CP Executive train in Albany

CP Executive train in Albany

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Choosing the right ballast

D&H mainline in north Albany prior to the
CP Executive train's visit in 2018. 
Most people hate ballasting. I get it. It is boring. It takes a lot of work to do, without much to show after. Your fingers get sticky from the glue, if you sneeze the dry stuff goes everywhere, and it moves all over the place when wet. It sticks to the sides of the rails, it floats to the tops of the ties, and suddenly craters appear all along the right of way where water drops from the spray bottle or glue applicator bottle dribbled too much. Ugh. Most people I talk to, and certainly the majority of articles I read in the modeling press, treat ballasting as a difficult process that is messy and boring. I find it simple and relaxing (and, I agree, perhaps boring after a while).

There is another big consideration with ballasting. It generally is permanent. Once the ballast is down and glued in you can't easily change it without some major track replacement project. This is even more of an issue when you use something besides white glue to secure it that isn't water soluble later on. What this means is that if you aren't sure what color, size, and shape of ballast you are going to use then you must think it through carefully first.

A couple of years ago I was sitting at my work bench one day and realized I had over a dozen types of ballast in my scenery supply bin. And I find ballasting so much fun that I wanted to do some just to enjoy it even before my layout had track installed. So, I decided to create a ballast sample board. It lets me easily compare ballast size and colors. It would have been much wiser to paint the board the same shade of brown as my layout and to perhaps include a little grass, but I was in a rush. I had stuff from Woodland Scenics, and had ordered samples from Arizona Rock and Mineral and Scenic Express. I have been looking for a substitute for Highball Ballast which I loved working with but sadly has been out of business for awhile now.

The Valley Local blog by Chris Adams had a pretty good post on this issue. Chris wasn't sure what he should use and tried several types by loosely applying them to some track and comparing the results to pictures of the prototype. That was pretty smart. I suggested to him that the adhesive used to glue it down will change the color of the ballast (white glue dries differently than Scenic Cement or matte medium) and recommended he make a couple of samples of track with the ballast firmly affixed how he would regularly do it. If I was speaking from personal experience as to how the color might change, I was.

North Albany mainline in front, with sidings
to Surpass in the rear.
The first major decision is what color the ballast should be. The D&H's ballast in this area is currently mostly a mixed gray but there are brown stones in it too. Interestingly enough, the recent (September 2019) issue of the Bridge Line Historical Society's newsletter has a comment on page 23 where the author also noticed that the ballast had a bit of brown stone in it. Is this a development of Canadian Pacific taking over the line and using their own quarries which have brown rock in them? I don't know. However, for the look I want I am using a gray blend without brown. And, as I reviewed all six samples from Arizona Rock and Mineral I saw that all contained brown rocks in them. Their gray blends had enough brown to catch my eye and that would always bug me.

The same area as above, though in 1984. I guess the
ballast is a bit brown here too.
I then looked at the Scenic Express ballast, which is also real rock. Their color choices, or at least the ones I ordered, were perfect for what I was doing. But, I ran into a different issue. All the stones were shiny. In fact, perhaps "translucent" or "frosted" would be better words. Even with the matte glue covering the stones and securing them to the board, the ballast still looked fake to me. When you study it up close, it looked like shiny gemstones or pieces of plastic. Had I been trying to capture a scene with a winter layer of frost or a post-rainstorm wet look this would have worked perfectly. But as is, I can't live with it. Others love it and swear by it, so either they got a different batch or have a method of making it look truly flat and dull.

So that left me with Woodland Scenics' ballast, which I planned to avoid. Why? Because I have always heard "real modelers use real crushed rock for ballast, not walnut shells." And I turned into a snob and believed it. I admit if you use wet water to saturate the ballast instead of rubbing alcohol, you need a lot more water and that extra spraying could cause the loose ballast to go flying. But, I use straight up rubbing alcohol and the WS ballast stays put. My sample board showed that I could secure it without any trouble. So that was that, Woodland Scenics ballast for me. In the picture at the right, the section of track ballasted on the left has been secured with glue, while the portion on the right has not. The difference in color is important to note.

