Working my way up to installing Switch Machines

Before I’d actually started to build the layout, I was doing lots of little things to build skills. One of them was to build a test piece of roadbed that I could install a Bullfrog Switch Machine from Fast Tracks into to start to get a feel for doing so, as I’ve got 13 turnouts to install them on on the layout, and outside the one tester I did, I’ve installed exactly zero turnout machines, be they Bullfrogs or Tortoises or any other brand. On every previous bit of working layout I’ve built, my switches have had nothing and were flipped by hand, or Caboose Industries ground throws. Below layout, remotely operated switches is new ground for me, and I’ve been slowly building up to my first attempt to install a switch machine on the layout.

I have two switches where scenery has made it past them at a base level, but they are both in a corner of the layout and in a tight spot to work with curved fascia. This feels to me like setting myself up to fail by starting in a hard spot to work in. Frankly, I had been hoping that working with a friend who has done them before to help me see the quirks of installation would have been in the cards for this summers build day get together. I’ve had 3 group work days on the layout now in just under 2 years, but Covid-19 is now in the way of having friends over 😦 .

I’m pleased at how much I’ve been able to do myself, but things like the benchwork was a multi person job, some of the complicated trackwork was, and so was at least the first phases of wiring so I could mostly observe and learn from others so I could do it myself and have a reference of others work. I was and kinda still am hoping for the same with the switch machines. I also, quite frankly love inviting 3-4 friends over to “work” on the layout and have a meal together. Yes our sessions when I’ve had friends over have all been super productive, but I’d be OK if they weren’t too, as the social side of the hobby is also important to me. I look forward to the near future where the things left to do are structures and scenery and the layout is in a state to operate, as then I can invite my friends over without the overt use of them as extra labour for a beer and some BBQ!!

Of late, I’ve been looking at how to make all the connections between the Bullfrog and the RC aircraft control rods that move the switch machine from the fascia pull lever. I picked up some mini clevises last weekend, and I think I like them better than the Z rods that Fast Tracks provides. I have extra Z rods, and a couple were badly misshaped, so I cut one off with the Dremel to get to a straight 2-56 threaded rod, and made the connection between the clevis and rod so that I can play around with the machine and how to make the connections.

Two Fast Tracks Bullfrog switch machines, on the left with a clevis attached to the throw, on the right with the Z-bend connector from Fast Tracks.

I can see that I am just going to have to work myself up to doing it on my own sooner or later, but I think I am going to at least give myself the best chance of success by doing the first install on a piece of track where the switch throw is perpendicular to the fascia, and then move onto the harder ones, so with that I think my first weekend task is some more basic ground cover to get a spot ready to install a switch at.

A Friday night test train

After what feels like ages, having finished paving the roads, I finally have my layout back such that I can run trains on it. While I was paving the roads I had strips of styrene blocking the rails at the road crossings to minimize the amount of drywall compound I had to chip out from between the rails (note the important use of the word “minimize”, whether I was successful will be a debate for some other day!).

While the final road crossings on one side of the layout were setting, I decided to run a train from CPR staging to collect all the box cars I had scattered about checking clearances on my building mock-ups. Instead of using the proverbial “Hand of God” as its often referred to in the hobby to just move them back to staging the way they got onto the layout, it seemed like the perfect time to actually you know, run a train, it’s kinda the point of building the layout after all!!!

A train! Actually running on its own power across the layout! I haven’t really done this part of the hobby in a couple of months!

So, with that, I fired up the DCC, and brought 7020 out from staging to collect the five box cars on the Pardee Ave peninsula. Amazingly enough, without me even having cleaned the track, the locomotive ran without finding any short-outs, all the cars stayed on the rails, and the couplers worked! The five car train is one car longer than the max for actual operations, but it was fine for messing about, I got everything back to staging where it isn’t in the way of ongoing construction, and shunted cars into storage spaces using the locomotive, not the hands!

One “problem” the run has posed for me….I really like the look of the recently built Gilbert Foundry being open to look through…It appears one train may have caused me to have to build an interior for this foreground building at least, as to me, the look through opportunity as seen in the pictures above is a bit too good to pass up!

Wayfinding in the Layout Room

This is a subject I will come back to, but this week I ordered a set of laser cut Toronto street signs, customized to the streets of Liberty Village.

IMG_1153Laser cut Toronto street signs, one large one for the room door, and a series of small ones for the layout fascia.

