ESU Loksound DCC Sound installation in a Life-Like C-Liner

It’s the Kootenay Division, ca. 1970 – that means a lot of Fairbanks-Morse/Canadian Locomotive Company power. I’ll be covering the H16-44s in another post, but this is about my C-Liners.

C-Liners were only produced in N scale by Life-Like in a DCC incompatible format. There’s a good review on detailing them – they’re great runners, powerful pullers, and you can’t drop a decoder into them. All CP units are from the original 2001 run.

I didn’t take a ton of pictures for a step-by step, since I fully expected the decoder to fizzle and smoke the first try, so bear with me.

First off, you’ve got to disassemble the locomotive – be comfortable with this! You need to take the frame apart and remove the motor in order to isolate it from the frame, as well as mill the frame. I didn’t take any photos of these steps, but they are exactly the same as installing any other decoder, and there’s a great set of instructions here on the TCS site:


This is what I was nervous about. I decided to use a dremel such as this one with a a cutting wheel on it to slice out a rectangle. I actually ended up using my older corded one rather than my newer battery powered one because you will drain a battery way too fast doing this!

I had to mill 2 spots on the frame – one at the rear for the speaker, and at the front for the decoder. The frame is shaped oddly at the back, and looked like the easiest place to make room for ESU’s 11x15mm speaker. These come with sound chambers, but in N scale, space is truly limited, so I just glued the top plate over the speaker with CA and went with it. If you want cheaper options, they’re out there, without baffles.

I marked where I was going to cut with pencil.

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So you’re using a dremel. Chunks of metal are flying everywhere. The cutting wheel jams and breaks. Are you hurt? No! Why not? Because you’re wearing a long sleeved shirt, safety glasses, maybe even a full face shield if you have one. Do your milling in a box to contain debris, and watch out, the frame gets HOT! I made 2 cuts, one vertical at the pencil line and one horizontal just underneath where the weight protrudes – the perfect size for the speaker. The speaker fits with the long dimension across the frame.

Meanwhile, in the front, there’s a cutout in the weight for the cab, but it’s too small for the decoder. I decided to mill back from the cab front – just a tiny bit. I also shaved a little bit off the top behind for the wires. WATCH OUT – The motor flywheel cavity comes up a bit here, and you don’t want to mill into there. (I did, but only one one side so it’s fine I guess?)

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Now it’s time to install the decoder. Once again, these instructions work for the motor, electrical pickup, and lights:

Do yourself a favor and use pre-wired SMD LEDs. They’re super bright, and you don’t have to mess around with tiny tiny solder pads. Example on Amazon

The hard part is over, so just attach a brown wire to each of the 2 speaker tabs, being careful not to touch the enclosure. Use whatever adhesive you prefer to hold it down, and you’re done! I left way too much wire, just in case. The green and yellow are spares if you need other lighting functions. I ended up putting a piece of tape over the top to keep them all in line.

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So this was my first go at a sound installation in any locomotive, and the age of this unit made it terrifying to me – I’m going to update this with more, better pictures when I do another install.

A last night – fitting the shell can be a bit challenging. Make sure the decoder is snugged far enough back that it is behind the front cab windows, otherwise it will jam into them. Also, if you force the shell on and find that it widens in the middle, it’s incorrectly positioned – see the slots in the frame? Those need to match up with the tabs inside the shell. Made that mistake myself, but now it looks great!

Here’s a video of a consist led by 4105 making its way across my layout.

I picked up a Lokprogrammer and used it to load the FM 38D soundfile, which is 2 cylinders short, but close enough. I also tweaked volume levels so the random effects and sander are extremely quiet, since you can’t really hear them from a distance, the bell is middlingly loud, and the horn is the loudest – and of course, master volume is way down!

Feel free to comment if you have questions, I’ll answer the best I can.


Kootenay Division video series launch – A conversation through time!

Hey, everyone. I’ve been working on this huge project all year and will continue to for the upcoming year. I’d love it if you would all subscribe to it! The premise is that every Wednesday I upload a video taken a year ago and every Saturday I upload a video taken that week, and converse with myself about all manner of things.

It’s called Past Matt/Future Matt.

First Past Matt:

First Future Matt:


Thanks in advance, please enjoy this 104-video long series!

Programming lighting effects on NCE, TCS and Digitrax 123 decoders

This weekend’s project turned out to be more of a doozy than expected.

Step 1: Clean the wheels. Spread regular metal polish thinly on the rails, ran a loco in place at full speed for a minute or so before thoroughly cleaning the wheels and track off, spreading a thin layer of no-ox-id on the track, running them in circles for a bit, and cleaning everything thoroughly.

Step 2: Program the decoders for lighting effects.

