Inauguration of operations on the Kootenay Division!

•April 4, 2016 • 7 Comments

Well, it’s been nearly 5 years in the making, and it finally happened! This afternoon, I ran a formal operating session.

Before I delve into the session itself, I’m going to tell you how I’ve decided to operate. It’s all time table and train order operation, and if you’re curious about that, this is a great tutorial. In real TT&TO, station agents at the train order stations would talk to the dispatcher and hand train orders to the crews on hoops. I don’t have agent/operators, so there’s a cordless phone at each TO station. (Theoretically) the crews will call in to the dispatcher to OS (on sheet) their train, meaning they’ll tell the DS what train they are and what time they’re by the station. They also read back any train orders they got to make sure they have them correctly.

The phones themselves are Vtech something-or-others that have a push to talk functionality. It’s like radios, except they go specifically to the handset you specify instead of all of them.Super easy!

Car routing is handled entirely through JMRI, and it’s pleasantly automatic. No switch lists written by hand, no car cards to keep track of, no methodically placed tabs on cars. You get a printed switch list with all your work and are set free.

So, for today’s session I had 5 operators and a dispatcher. I hand-bombed the notes from the dispatcher to the crews and roamed around to troubleshoot. Most notably was the huge cleanup I did!

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Before everyone arrived, I got their paperwork ready. I got a bunch of half-size clipboards, about 6×9″. They all get a copy of the timetable, plus switch lists, a skewer, and a cheat sheet. In this shot you can see how I’m using Nelson tracks 1-5 for staging and 6-9, yet unlaid, as the yard.

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The trains need re-blocking before they depart, but I left that to the crews. Here we see Rob and Doug, trains 81 and 87 respectively, beginning to block their trains. You can see the phone for Nelson velcro’d to the upper deck. (Is velcro a verb now?)

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Once everyone got moving, 87 ended up meeting X5904E, the Trail Hotshot, at Castlegar.

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Meanwhile, X4104E, the Boundary sub wayfreight pops into Grand Forks on the upper deck. Lowlight of the day: It was originally X8610E, but 8610 burned out its decoder within half an hour and 8554 also failed. I am so done with Bachmann H16-44s at this point.

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A heavy train, the wayfreight looked odd with 2 units, but those Life-Like C-liners more than pull their weight!

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During this, 11, the Kootenay Express has made its way up from Nelson. Here we see it and its operator chugging up through Shields.

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…and over Porcupine Creek.

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In pretty short order, 11 loops around the reverse loop in Midway and becomes train 12, the Kettle Valley Express. In the meantime, the GN Grand Forks turn has emerged from Kettle Falls, Washington, started its work around Grand Forks, and as per timetable, tucked itself away in the runaround at the sawmill.

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81 has bravely made its way up from Castlegar through this. Through a miscommunication between X4104E and the dispatcher (Note to self: Only train orders, no talking) they had a double saw-by meet at the shorter siding of Shields. I was too busy fixing that terror to take photos.

Here we see 81 and 12 heading toward a meet at Farron. I believe this is the ‘oh hey another train’ look.20160403 (14)

Unfortunately, the consist on 81 didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped and ended up stringlined.  The casualty of the session, and fortunately the only one:

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Here we go! 81 descends carefully down the west side of Farron summit.

Around now X4104E terminated as well as 12, and some extras came out. First was X8647E, a loaded ore train coming from the newly reactivated mines at Phoenix and heading to the smelter at Trail.

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X8647E and X4070W, a through freight headed to Penticton and points beyond, meet at Shields – they’re both under 1220′ and fit in Shields.

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A few minutes later, 81 is working in Grand Forks. You can see the station that I printed out – I used a photo I took last year as a stand-in.

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Meanwhile, 87 isn’t doing too well.

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91, the westbound Trail hotshot, is picking up some acid tank cars from the small yard in Castlegar.

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X4070W is entering Midway staging – Note the new panel I made! It looks awful. The dispatching area is rather cramped….my bad.20160403 (26)

Speaking of dispatching, Dave’s been hard at work this whole time. What a champ!

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X4070W loops around to become X4070E, and 81 enters staging to terminate.


X4070E passes Grand Forks station. Looks better from far away!

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87 is still having trouble.

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In a beautiful reversal, X4070E meets the westbound empty Phoenix ore train, X8596W, at Shields.

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Aaaand 87 gives up and goes home.

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Finally, here’s a view of the paperwork. 16 TOs were issued, which is quite a few too few! Visible is the train sheet, showing train movements  through the session. The Form 31s and clearances were made by a certain Coquihalla modeller you may know, and I owe him many thanks.

