Monday, May 22, 2017

Monday Musing: Ops Session Hosting - Pro/Con?

Given the time of year at work, there hasn't been much progress on the layout lately, but the long commute does give me lots of time to think. I won't regale bore you with all my mindful wanderings, but one topic I've been thinking about lately is hosting operating sessions for strangers folks previously unknown to me.

Now that I have an operating layout (though it is presently un-operable as some areas are under additional construction), I've been approached by folks who would like to participate in an operating session. Up until recently, these are folks I know or friends of friends and the resulting sessions have been fun - any stress being totally of my own making (wanting the layout to operate well, making sure guests have all they need and have a good time, etc.), and I'm sincerely flattered when everyone enjoys themselves and wants to come back.

Even so - still being relatively new to this ops session thing - it does sometimes occur to me that the session host is essentially inviting folks over to use his railroad, handle his locomotives and rolling stock, operate the electronics, etc. And that's the point - as a layout owner, one of the coolest experiences you can have is seeing your layout come to life, which only happens effectively during an operating session. And when you have a good crew of trusted friends over, it probably doesn't even occur to you that you're literally placing a lot of your valuable stuff their hands.

But what of the apparently increasing number of operating weekends, "ops til you drop" and such, when you're putting your layout in the pool for all and sundry to come over? Clearly, there are many good souls out there that are willing to do that - otherwise such events wouldn't be so popular. And these events certainly expose more folks to the joys of railroad simulation (aka model railroad operating sessions), even - or perhaps especially - folks that don't have a layout of their own with which they can reciprocate.

So I guess the questions is - what do you do? Have only friends or friends-of-friends operate on your layout? Open it up to anybody that wants to come? Do you use different equipment depending on who's coming over? Maybe have unknown folks paired with your regular operators?

I certainly hope that those who know me know that I'm generous with my time and what I've been blessed with (or at least try to be), but at the same time, I've put in a not-insignificant amount to time and money into this project. So I'm just trying to get a sense from the more experienced among you how you go about approaching this topic.

So please feel free to leave a comment - or you can contact me directly offline if you'd rather. Really interested in hearing the different perspectives and approaches.

(Bonus if you have any funny stories to share involving Bright Boys and/or peanut butter sandwiches . . .)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wordless Wednesday #171 - On Thursday

(sorry 'bout the snafu with the pic for this week's Wordless Wednesday - tried posting from my phone and it looked like it worked, but apparently hadn't. So here it is... again-ish)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Weekend Progress - Staging Yard & Cab Bus Mods

Haven't been able to do much with the layout lately due to work (both office and yard), but I took advantage of a stormy Saturday afternoon to make some changes requested by some of my operators (well, mainly Tom, but I'm sure he speaks for a future many).

One of the recurring problems he was having in the Cedar Hill (West End) staging yard is that cars would occasionally, randomly derail as trains were leaving. Knowing how experienced an operator Tom is, I knew it had to have something to do with the track, but I just couldn't figure it out. Until it happened to me - then I realized that the center-over spring in the Micro-Engineering turnout right at the throat of the yard was a little too sensitive in one direction. That is to say, the points would lock in both directions, but sometimes as cars were rolling over the points, the points would snap back in the other direction.

I tried different ways to adjust the tension, but nothing worked as reliably as I wanted. And being installed right at the yard throat, I didn't want to rip everything out and replace the turnout (especially since it was fine in all other respects). The solution turned out to be surprisingly simple:

Just needed to widen the hole in the throwbar to .052" to accommodate the pin on a Caboose Industries ground throw. Problem solved.

I'd also received some complaints concerns with the fascia in this area being a bit too high - it was obstructing the view of the cars' wheels and preventing a good roll-by inspection of departing trains. Even more importantly, the 33-train schedule I run (using so few staging tracks) requires a lot of swapping of equipment - and I too discovered how difficult it is to rail a car or locomotive when you can't see where the wheels contact the rails.

Unfortunately, I don't have a good "before" photo, so the above will have to suffice. As you see, I'd already cut back the staging lid last month, but you can see where the masonite fascia meets the plywood sidewall there, which resulted in a 3" high wall/obstruction along the front track.

So, out came the saber saw and down came the wall - well, cut down anyway (you can see the original height on the left end). There's still enough of a "lip" on the fascia to keep anything from falling to the floor, but now you can easily see to (re)rail equipment in this area. Hopefully, Tom will agree :^)

I also took his suggestion to move the UTP (Universal Throttle Panel, a.k.a. cab bus plug-in) from the far-right end of the yard to the throat where the staging operator spends most of his time. No more unnecessary cord stretching. Note also the handy-dandy throttle holster and radio for the operator here.

Moving that UTP started me rethinking some of the locations of my other panels. Now that I have a bunch of ops sessions under my belt, more-convenient UTP locations have become apparent. Thus....

I'm installing one at the left end of the Mill Hollow module (on the Air Line) and at the end of a long aisle. This is an "end-of-run"/branch of the cab bus, so I can get by with an inexpensive phone jack here.

Eventually, I plan to branch the cab bus again to go to an NCE fast clock repeater at the Agent/Operator's desk. With the Shore Line ops becoming more prominent, knowing the precise time that the staging guys are seeing on their throttles becomes even more critical. So I installed another UTP at Deep River where the cab bus branch will begin and make its way to the desk.

