October 31, 2017

The Inmates Are Running the DCC Asylum


DCC Comics Latest Story

Anyone that reads this blog knows that I have a love-hate relationship with DCC.  This week the DCC relationship needle is swinging toward the hate side.  Here is why.

The prototype photo at the left shows the scene that inspired the PoLA layout. I wanted a layout that featured heavy duty, six-axle locos switching freight cars on wharves alongside massive modern ships and cranes.

For the Waterfront Terminals and Operations book I borrowed some of Ramon Rhodes's BNSF 6-axle diesels to use as photo props on this layout. Thanks Ramon, those were very helpful, but I always planned to get some large BNSF power myself to operate on the layout. Thanks to Matt Gaudynski at Fox Valley Models, I did get some BNSF GP60s for the book.  But those were 4-axle locos and the GP-60M is probably not correct for Los Angeles, though the GP-60s did frequent PoLA.

So over the past few weeks I have purchased some new HO scale 6-axle locos. The first was a  BNSF Gevo Tier 4 from Scale Trains in the Rivet Counter spec. It has a Loksound V4 Select decoder. I got it via a Facebook sale, as they were out of stock by the time I looked into getting one. The model arrived and I put it on the track. It looks fantastic, runs beautifully and sounds great, although way too loud. My wife could hear it up stairs. The decoder in this loco has a keep alive circuit, which is a nice touch.

A short while later, I received an Athearn ES44DC from Mainline Hobby Supply (a fantastic shop with great service) that I had advanced ordered a few months ago.  It has a Soundtrax Tsunami decoder. It also looks fantastic, runs great and sounds realistic, although also too loud.

So now I am finally able to recreate the scene that inspired the layout. Well, maybe, as long as I don't try to run locos together.  The locos have different speed characteristics and the function buttons control different functions. Some of the functions on one are not available on the other.  So it's time to reprogram. No problem I've done this in the past using my EasyDCC. I'll just program new addresses, remap the functions and consist them together.

Like all DCC locos with decoders, these come programmed to address 3. It's a simple matter to reprogram the address, right? Just put it on the programmer track and push a few buttons. Nope, for some reason my programming track would not work, even though I purchased a Sountraxx programming booster for it. Not just for the new locos, but I also tested some of my others, where it previously worked, and now it didn't. I checked the wiring and power. All seemed OK. I cleaned the track and checked the solder joints. All were OK, but still no programming track capability.  Fraking DCC.

With the programming track inoperative, I looked to Ops Mode programming. It worked, but you really can't change loco addresses in Ops Mode  (it is feasible but a pain in the petunias). Also, remapping functions with Easy DCC in Ops Mode is an exercise in hexadecimal hell. Consisting is somewhat easier, until you try to customize the function buttons. Then you're back in hexadecimal hell. Fraking DCC.

Being unable to figure out what was wrong with my EasyDCC programming track and dreading the hexadecimal torture that is Ops Mode programming on EasyDCC, I looked for options. After a few hours of internet searching, the best shot seemed to be JMRI Decoder Pro. I was able to download Decoder Pro and it worked on my iMac.

So I ordered a SPROGII v4 from Mountain SubDivision Hobbies to create an independent programming track. It arrived a few days later.  I went with a SPROG II as I didn't want to try to interface with my EasyDCC system with a serial to USB adapter cable since I was having trouble with the EasyDCC programming track. Also, my computer is not in the same room as my layout and my laptop is too old for the latest versions of JMRI. OK, I admit I have extra computers laying around the house, but they are all old and I didn't want to go through updating them all.

Did you notice how this is evolving into a discussion of computers and software and not model trains. This is part of the hate side of the DCC relationship.  I get enough of computers at work and just about everywhere else. When I play with my trains, I want to play with my trains. I don't want to use computer software, update drivers, look for USB ports, attach serial buses, and check Java versions.

