical day's worth of 15 or so trains. So I thought I was done. But then I started finding out about brass caboose models being a thing, and started collecting them from random swap meets and retailers. So my caboose fleet doubled and I had accumulated way more than more than enough. One project finished! (like, 30, which really seems like enough!)

But you know where this is going. Last year Division Point decided to import a run of the ex-GN X-1 series cabooses, some of the weirdest-looking cabooses ever, and to make some in BN paint!! I already had an older brass model of GN X-1 in bright red paint, but this just seemed too good to pass up. So, now I am officially finished collecting cabooses. For the second or third time. The picture above shows how good (and unusual) it looks, and I also posted a couple of short videos of it here and here.

There's only one caboose model that I still don't have and really want to, which is that NP one with the super-high straight cupola. I've seen unpainted brass models of it but never one decorated for BN, even though I know that some of them survived post-merger. If you see one of those, get it for me or let me know about it. Otherwise, I'm DONE.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Getting JMRI running again (YAY!)

It's hard to explain how difficult it is to install JMRI ( and keep it running over an extended period of years. The good news is that it exists, is free, and keeps getting updated with data on all the new decoders that manufacturers produce, as well as many other amazing features and uses. For example, you can now use it to create a web-based throttle with a cab video image live, for someone to run your layout from anywhere in the world! (assuming you can master all of the technology involved, which I have yet to do!).

The bad news is that it takes a lot of overhead care and feeding just to keep all the "user files" connected to the "program files" as you and JMRI update your computers, operating systems and versions over time. A lot. I am always in a hurry to get things done, which makes things much worse, because one dumb mistake on my part and my JMRI is crashed for months.

It would be easy to say "get a spare computer, load JMRI on it, unplug it from the internet, and use it only on your railroad for the rest of your life." I know some people have done that. However, I like to keep buying locomotives and setting up their decoders consistently with the rest of my fleet, so I need to keep upgrading to the latest version of JMRI, which means keeping my computer's operating system up to date and whatever version of Java that the latest version needs. If I understood any of this, it would be one thing, but I don't.

A year ago, my beloved computer program for making car cards, "Waybills" by Shenware, which doesn't have a version for Mac iOS, crashed on my "PC emulator" that I was running on my Mac. Without going into details on the ensuing nightmare, I ended up buying both a new PC and a new Mac. Thinking that I would keep the PC in the basement with the train layout and the Mac in my office. In the end, I was only partly able to get Shenware running properly on the new PC, and the company is no longer supporting its product, so I'm not likely to ever get it fully functioning again. Very bad news. But then I turned to the idea of putting my "user files" from JMRI on Dropbox so that I could run JMRI both from the basement and from my upstairs Mac. I tried this, in a big hurry as usual, and the result was that both installations of JMRI crashed. So this left me without both my beloved car card program and Decoder Pro or any of my dispatcher panels on PanelPro or operations scenarios in OperationsPro (all very useful features of JMRI).

So I stopped having op sessions of any size and turned my time and attention to layout construction and making YouTube videos (which hopefully you are enjoying at , hoping that some day I would get JMRI working again.

Well, today it happened! I can't explain any of it, but I tried opening JMRI on my Mac and it worked! It found the latest version of Java that I had previously installed, and it was able, with a little prodding, to find my locomotive roster data. The following photo is proof. I just installed a new loco, SP&S RS-3 #90 in the JMRI for my HO layout. I haven't tried looking for the panels in PanelPro yet, and have no confidence at all that I will find them, but at least I can get back to working on locos using DecoderPro.

Just a note on Dropbox. After using it for a few years for various file transfers and such, I finally realized that I had not one, but three emails associated with Dropbox files that my computers were using. It is next to impossible to figure this out, or what to do about it. I haven't tackled that yet, but I'm only going to try sharing JMRI between my two computers after I somehow straighten that mess out. In the meantime, I'll probably just move my Mac downstairs and plug it in to the layout for operating sessions. A shame, but I don't want my hobby to become "computer technician" any more than it already has.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Experimenting with a better video camera


"Serious" model railroad operations are a lot of fun, but if you have a continuous loop option on a model railroad, you can have a different kind of fun, where trains chase each other around the mainline and the amount of effort to avoid collisions is less, although still non-zero, depending on the skill and attention span of those driving the trains. A few days ago some friends brought their new locos over for some testing, and yes, we ended up chasing trains around the room. Another friend brought a fancy video camera to try, so the result is now posted on Youtube as "Part 50" here: 

I do have a more serious video in production, about how to turn the "Pacific Zip" intermodal train when it arrives in Seattle, but that will take some more editing time.

When I started making model railroad operations videos a few years ago, and then started numbering them in a series, I had no idea how quickly I would get up to having a part 50. Making videos has become another major sub-hobby, and I'll be giving a couple of clinics about it this spring, one at the NMRA Pacific Northwest Region (PNR) conference in Tacoma on May 11, and another at the Railway Modelers Meet of British Columbia on May 28. Except for the most recent one, they were all done with just an iPhone and sometimes a GoPro or cheap spycam.

Meanwhile, here's a photo of some switching action that took place even while the trains were chasing each other around the room on the mainline:

Friday, December 2, 2022

Demolishing a workbench to make three work stations

Sometimes you have to demolish before you can construct. When we moved into this house I needed to tear down three walls in the basement to clear the way for the model railroad to come. But I neglected to tear down an old bulky solid-as-a rock workbench/shelf unit that the previous owner had built there. After thirty years of thinking about it, last week we got out the hammers and other deconstruction tools and tore the thing apart. There was no way to imagine hauling it up the basement stairs, even though some other homeowner might have found it useful.

What I realized in the intervening thirty years is that model railroading is both an art and a manufacturing plant. We need a work station for electronics like DCC decoders, servos and LCC setups. We need a work station for building kits for cars, bridges and structures. And we need a paint shop next to the spray booth for managing the various finishes for all of the above. Not to mention applying decals and building open loads. So we took the plunge and demolished the old workbench. 

Here it is in pieces,

And here is the space it left behind:

To the right and left of the space are old surplus kitchen cabinets from previous remodel jobs, that also are sub-optimal storage solutions at best, and will probably go too. And I don't know what to do with the pile of scraps on the floor. A lot of brainstorming is going on right now. But with nine to twelve or even fifteen linear feet to work with, and a depth of just over two feet, we should be able to come up with some specialized workstations to make the railroad a lot easier to build and maintain. We'll keep you posted, and let us know if you have any good ideas for how juggle work space, tools and supplies for specialized tasks like we model railroaders engage in....