Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Yard switching times vs. mainline running times

Here's the shocking fact: It takes at least 30 minutes of real time to break down a 15 car train in my HO layout's main yard, Interbay (Balmer). That's assuming there's only one person doing the switching. In theory, it would be faster if there were two people, one working each end of the yard. In practice, they would have to spend time coordinating their moves and keeping track of what goes where, so it's hard to say how much real time would be "saved." I put the word "saved" in quotes, to question whether saving time is the purpose of the "work," when model railroading is supposed to be about play, right?

I discovered this (obvious fact) accidentally by filming and editing a video on "how to break down an incoming train". I was thinking I could do it in 15 minutes, working by myself, but it took 30. If there had been another incoming train during that time, it would have taken much longer.

At one of my favorite op sessions in memory, everything was going great, and the yardmaster at Everett (the next town to the north of Interbay) asked me "is it true there is no train length limit on trains between Everett and Seattle?" To which I said "yes." So he sent a transfer run to Interbay with a cut of 40 (unblocked) cars. Since the longest siding in Interbay holds about 25 cars, this incoming monster filled the only remaining track in Interbay and blocked the north yard throat and both main tracks, preventing any further train moves out of Interbay to or from the north (which is most of the layout).

I don't remember what happened next. I think the Interbay yardmaster broke the train in two, but the only available track to put the second cut on was the mainline. Now both the yard and the mainline were plugged. There was still a lot of switching going on around the layout, so I think what happened is we ran down the clock and let the session come to an end, without unplugging the railroad. It took me hours of (very enjoyable) switching to get everything straightened out, during the following days. But I learned my lesson - maximum train length 25 cars. No exceptions, except for unit trains that don't require yard switching.

But today I'm thinking about another lesson. If it takes over 30 minutes to break down even a moderate length train, how many merchandise trains is it feasible to run in an entire op session? It only takes 2 to 5 minutes to run the 1 or 2 scale miles between my staging yards and the first yard they come to, or between yards. If we are going to have fun with a dispatcher and trains passing each other on the mainline, it's going to have to happen with unit trains and passenger trains.

My operating sessions are based on a condensed version of the actual prototype trains that ran during a typical day in 1973 in the greater Seattle region (BN, MILW & UP). I started out trying to do that in a single op session of about 7 hours. (3 hours before lunch, 4 hours after lunch). We never came close to finishing it, so I moved to having 14 hours of op session, over two days, with a 2:1 fast clock. And we never finish that either. What I'm thinking now is, forget the fast clock, just don't run more than one merchandise train in from staging in each direction (N, S & W) until the yardmasters are caught up. Regardless of how long that takes. There is plenty of work going on with all the locals and unit trains to keep everyone busy, without clogging up the yards too much by excessive adherence to prototype merchandise train schedules. 10 or 12 operators is not enough to simulate hundreds of prototype railroad employees.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Forms for "off-spot" vs. "constructive placement"

To simplify and recap a number of discussions that I've been having with railroaders and model railroaders, of various eras, there are basically two ways to make a mistake delivering a car - the railroad's fault or the customer's fault. Beyond that is a lot of detail about types of customers, prior agreements between the railroad and the customer, railroad specific practices, etc. But I wanted a simple and fun way to introduce this basic difference into my operating sessions (if they every happen again!). So I drafted these two colored inserts, to use whenever I become aware that a car is not where it's supposed to be, after (or perhaps during) an operating session. Here is a photo of my two forms:

I'm interested in any comments you might have about these forms, or suggestions for improvement. I printed the off-spot form on salmon stock to flag its urgency, and the constructive placement form on yellow to indicate caution but not as much as for off-spot.

If you want a refresher on this whole topic ("refresher" might not be the right word!), you can read my previous blog post that laid it bare ("bare" might not be the right word, either.). 

In the meantime, I finally finished re-staging the railroad from the previous op session, and caught myself admiring the lineup of westbound trains at Skykomish staging, ready to pounce. I can't seem to get tired of this particular view of the railroad. You're lookin at 20 or 30 thousand horsepower right there!

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Helicon Focus at last!

Lee Marsh tipped me off to how easy it is to use Helicon Focus, and I watched several NMRAx presentations on model railroad photography this week, so I finally bit the bullet and produced my first photo using Helicon Focus and Photoshop. This is the view from the Dravus Street bridge over Interbay Yard, looking south towards downtown Seattle. Classification tracks on the right, arrival/departure tracks on the left. Helicon Focus smashed about 10 photos together to get the whole shot in focus, and then I used Photoshop to erase the overhead deck (that you can see is still causing a shadow on the backdrop). The photos were taken with a Pentax K200D DSLR at f/13 and ISO 800, using layout halogen and florescent layout lights and one LED fill light to the right of the switch engine, so you could see its brakeman.

