Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Tuesday Tip: The "Agent's Office"

Ever since I started operations on the Valley Line, I've required my crews, each time they enter a new town on their route, to "report to the Agent/Operator" for their work in town and any new/additional train orders issued for them. They already know what to do with the cars in their train, but they don't know what cars in town need to be picked up - and/or what additional orders they may have - until they check with the A/O. So they have to physically walk over to the desk (pictured above) and see the A/O seated there. And if he's not there (i.e. if he's investigating why somebody keeps shorting out the layout, just to pick a random example :^), then there's a bell to ring to get his attention. It's a very prototypical way to operate and keep the crews engaged, but it's a fairly unique way of doing things on a model railroad.

But lately - especially since the Saybrook Tower was completed - that A/O position has gotten very intense and stressful, what with having to be a towerman, throwing switches for Shore Line express trains, and be the A/O at the same time, managing local freights on the mainline as well as dealing with the local crews out on the branches. That may be the height of prototypical fidelity, but it's become increasingly clear why these guys were paid to do this job (or "jobs" since we're actually talking about 2-3 different roles here).

And even if I didn't mind doing all this work - or, more typically, pawning it off one someone else - as my crew sizes have grown the two liftouts that are required during part of the session have become real obstacles to the crews reporting in.

So I've decided to provide another option. I can still revert back to the full A/O/Towerman job if/when I want to, but in the meantime I've limited the "desk jockey" job to the Towerman and have offloaded the A/O tasks to a Train Register and Bill Box located in each town. Now, when a crew comes into town, instead of walking over to the desk to report in and get their work/orders, it's as if the agent has gone off duty. Everything they need is at the station, either on the clipboard or in the bill box.

The above photo is a typical "station" set up: Throttle pocket, plug-in, track map, bill box, and train register - all located, appropriately, near the station.

The first thing a crew (specifically, the conductor) has to do when he arrives in town is go to the "station" and register - recording the month, day, train, engine number, number of cars, and time. A closeup of my (admittedly "proto-freelanced") Train Register is below.

Click here for where I got the inspiration and how I did it.
Not shown are the switchlist(s) and, where appropriate, additional Form 19 train orders that would be sitting in the box for the conductor to take. The switchlist tells the crew what cars in town need to be picked up and where they're going. If I ever get around to doing waybills, they'll be in the box instead (and the conductor will have to use them to fill out his own switchlist). Until then, I fill out the switchlists myself beforehand and leave them for the crews.

And in my continuing effort to reduce the amount of "stuff" the conductor has to carry (paperwork, uncoupling tools, pencils, throttles, clipboards, etc) - after all, he doesn't have a caboose, or even a desk, to help manage it all - I at least have supplied a pencil and an uncoupling tool at each station for his use: 

For the rest of the stuff, I supply an apron:
Certainly not as "railroady" as a caboose - or even a desk - but certainly less cumbersome to move around in my basement. . . 

As you've probably guessed, if you've been following this blog for very long, one of my favorite aspects of this hobby is operating the trains as close to prototype as possible within the constraints of its being a model railroad and not the real thing. Compromises are inevitable, but I think I'm getting pretty close. Nevertheless, I'd be very interested in any additional tips/suggestions/feedback on how YOU manage operations on your railroad - everything from what car forwarding system you use to what "helps" you provide to your operators, as well as how much work you require them to do. 

"Modeling jobs" may be prototypical, but as I discovered, there's a fine balance between what's "fun" and what's "work." I'd love to know how you strike the right balance.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Monday Musing: When "Right" is "Wrong - Scale vs. Compression

When you start out building your first real model railroad (as opposed to just having the track go 'round the Christmas tree), one of the first things you confront is the inherent tension between your chosen scale and your available space. You may envision a transcontinental transportation system, but if you want to be true to scale, there's no way you're going to be able to fit that in your basement, much less your spare bedroom. Even in N scale, that three mile shortline you resigned yourself to will still take 90 linear feet(!) to do to scale.

