I Juiced a Frog…

No actual frogs were harmed in the making of this post!! A frog in railroad parlance is a part of a switch. it is the location where the tracks cross. When you hear about a switch being a Number 4 or a Number 6 or the like, its referring to the angle of the frog. I’m not going to re-invent the wheel in trying to explain switches, if you want to go down that rabbit hole, check out here and here! On model railroads, the frog on a switch is isolated, otherwise as metal wheels drawing power from the track cross over, it would create a short as the two rails are different polarities (one positive, one negative). A “Frog Juicer” from Tam Valley is a little circuit board that on DCC systems, detects the polarity faster than the system can short out, and automatically switches the polarity of the frog so a train will keep going over it. The point is to keep power to the locomotive at all times so they don’t stall on the frog if it isn’t powered. I have three to install. Two which can handle six switches each, and one single switch juicer for the peninsula. Working under the benchwork alone without a second set of hands is a bit of a pain, so I decided I would install the Mono Frog Juicer tonight just to get a feel for it, and worry about the other two for the remaining twelve switches later.

IMG_1316Mounting the Frog Juicer board on a bit of double sided foam to stick to the layout

First, I started organizing the wiring runs on the peninsula into a batch that I can connect to the end of the DCC Bus wire. With this done, I figured out where I was going to mount the juicer, and put a purple wire on the frog wire from the switch (colour coding the wiring for future repairs). My layout wiring is pretty simple. Red and Black for power, purple for the frogs. I will eventually run a secondary power bus for building lighting, and I will pick two other colours of wire for this so they stand out. That’s a down the road task, I haven’t even really thought about that beyond knowing that I want to be able to light buildings, which means they need power!

IMG_1317Frog Juicer in place on the peninsula, with red and black wires to the DCC bus, and the purple to the frog. Now we see if it works when I get the wiring connected to the bus!

This was another simple project that I haven’t done before that I could tackle on my own. It also was a nice half hour project that I could do after dinner and feel like I’ve accomplished something on the layout today. Given how much I have on the rest of my week, I don’t expect to do anything till the weekend, so it’s always nice to feel like I’ve gotten something done when a few minutes were available.

Turns out Sunday is a layout day too

You might think that after a big progress day yesterday, Sunday would be a day of rest, and it kinda was. I watched both EPL matches this morning while writing up yesterdays progress, but that meant that by 1:30 I was done watching football, and migrated back upstairs to the layout room.

The first thing I did was finish up the west end of the layouts drops to the DCC bus. When we were working on this, we found a short that took some hunting to track down and resolve. It was some not quite fully clearly gapped copper ties on a switch. It hadn’t shown itself earlier, but as we started connecting track all of a sudden both rails were in continuity with each other, not a great situation to have for a layout!! After some frustrated time yesterday searching out the electrical gremlin, Mark found it, and we had it quickly cleaned up. A little bit of paint on the ties will eventually hide the new bigger gap.

Because I’m completely incorrigible, with the wiring connected and looking OK on the multi-meter for no shorts, I of course proceeded to connect my ESU Lokprogrammer to the end of a track, and run a test train out of CNR staging and onto Mowat Avenue. The video below shows the results, right up to the point where it hit track not yet connected and the keep alive ran out of power! An unqualified success, a train successfully run on my layout!!

First attempt at running a train out of staging and down the line (sorry about the video being fuzzy, I’m not here to win cinematography awards!).

A little bit more running exposed a couple of not unexpected snags, particularly on the switches, but without switch machines installed holding rails in place, I think any time the equipment didn’t catch the switches perfectly clean, they were moving the points. I won’t get too worried about this unless it starts happening when the switches are being held tightly in place.

With that done, I decided to start building switch machines. I am using the Fast Tracks “Bullfrog” switch machines. These are laser cut wood manual throws, a lot of my friends have used them on their layouts, and I love the way they work and the simplicity of them. It takes maybe 10 minutes to assemble them. I have two built new for the layout, and one from a little test track I built a couple of years ago to learn how to build and install a switch machine. After building another fresh one for the layout today, I started messing around with the RC aircraft control rods that are used to link the machine under the benchwork to the fascia for the switch to be operated. This reminds me that I need to get some supplies for the handles on the end, I never did get around to doing that.

IMG_1216A Fast Tracks “Bullfrog” manual switch machine assembled. This one is from a little proof of concept board I made to experiment with learning to install these. The throw wire is now too short for the layout, but I’ve got more of those I can replace it with.

After one Bullfrog, I decided that my goal for the day was to finish the last two sidings on the peninsula. One was easy, a piece of flex with a gentle curve, the other was a bit more complicated. A curved track into a switch to two sidings flanking the freight shed I’ve been building. Once all the track was adjusted, curved and trimmed, I marked out the sides, moved it, and placed down a layer of the clear Alex Caulk. The track was then worked into position, and weighted/pinned down as appropriate. It will sit till Monday night now to have the pins and weights moved while the caulk cures.