The SPROGII v4 comes with Mac OS X USB drivers installed, so setting it up was fairly simple. The manual is a hundred pages long. A quick scan shows hundreds, maybe thousands, of possible options. Lets look at that later. I'll just follow the quick set-up.  I put the Athearn ES44DC on the track and asked it to create a new loco in Decoder Pro. After about 5 minutes, the software said, "No decoder detected. Error 301." I had to google that.  It is either a bad decoder, bad wiring (it's two wires for cripe's sakes), or dirty track.  OK,  check all and try again.  Still no luck. After a few more tries, including making sure the loco still worked on the layout, I resorted to the classic debugging technique. I rebooted the Mac and SPROGII.

Still no luck, error 301. OK, maybe it's the decoder. Lets try another loco. I put the Gevo Tier 4 on. Whoa, wait a minute - DecoderPro worked. I was able to change the address. Lets test it. Back on the layout, I can't get the loco to respond with the 4-digit address, but it will work with the 2-digit address. Fraking DCC.

Fine, 2 digits it is. Now, maybe I can remap the Loksound functions to match the Soundtraxx decoder using Decoder Pro. Hmm, that's not working either. Lets download the Loksound manual. Over one hundred pages later of electrical engineer gibberish with a slightly Germanic twist (BTW I am a big fan of German technology as I drive a Porsche and have a bunch of Festools, but you have to admit they have a certain way of describing technical things. Alles ist Ganz Ordnung, Ja? I supposed it could be worse, as it is not translated from Chinese or Japanese) I find out that function mapping for LokSound V4 Select decoders is not really compatible with Decoder Pro. Loksound recommends you get their programmer device. That costs $120 and you need a Windoze 10 computer. So add another couple hundred to the price as I am a Mac user.   Oh well, I guess I'll live with the functions as mapped.

Fortunately, when the locos are consisted you can disable certain functions. But even with Decoder Pro this is a trial and error procedure as the effects of disabling a function don't work the same on each loco. Fraking DCC.

So, where am I now? I have been able to get both locos programmed to new 2-digit address. I don't know why the 4 digit addresses didn't work. I was able to get them consisted. The lights work almost as intended, but still not the way I want. I won't bore you with those details. Fraking DCC.

I was able to lower the sound volumes using Decoder Pro. OK, now the big challenge, can I get them to run at the same speeds. After about a hour of tweaking in Decoder Pro and testing on the track the answer is no, but they might good enough. Fraking DCC.

One of the things I like to do when switching is to use the brakes. Because I haven't been able to figure out function mapping, this consist will operate without the brake function. Fraking DCC.

Finally, one bit of good news. My PHL66 SD40 , an Athearn model with a Wow sound decoder and keep alive, was acting up. I sent the decoder back to the manufacturer and they said it checked out. But it still acted funny when I reinstalled it in the loco. By funny I mean the sound was dropping out and the throttle  was losing control. Fraking DCC.

I put the loco on the SPROGII programming track and used Decoder Pro to do a decoder reset. That seems to have fixed that problem. Now, I need to reassemble the loco and reattach the lights. However, I am considering swapping the decoder for a Tsumani. That will simplify things as it will mean I have two and opposed to three types of decoders no the layout, as I only have one TCS Wowsound decoder.

In conclusion, I think the DCC sound manufacturers in their arms race to "out feature" each other have gone too far. In an effort to make their locos sound and act more realistic we have lost simplicity and ability to work interchangeably. When I play with my trains, I want to play with my trains. 

I walk every day along the former RF&P main line to get to metro. I often hear trains coming. I try to guess what they are and how many units. I can never get it right. To me they all sound the same. So all this effort to get exact prime movers, air compressor sounds, etc. is lost on me.

Let's be honest, it's basically industrial noise. Most of my visitors, operators, and wife prefer the DCC sounds system be at a low volume anyway. DCC sound is trying to attain sound fidelity well past the point of diminishing returns. Now, they are making things worse.

