CP Executive train in Albany

CP Executive train in Albany

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Visiting the Railroad Museum of New England

My birthday was recently and I did two fun train related things to celebrate. First and foremost, I had my mainline operational and a train running on that day. Second, though it occurred first, my wife and I went to a train museum and rode on its train. I try to do this every year around my birthday, which frequently falls on Memorial Day weekend. This year, we left New York and journeyed to Connecticut (a first for both of us) to explore the Railroad Museum of New England. I had first heard about this place at the Springfield Train Show (a good reason for museums to exhibit there), and the brochure looked compelling. It was only about 2 hours from our house.

It is located right off a busy road and underneath a bridge, which isn't exactly a photogenic location. I get that sometimes you have to accept what is offered to you, but it is hidden in a river valley and hard to see unless you know it is there. That being said, once we were parked and able to walk around it got more enjoyable. The first thing you see (at least if you don't drive off the bridge by mistake) is a large station and then some train equipment parked outside. They call it a museum but aside from some pictures and models inside it really isn't a museum. It doesn't seem laid out to educate the public on much. However, as a train buff I knew what I was looking at and that was okay.

Their are about a half-dozen outdoor pieces of equipment (engines, cabooses, boxcars, a crane, etc.) including a blue B&M boxcar that I really liked. I think the paint scheme is really sharp and am glad it fits in my modeling era. They own a lot of equipment, as during the train trip we passed at least two dozen more freight cars, coaches, and engines more cars in various stages of restoration/neglect. Admittedly, it was pretty depressing but it is a small museum in a bad location. With all that equipment, they should be in a larger area where it can be seen and appreciated more. Since only 6-8 pieces fit on the display track at the station, the conductor said that they occasionally swap out what is out there.

They also had a B&M milk car in their collection and when I looked at satellite pictures it was shown to be displayed at the station. Sadly, it was not. I asked the conductor who told me that it was moved to their maintenance area to allow the museum easier access to empty its contents. This was unfortunate because for my NMRA "Cars" certificate I wanted to scratchbuild a model of it. There are lots of online pictures, but I was hoping to get some myself. By luck I snapped this picture on the return trip and I couldn't believe I got the timing right. It looks pretty bad now, though I think it was restored and painted only about 15 years ago.

The website showed a train of vintage coaches pulled by an F-unit, and I was excited because I have never ridden behind one before. They also have RS-3 engines and some other vintage equipment shown on the web too. I was disappointed when our train pulled into the station. The ride was pulled by a modern diesel engine and consisted of a Budd RDC (which had air conditioning, no doubt the reason for its inclusion) and two antique coaches with open windows. We chose the later as we like the breeze. The cars definitely showed their nearly 100+ year age, but they were comfortable and when the train was moving it was nice and cool.

The 2:00 PM ride consisted of traveling south to Fascia's chocolate factory, getting off and laying over for about 25 minutes when they ran the engine around the train, then going north past the station to a large dam. Even though I ride trains a lot, I am always alarmed when the cars rock back and forth and this train sometimes moved at a good clip causing everything to shake. However, and at other times it was slow and serene. Due to a shortage of staff only one car had the conductor's commentary and after traveling the line I realize I would have liked to hear about the abandoned factories and stuff. Perhaps next time. 

All in all, it wasn't my favorite train ride or museum but they have a lot of great stuff. They certainly have too much interesting rolling stock and engines for the one short display track at the station. It would seem to be a mecca for New England rail buffs, but you can only glance at it while rolling by it. Too bad they aren't in a larger location so that they could feature more of it. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

First Mainline Train!

It's Alive! I have been making a big push over the past few weeks to get the layout operational, including installing the Tortoise machines, wiring them up, replacing the broken track switch, and inserting some track ties. As part of the track testing process, I used some Life Like passenger cars which aren't particularly good runners to check for bumps and bad joints. Years ago I also purchased a a cheap Life Like train set on Craigslist pulled by an F7 engine with one truck pick-up and the other truck powered. Between the engine and coaches I figured they would be an appropriate "worst case scenario" train to see how my main line performed.

So, with the Tortoise machines manually moved to the mainline direction, I turned the power pack. And my train ran! I guess I expected it to, but I didn't realize how cruddy the engine was. The frogs aren't fully powered yet so the speed had to be kept up, but the event still counted. My mainline is operational, and I imagine within a week or two I will have all the switch machines powered and the sidings can be activated. But, this was the first time I have been able to run an HO train on a continuous-loop layout in over a decade.


