Saturday Switching Tracks

Well, today was a really good day on the layout. I haven’t been working on the layout much of late, its July, the weather is nice, and we have been enjoying just sitting outside on our evenings and weekends. That said, a couple of weeks ago I did my first Operating Session attempt, and some things that were really problematic, like having trains go where I wanted as only 4 of 12 switches had Fast Tracks Bullfrog turnout machines installed to throw the switches and hold them in position while a train passes over made me crazy have been turning in my mind. On my work lunch break on Friday, for some reason the motivation hit me, and I installed a Bullfrog on the first switch leaving the CN staging yard. It took maybe 15 minutes to get it fitted, mounted and the throw rod on. This was a positive, as it gave me a nice boost of confidence in my ability to do them.

Today, Saturday was a washout here, which motivated me to go put on some tunes loud, and get going with installing more Bullfrogs. All of a sudden, in a couple of hours, I had five more installed, giving me 10 of 12 switches done.

Where there were no installed Bullfrog switch machines on Friday morning, by Saturday afternoon there were six.

The last two switches required some big decisions to be made. Because of where the switch was located, it made a simple straight run for the RC Aircraft control rod that throws the bullfrogs impossible, at least unless I made a change to the benchwork. When I designed the layout, i designed it with the peninsula being mobile, it was designed to be unlatched and turned away to free up room in the centre of the layout room. Over a year of living in the layout room 8+ hours a day thanks to work from home and my workbench becoming my work desk, I have come to the conclusion, that it does not make my life better for it to swing, and once the track was laid and I got a good look at everything, I was never able to bring myself to cut the rails so the peninsula could swing, it basically hasn’t swung since I laid the track. This is good though, as the track now won’t have gaps and alignment problems that could have made operations bad. I know these kinds of things can work, but I have enough alignment issues to work out with my staging yards that I can’t avoid, so why create headaches when I don’t need them?

Fastening the peninsula and removing the hinge. A big design decision for the future of the layout.

The last two Bullfrogs were pretty much standard installs with the decision to remove the hinge and make the peninsula fixed. One of the things that had kept me from doing this was I had some challenges with my first installs, but learning as I went. Because of this, I have spent my pandemic modelling time doing things like building freight car kits, scenery and structures that I had a higher confidence in working out rather than things I’ve convinced myself I needed a friends help to do. That said, several friends have tried to give me the pep talk that I am more than capable of doing these installs, rather than waiting on a time where I can have a friend over. I think, as much as anything, I was putting this off as it is something that having a friend help with would be nice, one of the things remaining that maybe need a friend to help with a construction session on. Though, with me getting them done, when that day which is hopefully coming soon where I can have a friend over, we might be able to run a train without turnout problems at least instead of install turnout controls. I guess I’ll need to get on with finding and solving my few electrical gremlins that seem to still have locos stalling out in places, but that’s another days problem!

Installing the last Bullfrog and marking off the task on my whiteboard of major work areas…what a great feeling.

So, with that, today was a really good day on the layout. I got a lot done, and on at least first passes of rolling freight cars through the switches, the Bullfrogs are keeping everything tight so the wheels are directed the right directions. I have the motivation to work on the layout again that had been lacking, just getting a project done has given me a real lift. I look forward to actually running some trains where I can hopefully be sure they will go where I want them to!

A Tentative First night of Ops in Liberty Village

As I wrote about at the end of June, I am starting to think about what Operating Sessions will look like on my layout as construction progresses, and as things in the world open up to possibly have visitors again to invite friends over to run trains.

Layout all set for the first attempt at a full Operating Session

This first real operations session was a solo effort, and I had to gird myself for frustrations as gremlins were no doubt going to appear as I operated, but this was about learning, seeing what works, and what doesn’t. I expected to find some electrical issues, as it hasn’t been run and the track in spots almost certainly wasn’t properly cleaned after doing scenery work nearby. As well, only four switches have bullfrogs installed, which means a lot of switches don’t stay set the way you want and equipment can force them to move instead of the switches staying put and making the wheels follow the rails.

Part of this, was to look at what things look like for an operator. You can’t run long trains on my layout, because of how the staging traversers are designed, they do allow a crew to run around cars in staging, to change between pushing or pulling cars onto the layout, but there is not a lot of spare space. The layout has separate CPR and CNR staging and operating crews. In theory, both could work at the same time, but there would be conflicts. I set the session up where every car on the layout would be moved, and new cars placed from staging (but not necessarily in the same places). I pre-staged my CPR trains in the order I thought the cars needed to be to make bringing cars from staging easier, and didn’t on CNR to see if I could actually live shunt the cars into useful order on the layout. I am not sure which option is better, other than to say that on the CPR side, the low clearance from the closet shelf makes uncoupling cars nearly impossible if they are on a track behind other equipment.

