December 7, 2016

It's Just Boxes

I recently started a new custom model project for a client. It is due in 3 weeks, so I am cranking on it. I'll post some pictures of it when I get further along. It is a different kind of model that I am used to, so I am curious on how it will come out.

So while the paint and stain on that project are drying, I got to tinkering with track plans for layouts in the rest of my basement. This particular bout of track plan frenzy is due to a discussion I had with Henry Freeman last weekend. He was in town for a symposium at the Newseum, as he is retired, well-known newspaper editor and publisher. He stopped by the house to operate PoLA. Unfortunately, my DCC system decided to act up during the session. Both of my RF1300 throttles died in the middle of the session. I was able to get one of the new T1300 throttles in service, but by then the evening devolved into a layout planning session. Henry is a serious model railroad operator who leans to preferring layouts with heavy ops more than scenery. In his eyes, the Aquia Line is nice to look at, but lacks in play value.

After he left, I toyed with some plans that would increase operation potential in my basement by expanding PoLA into the rest of the unfinished basement, leaving the section of the Aquia Line from Brooke to Falmouth intact.

The first plan I drew included an attempt to model one of the container terminals on PoLA (see upper plan at left). This was really a force as trying to fit in even a small container terminal in the space I have available was tough.  In addition, the need to buy several sets of double stack cars, associated motive power, and containers would add nearly $3,000 to the cost of the layout.

As I discussed this rough idea with some friends, I realized that the container trains add very little play value to the layout, especially  given their expense. Even when we railfan, my friends are wont to say upon seeing a stack train, "Oh, It's just boxes."

The question is, can a layout that omits container traffic be an accurate model of PoLA? I say why not.  Instead of actively modeling container terminals and container trains, the layout depicts them as images on the backdrop. Without container traffic, the layout focuses on the 40,000 non-container cars that PHL handles each year (compared to 1.2 million double stack container cars per year).

That is the next plan you see at the left. This plan includes a compressed rendition of PHL Berth 200 yard, and several industries on Terminal Island that require rail service  but are not container based.

It includes a scrap metal facility, since scrap is one of the largest US export products and there are two scrap piers on Terminal Island. It also includes a second Vopak facility, a Del Monte Foods factory (which may no longer get rail service) and one additional warehouse that is freelanced.

The plan includes a near scale sized model of the Badger Ave Bridge, which was once a pair of rolling lift bascule bridges, but is now a large vertical lift bridge. That would be a signature scene on the plan.

The plan connects the Berth 200 yard to Mormon Island, but from the "wrong" direction.  Not much I can do about that. However, the staging tracks in the closet can now represent the Sen Pedro district thereby creating a transfer run job from Berth 200 yard to San Pedro.  I looked at a escape track through the peninsula backdrop that connected Mormon Island to Berth 200 without crossing the Badger Ave Bridge (see the upper plan), but decided to remove it in the interest of simplicity.

Other jobs out of Berth 200 yard include the Terminal Island Dock Switcher and the Mormon Island Dock Switcher.  The Terminal Island job and the Mormon Island job would be ready to leave Berth 200 at the start of the op session. During the session the Berth 200 yard would get transfer runs from staging. Then the yard crew would make the trains for the next session.

In addition to the two Dock Jobs mentioned above, the yard could create extra jobs that include a slab train for Pasha, and military trains, wind mills and transformer loads for CMT. Right now wind mill and transformer cars have trouble with the tight curve in the under-stairs staging track. Keeping them away from that area would be good.

So what to do? I envision two Options. Option 1 is to build Aquia Landing as planned, keeping the Mormon Island layout as is, at least for a few years. Option 2 is to Expand PoLA into the place where Aquia Landing would have been, leaving USMRR intact from Brooke to Falmouth. To maintain operational capability on the USMRR I would add a simple staging track in the HVAC closet.

Both options appeal to me. To better understand the options I made a G&D Decision Matrix. This is a bit different from previous analyses I have done because now the matrix compares the scores from two pairs of layouts instead of each layout as a standalone.

A couple things pop out from inspecting the matrix.  One, the two options are very close in sum of  scores, with Option 2 just barely edging out Option 1. However, Option 1 wins when considering the sum of scores with weighted priorities. The main discriminating differences  between the two pairs of layouts are the better waterfront area in Option 1, compared to the extra bridge in Option 2.

Interestingly, the enhanced operations of the expanded PoLA layout are somewhat cancelled by the reduced operational options offered by the smaller USMRR.  Option 2 gets extra points for having an interchange with more than one RR, and an engine terminal, but loses a point for awkward staging in the HVAC closet. The rest of the factors wash out as one layout gains what the other loses.