Laying the final track on the Peninsula, from L-R marked out and holes for switch machine/frog wire drilled; caulk down; first siding down and caulk spread; and, final view with track down and weighted/tacked down.

With the track on the peninsula down and now drying, I went to the final gap in the layout, a less than 1.5″ piece on Liberty Street between where I’d been working east and west across the layout. I’m not going to install this tonight, I’ll do that Monday or Tuesday night, it will give me something to look forward to at work as the week starts. I’ve got the final piece of track to be laid on my layout cut to sized, filed down, and joiners added ready to go whenever I decide the time is right.

IMG_1215Less than 1.5 inches to go to the trackwork being laid for the entire length of the railroad. So of course, instead of doing it, I’m blogging about how that’s all that’s left to do!

In well less than two years since we took possession of our Townhouse in June 2018, I have gone from a bare room, to a nearly functional layout. This is a huge thing for me, I’ve wanted to build a layout for a long time, but never had the space. Since we moved in, I’ve turned that dream into a reality, and in the process, I’ve learned a lot from friends, and from trial and error. With a bit more wiring, I’ll be in a position to start testing trains to see if the track works and start looking for snags.

With that, a productive Sunday in the layout room is over. Time to go help get some dishes done in the kitchen so we can make a late Sunday dinner of home made Bacon and Gruyere Quiche and watch the new episode of Doctor Who in a couple of hours.

Saturday Layout Working Party

Well that was a productive Saturday afternoon and evening. The layout room cleanup this week paid off nicely. Four friends joined me, Mark, Dan, Trevor and James. This was great as Mark and James had never seen the layout room, so it was their introduction, while Dan and Trevor (See Trevor’s post on the day here) have been regular visitors and helpers in construction. It also proved that the biggest number of guests that can reasonably be accommodated is 3! Five people in the room with the layout and tools going is too many to manoeuvre at times.

Mark, Trevor and Dan working, and a sort of group shot of Mark, Dan, James and the back of my head discussing what we are doing!

We started the day by starting to make the wiring connections from the individual track feeders to the DCC power bus along the sceniced part of the layout, the connections in staging were previously made. Mark started from one end of the layout, and Trevor from the other. Dan was prepping to replace a switch throw bar that we broke on our big tracklaying day last year, and I was learning and asking lots of questions of Trevor and Mark to understand their slightly different, but equally effective techniques for making the connections from the track feeders to the bus wire. I now know two different techniques for it, and can work on finishing the job myself in the coming weeks.

Splitting the bus wire, in this case 14 gauge speaker wire, and then connecting the track feeders into the bus.

While we were upstairs working, my wife Heather decided to bake some cookies for us. Last week after baking some cookies for herself and for me to bring to a friends layout operating session, she announced that she was taking a break from baking after the holidays and doing a lot of it. I’m happy that break only lasted a week! If you like good food, you should check out her blog, its in the sidebar and linked here!

IMG_1184Gandalf was not having it, too many train guys in his house. It stressed him out so he retired to the sofa downstairs to recover.

With the bus wiring started, and my understanding growing as how it is done to make good connections, we moved onto the final bit complex trackwork, the series of crossovers to access the peninsula on my layout. This area reflects the trackage from Liberty Street onto the spurs on/along Pardee Avenue. This is complicated trackage, as there are two spurs accessed from one direction, and one coming the opposite way, it means there are two crossings in close proximity, and all of this needed to be aligned so that the curves were navigable, and the crossovers didn’t sit on the split where the peninsula starts as it is designed to be swung away, and I don’t want this area to be any more unreliable than the risks movable benchwork already creates by the fact its designed to be moved.

Dan working on adjusting the switches and getting the trackage off of them installed. I’m honestly not sure what Trevor is doing other than proving you cannot fit in my layout room while standing on a three step ladder (the higher ceiling area is the skylight vault in the middle of the room).

After a few hours of hard work wiring and figuring out the final track geometry, it was time for some dinner (the least I can do is feed my friends to thank them for helping build my layout, it isn’t nearly enough, but its a start!). I ordered a couple of pizzas from our local place here in Etobicoke, Milano’s Pizza, and despite the consensus from my friends that Pineapple has a place on pizza (pro tip, it does not), we never the less ordered a Hawaiian pizza for the crew along with a more traditional one and some mozzarella sticks. After a relaxing dinner break, Mark headed for home before the roads turned to ice (Toronto set a January rainfall record while we worked, better than a snowfall record I guess since people travelled from across the City to get here), while Dan, Trevor and I headed back upstairs to finish the trackwork they had started.

After dinner Dan and Trevor figure out how to complete the “baby Bat’leth” of trackage onto the peninsula, building it in place to get the curves right.

We got the track alignment and curvatures sorted out eventually. We wound up using a pair of the four-tie long “Gapmasters” from American Tie and Timber that I bought for each of the crossings to hold the trackage in place. We figured that would give better support since the tracks cross the gap at an angle for when I make the cuts to allow the peninsula to be swung into its stored position.

IMG_1203Dan and myself working on the last crossing of the peninsula. The heritage brick is doing yeoman’s work at holding track down while the Alex Caulk dries.