Well, that’s a wrap! It went surprisingly smoothly and went better as time went on. I half expected flames and wailing, but overall I’m very pleased – It took me a long time to get to this point, and that seems to have paid off!

Til next time!

Quick update – February.

•February 25, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Prepare to be underwhelmed! I’m swamped with preparations for an upcoming bridal show, and have started doing real estate photography part time to bring in a bit more money. However, I did find a bit of time to do railway work in the past few weeks.

My goal is to have an operating session with 4 or 5 people in mid-March (after the aforementioned show) so I set up JMRI to route my cars and print switch lists – Needs more testing, but it looks like it works well! I’ve also created a new timetable and train instruction sheets, and I’m working on siding diagrams and dispatcher sheets.

The new timetable is meant to be printed on a double sided half-letter size piece of cardstock so it’s easy to carry. It’s for smaller sessions so I chopped all the trains that aren’t really completely necessary. Have a look!

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To accommodate this, everyone needs to know what time it is – I own a mix of NCE Pro cabs and utility throttles, and only the former has a time display. I got these great fast clock kits from Circuits4Tracks – They’re the cheapest on the market in kit form with the Canadian dollar down, easy to assemble, and have great customer service.

There will be a fast clock at Nelson (visible from Grand Forks and Castlegar) and at Farron (visible from Creston) as well as in the dispatcher’s office in staging.


Additionally, I put in the plaster hardshell between Farron and Fife because it looked way too lame without it – Hence the last article about tunnel liners.

So, some crappy cellphone photos!

Passing the pond at Paulson


Rock walls high above Christina Lake

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Anyway, I’ll see what I can do before then – Something tells me I won’t have turnout control in for Nelson or Midway for the convenience of my operators. C’est la vie.

How to build tunnel liners: Concrete and rock

•January 8, 2016 • 1 Comment

Spoiler for the next big post: I’ve been adding a lot of scenery base in. I decided to make my life MUCH easier and put in my tunnels, weathering and all, before the hills above, and I’m very happy with this strategy!

The prototype Paulson tunnel is 365 feet long through a nose of rock that shuts McRae Creek into a tight canyon known as Paulson Gap. This is one of my favorite spots on the Boundary subdivision, as it contains sheer rock faces, a tunnel and a snowshed in a few hundred feet of track.

The tunnel itself has poured concrete portals dating back to the 1940s. These continue about 30 feet back into the tunnel or so, where it reverts to blasted rock.

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For the portals themselves, I used Chooch concrete portals with the top trim cut off and the corners rounded to mimic CP’s very utilitarian method.

Here’s where I got clever.

I made a form to act like the wooden forms the concrete would have been poured into. This form was made out of a dollar store ‘for sale’ sign with lines scribed into it with a somewhat dull exacto blade and a ruler at (roughly) the same points they are on the portal. Then, using a hot glue gun, I temporarily attached this form to the inside of the two tunnel portals. This ensured that it kept its shape, although the tunnel is much longer than that!

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I had some clearance issues, the tunnel being on a curve combined with the narrow portals caused a slight rub from my test autorack. In the end, I changed the shape of the liner from a rectangle to a parallelogram so that the end away from the portal was higher. This solved the clearance issue.

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With the form ready, I soaked some paper towels in a slightly runny plaster of paris mix (since they don’t carry hydrocal within 500 miles of me anymore) and draped them over the form, making sure the plaster was worked into every nook and cranny – though the end result says I could have done a better job!

Removing the form yielded a look that was almost perfect. The transition from portal to liner could be a bit smoother, but I ended up filling the gaps with more plaster. Then I painted it with a mix of mostly unbleached titanium and raw umber, following it up with washes of both unbleached titanium and black. (Couldn’t find the india ink)

Here’s two photos before the patching and final wash:

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Next, I was going to just use black construction paper for the rest, but as I was putting it on I noticed that you could tell by looking through the tunnel as it was short enough that you could barely see the other side! The prototype is quite a bit longer, after all…I was all ready to start carving some plaster and was talking to my dad about how he did his tunnel liners with crumpled aluminum foil molds when he said “Why not just use the foil?”
Freaking. Genius.

This was seriously SO EASY. Crumpled a sheet of foil, spray painted it with some matte oxide red I had lying around, shaped it, stapled and hot glued it onto the existing liners (which were glued down by this point) and voila! It looks SO much better. It’s hard to show in photos, especially since I can’t get a tripod in. It’s only on the outside of the curve, since you can’t see the inside from any reasonable angle. There’s construction paper over the top to prevent light entry, and it’s attached with push pins to allow easy access in case of a derailed car.

