re musings

It may be obvious to some that the subject of modular, portable layouts weighs heavily on my mind.

I have been posting my thoughts on the matter and these, while not definitive or exhaustive, represent the lessons learned from a few years of effort (and numerous observations) in the field.

The most recent posting are, as yet, very rough. I wanted to get them out depsite incompleteness. Sometimes it helps to actually see what one is thinking about in order to better organise thoughts.

I will be editing these entries to add more content, links, and (hopefully) diagrams to clarify and expand on various points.


the incredible shrinking train show

The 2-day Toronto Christmas Train Show has diminished in size yet again. Fewer vendors, fewer exhibitors, and fewer attendees. The admission price remains high, and the on-site food remains poor value for money.

The organisers saw fit to call it quits at 4:00 PM today, an hour earlier than usual. No reason was given.

At least one vendor was overheard to say, 'if this year is worse than last, it's my last show here'. Not a good sign.

Due to overlapping schedules this weekend, for once I wasn't present for assembly and will not be there for tear-down of the layout. I managed to make enough time to operate (to allow for a break for the other guys) and share a meal with the crew today. I enjoyed the partial day out with my friends very much, but the meager offerings and reduced overall footprint this year is the least inspiring yet.

With the recent demise of the CHRA Spring Train Show, this is the last big event left in the area. No attraction sets it off from other shows. Little or no promotion seems to be done to encourage attendance. There is no incentive for exhibitors to continue their efforts. What is there to tempt any but the die-hards?

If this is the Christmas Show, where is Santa? Ah yes, he's off at his parade downtown. Perhaps this show could be better timed to ensure his availability? Maybe his people could contact the show people and make suitable arrangements...

Why so few vendors, exhibitors and attendees? It's a good bet that half of the candidates were at the other end of the city, visiting the 2-day Whitby Train Show which, for some bizarre and unfathomable reason, is scheduled to occur on the same weekend for the 3rd or 4th year in a row. How this benefits either event is entirely beyond me.

I greatly doubt that anyone will mourn the ultimate loss of this particular show; it has virtually ceased to serve a useful or constructive purpose. A shame, really. Most of the locals used to look forward to this annual event.

modular musings, part 3 (electrical)

If you can't get the control signals or power to the locomotives, all the mechanical construction effort is for nought. I will discuss electrical aspects with DCC in mind.

You need to have robust connectors, able to manage the high current draws:
i.e. Anderson, Cinch-Jones, trailer...
Each have their beneifts and drawbacks. Any one of them can be "bad" if they are not used properly.

What about power districts? Modern sound equipped locos can draw significant amounts of power, and having a short at one end of the modular layout should not disrupt activity at the other end.
- maximum track buss length for each booster should be less than 50'

Employ 'unique' connectors at the interfaces to prevent mix-ups. Throttle buss, track buss, and accessory power buss should NOT be able to be connected to each other. Throttle buss cabling is usually something like a Telco RJ12, so that's not too difficult to keep apart. However, you must bear in mind that there are 'straight through' and 'crossover' versions of typical Telco and Datacom cables - beware mixing them in a daisy-chain!


If you choose to use something like an Anderson Powerpoles for both the track and accessory wiring  harnesses, ensure that you use different dovetailed plug arrangements for each.

Hermaphrodite connections saves 1/2 your material costs for electrical hardware, and is especially useful in Free-mo 180° end-for-end flip situation.

Make troubleshooting provisions from the beginning. Nothing takes more time than tracing an electrical  fault. Employing quick disconnects, terminal blocks, and nicely dressed colour coded wiring will help but remember that each break in the wire (for a connector, plug or whatever) is another potential point of failure. Also, DO NOT make something that only one person can fix, and DO NOT rely on proprietary "gizmo" solutions.

