Thursday, July 19, 2018

Reducing Paperwork, Increasing Realism

Some of the feedback I receive from my crew is clearer than at other times...
While I strongly believe that operating realistically and prototypically requires proper paperwork (and I am, admittedly, still very much in the learning phase), this past session it became clear that I needed to try and whittle it down where possible. Perfect example - the Train Registers which I just instituted last fall. While originally conceived as a way to get a "real time" view of when trains got to particular locations and how many cars they had with them at particular points in time (both useful bits for tweaking/balancing the session), crews usually "forgot" to fill them out and probably thought they were "make work." But the real death blow for them was the one-two punch of their not being perfectly prototypical or all that necessary.

First off, while I do run TT/TO, only one train is on a particular line at any one time. So signing a register isn't really necessary - who are you telling? And also, it turns out on the Valley Line only Wethersfield, Middletown, East Haddam(?), Essex, and Old Saybrook were order stations - so I think those would be the only register locations (I'm not positive about East Haddam yet). And interestingly, Middletown, East Haddam, and Old Saybrook also happen to be the only places on my layout where trains exchange cars with each other. So the registers are prototypical at those stations - and also useful to let a subsequent train know you've been there.

And so I've eliminated the registers everywhere else, including at the staging yards (which will no doubt make Tom happy!)

Now, this reassessing the registers has prompted a reassessment of my paperwork generally. Here's a link to an overview of how I currently do may paperwork. And here's a link to a discussion between model railroaders and real railroaders, who also happen to be model railroaders too. That thread is particularly interesting in that it started as a CC&WB vs. Switchlist discussion, but then evolved into a more in-depth discussion of how the real railroads deal/dealt with paperwork and the best way to adapt those practices to a model railroad that you want to operate prototypically.

So I'm going to spend some time reviewing that thread and evaluating my ops in light of what's most prototypical and also adaptable to a model railroad. In the meantime, I hope you'll weigh in with how YOU replicate prototypical operations on your layouts and/or point me to some more good resources.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Tuesday Tip: Raising Pilot Couplers on a Walthers/Proto DL-109

Afternoon westbound at Old Saybrook, March 1948 (John M. Wallace photo)
While my main project is replicating The Valley Local, the New Haven's heavy-duty Shoreline mainline figures prominently as well - at least the part that goes through Old Saybrook, CT. And during the era I model (1947-1949), almost all of the 71 trains that pass through Saybrook each day are powered by the New Haven's class DER-1 locomotives - a.k.a. Alco DL-109s.

Fortunately, Proto1000 (now Walthers) produced a very robust HO scale model of the DL-109. It's certainly no Rapido locomotive - heck, it's not even as detailed as a Proto 2000 engine. But those molded-on grabs & railings make them perfect for frequent handling by my Shoreline operators. So I have an even dozen of them to run my Shoreline trains.

But there are a couple of problems: 1/2 of my DLs are at a friend's house being decodered and weathered (along with a beautiful pair of PAs which will hopefully show up soon to squire the Yankee Clipper), one of them is a brass model that will need some reworking, in addition to decodering, and one of them runs very intermittently and I haven't been able to figure out the problem yet to fix it.

So that leaves me with only four units - two back-to-back pairs that basically handle about 80% of the Shoreline trains during my ops sessions (a couple steam engines "taken out of semi-retirement" handle the remainder). Again - and luckily - the prototype helps out here too: During the 1940s, the New Haven practically ran the wheels off their DER-1s sending them back and forth between New York and Boston. I actually have documentation showing pairs taking passenger trains one way in the morning, and the same pairs going back the other way with a freight train that evening.

Unfortunately, all that use means it's just a matter of time before problems start cropping up. And the main problem I'm having with my operable DER-1s is that the pilot couplers droop:

Yup - that's some drop - and they're ALL like this. Note how the entire coupler box is slanted downwards.
Now, it's usually not a problem - but when it is, it's usually on some fancy name train. Paying passengers don't like being unceremoniously left in the (staging) yard while they watch their locomotives pulling away without them.

