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.


Annual Ops Session?

Annual? Maybe, sure seems like it!

I made one major operational change before the session. I felt the Hotshot to Trail wasn’t working in its current configuration. I had to lose too many cars off it to give it the room in its consist to pick up random cars from Nelson and Castlegar and still fit into the shortish (1700′) staging track at Trail, so I made a new train that simply runs from Nelson to Trail and back at a different time. I think this killed Nelson yard, but that’s a story for another day.

Of note is that the session was the first to run with the full Nelson yard and Nelson sub/east staging, albeit without the passing track at Creston.

There were a total of 11 guys in the basement. 9 operators, the dispatcher, and myself. This acted as a stress test for the layout, and it performed well – no electrical issues, only capacity issues!

We made it through most of the session, although with so much traffic, some trains did get left behind at the end of the day.

Off to a good start, Cam’s got Extra 4104 East in the hole at Grand Forks, picking up most everything from the yard.


Extra 4072 East, a hot cool train full of Okanagan fruit from the Kettle Valley Division, passes 4104.


4072 is over the summit, and this pleases Al.


I’ve got Tunnel mocked up to an extent. I’ve decided it’s going to be a recently removed siding (prototype was pulled in the late 60s) with some buildings still in place. I’m excited for this scene.


Speaking of scenes, here’s a familiar one. Dispatcher hard at work.


The eastbound Rossland wayfreight, as mentioned in the first post, is working at Castlegar, dropping off acid tank cars for the pulp mill at Celgar from the smelter at Trail. 11, the Kootenay Express, is on the mainline, braking as it comes to its station stop. 20170108-07

By this point, we’re deep in confusion. Not many photos are happening, everyone’s trying to talk to the dispatcher, and not many trains are moving!


That’s it for photos. In the end, I found some major bottlenecks. I put so much into this session that I burned myself out, and simply haven’t felt like working on the layout, especially with such major operational issues staring me in the face.

Notably, there are 4 sidings over 2000′ on the entire railway:




-Grand Forks

Nelson is frequently used by the yard crews to build the Kraft switcher, and is difficult to keep free.

The Kraft Switcher has orders to keep the siding at Castlegar clear during most of the session, but every operator I’ve had found that too challenging.

Grand Forks is occupied for much of the session by either of the two Boundary wayfreights.

Having these sidings all occupied makes having meets extremely difficult. Add into the mix the challenge of getting crews to OS their train (hard) and sign station registers (bloody impossible) means that, in essence, nobody has the faintest clue where anybody else is. On top of all that, late trains that haven’t been modified by TO, or trains that aren’t running but haven’t been annulled are in the timetable and (for those impressive enough to pay attention to it) will make you wait indefinitely.

Now I understand why nobody here operates with TT&TO.

Next up: Scenery, I guess?

Power Districts using DCC Specialties’ PSX

Here’s the second major thing I did this summer. So far, I’ve had a single power district for the ENTIRE LAYOUT. It’s honestly worked pretty well, but now that I have operations going, I’d rather have someone running through a switch the wrong way shut the whole layout down.

After a lot of decision making, I decided to upgrade to solid state protection. It works much faster than a mechanical relay (think of the Digitrax AR-1 reverser, or the PM42. They work very well, but it’s not an immediate shutoff.

The products I chose are the DCC Specialties PSX and OG-AR. The PSX series is probably the best breaker you can get – status LEDs, programmable with your DCC system, option to wire in a buzzer, and adjustable trip current. The last one was very important to me, as I don’t need the full 5 amps of my system flowing through one breaker to tell me there’s a problem! The OG-AR is part of the On Guard series. It’s not very well known, but it’s also solid state. The trip current is not adjustable, and you can’t control it through your DCC system. However, with 3 reversing sections that aren’t very long, I felt it was a good fit.

I decided to divide my layout up into 7 districts – 4 normal, 3 reversing.

  1. Creston to Nelson, including Nelson yard. (2 miles and a jillion turnouts)
  2. Nelson to Tunnel #2, mostly covering Castlegar yard and the Celgar complex (2 miles, 1 in helix, 40 turnouts)
  3. Tunnel 2 to Grand Forks, mostly single track running but including Grand Forks yard. (3 miles, about 30 turnouts)
  4. Staging, both east and west
  5. Castlegar wye
  6. Cranbrook reverse loop
  7. Midway reverse loop

Note that the places most likely to have a short get the majority of a PSX unit – Castlegar yard and Nelson yard.

There are other wyes on the layout, but those reverse sections are simple – Since they’re the simplest wye with one turnout, I set them up to have the tail track reverse through a 3PDT toggle switch that also controls the turnout. The frog polarity doesn’t change!

Here are my two panels. The first includes the main portion of the layout, and breakers 1-3 and 5. It is located under Castlegar with the DCC system. This also includes 3 districts of 12V DC power for accessories, mostly servos. No protection in these circuits as of yet. Everything pictured is controlled from a switched plug and power bar.


The second is on the wall above the staging yard, and includes breakers 4, 6, and 7. The reversing wires are blue/green, as opposed to the red/black of the rest of the layout.


In addition to this, I added an SB3 booster. I’ve yet to overload my 5A command station, but plan to add more sound units to my roster and found a good deal on this older booster. The command station itself powers panel 1, and the booster powers panel 2. These helps keep wiring simple.

One thing I realized while isolating sections was that I had run my bus along the entire length of the railway, about 120′, although I thought I’d put in a cutoff! This led to unreasonably high voltage drop, signal degredation, loss of control of units in Grand Forks specifically, and slow reaction to fault current on part of the breaker.

One last improvement I made is that I was experiencing issues with my cabs plugged in, the displays showing odd characters on the screen. A quick chat with NCE cleared that right up. The total length allowed without additional power in the cab bus is 40 feet – not per leg, but total. To add power to the bus, there’s a 3.5mm mono jack on the rear side of the NCE UTP (throttle panel.) I simply added the power through my 12V DC buses that I installed to power servos. These used 3.5mm mono replacement jacks off eBay. I did this to the second last UTP on each run. Problem solved!


Now, my layout is operating near flawlessly. Wonder what the next issue will be to crop up?

Inauguration of operations on the Kootenay Division!

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.

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!

Kootenay Division timetable 93

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.

Update: West Staging, Midway

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

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!