- buzzer box
Radio Shack buzzer + 2 alligator leads for track laying
see "Testing" section of http://www.wiringfordcc.com/track.htm

- buss run AWG
Heavy, stranded, Landscape wire (designed for outdoor use, thick insulation, high amp/low volt)

- track buss taps
3M IDC Suitcase connectors,
Telegraphers "tap" slice (aka Western Union joint in some circles)

- track feeders AWG
light, short (less than 6"), solid

Keep accessory power draws OFF the DCC buss! DCC is for loco power & layout communication only! If you're wondering why you loco is behaving erratically, maybe you should disconnect the 'welding flicker' and 'telegraph sounder' from your track buss. Electrical noise coupled-in to the command signals is BAD. The decoders determine what to do through edge-detection in the DCC signal. Don't add to the noise by tacking on a bunch of animated elements. A DC or AC wall-wart adaptor, or an old PC power supply (with PWRGOOD mod) will run all your online accessories.

- Loconet buss termination
A properly sized resistor at the end of the track buss will help reduce or eliminate ringing & overshoot of the DCC signal. Early Tsunami decoders were susceptible to overvoltage/spikes, causing premature failure in some cases. Spikes can hit over 22V on a DCC system set for 16V output.

- communication buss
With the advent of full-duplex radio, it may be that you don't need this on the layout. However, there is no need for the expense of radio throttles at yard locations. Adding a few plug-in throttle jacks won't hurt, and may help to reduce radio interference at larger shows.

If you are going to add throttle jacks to your modules, put two at opposite diagonal corners of the module set. This ensures that, whatever the orientation, there are jacks at even spacings around the layout. You won't have far to move if you need one.

- DCC vs DC
will depend on # of simultaneous locos & operators

- getting power to the layout
anti-trip mats to run power cable through, do not daisy chain extension cords, multi-tap AC cords

- turnout power
local adaptors, low volt AC buss, low volt DC buss, Tortoises vs solenoids (CD, SwitchWitch or Circuitron), servos (TamValley, AneModel)

- turnout control
DCC throttles, momentary buttons, toggles, computer, hand thrown, Pete's panel

- cables
making your own, 3-pair telco, x-over vs straight through, proper crimping tools

- test equip
RRAMp meter, Telco cable tester, hooking up UP5 LEDs, buzzer box, Digitrax LT1

sites for further study:


Circuitron "Snapper" cap-discharge solenoid driver:

Tractronics "SwitchWitch" stall motor driver:

RRAmp meter for DCC testing:

series 302 Cinch connectors:

Anderson Powerpole connectors & accessories:

R/C servomotor controllers for turnouts:

IDC Scotchlok connectors:


modular musings, part 2 (mechanicals)

The enemy is variation. Avoid dimensional softwood lumber for portable applications; continual changes in temperature and humidity wreak havoc with it. You may be well served to seal any wood to limit the effects of moisture (something like sanding sealer or shellac, perhaps); beware of acrylic coatings, the painted surfaces can stick to each other after being clamped together.

Goals are fast and repeatable setup, and optimal strength-to-weight ratio. Heading straight to "lightweight" can lead to fragile construction. It won't matter if it's light if the first time you clamp it to another module the endplates flex or rip right off, or you drop it and it turns into a pile of kindling.

Track expansion. Attach rails firmly above the interface (soldered to PCB tie plate or brass screws), and allow for rail gaps somehwere inside the MODULE confines.

PC board tie plates (Free-mo)

Thought points:
- (Simon's) profile blocks to ensure consistent rail height at each joint.
- A single socket directly below the main line. Fit pin as needed to align to next section or module.
- Minimum number of tracks crossing any joint.
- Solid vertical member under the subroadbed itself to prevent sagging.
- Track must be 90°to both the horizontal and vertical planes at each INTERFACE.
(an INTERFACE differs from a SECTION JOINT, as a MODULE differs from a SECTION)
- Maple Leaf Mafia aluminium CNC frames

Avoid using porous material in the subroadbed, especially if you use the water soluble method of applying ballast or scenery near the track. Absorbed water tends to swell and distort the material. Using soap or alcohol to cut surface tension just makes it easier for the water to get in.

90° ends are critical everywhere. Setup & check your chop saw carefully. Verify the alignment with a proper try square and the cut-flip-match method of ensuring 90°. Cut matching sides and ends in pairs (at least). Mark what they are for. Clamp up and assemble frame pieces on a flat surface. Check 90° Horiz & Vert again. Get the frame dead square! Apply top and/or corner gussets. Route off edges of top with laminate trimmer bit (if it has a flat deck).