So the analytics don't point to a clear answer. What does emotion say? Alicia says Aquia Landing has more cool factor, but she has no real preference either way.

I suspect that expanded PoLA could be put into service faster than Aquia Landing since one uses commercial track, while the other must be hand laid. The ships on Aquia Landing will also take some time.

Anyway, I'll have plenty of time to cogitate on the course of action as I finish up the custom job before Christmas.

November 29, 2016

Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

Steve Wilson with 2 of the 3 dioramas that will be on loan 

This evening Steven Wilson from the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum at the Lincoln Memorial University Library in Harrogate, TN, stopped by to visit the layout and pick up some of my dioramas. The dioramas will be on display for the next two years at the museum as part of a new exhibit on technology in the Civil War. I'll post more information about the display when it is ready in a few months.

While Steve was visiting, we ran a few trains to demonstrate the Aquia Line layout. Steve is not a model railroader, so he had a lot of questions about the hobby.

Last week my brother and his wife visited us from their home in Florida. We played a lot of golf and ate lots of good food. Nonetheless, I managed to get in about 15 minutes of rail fanning as the Whiskey Creek Golf Course is adjacent to the B&O Old Main Line near Ijmansville, MD.

CSX Autorack train heading to Baltimore with about 50 loaded auto racks passes Mussetter Rd in Ijmansville, MD

November 20, 2016

The Grand Tour

I had a few minutes to railfan and got this shot of a coal drag heading to Texas at the BNSF yard in Denver..

The three hooligans on Top Gear are not the only guys doing the grand tour this month. In the past two weeks I visited 6 layouts in two states a thousand miles apart.

We found some young operator's on Pat Lana's layout
The group poising in Jim Frenec's C&S layout
One of the great scenes on John Parker's amazing layout
 The tour started in Denver where Alicia, Danica, Adam, and I visited three great layouts in the Metro area. They were Pat Lana's N Scale Crandic, John Parker's BNSF Fall River Division and Jim Frenec's Colorado Southern. All there were great layouts with gracious hosts.

We had a chance to meet Pat's operating group and have lunch with them.

At John and Jim's layouts, the layouts were not being operated, but they were kind enough to give us a detailed tour.

One thing is sure, they have some great layouts in the Denver area. I look forward for a chance to operate some of them.

Later in that weekend I had a few moments to railfan while having lunch at the Blue Moon Brewery. I was just in time to see a BNSF west bound coal drag.

After a short week home, I traveled to western New Jersey with Paul Dolkos to operate on some great layouts as part of the Northeast Interchange (an informal group of layout operators that alternate round robin op sessions in NJ and DC-MD each year).

Ted Pamperin and his wonderful layout
The first was Ted Pamperin's wonderful C&O New River Subdivision layout. I got to run a H-4 2-6-6-2 Helper to Alleghany and back to Hinton. This involved the classic dance at Alleghany with shuffling the caboose and turning the engine all under CTC control. Then  I ran an H-7 2-8-8-2 with a train load of armored vehicles (see video). That was a treat.

Ted's layout is chock full of wonderful steam engines and great scenery.

Night Ops on Dave Abeles layout
The next day I operated on Dave Abeles's Conrail Onondaga Subdivision. This layout aims to capture the feeling of high volume and high-speed operations on Conrail in the 1990's.

Dave and all his helper crew are professional railroaders on NJT, LIRR, or AMTRAK in various capacities. They are also a young group and have embraced all kinds of modern technology such as wifi throttles, remote dispatching (the dispatcher in the first half of the session was located in Philadelphia), full bi-directional CTC on a double track main, photo printed backdrops, and night time operations. It was an intense and fun session. I got to dispatch in the afternoon with lots of help from Chris Lee.

Triple Meet at Sparta Junction on Jerry Dzeidic's layout

On the last day I operated on Jerry Dzeidic's Susquehanna RR. It is a large double deck TT&TO layout. While there is little scenery, what is complete is well done and the unfinished sections are neat and well built. The layout ran great. Travis Stavac and I ran a way freight that was a lot of fun. Through a blunder on our part, we managed to create a "first"- a three way meet at Sparta Junction. I guess Jerry's warning during the morning briefing to "not meet at Sparta" fell on deaf ears.

It was a fun weekend punctuated by the first snow fall of the year. Weekends like these reinforce what a great hobby  with great people we have.


Paul helps clear the first snow off the Alkem-mobile while still on summer tires. Luckily the temps were warm and the snow quickly melted.

