Tram Line Update

Well I knew this was going to be the hardest part of my layout redesign, and I was right.  The tram line is a real challenge, and I've had lots of moments of anxiety thinking that I should bag my approach and go with the Kato Unitram (which does mean waiting until more than the basic track pieces currently available are released).  But I'm committed to this approach, so best to finish it off!

In my last post on the tram line, I talked about my use of sintra to create the street/top layer for the downtown area, and how careful cutting where the track contacts the sintra is necessary so that the top of the sintra sits just about level (but not quite) with the top of the rails.  For the most part, this worked out, but there were some areas where the sintra was too low or there was too large of a gap between the rails and the 'street'.  I've tried patching it with both caulk and Testors putty, but both were somewhat difficult to work with.

So guess what?  I've ended up using Spackle after all!  It actually works pretty well.  I think I've got all the street to rail contact areas at the right level so that the street does not lift the wheels above the rail and lose contact, as well as nice level/flush surfaces by all the track.

So, I'm not waiting for the latest coat of paint to dry.  I used a dark, dark grey primer color, which I'm starting to like a lot more than my usual lighter grey (I usually use Polly Scale paint's SP Lark Grey, which I think has a nice asphalt tone, but I'm leaning towards a dark color right now).

Here's the evolution of the 'north end' of the layout, from a lower elevated suburban area to part of the downtown with the tram line progress - The top photo is how it looked most of the past year, with the changes from the last month in the remaining photos...a much slower and tedious process than I had hoped, but this is one of those 'permanent' and hard to change layout features that I have to get 'right':



Tram Line Project

The little plastic people of Quinntopia have spoken, and they've decided they want light rail!  No longer are they content to pretend to drive their little cars (with wheels that don't move!) or stand on the station platforms as yet again the Thalys speeds on by!  No, they want their trolley / tram system!

This tram line project on the layout that has been holding up a lot, and one that I've procrastinated on for quite some time.  It is also one of the key drivers of my decision to expand and rebuild my city/downtown...which I feel like I've been talking about on this blog for far too long!

My approach is probably a somewhat unconventional one.  There are a few good solutions that I've been thinking about for quite a while.   I've never had good results with spackle or plaster, although I know some folks who have done a really nice job with this, I just don't have the skills or patience for this approach.  Having been exposed to the Tomix Tram system about a year ago finally got my mental gears going on this, and I've been thinking about how to use this system and still maintain flush and realistic looking streets.  I've also been dragging my feet as I've been waiting to see how the Kato Unitram system was going to look and what would be available.  I expect someday that I'll regret my own approach as the Unitram system has real potantial, but I can't wait on Kato to hold up my layout construction!

My method, once again, used sintra, that hard, foam-like plastic material commonly used for lightweight signage.  For the 'downtown' area where the tram tracks will run, there is actually two layers of this 1/4" sintra; one for the base that sits on top of the styrofoam, and another layer of sintra that is actually the street and which will be cut to match the rail width of the Tomix Finetrack I am using for the tram section of the layout.

This is where the Tomix Tram system comes in.  One of the most difficult questions I had to answer was getting precise (or nearly so) curves for the layout.  The Tomix Tram sections provided a useful template.

Once I had all my tram track laid out, I just duct-taped the pieces to the sintra, slid the track out from the Tomix Tram section, marked the interior edges of the tram pieces for cutting, and then continued these lines on to the next curve.  Pretty simple!

After getting the entire outline of the tram line cut out, a process which actually went a lot better and quicker than I had been expecting, I could start to lay it out on the base sheet with the track to check my cutting and the 'fit':
The biggest challenge at this point was creating an inverted 'bevel' on the edges of the sintra that come into contact with the track/roadbed.  This is critical, as I've found that if there is an even a hair of the sintra that is higher than the rails, the tram will lose contact with the rail and stop.  I could just sand/gouge down the top side of the sintra, but that does look sort of crude and would not have a smooth finish that I was looking for.  An Xacto knife and my Dremel tool helped me with this very time-consuming project (the below photo shows the underside of the sintra where the roadbed contacts the sintra)!

