Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"Too Much" - Two Years Later

I just realized that this past Sunday, October 16, marks exactly two years since I had a minor meltdown crisis in the hobby. I was about to give it up - I'd gotten in over my head and felt overwhelmed by the scope of the project I'd started. I thought I'd taken on way too much.

This feeling of being overextended in the hobby is pretty common and is fueling the popularity of starting small(er) and building layouts that are actually achievable. Admittedly, setting realistic goals based on your available resources of time, money, and help is critical to avoiding the indigestion of biting off more than you can chew. But what if you find yourself already in the middle of a large layout project?

Thankfully, I came out of the other side of that long tunnel and actually managed to expand the layout (actually, almost doubled the size), thanks to a little a lot of pushing help from my friends. But I had to go through a bit of a mental process before proceeding. If any of this sounds familiar to you, and you're considering giving up, I hope you find this (re)post encouraging.

(originally posted 10/16/2014)

I have a confession to make. I considered giving up the hobby recently. Now, lest you think me fickle, let me explain. My story might help if you've had the same feelings at some point.

After making lots of progress over the summer, I found that I'd hit a roadblock unlike others I've confronted before. Like many layout builders, I've had to work through a variety of obstacles, but this was different. I started getting this growing sense of dread just about every time I'd think of going into the basement. There was just Too Much. Too Much to do, Too Much to build, Too Much to plaster & paint. Just. Too. Much. Instead of being fun, the layout started feeling a lot like a second job.

Some folks embrace this - Tony Koester comes to mind - explicitly stating that you have to have the mind of a project manager in order to stay disciplined, on task, on budget, and on time, or else you'll never finish. This of course makes lots of sense considering the magnitude of the project he's taken on. But size of project is relative. Depending on the level of detail you want, for example, even a relatively small layout can become overwhelming. Either way, building a layout starts feeling a lot like work and you'd rather model from the armchair - or worse, watch TV - than go back to the basement.

Most folks - especially model railroaders - believe you can never have enough. You never have enough space, rolling stock, engines, etc. So whenever you can, you buy, Buy, BUY and if you're blessed with a large space - especially a basement - You Must Fill It with all the layout you can. Sound familiar?

But this is a grave mistake. You end up with Too Much - a basement full of benchwork, but no scenery; shelves full of kits, but never enough time to build them all; grandiose plans, but little enthusiasm or energy to seeing them through to completion. And the hobby press sometimes - perhaps unwittingly - adds to the discouragement by highlighting impossibly large, beautifully finished layouts.

Is it any wonder that, in trying to figure out how to convert one's growing pile of stuff to the masterpiece in one's mind, so many of us throw up our hands in frustration and begin looking longingly at the armchair?

That's where I've been lately, but I think I'm finally starting to come out of the funk. I just wish I'd paid attention to all the advice out there to start small, build modules, or - most drastic of all - do a "chainsaw layout." But while it's too late to start over - and yes, I've considered it - I can change my mindset about what I have. I can treat each town on my layout as its own module, and concentrate on that. That'd certainly be less overwhelming than feeling like I have to build, scenic, and "structurize" all the way from Hartford to Middletown all at once and right away.

You can even eat an elephant if you do it just one small bite at a time.

So, I've stepped back from the ledge of layout oblivion and have, hopefully, rediscovered some of the motivation I've lost. I've taken a deep breath, reminded myself that this is supposed to be a hobby, and am focusing on doing smaller sections - and smaller projects - one at a time.

A couple of other things have helped as well:
  • Seeing some layouts on Facebook and such that are more "accessible" - by which I mean, are in a state where I find myself thinking "hey, I could do that" rather than "OMG - I could never do that!"
  • Discovering some new photos of and information on the line I'm modeling, thus rekindling some of the passion for why I started this project in the first place (bonus: this can be one benefit of taking a sabbatical as an "armchair model railroader")
  • And, perhaps most important, calling on a few friends to help me out.  Too often we consider ourselves "lone wolf" modelers when sometimes - if not often - what we really need is the benefit of another set of eyes, another perspective, and - yes - another pair of hands helping out. I've been the beneficiary of this sort of help & support in the past; I just have to remember to tap into that whenever I'm feeling in a funk. Actually, that's pretty good advice for life generally. And with the internet and social networks, even the most remote of modelers can avoid being a lone wolf.
While you might sometimes find yourself under the burden of too much stuff to do on your layout, one thing you can truly never have too much of is the camaraderie, help, and support of your fellow model railroaders. Thanks to the readers & commenters on this blog - as well as to others who share their experience on their blogs, FB, etc. - for being such a big part of that network.