The primary mechanical goal is to ensure accurate track alignment across the joints. The secondary goal is an even fascia for the sake of appearance. Scenic continuity can be accomplished through application of loose material along the joint after assembly. Keep some spice tins or shaker bottles of each type of material handy in your toolbox for shows. Accuracy can be a problem if many people are making their own modules; everyone executes cutting and fitting tasks at their own skill level.

Low density self-adhesive foam weatherstrip can be used to take up the eventual (hopefully minimal) gapping at the joints. This stops loose scenic material placed on the joint for exhibition from falling through to the floor. Do not use thick or high density foam, you don't want to make the gap bigger (foam tape the perimiter of the end board to create even compression).

Pierre Oliver, master carpenter and owner of Elgin Car Shops, recommends cabinet grade plywood ripped to appropriate widths for all framing members. There are no voids or inclusions, and the multiple plies offer greater dimensional stability.

Creating the boards: Take the ripped plywood and make a frame. Add braces across the width. Stanley corner brackets or gussets should be applied to ensure squareness and add screw locations. Keep clamping & cable area at MODULE and SECTION joints clear.

Fastening the MODULES or SECTIONS together: Quik-Grip clamps. Try to clamp immediately below the track itself. C-clamps need more clearance for the lever arm. Loose bolts, washers & wing nuts - adds to part count and things that can go missing. T-nuts (or threaded inserts) and furniture bolts can strip out or seize at inopportune times.

quick-attach adjustable legs - single pipe with foot, interchangable, retained (bayonet, squeeze fit, spring pin)


Lee Valley dowel pins, leg feet:

patternmakers pins, etc.:

make an accurate drilling jig, use drill bushings, store safely:

More thought points:
- dropping the egg crate example
- French cleat vs ledger board
- protect root of cleat (cover/scraper?)
- legs/supports
- tool-less height adjustments
- height adjustment at the top of the leg
- pads to protect floors (gymnasiums, churches, etc.)
- crowd barriers
- concrete post bases + ABS 'tees' with rope on a spindle (Jim)


a traumatic idea...

...for a portable exhibition layout.

It's always a bother to drag legs, skirting, and the boxed-up sections of your exhibition layout out, using a hand cart or simply lugging the dead weight of it all. Often you have to make two trips back and forth to the vehicle.

How about using an ambulance gurney frame as the basis of the layout? The rolling chassis would fold up as you shoved it into the back of your van or pickup, and unfold as you dragged it out. Then it would be easy to roll it from the parking lot up to the venue and into your assigned spot. Just lock the wheels and drop some skirting around the edge of the frame to cover the chassis.

The frame would support an approximately 24" x 72" layout. Plenty for an HO or OO shunting plan, or an N terminus or single industrial complex. You should even be able to make a nice O14 or O16.5 scene in this footprint.

But where would you buy a used gurney?


modular musings

Half of the S Scale Workshop crew are exhibiting at Milwaukee's TrainFest this weekend. The rest of us, being un-retired, are occupied with domestic chores and household tasks that are forcibly compressed (by dint of regular employment) into the weekends preceding the first major snowfall.

I am the group's primary nerd/geek. Knowing that I wouldn't be there to assist if the DCC system decided to throw a fit, I prepared some documentation for the guys to take with them to both simplify the setup and aid in troubleshooting. I also played a role in determining the electro-mechanical standards at the group's inception. After examining dozens of modular standards, we distilled what we considered (at the time) to be the best practises to follow in order to meet our needs. For the most part, we succeeded.

The absolute necessity of following proven methods for building a modular system cannot be overstated. Any flaw in a module will affect ALL of the others. "It ain't no fun if the trains don't run". Each module must meet (and preferably exceed) the minimum requirements in order for the whole system to work as intended.

No skimping on wiring or structure; no corner-cutting on fittings or fasteners. The pennies you save up front will be spent a hundred times over during the life of the project, and the aggravation caused will haunt operations to the bitter end. If you don't know how to do something that's been agreed to by the group, ask for help or have someone do that bit for you in exchange for you doing stuff they can't manage. Each person has a distinct skill set and no one can do everything perfectly. Share the load.