After a coat of dark grey primer, the 'street' was then placed back on the layout and more testing and fine-tuning took place.

Once the wiring (including an auto-reversing unit) was complete, the track was attached with small nails, and the street could finally be cemented to the base.  At which point, gaps between the rails and the sintra were filled with either paintable caulk or Testor's putty.

As mentioned above, all of the curves are Tomix Finetrack (both 103mm and 140mm), but some of the straight sections are either Minitrix snap track or Atlas flex track.  They are all code 80 so there was no problem connecting them together.   I did choose to directly solder feeder wires to the bottoms of the Tomix finetrack as the defauly connectors for Tomix were too bulky to properly integrate.
Wallah!  Everything works (the reverse unit, the trams!) and it looks like this major milestone on the layout redesign (what I think I've referred to as Version 3.0) is done! Well, almost.  I still need to give the street a better color and cover up the gap-filling caulk, add street markings, and add in the center pieces for the curves from Tomix, and straight pieces of styrene for the straight sections.

What this means for me is exciting!  I can start to add buildings to the layout and, with this sort of major (and often dirty) construction complete, I can add trains back to the layout!  Yeah!  Stay tuned for more updates!


Kato Thalys Decoder Install Notes

I provided my initial observations of the Kato Thalys almost a year ago, and I've since had two comments to provide more information on the actual decoder install.  As always, I'm far from proficient at these sort of things, but I did get it to work, so I'll share some photos and information on what I did.
First, equipment.  You'll need the ESU manufactured replacement light board (KATO147456) which will remove the Kato light board in both control cars.  You'll need a NEM 651 decoder with a wire harness for the motor car.   I used the  ESU 52684 LokPilot DCC MICRO V3.0 6-pin NEM651 interface with wire harness.  I'll also mention that I think any NEM651 decoder with a wire harness would probably work, but I like ESU or Lenz .  I've shortened my list of decoders that I like now that I have some experience with them, and these two brands have never let me down.

The reason for the wire harness should be apparant in the below photo. On the interior of the motor car you'll see a grey molded plastic piece that is actually where the pantograph is mounted.  As this grey piece is recessed, its virtually impossible to get a standard NEM 651 decoder installed here and still be able to close the shell onto the frame!

The situation for the non-motor motor car (or 'dummy' I guess) is the same....you're going to need another NEM 651 decoder with a wire harness.  Either out of ignorance, impatience, and some fiscal irresponsibility, I used another ESU 52684 for the non-motor car, even though its clearly overkill as a cheaper function decoder will suffice (I assume someone makes a function only NEM 651 decoder with a wire harness?).

Programming Decoders without Motors (e.g. the 'decoder' for the motor car without the motor). UPDATE- Be sure to read the comments below! This is not entirely complete or accurate!   Here's something I had to learn the hard way.   Apparently most decoders and most DCC systems require that the decoder requires some sort of load in order for the decoder to be read.  Did you understand that?  I don't.  What it means for us non-scientists is that you need to connect the decoder to a motor, not just a light board, in order to program it.  Don't fear, however, as the solution is simple.  Just program your decoder for the 'dummy car' in the 'motor car', remove it, and then place in its appropriate dummy car!  See!? This DCC stuff is easy!  You could also program both locomotives on the same programming track with the same info, then remove the dummy car so that just the motor car is left on the programming track and correct your 'light' CV's so they are correctly set.  I think that works too.