Thursday, May 24, 2018

Replacement Peco switch

Though the Peco Electrofrog switches don't look as nice as the M.E. ones, especially the point rails, they do seem to work better. In preparation for installation I first removed the over-center spring which holds the points one way or the other. It left an ugly gap in the tie, but once ballasted and weathered I hope it will disappear. Next, I made it "DCC compliant" or whatever they call it now by cutting one wire and soldering two more jumper wires, which essentially isolated the points from the frog and then tied each point to the adjacent stock rail. Lastly, even though their frogs already have a wire soldered to it, it was so super thin that I replaced it with my standard 20 gauge wire. The whole process wasn't very difficult thanks to the instructions on the package, and the electrical theory  described on Wiring For DCC.com

Then, I used my soldering iron to remove excess solder and the old rail joiners from where I had cut the switch out, and replaced the new switch in. Some trimming of the ties was necessary where they fouled adjacent track. I was surprised how much shorter the Peco #6 switch is compared to the M.E. #6, and some fitter pieces were necessary. Because of how I had to adjust it, a new 1/2" hole was required under the throw rod. Because the frog isn't insulated from the running rails, I had superglued thin pieces of styrene into the rail gaps at the ends. Once the glue cured, I removed any excess styrene in the flange area. They will all but disappear when the track is painted and ballasted.

Within an hour's worth of work the new switch was in place, and my layout was back in business!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Damaged Micro Engineering switch

I don't get it. Lots of people use Micro Engineering turnouts with fantastic results. They really look great with their small hinged points and lack of rivets. But, they are also extremely fragile. And sometimes warped and defective, though that in my limited experience is only with the code 83 RH switches. The code 83 LH and code 70 RH and LH seem to be fine. Wouldn't you know that the last switch I installed on my layout was a RH code 83 switch, and it seemed to have problems. The points don't like to switch back and forth, as if they are binding on something. And if you slide the throwbar slightly forward or back the the ends of the point rails fall out of the rail joiners that are acting as hinges. Very frustrating.

I installed the switch and mounted the Tortoise underneath it and it moved okay back and forth, but I could tell that the throwbar was binding. In trying to see what was causing the problem the throwbar fractured apart. In disgust, I took a picture and then ripped the whole thing out. Within 10 minutes I had a Peco code 83 RH switched ordered online and on its way to me. I am not sure if their #6 geometry is the exact same as the M.E. geometry so I might need to trim the ends differently or add some other pieces of track to make it fit. On the plus side, it took a lot of willing and stabbing with a putty knife but the Tortoise machine came off pretty off without damage.

I had hoped to have trains running by the end of May. The impact of this remains to be seen. Even more alarming, though, is that I might have this failure occur on my other M.E. switches. I don't plan to ballast my track until it has been extensively tested, at which time I might have to replace more of the switches. I wish now I had just gone with Peco. Everyone only has good things to say about them.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Installing Tortoise switch machines

I have been looking forward to this moment for a long time. For many years, I have wanted to own a layout with Tortoise switch machines. I have used Caboose Industries ground throws and Atlas switch machines on my previous layouts, but never Tortoises. Once, I even bought a case of them but abandoned the layout before they were installed. And to me, there is nothing as cool as flipping a toggle switch and having the points move seamlessly. Since I planned from the beginning on powering my frogs, having an easy way to control their polarity was a given. Tortoise machines have contacts for this, as well as additional ones for signalling or indicator lights. They are as bulletproof as it comes, and made in the USA too. While the current trend online is to use servo motors as a cheaper alternative, I am sticking with a proven commodity.

The sides of my benchwork are only 3.5" tall, and Tortoise machines hang 3.25" below the benchwork, so there is a chance that the wires will extend below the benchwork and potentially get snagged. Ron St. Laurent wrote an article in the June 2017 Model Railroader magazine titled "Mount a switch motor horizontally" and when I read it I thought it was a great idea. I bought a Tortoise to experiment with and it does work well (outside the box in the picture at right). However, for now I am just going to mount them vertically as normal. I substituted thicker 0.0312" (1/32) wire that I had on hand for the stock (0.022") wire.

