Many small things happening

I’ve been doing a bunch of things, trying to get ready for the “public” debut of the State Belt this October.   I plan to host several sessions around the Minn-Rail timeframe, some as official scheduled ops and others as can be fit in to suit the schedules of the out of town guests.

To that end, I’ve been trying to do a bunch of smallish things to make the layout more friendly towards guests.   Every cross street is labeled (Stockton, Bay) with more or less accurate San Francisco style street signage.   Each industry gets a label on the spur on the fascia (since the industries themselves don’t have much in the way of signage yet, see Stauffer Chemical  or Simmons Co).

Each turnout button is more or less directly out from the points, making it fairly easy to match the arrangement on the fascia to the trackwork on the layout.   The track lines are (for now) artist’s tape of various widths.   Someday, I hope to paint on more durable artwork, but this will certainly do for now.   This is probably what you’ll see for the next several years.


I’ve also been working on the pavement along North Point.   Running tracks in the street are to be buried in pavement, but the spurs where cars can be spotted are laid in with cobblestones.   This is DAS air drying clay, with the cobble stones rolled in using some nifty tools.    This still needs some work, since there’s a little too much sinkage at the ties.   I’ll write more on this as I get it all figured out.

The bulk of the recent tracklaying work is done, with an overview shot here prior to cleanup.   Every tool seen here has been used within the last couple of weeks.   For the next op sessions, instead of a couple of pieces of flextrack serving as the car float interchange, the crew will be able to make their way over here to North Yard and make a block swap.    Eventually, the wharf job crew will be responsible for the car float that will be over here as well.

Below table work needs to be done here yet.  This include switch machine installation and track feeder connections to the DCC bus.

I’m also working on some paperwork to help a crew find things.  The first one is an Industry List, much like the prototype’s.   Look up “Musto Keenan” and you’ll find it listed as “535 North Point / Taylor”.   Now that the street signs are on the fascia, it should be easier to find places.    I’ll expand the overview map as well.

My goal is to have everything that I like to see when I come to a layout for the first time.   Easily readable paperwork that makes it clear what work needs to be done (handled via the B-7’s).   Maps showing where things are.  Signs for every industry.   Signs for major locations.

Other goals to make it nice for the crews include:

  • declutter the active portion of the railroad, and the to-be-built-later sections as well.   The “later” sections will still have some building mockups, some switch templates down, showing some notion of what is yet to come.
  • permanent fascia on all of the parts of the railroad we’ll be operating.   I think this makes things look cleaner
  • skirting hanging from the fascia, mostly to hide all of the clutter that used to be on top of the layout and which got moved down below
  • a central place for snacks & such.   Not right in the middle of things, but easy enough to get as needed.

Gandydancing, again

I’ve not been doing much on my own railroad for a while, as I spent a number of weekend work sessions helping to build the benchwork for a layout for a young gentleman (to support the Wishes and More Foundation). That benchwork has been finished, so I’ve been back to my own railroad.

The next section to be built is the area up near Fisherman’s Wharf. This includes Pier 43 (the car float connection to the AT&SF, WP and NWP), North Yard, and a small handful of industry locations (Standard Oil, Del Monte, Cincotta Bros), and the connecting track to Fort Mason.

North Yard overview

Towards the top of the picture, one track (#2) currently rounds the corner and will shortly connect to the tracks already in operation. #1 track will soon parallel #2. On the right side are the four tracks of North Yard, varying wildly in size. Track capacities are 7 cars, 6, 4 and 3 cars. Such is what fits into the city block grid.

On the left side of this picture will be Pier 43 (the car float) and Pier 43 ½ (additional tracks to support swapping blocks of cars on and off the float).

In this area, new construction consists of a single left-hand crossover, 4 left hand switches, and the longest single piece of straight track that exists on the railroad (about 4 feet).   Add in some other yard tracks of short lengths.

It’s all fun and games


I have apparently not made the op session hard enough.   The crew has enough time for mirth & frivolity.

Hard at work

Don’t worry.   I’m not trying to be a cruel and vindictive dungeon master as I set up the op sessions.   I want the crews to have fun.   Since one crew member pictured above was back for a repeat visit, I may have captured photographic evidence that fun has been had and that the layout is worth a second visit.

At the last flea market I went to, I picked up a number of cars that will help populate the car fleet more appropriately for the Bay Area.   WP, ATSF and NWP cars have been added to the fleet, as well as one of the Chateau Martin house tank cars.   The basic survey of wheel gauge checks, coupler heights measurements, and truck swivel was performed, and they’re all in service now.