So, we select certain areas to compress. This "selective compression" typically eliminates the "boring" bits between towns. Sure, we don't have as much "mainline run" between towns as the prototype did, but that's a compromise most of us can accept in exchange for having a railroad that "goes somewhere." Even my pike, as satisfying as it is operationally, compresses about 50 miles of mainline into approximately 120 linear feet - barely 2 miles in HO scale.

So much for the mainline. What about structures? Surely, we don't have to compromise there - we can always build them to full scale, can't we? Well, that depends on what you're building. Most of us are glad the days are behind us of model factories being only about as large as one boxcar. But the larger the prototype structure, the more likely it will "have to" be compressed.

"Have to" isn't always bad though - many times, you may actually want to compress a structure in order to have it fit the scene, especially if building it to full scale actually "looks" too big.

Case in point - take these two station models:

Which one is "correct"? They're both HO scale - in so far as the windows and doors are HO scale. And that's a critical fact: you have to be sure your people actually fit. But what about the overall proportions?

The Wethersfield station is a duplicate of the prototype, shrunk down to full 1:87 scale. The other station is, well, smaller. Which is more accurate? Well, certainly the Wethersfield station is accurate. I don't know about the other station model, though I suppose a cute little station like this exists/existed somewhere so maybe it's not actually compressed. Which looks better? Depends on the context. Certainly in my model version of Wethersfield, I'm going to use the Wethersfield station model. But over in East Berlin - where there also has to be a station, but there's much less space with which to work? I'll probably do a compressed version of the Wethersfield station (the prototype was a similar style).

It all really boils down to the Art of model railroading as opposed to the science. Science demands perfect prototype fidelity in as many respects as possible. Sure, you might not have every bit of detail on your model as on the prototype (you might not even see some of those details in HO scale anyway), but you certainly want the dimensions to match.

Unless doing so compromises the over-all effect. That's where art and intuition enter the picture.

The next - and largest - structure in Wethersfield to be built is the Gra-Rock bottling plant.

I've been debating whether to compress this building and, if so, to what extent. It's not a comfortable place for a left-brain thinker to be. I want it to be "right" and - to my mind - "right" can only mean "built to full scale size."

But a full scale size mockup I tried overwhelms the Wethersfield scene. It's not as if I have the full 3 miles for this scene (180 feet) where a full-scale Gra-Rock would look right in context - I only have a bit less than 10% of that. Now, I'm certainly not going to compress Gra-Rock by 90% - but a full-scale version would look very out-of-place considering all its surroundings are already compressed. In other words, "right" would actually be "wrong" in this case.

I've heard of some folks at the far left-brain/science end of the spectrum - building everything to perfect scale. Their efforts are very impressive - but they typically have only enough room for a track or two and don't usually have the amount of operation I enjoy. And there are others that get a lot of joy and satisfaction from cramming as much as possible into their available space, with barely a nod to plausibility. Of course, most of us are somewhere in the middle - and the precise point on the spectrum probably has a lot to do with what "looks right" to your eye, given your space, even if it's technically "wrong."

So where do you fall on the line?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ops Session - 9/9/2017

The Annual Reunion for the New Haven Railroad Historical & Technical Association was moved up again this year and as has been my habit the past couple of years, I opened up the Valley Line to give folks visiting from out-of-town the chance to operate.

This time around there were a few changes/innovations from the most-recent ops session, which occurred just a little over a week previous. I was going to try one-man crews, but it turned out I had enough of a response that that only worked for one local. Even the Shoreline trains were fully staffed thanks to Tom - and good thing: turns out there was no way BillS would have been able to make it back & forth between "Points West" and "Points East" in time.

In order to cut down on the work the "desk jockey" has to do, I offloaded the Agent/Operator duty to a new "Train Register" located at each station. Now crews, instead of physically walking over to the desk to report their # of cars and get their work in town, they sign the register, note their cars, and take the switchlist and/or orders that are clipped to it for them.