What I wanted was something more prototypical than the vanilla “Headlights on with F0, front on going forwards, back on reversed” approach. I decided that I wanted front lights to come on with F0, dim with F4, and rear lights (when applicable) to come on with F1. They would stay on regardless of direction, because what engineer says “Back half a car, better turn this light off and -get up- this one on”. Really! Fortunately for me, I really only have 2 kinds of decoders. Digitrax 163 series (FX3), and TCS. This meant that I only had to spend hours wading through manuals instead of days…until the addendum at the end for NCE.

Starting with Digitrax, I decided on F4 for dimming because you can’t remap that.

The digitrax decoder manual is horribly outdated. Don’t even look at it! It talks about CV61, which hasn’t been relevant since the FX3 163s came out a decade ago. Somehow, digitrax hasn’t updated it to include what you need for 163 and 165 decoders!

Now, it took me a while to figure this out….the first thing to tackle is function mapping. CV33, 34, and 35 control the applicable functions. CV33 is F0 on your cab (controller) in the forward direction, CV34 is F0 in reverse, and CV35 is F1 in reverse. Function 1 on the decoder is the white wire to the front headlight and function 2 is the yellow wire to the rear headlight. (I will not be abbreviating these to F1 or F2.) These functions are the same whether there are visible wires or the LED is mounted on the locomotive’s circuit board or decoder. Thanks, NMRA!

In order to control these function wires seperately, you must change CV33-35. By default, CV33=1 (white wire/front headlight on in forward only) CV34=2 (yellow wire/rear headlight on in reverse only) and CV35=4. (green wire in either direction, not applicable in this circumstance.) We want function 1, the front headlight, to come on regardless of direction, so we keep CV33 at 1 and also set CV34 to 1. This means F0 does the same regardless of direction. The rear headlight (yellow/function 2) is function key-less, so we map it to F1 by setting CV35 to 2. If you have more lights, you can map F3 on your cab to be the rear light by changing CV37 to 2 instead of CV35

You can do more calculations including more CVs/functions using this digitrax link

Stopping it auto-dimming on reverse was, as it turned out, impossible. Therefore, if you want a headlight that dims on command with F4 but also dims on reverse, program CV49 to 104. I ended up setting it to 0, since I’d rather have constant headlights all the time than dimmable ones that mess up when you reverse. This means all my future decoders will probably be TCS…

Moving on to TCS (Train Control Systems): TCS decoders generally have more lighting options. They have become my favorite decoders, being only slightly more expensive with more functionality.

In TCS decoders, the front and rear headlights are controlled by 49 and 50. To set the front headlight to manual, set CV49 to 32, and CV50 to 32 for manual reverse. To have the front headlight dim on command from F4, set CV49 to 40.  Next, I remapped the reverse light from F0 to F1 by setting CV34 (reverse light function wire) to 4.  Easy peasy! I didn’t bother with any rear dimming.

The only complication I had (besides the units with TCS CN decoders refusing to dim) was my RS-10 – It’s set up for long hood forward operation. This means that front is rear and rear is front…the decoder is programmed for the correct direction of travel, but that doesn’t change what is physically wired to what. Since it’s TCS, not a problem. Set CV33 (what would be the front light) to 4, and CV34 (rear light come front) to 1. Next up, this means that F4 dims the rear headlight, so switch the CVs for 49 and 50. (CV49=32, CV50=40). Voila!

I hope this answered a few questions for you. I do have more DCC projects coming up, so keep tuned!

Update: NCE (North Coast Engineering):

It took me a while to figure out NCE decoders. I didn’t have any when I originally wrote this article but recently installed an N12A0 into my Atlas SD7 – A Great Northern unit that runs long hood forward.

Important: NCE does not use CVs 49 and 50 to control anything. They configure functions with CVs 120 to 128 instead.

As with other decoders, CV 33, 34, and 35 map functions (lights) to the function buttons. CV33 is F0 forward, CV34 is F0 reverse, and CV35 is F1 in either direction. By default, as with Digitrax and TCS, these are CV33=1, CV34=2, and CV35=4. To control the front light with F0 in both forward and reverse, set CV33 and CV34 to 1. To control the rear light with F1, set 35 to 2.

What’s that? You came here for directional lighting? Good, me too. This is where I had the CV49/50 problem. CV 120 and 121 act the same way as 49 and 50 on Digitrax decoders. To stop lights from being directional, just set 120 and 121 to 32. If you try to set one to 40, though, it just dims on reverse instead of with a button. Dimming isn’t something I plan to figure out in the near future though.

Special case: As I mentioned, this was a long hood forward locomotive I was programming. This means I had to do a number of things. After setting CV29 to 39 while consulting this calculator (and being very sure to tick the long address box, otherwise the locomotive wouldn’t respond) I tackled the problem of the light outputs not being reversed with the direction. It was easy, though, just had to remap the functions. CV33 and 34 control the short hood, which on a LHF locomotive is the rear end, so I had to set them to be controlled by function 1, setting CV33 and 34 to 2. The long hood light, now the forward, is controlled with F0 by setting CV35 to 1.