Problem Putting it Back Together:   
The wire harness may create something of a problem however.  If you don't get the wires folded just right, it tends to exert pressure on the lightboard, which causes the light board to lift slightly and results in some contact problems between the light board and the copper strips where the current contacts the decoder.  I initially had some small, foam spacers that put a small amount of pressure on the light board (they are placed between the light board and the interior ceiling of the locomotive) although this made the shell not quite snap tight onto the frame all the time.  Lately, I've been able to remove the spacers as the wires and everything seems to have settled and contact has been good.
Another thought.  Perhaps its my model, perhaps I damaged it, but the shell just does not sit tightly on the body/frame for either of the motor cars.  The tabs don't seem to exert enough pressure to create a tight fit as is typical.  Not a big deal, but sort of annoying.

I think that about covers that actual decoder install.   There should be no soldering or anything more complicated than that.  It really should be easy, there's just a few things that can feel tremendously frustrating when you run into them!

My good friend Don (make sure you check out his site!) adds the following really useful information in the comments that deserves to be added to the original body of this post.  If my comment on programming decoders without a load was confusing and/or incorrect, Don clears it up!  Thanks Don!
Does anyone make function only NEM651-interfaced decoders? If so, I'd be interested to know.

You can program a decoder even without a sufficient load on it. I.e., there's no need for the decoder juggling just to get the "function" (as it were ;) ) decoder programmed. Your programmer will complain, but ignore this complaining. All the programmer is missing out on is the "OK!" the decoder sends back after programming a CV. The juggling is necessary if you want to confirm your programming by reading CVs back, however.

Here's how it works. First: The decoder only talks back when, 1) you program a CV into it. In this case all it says is "OK!" The lack of a response is a "D'oh!" which is why your programmer will freak out. Really, though, it doesn't really matter if your programmer can hear the decoder talk back or not. What's important is that the CV got sent. Second: When you explicitly ask for the value of a CV.

How does the decoder talk back? Why does it require a load? Think about how the decoder is connected to the programmer: Only through the track. The programmer talks by modulating (FM) the voltage on the rails. The decoder can't respond in kind, because it's not connected to a power source (think about it for a second). So it responds in a different way, not by putting a modulated signal on the voltage, but by turning on the lights and motor for a second. Why does that work? Because turning on, say, a motor is the only way the decoder has of drawing current from the programmer. That's what a load is: something that draws current. In the programmer is an ammeter that detects when current is being drawn. It knows that, if after sending a command, current is drawn, then that's an "OK!", and if no current gets drawn, that's a "D'oh!" But you have to draw some minimum amount of current before that threshold for detecting a "D'oh!" to detecting an "OK!" is crossed. A motor will draw enough current, a bulb will draw enough current, but even several LEDs will not draw enough current. Which is why you have to put your function deocoder in the motorized carriage to get anything back. Reading back CVs works in an analogous manner, but I'm unsure of the details.


Restoring an eBay Junk Building

My latest project is a demo and rebuild on this cute little building I picked up on eBay.  Despite all the other projects I should be working on, this little building was so pathetic that I started to clean it off, then one thing led to another....

The first thing I had to do was remove the base at the 'foundation' of the building.  Most German manufacturers seem to have a base that is about 1/4" wide and precisely follows the footprint of the walls.  Once this piece was removed, all of the major components (walls, roof pieces) came off in short order.  To remove the detail pieces was a little bit of trick, requiring careful application of an Xacto knife.  In many cases, merely slipping the knife blade under the piece was enough to get it to 'pop out'.

Then its off to cleaning all the old glue, sanding where necessary, and then painting!  I tried to find colors that would be realistic but also different from the manufacturers plastic mold colors.  Additionally, I gave the inside walls a coat of spray paint (dark gray primer) to provide further opacity.

Before reassembling, I had to start thinking about what I wanted this building to be.  The generic stickers were no good (they got trashed), so I went to Intaglio (an illustration program for the Mac) and started to mock up some different signs, using both 'real' logos and brands as well as 'made up' or 'freelance' businesses .  In this case, I decided two 'real' business would make for good company....a classic American Pizza Parlour, and a Japanese train store!

For this building I decided that since there were two doors, there will be two shops on the ground floor (yes, I forgot that the apartment dwellers above also need an entrance, but I'm going to forget that and make the renters enter through one of the back doors).