I had the pleasure of operating on a layout last week at a friends that is still under construction, but the one big takeaway was to make sure whenever I am at the point where I will be having people over to operate, that my layout is well signposted. There was some confusion on Pierres layout as it is still very much a work in progress,  but my takeaway was, good signage to help people figure out where they are on a layout, is just as important as in the real world.

I had seen these before and knew I wanted them, so it was jump in and place my order rather than sit around and wait. A local coffee shop/3D printer/laser cutting/maker space called The Maker Bean already had the design and offered them for sale. All I had to do was let them know what text I wanted on each sign. Being only slightly pedantic, I had a list ready since sometime in 2019 with the street names and the numbers (Toronto street signs have the number of the next property on that side of the street below the street name, now you know!)

Small signs resting against the backdrop, they will eventually be mounted to the fascia, and the large sign on the room door.

I haven’t decided if I am going to paint them or not, I’m going to wait until I see how the fascia looks, and if they need the coat of paint to make them pop. They look really really good as they are. If I don’t paint them, I will likely just clear coat them for protection. The sign mounted to the door is hung with velcro command strips, the ones on the fascia will eventually be glued into place once I get to the point of being ready to attach them.

At some point, I may also want signs for the industries. Some of them will be obvious as they have big painted signs on the buildings, others may not be, so a sign on the fascia that says “Toronto Carpet” may not be a bad thing, time will tell, I also don’t want to clutter the fascia.

It was nice to use a local supplier for this, and I was able to get a couple of 3D printed parts done at a great price for another non-layout project I’ll no doubt blog about down the line when there is something to write about. Another small step in the layout building adevnture.

New Year…New Layout…Running Trains


No, not a new layout for me, but for one of my friends, Pierre Oliver, who hosted a group of us on the weekend for his “New Year’s Levee”, a couple of days late to be the first “full” operating session on his Southern Pacific Railway “Clovis Branch” layout. Along with my friend and chauffeur for the day Trevor Marshall, we met up at Pierre’s with Hunter Hughson and Robin Talukdar to be the first to run a full two train session, the regular wayfreight that operated the line, and a “reefer extra” to service some of the packing houses on the line.

IMG_1104A panoramic overview of Pierre’s basement, from Fresno at the left to Friant at the extreme right.

To start off, I still find it to be an honour to get invited to others homes to operate on their layout. Its only happened for me in the past couple of years that I have made enough friends and contacts that I’m getting these opportunities, and being invited to the first official attempt at an ops session on a layout was a double treat. I really look forward to being able to offer return visits to my layout when it reaches the point where I can run a train and not be inviting friends for free labour!

The operating scheme required Trevor as my conductor, and myself to wait around a bit at the start of the afternoon while Robin and Hunter took the wayfreight to Clovis. Once they finished the first part of their work, the stationmaster (in this case Pierre getting to sit back and watch his friends try to mess up his layout) signaled that the first half of the line was clear for our extra.

IMG_1106The easrtwhile Mr. Murder (Robin) and Hunter are pulling their power out of the Fresno Roundhouse while Trevor sorts car cards into the order they are in within the reefer extra.
First Train of the Day, Robin and Hunter take the wayfreight through East Fresno en route to Clovis and eventually Friant, while Trevor and I wait with the reefer extra for them to leave Clovis and free up the line for us.

Once we had the line for the reefer extra, we were off from Fresno yard to do some work in East Fresno, and then Clovis. In East Fresno, we had to pick up six loads, and drop six empties. That was a straighforward task, shove the six loaded cars to one end of the spur where the packers are, uncouple them, and leave them for when we get back. Then we could spot six empty reefers at the three packing firms. The packing firms are on a double ended siding, so we could leave the loaded cars for us to pick up on the way back, so that we didn’t unnecessarily bruise the fruit or bring extra cars to get in our way to Clovis.

After East Fresno, it was off to Clovis for the main event. We had ten empty reefers with us, and had to replace all the loaded cars in town with them, and take the new cars to be iced. With Trevor as my conductor, when we arrived in town, we were able to quickly assess the situation, and Trevor came up with our plan of attack. We would arrive, and place our empties at the ice house, then run around the train, grab the caboose, and dump it at the station out of our way. We would then systematically replace loaded reefers with empties, taking the loaded cars not to the ice house, but to another double ended siding where other packing firms also had loaded cars, that way, at the end, we wound up with with a string of ten loaded cars at the ice house, and three empties on the main to then shunt into the final siding where we had been storing the loads. After that, we recovered our caboose, attached it to the end of the string of loaded reefers, and departed for East Fresno. With us clear, the Clovis stationmaster (our overlord and host Pierre), could let the wayfreight crew know the line was theirs, and they could return from Friant to Clovis to complete their work there, and then return home to Fresno.