I hope the DCC manufacturers take a step back from their oscilloscopes and EPROMs and take a look at what model railroaders want. And don't just look at it from your own stovepipe system. They need to consider the whole technology ecosystem of operating model railroads. A ecosystem where old and new components from different manufacturers have to work together. That was supposed to be the NMRA's job, but right now I'd say they failed. So now we have the inmates running the DCC asylum.


PS.  Added Nov 2. 

My wife asked me if I felt better by writing this "rant."

I replied, "yes, because it was nice to know I wasn't the only one having these issues."

Anyway, having thought about it, I decided to throw good money after bad, and I ordered a second Scale Trains Gevo to run as a matched set. These locos are just too nice and smooth running to not use on the layout. The cost of a second loco with the factory decoder was less than trying to get a laptop and proprietary programmer.  The Decoder Pro software  can handle most of the functions I need except for remapping.

Now, I need to decide if I will sell the Athearn ES44DC or keep it and  get a matching unit for it too. One can never have too many locos, right?

October 24, 2017

Mystery Freight Car

I found this image on an auction site by chance while doing a google image search. I have never seen or heard about this car before. Nor have I been able to find any additional information on it.

In the photo one can see the airbrakes hose, modern stenciling, a road name that didn't exist until 1870's, and a knuckle coupler. Thus we know that this is not a photo from the civil war. But, is the caption correct in that this was a civil war era car that had been salvaged from a river and then upgraded?

The consensus on the ACWRRHS forum is that the caption is not accurate. The car is listed on the 1890 OER, meaning that it would have been about 26 years old if it was a ACW era car. It is also unlikely to be steel, as steel was relatively rare until the 1866 time period when the Bessemer process started to be introduced into the United States.  Hooker was in Georgia with Sherman in 1864 until he was relieved. If anything the sides are sheets of iron, copper or tin.





October 21, 2017

Memorandum Waybills - good bye tokens




I found a memorandum waybill form used by the New Haven RR (at the left)  in the 1870s that might fit the bill (pun intended) for paperwork on the O scale Aquia Line. On the right is a version of the form adapted for my model railroad. This concept will get rid of the tokens that we used heretofore during op sessions.

My objective is to have no more than one piece of paper per car. So, each car will start the session with a memorandum waybill (called bill from now on). The bill will list the contents and destination of the car. The conductors will examine the bills at their starting station and build their outbound train. They will add cars, up to 6 per train including caboose,  to their switch list, and take the bills with them clipping it to the board.

As trains progress across the layout, if they find a car at a trailing point siding, they will flip a coin for each car. If the coin is heads, that car is still loaded and they leave it where it is. If the coin turns up tails, the car is now empty. The conductors will add that car(s), up to their 6 cars per train including caboose limit,  to their switch list, and take the bill with them clipping it to the board. They would also remove loads from flat cars and place them on the siding. If the train has no scheduled meets, it may take more than 6 cars. When they spot the car, they leave the bill in the appropriate box.

At Falmouth, the random process is the same, though some trains originate at Falmouth. The conductors will examine the waybills of the cars that were there when they arrived. They will do the coin flip process for each to determine which ones are empty and ready to return to Aquia Landing. Yes, it is conceivable that a train will return with no cars, and that did happen on the prototype too.
If Falmouth gets too crowded due to random chance, the superintendent can send an extra to help pull cars.

Occasionally, a car will move from one station to another. I can handle that situation with a new bill and a message to a crew.

When trains get to Aquia Landing, they will spot the cars according the "When Empty return to" directions on the bill. They will insert the bill into the box at Aquia Landing.  The car is automatically restaged. I can swap the bill with a different one for variety if desired.  Essentially this is a two-cycle way bill system.

After a train is terminated at Aquia Landing, the freight agent at Aquia Landing (that would be me) will check the bills and add loads to the cars as indicated by the bills. If I desire, I replace the bill a new bill with new contents and destinations. For example, add a mail load to a car that just hauled forage.