Of course, the large windows on the ground floor demanded detail. So I used some excess park benches, various Tomytec and Prieser figures, and made the pizza parlor interior (I'm skipping over the obvious part here about creating the ground floor interior walls and such, its just styrene and spray paint, with some homemade 'wall paper' from the trusty ink jet printer).  The train store got 'retail shelves' which, for the most part, are small pieces of styrene or plastic with something that looks like shelves with items on them.  A couple of 'train-oriented' stickers and image search derived photos decorate the walls.

For the apartments, the third floor will have a bedroom and a living room.  Both will hopefully contrast given the paint selections I used.  Details here were more random bits of plastic, quickly sanded and painted to give some reasonable illusion of the real world item they're meant to imitate.  Hopefully when you look at the photo, you can tell what the sofa is versus the coffee table....

Apartments on the second floor will be 'dark', with some ambient light showing through the center window, but masked with some paper so as to not reveal all the wiring that will really be on the second floor.

Which leads me to lighting, which is going to a whole bunch of LED's.  Perhaps I'm getting too cocky, but there's a lot in this model.

Signage for "Shakey's" is a piece of clear acrylic that I filed down to the sign dimensions with my (new!) Dremel tool.  A 'hole' was created for the LED to fit in, and the LED itself was filed down a bit to closely match the width of the 'sign' and not bulge.   The leads for the LED will be the 'arms' holding the sign as well.

The Japanese train store (of which I have been a customer, but am not being paid to promote! :-) ) was created using a color laser-printer on transparencies (i.e. the clear sheets used for overhead projectors) and then glued to a piece of channeled plastic from Evergreen plastics.  I now go out to Kinko's to rent a computer to print my signs and decals on their color laser printer due to the need for the superior quality of color laser printer versus ink jet on lighted signs....inkjet just looks too 'splotchy' when you try to light it from behind (but is good for backgrounds, etc...).  

After calculating my resistor needs (which I've gotten down to a simple method, I do everything in multiples of threes), everything is soldered together.  You can see the LED's in their allotted positions in some of the photos above.  In the end, this building used 21 LED's, a mix of both 'warm white' (for the aparmtments and restaurant) and 'white' (for the hobby shop and sign).

Here is a 'before' photo of the building where the Pizza restaurant went, and the 'after' photo with the LED/acrylic/laser-printed transperency sign:

Here are some close-ups of the other side of the building where the hobby shop now is (again, before and after):

And finally, here's the whole building (90% complete) all lit up!  Believe it or not, this little building was proabably a good 4 days of work.

And, just for fun...here's what it looked like 'before':


Locomotive Roster: DB Class 64; Fleischmann 89397

One of my favorite little locomotives is also one of my biggest frustrations.   This is a review of the Class 64 (BR 64) from the Fleischmann "Digital Start Set of the Year".

The set included the standard loop and switches many starter sets include, a small digital controller called the "Lok-Boss", various Era III freight and passenger cars, and (the star of the set) a decoder-installed 2-6-2 Class 64 tank engine of the Duetsch Bundesbahn.  The obvious benefit of this type of starter set is that it allows you to 'get up and go' right away digitally without having to make any additional purchases.  A couple of years ago when I got this set, it perfectly suited my needs as I needed an additional digital controller for a separate loop of track (now gone, see this post) , and it came with a nice variety of rolling stock (3 passenger cars and 3 freight cars).  Really, not such a bad deal for just under USD $350!
First, the locomotive is beautiful.  Fleischmann's catalogs make a lot of boasts about their attention to detail, precision, blah, blah, blah.... we read this sort of things in catalogs and ads all the time.  However, in my short experience, the difference of my Fleischmann locomotives really is noticeable and they do seem to make the most detailed and beautiful looking models.  Despite my fondness for Minitrix, a typical comparison of Minitrix and Fleischmann seems to reveal that Fleischmann has much better detail and seems more prototypically 'precise'.  Of course, Fleischmann also tends to be the more expensive of the two as well!
Having said that, looks aren't everything.

