Category Archives: Trains

It’s 2 AM… And I’m Up

T’was the morning before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except me. Boring me. You see, I tend to suffer from self-inflicted insomnia.  It’s not persistent, and not chronic (thank goodness).  But about once or twice a week I get stuck “on” and can’t seem to shut off my brain.

Here’s the funny thing – I’m stuck thinking about something fun.  This isn’t typical.

Since we last spoke (more then a year ago…. wow….) I’ve taken on a very large, very time consuming and very difficult project.  It’s enjoyable and rewarding when everything works as intended, but it has pretty much taken up all known free time.  Personal programming projects, my NJ Devils empire, and things like video games and model trains have all taken a back seat.  Even home improvement projects have been pushed aside.

But not today.

You see on Monday I did a bit of work around the house.  Tuesday I did work at my parents house.  So Wednesday, I devoted time to play with my trains.  And now… my brain is stuck on trains.  Which is silly because in a few days I’m going to go back to my time consuming side project and not touch the trains for another 6 months.  But it’s nice to step away from it and get stuff done on the ol’ layout.

So what’s keeping me up?  Control.  (Train geeking out will begin in 3…. 2…. 1….)

I’m not interested in DCC (that’s where you can control each engine individually, wirelessly, remotely).  I like the standard throttle at a control panel at the front of the layout.  It brings me back to when my Dad had a layout and I would work on it with him (or, more accurately, I would mess with things and then he’d have to undo it all to make it work again).  So far I have the yard wired up, the main line and one spur wired up, and now I’m wiring up the turntable, spur that leads to the turntable, and 6 tracks off of the turntable.  I even bough a fancy momentary double throw switch to operate the rotation of the turntable.  Of course during the cutting of the hole to fit the switch in, I stripped some paint off of the control panel so I had to dig out the can of paint and touch it up.  But while the paint was drying I ran some new cable out to the second spur, wired it up, and labeled many of the controls with a P-Touch labeler.  OCD? Absolutely.

Okay, so it all sounds good, but now I need to wire in some power.  Currently I have an old MRC Tech II power pack handling the power to the tracks.  And I bought some laptop power supplies that will provide power to the switches, turntables, and accessories.  My problem: because of the space problem I have – which is I have 5′ x 9′ of space and so I made a layout that takes up all 5′ x 9′ – I have a control panel that swings out and can be “put down” so it lays flat against the side of the layout.  This lets me pull the control panel up when I want to play and lower it when the trains are “put away.”  (I also put casters on the legs of the layout I built, which I’m still proud of, as it makes it a cinch to wheel out and work on the layout!)

Now here’s my dilemma – I can’t mount the power pack to the control panel because, well, the control panel swings down and the power pack will just fall off.  I also don’t want it to stick out like that since I need to walk by that area to get to the other side of the garage.  My intention was to abandon the power pack control and just use the laptop power supplies with a custom built knob to control the train’s speed.  The problem?  I’m not an electrical engineer.  And the “simple” controls I found online look like this:

Since I’m using a laptop power supply, I think I can cut off everything to the left of C1, and because I’m using an Atlas controller which contains direction switches, I think I can cut off everything after R5.  It’s all the stuff in the middle that I don’t really know what I’m doing.  Like what’s that icon that repeats at the bottom over and over – it looks like an antenna or something.  Is that ground? Isn’t ground that round third prong of a plug? Or is that neutral? Or are those AC terms but this is a DC diagram?  Oh, and what happens if I short out the track?  I know that’ll happen because, lets be honest, I tend to short things out.  On the good ol’ power packs, there was a little red light that would light up when I shorted it out.  And in a few seconds, if I removed the thing causing the short, the light would turn off and the world would return to normal.  If I do this fancy circuit above, what happens if something starts to short out? Do I create a meltdown?  The laptop power supplies I bought say they have overload, over voltage and short circuit protection, but is that good enough?  Will it protect the circuity above even though that circuitry is after the protection?  And if it does work, what happens after I trip the short circuit protection?  Does it reset after a few seconds like my good ol’ MRC power pack?  Or once it trips, it’s fried?

So that’s why I can’t sleep…. And I am not posting this to really get any answers, but just because I have this stuck in my brain.  I think, though, after penning this post for the last 45 minutes, I’m going to try to go back to bed.  It’s 3 AM and I had ambitions of getting up at 9 so I could do more work on the trains before dinner with my family tonight.  Anyway, if anyone reads this, have a Merry Christmas!  I hope to post more than once in 2016…

Really starting my new model train layout

For months now I’ve been working on a new train layout.  When I was little my father had a train layout kept in the finished basement of my parents house.  This layout was moved to my bedroom when we got a cat and the cat, who spent most time in this finished basement, used the train layout to play out her fantasies of being King Kong.

