Sunday, November 25, 2018

Donohue MLW S2 - Part 1

Some work has been done on future Donohue MLW S2 switcher locomotive. Already equipped by Atlas with a factory Loksound decoder, this kitbash it relatively straightforward.

The cab roof was modified in the same fashion Merrillees of Toronto did before selling this ex-CP unit to Donohue in the 80s.

The big issues are the truck sideframes and pilots. Donohue locomotive rides on AAR types. Unfortunately, the older Atlas sideframes aren't incompatible with their new tooling. I the past, I always had bad experience trying to fit sideframes on other locomotives. I'd be curious to know how people install them on trucks in a sturdy fashion.

The other problem is the pilot. Footbars were removed and new steel sheets were fitted on each side of the steps. The locomotive frame is cast metal, making it hard to rework without making a big mess and I'm not very fond of the idea to extend the pilot with styrene bits glued on metal. Not very reliable in the long term if you ask me. But I have plenty of time to figure these issues and decide how to handle them.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

FRED - Protecting Your Trains

As our recent blog posts have shown, our efforts have shifted from building a layout to building a railway company. Several small details, not directly related to modelling but supporting it have to be implemented to improve the way we run the layout and FREDs are another small detail taht can make a difference.

Before committing to paint, ballast and scenery, we feel it's better to troubleshoot the layout as much as possible and fine tune operation. If changes have to be done, it will be less destructive.

In 1994, cabooses altogether disappeared from the old CN Murray Bay Subdivision. The new owner - Chemin de fer Charlevoix - was a shortline and had probably no use keeping up with such an old and costly technology. This may have been a contributing factor to my lack of fascination with CFC in its early days.

Replacing the caboose was a FRED (Flashing Rear End Device) which is nothing more than a yellow stick with a flashing red light mounted on the last car knuckle. Quite spartan, but it certainly made history.

A FRED inserted in a standard Kadee  #148 coupler

Replicating a scale FRED is quite easy. Any yellow stick with a red spot should do the job. In our case, we used a Peco yellow insulated plastic rail joiner and added a red square tape on it. The FRED bottom half was painted black to make it less conscupious. The plastic peg normally creating a gap between rails works wonder to keep the FRED firmly anchored into the knuckle.

I'm well aware much more sophisticated options are available. A few manufacturers offer working FRED which are cost prohibitive, out of scale and of no use for operation. Most of these gadgets require to be wired directly to a truck. It means the FRED must be permanently mounted on a specific car, which makes very little sense for an operator. One could argue you can make a much more realistic FRED using pico LED and I would agree, but it wouldn't hide the fact you must provide a power source.

A spare FRED is kept in Clermont yard and D'Estimauville just in case...

I my mind, working scale FRED is a sophistry. What may looks more prototypical ends up being less prototypical. In real life, flashing FREDs are barely visible in daylight, now imagine them in scale and the light becomes irrelevant. In fact, the most important characteristic to reproduce is versatility. FREDs imposed themselves because they were a simple and efficent way to protect a train rear end. The moment your scale FRED can't be moved around, it kind of lose its purpose.

On the other hand, a flashing FRED will probably appeal to people running trains at exhibition or who run some trains which doesn't require switching the last car. In these case, why not! But for simple operators, keeping things simple is bound to be more than enough.

*** Some will remark my few latest posts are all about implementing very crude solutions to improve operation. Does it means we lowered our standards? Not really.  While trying to step up our operations, several ideas must be put in action in a relatively fast way. The goal isn't to make great models at this point, but rather mockup and test them. Improvement will come as seen fit. In the case of FRED or scale brakemans, I'm happy with what we actually use. They aren't great under close scrutinity, but play their role and replicate in a decent way the real things. Being under constant use, it would be foolish to be too fancy since sturdiness is the key feature. And yes, if I find better figures, I'll gladly use them!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Putting a Face on Your Layout

Well, for some changes, let's take a look at something more lightheated than the last post.
A typical CFC employee in the mid-2000s with a blue hard hat.

I often wrote here that operating a layout was, at the end of the day, some kind of game. You lay some rules and then you play your game. However,  a crucial aspect of playing this game is tracking down your moves. Sounds and mechanical devices can only replicate some very specific actions but barely take into account the human factor. A big deal of real life railroading is about car and human movements. The closer they can overlap, the more efficient operations are.

For most of us, this overlap never occur because the human factor isn't truly taken into account. It means that without the limiting human factor, we end up being far too much efficient, flipping our turnouts at the touch of a finger the moment our brain process the information.

While I concede replicating a walking human on a layout can never be more than an approximation, as imperfect as it can be, it is better than nothing at all.

No surprise that for years, well-known modellers have used brakeman figures to better get a grasp at what they are doing. At this point, we aren’t not very far from action figures and, I feel, it’s for the best. This is even more interesting when operating in team. Both people start to better understand what they are doing. Little details like protecting a grade crossing, bending a turnout iron, cutting cars at a specific location or setting handbrake start to make much more sense because they now have a visual cue.

I certainly agree most figures on the market are far too costly for their less than impressive quality. Over the last few years, better figures are now available from smaller manufacturers, including ones based on scanned real human bodies.
A crude yet helpful figure
In our case, we’ve come to the conclusion old Bachmann figures depicting 1950s people are still doing a decent job for what they are. One of them – a conductor raising a lantern – has been a favourite of us. His slim nature makes him easy to place on locomotive running board while his raised arm and lantern are perfect to hang him on car handrail. While not realistic, his base is also quite useful when he’s supposed to be standing at a turnout or protecting a grade crossing.

However, it must be noted this guy can hardly look like a railroad worker from the 2000s. For this reason, Jérôme asked me to modernize the little guy a little bit and maybe try my hand on other figures. I worked using pictures of real life CFC employees.  Their most striking and common features were blue hard hat, safety jacket and dark clothing.

