Saturday, October 30, 2010

Easy To Make Dispatcher’s Panel

The dispatcher's panel on the M & M. Sub. The board
below the panel controls power to the blocks; the
panel itself shows train locations.

Sometimes inspiration comes from the most unexpected places. In the case of the dispatcher’s panel for my CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision, it came from the fridge door.

My double-deck railway is operated by conventional DC control. The dispatcher, who controls the blocks for the mainline trackage, is located in a small room off the main layout room (the same room that holds the staging yards).

Since my layout is “dark” (unsignalled), the dispatcher gives engineers clearance by radio to move from block to block. I needed a way for him to know where each train was located, what train it was and what direction it was travelling.

Since I always want to do things as simply as possible, I sought a low-tech (e.g. cheap) solution to this challenge. That’s where the fridge door came in. If yours is anything like mine, you have all sorts of things stuck on it with magnets. Many of these are the thin magnets that come free in the mail from businesses or charities.

I was looking at the door one day when I realized they not only do they stick to metal—they stick to each other. At that moment, an idea was born.

Close up of the panel, showing train numbers. The numbers
correspond to the electrical blocks, controlled by the
board below.
Here’s how it works.

I began the project by collecting as many thin magnets as I could. I got them at conventions, trade shows, from realtors (who send them through the mail), at the local baseball stadium (the team prints its schedule on a large fridge magnet), businesses and stores.

Once I had enough magnets, I cut a piece of Masonite the appropriate width and length (in my case, 34 inches long by seven inches high). I glued a piece of white foam core to it, then drew on it a schematic of my track plan. (You could also just paint it white.)

Next, I used a hobby knife to cut the biggest magnets into ¼ inch wide strips. I then glued them to the foam core with contact cement, following the track schematic I had drawn on it earlier.

To make the panel, you cut the magnet (below) into
strips and tags.

The last step was to give the panel a finished look by adding some plastic angle from the local home hardware store (the kind used to protect the corners of walls). I spray painted them with primer, then sprayed on a coat of green paint. Since the strips are self-adhering, I simply peeled off the protective paper and pressed them on to the panel.

Next, I made the train tags. Using a hobby knife, I cut magnets into rectangles roughly one inch long by ½ inch wide. Aftere that, I cut triangles out of one end to make them pointed. I then gave them a spray coat of primer on the advertising side. When dry, I spray painted them red or blue. When that coat was dry, I added the train numbers with CDS dry transfers—even numbers are eastbound, odd numbers go west.

Prior to a new operating session, I make sure the train tags line up with the trains in the staging yards or on the layout. As the dispatcher gives a train clearance from one town to another, he lifts the tag off one block and moves it to another—the tags and lines, being magnetic, stick to each other. Once a train reaches the end of the line (the opposite staging yard), the tag is flipped and it is ready to follow the train back to where it came from.

That's it; easy and cheap, and very (almost embarrassingly) low-tech. But, it works, and that's always good enough for me.

Overview of the panel. That's Winnipeg staging on
the top, Thunder Bay/Duluth staging on the bottom. The
helix is located behind the two panels.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Wouldn't You Like To Study Here?

Too late to get to class now; here comes a train!

“Sorry I’m late, professor—I was held up by a train.”

Who wouldn’t like to use that as an excuse for being late to class? Students at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, can—and do—get to use it on a regular basis.

The College, which dates back to 1903, is bisected by the Norfolk Southern Marion Branch, a busy mainline that sees between 8-10 trains a day.

The line was owned by the New York Central and Conrail before NS took it over; it formed the eastern boundary of the campus until 1952, when the College purchased seven acres on the other side of the tracks. Today the line divides the college campus in half, with most of the academic buildings on the west side and the music center, student housing and athletic facilities on the east.

In addition to impacting daily life on campus, the College has had to take trains into consideration when constructing new buildings; the music and arts centre, for example, had to be built in such a way so as to not only keep the music in, but keep the sound of trains out.

When graduation time rolls around, the registrar asks NS to avoid running trains during the ceremony so that commencement processionals and speeches are not delayed or interrupted by an inopportune train.

Students wait for a train to pass so they can
get to class.

The College provides safety instructions to students for crossing the tracks; to date, only one student has been hit by a train during the College’s existence. (In 2009; not surprisingly, alcohol was involved.)

Today the town of Goshen would like to move the busy branch to the edge of town, thus easing traffic congestion in the community. NS, however, doesn’t seem open to the idea; if anything, it is thinking of adding a second track to the busy line.

To lessen the impact of the tracks, the College is planning to build an underpass, allowing unfettered access between the two parts of the campus.

I was at Goshen College recently, attending a conference (and took the accompanying photos with my cell phone—sorry about the quality). The building I was in was located right alongside the tracks, with windows looking out at the line just 40-50 feet away. It was hard to concentrate on what the speaker was saying whenever a train went by.

I know that if I was a teenager again, I would certainly consider studying at Goshen College!

The last car rolls by; all clear!

(For more information about colleges with trains nearby, check out the Atlas HO forum archive at )

Looking north along the tracks that cuts
through the campus.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Goodbye Sunday Morning Calm

The Sunday morning calm is shattered when CP Rail SD40-2 5417 (ex-KCS 672), leads a train out of a tunnel towards Fort Frances, Ont.

In real life, the unit was acquired by CP Rail from KCS in 1992. To make it, I bought a KCS unit (Athearn blue box) and removed the KCS lettering and numbers. I then masked the area below the cab windows and gave it a patch of primer, after which I added the numbers. Red CP Rail lettering was also applied to the body.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How Sad Is That?

GP38-2 3036 doesn't look like it spent much time in the box.
During the recent Winnipeg Model Railroad Club fall show and flea market, several sellers had boxes of unopened locomotives and rolling stock for sale. Some had signs on the boxes: "Never been opened!" or "Never run!"