So stay tuned for more progress on The Valley Line - it may be a little slower, but it will hopefully be a lot more sure.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Down the Rabbit Hole..... (LokProgrammer)

One of the best - and sometimes worst - parts of this great hobby of ours is that there are So Many Different Things To Do, so many skills to develop. Right off, carpentry, electrical, photography, artistry/scenery, and - of course - model building come to mind. But what about historical research (towns, freightcars, operations), home remodeling (if you have to finish your basement for the layout), project management (especially helpful for a large layout), and web development/computer skills (blog writing, etc)? The list is just about endless and it's Oh So Easy to find yourself going down a rabbit hole and having your otherwise-laser-focus (um, well, if you're not me) diverted from making progress on your layout.

The advent of sound decoders - and the tweaking of same - has added to the ever-growing list of rabbit holes. can usually just plop a standard sound decoder into your engine, set it and forget it. All you have to do is get the right prime mover and change the address. But ESU/LokSound has raised the ante. Substantially. Their decoders allow you to upgrade the firmware using their LokProgrammer - and to make so many adjustments to the sounds (including adding your own) that it's truly mind-boggling.

The photo above shows the extent of the rabbit hole I've gone down: ESU manuals in the 3-ring binder, LokProgrammer hardware at the back, LokProgrammer software on the laptop, paper for notetaking, 0510 on the programming track, old-time radio show on the iPad.

I've been trying for a few days now to get this RS-2 running & sounding the way I want, but I'm still not quite there. The decoder install and initial programming was done (quite well, I might add) by Mike Rose Hobbies. I got a LokSound Select/direct/micro decoder, power pack (capacitor) and special "Confaloned" settings. Then ESU came out with Full Throttle and an independent brake.

  • Good news: I can upgrade the ESU decoder to the latest Full Throttle version very easily.
  • Bad news: I thereby lose all the cool settings I had.
I did get some information on how to "backfill" the old/cool settings into the upgraded decoder, but I'll be dipped if I can get that to work successfully. Every time, the old settings just overwrite the new ones and I'm back to where I started.

So, I decided to just start from scratch, learn to fish a bit, and try and set up the decoder myself. And here I am, a bunch of evenings later, and I'm still not where I want to be.

Hellooooo Rabbit Hole!

I have a Tsunami in my K-1 mogul that I love - it has an independent brake on F7 and momentum/sound settings that causes the stack to really talk when you crank up the throttle, but all you hear is rod clank when you shut off. And it'll coast for miles feet until you apply the brake (which is accompanied by an audible brake squeal). That's the experience I want to replicate, albeit on a diesel (heh - no rod clank expected). I just haven't yet figured out how to do it.

So, if any of you have a LokSound decoder with Full Throttle and have it set up in a way you like, I'd love to hear about your experience. And if, like me, you also have a Tsunami setup with the brake and sound settings I describe and have been able to replicate the same behavior/sound on your Full Throttle decoder, I'd be especially interested in learning how you did it.

In the meantime, I'll try and claw my way back up the sides of this hole I've found myself in.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Operating Session - October 2, 1948

With the "pre-ops ops session" (aka "getting things ready") all done, I had only a few last-minute things to get done before the guys showed up (bring laptop downstairs and get WiFi throttle running, change some batteries in throttles, power up the railroad, stock "O'Rourke's Diner"). Randy showed up first to help out, but with everything done we were able to spend a bit of time flipping through my latest acquisition (which will be the subject of a future post).

This rare Sunday session was set up especially for guys who live too far away to make it to our monthly Thursday sessions and I was frankly a little humbled by the fact we had guys come from as far away as northern New Jersey and southern New Hampshire - a 5 hour spread(!). Fortunately, Saybrook is pretty centrally located. If you don't count the ocean.