Train Register, with work clipped for PDX-2.
This is in Saybrook - a town where two locals interchange cars. Other towns are served by only one local, so there's only one unlabeled binder clip that would hold their work/orders.
Currently, all that is on a small clipboard hanging from a cup hook in each town. I thought I'd be able to get away with that long-term, but operating a bit myself afterwards I concluded that I really need to install bill boxes asap. Now, "all" the guy at the desk has to do is operate the mainline switches as the Saybrook Towerman. With all the traffic through Saybrook, that'll be enough to keep him busy!

Secondly, it's been difficult in past sessions for the crews to keep track of the cars they have to hand off to each other. Since I don't have car cards or waybills, I needed a better alternative to just expecting they'd transcribe the info from their switchlist to another (for the receiving crew). So - at least for now - I've created a "Car Transfer Form":

Crews can use this form to keep track of the cars they know they need to hand off and either give it directly to the crew receiving the cars, or leave it for that crew to pick up later (on the clipboard or in the eventual bill box) if they're not in town at the same time. It's admittedly a bit contrived/non-prototypical, but it serves as a plausible stand-in until I can get around to doing waybills.

The final idea was to stagger the start times of the locals. Last session, it got a bit crowded in Saybrook with two locals in town at the same time, not to mention all the Shoreline trains going through. While that's perfectly in keeping with the prototype, it makes things a bit, um, "snug" in that area. Thankfully, it's also in keeping with the prototype to have the locals arrive in Saybrook at different times - which, in turn, means staggered starts.

But I've been hesitant to institute this innovation since it would require some folks to hang around waiting for their work to actually begin. But it turned out, since some of the guys were on the Reunion Dinner Train and arrived later in the evening anyway, we got to try it. It worked a bit to reduce congestion - but not as well as one-man crews will, I suspect.

So with all that as prologue, on to the session!

Bill C, Tom D, and first-timer Bill L at New London/East End staging - Tom was the east end mole and the "Bills" were crew on PDX-2 out of New London up to East Haddam and then on to Cedar Hill.

BillS was working the East End - all smiles since he doesn't have 4 guys on 2 crews to compete with for aisle space - yet.

Mike, having just arrived to crew PDX-1 solo, waits his turn to sign the Crew Register.

PeteL and another first-timer DonM work the Air Line Local (HDX-12) in Somerset.

2nd timer JimF and yet-another-first-timer DaveI all by their lonesome "way up in the chilly north on the branch" (i.e. in the other room with the windows open) working the Valley Local (HDX-7) in the Dividend section of Rocky Hill.
BillL switches the westbound Shoreline local (PDX-2) while Mike - on the eastbound Shoreline local (PDX-1) switches the house track in Old Saybrook.

More action at Saybrook Junction: PDX-2 (a.k.a. The Haddam Local) heading north up the Valley branch on the east leg of the wye while one of the many Shoreline express trains flies through town westbound.

Meanwhile up in Middletown, the crews of the Valley Local and the Air Line local coordinate their switching and car swapping. Good thing there's a nice wide aisle here. . .

. . . unlike at East Haddam, where the aisle is somewhat - er - narrow. This is where the Valley Local (on the left) and the Haddam Local (PDX-2, on the right) swap cars.
It was another really fun night with lots of laughter and a bit less stress than last time, due entirely to having the crews deal with each town agent via clipboard rather than in person. So I was able to enjoy the session a bit more - and even got to take these photos! As for the "laughter" part - well, I'll leave it to BillS to post his video of the Boston-bound Yankee Clipper. Let's just say, it didn't go quite as planned . . .

We had the usual minor glitches that every session seems to have - the occasional short (which, thankfully, was typically caused by human error and didn't shut down the layout), some confusion over the paperwork (I - admittedly - tend to have more of it than average), and some mechanical issues (mostly "prototypical" in nature - broken couplers, wonky engine operation, a derailment). But all in all - and at the risk of jinxing it - the layout is operating really well.