So what's the Motive Power Department to do (other than get more DER-1s into service)? They Fix the Problem.

I considered a number of different solutions, including shaving down the top of the stock coupler box (wouldn't be enough), bending the coupler up (too risky that you'll break it), getting an offset coupler (would look bad, I'm too impatient to wait for them to come in, and they'd probably end up too high so I'd have to shim to lower them). But I finally decided to bite the bullet and "just" install a new, thinner coupler box.

Here are the steps, in brief:

  • Remove stock coupler box (which has a very thick top)
  • Drill/tap new mounting hole for a new, thinner KD coupler box
  • Insert a small strip of .020" styrene under (on top of) the rear of the new coupler box
  • Tighten screw against the strip styrene.

Start by flipping the engine over and putting it in a nice foam cradle. The coupler mechanism is actually pretty clever - that whole assembly swings from side to side to accommodate tight curves. You can just make out the curved piece of brass strip at the back of the coupler box that acts as a centering spring.

You'll need to remove the body shell eventually, so may as well do it now. It's a simple matter of spreading the sides of the body away from the mounting lugs on the side of the frame. The mechanism slides right out.

If there isn't already some tape holding the motor in, add some as I did in the photo above. You don't want anything falling out when you tip the mechanism over. Ask me how I know....

Weighing almost two pounds(?!) is both the good news and bad news for this engine. Good news for pulling power; bad news that the entire frame - and coupler box mount - is solid metal. Raising the coupler ain't as easy as just shaving away some styrene. Note that I'm resting the mech on "jack stands" of scrap 2x2 wood. I could have used the foam cradle, but I didn't want to risk any wires getting caught on the foam - and for drilling into metal, I wanted a really solid support.

I removed the stock coupler box and curved brass strip, then replaced just the top of the stock box as a drilling template. The coupler mounting lug makes a nice drilling guide (keeping the bit perpendicular to the frame) and places the hole in the proper position.

I drilled & tapped for a 2-56 screw, so I used a #50 drill bit in my Dremel (with flex shaft and foot pedal for control).

It takes some patience, but using the Dremel is SO much better than using a pin vise. Just go slow and keep the bit lubricated (I rub it against some old bar soap) Thankfully, the metal is soft. Just be sure to back out your tap often to clean out the threads.

From that point, it was pretty easy - just assemble a KD coupler box with your coupler and screw it in.

OH! One last - and critical - step: the styrene strip!

Hopefully you noted in the second photo that the original coupler box actually slanted downward. I don't know whether that's due to the frame being cast slightly off or what. But the solution is surprisingly simple.

Just insert a little strip of styrene under the back of the coupler box (between the box and the frame - you can see a sliver of white in the photo above) and then snug the screw down. I used a .020" thick strip, but use whatever you need to get your coupler to the correct height.

May sound like an odd solution, but the proof is in the result. Compare the photo above to the one at the beginning of this post. It's pretty much dead-on. I just need to replace the body shell and this unit can go back into service.

Now I only have 3 (or 8!) more to do . . .

I hope you found this little tip helpful. And if you have any of the P1k DL-109s, I hope you'll let me know if you've had the same issue - and what you did to fix it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Modeling Monday - Weekend Working the the Punch List

I don't work on the punch list as often as I'd like,
but when I do, it's usually on the weekends.

I mentioned in my last ops session report that one of the things such sessions are great for is seeing what you need to fix/address on your layout. Hopefully, over time, those lists of "to dos" will get smaller and smaller. I don't think they ever totally go away - there's always something to do. And if the layout's been dormant for a bit, the lists can get fairly long . . .

This is my fairly-typical list of things to do - some coupler issues, some programming issues, and a couple misc suggestions.

Speaking of suggestions, here's a list from one of my regular crew members, Randy. Beware of asking your crewmembers for Punch List items. They may just provide you with a few! 
As you can see, I've already knocked a few things off these lists - either by actually doing them, or - in the case of a few on Randy's list - moving them from one list to another.