The first to run for me was CPR. My Atlas S2 seems to be my most reliable performer electrically over dirty track, the keep alive in it seems to do as it should and give it a seconds life when it wants to cut out. I don’t recall having any shorts outs while running this side. I did have some derailments from switches not staying lined, or cars that clearly need wheels cleaned/gauged or more weight added. These are all things that can be fixed. It took about an hour to switch the CPR side and move 13 cars on and off the layout.

The CNR operation, took longer, and caused more frustrations. My current pair of working CNR locomotives, a Rapido Trains SW1200RS and a Rapido Trains GMD-1, both are, to be polite, sensitive performers. They work fine for a bit, then just short out constantly, even on the same track they just worked fine on. I have installed a keep alive in the SW1200RS, though I am not entirely sure my solder joints are good enough and it may not be working. Neither of these are really appropriate CNR motive power for Liberty Village (the SW1200RS is closest), but they are what I have. Between them shorting out, derailments and finding another clearance issue with the GMD-1 that necessitated moving another hydro pole, the CNR side took about an hour and a half to run 14 cars on and off. Neither of these times are bad, and will improve when the electrical and switches become more reliable, and when there are not moments of me steaming and debating throwing trains vs. keeping calm over it being a test session and knowing it would have issues.

Scenes from an Ops Session, things that worked and look good, things that didn’t (like trying to uncouple cars in the constricted CPR staging when you have other cars in front), and what is that 8 hatch hopper doing in the last photo?

Overall, it was a success. I learned some things about my layout that will help me to create better operating sessions, things about where cars can and can’t be set before a session to allow the operators to successfully operate, and I found a bunch of little things to fix. Its also motivated me to look to get a move on with some things like getting the bullfrog controls installed on more turnouts to make operating better for me, and hopefully guests sooner than later.

Thinking about Operations and a new Tool

It’s the start of a 4 day long weekend for me with Canada Day on Thursday and a vacation day on Friday. I’ve got some out of the house things I’m going to do as well, but after some chatting with my friend Trevor on the phone last weekend, I’m going to “reward” myself for the layout construction progress over the past 15 months by making a first serious effort to run some trains on the layout. As things open up, and we can get together with friends again, the potential to have people over to operate the layout is actually a reality again in the near future. At some point, I need to start thinking about how operations are going to look, and what does and doesn’t work. This won’t be without it’s challenges, as I have only 4 or 12 switches with their throws installed and almost tuned for operations, and I’ll be working solo and no doubt finding electrical issues as I go, but I will be running trains at some point between now and Sunday. I’ll try to remember to take some pictures.

For my operations, I am going to use a version of waybills I learned from Trevor’s Port Rowan layout, it is simple, and easy to follow for new operators. There will be empty car cards for either empties to be picked up and taken away, or being delivered for loading. There will be Freight Waybill cards for loads being delivered loaded or loaded cars to be picked up. At the start of a session, the CN and CP Crews will be given a stack of car cards, some will be on the layout waiting to be picked up and some will be in the Yards/Staging waiting to be delivered. They will then need to figure out what their order of operations is going to be, so as to not block themselves into the limited yard space, while picking up and delivering cars. I hope it will be a fun challenge for people figuring out the order of movements and what cars they should take onto the layout, and how they need to take them on (push or pull, there is no way to move a locomotive from one end of a car to the other on the layout, need to do that in staging before you start).

My new tool is the first of a couple of things I need to manufacture my own waybills is a good paper cutter for reliably trimming out things printed on the home printer. That arrived this week, and I’ve been able to print off and trim down the waybills. The next thing I’ll eventually need is a laminator. Once I actually do up proper cards on the computer, instead of the hand scrawled ones I am doing now, I will want to laminate them so they are easy to handle and can take the abuse of being used during and stored between operating sessions. Each car at a minimum will have two cards, and most will have multiple variations of empty and loaded bills. The simplest cars are those delivering a single commodity that really only have one destination (one location for chemical tank cars, and the Gillett Mill for covered hoppers). Almost all the traffic in Liberty Village was box car based, which means cars can pretty much wind up anywhere depending on need and what was available from the railroads when a shipper called for an empty to be delivered.

A new paper trimmer. Nothing fancy, but something that will let me trim my own paperwork from our home printer to size. A set of bills, an Empty Car Bill, and Freight Waybills for shipments originating on CN and CP.

Part of my conversation with Trevor stemmed from a question I asked him, as I am working on learning about operations and railroad paperwork, because I have “foreign” or non CN/CP rolling stock, what paperwork do I have for them to get there, and how do I figure out plausible reasons for a car from the west coast being in Liberty Village. He pointed out, that I don’t need to. Toronto is, in railroad terms, a centre of the universe. Stuff from everywhere and every railroad can and did wind up here, coming or going. Instead of worrying about who is sending something to Liberty Village in a Norfolk and Western box car, think about the railroads empty car forwarding rules and use them to your advantage. I won’t go into huge detail, as I need to research more myself, but in a nutshell, when a car comes from a railroad in say Florida to Toronto with a shipment, the car then has to get back home. It does this either being shipped empty, which costs the railroads money and makes none, or the railroads can use the car on a shipment going in the general direction of home based on a set of rules set up by the railroads to determine how empty cars are forwarded home.