So, with all that in mind, here's my punch list/goals for next time:

  • Try one-man crews. It'll be interesting to see the trade-off between reduced congestion and added work for one guy (he'll have to man the throttle as well as manage the paperwork). I may keep the Valley Local as a two-man crew though, since it'd get awful lonely "way up north" all by oneself.
  • Related to the paperwork handling - install bill boxes. I've purchased 10 of those longer narrower ones (described here) since they seem more versatile and can hold more.
  • Be on the lookout for ways to reduce the paperwork a crew carries - e.g. perhaps the content of the Job Card can be on the fascia at the towns where ops tips would be helpful and maybe the Loco Card info (function key assignments) can be taped to the back of the throttle.
  • Speaking of paperwork, tweak the notes for the mainline moles to make it clearer which notes pertain to "Points West" staging and which pertain to "Points East" staging.
  • Further adjust/dial in the DCC settings on my engines, especially momentum. I'm still learning how best to do this so it's a lot of trial & error. Any help or guidance to good resources would be appreciated!
I'll be hosting a guest ops session during the NER convention in November, so I'm hoping to get a LOT more operations under my belt between now and then. In the meantime, and as always, please feel free to weigh in with feedback/tips/suggestions!

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Few Words about Wordless Wednesday #186

The above photo looks innocuous enough, but there's actually "More to the Story...."

During the Summer of 1945, the New Haven reballasted the Valley Line from Hartford south to Middletown. Well, "ballast" is a bit of an overstatement - no traprock here, mostly gravel - but still better than what was on the line further south (which was lucky to have cinders, hardpack dirt, or sand). And here we see the Valley Local southbound on the main, led by K-1d mogul #466 (the regular #356 being down for boiler wash or other maintenance), passing the work train on the siding, led by J-1 class mikado #3014 with a string of ballast cars. Location is just south of the Mill Street crossing in South Wethersfield.

I thought at first it was a John Wallace photo (same look, resulting from the Brownie camera, usual era, and he's the one who sent it to me), but it turns out one of the crew from the ballast train actually took the photo using John's camera. John's actually the kid in white, watching the local go by. Ted Michalicki is on the fireman's seat of the 466 and Dave Corsair was still in the Army (the War was still going on), but would be back on the local in the Fall.

Despite his white duds, John fired the 3014 for most of that day - not too difficult given the light duty of ballast spreading. Len Buckley was the engineer on the J-1 and even let John run the train back to Hartford (it had to back up the whole way since the south switch of the South Wethersfield siding had been taken out and the engine couldn't do a run-around).

Also of note is the New Haven's distinctive flanger sign - a horizontal white board with two dots. Remarkably, it was that sign that initially caught my eye in this photo. It wasn't until asking John about it that all this other great info came out.

And now - thanks to John's excellent memory (not to mention his photo, no matter who actually took it) - you know "the rest of the story."

Monday, September 4, 2017

Milestone Monday - First Full Ops Session!

Ah Labor Day - the "unofficial" end of summer and swimming in the pool. I'm not a swimmer myself, but I know the feeling of trying to get to the other end of the pool, head down, working hard towards my goal when . . .


I hit my head on the wall at the other end of the pool. It's only then that I know, well and truly, that I finally met the goal I was working so hard to reach.

That's kinda what it was like during my latest operating session on the Valley Line.

Until I can automate things, ops session setup will continue to take as long (or longer) than the session itself, but it's "full size" railroad work - nothing HO scale about responding to customer "requests" (via spreadsheet), checking car numbers, assembling those cars into trains, and completing the paperwork that the crews need to do all their work of pickup and delivery according to rules & paperwork used by the railroad in the late 1940s. Add to that all the staging that's required to replicate a day on the New Haven's busy Shore Line, and you have a recipe for a LOT of work. And all without pay(!)

