Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Fun - Fascia Fussing

(apologies in advance for the earworm)

This is a story about doing a project that you hadn't thought about, hadn't even occurred to you, but was then staring you right in the face and - doggone it - it was something you could do, rather than try and soldier on with the project you should be doing.

The project I should be doing is continuing to work on Wethersfield. But instead, I saw this . . .

. . . and for some reason, despite seeing it a million times before, I wanted to do something about it Right Now. So, I set to work.

First, I made a combination backer/splice out of scrap 1x3 (with countersinks :). . .

Next, I added additional masonite to dress up one side of the slot that accommodates the lift-up bridge (aka hinged-drop-down). . .

Then, I focused on the much-more-complicated left-hand side coverage . . .

I decided to tackle it by making a cardstock template I would use for cutting the masonite later.

I found the template profoundly helpful in cutting the proper lines which would allow the masonite to fit nicely around all the bumps and turns ...

Next, I thought the "tunnel" beyond the opening would be too noticeable (blue and lit from ambient light), so I decided to spray paint it a flat black to make it disappear.

Those who know me personally will know what a huge evolution the above photo represents. In times past, I would have spend days weeks agonizing over what to do here and how to do it. Nowadays, apparently, I just get out the spray can, get some scrap cardboard, newspaper and tape, and have at it. 20 minutes and done. My how the anal-retentive have, um, loosened up.

But you can't argue with results - that wall is gonna disappear nicely...

See? (or not)

And here is a "finish" shot, showing the final product with the lift-up bridge in place - full masonite coverage and a much nicer, cleaner appearance compared to how it used to look.

And segueing back to my cab bus switch, I decided to kill two ... um . . . accomplish two objectives at once: covered the joint in the masonite, and labeled where the cab bus power switch is located.

While I wouldn't at all advise or condone the behavior (apparently?) advocated by that old song, sometimes tackling a project that you feel like tackling rather than slogging through what you "should" be doing on the layout, is just the thing to keep your motivation and interest in the layout as high as possible - and a lot more fun!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thankful Thursday - A Few Words About Wordless Wednesday #158

So last month, I got an email from my friend DaveM. He grew up in Wethersfield and has - fortunately for me - taken great interest in my Valley Line project. He's been a valuable source of information on the line, and his memories of Wethersfield during the 1950s have complemented John Wallace's reminisces wonderfully. And as if a sharp mind and vivid memories of my chosen locale and (close to my) modeling era weren't enough, he's also an accomplished modeler with a creative imagination, grounded firmly in actual prototype history. Case in point - the email he sent me last month:
"It seems that when F. C. Dumaine, Sr. took over the New Haven from the Palmer administration, he began to cut back on local passenger service, leaving quite a few communities in a difficult situation.  In an effort to remedy this, NETCo. instituted bus service on several routes, but suffered from a shortage of both buses and drivers.  This often resulted in drivers having to drop off some of the truck trailers at their destination while the contents were being unloaded, but this created a shortage of trailers."
I really enjoy these little vignettes and reminisces - the additional historical detail really adds to the flavor and culture of the Valley Line as it was in the late 1940s. And the photos above illustrate the "problem" that existed on the line at the time - you see a NETCo. bus parked at the Saybrook station, with a NETCo. trailer left lonely at the freight house. Both delivered courtesy US Mail a few days ago from builder DaveM.

I've often said that one of my biggest goals in doing this project is to tell the story of rail transportation in the lower Connecticut River Valley during the early postwar years. For better or worse (for the railroad), trucks and buses are part of telling that story. So thank you Dave not only for the great new additions to the layout, but for providing a couple more important storytellers to help me with my project.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Tuesday Tip: DC on a DCC Layout

Like many of you, I have a "few" (well...) engines that aren't yet converted to DCC and lately I've been on the lookout for out-of-production New Haven steam locomotive models which rarely have decoders already installed. So, instead of being limited to just a short test track to run these on, I decided to make the "Air Line" dual-mode: I can easily switch from DCC to DC and back again at the flip of a (couple of) switch(es).