October 22, 2016

The show must go on

Strong depot on Lou Sassi's On30 layout
The Tracks to the Triangle MER annual meet is drawing to a close. It was an extremely well run event and I had a great time. I want to thank Jack Dziadul and his crew for inviting me, and providing great support during the meet.

Lou Sassi host an open house for his beautiful On30 layout.
I got to tour four layouts, attended several clinics, and presented 3 clinics myself. I also did the key note talk at the awards banquet. Unfortunately, throughout the weekend I suffered from a severe case of Laryngitis. In spite of my sore throat and weak voice, using a microphone I was able to get through all my presentations.

I am looking forward to next year's event in Harrisburg, PA. I also learned that in 2018, the Potomac Division will be hosting the meet in the DC area. I better get cracking on getting the  Aquia Line up and running before then.

Will Allen's O scale 3-Rail harbor scene on his Duckunder Terminal Railroad

Coal mine scene on Will Allen's layout. 

We had a mini Porsche Paddock in the hotel parking lot as
Charlie, Hank and I  drove our Porsches to the event. (Hank's car is behind me and not in the photo)

October 18, 2016

New Products Announced at the 2016 ACWRRHS Meet

In my previous post I failed to mention that Dave Schneider of SMR trains announced a bunch of new products in O and HO scale. Dave Bright also announced a new book he has written on the Confederate's capturing  and transporting locomotives and cars from the B&O and ALH RR's.

SMR Trains has some of the products already posted on his website. Others will be forthcoming. The first products for sale are laser cut O scale box cars in kit or RTR form.  See the image below.

Next on tap are O scale figures, tools, artillery, and other impedimenta.  He also showed the prototype for models of the Lee-Brooke Gun in O and HO scale.

Dave Bright's new book will be out in a few months. It is a detailed look the facts behind the great locomotive caper and Thomas Sharp's role in it.  Check his web site for more details. 

October 17, 2016

ACWRRHS 2016 Meet After Action Report

Wow, what a great meet. The guys in Tennessee really put on a wonderful event. Special thanks go to Charlie and Ginger Taylor, Thom Radice, Harold Taylor, Charlie Curro, Lee Millar and all the others   that did presentations or brought models to display.

UP action in Memphis
The official meet started with talks at the hotel on Thursday evening. However, I managed to do some rail fanning on Thursday morning in Arkansas and Memphis. I saw a double stack train east bound as I crossed the Mississippi, and a coal train westbound, but couldn't get photos. Later I chased a mixed freight east through Memphis.

Large scale model of Sultana in the museum.
On Friday morning the attendees went in small groups to local museums or activities. I went with Don and Becky Ball to see the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion, Arkansas. It was a major tragedy that is little known. It is still the greatest nautical disaster in terms of loss of life in American history.

Thom Radice giving conductors their instructions
Friday afternoon was the highlight of the trip as we got to tour and operate Charlie Taylor's huge O scale Memphis and Charleston layout. Thom Radice helped Charlie set up an operating session that allowed all of the attendees that wanted to, to operate trains. I was an engineer teamed with my conductor Ron Flowers to run the Nitre (basical ly bat guano from a mine in a cave - how appropriate)  train from Huntsville to Chattanooga and back. The run took all afternoon, as we had request for numerous photo run bys and meets with other trains.

Charlie's layout is set in a 75 by 35 foot loft above his large garage and guest house. It is a wonderful space for a large model railroad. His engines use DCC and sound. The layout includes two turntables with a unique mechanism based on a "Geneva Wheel" that allows for automatic indexing. They were designed and built by Charlie's brother Harold, a mechanical engineering whiz.  Before dinner Harold took me for a tour of his machine shop. It was fully equipped with a multi head CNC mill and several other industrial grade lathes, brakes, and grinders.

Charlie Curro poses by the O Scale Tennessee River bridge,
one of two huge bridges on the layout.

In keeping with the family affair, Charlie's nephew,  Will, painted the backdrops and his 90-year old mother built many of the smaller structures on the layout. Charlie Curro, a long time colleague of Charlie Taylor, built most of the big structures.

It was a delightful experience for me to operate on another ACW O scale railroad.  Dave Schneider, owner of SMR trains, told me that we (Charlie Taylor and I)  are the only two layouts he knows that actually operate his O scale engines.

Harold's Geneva wheel

Some of Curro's structures
The "Charlies" and I compared notes on techniques and tips.  Charlie uses Digitrax DCC with Tsunami sound decoders. They sounded quite good and ran great. His cars use link and pin couplers.

After a genuine Memphis BBQ dinner, we had more talks back at the hotel.