The first thing I did was something that wasn't suggested by anybody, but I think will come in "handy" for the New Haven/Points West staging operator/mole. (sorry - couldn't resist the pun). For too long, I've been opening the staging box by grabbing that splice with my fingers. I'm actually a little embarrassed that it's taken me til now to just put a cheap little handle there. Much easier!

Next, I tackled the radio antenna/Berlin Branch plug-in issue I mentioned in my last ops report. I'd started having a lot of problems with the radio throttles losing connection and I discovered the problem was that the cab bus splitter I'd installed was being weighed down by the bus itself and losing contact in the socket. So, for this past session, I just cut out the Berlin Branch part of the cab bus and plugged the antenna in directly. The solution (short of buying/trying additional splitters) was to just prop up the splitter . . .

Found a scrap piece from cutting the "lips" off my AC Moore bill boxes (I don't throw ANYthing away), moved it up against the splitter, and clamped it in place.

Not all that elegant or pretty - and probably not a permanent solution - but problem certainly solved for now.

Another thing I noticed after this past session - though unreported by anyone that I recall - is that the long manual turnout throw in the Middletown Yard broke, a little bit.

As you can see in the photo above, the push rod (coat hanger, coming from the right) has slid over to the fulcrum-end of the actuating rod. Definitely not good for easy throwing of the turnout. The push rod needs to be at the far right end of the actuating rod. Thus:

I'd tried bending loops to keep everything connected, but it was especially hard to do so working under the benchwork - and trying not to break anything in the process. So, I'd just soldered a piece of wire onto the actuating wire to act as a "bumper/guide" to keep the push rod from sliding toward the fulcrum.

It was that little piece of soldered-on wire which finally broke off.

I figured another soldered-on piece of wire would eventually fail again - and, besides, I frankly didn't feel like getting out the soldering iron or gun and soldering above my head. So, after a bit of figurin' here's what I came up with...

Yup - just a plain ol' clothespin, clamped onto the actuating rod. It keeps the push rod from sliding around and is just the right width. I'd considered using an alligator clip to do the same thing, but I found the clothespin first. And I have a lot more clothespins than I do alligator clips. . .

And now I'm in loco maintenance hell.

So far, it's "just" adjusting couplers, but I'm discovering that the pilot couplers on all my DL-109s are droopy/low and there's no easy way to fix them. At least no quick solution so far...

If any of you have had the same experience with these engines (Proto 1000 DL-109s) and have a solution, please let me know. In the meantime, I may try to grind away some of the frame to raise the coupler. Fortunately, I don't have that far to go. Unfortunately, it's enough that not fixing it ensures that I'll lose my train from time-to-time. Like the Yankee Clipper. Which would be embarrassing. Especially during an open house. Ask me how I know.

But all in all, none of these punch list items are all that difficult. They just take a bit of time. Sure - it's time I'd rather be spending doing something else on the layout, but as I keep saying - like bubbles on a newly-poured resin pond, eventually they'll all be popped and when they are we can experience the joy that comes from operating a layout that performs flawlessly and maintains the illusion of that time machine many of us strive for.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Ops Session: June 28, 2018 (a.k.a. October 5, 1948)

Dick on PDX-1 (the Cedar Hill-New London Shoreline local), left, works Old Saybrook while Roman works PDX-2 (New London-Cedar Hill local) from Saybrook up the Valley Line to Essex.
So finally, after a much-longer-than-usual hiatus, the Valley Line operated again in June - but just barely. Although I'd had an open house and ran some trains during NEProtoMeet weekend, this was the first time we'd officially operated since January. So I was a bit nervous, but I needn't have been.

I sent a short-list invite to my core guys since this was, for all intensive purposes intents and purposes a "shake down" session to make sure everything would work right. During the open house, the radio throttles had inexplicably gone on the fritz and there were a few of the inevitable coupler issues and communication snafus that happen when you're rusty and trying to stay to a fast-time schedule.

But all in all, I'm really very happy with how the session went. The throttle issue ended up being a faulty splitter in the cab bus which splits the bus between the radio antenna and a dead-end plug-in at the end of the Berlin Branch. (click here for more info on how I did it). Turns out, gravity was the culprit: there was just enough play in the connection that the splitter, weighed down by the weight of the two cables, made only intermittent connection which, in turn, wreaked havoc on the radio throttles. Go figure.

