Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Choosing a DCC system: don't get caught up in the hype




With DCC, you're controlling the locomotive directly, instead of power to the track.



In previous posts I’ve mentioned that I have a few boxes of model railroad stuff from when I first got started in the hobby as a kid. I can’t remember exactly what those boxes contain and I won’t know for sure until I return to my parents house in British Columbia and crack them open. It’s like a model railroading time capsule! I know much of what’s in there is crap: cheap Tyco rolling stock with horn-hook couplers, brass track, one of those “loaf of bread” tunnel forms, etc. But I also happen to know there’s some good stuff in there as well. A few pieces of Athearn blue box rolling stock and locomotives with Kadee couplers, some nickel silver track, some good model railroading books and a very good DC throttle, the Tech II Dual Power model you see below:

One of these has sat in my parents basement for years. Will it still work?

Now I’m sure most readers have heard of Digital Command Control (DCC), an innovation that has come to the hobby in the years I was away. There’s loads of info on the web about DCC so I won’t go into too much depth here but essentially it allows the operator to easily and independently run locomotives without chopping up the track plan into separate electrical blocks. Instead of controlling power to the track, you are controlling each individual locomotive

I operated my old layout in pre-DCC days, using the throttle you see pictured to the right and separate electrical blocks operated with cheap (but reliable) Atlas selector switches.

This DC-with-blocks type of configuration works okay but it requires a lot of wiring and with more than one operator, someone always seems to run their train into the wrong block. With DCC you don’t have to worry about this, you can have two locos running along the same stretch of track each controlled by a separate throttle. And you can achieve this with very simple wiring.

Now at first I considered operating my layout with the old Tech II and my DC engines. After all, this layout will almost never have more than one operator working at a time and there is an expense in buying a new DCC system plus adding decoders to the locomotives. (((An aside for those new to DCC: digital command works by installing tiny little electronic chips, called decoders, in each locomotive. These decoders allow each loco to “talk” to the command station.)))

In the end though, I decided to move ahead with DCC. Assuming it still works after 20 years in storage, I will use the Tech II to test locos, power accessories, etc.

Here’s why I went ahead with DCC:

1.   I’m impatient and I’m not sure when I can get my old stuff out of my parents’ place any time soon. They’re getting older and hauling all these boxes to the post office is a lot to ask.
2.   DCC really is the way the hobby is going (or has already gone). It’s not just one company using this technology, they are all following an industry standard where decoders made by one company can be controlled by a command station made by another, so I didn’t feel my money would be wasted.
3.   It wasn’t too costly. I bought a DCC starter set (more on that below) for about $200 delivered to my door. I remember paying more than $120 for the old Tech II, but that was back in like 1986.
4.   I’m no wiring wizard but I’ve watched enough videos and read enough articles to see that adding decoders isn’t too difficult.
5.   The ability to add sound. You pretty much have to go DCC if you want sound on your layout.


So I’m sold on DCC, now which system do I buy?


You can spend hours reading online forums, articles, etc, about the pros and cons of the various DCC systems on the market. I did all that reading and now regret that I’ll never get those hours back. The way I see it, and I know many of you will disagree, it comes down to two excellent systems: NCE or the Digitrax system.

The conclusion I came to is that both are excellent systems and the debate over which one to buy is rather like the Nikon vs. Cannon debate that often rages among photographers whose time would be better spent taking pictures.

Like the choice photographers face between Cannon and Nikon, both Digitrax and NCE are great systems, both are very expandable and both will do what 99% of what you will ever want and expect  for a comparable price. The main difference, as I see it, is that the Digitrax starter system (the Zephyr) is a stationary cab, while the PowerCab is a command station built into a walkaround throttle on a tethered cord. I realize I’m glossing over all sorts of details here but like I said, I don’t want this to be a DCC debate forum.

So what did I decide? In the end I went for the … NCE PowerCab. With taxes, delivery, etc. it arrived at my door for about $200. I bought it from local online retailer Canadian Express Line.