Diorama in Shiloh Museum
NS on the former M&C in Germantown, TN

On Saturday, we went by bus to Shiloh Battlefield National Park. The park includes Corinth and Battery Robinette. Lee Millar, as a CSA Captain,  lead the tour.  First we stopped in Germantown to examine a 19th century boxcar hidden in a storage shed. Once at Shiloh, he gave many of us a chance to load and fire blanks with a musket, showed us the key points on the battlefield, and told a bunch of groan-inducing jokes, usually with a unreconstructed rebel theme.

Thom Radice fires the musket
The Shiloh Battlefield is about what I expected  in terms of gently rolling and wooded terrain. However, I was surprised at the small size of the final position of Grant's lines on the first day. I expected them to be a bit larger. They really where crammed in between the creek and the river.

Overall the battlefield is well preserved and undeveloped. The woods were allegedly not as thick then as they are now, but the open fields are very similar to the way they were in 1862.

The crossing at Corinth was interesting, even if all the ACW era stuff is mostly gone except for the location of the tracks. The crossing diamond uses an continuous track for the Norfolk Southern  east-west line. The north-south line has guard rails as the wheels have to "jump" the East-west rails- at slow speed I imagine.

KCS loco on display in Corinth
Unusual diamond crossing
On Saturday night we had a couple of presentations on the ACW TTRAK.  Joel Salmons set up a small layout and ran some trains. 

This was one of the best ACW meets that I have attended (I haven't been to all of them). I am looking forward to next year. Martinsburg-Harpers Ferry and Antietam might be a possible location.  Maybe with a new TTRAK module and hosting an op session on the Aquia Line.

From Nortraks website.  One-Way Low-Speed diamond frogs are used in their namesake diamonds, often referred to as OWLS diamonds. These types of frogs are analogous to lift frogs in turnouts: the higher-trafficked line crosses the diamond on a normal rail surface in tread-bearing mode, and the lower-trafficked line crosses over the higher-trafficked line in flange-bearing mode. Because there is no flangeway gap to cross on the higher-trafficked line, vehicles using this line can cross the diamonds at the maximum speed allowed by the track design. Because the lower-trafficked line is in a situation where gauge restraint is reduced and because it has to cross over the flangeway gap for the higher-trafficked line, vehicles using this line are limited to speeds at or below 10 miles per hour. OWLS diamonds are commonly used where a rail line with very little traffic operating at low speed crosses a rail line with considerably more traffic operating at higher speeds.

October 11, 2016

Decoding the Civil War

Thanks to my mother in law I recently learned about a series of U.S. Military Telegrams that needed to be "decoded."

Here is how they describe their effort.

Over one hundred and fifty years have passed since the end of the United States Civil War and it still captures the imagination and passion of young and old. The war and its participants — the policy makers, the generals, and the everyday troops and citizens — are perpetually fascinating to members of the public. Drawing together the expertise of four organizations — The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens; the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; North Carolina State University; and Zooniverse — along with a two-year grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), Decoding the Civil War's goal is to use the transcription and decoding of Civil War telegrams from The Thomas T. Eckert Papers to harness this fascination and engage new and younger audiences using crowdsourcing technology to spark their curiosity and develop new critical thinking skills.
The transcription and decoding will contribute to national research, as each participant will become a “citizen archivist,” creating materials that will be of use and openly available to scholars interested in telegraphy, cryptography, communications during wartime, technology, civilian-military relations, and many other aspects of the Civil War or American history more generally. Perhaps the most meaningful outcome is that the collaborative will provide public access to previously unavailable historical records in a format that will lead to a better understanding of communications, technology, and the course of the Civil War.

I suspect that many messages relate to railroad movements. So if you have some spare time on your hand lend a hand in this crowdsourced effort to decode the thousands of messages.

October 9, 2016

Speed Module Challenge - Complete

I wrapped up work on the TTRAK module challenge. Here is a photo on the front yard in direct sunlight. This video shows a time lapse of the construction. Enjoy.

Some thoughts on the experience. The last two N Scale projects I built (the Pioneer Mills Diorama and this module) were fun, but they did not make me want to change my ACW layout from O to N scale. I believed and still believe that O is the best scale for ACW if one has the space.

My N scale eye balls were not calibrated properly for this project. I should have made the fence with thinner wood stock.

I was very pleased with how the dirt, paint and weeds made the Unitrak look like weathered civil war track.

The 1 foot square TTRAK format is really tiny. Even in N Scale it was impossible to fit in all the planned elements. For example, the planned shed and some of the trees just didn't fit.