But "pay" comes in many forms and having folks over to take a ride in the time machine I'm attempting, and the fun and feedback I get in return - not to mention seeing my creation come to life - is priceless.

And during the most-recent session - and for the first time since doing the final expansion and all the shakedowns - I realized that the layout was coming to FULL life before my eyes: all four local freights operated with full two-man person crews (including the two Shoreline locals), "New London" and "New Haven" fully crewed and operating sixteen mainline trains through the Saybrook interlocking (run by fast clock according to the actual Sept. 26, 1948 prototype timetable), all coordinated (and not without a little stress) by yours truly in the Saybrook tower.


I had no idea until that moment that I'd reached such a milestone. I'd been working so hard and diligently towards this point that I almost missed its significance - until the realization hit me upside the head.

Thankfully, the session went really smoothly with only a few minor/inevitable glitches - all easily remedied for next time. After putting the layout through its paces so many times already, those gremlins are becoming ever more rare and the "punch list" becomes more a matter of minor tweaking and adding more realism to the sessions. Even the aisles weren't too crowded (at least not for long periods) despite having eleven (11!) folks operating at the same time.

Here's the cast of characters crew list for the evening:

  • The Valley Local (HDX-7): Bill Schneider and Jim Dufour (a special treat and first-time Valley Line operator)
  • The Air Line Local (HDX-12): Greg Lane and Kaylee Zheng (another treat, and only her 2nd time on the Valley)
  • Eastbound Shoreline Local (PDX-1): Pete Luchini & Bob Vancour
  • Westbound Shoreline Local (PDX-2): Pieter Roos & Roman Daniels
  • New Haven & Points West (aka staging mole 1): Randy Hammill
  • New London & Point East (aka staging mole 2): Tom Derwin

If there was any downside at all, it was that I was too busy during the session to really visit or take photos. Fortunately, we were able to visit during pizza beforehand and the Missus made a cake for afterwards. And for photos, a lot of folks chipped in with the pics they took. Thanks to them, I have a little recap of the session, told through photos and captions . . .

Jim Dufour photo
Last minute prep: Bill brought over a fantastic printout of a New Haven RR Train Bulletin, created from a prototype photo I'd found of the actual one in the Saybrook station. Yes, of course all those trains stop at Saybrook during a typical operating session - all according to the actual timetable the New Haven Railroad issued September 26, 1948.

I took this photo before all the chaos started - looks oh so tidy: Four clipboards containing paperwork for each of the four locals, including additional tools/helps on the steps, and the A/O-Towerman's desk all ready to go.

Kaylee Zheng photo
This view shows tracks 7 & 5 (left to right - NHRR track numbering) with cars spotted for the Shoreline locals. Track 7 is where cars destined for points east of Old Saybrook are spotted for Providence Division Extra #1 (PDX-1, the eastbound local freight from Cedar Hill Yard/New Haven to Fort Yard/New London). Track 5 is for the westbound cars, spotted for PDX-2 which works from New London to New Haven - as well as up the Valley Line to East Haddam.

Jim Dufour photo
 View showing cars spotted at The Chapman Co. ("Coal-Coke-Oil") and the Saybrook freight house.

Kaylee Zheng photo
Interior of the Saybrook Tower, showing the interlocking levers and "me" at the desk (click to enlarge). Modeling courtesy Bill Schneider.
Kaylee Zheng photo
And "actual" me at the Saybrook Tower desk, aligning switches for the next Shoreline express passenger train scheduled to speed through.

Jim Dufour photo
The Valley Local (Hartford Division Local #7 - aka HDX-7) starts off the session since it has the most work - up north on the branch and far away from the busy Shoreline. It leaves Hartford yard and heads south through Wethersfield and here the line crosses over the Goff Brook and into the town of Rocky Hill. While Bill did the scenery and bridge abutments, I can lay claim to the bridge itself and the "storied blogged" farmhouse.