The D&H in Menands in 1984. Note the ballast
mainline is much more gray.
The next choice was what size ballast you should use. WS makes a "medium" which they recommend for HO and a "fine" which they recommend for N. And, as it turns out, there are a lot of discussions online (such as herehere and here) where people advocate using the fine stuff for HO. The medium ballast is too large and the fine stuff is too small. From a distance, the medium looks really good but up close its overscale appearance is noticeable. I read an issue of a British model railroading magazine and saw a layout done with a blend of WS medium and fine mixed together and it looked just like what I wanted. So, I tried it myself on the sample board but the results looked just like regular "medium" ballast to my eyes (perhaps all the "fine" ballast fell to the bottom?) So, for now I am going to just try fine on my mainline corner section as a test and see if it is what I am looking for.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Weathering Track - one tie at a time

I finally decided to work on my layout. It had been over a year since I had seriously worked on it, and as mentioned recently it was because my Micro Engineering turnouts were broken and the fix wasn't permanent. It had left me in a funk. So, I ordered some replacement PC-board ties and will try and repair them. But, even if I need to replace them I can still work on other areas of my layout, like weathering and ballasting the track. That is the last step holding me back from my M.M.R. "Civil Engineering" certificate, which I was anxious to complete, so I decided to get cracking.

I had purchased some DVDs by Mike Confalone, produced by Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine, titled "Allagash Railway - Scenery modeling outside the box." Mike is an expert at capturing the dirty, rural New England railroad scene. He suggested using Rustoleum camouflage paint for a base layer on the track, and that is what I used. It is ultra flat, and the spray tip made it easy to get the paint exactly where I wanted it. I only painted a couple of benchwork sections for now, and in areas where both sides of the track can be seen I sprayed the front and back (eventually, backdrops will cut off rear views). Cleaning paint off the tops of the rails while it is soft is important, as is masking the switch points beforehand.

He used thin washes of Pollyscale brand Concrete, Mud, and Dirt paint. I didn't have any of those colors in my stash, and since Pollyscale was discontinued a few years ago I instead went to my shelf of acrylic craft paints. I picked out a couple of browns, a couple of grays, a black, and a yellow that I hoped I could tint to look something concrete like (spoiler alert: I couldn't, so I gave up on the yellow). I asked my wife to pick up some small plastic cups at the store when she was out, and she found some perfect "condiment" cups that come with lids. I made a caddy by screwing seven cups to a board with tiny screws, and then placed more cups in each that contained the thinned paints. It is nearly impossible to tip over, and easy to move. And, the condiment cups have lids so I don't have the throw the paint out at the end of the session. Thanks honey!

I started with a couple of the really worn down sidings and began painting ties with light gray, which I later discovered (after this picture was taken) is really a bit too light. I then added some light brown, which appears almost orange in the picture. Some dark brown and dark gray ties followed, with black being last. I took care to paint all portions of the ties and not mix up the colors, which is easy if you aren't paying attention. I figured it would take a while but in the end I managed about 12" every five minutes or so. That isn't bad at all as long as you have something on the radio to listen to.

After doing some sections I began to think that the coloring was coming out a bit too garish. This will probably change after the ballast is in place, as instead of dark brown backgrounds instead I will have light gray ballast surrounding everything and those bright gray ties will blend in and the dark ties will stand out. Still, I went over the light gray ties (which appear white in the photos) with either brown or black to tone them down. One of the corner sections has a bit more experimentation on the color choices too, as I don't consider the corners permanent to my layout. They are just filled pieces until I can expand my layout.

The ratio of tie colors I decided on is this:

25% are dark brown
25% are black (which represent new ties)
25% are the Krylon camouflage brown
13% are gray
12% are light brown

20% are dark brown
20% are black
20% are the Krylon camouflage brown
20% are gray
20% are light brown

Note: for one or two of my sidings where the tracks were clearly left to rot away, most of the ties will be painted in shades of brown because new ties, such as black ones, wouldn't be found here. I may need to redo some of the ties.