They saw this as a selling feature, but all I could think is: How sad is that? How sad is it that the owners of these items never had the pleasure of running them on a layout?

The most common reason why these items have never been opened is that the sellers don't have layouts (and probably never will). Which is not uncommon in the world of model railroading; a friend who manufactures model railroad items estimates that 60 percent of his customers will never run the items he produces: 30 percent are collectors, and 30 percent want to build a layout someday, but likely never will.

(Of course, he doesn't mind this state of affairs, since it means that over half his customers will never call with a warranty issue!)

To each his own, of course. It's not for me to judge how someone enjoys the hobby. But it still feels sad when items that were meant to move just end up sitting in boxes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Has This Ever Happened To You?

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever gone to a train show and . . . bought nothing?

I did that this weekend. The annual fall Winnipeg Model Railroad Club show was a great event, with over 70 sales and display tables. There was lots of great stuff for sale. But nothing called my name, or made me want to take out my wallet.

Friends at the show couldn't believe it. "There must be something you need," they said, lugging their purchases from table to table. But the answer was no. There is nothing I need: Not track, not switches, not buildings, not locomotives, not rolling stock. Nothing.

Yes, I know—it's a sad situation.

My problem, if you can call it that, is that my layout is finished. Or, at least, as finished as it's ever going to be. It's also full; there's no room for another locomotive or car.

Oh, sure, if there had been something special, something unique, something I didn't already own, I might have bought it at the show. But that didn't happen.

Twenty years ago, I couldn't have imagined this ever happening. Back then, I needed almost everything. In fact, the reason I got involved in running the local train show was not just altruistic—to do it for others, or even to raise money for a worthy charity. (Our show splits the proceeds with the Autism Society.) It was because I needed stuff for my layout, so I couldn't let it die!

But now I am at a different stage of the hobby. It's satisfying, in one sense, to have accomplished my goals. But, in another sense, it creates a sense of sadness; I miss those days of few dollars and lots of needs.That's when I always found something to buy at a train show.

I miss those days.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Backdrop Photo: River Scene

River scene on the CP Rail M & M Sub.

One scene that turned out fairly well on the CP Rail M & M Sub. is at Rushing River. That's where I used a calendar photo to simulate the river going off into the distance. Luckily, the green water in the photo was a good match for the green paints I had on hand, so it was relatively easy to merge the two.

Of course, it's not perfect; look at it the "wrong" way and it's pretty easy to see it's just a photo. But for normal layout viewing, it works OK. It helps that this scene is at eye-level, which means viewers aren't looking down at the river or backdrop. But even from high above, it looks fine, as in the photo below.

Another view of the river scene, from above. More
photos below.

Private Owner's Train on the M & M Sub.

Two VIA Rail units lead a private owner's train over the
Rushing River.

Since the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision is set in the early 1990s, it doesn't see regular passenger service anymore.

Strangely, the more northerly CN route traversed by VIA Rail's The Canadian seems to have lots of problems, forcing the passenger service's signature western Canadian train on M & M Sub. rails.

The scenic route does see another kind of passenger service, though: Private owner's trains. Like the one I caught while out railfanning on the Rushing River in October; see the photos below.

Northern Pacific.

Union Pacific

New York Central.

Canadian National

Texas Special (MKT & Frisco)

Canadian Pacific Railway

Southern Pacific

And bringing up the rear, the CPR business car.

In the real world, private owner's trains are trains of privately owned passenger cars that come together periodically for rare mileage runs (tracks that haven't seen passenger service for a long time).

On my layout, the train provides a colourful change of pace, and a reason to run passenger service. The train is made up of Rivarossi passenger cars (all except the business car, which is by Kato, and the VIA Rail baggage car, by Con Cor). It gives me a chance to run the classic and colourful schemes of the golden age of passenger service. It also gives me a chance to utilize my, er, cheap side; all of the cars were bought used or greatly on sale. It's a great reason to check out used bins and flea markets!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Railfanning the Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision

So I set up near one of my favorite railfanning spots on the M & M Sub., near the bridge at Rushing River. I made my way to the bluff overlooking the tracks, and took shots of trains as they came by. First up, an intermodal led by 9551, one of those newfangled AC4400 units (it isn 1995, after all!)

After that came a mixed freight, led by "Red Barn" 9000. This is one of the units that used to ply the rails in B.C. until the AC4400s and other newer power came along.

A couple of SOO SD60s was next, pulling a grain train.

Last, I caught The Canadian, detouring over the Manitoba & Minnesota Sub. rails.

In reality, the last few days have found me taking lots of photos of the layout; photography is sort of my hobby-within-the-hobby, even if the results are pretty basic. Taking pictures has certainly become a lot easier since the advent of digital cameras; in the "old" days, which weren't so long ago, I used film.

Back then, you didn't know if you had a decent shot until after the film was developed; I kept a photo sheet where I recorded aperture, shutter speed, time and other things related to each shot. Now, it's just point and shoot, and make adjustments on the fly.

Lots more photos to come!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Just Lucky, I Guess

Sometimes, you just get lucky. Like today, when I was hanging around Ritchie, Manitoba. I was able to catch three trains at once. Two were headed west to Winnipeg, and one—with a caboose!—was on its way to Fort Frances and points east.

Normally, I'm not so fortunate. Usually, when I am out railfanning and see something worth photographing, I don't have my camera. And when I do have the camera, nothing worth photographing happens. Until today!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Misty Morning

It's a misty morning on the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision. I'm in the valley down below as an eastbound train makes its way downgrade towards Fort Frances, Ont.

Actually, I have no idea why or how the photo turned out this way. It's probably the result of overhead flourescent lights. However it happened, I thought it looked pretty cool.