Long-time readers will recognize the "Air Line" as two 2x8 modules/towns that I use, operationally, to represent the Air Line of the New Haven that started at Cedar Hill Yard and went northeast through Middletown, across the Connecticut River into Portland, through Willimantic, Putnam, and ultimately to Boston. By my era, it - like the Valley Line - was relegated to a not-so-lowly branch: it was a popular haunt of many late-steam-era fantrips, not to mention the famous Ghost Train.

But that's all a story for another time. Click here for a quick tour of the fictional towns of Somerset and Mill Hollow on my Air Line stand-in. Read on for my dual-mode switches.

Fist, it's important to note that the Air Line is an electrical branchline too - it's "dead-end" electrically. The main bus wires come from the command station under Middletown, run the length of the two modules, and then end.  So all I had to do was cut-in an on-off (DPDT) toggle switch into the bus. That was a simple matter of soldering four wires to the switch, cutting the bus wires, and joining the wires with wire nuts. Other than the wiring, the most important part of this install is to clearly label this switch so you know what it does - this switch cuts out the DCC (which I discovered was necessary even if the DCC/command station is off. Something about back-feeding electricity or something...).

The switch above was installed the same way, but it's in-line between my DC power supply (a Control Master 20 on that makeshift shelf) and the bus wires (incidentally, that smaller gold power pack supplies power to the turnout in the tunnel at Somerset. The AC terminals on the CM20 power the structure lights on the modules).

So all I have to do to change from DCC to DC power on the modules is turn off the DCC at one switch, and turn on the DC at the other switch (and turn on the CM20 of course). Easy!

Lastly, the CM 20 allows for walk-around operation using regular phone jacks/cords. Pretty innovative for the time. Only problem is that my NCE cab bus also uses phone-type jacks. There are only two CM20/DC jacks (one on each module), but a little bit of labeling keeps folks from getting confused (thanks to Roman for the labeler!).

So I gotta know - does anybody else these days even bother to have DC along with their DCC? If so, do you have separate layouts, or did you do something similar to what I did?

If you want to have your cake and eat it too, give this approach a try - and if you do, be sure to let me know in the comments!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Cab Bus - Final Touches & Tips

After installing (what I hope is) the last of the cab bus, it was nice to have my buddy Mike come down to help me set up JMRI, LokProgrammer software, and WiFi throttle on a couple of old laptops I had lying around. Now that I have my cool PowerCab box, and access to the LokProgrammer hardware, it's nice to have a dedicated laptop to use with them at the bench. Unfortunately, the plan to use an old Macbook as a dedicated WiFi throttle server was a #Fail, but we got Wifi Throttle set up on the Missus' computer - figuring we'd need to borrow it "only once a month at most". Now I can't wait to get to some fun decoder programming - thanks Mike!

Before he left though, Mike brought up a good point about the cab bus - "Why not install a simple switch so you won't have to keep going under the layout to plug and unplug the bus power supply?"

Why indeed.

I thought I was done with the cab bus, but in addition to a handy switch (which I'll get into below), I discovered a couple of helpful hints:

  • You cannot power the cab bus from a panel that is at the end of a branch.
Apparently it doesn't back feed or something, I dunno, but all I can say is that when I tried to connect the power supply to the panel at the end of the west end staging yard (to be able to plug it into an existing power strip - and switch), I got no power to the panel at the east end yard.
  • If you don't have enough power for the bus, the throttles won't work.
You'll know you need to add power to your cab bus if you wired everything right and your panel still doesn't work. It'd be a good idea to plan the location of at least one of your panels near an outlet.

Or, do what I did and use an extension cord(!).

But Mike was right - it didn't take but a few times to realize that I really needed an on/off switch. I decided to cut it in near the front of the layout (might as well make it as accessible as possible), right near where the cord bends up to route underneath the layout toward the panel:

At first, I was going to put the switch on the fascia but 1) I didn't want a toggle/switch sticking out into the aisle unnecessarily (especially right near the entry door), and 2) I couldn't fit an electrical box between the fascia and the benchwork anyway. But there was a very handy 2x4 already there, soooo....