Trevor works on our first switching work in East Fresno, with his home made styrene clipboard. Followed by switching at Clovis by the ice house, and some guy getting ready to drive our train out of Clovis for the return to Fresno.
Nearing the end of our work in Clovis, the string of loaded reefers is pulled out to be backed into the ice house for icing before we depart back to Fresno and the fresh produce makes its way across the country.

Our return trip once we were done in Clovis was pretty straight forward, pick up the six loads we left in East Fresno, get back to the yard, put the caboose on the caboose track, and then move the loaded cars from the run around track back into staging. With our train out of the way, we returned our Valley Malley Mogul to the roundhouse, and proceeded to use our down time to heckle the other crew as one does when you have downtime!

I lay on the whistle as we arrive through a screen of trees into street running in East Fresno, I suspect I was a bit over the appropriate line speed arriving into town and into the middle of a street!

All in all, the two trains took just under four hours to operate. The reefer extra crew had a lengthy break at the start waiting to start our run, but we were then busy for a solid 2.5 hours going out and back. Our work held up the wayfreight crew for a while, and while Trevor and I messed about in Clovis, we heard tall tales of railroading and armour modelling from the lounge area near Friant. That did at least keep the peanut gallery from being overly critical of our decisions in how to switch the packing houses.

IMG_1133.JPGAt the end of our run, we tied 1736 up back in the shed an retired for a delicious home cooked meal. Thanks Kate for that!

Pierre’s layout occupies about 80% of the basement of his house, the other 20% is his workshop for building models. Two years ago, he made a tough realization, the prototype he was modelling wasn’t working for him. He wasn’t going to be able to operate the layout the way he wanted, and with some enabling from the “Model Railroad Enabler”TM Trevor, who strangely had both Southern Pacific locomotives and structures and a line in his back pocket that could be modelled using the benchwork Pierre had after his previous layout was scraped off. The pictures below show various scenes of his new layout, and the partially completed scenery. Its going to be gorgeous when its all done based on the work to date!

Scenes from the sceniced areas of the Clovis Branch, Clockwise (Fresno Roundhouse, bridge over a dry creek-bed, vineyard (no vines yet), Friant overview, working scale track in Friant, and a packing house in Clovis.

All in all, it was a great day with friends, and I can’t wait to see the layout on its way to completion, as there is still a further peninsula to build to create more work for a wayfreight crew, and lots of scenery to go. I look forward to hopefully many years of getting down to Pierre’s to see the layout evolve and to operate on it!

How Much Rolling Stock for a small Layout?

While I was working away on my VIA P42 today, I was also doing a bunch of small layout tasks, making adjustments to track and benchwork, and I decided to pull out the rolling stock from my old layout that I hadn’t sold off that is appropriate for my current layout, Liberty Village in the 1950‘s (exact year/season still TBD). I have sold off most of the freight cars that aren’t useful or appropriate for my layout. That left me with 16 cars on the layout after going through the box, and two sacrificial cars I bought cheap at shows that are going to get cut in half to become part of the scenery at the backdrop, and a couple of cars still in boxes in a tub I didn’t dig out. In my project drawer I have seven kits (8 counting a flat that will probably become a Maintenance of Way car that won’t run much), and I have two freight cars on pre-order. On top of that I currently have three cabooses, which aren’t revenue and are mostly to get in the way of crews switching. So all said, I have 28 freight cars at the moment, for a layout where there are 14 potential spaces to spot them at an industry.

IMG_0180.jpgCPR “Parkdale Yard” Staging, looking rather busy with 12 freight cars, a caboose and a single locomotive.

So, the question becomes, how many cars to I actually need, and how many is the realistic maximum I can have on the layout? I don’t necessarily mind switching cars between operating sessions, and at least my current operating session vision would see a handful of cars switched by CN from one end, and CP from the other, at most maybe two runs with 3 cars in/out of the sceniced area each time.

Accounting for some of the cars that I have already in the count being irregulars (coal hoppers, gondolas, a flatcar load of tractors, tank cars, oddball boxcars that don’t actually belong), and wanting to have some variety of cars from different railroads and coming/going to different places, I probably have room for a maximum of 30 regular freight cars, and maybe 10 irregulars that show up from time to time. When I look at what the CPR Parkdale Yard staging looks like with 12 cars on it above, its already looking busy, and It has marginally more room than the CNR Dufferin Yard Staging at the other end!