The chevy on the bridge is just like one my Uncle Fletcher drove (well into the '70's) (same color, even!), so I left it in the picture. The railroad cars in the yard are standing just as they were left after the last op session on 13 March 2020, just before the Covid lockdowns. All I did was add locomotives to the cut on the A track, and position that train to hide enough of the green BN center flow hopper car so you can't see the warped walkway on top. And I turned the DCC power on, for the headlight on the switch engine.

See if you can find (at least) one glaring mistake in the photo. I know I can! But, in my defense, I was in a big hurry to try testing my newfound software and skills, so I didn't take the time to set up the shot properly. For example, it's a shame to have the running gear on the F-units obscured by boxcar roofs.

Thanks to Lee for all his coaching, and to NMRAx. Now I'm sliding down yet another "slippery slope" in model railroading fun...

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Which do you prefer - Switchlists or Waybills?

What does it take to make up a meaningful train?

(1) someplace to go (a layout)
(2) something that needs to go there (train cars)
(3) power (locomotives)
(4) crew (conductor, engineer, switchpersons, and cabooses)
(5) an operating plan (trainmaster, yardmasters, etc.)
(6) safety (dispatcher, schedules, permission to occupy track, rules, etc.)
(7) money to pay for it all (waybills, billing clerks, etc).

You knew all this. I've been thinking about the long-running feud in model railroading about which is better, switchlists or waybills (often handled as inserts into car cards, but not always). And I've decided that the reason it's hard to decide, is it depends on whose job you enjoy doing the most. If you enjoy getting out on the road and banging cars around, it's easier to have a switchlist tell you what goes where. (Assuming you can read and understand the switchlist, something I often have great trouble doing when I attend an op session)(See an example below). If you're a "why" person like me, you like to understand why you're moving those cars in that train, and you kind of enjoy the job the conductor has of trying to figure out which cars to deliver to which customers in which order. With a switchlist, you just get told what to do, and check things off with a pencil as you go. With car cards and waybills, you get to keep sorting them and organizing them and blocking your train accordingly as you go.

One of the frustrating things about computerized switchlist programs like JMRI ops is that they don't have the ability to block (order) cars in staging (as far as I know). They may give you the cars in the same order as they went in, or they may not, depending on how the previous crew blocked that train. But there you are, at the beginning of a run, with a train full of cars in a certain order accompanied by a switchlist with the cars in a different order. I don't find that fun to deal with. If I can sort the car cards in the same order as they are standing in the train, I find that fun.

When I re-stage the railroad between op sessions, I manually (by hand or with a locomotive, depending on how much time I have or fun I'm in the mood for) re-block the cars in the train (after flipping the waybills to their next destination) so that the operator of that train will receive it blocked like it would have been blocked by the yardmaster at the yard that train is coming from. (See an example of a blocked train in the photo above). I would be happy to have a computer do all that, but how is a computer going to pick up and re-order cars in my staging yards? Not to mention, what about the adding or removing of "live loads" such as lumber on flatcars, or ore in hopper cars?

So, I'm kind of stuck in my position on this question. As an operator of a train, I like to make my own decisions about how to prepare and execute my switching moves, like a conductor would do, not just have it handed to me on a switchlist. And as a layout owner, I like to give my operators trains that are set up in the right order, to make their (often quite complex) jobs as enjoyable as possible.

Another factor to consider is that railroad practices evolved from totally manual paperwork to computerized paperwork, during the 60's and 70's. So my glorified view of how fun the conductor's job was changing during the period I model, 1973. Therefore, if I have the conductor make up a switchlist based on car cards/waybills, or use a computer program like JMRI to generate switchlists and track cars, both would be "prototypical" in a sense.

I might be missing something. Maybe I haven't had enough experience operating with switchlists. What do you think about this long-standing debate?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Setting up the ESU-V decoders in the new Atlas RS-3's

The onboarding process with the third (renumbered) Atlas/ESU V BN RS-3 got a little involved, when I decided to try using some of the advanced features of their new LokSound ESU-V decoders. I had already standardized on using F9 for "brake", but the ESU-V's have three different braking rates, called, cleverly, "Brake 1", "Brake 2" and "Brake 3". After some experiments, I decided to go with Brake 1 (CV179=200) mapped to my usual F9, Brake 2 (CV180=220) mapped to F10, and Brake 3 (CV181=240) mapped to F11. While I was at it, just for kicks, I mapped "drive hold" to F12. All of this is "ok", but not ideal, because functions above F9 are only available by double clicks on most of my NCE throttles. I use F9 for the brake mainly because it is in the lower left-hand corner of the throttle face, and easy to find when you're in a hurry to apply brakes to a moving locomotive.