So why did I go with this system? I like the fact I could walk around with the throttle right out of the box. The stationary  Zephyr just reminded me too much of the DC power packs of old. Of course you could always add a walkaround throttle to a Digitrax system and be on your feet right away, but I liked that the NCE system allowed me to do this right out of the box. 

Also, I read through the manuals of both systems and the NCE just seemed more user friendly to me. Does that mean Digitrax is a bad system? No way. In fact most clubs seem to use Digitrax so if I get into modular or club railroading I may find myself regretting this decision. But what’s the worst that will happen? I sell the ProCab on eBay, buy a Digitrax system and move on. Any decoder-equipped locos will work with both systems. For now however I think I made the right choice and with the decision made, I'm looking forward to the other aspects of building this layout.

My advice to other modelers agonizing over DDC decision is this is: buy either of these systems with complete confidence. And if you’re in a club that uses one of these systems, buy the system the club uses. Then, once the decision is made, don’t look back and enjoy running trains and building your layout confident that you bought into an excellent, expandable DCC system.

In the next section I will actually have track in place and can start running trains…  

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Getting started: The benchwork


Getting started: The benchwork       


I decided to build my layout on open-grid benchwork with extruded insulation foam on top. I love how larger layouts use L-girder benchwork to run tracks at various heights with scenery and other tracks above and below, but I don’t really need (or want) to do that with this layout. Most  areas are more or less flat so I don’t need those elevation changes (don’t have room for them anyway). The foam is easy to attach track to and run wires through and you can carve and sand bumps and shallow waterways into it where you need to create some definition to the land.

I made the frames using extra wood I had lying  around and left over from other projects. These include 2x3s and pieces of ¾ plywood ripped into 3” sections. Before installing the frames, I drilled wiring holes in down the centre of the cross-pieces to run the wiring buss. As you can see, the side under the window is built with plywood, the one closest to the camera is made with 2x3s. I’m sure a purist would cringe at mixing up the wood like this but that’s what I had on hand (the wife was on me to get rid of it, not sure if this is what she had in mind but oh well). Besides, the wood becomes invisible eventually anyway. As long as it’s study, it doesn’t matter much what you use.

Benchwork beginnings. Yes, the lighting sucks. You can see the layout will take on a U shape.

Here's the benchwork on the south wall. Used plywood here because that's what I had. Small layouts are a great way to use up old lumber!


Next I added the foam top, using the correct calk for foam. I’ve heard that some caulks and glues will attack the foam, so you can’t just use any old adhesive for this step. You can see the layout at this stage below.

Here it is with the foam added. Ready for track...



In the next entry I will, with some reluctance, get into the topic of DCC and reveal what DCC system I chose for this layout! A track plan will also be posted, just as soon as I draw one in a digital friendly format. You can see how much trouble I'm having with this Blogger template!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A prototype to model


A prototype to model...


I live in west Toronto and during my time here I’ve spent considerable time watching and photographing trains that move through the  area. I live near the Junction, a west-end Toronto neighbourhood named after its railroading history. Here the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National mainlines cross, giving the neighourhood its name.  Further south toward Lake Ontario  GO Trainsit (a government operated commuter line that links Toronto with its bedroom communities) and VIA trains pass on the busy mainline. As Toronto’s core has “de-industrialized” there isn’t much freight movement downtown or near the city’s lake shore, but the CP/CN mains offer plenty of action. I enjoy watching passenger trains but prefer freight, so I won’t attempt to model passenger traffic on my layout. I’ve always felt passenger model railroading works best on layouts with long stretches of mainline, so that’s out given my space constraints.