I decided to just nail the box right to that. You can see the location above. Also note that I've cut the extension cord.

Note: I am not an electrician, but I've done some minor electrical work in my time - and I don't mind looking up stuff and asking for help. That said, do not consider this electrical advice nor rely on it. I'm just relaying what I did (and hope folks will chime in if they have a better way of doing it).

I've wired wall switches before, but this cord was different - there's no black (hot) or white (neutral) wire - and the color of the wire is all copper (rather than a dark brassy or silver). Of course, I figured this out after I cut the cord. And I needed know which wire to put the switch on. So, I learned a couple of things about a typical, polarized extension/lamp cord:

There  are two ways to keep track of the wire in a polarized cord: 1) the wide spade of the plug is the neutral side (corresponds to the white wire in typical house wiring), and 2) the grooved side of the cord (see those ridges on the left side of the cord above my thumb) is also the neutral side.

Ergo, the small spade and smooth side of the cord are the "hot" side (corresponding to the black wire). You put the switch on the "hot"/black/smooth wire on the cord.

Once I figured that out, the rest was easy straightforward: knock out the knock-outs on the back of the box, thread the wires through, wire nut the "neutral"/ribbed/grooved (aka white) wires together, and connect the "hot"/smooth (aka black) wires to the switch.

Pack it all in the box, add your faceplate, screw everything in and you'll have something like what you see above. I positioned the toggle so it points away from the aisle when off. All I have to do now to turn on the cab bus is reach under and throw the switch!

Of course, I discovered later that this is all a bit of overkill. I could have just followed these instructions and been done in about 5 minutes . . .

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Last of the Cab Bus

I've always intended to run my layout using wireless throttles. This is due less to my sophistication than to my laziness. I don't particularly like wiring, and the idea of having to wire the entire railroad for a cab bus after having already wired it for track power was not appealing. And besides, the idea of being tethered to the fascia - not to mention the likelihood of getting tangled up in said tethers - was a huge turn off. So, up until a year ago, I only had one throttle plug-in panel on my entire railroad - and that was only to have someplace to plug-in to program locos on the programming track.

But during an ops session last March, BillS's wireless throttle died and, though it would work tethered, there was only one place to plug-in. So he was effectively out of the session. I resolved then to install "at least a couple" of plug-in panels around the railroad (bonus - friends can bring/use their wired throttles if you're short-throttled...).

So last May, I installed a minimal cab bus - just enough to get one panel in each aisle. That was better than what I had (4 panels now rather than one), but I quickly learned that I needed to extend the bus even further to reach the east end of Old Saybrook.

Now that the Shoreline trains are becoming more important for operations (and I discovered after the last ops session that I really need to reduce congestion at Saybrook), I've decided to bite the bullet and install even more plug-in panels. I got the requisite panels - as well as a power supply - at Tony's at Springfield last month, and got some additional supplies at my new candy store - Cables & Connectors in Newington, CT (which fills a critical vacuum since Radio Shacks are now so hard to find).

I now have a total of eight UTP plug-in panels, plus a "dead end" plug-in at East Staging. The UTP at Essex even has additional power to it, ensuring that the bus will have enough juice to run everything as flawlessly as possible. Check out the photos below to see what all I did . . .

I started with the "dead end" plug-in at the east end staging yard. This location is the farthest away from the wireless antenna and coverage is spotty. Worse, if you plug in at the east end of Old Saybrook, you have to streeeeetch your cord a ways to get to the staging turnouts. So, I just extended the cab bus by creating another cord with a plug at one end and stripped the wires at the other end. The good news is that you can use this box at end-of-run and is under $2 (versus $15 for a full UTP). The bad news is that you have to hard wire it. The wires from your cord (4 to 6 of them, depending on what type of cord you use) have to be stripped and connected to the corresponding wires in the box. But it's not too difficult if you take your time, and it saves you some money.