Things to consider to ensure consistency:
- settle on ONE coupler type, ONE turnout type, ONE turnout mechanism (Caboose Ind., Tortoise, Bullfrog, Bluepoint, etc), ONE wheelset; supplying spares is much easier if there aren't a mish-mash of choices
- buy components IN BULK and distribute as necessary; it saves money and time
- make JIGS to cut and drill components the same way each time; store these carefully between uses
- cut ALL of the module end plates at once; make a few extras for future expansion
- make ALL of the legs interchangeable; no "specials"
- use the PROPER crimping tool(s) for electrical connections; don't make do with generic pliers (or a hammer)*
- use ONE type of fastener for all of the legs, carrying cases, backdrops, section joints, etc; same head type and length**
- INSPECT & TEST each module as it is ready to put into service; don't simply assume it's been done right***

Things to consider to make life easier:
- DON'T design & build a module that you can't transport or erect safely
- make a CHECKLIST of everything you need to take; do not check off a box until you hold the item in your hand and put it in whatever carrying case is going to the venue
- TEST your power and DCC cables as part of preparing for a show
- bring SPARES of your fastener and cables
- TEST your module regularly; things get broken/come loose in transit

If you aren't having fun at the shows you attend with your modular group, you're doing something wrong. Figure out what it is and fix it. There's no sense in continuing the misery. If it's a systemic problem (like undersized wiring) schedule a group work session and get it ALL done at once. If it's a single bad turnout, a dip in the roadbed, a gauge problem, kinks in a curve or whatever - repair it before the next event or don't bring that section out to the show.

* Electrical problems, especially intermittent ones, are the MOST ANNOYING and time consuming problems to solve. You often can't see the fault because of insulation, backshells, or accessibility (under the deck or in the framing). Yes, some crimping tools are expensive, but it's a one-time cost that saves hours or days of future frustration. How much is your time worth? How much more do you value the enjoyment of your hobby time over that of the daily grind?

** Pierre Oliver, of Elgin Car Shops, is a Master Carpenter and theatrical set builder. If there is someone who knows more about constructing and moving robust sub-assemblies around, I haven't met them. This is his idea and I can find no fault with it. Hex head (Allen) furniture bolts are available (nearly) worldwide. Forget slot head and Phillips; too easy to slip or strip out. The Robertson head is superior, but isn't universally available.

*** Many people get bent out of shape when they are subjected to the indignity of a "quality check". TOUGH. Your components have to be "known good" in order to ensure a favourable experience for ALL of the participants. If you want to work with a group, put your primadonna attitude aside. You are not immune to errors, and you don't get to do something different (non-standard) just to show everyone how clever you are. It's a collective effort and you need to conform for the sake of consistency, reliability, ease of troubleshooting & repair, and the overall enjoyment of the group.


too bad, so sad,

bye bye.

The newbie's hand-me-down layout was not worth saving. It was a 5'x9' Granite Gorge & Northern from Altas' old "6 HO Railroads You Can Build"

When it was prepped for storage or moving, almost all of the wiring was torn out from underneath, the control panel was disconnected (cable cut) and the many bridges across the middle joint were very roughly removed. In the process, several sections of cork and track were damaged. The track was a mix of brass and nickel-silver; likewise the turnouts were from various manufacturers, in various states of repair.

I wasn't confident that this could be repaired easily. I knew the fellow was eager to run some trains, and it would be many hours of work for a newcomer to get this thing back in decent shape (if it could be saved at all). Frustration could set in very quickly, and I wanted to avoid yet another bad experience for a beginner.

Based on our discussion of what he was interested in (and his skill level), my recommendation was to scrap the top and replace it with a flat deck. Then obtain a starter set of either Kato Unitrack or Bachmann EZ-Track, a Bachmann Berkshire with DCC, and an NCE Powercab.