When it was moved up in to my bedroom, my mother wasn’t very happy and requested that it be cut down to a more manageable size – for a bedroom that is.  So my father and I complied and changed a 4′ x 8′ layout in to a 4′ x 6′ layout.

Later on during my childhood, other interests began to take over, like hockey and computers and girls.  Please note that the latter two were two distinct interests.  Alas, the trains began to undergo neglect and eventually the trains were requested by my mother to be removed, in favor of a computer desk and computer that I had purchased.

But ever since then I’ve vowed to revisit the hobby of model trains, and when Wife and I bought a house, I decided now was the time.  Unlike the many suggestions, I put the trains in the garage.  This wasn’t to complete the whole man-cave motif, but instead I took the practical move since at some point down the road, the two “spare bedrooms” in my house will have living occupants.  At some point.  Down the road.  Okay?

Also, there is a third “spare bedroom” which is a glorified closet with a closet, which I have made in to my office.  So I really couldn’t take over two rooms with stuff!

Anywho, so I’ve spent the past six months constructing what will be the base to my layout.  It’s been a long process but I’m trying to do it right.  For example, my father’s layout was a 4′ x 8′ piece of plywood on saw horses.  The layout fits perfectly in a corner of the garage which happened to be 5′ x 9′.  Hey, every inch counts here!  So in order to accommodate the odd size and the need to join cut plywood together, I built an entire frame for the plywood to rest on.  In addition to the couple extra feet and the sturdy frame (which consists of 2×4’s on the long edges, and 1×4’s every foot across the short edges), I also built legs.  Initially I had the layout sitting on saw horses, but I have the need to be able to move the layout since the corner of the garage I have the layout in only allows access from one side!  So at the bottom of the legs I attached casters so the layout can be moved freely.  I even attached a surge protector underneath with a long wire so the layout can be plugged in and powered and still be moved freely in the garage.  Surprising to even myself (since I’ve never really done much woodworking before), it is surprisingly sturdy and moves very well in the garage.  In fact, since finishing the construction, I’ve moved the layout every time I’ve worked on it so I could get to all the sides, and I’m still impressed at how sturdy it is each time I move it!

Well over the past month, I’ve made significant progress, I think.  I sealed the cracks between the joined plywood using wood spackle.  Sanded and spackled and sanded again just to be safe.  I then painted the whole top of the layout brown (since in my mind , dirt is brown and that’s what is underneath everything anyway).

Just over the past couple of days, with some time off from work, I nailed down all the track in to the configuration I wanted and cut some flex track in to the size I needed it for an odd size straightaway.  I also drew an outline of this entire first part with a white pencil.  I have since removed the track leaving only a faint white outline for me to use as a guide as I lay down the cork roadbed.

Earlier today I even started laying the first couple of pieces of cork roadbed, gluing it down using wood glue (cork on plywood after all), and nailing it in place so it doesn’t move.

So after six months of planning and creating the benchwork, the layout begins to show life!

On a side note, I’ve learned during this process that track is expensive!  Because of this, I’ve decided to break the layout in to three parts or phases:

Phase 1 will be the lower main line.  This line will be level with the plywood, and consist of a single spur.  In addition, the lower main line will have a switch track used for accessing Phase 2 and a double crossover used for accessing Phase 3.

Phase 2 will be the rail yard.  The yard may be slightly elevated by about an inch.  I’m unsure if I like that idea, but it may aide in construction of Phase 3.  The yard will start at a switch track connecting to Phase 1.  Immediately after the switch will be another switch splitting the line with one track leading to a turntable with up to six tracks for locomotives and the other leading to a series of Y switch tracks which will connect four tracks for the yard.

Phase 3 will be the elevated main line.  It will connect to Phase 1 with a double crossover switch and feature a gradual incline and decline.  The top portion of the elevated main will also have a spur.  The goal will be to construct mountains creating a tunnel for the lower main line to pass through as well as travel under a bridge.  The use of a double crossover switch (not pre-fab by the way, just using good ol’ fashioned Atlas switches and track), will allow trains to run independently on each lower and upper line or allow trains to run the full length of the lower line and the full length of the elevated line while crossing over at the double crossover switch and requiring no switching during mid-run.

There was at one point a Phase 4 which would have created a third upper main line which consisted of a completely elevated line that connected to Phase 3 using another double crossover.  I have temporarily scraped that idea and may revisit it as long as I feel this will not make the layout look too crowded and I can still have a “city” in the center of the layout.

Photos will be posted soon of the progress.