This system gets rid of the unsightly tokens and uses paperwork that appears to be quite realistic, even if it is a bit freelanced.  The visual impact of the boxes on the fascia is minimal as I will use clear acrylic to make them. Since the paperwork looks somewhat prototypical, it actually adds to the realism of the layout. It may also spark questions from non-model railroaders, giving me a chance to explain operations.


October 17, 2017

General Burnside and the Extra Train

Herman Haupt describes how he and the USMRR responded to General Burnside's request for a special train on the Aquia Line. This excerpt is from Haupt's memoirs.

Not with standing the assurances of General Burnside that the regular transportation should not be interfered with, he would frequently telegraph the Superintendent to hold a train for his accommodation, and then compel it to wait for several hours until he made his appearance. This caused an abandonment of the schedule, and threw all the trains into confusion. 
As a remedy, I ordered that an engine, under steam, should be kept constantly at Falmouth subject to the General's orders. On one occasion a train had become derailed, and the special engine had been sent to render assistance. While absent on this service and. impatient of delay, General Burnside walked down the road to meet it. As it was night, the engineer did not recognize him and passed him on the way, then returned, took him up and carried him to Aquia Creek.  
Upon entering the office in an irate mood, he demanded of the Superintendent why he had disobeyed his orders. Wright handed him my telegram, saying, "Here are my instructions," upon reading which, the General turned on his heel with the remark, "it is a nice condition of things if the General in command of an army can be snubbed by a brigadier." The General knew that the action was proper, and did not allude to it in any of our subsequent interviews. 
On receiving the report of the Superintendent concerning this incident, the following answer was returned : 
WASHINGTON, D. 0., January 24, 1863. 
Wm. W. Wright, Superintendent R.f F. & P. R. R.  
DEAR SIR: Your communication of yesterday enclosing fourteen telegrams on the subject of the delay of a special train ordered for the accommodation of General Burnside, was received by messenger today. You report the fact that when a special train is required at a particular hour, the party is not always, and not even generally, ready to use it at that hour; that in the case referred to the train was ordered at 9:30P.M., and the General did not arrive until 11:10 P. M. at the Falmouth depot; that an accident having occurred which blocked the road at Stoneman's, the engine of the special train was sent to clear it, and being away when General Burnside arrived, was the cause of much dissatisfaction.  
You ask for instructions to govern your action in future cases that may occur, and desire to be informed whether the track is to be kept clear for a special train and all other business suspended until it has passed. 
I answer unhesitatingly, no. The regular and most important duty of the railroads is to forward supplies to the army. To accomplish this, the most indispensable requisite is exact punctuality in running schedule trains. Every Superintendent knows this, but no one but the Superintendent of a Military Railroad can appreciate it to its full extent, or realize the difficulties which do not exist elsewhere. 
General Burnside is one of the most reasonable and practical men I have ever met, and he will not expect impossibilities. He does not, with the multiplicity of his own duties, understand yours. All you have to do is to conform to the established rules, furnish extras whenever General Burnside orders them, if it is in your power to do so, but extras must keep out of the way of schedule trains, unless the Commanding General expressly orders all other business which conflicts with the special to be stopped. If this is done, obey the order and straighten out the confusion which will ensue as soon as you can. The responsibility of failure elsewhere in consequence of it will not rest with you; you will have your record straight. 
Your action, as exhibited by the communication forwarded and accompanying telegrams, is approved. 
Yours respectfully, 
H. HAUPT, Chief of Construction and Transportation. 

I cannot find similar reference material for when General Hooker was in command, which is the time period I am modeling. So on the layout, we'll assign the Engine Osceola to this task. Every now and then, we will run it as an extra when the commander requests.

Another special event that we could model would be a visit from the President. It will be a fun op session when we run the POTUS train.

Events like these are some of the things that make modeling a civil war era military railroad so fascinating and dare I say, fun.