For example, if I understood what Trevor explained, loosely speaking, a Northern Pacific Railway Car that made it to Toronto with a shipment, is now empty and looking to get home. CN/CP should send it back by the shortest possible route to minimize them being charged for having the car, but, if someone needed a boxcar, depending on the rules, they could send it to be loaded and use it to go in the general direction of home. CN/CP probably could not use an NP car to send a load from Liberty Village to Halifax, but it could from Liberty to Winnipeg, which brings the car much closer to home, which means it makes money for part of the trip of being sent back home. With that knowledge, trying to find plausible reasons for non CN/CP box cars is a bit easier. How they got to Toronto matters not, that someone in Liberty is shipping something in their general direction is more important. That doesn’t mean I can’t start with a US road car on the layout having made a delivery, it just means I don’t need to know why or how it got there. It also means, where I started asking Trevor about paperwork for US cars is more irrelevant. If a Northern Pacific car would have had an NP waybill when it entered the layout is irrelevant if it’s being moved from a yard in Toronto empty to Liberty Village for loading. It’s much more complex than this, I have a lot of reading to do on this, but simply put, that at least frees a mental roadblock to let me prepare some test paperwork, and see how trying to run an organized train goes.

Work in progress switch lists. Subtle differences for CN and CP operators, using slogans and fonts that reflect each railways employee time tables from the 1950’s. Also working on getting the size right for my mini-clipboards for operators to use.

I have also made up switch lists, using Trevor’s as a guide. We will see how they work on my layout compared to his, my layout works a bit differently as the switch jobs come and go from the yards represented by staging at either end, probably (definitely) several times a session with cuts of 3-4 cars, which is the max that can be handled at a time. It will take some thinking by operators in terms of bringing cars into and out of the staging traversers, managing the number of cars you have, and where you can stash them on the layout without blocking road crossings I think will be one of the challenges for operators of the layout. Time will obviously tell. As you can see above, my switch lists have a schematic map of the layout with notes on where industries and car spots are located. It also includes the street names to align with the street signs on my fascia to help operators with way finding on where they are.

Rough waybills for the same car. Coming Loaded to deliver, and empty to remove.

I have tried to prep enough waybills to do two operating sessions. One to move everything I’ve staged on the layout, and a second to swap them back out. Not all cars are going to the same places, and once I’ve done the first session, I may find the waybills I made up for a 2nd one don’t make sense, and may have to make others, but that’s ok. Every car on the layout will wind up with multiple bills for it being used in various places for various industries.

So with that, off to finish organizing the first set of paperwork for a real (albeit solo) operating session. Need to charge the DCC controller and give the track a quick clean to hopefully have smoothish operations. Looking forward to giving the layout a run in the next couple of days sometime.

Brass Steam projects staring me in the face

I have previously written about my two brass steam locomotives for Liberty Village, a Canadian National O-18a and Canadian Pacific U-3e. Both are small 0-6-0’s that worked industrial areas and yards in Toronto in the 1950’s. While not projects that need to happen soon, both need a lot of work to be re-motored, re-wired for DCC operation, and painted/repainted before they are ready to work on the Layout. I don’t need them anytime soon, but they sit in the display cabinet above my layout/desk where I now work from home and taunt me daily. I honestly don’t know that I have the skill or desire to do the work myself, fortunately, I have friends who do have the skills to make these great runners. I suspect, sometime sooner than later I will be asking one or more of them to take on these projects, as even if I don’t run them much on the layout, I want the option eventually to do so when the layout reaches a stage where inviting friends over for an operating session happens.

Checking Layout Clearances

There is one spot on the layout where I know I have a very tight clearance between a building and a telephone/light pole (there is yet another project I’m working on that warrants its own post). The good thing is I am not planning on running longer (50′) equipment very much. My curves and switches are very tight, which precludes long equipment operating. As well, 50′ box cars were not common yet in the 1950s which I am modelling. That said, locomotives and the cars I am using do need to be able to get about the layout without running into things or scraping along the sides of buildings!

Views of the pinch points on the layout, but the good news is the widest and longest equipment does clear them.

As you can see from the pictures, I am working on installing light/hydro poles along the line. These are not railway telegraph poles, but City hydro poles that have streetlights on them. I don’t intend on adding the hydro wire between them, as it would block access for uncoupling, but they are going to have working streetlights, so I am using styrene so I can run wires down them to below the layout for power. There are a couple that create very tight pinches between them and buildings/fences on the layout as can be seen above, but in checking, they are clear, and gently tilting the pole bases towards the front fascia when I installed tubes into the pink foam base, I gained a little bit more clearance. This is almost certainly something I should have thought about more before finishing the track and paving the roads, but I seem to have escaped disaster as things stand as everything still fits!

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.