I have learned to tolerate soldering, which is a different perspective from a year ago. Still, each switch machine installation will require 11 different solder connections to be made and I wanted to batch do them for consistency so I drew up a sketch and then laminated it and mounted it on my workbench. Then, wires of the various colors were cut to the length of 12" (probably too long, but cutting them shorter and splicing would be far worse) and the ends were stripped and bent over. I found that the 20 gauge solid wire I used fit perfectly in the holes drilled in the circuit boards on the motors. I soldered the wires hanging down, but I probably should have had them sticking straight out. Oh well. I soldered 50 wires and at least nothing went wrong.

Because installing them can be difficult, I had purchased a tool to aid in their installation and alignment which I was so excited about that I wrote about it here. Unfortunately, because I later planned to install them horizontally I forgot about it. It would have been handy!

To make installation, wiring, and any future maintenance easier, I ran the wires from the DCC bus line, the switch frog, and the power source first to some barrier screw terminal blocks I bought online and cut down to size. All soldering was done at my workbench and I only had to crawl underneath the layout to hook it all up. However, the switch machines still had to be located and then screwed down. Having never done this before, I did what any reasonable person would do... I called my wife for help. I applied a dab of silicon caulk on the top of the switch machine and then I blindly extended it up with control wire through the switch throwbar hole. My wife helped guide me in because I couldn't see where the wire was popping up from beneath the track, and then I moved the wire back and forth until I was happy with the Tortoise's location.

For the remaining 9 motors, I got directly under the hole in the benchwork and eyeballed myself the throw wire into the throwbar hole. Then, I came out from underneath and used my hand to slide the Tortoise forward, back, or side to side until the wire was centered. Note to self: in the future, if you only drill a 3/8" diameter hole make sure the turnout throwbar hole is exactly in the center of it. I made sure that the throwbar was over the hole but sometimes it was close to the edge. Thankfully, the motor is strong enough (and the thicker wire certainly helps) to do its job but for a couple I used an Xacto knife to trim some plywood splinters away from underneath the layout. Finally, I kept my fingers crossed and let the caulk cure for all of them. Some people use velcro or double-sided tape to temporarily hold them, but caulk is easy to peel off if I screw it up.

The next day I used a train set power pack to test each motor, touching the solder pads of Pins #1 and #8 on the Tortoise machines. Each one threw back and forth just fine, and the points were held tight to the stock rails in both directions. It was very reassuring. The caulk is pretty strong and I had a tough time moving the motor when I checked them out, but I may go back and secure them with some screws.

Based on some recommendations online, including Lance Mindheim, I purchased a Parts Express regulated 3-12vDC power supply. It was under $20 online and that seemed like a good price to me. Sure, you can purchase some wall warts and wire them up but I don't mind paying a little bit more for a quality unit that will last for a long time. Tortoise machines don't require the full 12 volts that they are capable of handling, so I will set mine to 9v and let it do its thing a little bit slower.

That hurdle is now over. But, the control wires are sticking up through the track so I still cannot run trains yet. And, I need to install the fascia toggle switches to control them.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Bridge over the Entrance Way

Colonel Nicholson: Reeves, if this were your bridge, how would you get it underway?
Major Reeves: Get it underway, sir? Well, first of all, I wouldn't build it here.
Colonel Nicholson: Oh? Why not?
Major Reeves: As I was trying to tell you a while ago, sir, the Japanese couldn't have picked a worse location. There's no bottom. You see those piles? They're sinking. Our chaps could drive those piles 'til doomsday and they wouldn't hold.
- From The Bridge over the River Kwai (1957). 

Well, I have been working on my layout for about 18 months now and up until a week ago had no idea how I was going to bridge the entrance way. Oh sure, I had seen lots of ideas online with hinges, swing and lift gates, electrical cut-out switches, and the like, but I still wasn't sold on them. Some looked complicated to build, and others required that both sides of the layout be perfectly stable already. That isn't the case with my layout, as the two sides of the chasm are subject to movement depending on humidity and whether I accidentally kick the legs while walking past the benchwork.

So, I had two goals for the bridge: (1) It had to accurately allow for the rails on either end to be lined up when in the closed position, and (2) It had to hold the benchwork together when in the closed position. Thus, plans for a simple lift-out bridge wouldn't work. I needed something that was hinged on one end that dropped down or swung over and pulled the other end tight. I found a video on Youtube which was pretty close to what I wanted. Now only was it easy to construct, but it had positive alignment from the bolts that extend below the end of the bridge (used for power interlocking). I don't plan to incorporate a circuit which will cut power to the bridge when the layout isn't in use, but it is a nice feature for those who need it. 