Bill Schneider photo
After crossing Goff Brook, the Valley Local continues south and rounds the curve north of Rocky Hill station (observing the 10 m.p.h. speed restriction, as indicated in the timetable).

Jim Dufour photo
Southward view as the local enters Rocky Hill.

Kaylee Zheng photo
Valley Local in Middletown, with Bill acting as conductor/brakeman while Jim operates the throttle. The Airline Local must be in town as well since Kaylee took the photo and you can barely see Greg on the left. The two locals exchange cars at this point.
Bill Schneider photo
After the Valley Local finishes its work in Middletown, depending on the day of the week it heads either further south to East Haddam or up the branch to East Berlin. This shot shows the local heading south over the bridge at Shailerville (a section of Haddam, CT). That's the Connecticut River in the background.

Bill Schneider photo
This location, with its high bridge and distinctive abutments, is the scenic highlight on a line known for its wonderful scenery. It doesn't hurt that the Middlesex Turnpike (today's Rt. 154) is right alongside, affording easy access and a great view of the train passing by.

Jim Dufour photo
Attesting to its popularity among railfans, here we see Kaylee shooting the local as it heads back north after making its swap of cars with the Shoreline Local in Haddam. You can just make out the Turnpike and the Shad Shack by Kaylee's right hand.

Bill Schneider photo
After HDX-7 finishes its work in Haddam, it high-tails it back north to keep from outlawing. But it still has to pick up any northbound cars it had left along the way, so by the time it gets back to Wethersfield the local looks more like a through freight - as you can see in the photo above. Jim's taking everything the mogul's got and Greg must be wondering whether the old girl will make it. But the story of the Valley Local ends well - they made it back to Hartford in time for dinner.

Kaylee Zheng photo
Meanwhile, the Air Line Local has been busy working the (fictional) towns of Somerset and Mill Hollow on its way to swap cars with HDX-7 in Middletown. The photo above was shot just as the local was leaving Somerset on its way east.

Kaylee Zheng photo
We catch it again as it emerges from the tunnel and crosses the bridge at Draper (a flag stop on the way to Mill Hollow).
Kaylee Zheng photo
The crew must've been too busy to get any photos in Middletown, so we don't catch HDX-12 again until it's on its way back west to Cedar Hill yard. Here it is rolling past the engine facilities at the west end of Somerset. Since the Airline recently dieselized, the writing is on the wall for these distinctive buildings.

Jim Dufour photo
Finally, we see the two Shoreline locals - PDX-1 & 2 - doing their thing in Saybrook. Roman's manning the throttle on PDX-2 as Pieter gives signals. Pete looks on in the background, likely anticipating the arrival of yet-another Shoreline express.

Pieter Roos photo
Bob, from PDX-1, and Roman with Greg and me in the far background. That must've been when I was trying to get HH660 0924 started. Unfortunately, there aren't any photos of the unsung Heroes of the Shoreline - Randy and Tom, who spent the session "offstage" firing mainline trains at each other, each salvo followed by the eyes of those looking on (usually from the "bleachers" - the best seats in the house, aka the basement stairs).

Pieter Roos photo
And here's (kinda) where the session ended - PDX-2 (aka the westbound Shoreline local, aka The Haddam Local) sits on the west leg of the Saybrook wye, waiting for clearance to enter main track 1 and get on its way to Cedar Hill, while yet-another Shoreline express rolls by westbound.

Normally, the session ends when PDX-2 gets to New Haven. But they got to Saybrook right about when the afternoon rush started - they weren't gonna be able to get a clear track for a while. So we decided to call it a night. leave them on the wye, and head upstairs for cake.

Ah, cake - a fitting way to cap off a milestone evening, even if I didn't realize its full significance until the end.

A big thanks to regulars Bill, Randy, Tom, Pete, Pieter, Roman, Bob, and Greg, and to special guests Jim and Kaylee for doing such a great job in taking us all back to do some railroading in the lower Connecticut River Valley in the Autumn  of 1948.