I am pretty happy with the results. I did about 15' of track in about 75 minutes. I don't plan to do any more until I have done some ballasting, because if my color ratios are off (especially on the mainline) I want to know before I have painted the whole thing. But, I had a lot of fun getting back to the layout.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Roster Review: D&H RS3-ms in 1984

#501 (December 1975)
In the mid-1970s the D&H's fleet of RS3 engines was wearing out. Faced with the options of purchasing more engines new or used, they instead decided to have rebuilt some of their existing RS3s. So, between December 1975 and March 1976 they sent 8 engines (#4106, 4107, 4112, 4113, 4115, 4119, 4122, and 4128) to Morrison-Knudsen in Boise, Idaho to be rebuilt. I have seen one source say ten engines were sent but eight returned, the other two being used for parts or later determined not worth fixing. With their short, rounded noses and large boxes behind the cab, their are easily identifiable.

#505 (October 1982)
The original 1,600 hp Alco 244 prime movers were unreliable, so many railroads besides the D&H began rebuilding engines with them in the 1970s. Here, they were given new power plants with more reliable 2,000 hp 12-251C engines which was larger and required raising their long hoods by six inches; their noses were chopped, dynamic brake cooling boxes were relocated behind the cab, and the rest of the engine's parts were refurbished. They were renumbered #501-508 and seven were repainted in the lightning stripe scheme, while #506 (formerly #4112) was painted in the Bicentennial scheme.

#503 (January 12, 1980)
When they came back, the D&H classified them as ARS-20M (RS3m engines), though Morrison-Knudsen referred to them as TE56-4A. However, some people also refer to them as as RS3u engines. If you have time to burn, here is an interesting online discussion on exactly what they should be called.

#502 (October 08, 1980)
In 1984, engines #501, #503, #504, #505, #507, and #508 were still painted in the lightning stripe scheme with no numbers on the sides of the hood. Like all of the other engines so painted, they got grubby pretty quick and by 1984 all had large numbers on their sides which would indicate at least partial, if not full, repainting occurred in the early 1980s. I am not sure what determined if a partial or complete repaint was in order, but likely whatever was cheapest. Engine #502 was the only RS-3m to be repainted into the "Altschul blue" scheme with yellow chevrons. And, of course, #506 received the bicentennial scheme at the time of rebuilding. 

#1976 (May 1977)
They all lasted on the D&H until 1988 when they were retired. That isn't very long for a class of engines that only served 12 years after being rebuilt (which sadly was longer than the ill-fated PA-4 engines). However, Guilford was simplifying its extended locomotive fleet over the three railroads it owned and in doing so was purging all Alcos from the roster. Thus, these had to go. One survives today, #506, which was the bicentennial unit. Perhaps because of its appealing paint scheme and usage on tourist railroads, it kept its red, white, and blue up until 2014 when it was repainted. Today, it works on the Western New York and Pennsylvania as #406 (discussed here).

RS-3, no #, to be #4501 (March 19, 1977)
Were they successful? No. The D&H decided not to do any more conversations because the engines were slippery and tended to struggle with heavy loads. One theory behind that is because the 2,000 hp primer mover was too powerful for such a lightweight engine body. More modern locomotives which use larger engines weight more, allowing them to get better traction. However, it appears around the same time the Colonie Shops attempted to rebuild an RS-3 in house along the same lines. Perhaps they thought they could do it cheaper, or faster? I don't know, but the engine was never completed.

Picture of Shell from website - used with permission
For those who can afford it, Overland Models has also imported a brass model (item number AA-1271-1 in 2008. They may have imported other road numbers as well. They are gorgeous models and I would love one, but likely will never have it. For the rest of us, Puttman Locomotive Works offers a cast-resin HO scale shell specifically based on the D&H's engines. They are designed to drop onto Atlas RS3 chassis. No handrails, cab glass, or other details are provided. The price ($38) is decent, so I likely will purchase several and store them for some time in the future when I want to build a couple. As I have a bunch of powered engines already, I might even make mine un-powered "dummies" to simplify things.

#502 in blue sandwiched in the middle (1982)

Of all the RS3m engines, I really want a model of #502 because I love the solid blue and yellow chevron scheme. It would also be nice to have #506 because it lasted as a bicentennial unit through my time period. Besides, I can only take so much lightning striped or solid blue locomotives! The other engines would just be more grubby lightning stripe engines, with either terribly faded large numbers on the sides or even worn completely away (like #508). I am in no rush to add two more similar engines like that to my roster.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Finger Lakes Live Steamers - 50th Anniversary meet

Warning... massive post ahead!