A number of additional Tortoise switch machines were procured as well, so I believe that I now have plenty for the State Belt, and a number of machines from the previous batch that work just fine but where the internal DPDT switch contacts do not function.   There are a few people in the area who can use these motor-only machines without much trouble at all, so they won’t just sit on my shelves gathering dust.


Track repairs

I’ve asked my crews to drop a flag every time that a car or engine derails that’s not obviously the crew’s fault (e.g., running through a switch isn’t interesting). Ideally, they’ll put a note on the flag with the car number and any other relevant information (direction of travel, orientation of car, etc). I provide several different colors of sticky notes (hey, 3M is local, so I use actual Post-it® Notes), and give each crew member a pad.

The switch into Ghirardelli was a notable problem, with about a dozen notes at the end of two sessions. Really, I think every move over the switch didn’t work, as long as the switch was reversed. Normal wasn’t too bad. Definitely trouble with the switch, because the cars listed varied a lot.

It didn’t take too long of careful investigation to determine that the guardrails were missing on that particular switch. Now some people will claim that a switch shouldn’t need the guard rails, and that problems with their absence is a sign of a poor switch. I’m not one of those people. Nothing else about the switch was out of tolerances (handy dandy NMRA gauge to the rescue). Shortly, two new guard rails had been installed and testing proceeded to show happiness.

The third session was held after that repair job, and I’m happy to report that *NO* flags were thrown there at all during the course of the session. And, yes, that track did get used, so I know that there was movement there.

During this last session, few flags were thrown, and they varied more in location. I think each was at a place where at least one other flag has been thrown, and some were the same car at that particular spot. There are a couple of cars that I am still running with crappy wheels. If I can get them to work properly, I think everything else should be fine.

John & Jerry switching North Point

That’s the third op session now. 97 to go before I have to make T-shirts.

It wasn’t a fluke

The second op session on the State Belt happened last night.   Unfortunately, the company photographer fell down on his duties, so evidence is lacking unless the guilty parties wish to come forward and corroborate the story.

There’s trackwork that needs to be done before the next one.   Alas.

But it’s all fun anyway.

First Op Session!

At 1:30pm today, engineer Vos (P), along with conductor Vos (D), started a shift at the State Belt enginehouse.   After a quick stop at the clerk’s office to pick up some B-7’s, the crew made their way to Pier 43, where they picked up 8 cars off an inbound Santa Fe car float.

Over the course of the next two hours, 9 cars were spotted at their destinations, and 10 cars were picked and delivered to their interchanges (9 for the next ATSF float and one shoved down to the SP interchange at King Street).

Operational difficulties were kept to a minimum.   The track crew will need to inspect a couple of turnouts, and the car maintenance crew will be busy as well, since the rolling stock fleet just came out of storage for the first time in 4 or 5 years.

Owner’s Notes

I wasn’t at all sure how quickly cars would be moved.   I’d prepared for 3 inbound float’s worth of cars, at 8 cars per float, along with around the same amount of work to be performed making pickups.

As it turns out, only one float’s worth of car were spotted over the course of about 2 hours.   That’s not disappointing at all; I honestly had no idea how long it would take.   It’ll be easier the next time, said one crew member, because the “start-up effort” of figuring out how things work will be reduced (provided he can remember from one session to the next).

But this session serves as the culmination of a lot of work to get to this point.   Benchwork, track laying, wiring, fascia controls, car movement paperwork, and more.   The next chunks of construction will go much faster, as I won’t have to do everything from scratch.    For example, the next track work will probably be the 3rd “main track” along the north part of Embarcadero, including the spurs off into the piers.   As each pier is set up, and the track laid, they’ll become operational very quickly since all of the power & DCC wiring is in place.   The notion of building upon what’s already there takes over.

So I’ve got some debugging to do on a couple of noted track locations.   And some tweaking on cars that have been in boxes for a long time.   Nothing too serious, and certainly nothing that will stop me from having additional op sessions over the next several months.

And continuing to do more construction as well.


The Runaround

Tracklaying, switch machine installation, and wiring has been completed such that the first section of track along the Embarcadero is functional, including the first run-around on the layout.   There’s enough track stubbed out on the north side to hold a 10 car train, and enough on the south end to allow an engine and 3-5 cars to go beyond the run-around switch.

I’ve also been busy making labels.   Each track has some sort of name associated, and the fascia has labels for each turnout’s pushbutton.   The destination shown on the label is where the train will go when the turnout pushbutton is lit.   These are Tortoise switch machines, controlled via a latching pushbutton, and there’s a light in each button that is active (lit) when the turnout is in the reverse (non-normal) position.

I found the latching pushbuttons at a good price at Adafruit, which makes them much easier to use than the Arduino based setup I had been planning to use with the non-latching buttons I found earlier.  There are still a handful of places where I will use the Arduino configuration, since I want to control those turnout from each side of a peninsula.   That will put the latching function into software rather than hardware.