I mainly use the LokProgrammer to set the CV's in ESU LokSound decoders, but I've heard that the JMRI interface is getting good enough to do this without using the LokProgrammer. It would be more convenient to use JMRI, because then my locomotive roster would all be on one computer, and accessible during op sessions by WiThrottles, among other advantages. I got into this hobby to run trains, not to become an electronics and database technician.

Once I had the three locomotives programmed with the three braking rates, mapped to F9, 10 and 11, I took them down and tested them on the layout. At first it seemed ok, but then once in a while, each locomotive, for no obvious reason, would randomly (and independently) come to a stop and wait about 13 seconds before resuming speed. The sound continued to be on, so it didn't seem like it was related to dirty wheels or track (although I did clean the wheels again just to make sure).

I didn't know what to do. I poured over the LokProgrammer windows, looking for ideas. I made sure all the DC modes and functions were turned off (since this is a DCC layout), in case the decoders were getting erroneous voltage spikes. Suddenly, about two hours into the hunt, I came across a section at the bottom of the "function settings" window in the LokProgrammer, where there was a section on "random functions". It turns out that the ESU V decoders come from the factory with a default setting which, when you press F11, causes the locomotive to randomly come to a stop in the middle of running! Since I had remapped F11 to be "Brake 3", as soon as I tested Brake 3 by pressing F11, the locomotive would thereafter be subject to random stoppages!

Can you imagine such a thing?! Shipping a new decoder to customers with a function activated by default which would cause the locomotive to randomly stop?! Someone back in ESU headquarters apparently thinks they're very clever. I think they owe me two hours. This is what is meant by "the learning curve". Sure, I was messing with their plans by remapping F11 to Brake 3. I get that. I should have spent another two hours studying the manual before doing it.

That said, the three locomotives are now running beautifully together in a lash-up. First generation Alco's are still alive and well, here on the Burrlington Northern in 1973.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

renumbering a new Atlas BN RS-3

I obtained a second copy of the new Atlas RS-3 factory lettered as BN #1982, so I decided to renumber it to #4072. Mission accomplished, using Microscale 87-25 and 90051 decals from my decal box, Micro Set and Micro Sol solutions, water, a small #00 brush, Xacto knife, a shaved toothpick (to remove bits of the old numbers) and a piece of paper towel. Mission accomplished:

The good news is, this was a real BN loco number during the era I model (1973-76), and it ran long hood forward. The bad news is, I just looked online and discovered that they didn't repaint this from the original SP&S paint until the very end, if at all. So, I have a good loco number but the wrong paint scheme on the body. This is what comes of acting too fast without doing your research first. Of course, many of the details are wrong also, such as number boards, horns, lack of rotating beacon, etc. We will address that another time. For now, "all I have to do" is go through the "onboarding" process described in my last blog, on this loco. Cheers!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

onboarding the new Atlas HO RS-3's

This week, I "onboarded" two Atlas HO Alco RS-3 locomotives in BN paint. They are good looking and running additions to the roster for my layout's 1973-ish era. You can see them here in action on YouTube. The onboarding process for a "ready to run" locomotive involves these steps:

  1. Carefully taking it out of the box, which in this case involves unscrewing it from the bottom and replacing the screw holes under the loco fuel tank with special plugs provided in a plastic bag within the box. (which need to be cut from the sprue using an xacto knife or flush-cutting pliers) (5 min)
  2. Placing it on the track and seeing if, and how, it works. Sounds, lights, movement. (5 min)
  3. Put some alcohol (iso or eth) on a paper towel, and clean the wheels by running it at full speed while holding one of the trucks on top of the wet paper towel on the rails. This also confirms that both trucks are picking up power, which you want to know. (5 min)
  4. Run it at full throttle for about ten minutes in each direction, to "set the gears" (break it in). (20 min)
  5. (optional) Clean the wheels again, now that you've picked up whatever dirt was on the mainline track since you ran trains last. (3 min)
  6. Placing it in a cradle and replacing the couplers with KD #58 "scale head, center set, medium shank, whisker" couplers. (15 min)
  7. Putting it back on the track and checking if the coupler height is ok, and if the trip pin needs to be bent. (2 min)
  8. Opening a jar of "light india ink wash" (india ink diluted in lots of alcohol) and using a soft brush to cover the body and trucks with it. This somewhat dulls the sheen of new paint and brings out all the joints and details in the model, and dries quickly. (8 min)
  9. Taking it upstairs to my office and putting it on the test track, opening up the LokProgrammer app on my computer, and adjusting a variety of CV's in the LokSound ESU 5 decoder (which has 2000 user-adjustable CV's - don't get me started on that topic!) (10-60 min)
  10. Taking it back downstairs and testing to see if it still works ok. It may not, which may involve several more trips up and down stairs to get everything adjusted right. If I'm doing a lot of locomotives at one time I'll take the computer and test track downstairs to make the iterations easier. But climbing stairs is good exercise, too. (0-60 min)
  11. Getting out the pan pastels and dusting it all up with some off-white to bring out the handrails and truck side frames, followed by some rust applied to the couplers, truck springs, exhaust stacks and radiator and fan grilles. I try to do this weathering before the final speed-matching step, to make sure that I resolve any electrical pickup issues that all that chalk flying around might cause. (10 min)
  12. Getting out the speedometer and putting the loco back on the track. Setting the max and mid speed CV's 5 and 6 to give the same speed performance as your other locos. In my case, I'm using a top speed of 30 mph and a mid speed of 15 mph, which on these locos equates to CV5=88 and CV6=44. (It's good to do this later in the process, because you need to break the loco in at the higher speeds that it runs at, right out of the box.) (15 min)
  13. Getting out a different locomotive, and seeing if the braking rates match. They usually do, if you set them consistently, but in this case I found I had to increase the "brake 1" braking rate to CV179=200 in order to be consistent with my other locos. Most of my other locos are older SoundTraxx and LokSound decoders, so I'm still getting used to the new settings on the ESU 5. (5-30 min)
  14. Writing out a new "loco card" for each new loco you are onboarding. I usually put the manufacturer of the loco and the decoder on the back side in ink, and then some of the main CV values in pencil, so I can adjust them later on the fly if needed. (3 min)
  15. Going back upstairs and firing up my "Waybills" (Shenware Software) program on my Mac (using a PC emulator program called "Parallels", which I also used to run the PC-only LokProgrammer software) and printing out a "DCC functions" card to insert into the loco card. This tells an operator what will happen when they push each of the function buttons on the throttles. Since different decoders and locos (and layout owners) have different functions, this is necessary. In my case, I use F9 for brakes and F7 for dimming. (10 min)
  16. Going downstairs, inserting the DCC functions card in the loco card, and placing the loco card in the waybill box associated with the track that the loco is sitting on. We are now ready to run trains.

These two Alco's are very beautiful and smooth-running locomotives which I am very pleased to welcome to the fleet. #4082 is a duplicate (and significant upgrade) of the very first Atlas - Kato drive DC locomotive that I ever purchased, back in 1984, which was so smooth-running at the time that I re-discovered my love for switching cars, and decided to switch (no pun intended) back to HO from N scale, which I had been modeling in for about ten years before. That switch to HO in 1984, caused by this Atlas-Kato loco, was the start of a 35 year project to build the present Burrlington Northern layout that is the main subject of this blog. Here's a picture of that original loco, now displayed fondly in one of my display cases for "extra" equipment.

I never got around to weathering it, and you can see that the shade of paint is wrong. But it was probably cast in the same basic mold. I did put a basic NCE DASR decoder in it, so it did used to run on the layout, at least.

But, back to the subject at hand, onboarding a new locomotive is a complicated sub-hobby in itself. It took me about 4 hours to onboard these two RS-3's, which is typical. But much less than if I had to build the models from scratch, paint and decal them, etc! Still, however, there are a number of steps that I didn't do and would like to:

  1. In my era these locos should have yellow rotating beacons operating on top of their cabs. This would involve taking the shell off, finding the correct size yellow LED, soldering the correct resistor to one of the leads, drilling the correct size hole in the correct place, using the correct glue to put it at the correct height, adding some leads to the LED, soldering those leads to the correct pad on the decoder (if there is one!), programming the decoder to flash the rotating beacon at the correct rate, testing it, putting the shell back on, and testing it again. What am I waiting for? (60-120 min)
  2. You can see from the first picture above that the finish is still too shiny. Fixing this involves spray painting with a flat finish, which involves masking the windows. In future years I look forward to having the discipline to include this key step in my normal onboarding process. (30-60 min)
  3. Painting the wheels a rusty steel color. This involves either removing the truck side frames or applying paint in from the side while the loco is running. (20 min)
  4. Crew. There could be an engineer in the cab and a brakeman on one of the pilot decks. I do this as much as I can on switch engines, but it would look good on these locos too. Pre-painted figures wouldn't take long, but you could also custom-build people in certain poses and clothing and skin colors. (5-60 min)
  5. More weathering. Various vents, oil drippings, white fading below the lettering, rust spots on the fuel tank and elsewhere, wheel splash markings on both ends, etc. (30-60 min)
  6. Research and detailing. It would be fun to find pictures of these specific locomotives and to see what details are missing from the model that could be added. For example, BN 4082 was originally a Northern Pacific unit set up to run short hood forward, so the white reflector stripes should be on the opposite end. (10-200 min)
There you have it - what it takes to onboard a "ready to run" locomotive after you buy it. How you buy it is a whole different subject - the "purchasing department" of your railroad. That, too, has been changing over the years, and is both more complicated and easier than it used to be - a subject for another day.