October 15, 2017

Catering to the Iron Beast: The Never Ending Battle

Steam locomotive models, like their real life counterparts, require constant maintenance, care, and the occasional angry word. Case in point - the Aquia Line has 5 locomotives, and only two were running reliably. The two were Fury and Whiton. Both have battery power. Whiton has been the recipient of the new BPS circuity. Prior to that it had problems holding a charge. Since the upgrade it has not lost charge once.

Engine McCallum has DCC and all wheel pick up, but no keep alive. It wheels must be kept clean to run well.

Haupt and Oscela have all wheel pick up and keep alive capacitors. Haupt's keep alive will only hold about 4-6 seconds of charge. Lately it started stalling in several places. I decided to clean the wheels. At that point I noticed, that the all-wheel pickups I had installed on the tender trucks had worked loose. They were no longer making good contact. I fixed those and did a thorough wheel cleaning with acetone. After that, Haupt ran without a problem for 30 minutes straight.

Osceola mysteriously stopped running a few weeks ago. It would make sound and would move about one revolution in each direction before stopping. I carefully inspected it but could not find a problem. Given that the sound was fine and it did move a bit, I figured there was something jamming it. I resigned myself to send it out for another set of eyes to look at it. But, this afternoon we had some guests. When I fired up the layout to demonstrate it, I noticed that one of the throttles on the Easy DCC control panel was set to 007, the number for Osceola. (That system comes with two fixed-in-place throttles.)  I reset that to zero and tested Osceola. Sure enough, it worked just fine. DCC systems generally cannot handle two throttles controlling one decoder. A simple, seemingly inexplicable glitch like this is more evidence that, "to err is human, but it takes DCC to really foul things up."

While running it I noticed that it shorted briefly as it crossed turnout frogs, but it kept powering through. A quick look underneath revealed that a wire to the pilot truck pick-up had broken. It was dragging and causing the intermittent short.

That was a simple fix and now Osceola is running perfectly. Its only drawback is that it has little tractive effort. About 3 or 4 cars is all I can expect it to haul around my layout. Thus, this engine will be used as the reserve engine kept in steam for use of the commanding General. So it will run as an extra when General Hooker  or his staff needs a ride to and from Aquia Landing. I found a message in the archives (or maybe it was Haupt's book) that mentioned this requirement.

I also discovered that two of the frog juicers on a hex-frog juicer circuit card were not working properly. I had to cut the  wire to those frogs to get the circuit to function properly. I also noticed that if I touch the card and slightly move it, the circuit acts erratically.  At one point the card got really hot and made a slight burnt smell, but it still seems to function.

The bottom line is that now I have 4 engines that run very reliably and one, McCallum, that is a bit prone to stalls.  I am looking into adding a keep alive to McCallum to help it run more reliably.

Alex and Jake running a train out of Aquia Landing
The guests today were John Drye, Jake Brendel and his girlfriend Alex Connole. After a home made lasagna dinner courtesy of my mom, they had a chance to run the layout. This was the first model RR the Alex saw. She told Jake that she thought the civil war layout was really cool. Jake however, seemed to prefer PoLA, though he liked the unique aspect of Aquia.
Passing Brooke

This past weekend I was at the NMRA MER annual convention in Harrisburg. I delivered 4 clinics over the weekend, went to an op session at Brian Wolfe's layout, and visited 3 other layouts. I also attended several other clinics including one by Ed Kapuscinski on his NCR N scale layout, and 2 clinics by Lee Rainey, a long time member of the the ACWRRHS. I had known Lee several years on the ACWRRHS forum,  but this was the first time we ever met. Lee models the East Broad Top and PRR in Mt Union in S scale.

I entered the Conductor's Car model in the model contest. It won first place in the caboose category.