Overall it was a fun diversion. It will be fun to see trains run on it next week. If you will be at the ACWRRHS meet in Memphis next week you will probably see it in operation.

October 8, 2016

Speed Module Challenge - Day 3

The base ground cover dried overnight. So I added the first coat of scenery using various ground foams, dried leaves, static grass and other scenery materials I have on hand. I then used a photo flood light to help dry the dilute white glue that I used to secure the scenery to the base coat.

While the glue was drying, I worked on the station building. It's a simple model I made with laser cut 0.032 inch plywood, Grandt Line windows and paper shingles. The columns are tooth picks.
I painted the walls a Vallejo Cavalry Brown, a reddish brown color, as that is what the B&W photo suggested to me.

Weathered Kato Unitrak looked surprisingly good.
Once the base scenery was dry, I removed the protective masking tape from the track. Then I airbrushed the plastic Unitrak roadbed, ties and rail in various shades of Vallejo Rust and Mud Brown. Using fine sand I added more ballast to the Kato Unitrack hide the ties to make the track look a bit more weathered and worn.  I was pleasantly surprised at how that worked out.  I added small tufts of Silfor grass  in between the ties to make the track look even more weathered.

I made a simple worm fence with small pieces of basswood. I pre-stained the parts before gluing to the scenery. Then I added some of the trees I made two nights ago. I didn't use all the trees I made as there isn't enough room on the small module. It's looking a little crowded already. Lets call it selective compression.

Bachmann 4-4-0 as a destroyed loco- should I use it?
Next tasks are the back drop, the destroyed rail cars, a landing platform, and some figures. I have an old Bachmann 4-4-0 that I could use as a destroyed loco (see photo at left). But I never really liked the look of that model, so I'll probably not use it.

Speed Module Challenge - Day 2

base coat of ground cover
After dinner tonight I shaped the foam terrain and added the base coat of ground scenery to Appomattox Station. For the base coat I used a mix of Durhams Water Putty, sifted dirt and red-brown acrylic paint.

While that was setting, I drew up the laser file for the structure shown in the picture. I am not sure if it is the station or just a home. (This link has a good description of the battle and t he location of things)I had a very similar N Scale model I built several years ago, so the file was easy to draw. I modified the windows to use N scale Grandt Line castings, of which I have a good supply.

I will have more time tomorrow to start the scenery and details.
laser cutting the house
Testing the placement of the house

October 6, 2016

Speed Module Challenge - Appomattox Station

Last weekend Joel Salmons mentioned to me that he had an extra TTRAK module that was unfinished. He asked if I would be interested in finishing it.  First a little background, the ACWRRHS started a TTRAK project a few years ago at one of the annual meets. Since then several members have built TTRAK modules with ACW themes.   I agreed to take on the project to join in the fun. The only drawback was, it had to be ready by next Tuesday as Joel departs for Memphis via automobile on Wednesday. I will fly out on Thursday. Can I do it?

Before Joel delivered the module, I thought about what I could do.   A standard TTRAK module is only about 1 foot square. Not a lot of room, even for N scale.  I looked at what N Scale ACW stuff I had on had. It wasn't much. I have lots of N scale locos, cars etc, but almost all oriented on 20th century.  So I decided to keep it simple- a scene in the woods with a dirt road, worm fence, trees and perhaps some wagons and cannons marching past since I had those miniatures on hand. Perhaps a farm house on the backdrop.

As I thought about it, I remembered the famous photo of Appomattox Station after the battle (see lead photo above). It had most of the elements I was looking for, and it would make a nice "book end" for the ACW RR story as it depicts the last strategic use of rail by CSA forces (see plaque below), which ended with a burned train. That would be simple to model. The sketch below is the final design.

Nothing like a good cavalry charge to get you fired up.
This scene will not be included in the module.
Tonight Joel delivered the unfinished module.  I started work. The ACW modules use one track, while standard TTRAK uses two tracks. Since this prototype photo shows a main line and a siding on the Southside RR, I decided to use both TTRAK tracks. I glued the tracks to the wood with acrylic caulk.

A challenge will be to make the perfect Kato Unitrack that the TTRAk standard calls for look more like poorly maintained CSA track at the end of the war.

Next I cut out a piece of ground foam and caulked it to the plywood frame to create the basic terrain. Once the caulk is cured, I will do the initial terrain carving.

While the caulk was setting, I made about 10 N scale sized Super trees.  That's it for the first night. Early golf tee time tomorrow.

Planning the scene
Stay tuned to see if I can make the deadline.

Miniatures I have on hand
some N Scale "Supertrees"