IMG_0181CNR Dufferin Yard, two cabooses, two locos and a single box car. There are only two single car pocket tracks to the right instead of three two car ones at the other end of the layout.

The longest train I can run is dictated by the staging traversers length, a small locomotive and max 3 freight cars with a caboose, or 4 without. It’s unlikely many trains even this long ran in Liberty Village because of the tight curves and the nature of taking cars into and out of specific industries. This is good for lots of movements in an Ops session, but will make staging tight. The CN Yard which has four less parking spaces for freight cars than the CPR yard will definitely require me to think about how I set things up for an ops session.

Yes, I’m getting way ahead of myself thinking about operations, but it helps me focus on not buying more kits or cars that I don’t need. It was nice to have a bunch of cars out, and start pushing them around trackwork looking for faults (almost all these cars have crap plastic knockoff Kadee Couplers, and metal wheels on plastic axles, some even had nasty plastic wheels), so I was also able to start replacing wheels and couplers to hopefully have reliable operations when I can run trains!

Operations at the Filmore Avenue Roundhouse

I still consider myself to be a novice when it comes to operating layouts. I haven’t done it a lot, and by not a lot, I can still count my number of ops sessions on two hands, and the number of different layouts I’ve operated on one hand. That said, the quality of the layouts I am fortunate enough to get the chance to operate on is incredible. And the latest is one that I’ve seen in photographs and in print, but never in person until last weekend.

Overview of the Filmore Avenue Roundhouse layout. The whole layout is terminal, operations are taking locomotives from arriving for servicing, through timed servicing, to be ready to be sent back out to work.

Getting to visit amazing layouts like Rick DeCandido’s “Filmore Avenue Roundhouse” and operate them gives me inspiration for my own layout, that it can operate as well and look as good as the layouts I’ve gotten to see do. Rick’s layout is a “proto-freelanced” layout, that is a layout based on a prototype and realistic operations, but which never actually existed. It is based on a proposed new engine terminal adjacent to the Buffalo Central Terminal that the New York Central was planning in 1929. Work hadn’t started when the stock market crashed in October 1929, and by the time World War 2 was over in 1945, the writing was on the wall for steam locomotives, and the NYC never revisited the proposal to build a new facility to service passenger locomotives. As such, the buildings are all based on NYC prototype practices (other than the gorgeous Canadian Pacific 2 road coaling tower based on John Street in Toronto, modelling it is on my to do list and Rick’s is drop dead gorgeous!). Rick’s modelling skill and attention to detail is second to none. Everything has that perfect life worn and used feel, with the right amount of weathering and grime to look like buildings that are out in the environment where work and steam locomotives are around constantly.

Some examples of Rick’s fabulous modelling. His coaling tower (a model of the CPR John Street tower at the Toronto Railway Museum as it fit his space), and a view into the stalls of the roundhouse to see locomotives being serviced.

The layout is operated in real-time, with each session about 2.5 hours long. While that may on the face of it sound like not a lot is happening. It takes three active operators and a dispatcher updating the digital “chalkboard” of the shop for incoming, under service and outgoing locomotives, plus service trains delivering supplies and coal. The session started out with a half hour or so introduction to the layout and the operator jobs. I think Rick was maybe a bit worried it is too much, but I have to say it was just perfect. He was able to clearly lay out everything we’d be doing and tie that to why the railroad did things so it all made sense, and the three of us could figure out how we were working together. Along with my friends Ryan and Doug, we’d have a lot of movements to coordinate between the Staging (me, bringing locomotives in for servicing and departing after, as well as aligning the staging for service trains), the Assistant Holster (taking over from staging after entry to the layout, running service extras, and helping the lead as needed), and the Lead Holster (taking locomotives from assistant, onto turntable and into stalls, then back out to the ready tracks for departure).

Doug has a laugh while I focus on something working the staging yard. Ryan focuses on bringing a switcher off the turntable onto the ready tracks.

I had a wonderful time. Rick was a great host, and his layout operated perfectly. The only things that went wrong were operators like yours truly putting locomotives in the dirt by failing to check that switches had been set for where they were driving!! I hope some time I can invite Rick to my house to repay the favour of an operating session in Liberty Village and that it runs half as well as his layout did!