I bought a board that was 3.5" wide and 36" long, and two pieces of 1" square dowel. After drawing a centerline down one side to aid in track laying, I flipped it over and glued and screwed the two dowels along either side. At this point, it was oversize but pretty stiff. I could always cut it down to the necessary length on my chop saw, but I liked how the dowels kept the board from deflecting. And, they would prevent derailed trains from taking a dive off of the bridge. Then, I flipped it over and discovered to my horror that the resulting 1.5" width between the dowels was insufficient for a train to comfortably pass through. A boxcar could just squeeze through but that was asking for trouble!

So, I flipped it over again and my bridge with the deck below the girders turned into a bridge with the deck above the girders. A little bit of re-engineering was required, but I swear every one of my projects is like that. To make it work, I cut one end at an angle to clear the layout side when it lifts up. Then, I glued some 1/2" square dowels on the now upper side at the edges to provide some protection for the trains. I left the dowel overhanging the lifting side so it rested on the top of the layout and prevented the bridge from falling down. By doing it this way, I didn't need to figure out a complicated stop to go under the beveled edge of the bridge.

The hinges were secured and the bridge worked great. Then, I laid track which ran over the hinged area and ran into another problem. The video had showed the hinges mounted on blocks elevated above the track height. This I think prevented binding of the track at the hinged area. I didn't think it was important when I built my bridge and mounted the hinges below track level. So, when I laid the track the two edges of the rails crunched into one another at the joint! Panicking, I quickly went to plan B (or am I up to C now?) when I should have just stopped to think it through some more. Instead of just raising the hinges, I instead removed them completely and turned it into a full lift-out bridge.

I glued small sections of 1/2" square dowel outside the overhanging wooden side rails to keep the bridge lined up and I beveled them for appearance. For the track crossing, I used some cut-up Atlas code 83 rerailer sections and they may provide some sort of help should trains derail approaching the bridge. I used caulk to secure it and made sure the track was in perfect alignment and my test cars rolled over with just a slight click. Unlike other areas on my layout, I didn't solder any rail joiners here because I am not sure how much expansion and contraction will affect the bridge joints. Wiring just involved two long wires soldered to the rails, and then joined to a plug which ties into the bus wires through an existing hole in the end of the benchwork section. It isn't pretty, but it works. (If the hinges were used, I could just wire the track to them and they would pass the current across the joint. That would have been snazzy. If only it worked.)

D&H Postcard of Hadley, NY

All in all, this bridge is nothing like I originally planned! It doesn't hinge up, it doesn't have power automatically fed to it when it is in place, and it doesn't have any means of pulling itself tight to the two benchwork sections on either end. But, it was cheap- about $15 including the special Atlas track rerailers- and it will be easy to modify or replace down the road if I want to. I can still add hinges pretty easily by gluing some "1x2" lumber on one end (thus raising the pivot point of the hinges), and I purchased some door latch hardware which can easily be retrofitted to the other end. But, more than likely it will become permanent. If only it were as picturesque as some of the real D&H bridges.

And, just as important, my main line track is now 100% installed. Last week I had soldered feeder wires to the main line track on the last corner module and yard section last week. With the bridge in place it is now theoretically possible to run a train completely around the layout. However, none of the switches have motors or any other way to keep the points set yet so I am holding off on running trains. But, a box of Tortoise machines arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago and that will be my next project. 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Inspirational track laying from India

I ran across Vikas Chander's website recently and what I saw simply amazed me. Nothing he does is simple! Laser cut cork roadbed with the rail lines engraved in it, precision soldering of rails for module-to-module joints, and amazing track alignment tools. He is living in India and modeling the German Railways (DB).

Here is a link to his website showing the page for his module connections, but I also recommend if you do nothing else you scroll though to the bottom of his page on handlaid trackwork. Go slow through the pictures, as about half-way down is a Fast Tracks jig he had custom made for hand laying a double crossover flanked by three double-slip switches. My head hurts just looking at it! Equally inspiring are his other pages on subjects such as installing Tortoise machines and Kadee uncouplers.

His latest blog post shows the layout as of 2015, and the craftsmanship is outstanding. I won't lift any of his pictures to post here, so you will need to check it out yourself.