Visually, the buttons look the same (latching & non-latching) so it won’t be too jarring (I hope) to have different types of buttons in use.

Pictures of the buttons on the fascia to come soon.

As will samples of the paperwork that I’m writing up for my first operating session.


So just what am I doing now?

I’ve had several people ask “what am I doing” and “how big is this layout”.   I’m building the State Belt Railway of California, which served parts of the waterfront of San Francisco, mainly the parts in the “older” parts of town (there were extensive docks & shipyards further south, served by the SP, SF or the WP, but I’m not worried about those).

The State Belt was owned & operated by the Port Commission of California, and served all of the industries and piers in the area, switching cars on an as-needed & as-directed basis by each of the connecting railroads.    This allowed railroads other than the dreaded Octopus (the Southern Pacific railroad) to serve the city.

Most of the railroad was within a block or two of the waterfront, running on The Embarcadero.   One section that went further afield was along North Point & Beach streets.   It’s two or three blocks from the water (ooh, so far away!).    It should be going uphill such that by the time the line reaches Del Monte, the street is on the 2nd level of the building, while on the opposite side the street is at the 1st level.  That couldn’t happen in the shortened distance that I have available to me.

So what is that space?   I’ve got U-shaped benchwork, with the base against a wall and aisles alongside both legs of the U.   One leg is about 16′ long, and the other about 24′.   All work so far is either on this 16′ section, or on the base.  Work is underway, hence tools & other cruft on the benchwork, but this gives you an idea of what is happening.

North Point / Beach line

The track is all handlaid.  Switches are mostly #5 built using the FastTracks jig, but with one curved switch built completely “by hand”.    The double crossing (with slight curve) was built by Dave Vos.   Switches are thrown using pushbuttons on the fascia, which control Tortoise motors via an Arduino based system.   This lets me use momentary switches to control the tortoise (which usually wants a latching SPDT or DPDT control).   There’s also a light in the pushbutton, which is lit for reverse, off for normal, and (soon) flashing while the motor is in motion.

There are a few places where a switch will need to be conveniently thrown from multiple locations (one side or the other of the benchwork), and this will let me pull that off.

Building mockups give me a vague idea of what this will look like.   The buildings aren’t too tall on this side of town, and most of these mockups are a bit too tall.   But it’s still enough to make the train look fairly small as it moves on the street trackage (pretty much everything you see here is embedded in pavement).

Here’s the updated version of my prototype map, showing what was there (at some point or another — I doubt that all of these existed at the same moment in time).   What I’ve built is close.    Certainly within the realm of “feels right to me”.

Just about all of these industries unloaded to the sidewalk or a truck.   None of these tracks had a traditional loading platform.   That’s common throughout the State Belt.   The actual industry may be several blocks away, but they’ll truck the load to their building.   The block marked in black on the map below had tracks running to it (it was a malting operation), but I just couldn’t find a way to get those into my plan.



I expect that this area will be operated by a two person crew.   There are no run-arounds on this section at all, so there needs to be some supporting trackage on the Embarcadero to make this operable.   Most of that street has two or three parallel tracks alongside the roadway (see for a photo).

I’ll be posting more about the next section shortly.

More track laying

[ Okay, so it was a long hiatus, for more than just track acquisition.  ]

There is now track feeding into the North Point & Beach Street line.   Along The Embarcadero is the “main line” of the State Belt, two or three tracks with a host of crossovers between the tracks and spurs serving industries and piers all along the route.

Trackwork along The Embarcadero

Trackwork along The Embarcadero

This is enough track to support a runaround, which is needed to operate on the North Point line.    There’s a spur for Fiberboard Products, and several team tracks.  There will soon be a third track (on the right side of the photo) and spurs into several piers.

Train’s a-coming down the track

Customers along North Point are excited about the coming of the railroad.  Now Simmons Mattresses can be loaded into boxcars for shipment throughout the western states.  Cream of Tartar can be shipped from Stauffer Chemical.  And Nash Distributors might finally be able to fill their warehouse space with incoming shipments.



Okay, we’re still wondering just how useful it will be to load car when we can’t take them beyond the end of the street, since we run out of track at that point.   And just how did that train get here?

But there’s track down on my railroad, with the main street running down North Point and several spurs completed.  The engine is just entering the curve that swings over to the alignment on Beach St.

Obviously there is still track to go down — on the left is the spur to the S.P. auto unloading ramp and Leslie Salt.   In the front is the lead to the Del Monte cannery and a spur to Musto Keenan.

But I ran out of rail, so a brief hiatus in order for the gandy dancers.