As you can see in the pic above, it makes for a nice, easy, cheap install. Just remember it's only for end-of-run -- you can't daisy chain these as easily as you can UTPs.

The remaining panels were the typical UTP install. Step 1 - mark where you want the UTP to go...

Then cut the opening for the PCB to go through (a spade bit in a drill makes this quick work).

Smooth out the opening with a saw (necessary if you used a spade bit, since it makes circles).

Here's the hole, ready for installation. NOTE: Here I'm installing a UTP in the middle of an existing run - a) because I needed a plug-in here, and b) I intend to branch off the bus here to go to the end of the West End staging yard. So, I have to cut the wire. VERY IMPORTANT: keep track of what side of the wire has the mold parting line. That will help you determine the proper orientation of the plug you crimp onto the end. As you can see above, I've put notes on tape to keep track.

And even then, I screwed up. The "locking levers" on the plugs have to be opposite each other at each end of the cord (not on the same side, as in a phone cord). If you do it wrong, the plug-in panel won't work. Thankfully, I had enough slack to snip off the plug and re-install another plug oriented properly this time. (Proper plug position and custom cord construction is covered in the UTP instructions).

This is the underside of the UTP once installed. The cord on the left comes from the command station side and plugs into the "CMD STA" jack. The jack on the right has a standard phone splitter and cords continuing to Saybrook and East Staging (center/left cord) and branching off to dead-end at West Staging (rightmost cord). Pro Tip: I discovered that a 3-way female splitter will not work due to the way it's wired internally. So if you want to branch your cab bus, use the splitter type shown above (1 male/2 female).

Pic above shows that UTP finished and in place at the end of the Airline and drop-bridge to Airline staging. This will also be a great place for the engineer on one of the crews operating in Saybrook to be out of the way.

With all this additional run of cab bus, I was worried that I might get some voltage drop towards the ends of the runs. Those little wires are only 26-28 gauge, so they're not very robust. Consequently, the UTP instructions suggest that you add additional power to the cab bus every 40 feet. Fortunately, it turns out this is easy to do.

The UTP has a power jack at the back of the PCB and you simply plug a power supply into that jack. Pro Tip: Some UTP instructions (notably, the ones provided by Tony's Trains) can be a bit confusing, saying you have to cut PCB traces and solder jumper wires and install resistors to power the cab bus. Not so! You just have to get the proper power supply (as indicated in the instructions) and plug it in. I'm still not quite sure what all those other instructions are for, but I confirmed with Tony's that - yes, indeed - you just plug it in. See above.

The only problem was that the UTP that was where I needed it to be (around 35') was nowhere near an outlet! So I used an inexpensive extension cord to get from the outlet (above) . . .

. . .to the "wall wart" (power supply plug - above). The only downside to all this is that I have to remember to plug-in/unplug the power supply from the wall for each operating session.

If you've done everything right, the power supply will power your throttles, even when the command station is turned off (not that you'd ever want to do that, btw). As you can see above, the ProCab is on, running on wall power, even though the command station is off. Note that there is no loco indicated in the screen (since there are no commands coming from the command station).

In addition to the "end-of-run" plug-in at East Staging, I did another end-of-run at the end of West Staging. See below...

This is the end of the branch off the cab bus I mentioned earlier. Although I could have used another inexpensive phone jack as I had for East Staging, I decided to use the full panel here so that both Airline and staging crews could use the same panel if needed.

Finally, I also cut into the main cab bus at Rocky Hill and installed a very much needed panel there as well. The Valley Local crews have been stretching the cord to this location all the way from the Middletown panel. Certainly not ideal. Now there's a dedicated panel right where they need it.

Despite all these new panels, I'm still committed to wireless operation. There's a lot less hassle/tangle and you can focus on your engine rather than on the location of the next panel. But if you lose your signal or the batteries go low, it's nice to know you can always go back to the old-fashioned tether.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Wordless Wednesday #157

Hanging out in the train room, enjoying a warm fire in the RR shanty stove on a cold winter's night.