Before I decided on what to model, I researched the freight traffic in my area. Essentially, I followed the rail lines on Google maps then rode along them on my bike, armed with a notebook and camera. Three sites, all located within a few kilometres of my house, emerged as perfect sites to model. As it turns out, these sites are all part of Canadian Pacific system, which suits me fine. An aside here, internet makes it possible to do much of this research without lifting your butt out of a chair. Google street view will give you glimpses of buildings in the area you’re trying to model and Bing’s bird’s eye view lets you zoom in from above. You can even go close enough on the images to pick out road names of locomotives and rolling stock sitting in yard and spur tracks.

Here are the three sites I intend to model:

Lambton Yard . Once the main yard in West Toronto, this yard, although a shadow of its former self, is still quite busy (I’ve been watching traffic there for a while). Click here to read about the yard’s history: here . Overhead images from Bing.com appear to show less than 20 tracks. I want a yard on my layout and I’ll have to do a compressed version of this one.

Area H industrial spur The CP mainline west of Lambton yard travels  in a southwest direction away from Toronto. About 6 kilometres west of the yard there’s an industrial spur that branches off to the south of the mainline (see the track map below)



As you can see this spur has a short passing siding and serves six industries, listed on the map. Now last week I rode my bike along the entire length of this spur. It winds through a light industrial area and though I didn’t see any train activity on that day, I can tell it’s in steady use. The tracks show signs of wear but more than that, there are plenty of freight cars spotted on the spurs. Look below to see my pictures.








The Korex industry (see pic below) is particularly interesting. It has four spurs to itself and covered hoppers were spotted there on the day I visited. 





There were also covered hoppers at Polytainers and tank cars at Battenfield Grease (pic below).



A YouTube user named gotransitf59ph captured this great video of a CP crew switching this spur in  June 2010. 



In his video, a pair of GP9us (one wearing remains of a Boston and Maine paint job) travel down the spur, use the passing siding to get around their cut of cars, then push them down the spur to drop them off. It’s just the kind of switching operation I’d like to run on my layout. I’m going to put this spur on my regular biking route so I can observe (and photograph) trains working it. I may not be able to include each of this spur’s industries on my layout but getting something as close to the real thing is something to strive for. This spur features beat-up tracks than run along paved rounds and down the back of light industrial buildings, just the kind of thing I’m looking for.

So a small yard and a spur. There’s a third element I want to include, but only if space permits



Obico intermodal terminal. I love intermodal terminals and this is a smallish one located less than a block over from the industrial spur. It’s called Obico and according to aerial shots via Bing.com, it appears to have about 10 tracks (again I’ll have to compress). A challenge here will be getting a chance to survey and photograph this place. I rode all around it and could get close. The dead-end roads that surround the terminal end in fences. There is a few YouTube videos of crews switching trains into and out of Obico. I might just have to wing it a bit. Another problem might be running longer container cars in what is essentially a tight-space layout. Also, intermodal terminals don’t have the require the same kind of switching you’d see on an industrial spur … but they are typical of a modern working railway. So the decision is: use the entire peninsula for the industrial spur or split it in half with a backdrop, using one side for the spur tracks, the other for the intermodal terminal. I don’t think I can make the decision until I get some track on the table top and see it in 3D.


So that’s the three elements: Lambton Yard, Area H industrial spur and(possibly) Obico intermodal terminal. Three solid elements for a small urban switching layout all close to my place so I can use a “model what I see” approach.

In the next entry I'll get down to plans of ways to squeeze all this into my basement and talk about track plan ideas. Thanks for visiting....

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Planning and research


Planning and research


Okay, so our basement is big. The open basement space is 16 x 40, that doesn’t include the laundry room. But that doesn’t mean I’m allowed to fill every bit of this basement in some desperate attempt to create a true-to-scale version of the Canadian Pacific Railway. We need the space to store stuff, there’s a boiler and a water heater and I like to keep enough of the basement open that if I want to set up a pair of sawhorses to work on aother project, I can do it. Plus I don’t want a monster layout anyway.