Also in the model room was a G Scale train by Dennis Lenz that featured a Hartland 4-4-0 pulling  6 cars, 5 were USMRR flats with a Union Artillery battery, and forge, while the sixth was a  combination freight car (the latter was lettered for the Manassass Gap RR).
Some of Denis Lenz's G scale cars

October 8, 2017

Finished Conductor's Car

"Sherman, Haupt tells me this is our secret weapon."
"Doesn't look so secret to me."


This is before I evened out the weathering.
I finished the conductor car. Making the roof removable to allow people to see the interior made the task considerably tougher. The next two conductor cars will not have full interiors.

The doors slide and the hand brakes work.

All in all a fun car. Being a "non-revenue" car , it will help complicate the conductor's operations. At least he has a nice desk and chair to sit on inside the car.





















Here is a short video showing a test run of the new car.






October 4, 2017

Building a Conductor's Car

Conductor's Car at Stoneman's Station
used as a telegraph shed
During the Civil War conductor's cars, also known as cabooses, way cars, cabin cars, and on some odd-ball railroads, vans, were not that common. According to John H. White, there were just a few  railroads with conductor cars prior to the war. During the war, the USMRR started using them more regularly. When the railroaders returned home after the war, they helped spread the idea.

I have no written record of  conductor cars on the Aquia Line, however, there is a photo of a conductor car off the rails and being used as a telegraph shed at Stoneman's. So there was at least one!

The are no plans available that I am aware of except for the drawing in Alexandrer's book. That plan has lots of mistakes, and is too big for my layout anyway. There are a few photos of USMRR conductor cars. So I decided to make my conductor's car as if it was a converted box car using the photos as guides.

I laser cut the frame and then planked the deck and sides with scale lumber.

I decided to add a full interior. Most everything is scratch built except the stove casting (though I did add a cranked chimney), the barrel and the tools. The chairs are laser cut.

Now I have to figure out how to make the roof removable.

Close up of the work table. Can you read the switch list?
The car sides are laser scribed, but engraved on two sides so the joint lines show inside and out.

The bed on the right is a 2-bunk bed.



October 1, 2017

Updated Timetable and Schedule for Aquia Line

Based on the feed back from the operation sessions I have updated the timetable and schedule for the Aquia Line.



This revision creates two main periods of action - a morning session and an afternoon session. Both periods would run two scheduled trains in each direction in roughly 3 hours.  There is also a train in the evening if we want to do an ops session on a week night.  Chances are we will never run No.1 and 2. as I don't know too many model RRer's that want to operate that early.

Note that in the revised schedule meets take place in Brooke or Stoneman's. So the conductors have to be a bit more on their toes.  I also noted that on other timetables, scheduled meets are in bold and underlined. So I adopted that practice too.

The ACWRRHS session showed that running an extra train is a great addition, so I will plan to do that when I have enough operators.  However, I think we demonstrated that having 3-man crews is too crowded for the aisles. So I will stick to 2-man crews in the future.   That means a typical op session without an extra will need 4 crewmen. If 6 show up, then we run an extra.

Also, Thom Radice asked a question about what happens when a train is late for a meet. I found the answer on another USMRR time table for the Orange and Alexandria where trains had several scheduled meets.  Here is the what it said,
No Train having the right to the Road must leave any station or passing place, where by the schedule it should pass a train, until Ten Minutes after its own time per schedule; and this ten minutes (allowed for variation of watches) must be observed at every succeeding station until it shall have passed the expected train; and no portion of the ten minutes allowed for variation of watches must be used by Trains running in either direction. 
It's a bit hard to comprehend, but I think it means that a southbound train can leave a scheduled meet if the opposing train is at least ten minutes late. That process will repeat at each station until they meet the late train.

Also,  today I matted and framed a print of the locomotive Deveraux that was drawn by John Ott. He gave me a copy as a gift. As anyone who has visited my basement knows, the walls are pretty well full, so adding a print is a zero-sum game. I managed to find a place to for it in the stairwell. Thanks John. It's a beautiful drawing. If you want to get your own prints you can order them from John's site.