Fortunately enough, the old 1950s hats are easy to shape into a hard hat using a file. As for the safety jacket, they are quite easy to replicate because people back then often wore jackets and coats. In our case, Bachmann figures have this feature and it’s only a matter of painting the jacket orange and the sleeves another color and you get it right. Finally, the lantern can be removed all together and replace with a very small brass hook.

Brass rod makes a fairly unnoticeable hook.
Once painted, these figures play their role and set the era convincingly, which was our original goal even if they don't look terrific. That can be address later on with better figures and paint job. At this point, sky is the limit and pushing the concept limits is a matter of personal choice. Many modellers drastically reshaped figures, adding posable limbs and even adding magnets.

Ready to get a coat of Dullcote and one brakement needs a brass hook.

A Few Tricks to Improve Figure Realism

  1. Observe real workers, how they are dress and the color used.
  2. Use muted colors. Don't fear adding white, tan, dark gray and buff to bright colors. In fact, except yellow safety stripes, no out of the bottle colors were used.
  3. Keep your color palette limited: working clothes are generally plain. Take in account the season and climate your layout is set. In our case, early spring means workers are still wearing coats to protect them from the weather.
  4. Figures are really small, uses lighter colors on them so they better photograph. Stay away from pure black.
  5. Carefully replicate small details that makes a difference: black rubber ends on boots, leather lining on gloves, identification stickers on hard hat, etc.
  6. The last one is obvious, pick up the best figure you can! ;-)

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Frustration, Change of Pace and Improved Operations

Improving operation immersion...

You probably all found out my writing output on this blog took a plunge in the few last week. With no surprise, this was due to recurrent health issues and not lack of content. Unforunately, writing in an other language when you're not feeling well can quickly become extremely challenging and it was the case.

In terms of layout construction, nothing really happened since. Trying to wire DCC, sound and lighting in locomotives proved to be a nightmare. The SW1200RS project is also hellish even if it was supposed to be more straight forward (beware of undecorated Rapido locomotives would be my advice).

To be honest, model railroading can be very frustrating when the results aren't matching the amount of effort put into something. Over the last few months, I've been trying to replicate as close as possible locomotives that ran on Murray Bay Subdivision during the early 2000s. I my mind, if you have the right locomotives for a layout it means you're half way toward completing your vision... but maybe I'm somewhat wrong in my claim. It's not my goal to rant here and thus, I won't share these angry feelings clouding my mind, but I think you can easily understand them.

However, I prefer to share the positive outcome with layout operation.

A switchlist, a pen, some keys and a cell phone (to run TrainCrew app)
Two weeks ago, after wasting an entire afternoon on locomotives, we decided to finally inaugurate the "new" layout using JMRI Switch Lists for the first time. Donohue Switcher and trains #522 and #523 were scheduled and everything worked fine.

Using FRED... made from a Peco insulating joiner and some red tape.

It's great to not have to create switch lists by yourself and I'm not saying it for lazy reasons (programming JMRI is everything except easy). After years of operation, my pattern were extremely predictable and I didn't take advantage of several opportunities. I would put together a train and Jérôme could almost blindlessly spot each cars effortlessly. Also, having to work a list made by the computer helps a lot in the immersion process because you don't know in advance what to do with the trains. That's a big plus for me.

Jérôme and Louis-Marie switching Donohue

We worked in tandem and it was great to stop at moments and start planning the next moves instead of being on autopilot due to our biases. To slow down things, we used the TrainCrew application to make sure we took our time to respect the railroad rules. Among many tasks, correct number of handbrakes were applied, air brake tests performed. Wieland, with it's two small sidings was now a really busy spot on the railroad. Not so long ago, running this part of the layout was a matter of a few seconds. Now it takes at least ten minutes. Just setting out cars at Villeneuve is now a significant task. All that made the layout feel really big and in such a manner we really did have the feeling to have worked a full day. Once again, it proves us very little is required to keep some guys entertained for a while. It certainly confirmed me that such a diminutive layout like my Temicouata project will provide a lot of fun. As for Harlem Station, I can already predict operating sessions on that layout will be extremely challenging.

An old trick in the book: using scale figure to better visualize what is happening.
Then, it was decided to finally implement a real office for Wieland. A desk, an old laptop, a banker lamp and an old wooden rolling chair did the trick. We are also eyeing an old desk to complete the area. A printer will also be added soon to print switch lists on the spot. Meanwhile, Jérôme dug out original CFC timetables and employee instructions. These have been valuable to improve our understanding of how things were done back in the days.

Wieland office... up and running

JMRI Operations was also altered to add CN Limoilou yard as the effective staging area. This new location represents the rolling stock storage cabinet under the layout. Far to be a gimmick, this enable us to replicate in a more prototypical fashion how cars were swapped at D'Estimauville between train 522 and train 523.

Miniature padlock used to lock turnouts and derails

Fast forward to yesterday. Following a Facebook advice, I acquired several miniature padlocks on Ebay to secure turnouts, derails and fence gates. They have been temporarily mounted on the benchwork at this point, but will be better implemented later when working on scenery. It looks silly right now, but it had a tremendous impact on how the operating session went on. It drastically slowed down operations, but also forced us to better plan our moves. As a matter of fact, it was impressive how the layout stopped to be a toy and became a real game. Once again, implementing all these little details on a layout can make a real difference...

So, at the end of the day, wiring locomotive is extremely frustrating, but on the other hand, the layout as modified and now operated is far better than what we did in the past. In all honesty, it seems to support the idea that a fun and rewarding layout isn't that much grounded in the prototype or scope of the project, but rather how you approach you concept and put it in action.

Silly? Maybe, but quite useful.