I found out that the local hobby shop had a single Kato World's Greatest Hobby starter track plan set left in stock and suggested that purchase to him. It was still in the shop on Friday, so I'm not sure where he's at with his activities.

tinkering, thinkering

I have been mulling over the idea of a "participatory event", hopefully assisted by the local hobby shop. The concept is to pre-package enough plywood and track for anyone to build a T-Trak module in N scale. It wouldn't be a contest so much as a way to develop modelling skills and encourage a bit of diversity within the area's exhibition landscape. At the end, all modules would come together in a group display. Perhaps a popular vote would be held, but certainly a reward of some kind would be dispensed to all participants.

Many newcomers to the hobby are overwhelmed by the idea of a large, home layout. Some intermediate modellers stall in their thought processes. Long-timers may wish to dabble in something else; "a change is as good as a rest", it is said. City dwellers and young people relying on public transit find it difficult to move large modules. All of these people would (likely) benefit from interaction with like-minded modellers. A small project like this would offer a kickstart or development platform.

T-Trak offers an incrementally-sized base to build upon, starting at about a foot square. The material requirements for baseboards are minimal; no legs and only a simple box frame. Track requirements are similarly light; parallel (at each end) Kato Unitrack components. It may be possible to provide a kit of essential parts for as little as $25. Modules are connected together on, and supported by, the ubiquitous 30" high folding-leg tables lurking at exhibit & conference halls.

The event organiser would have to provide four corners and one straight section in order to guarantee that any number of participants could be provided for during the culminating exhibition. Tying-in with a large local train show would be the best course of action; many modellers would be in attendance anyway, and the display could be seen by the largest number of visitors. I would recommend the "33mm spaced centre" version of the T-Trak build, so that many of Kato's accessories could be incorporated without modification.

Kato's track products are, frankly, some of the best in the hobby. My recent experiments with their N Unitrack sections have proved pleasant and trouble-free. I was able to have a long-idle locomotive running on a loop of track in mere minutes. While the pre-ballasted track sections are not preferred for many advanced techniques used by "serious" hobbyists, they provide a good looking basis for reliable and consistent running - minimising disappointment and maximising the fun factor; crucial elements for newcomers to the hobby.


coulda, woulda, shoulda, didn't

I actually turned down the offer of many dozen Railfan & Railroad magazines (in proper binders) the other day. Who would have thought I'd reject yet more reading material? Could've taken up the space I just emptied last week...

Did receive 3 volumes published by Wild Swan in the UK from a bookseller I haven't dealt with before, British Railway Books. Great service. Two are by Gordon Gravett on 7mm Modelling techniques, and the third is about Narrow Gauge Modelling in the British style. If I was ever required to get rid of all my reference material except one source, I would keep the Wild Swan books.

Missed a chance to buy something that is now out of stock everywhere. Hadn't thought a mass-market item would disappear so quick. I guess times really are changing; even large manufacturers are no longer making thousands of the same SKU only to have the remainder sit on their shelves for years. Should get stuff while you can.

A portion of our S Scale group will be in Milwaukee for Trainfest next weekend. I expect about 30' of modules will make the 800+ km journey to the show. I didn't book time to go, as I couldn't justify the trip; too many other things requiring attention and funds at the moment.


space, man

As in "making some".

Finally divesting myself of all my Model Railroader magazine back issues. The disappearing paper spans the 1957 through 2009 timeframe. This equates to about 10 ft³ of volume that can be used for other things or, indeed, for nothing at all. I may obtain the entire MR collection on DVD at some point in the future. The Trains! collection on DVD is a useful reference, but I don't find myself accessing it as much as I had thought.

I still obtain the Kalmbach Special Issues and Model Railroad Planning annuals; they are good distillates of theme-based material.

The recipient of the magazines is looking forward to browsing the many articles and photographs. He's new to the hobby and is eager to devour any information he can find. I will have to point him at the searchable indices online in order to help him find articles by topic. His plans at the outset seem fairly modest; focusing on the 1950's era with no particular prototype in mind (yet).

I've offered to cast an eye over the 5'x9' hand-me-down layout that he recently obtained; may be better for him to start fresh than try to resurrect it - I get the impression this pike has seen better days. I know he'd like to have a train running sooner rather than later.