With that, tracklaying is almost done. After the gang got packed up, I spent a bit of time cleaning up the room of little bits of wire cover and sawdust so Gandalf wouldn’t get at it, and started to plan out my next steps. There is a bit of soldering cleanup on some of the bus connections that were started and not finished, and a real chance that I can finish track laying this afternoon (after a nice lazy morning watching proper football and drinking tea. Trains can happen during with the NFL games as background later). There is one switch and three sidings on the peninsula to go, then my final piece gap between the two ends of the layout.

IMG_1204End of the day, the peninsula looking mighty fine and progressing towards completion.

First Steps into Digital Command Control

My layout will be operated using a Digital Command Control (DCC) system. While to many of my my modeller friends, this seems an obvious statement, to those who are my friends that aren’t railroaders, they don’t really understand how model railroads operate. A very small layout may literally just be a single locomotive and a power pack (like the ones that come in simple train sets), and need no complicated wiring. for my layout, while it’s simple, there is the chance that multiple locomotives will be working and there will always be a number of locomotives in staging. DCC is effectively a computer control system, the locomotives and track are always receiving power, but the decoder, a mini computer inside the locomotive ignores the power unless it receives a computer signal sent with the power through the rail that tells it to pay attention to the command and react. It is a powerful system for running trains, and with new controllers like the ProtoThrottle, you can operate a model railroad with controls that are almost like those in a real locomotive.

IMG_8371ESU LokProgrammer. Its a lot of box for the size of the stuff in it. The environmentalist in me says they really need to work on their packaging.

The LokProgrammer is a tool for updating and adjusting settings on locomotives with ESU decoders. I really have been impressed with the ESU decoders and control system from visiting friends with it, and I see me buying an ESU control system in the near future when they are back in stock. This is a vital tool as it will let me customize sounds and how locomotives behave on the layout. I recently did a full setup at a friends using his after he’d helped me install the DCC decoder into my 7020 model for the layout, now I can use that to help me program my locomotives myself in the future.


CPR 7020 on the test track connected to the LokProgrammer, and a couple of screenshots, the top showing the throttle test screen, and one showing the adjustments of all the Control Values (CV’s) on the decoder to change settings.

If i’m being completely honest, I still don’t understand most of what I’m doing with the DCC and the setup, but I’m getting there, step by step, and having the LokProgrammer means I can now look at how things are configured, and learn what changes when I adjust different settings. Another day, another step on the road to having a working layout.

Playing Around with a ProtoThrottle

If you read this blog, odds are you have some interest in prototype modelling, and may have heard of something called the ProtoThrottle. Its a new system neutral DCC handheld controller from Iowa Scaled Engineering – http://www.protothrottle.com/ It will work via an adapter in some cases with Digitrax, NCE, ESU, Lenz, JMRI and and MRC DCC systems. What it is, is really cool, especially if you were, oh, I dunno, building a small switching layout, maybe of say, Liberty Village in Toronto in your spare bedroom.

IMG_7341A ProtoThrottle in the flesh, as I operate at Hunter Hughson’s Niagara Branch.

I know a couple of people who have them, but I hadn’t had a chance to hold or use one until a get together last weekend at a friends layout. Its a nicely designed and built piece, which replicates the standard controls for an American Association of Railroads (AAR) control stand. A reverser (direction), 8 notch throttle and brake valve. Theres a button for the bell, and a horn handle at the top. It was interesting to operate with compared to a traditional DCC throttle. I’ve been in plenty of locomotive cabs, and operated the simulators at the Toronto Railway Museum which use AAR Control Stands, but I have never driven a real diesel locomotive. Using the ProtoThrottle is much more like being in a locomotive than a normal model layout. There was a lot of discussion about how operating a model with this is very different from doing so with a typical DCC controller that has 128 speed steps. On a real locomotive, if you watch them operating while switching, they throttle up to get moving, then cut the power and coast. That’s something you can’t do with a traditional DCC system as easily, but you can with the ProtoThrottle. Its much closer to operating a real locomotive based on some actual railroaders who were at the operating session/get together. I have to take them at their word, but they are right that the majority of modellers have never actually operated a real locomotive, and some of the subtlety of how you actually do so is lost translating from full scale to model scale.

I understand it takes some work to adjust the DCC settings on a decoder for it to work right with the ProtoThrottle, but once you’ve got a file set up, I understand that you can use the base settings on other locomotives if you are using something like an ESU LokProgrammer to do your customization on the decoder. I don’t have an LokProgrammer yet, its on my shopping list as It would be nice to be able to program my own locomotives and adjust sounds at home instead of relying on going to others houses!

ProtoThrottle1Doug declines to operate with the ProtoThrottle, while I mostly mess about instead of making any actual effort to use a switch list or switch cars.

While it won’t be the first throttle I buy to add onto whatever DCC base station I wind up going with, it will definitely be added on as I love the bit of added realism in operations, and being that little bit closer to driving the way a real engineer would that it gives.