The space I have available is the southwest corner of the basement. (The south wall is the front of the house). The ceilings are 7 feet high, the walls are brick, the floor is concrete but it’s also dry, even during the spring melt. Along the east wall is a 2’x10’ workbench with tool storage underneath and a cabinet of other tools above. The layout will be in the square opposite the bench in a space that’s about 12’x10’. Now that’s really not a lot of space for a modeler in HO, but we all have to work within constraints and these are mine.

(I will add a diagram of the space, at some point)

The layout I’m trying to achieve


My aim is to create a switching-heavy urban layout that mimics, as close as possible, the freight operations in a small yard with sidings that serve a few light industrial clients. Continuous run would be nice but isn’t essential. While it’s fun to open the throttle, put your feet up and watch the trains roll around, I don’t mind going point to point because that’s more true to how a real railroad operates. Plus my space constraints (see above) make any loop-style layout seem too close to the 4x8 I left all those years ago.

So here’s my wish list

  •       A small (lets say four-track) yard with capacity for some light switching.
  •        At least one runaround track so the engine can get around its train.
  •         A few spurs that serve industries.   At least bit of mainline allowing me to open up the throttle, even if just for a bit, to make it feel like this freight is moving somewhere instead of just shifting back and forth a few feet at a time.


I’m not keen on duck-under designs. This Heart of Georgia layout plan:





 is pretty close to what I want but I want a bit more track, a bit less scenery and I’d like to avoid the duckunder, though I see it’s a necessity for continuous run. So this layout is close to want I want to create but not quite there.

The mind of Lance Mindheim



In researching online what kind of layout I wanted to create online the name Lance Mindheim popped up almost immediately. If you’re not familiar with his work … he is a model railroad writer and layout designer who I think it’s safe to say seems to specialize in shelf-style switching layouts, which is essentially what I’m trying to create. The Toronto public library supplied me with a copy of his excellent book How to Build a Switching Layout. For me, this was a great place to star the thought process of building a small switching layout. I recommend his work to anyone interested in building a small, urban switching layout. I also purchased his book How to Design a Switching Layout and it’s also excellent. His website is here and his blog, also excellent, is here

In the How to Build book, Mindheim walks readers, step by step, though the process of creating a very simple but incredibly realistic switching layout on a 2x10 shelf. I won’t re-create his work here (you should check it out yourself) but this book gave me a mental ‘framework’ for my layout. His layout is based on a real industrial spur in Miami. To me it demonstrates that even with limited space you can create a simple, but stimulating layout that resembles one operating in real life. Though my layout will be bit different (and larger) than the one Mindheim builds in his book, I want to take a similar approach: trying to create something that resembles a real, modern railroad in spite of my space constraints. 

The layout Mindheim walks readers through has an incredibly simple track plan. It’s essentially a mainline with three spurs, with each spur coming off the main in the same direction. It’s a great looking layout and a very realistic representation of a rail-served, light industrial district in a modern urban setting, which is essentially what I’m trying to create. So on that front, his book was very useful to me. I however want something with a bit more operational possibilities (more track) and I’m working with a layout footprint roughly 2.5 times the size of the one he walks readers through. 

Mindheim seems keen to avoid cramming small shelf layouts loads of track. For example, the Sept. 17, 2012 blog entry is about a layout design that features one turnout! He makes a good point my I need something with more operational possibilities (though do read his in-depth descriptions of how to operate the one-turnout layout). 

In the next entry I'll describe creating the track plan and fitting the layout into the space available. 




Introduction: A model railroader returns



Introduction: A model railroader returns


Like many in this hobby I had a fascination with railways from an early age. I grew up on Vancouver Island, watching CP freight and VIA passenger trains roll by. At that time, I  couldn’t learn enough about the railroad and when I was about 10, I got a HO scale train set for Christmas. That oval loop of brass track with its light, crappy cars and temperamental Tyco locomotive should have driven me away from the hobby. Instead, I was hooked.