Me with my awesome blond hair in 1987.
This past weekend my wife and I attended the Finger Lakes Live Steamers' 50th Anniversary Meet. This place is pretty special to me. Located about an hour east of Rochester where I grew up, I remember my parents bringing me to a couple of their annual open house days when I was a child. Looking back in the old photo album, that would be 1987 and 1988. As a boy fascinated by trains, it was all just too much. The size factor alone made them mesmerizing and the fact that you could ride them round and round made it almost feel like riding a real train. And the seeds were planted.

Me with my parents and siblings on straddle car in 1987
As is typical of a 5 or 6 year old, I decided I wanted one. I remember doodling lines around a drawing of the backyard of our house showing where I would put it. That it wasn't "too scale" or that I didn't have the money to build it anyway was entirely besides the point. I remember the club engines being painted in a scheme similar to the Erie Lackawanna's... which was important as my first HO scale train set had an Erie Lackawanna engine. My parents, who indulged many of my train fancies, never bought me a live steam engine. My dad did bring me back the following year though, which was almost as good.

1988 (in my pink ALF shirt)
I remember being about 12 and seeing an advertisement in Model Railroader magazine for Little Engines, a company that sold (and still sells) live steam locomotive castings. The ad said to send for the catalog, which I did. I remember opening it up the envelope and there was a bill for the catalog. I can't recall how much it was, but my mother made me return the catalog to them. Perhaps in an act of restitution, several years ago I purchased their most recent paper catalog. Though the F.L.L.S. advertised that they had junior memberships and that they had machine shop equipment on the premises, what I expected to do at 12 with the catalog anyway is unknown.

Though the open houses were open to the public and free, I never visited them again that I can recall while in Rochester (we went once with a VHS camcorder and I don't know what year they came out, but it might have been 1988). I distinctly remember a man named Charlie C. who brought a magnificent Little Engines pacific locomotive painted in the bright orange, yellow and blue Chessie scheme. While I thought it was pretty then, I was giddy in 2010 when he brought the locomotive to ALS and I met Charlie in person and got to tell him how much it meant to me to see it again after all those years. It was built to last!

Certainly, as a college student nearby I blew the opportunity. Then I moved to Albany, and everything was forgotten until 2006 when I was looking through a hobby store and found several issues of Live Steam and Outdoor Railroading magazine for sale. Having now read nearly every issue since 1967, I can honestly say I got lucky. Those two issues (June and August) I bought were filled with train articles and other things that interested me. I didn't have a clue about the machine shop language and things like hit and miss steam engines didn't appeal to me (and still don't) but I bought the two issues anyway. Some issues have little train content and had that been the case here, I likely never would have bought them.

I later found out a friend had actually convinced the store to carry the magazine in hopes of attracting new members to the local live steam club, so I guess it worked! The magazine had a section devoted to club listings, and I found a reference to the Adirondack Live Steamers. I joined in 2007, rekindled my interest in the hobby, and the rest is history.

1988, and happily riding around!
My wife and I decided a couple of years ago to visit some of the live steam clubs that are within a couple hours of Albany, so in 2014 we visited FLLS again. We found the club to be extremely gracious as hosts and made several friends that day. Having not stepped on the property in twenty six years, I was amazed at some of the changes that had been made. The strange elevated 3/4 scale, 3.5" gauge live steam track was gone (it can be seen already in a state of decay in the picture at right). But, their 7.25" gauge track was just as I remembered it and after a loop around the line they let me take over and drive for a couple more trips.

They also had a new, extensive, gauge 1 layout. I have always wanted one in my garden and someday will have one. I have seen a few before that were nice but boy does the FLLS track look grand compared to them. It was set up to run electric and live steam powered trains, and I had brought my live steam Ruby engine and a few cars to play with. The last four cars are scratchbuilt. Though the picture at right doesn't really reflect the state of the railroad (it has lots more track and a big yard and multiple mainlines) this image of a train plodding along on a raised garden with lots of greenery is what I want my garden line to be someday.