The Problem:

Right from the very start there have been persistent issues with this locomotive.  The basic problem is always the same.  The engine runs, then stops or stalls.  After discovering this problem after my initial purchase, the online hobby shop from whom I purchased this took it back for a while and seemed to discover that the 'drive rods' were out of alignment.    After repairing this, he sent it back to me, whereupon the engine demonstrated the same problem as soon as I tried to run it the first time.

So I sent it back again!  This time it goes all the way back to Germany for repairs at Fleischmann (thank goodness for the warranty!)  where it spends the next 8 months or so.  It comes back to me last fall, and initially it seems to run okay for the brief test I give it on the layout.  However, when taken out for the second time....you guessed it: Problem returns.

After this follows a flurry of attempts to identify and fix the problem.  The members of the Railways of Germany forum have been very helpful with providing various suggestions, some of them I wouldn't have thought of, others are obvious.  Before I get into their prescriptions, it should be noted that there are a couple of unique issues with my set up that may combine to be a problem:  For one, the decoder that came pre-installed with the engine is a Fleischmann 'dual mode' decoder (to allow it to work with Fleischmann's old proprietary digital control system and DCC) and the Trix Mobile Station is not regarded as, how should I say this....the most robust digital control system to start with?  So combine the two....you can kind of see that this could be a real issue. 

Here is the list of all the things I was advised to check (particularly with a steam locomotive):
  1. Check wheels are 100% clean.  
  2. Check track is 100% clean.  
  3. Check contact wipers to ensure all wheels are conducting. 
  4. Turn off analog operation (Change CV 29).  
  5. Turn off momentum effects.
  6. Check drive train by removing first gear and roll on track 
  7. Polish the wheels to remove chemicals to improve contact (Fleischmann apparently chemically treats the wheels to 'blacken' them) 
  8. Change Decoder  
  9. Replace DCC control system (in my case the Trix Mobile Station- obviously should test on another layout system before changing!)
So I did everything from #1 to #5, skipped to #9 and tested this engine with the original Lok-Boss (which has been sitting unused for almost a year) and - eureka! - it worked!   After letting the engine 'warm up' for 15 minutes going around the small loop with the Lok-Boss, I moved it to the main layout and tried it under the Trix Mobile Station; again more success! Perfect operation! Beautiful slow speed! No stalls! Woo hoo!

Frankly, I'm just a little confused as to what was wrong and why its now working perfectly.  Unfortunately, I anticipate that this engine will revert to its old form and start 'stalling' again.  The good news is that this problem taught me just a little bit more about these little trains and the intricacies of the DCC world.   I also realized its actually nice to have an 'alternative' DCC system handy.  It was great to be able to pull out the Lok-Boss and test the decoder/engine with a different system (albeit a somewhat inconclusive test).  I also really got to appreciate the Internet dealer that I bought this through, and (despite the lengthy time spent with Fleischmann) the warranty that covered this purchase!


High Rise Kit: Stump Tower aka "The Rhodan Building"

I put together this building before starting on the viaduct, so I'm just getting back to sharing my experience with it now.  This building is a kit called "Stump Tower" from a small family-owned firm called Lunde Studios.  I call it "the Rhodan Building".  While I'd like to have more 'modern' looking skyscrapers, I think this is a pretty good building to help give my city an 'urban' feel.  And while it seems to be a very obviously American style mid-century high rise, I've seen similar buildings in places as unusual as Shanghai. And let's face it, there's just something nice and gothic about these old, concrete/masonry high-rises.

As this building is a cast resin kit, I had to spend a lot more time than usual in preparing the building...a lot of flashing must be removed before you can start to put it together.  However, once that was done, the building is cast in a great 'grey' color for this type of structure.   The thickness of the resin is such that no 'interior' painting was needed to ensure opacity from interior lighitng shining through (which is the standard with every other kit from all the normal structure manufacturers).