For this session, we had a few regulars (Randy, Tom, Pete), one sophomore (Mike), and four guys operating on the Valley Line for the first time (Dave, JimL, and JimF). We were a little short on crewmembers, so PDX-1 went to Mike who gamely agreed to take the shortest train by himself, and we didn't run any actual mainline trains until that same Mike finished PDX-1 and wanted something else to do. When we do have full crews, the mainline through Saybrook is actually going to be a little stressful with all the trains and both Shoreline locals trying to work and stay out of the way. But it'll provide a really interesting contrast to being out on the branch lines.

For today though, the four locals would be plenty. I'll let the pictures help tell the story...

Mike, JimL, and Randy operating the two Shore Line locals (PDX-1 & PDX-2) in Saybrook. The drop-in will be installed at the north end of the wye when PDX-2 is cleared for the trip north up-river.
PDX-2 picking up cars for up-river towns which were left by PDX-1 the previous day session.

Once PDX-2 left town, and the mainline was clear of traffic, PDX-1 could cross over to pick up New London (eastbound) cars and leave westbound cars for PDX-2 for pickup later in the day.
Tom and JimF operating the Air Line local (HDX-12), powered by newly-shopped DERS-2b #0510 in Somerset. With all the cars left there the previous session, they certainly had their work cut out for them and spent 4 hrs switching there (about an hour of actual time).
Pete & Dave operating The Valley Local in Wethersfield. This time, I mentioned the F7 brake right at the start of the session. And, yes, I put the shortest and tallest crewmembers together on purpose.
Despite - or perhaps because of - how long the Air Line local took in Somerset, it and the Valley Local were both in Middletown at the same time, just like the prototype. Here Dave and Pete are switching Middletown Meat Packing while in the background Tom and JimF switch Middletown yard.

Randy and JimL made short work of PDX-2's up-river trip - due primarily to most of the switches being facing point northbound - but had their work cut out for them southbound. Here they are switching Essex.
Meanwhile, back on the Shoreline in Saybrook, Mike continued handling the parade of trains that makes this such a busy spot - but a great spot for railfanning! Here's Train 11 - the westbound Bay State - barreling through town without stopping.
All in all, the session went really well - even better than last time
  • WiFi Throttle worked well. Now that I remembered to turn off the laptop's internal WiFi, the WiFi throttle gave us no trouble (I think Mike used that exclusively).
  • Fewer shorts. The shorting issues seem to have diminished just as mysteriously as they appeared a few sessions ago. If I can get around to moving a couple of gaps (to make the reversing sections longer), I think even the remaining shorts will disappear.
  • Some engine issues:
    • But nothing will keep a derailing engine from shorting the line - and this session I got an audible reminder to tweak my I-5 steamer. It derailed a couple of times on the main and set off the "short indicator" (buzzer).
    • The DERS-2b (RS-2) was acting a little erratically so needs to have its programming checked and probably redone. We'd tried to upgrade its ESU decoder to the latest "Full Throttle" feature, but I think we only got part way through the process. I tried to fix it with DecoderPro, but I think I need the LokProgrammer to get it really dialed in.
    • The K-1 2-6-0 manifested its "sound but no movement" problem again from a few sessions back. DaveR suspects the decoder may be overheating - which wouldn't be surprising since we routinely have it pulling 15-18 cars(!!).
  • Some rolling stock issues:
    • Early in the session, the couple on one of the cars on the Valley Local decided to fall off. We pretended it was broken coupler face and just set the car out on a siding.
    • A car on PDX-2 lost one of its coupler springs. So these two cars will have to be repaired in time for the next session.
    • Speaking of couplers, a few of the guys mentioned difficulties mating KD #5s with "scale" couplers (KD 58s). My long-term plan has been to convert totally to 58s, but I may be accelerating that process.
    • Finally, if I expect to have LOTS of mainline trains running in the future, I need to get around to modifying my passenger cars to make it around the (of course hidden) 24" radius west end return loop.
  • Throttle issues:
    • Fortunately - as mentioned above - the WiFi throttle performed like a champ this time (hope I don't jinx it!) and the other throttles did well too. I just have to remember to let folks know that the toggle on top of the throttle is an "on/off" switch not a reversing switch.
    • While not a big problem, I'm seriously considering adding just two more cab panels - one at the end of East End staging and one in front of Rocky Hill - in order to prevent having to stretch the cords quite so far.
These are the typical ups and downs of a typical session, but one new thing I tried this session - or at least formalized - worked especially well:

Be sure to click on the image to see the detail
I created a train register which I used to record all the trains, where they were at what times (both fast time and actual time), and the number of cars they had at each point along the way. I developed it to get a clearer picture of how long (time) each of the trains take - and how long (cars) each of the trains is at different points in the session. An unanticipated benefit is that it also tells me where everybody is at all times - very useful for my dispatcher role (though, admittedly, this isn't as critical on the branchlines).

As you can see (or can if you click on the image above), three of the four locals finished all their work within 30 (real) minutes of each other: PDX-2 took 2hrs 10mins, HDX-12 took 2:35, and HDX-7 took 2:40 (but The Valley Local - as this blog's namesake - should take the longest!). Poor Mike was done after just 40 minutes, but he actually got to run more trains than anybody else. And we moved (picked up or delivered) over 90 cars over the course of about 2hrs 45mins (11hrs fast time).

All that work certainly earned the guys a treat, and - unlike past sessions when we'd do the debrief in the basement - we adjourned to the upstairs den (aka the train room, now the crew lounge) for cake made by the Missus, to go over the session a bit, and generally have a good time visiting. As awesome as it is to see the layout come to life, the best part of operating sessions is having a chance to get together with friends and enjoy each other's company. Many thanks to the guys who came from near and far for a great afternoon on the Valley Line.

Pre-Ops Session

Saybrook Tower Control Board all tested and paperwork ready to go.
Well, I'm all set for another operating session on the CT Valley Lines of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, circa October, 1948.

Friday night MikeR (of spreadsheet fame) came over to help set up the layout for the next operating session and to further tweak the spreadsheet that generates my car movements. Since it had been originally developed for just one train on a switching layout, he, Randy, and I have been further developing the 'sheet to work with my four independent trains. I really like how it's been evolving and the latest version is already a significant improvement over something that was pretty darn good already. Even with the spreadsheet though, it still took about 3 1/2 hours to do all the paperwork and setup, but future versions of the 'sheet promise to automate the process even more.

But I don't really mind the paperwork - it's like "an ops session before the ops session" where I, as the Agent-Operator (the most realistic job on a model railroad, IMO), do all the work-a-day tasks of keeping the traffic on the railroad running smoothly. So, once the spreadsheet is printed out, and I further massage it with additional info (car numbers, cars to be transferred between trains, off-spots, etc), it's time to complete the switchlists, train orders, and clearance cards for each of the trains.

Remember, you can always click on the image for more a more-detailed view.
I also have to produce an up-to-date Bulletin Order indicating any changes to the layout, as well as to highlight any special operations notes for the session. And - finally - I have the fun of finding an era-appropriate calendar - in this case, one from October, 1948. I'm still trying to find an original 1948 calendar (I have ones for 1947 and 1949), so in the meantime, I grab what I can off the 'net. Fortunately, this one has Missus' full approval (unlike the calendar for last month's session, which barely made it).

And, new for this session, is some additional paperwork for the A-O to complete . . .

On the left is a listing of all the local freights and the towns they work. I'll use it to record the time each train enters a town (both "prototype" (fast) time as well as actual/real time), and the number of cars the train has at that point in the session. This info will help me balance the work for each of the trains and ensure 1) that my crews are all working about the same amount of time, and 2) that my trains aren't TOO long or unmanageable (the typical "local" freight on my layout is 12-18 cars long!).

The paper on the right has a listing of ALL the trains that go through Old Saybrook during the session. This is just a subset of the 71 trains that go through during a 24hr period. I use this sheet - along with the fast clock - to know when I, as the tower operator, can clear local freights to foul the main. As each train passes, I'll mark through it simulating the operator's duty of "OS-ing" trains - as well as simulating the traffic through Saybrook until I have actual trains running through there on schedule.

Now that all these tasks are done, the Crew Call has gone out, and everything is set up, all I have to do is wait for the guys to arrive and sign the register. Should be another fun day of railroading in the CT Valley.