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Seeing the light shining through from the other side is nearly unreal in how good it looks.

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Can’t wait to get that hillside built over it!


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Until next time, highball!

Update: West Staging, Midway

•November 15, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I built a swing gate this fall. Why? Because I felt operations on my railway required a fairly extensive staging yard at either end. I’d accounted for this in the original design, though I had convinced myself that I was done with tracklaying!

Right off the swing gate, the main goes through a #8 switch thrown with a tortoise, since I didn’t want to buy any more Tam Valley Octopus servo controllers. I’m thinking of eventually installing toggle switches in staging and Grand Forks so you can choose where you’re going while approaching from either direction, and that will also necessitate LED indicators. A project for another time.

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Most of the wiring there is for the swing gate control system.

The staging yard itself consumed about 2 scale miles of track. Inside of the reverse loop (controlled with an AR-1) are 4 tracks, the longest being  2350′ and the shortest 1760′ – Plenty of room, I hope. Inside of the balloon, there is room for a 7 turn helix that would head down to east staging. Will that ever be built? Well…maybe.

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Operationally, I’m envisioning most trains entering the staging yard via the loop, then cutting off their power and running around on the main in order to simulate the power not being turned at points west for trains that terminate at Midway or Penticton. The remainder of train 81 (the Boundary subdivision wayfreight or Midway turn) would rarely be over 10 cars, so it could manage both its pickups and drops in the same track.

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All the turnouts are handlaid save for one, which is Micro Engineering. I had originally decided to use all ME turnouts to save time, but then realized they were too far from the aisle to throw by hand. There goes the cost advantage! The remaining 7 are my usual fast tracks, sans tie strips. They are spiked down.

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You can see that I didn’t bother making the track absolutely perfect. There’s no need to since getting this view as an operator is impossible, and as long as it’s smooth enough to avoid derailments, all is well.

Next project: Adding the scenery base shell everywhere, and a small classification yard in Nelson. I am also working on JMRI operations to control car movement.

All this and the stress of 2 jobs! Free time to me feels like wasted time😉 Anyone know someone who’s getting married?

Building an electrically isolated swing gate

•October 3, 2015 • 5 Comments

Well, it’s been a busy summer! I managed to quit my day job for a few months and happily self-employed! Only thing was, that left me with very little time to do railway things – Plus, shipping cheap electronics from China took until earlier this week!

My problem was this: Grand Forks, the western end of the railway, was supposed to be a good place to turn the wayfreight and whatnot. In practice, it messed up all operation in the yard and adjacent sawmill! The solution was simple, I already had staging designed. The issue was getting there, as it would have to zip under my duckunder. Time to build a swing gate!

Mechanical stuff first:

Swing gate design

The gate is simple enough. It’s a pair of 2x4s mounted in an L shape with curved plywood on either side to brace. Two hefty hinges anchor it to another 2×4 anchored to the floor and benchwork above. I added a few touches to make it operate smoothly. The hinge side is really simple, but the other end has some mating features. The subroadbed is 3/4″ plywood with a cut made at about 30°  and fastened to the gate and the far side of the benchwork – This gives it a good striking surface to stop at with the rails just in line. The bottom has a slider of hardboard with the leading edge sanded down that sits on a projection of plywood, lubricated with graphite from a pencil. Super tight, and super smooth! Finish it off with a latch of your choice – I used a suitcase latch that allowed little movement, but that’s not the way it’s supposed to close. You can probably find something better if you look hard enough. It is designed to be closed during operations, and can only be unlatched from inside the layout room.

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Video showing operation at that end:

To finish it off, I laid track over the bridge, left it to cure overnight, and used a dremel with an ultra thin cutoff wheel to cut it at the gaps – A 90° cut at the hinge end and a 45° cut at the other end. This allows the rails to meet very precisely and trains roll uninterrupted.

On to the electrical:

Since it’s hidden trackage as you can’t see it from Grand Forks or west staging, I wanted some electrical protection so trains wouldn’t run in accidentally. To this end, here’s the circuit diagram (for those who can read it!)

Swing gate electrical diagram

The effect is this: When the gate is open, the limit switch (as shown in the above photo) is open, leaving the relay unpowered and in normal position. This leaves power only going to a pair of red LEDs, which are automotive T10 lights positioned at either end of the gate. The power for the red (north) rail on the gate, as well as a 50cm section on either side, is routed through a normally open contact that energizes it only when the gate is closed and the relay is energized. At the same time, the contacts for the red lights open and the green lights close. The black rail is always powered because it’s much easier that way (I’d need to buy another relay otherwise) and you only need to open one side to stop a train.