What this building will need, however, is a bit of weathering!  I applied a technique that I've been reading about in the Trix club magazine.  There's probably about a million ways to do this, and I won't pretend I have any great skill, but I did create a short little video to illustrate just how easy this project is.  The only ingredients you'll need are some lighter fluid (Zippo) and some oil paint (as in artist's oil paints).  

Assembly was super fast.  Cleaning the flashing took the longest amount of time, which made gluing all the window frames seem relatively fast by comparison!  Although I decided to keep the basic color that it was cast in, I did paint the window frames black.  Becasue I was going to add wiring and still needed to add the window 'glass' I started by doing two wall sections first....and allowing them to adhere at a solid 90 degree angle, and basically left it open like this to the very end.

Speaking of windows, before assembly I randomly masked out areas of where the windows will be on the clear plastic sheets provided for 'glass'.  I then sprayed the clear, plastic sheets with black spray paint.   I then created 'drapery' on my computer (which anyone can do, its just boxes the relative size of the window frames and filled with different color lines and patterns), printed 'the drapes' out with my color inkjet printer, and then glued to the back side of the blacked out windows to create a 'drape' look (after removing the masking tape of course).  This allows me to add lighting to the upper stories of this building, but also have some diversity with some windows showing some transparency through the 'drapes' and others being completly blacked out.  The below photo shows a couple of sections ready for the 'drapes' to be applied to the 'open' spaces.  In the background is the sheet of paper with my drapes!

Once I had a couple of the walls together, its time for the electricians to take over.  For the signs over the ground floor stores (ultimately I decided on a "diner" and a "Games Workshop"), I drilled holes for the LEDs that will poke through and provide the lighting for the signage:

For all other lights - the ground floor details and the ambient lighting for the upper stories - I created an "LED Tree".  This was constructed with sintra (a stiff type of plastic material available at sign shops), and hot glued together.  I also made the 'LED tree' an extension of the ground floor details.  This was a new approach for me and I'll likely repeat it on all my large/tall structures. The photo below shows the LED tree with holes drilled, LED's inserted, and fastened to the sintra with a bit of hot glue.  Towards the bottom you can see that the base is also the area where the ground floor interior details will be as well.

Of course, the next stage is soldering all of the LEDs to the resistors and getting all the wiring in order.  This is an area where I think I get a little better with each building.  Looking back on some of my early LED soldering/wiring jobs, they are starting to look very rough!  I expect I will fully feel that way about this one in the future too!   After all the wiring is complete, the entire structure is assembled.

Below is a close up of the ground floor:

And a final shot showing that I think the ink-jet printer did a pretty fair job of simulating drapes!  There is a still yet-to-be determined SMD LED on the roof that I ultimately believe will light a billboard or something.  Better to wire it in now than wish I had done it when its all done!

As I said, a really easy kit to build once you've gotten past the initial 'flashing removal' phase.  And another nice, tall, semi-decrepit structure to fill in my 'city'!

As usual, I owe thanks to the "LED center" resistor calculator for helping me come up with the right resistors for this project!


Viaduct Video with Thalys!

Here's a quick video I put together of the layout with the new viaduct which also shows off the new Kato 'super-elevated' curves. The viaduct track itself has Tomix Cant track (or super-elevated track if you prefer). Careful observers will also notice that this line includes Fleischmann flex track as well! There you go! Three track systems on one line!

However, its also a bit of mess. You will see some styrofoam on some of the unfinished embankments. All the 'city' and urban areas are a mess as well. You'll also notice that there are no other trains on the layout through this whole video (they are all safely put away whilst I do all this surgery).  So why does the Thalys get featured amongst all my other trains? Simple: I so despise the coupling mechanism between the cab cars and the coach that I hate taking it apart.  But that....is another post entirely.