Not bad for an afternoon's work. Now I just have to wait for the final UTP to be delivered and wire up the remaining jacks, and I think the cab bus will finally be really and truly done. I've certainly come a long way from being totally wireless (for good reason). While wireless is still my preferred ops method (no tethers to get in the way!), it sure is nice having some extra throttle security. Even better, the bus lets me rely on NCE's built-in fast clock - a feature which, as I mentioned earlier, has become critical with the Shore Line ops.

Speaking of ops, I can't wait for this busy time at work to be over so I can get back to regular, monthly ops sessions. I've made a few important physical improvements since the last session, and have really dialed-in the schedule through Saybrook, so I'm eager to see how everything works out - and what new punch list items Tom and the rest of the gang will come up with!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Wordless Wednesday #170 - Hartford Skyline Backdrop

(Busiest time of the year for me at work right now, so everything else has gone to the far back burner - but I haven't missed a Wordless Wednesday yet and didn't want to this time either. And I even managed a few words!)

So, I found this image on the internets (see WW#168) - which would be an ideal start for the backdrop north of Wethersfield. It's even the right era. But it's B&W.

Fortunately, my friend Bob's friend Al is very talented at colorizing old photos and very generously reworked the image into something I think I can use (despite it's being a postcard - hope it doesn't pixelate too much when enlarged...)

Friday, May 5, 2017

Inexpensive DCC Connectors

Seems I've gone down so many rabbit holes lately, I feel like Elmer Fudd.

This latest excursion, like a few others, is DCC-related. I plan to install decoders in some engines soon and have been researching and collecting supplies. While the decoders themselves, and even wire, are pretty straightforward, I've been having a hard time figuring out what connectors I want to use - not only between decoder and speaker, but between tender and engine as well.

Unfortunately, the interwebs have only been marginally helpful - at least so far. Much of the problem is that I don't yet know what I don't know. So I don't really know what all to get.

Fortunately, though - despite Radio Shack's disappearance - I discovered a huge electronics supply store just off my commute route. Appropriately enough, it's called "Cables and Connectors" and I've been visiting there a lot lately . . .

My latest try-outs. And if you're not local, C&C ships!
I bought a variety of different, um, "cables and connectors" to see if any of them would be useful. BONUS: these things go for pennies on the dollar compared to comparable parts you'd get from a DCC-specific supplier, so I figured it'd be worthwhile to do some experimenting. Just one example: the 40 pin/socket packages there together (lower left hand corner) cost $2.48 compared to $17.95 (plus s/h) for a 32 pin set here.

But lest you think I'm totally cheaping out thrifty, I did order some supplies from my favorite DCC store as well (despite having to pay shipping). Unfortunately, they didn't have in stock one of the things I really needed: an 8-pin NMRA socket.

You see, one of the decoders I want to install is a LokSound Select:

And as you can see, it comes ready with an 8-pin plug. I could of course just snip the plug off and wire everything directly, but before doing that, I figured I'd look at my stash and see if I could come up with an alternative . . .
Click to enlarge image
C&C sells a 10-wire jumper with sockets on each end ($2.49 item# 49920). I got one of those and removed the sockets from one end, using a small screwdriver to gently pry up the little retaining clip in the housings which holds the wires. Then it was just a matter of inserting the wires into an 8 pin female terminal housing (that little cube to the left of the pile of discarded housings), making sure the wire colors matched the NMRA standard.

Here's a close-up of the decoder plugged in:

This was just a test to try things out - I'll of course cut the wires to length and separate them so they're not all twisted. But I think this solution will work.

And wow - the wire ESU uses for its decoder is TINY! The wires on my made-up socket are 26 gauge, the smallest available at C&C. Hmmmm.... maybe getting supplies - or at least wire - from a DCC-specific supplier would be worth the extra cost.

Seeing as how I'm brand new to this whole new rabbit hole world of DCC decoder installations, I'd sure appreciate any thoughts or helpful-feedback you could share about your own experiences - as well as what you think about my experiments here. Am I being penny wise and  pound foolish? Weigh in in the comments!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Wordless Wednesday #169 - Shore Line Schedule

What I've been working on lately - dialing in the schedule of trains through Saybrook during a typical ops session, taken directly from the prototype documents and working within the limits of my staging. Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Tuesday Tip: Widening the Mole Hole (modifying benchwork)

Some time ago (March of last year, AAMOF), it became apparent that the access in the back corner behind the New London/Boston staging yard could use some expansion. See photo above. Fortunately, Dick and I are thin enough to fit between the joists there and get full access to the other side of the yard, but when I was reworking/relaying this yard earlier this year (and it became even more apparent during recent Shore Line Shakedowns), I decided I really needed to widen that mole hole.

So here's how I did it.

It's quite a crawl/duckunder to get back there, so I wanted to avoid as much obstruction as possible. So I opted for a simple large shelf bracket, for support, rather than another leg or angle brace. Unfortunately, even the largest bracket wasn't quite long enough, so I added a 2x2" piece on top. This is then screwed into a new 2x4 leg/support that's in turn screwed into the end joist.

Since the pressure on end of the bracket would tend to push the bottom of the leg toward the wall, I inserted a scrap piece of 2x2 at the bottom as a brace to firm things up.

Once all that was finished and everything was supported, I cut out the section of the joist that was in the way, and then used a rasp to round off the sharp corners (my back thanks me .... now....)

And there you have it! A much wider space for the moles to pop up through. I can't believe any of us fit in between those joists before. The flexibility and "modifyability" of L-girder benchwork shines through and shows once again why it's become the default standard.

Now, if I could just find another short rolly office chair to make getting back there a bit easier . . .