Gate open:

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Gate closed:

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This means there’s quite a few wires running through the duckunder above, I think 9 conductors total! Here’s the central panel with the relay – Can you tell I did it in a shorter time than it took to write this post?

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Very important: The wires going from the terminals into the swing gate are stranded. Don’t use solid, as it is very likely to break with use.

Swing Gate in operation:

My apologies for any repetition you notice between the video and this article!

Not shown in the video are these two views. It’s important that operators do not back their train into an open gate, since the isolated section is only a few carlengths from a scale 900′ drop. To that end, I made the lights very visible from both entrances to the bridge.

Grand Forks looking toward west staging:

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West staging looking toward Grand Forks:

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As you can see, the lights are very visible. This could be disruptive in photos, as you can well imagine! If you’ve read my earlier posts, you may recall that the entire power for the layout is controlled by a switch beside the lights, so the whole system comes on automatically – DCC, turnouts, accessories, and swing gate. This is why I used the relay I did, what’s known colloquially as an ice cube relay. You can simply pull out the relay and all circuits using its contacts will be opened, turning off both red and green lights as well as track power. (base here and ice cube here.) It’s very important that you get the correct control voltage, as they are common in both 12VDC and 120VAC.

Well, that wraps it up. Please comment if you have any questions about this or if my end-of-a-long-week-sleep-deprived-ramble was confusing. Next project is laying west staging, and then I may be on to scenery.

Cheers for now!

Clear to Stop, track speed 10

•June 9, 2015 • 8 Comments

No, I don’t have CTC on my layout, nor has the prototype ever seen any sort of signaling, but I know when I need to slow down. The layout’s kind of on hold while my life does stuff.

This post is about me, not trains.

I’m in school right now, for that whole electrician thing I’m doing. It’s getting progressively harder to keep homework away from home, and I find myself devoting more to it every night – Don’t worry, my grades are at the top of the class.

More than that, my summer is becoming busy in the best way – As some of you know, I’m working on gaining momentum with my photography business, and I have picked up enough business lately to fill a lot of my free time!

Between school and other-work, I have little to no time to spare. In addition, the prospect of moving soon is looming, so I’m scared to do much work anywhere outside of the pulp mill.

So, what has happened? I’m in week 2 of replacing a rail at Castlegar, where I’m throwing a couple more servos onto turnouts.

I’m also starting to work on some of the kits I have. I’ve somehow acquired 5 Kaslo H16-44 kits, two Geoff Gooderham resin kits for a 4700 series baggage and a Cape series observation to complete my Kootenay/Kettle Valley Express, and an old Sylvan Angus caboose, because I love them and rapido hasn’t come out with them yet.

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Hope I get to finish them this summer!

And I bought this, it sounds delicious.

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Can’t pull the full train, but it can manage 16 or so cars – Not bad for such a tiny toy.

Well, I’ll check in later – Doing another 4 day abandoned railway bike ride in 2 weeks!


•April 23, 2015 • 2 Comments

One of the little projects this week was finishing up the duckunder at the entrance to the room. It’s fine if you’re under 5’5″, assuming you don’t wear your hair in a bun, but taller folks run the risk of a head bump, as the bottom of the duckunder is at 66″. Here’s what I did to avoid that!

1. From the beginning, once I realized a duckunder was a desirable layour design element, I decided to make it as high as possible. This influenced the elevation of the entire layout, so it was important to plan it well in advance!

2. The construction of the duckunder was in keeping with the rest of the layout’s wood frame construction, though as thin as possible. The framing is made of 1×2″ nominal dimensional lumber ripped from 3/4″ ply, and the long ones are laminated with a second sheet to make a 2×2. The subroadbed sits on a 1/2″ spacer above these. The longitudinal beams are reinforced by a 1×1/8″ piece of steel. It is STURDY. All wires are run between the scenery and the benchwork, but not under as is the norm for the rest of the layout.



I seem to have not taken good photos, so here is the benchwork diagram from xtrackCAD:

duckunder benchwork

3. My fascia is made from 1/8″ hardboard. I cut it flush on the bottom at the front and back, and added a piece to cover up the entirety of the bottom to avoid anything that could catch on a passerby. After that, I used a type of foam pipe insulation found in the plumbing section of a hardware store. I fastened it to both bottom corners using clear caulking, held in place with a piece of wood clamped down for evenness.

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The result? There are a thousand places on the layout you could hurt yourself, and this is not one of them!

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