I expanded my empire to a 4x8, the plywood sheet supported only by a pair of sawhorses inadequate for the task, causing the plywood to sag at the corners. I now know that I tried to cram too much track onto that layout but along the way I learned to lay track and run wire. Later on, I built a shelf layout extending around a corner of our unfinished basement in an L-shape. This layout was never finished but here I learned the beauty of model railroading at eye level, never having to perform gut-busting stretch to reach the middle of the layout or squirm far, far beneath it to wire a turnout. And although it meant the end of continuous run, I also saw the rise in realism created by not watching a train chase its own tail.

The challenges of those early days

I read Model Railroader and wanted to create a railroad that at least came close to what I saw in its pages but at that point in my life it was something I could never attain.

Here’s the main reasons why:

·      Money – I tried to do it as cheap as I could but $15 for an Atlas Snap Track turnout gets expensive for a 12 year old. My parents weren’t poor but they weren’t rich either. Cash for my supplies and materials had to come from a limited fund fuelled solely by paper route and birthday money.


·      DIY? M.I.A. -   My Dad is  a great father but handy he’s not. He hated doing any kind of manual labour or maintenance work. My mother was much better with tools but we didn’t have many in the house. I remember a mis-matched, motley collection of cheap tools in a cardboard box in the basement, the kind of tools you often see spread out on a driveway at a garage sale. I remember saving up $30 to buy a Black and Decker jigsaw to cut the plywood top of my layout. I got it home, read the instructions and for a long time was petrified to turn it on. I had never used such a power tool before. While it’s true you can get started in model railroading with basic tools, eventually you run into barriers while working in a house that lacks even the basics. I begged, borrowed and bought tools when I needed them but the limited too arsenal was a constant source of frustration.


Why did I stop MRing?

High school turned to university and that involved a move to a town two hours away. During those years I never had the time, money or space for model railroading. I worked during university and in the summers moved around to different jobs as I built up work experience and focused on my career. Meanwhile my parents switched houses, the train stuff was carefully packed up into boxes and as I write this in 2012, my old train stuff still sits in the garage of my parents house 4,300 kilometres away. I will devote future blog entries to the contents of these boxes, which I will refer to as the Vancouver Island Model Railroading Time Capsule. 

After university, I moved to Toronto to further work on my career.

I moved from place to place and job to job and just never felt settled enough in any one space to invest the time and energy into a layout. Available space, the great limiter of all model railroaders (besides money), was also in short supply.

I got married in 2004 and we bought our first house together shortly after but it was tiny (13 feet wide from one exterior wall to another). The basement in that first house resembled a ship’s hold with a dirt floor and a steep, narrow staircase. No good for a layout.

After a few years in that starter home we moved to the house we’re in now. And while this was a big step up in space, this house was a four-year reno project that really only wrapped up last year. My wife and I did much of the work ourselves and along the way I acquired new DIY skills and the precious tools I could never have imagined owning back in my parent’s basement. I am now comfortable soldering copper plumbing, cutting a sheet of plywood on a table saw and wiring a new circuit into the electrical panel.

And now…

My job and living situation feels as “settled” as one ever can be. Our renovation is complete, leaving me with a large, unfinished basement to play in. That doesn’t mean I can have all the basement. There’s a monstrous run of heating pipes, a workbench and other claims to that space. Plus our first child is coming so you know kid stuff is going to take up much of that basement space. I don’t want a monster layout even if I could somehow negotiate one with my wife. What I do have is a 10x12 footprint for a layout and opposite it a well-stocked workbench. Finally I have the place to set up a layout. This blog will document that process.

The aim of this blog…

As I make a reentry into the MR world, I hope to build on the skills I learned years ago while acquiring new ones. As I learn, my hope is that you will too. I’m sure to make mistakes, and do things that will make for plenty of  eye-rolling from other model railroaders. I’m open to your input and intelligent criticism (I can take it) so long as we all keep well away from the nasty tone that can often spoil so much online discourse. This layout is a journey and this blog will allow readers to make it with me. 

I look forward to hearing from you as I get this train rolling.