Since October 5, 1948 is (was) a Tuesday, the Valley Local heads down to East Haddam rather than East Berlin, so I simply disconnected the Berlin Branch cab bus and splitter and plugged the bus from the radio antenna directly into the back of the UTP. Problem solved, for now

The rest of the session went relatively smoothly, despite having a newbie operating the tower (which he did in stellar fashion, although he was "illegal" having failed to sign-in on the register :^), despite the increasingly-apparent lack of adequate power for the Shore Line (need more DL-109s!), and despite the fact that 3/4ths of my so-called "locals" still typically have in excess of a dozen cars each to start with, which is in addition to all the work they have to do along the line (I'm going to be tweaking the spreadsheet to generate fewer cars). Oh, and there were - again - the "usual" glitches: a "pulled drawbar" (a coupler fell off), a greenhorn engineer (they should be qualified on a particular engine before operating it), and the manual switch throw in Middletown became disconnected.

That's all pretty much par for a typical ops session, but this time there were a bunch of additional suggestions to add to the Punch List. Fortunately, they're all relatively minor and didn't at all diminish another fun session operating the Valley Line.

So, without any further ado, here are some photos from the night!

BobV on duty at Saybrook Tower

Dick working PDX-1 in Old Saybrook, assisted by Randy - who's enjoying a break between running trains out of New London/Fort Yard

Roman working PDX-2 north up the Valley Branch, just crossing the old Middlesex Turnpike, which has been dead-ended at the tracks since the 1920s in favor of an overpass to the east of the station (the model of which still needs to be built)

Tom working the west end staging yard (New Haven/Cedar Hill Yard) while Pieter switches the Air Line local in Somerset.

The star of the layout - The Valley Local (HDX-7) switching in Wethersfield with Pete as conductor, Greg as engineer, and John Wallace as technical consultant. The Goff Brook scene is in the foreground.

On the model as on the prototype, the Air Line local and the Valley Local meet in Middletown. Valley Local crew on the right, and Air Line crew on the left - including Pieter's grandson Logan, working the throttle.
As I mentioned, while the session went well, it did cause a bunch of "bubbles" to surface, which need to be popped before the next session. But none of that detracted from the fun - at least I hope what I saw were smiles and not grimaces!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Tuesday Tip: Pencil Holders - It's the Thought that Counts

It's been said many times before, but one of the many benefits of having regular operating sessions on your layout is the added pressure gentle encouragement one gets to have something "new" to show each session. The most ambitious among us have a new or newly-weathered engine for the crews to operate; maybe even have a whole new scene completed the crews can enjoy running through. Or maybe you finally installed that crossover that everybody's been harping on bugging you about  patiently asking you to get to.

But one doesn't always have the time for the grand gesture - especially if the ops sessions are scheduled frequently, or if life just gets in the way. Don't worry though - "it's the thought that counts" counts with your crews as well.

For my most-recent ops session, I wish I had something impressive to show or share after the 5 month hiatus, but unfortunately, I could barely make sure there was still a layout to run at all, much less work much on it. But I was still able to do a little "something" to make the lives of my operators just that little bit easier - especially considering all the prototype paperwork I make them manage. . . .

Yup - pen(cil) holders. I wish I could claim this as an original idea, but I know I saw it somewhere and just can't remember where. But I knew when I saw it that I had to steal adapt it to my operations.

They're certainly nothing complicated - and only cost a few bucks - but these things fit perfectly on the little clipboards I provide to my operators. And it gives them a handy place to put their pencils - much better than in their teeth, behind their ears, in their hair (ahem - those who have it still), or - worse of all - on the scenery (for when I actually have more scenery to worry about!).

Granted, they didn't get all the ooohing and aahhing that a new scenicked section of railroad would have, but I know the thought was appreciated just the same.

Be sure to let me know if you try this for your operators - and especially let us know if you have any helpful ops tips too!