FLLS - 2019
So, that is my history with FLLS. But how about their recent 50th Anniversary? And what has changed in the past five years (or the past 31 years?) At right is a modified map that was handed out at the recent meet. I marked in red the track I remember from 1988 (minus a passing siding here or there). Everything else is new. What's more, nearly all the 7.25" gauge stuff is new within the past 5 years! They are definitely expanding.

As we pulled up we had trouble finding out where we were supposed to park. They have at least three parking lots, not all of which are marked, and in the chaos of moving to each of them I managed to set up this shot as we finally found our spot. I think it is a great juxtaposition of three things all in the same area, presumably doing the same thing (moving people) via three different modes of transportation technology. We saw many Amish (I think?) people during the morning drive by in their carts, and on the southern edge of the property there was a man teaching his sons how to cut hay in a field with a giant blade cart thing. I believe that is the technical term.

It was a really nice day, and it wasn't too terribly hot, but still I decided to set up my folding camping chair in the shade by the elevated gauge 1 track. FLLS has a permanent garden railway line and a smaller raised live steam track, but this looked to be temporary and brought in for the weekend. Though the sun shifted throughout the day, as did our chairs accordingly, we were usually no further than 10 feet from this track. As a result, I got to see a lot of the G scale live steamers run. This looks to be an Aster Hall class pulling a lovely rake of 9 coaches. It ran for about 30 minutes without much interruption from the driver.

At the same time, right in front of us was the 7.25" gauge main line and train after train went by. The main line was busy and backed up in places, though their signalling system worked well to keep the trains spaced apart. I particularly enjoy the older 1800 based locomotives, and this Railroad Supply locomotive and coaches were really well done. I don't know if the engineer attempted the grades on the middle flyover section, but he had no trouble keeping up speed on the level areas. At one time I considered building a locomotive like this but was concerned the grades at ALS would prevent it from operating well. I might have been wrong.

A group from the New Jersey LS banded together and brought a trailer full of goodies to run. Of interest, there were two pacific locomotives that individually were running with nice long trains and together were really pulling hard. It was interesting to hear the engineers trying to work together to get their locomotives in sync with one another. Another point of interest is that both locomotives appear to be derived from the Little Engines design, but the final detailing was taken in different directions. I especially love the Southern "Crescent Limited" green and gold scheme on the second engine. The moon on the cylinders is really classy.

Speaking of long trains, this poorly lit shot shows the double headed engines working around one of the original curves with a very long train. All of the cars behaved well which is quite an achievement as slack action can build up over the length of the train.

Here is another long train, mostly passenger style cars but also a few bench style riding cars. The amount of work it must have taken to put everything together and paint it all is incredible. I think that there were nine passenger cars trailing the riding cars.

Here is another train from NJLS being driven by Ron. If you look to the left of him, you can see the roof of a covered flat car that provided protection from the sun! That was a nifty idea. While I was relaxing in the shade eating my pizza, Ron offered to let me use his train (we aren't total strangers). It was a classic pizza vs. train moment but I stuck with my food and he took another lap. When he came around again, I got on board with my pizza and he showed me the new track and how to operate his engine. For the third and fourth laps, I drove the train around (my pizza was gone). It is a great hobby and people are very generous with their equipment. His engine behaved beautifully and I managed to keep it on the rails the whole time.

What was I pointing to?
Next time I come, I might try and arrange with someone to bring my equipment. There were several other people from ALS here, as well as other local clubs in the North East that I am friendly with. It was nice to go back to my roots and see that while some things have changed, others have remained the same. I believe that they are pretty boxed in their current location which is why their track is folding in on itself instead of stretching out very much. All of it operated well (aside from a pesky electrical switch machine that was quickly fixed) and I personally didn't observe a single derailment. That is quite an accomplishment. FLLS has a lot to be proud of. They have open days for the public to attend which are free, and I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in trains to stop by and check them out. The hobby is a lot of fun and can really stay with you. If you asked me in 1988 where I wanted to go to have a good time, I would have probably pointed to FLLS. In fact, I guess I did...

The following are a couple more pictures from the 2019 meet, without any commentary by me.