Next up may be MRC, as I have that one locomotive….time will tell.

Pulp mill turnouts! A visual guide to a new way of laying ties.

Remember how INFURIATING I found ties? While hiking in the mountains, my brain had an idea. a fantastic, wonderful, groundbreaking idea. Turn it all upside down! This simplifies the hell out of ties.

Instead of gluing the ties to the turnouts…glue the ties to the ground! I’m using clear silicone sealant, it won’t be dissolved by most chemicals you’ll use on the layout, whereas other sealants may be. I took lots of step-by-step photos, so here we go:

First, I start with paper templates as before, downloaded from Fast Tracks to match their turnouts. I put double-sided tape on them, and then put the wood ties on, with the end to be cut extending off the straight side of the turnout. This makes cutting them easier, and straight ties on that side look better than lopsided ones. Since I’m putting these on the roadbed later by flipping them over, I use the opposite of the templates that I would normally, every right-hand turnout becoming a left-handed one.

Next, you trim them up reeeeal nice.

Flip it over and do a rough test fit…

Put the turnout fixture on top of it for a more accurate locating, and mark the edges of the templates in pencil to guide your caulk…

Spread the sealant onto the place…you need to spread it very thinly to make sure it doesn’t come up between the ties and interfere with your points or ballast. You can see at the left side of this picture that I didn’t quite manage this.

How do you like those lines, eh? SOMEONE got lazy. Too bad I’m the only person I could blame.

Next up, you lay them down with the fixture again as in the fourth photo, and after lining it up properly weight it down and leave to dry for however long your sealant takes to dry. When dry, peel it up slowly at an angle. This will avoid putting undue stress on a single tie and pulling it up.

Remember how I had too much sealant on the left side? I carefully took it out with a knife, cutting it from beside the tie on each side and then teasing it out. It’s important to cut away the sealant you pull up, because that way you won’t accidentally pull up a tie. Anyway, you get good at this quickly enough that you won’t have to worry about it for long.

Now you’ve got all the wood ties looking nice!

Next step is to prepare holes for the feeder wires. As I covered in earlier posts, I run a feeder to each rail and each frog. Put your fixture in place, making sure it’s held down PRECISELY AND ACCURATELY. Then use a good, contrasting coloured marker (I used a red sharpie) to mark where your feeders will drop down, just inside the rail.

Once that’s done, drill the holes with as small a bit as you can get away with.

Meanwhile, you get the feeders on the turnouts.

Test-fit into place to make sure you don’t have a feeder that’s in a place that will bunch up under the turnout, stopping it from laying flat.

Once you’ve made the proper adjustments, paint the ties. (I would use an airbrush, but I don’t have a compressor.)

I used Floquil paint pens, they have a set of 3 including railroad tie brown, rail brown, and rust. I haven’t used the rust yet, but have applied the rest in an obvious fashion. Painting the ties before they’re on the turnout lets you get it in awkward spots such as between the points and the stock rail. I didn’t paint the throwbars since I will later be soldering ground throws to them. After you’ve painted the rail, it’s important to clean it as soon as you can. With the Floquil paint, I used a rag soaked with rubbing alcohol stretched over a block of plywood to thoroughly clean the railhead. You must be careful not to catch the rag on the rails, since the ones just past the frog are only held on by one tie….why yes, I did snap them off! How did you know!?

Now put your painted turnouts into place! I secured them with pliobond, the same as usual, but I haven’t yet done a good enough job to say whether that works or not.

Obviously, then you connect them to the rest of the tracks. Since I snapped off some of the rails, I just brought the flextrack to the appropriate spot and soldered it to the final tie.

Aaaaand pulp mill! I’ll do the chip tracks and powerhouse track  (right side) later this week. I’m going to try to get all the trackwork done before I go on vacation. For once, I’m actually on track, as it were!

The two tracks on the right side are for acid tank cars, the two in the middle will be covered loading docks inside of the building that I’m kitbashing (ordered the windows today), and the left side is a loading dock on the outside of the building. Further to the left is the kraft building, which you’ll have seen in other photos.

Here’s a great historical shot of the acid tanks when the mill was brand new in the early 60s. I thought it would be easier to access the tracks if they weren’t side-by-side behind the mill, as it’s already a 2′ reach, and you don’t want to be jamming your fingers in there, knocking details off left and right.

I’ll probably build the tanks out of PVC pipe.

Oh, and I made a shelf. Right under the terminal strip, made of spare 3/4″ ply. Nice and solid. I left room for further boosters since there will probably be 3 booster districts on the layout in the end. This is a good central location, being in the middle of the room. Ignore the feeders that I have yet to tie into the bus. I think I said this already, but to reiterate: DO YOUR WIRING BEFORE FASCIA! It’s causing me no end of contortion.

That is all for now. I hope you enjoyed my nice big post.