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.

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.

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.

The bones are finished

Day 2 of the Last Week of the Year:

I’ve had much of my benchwork in place for a couple of months now (see  this post), but today I finished the base structure for the layout.

Last Sunday I got help to pick up several sheets of Homasote and one more sheet of plywood (thanks, Dave).  Today I picked up several more 1x4s and 1x3s (Menard’s Black Label select pine — nice stuff), and I finished up the last section of L-girders, plus the joists for the subroadbed.  It’s nice how quickly everything goes when you’ve got a plan and all of the tools readily at hand.


I do need to add some braces between the legs and the girder, but that’s another run to Menard’s (1x2s).

The plywood is in place, the Homasote is all cut and in place.  I’ve even got some temporary fascia installed.

Now to do another solid round of dust cleanup, and I’m ready to start making some progress on something above the benchwork for once.

IMG_0591 IMG_0592

The jig is out

I’m using L-girder benchwork, with fairly large areas of flat ground (since most everything prototypically should be around 15 feet above sea level, if that).   This would normally entail risers with cleats on them, so I can drive all of the screws from below.   The main reason to use L-girder benchwork is the ability to move risers & joists as needed, and that is hard to do if you drive screws in from the top.

I dislike using cleats on the risers — it’s not that hard but it can be kind of fiddly.

I also have the luck of being able to use most of my joists as the riser as well, since most of the lumber I used to make the joists was cut at the same time so they’re the same height.


Time to dig out the tools.  I have a jig to make these nifty pocket holes, and they work beautifully for driving the screws from below.   This joist is a bit smaller than most, so it’s attached to the leg and not the L-girder.

The jig holds the board securely and has a guide for a special bit.  Everything is set “just right” for the pocket hole to be drilled and a pilot for the screw placement.  A bit of sawdust is created, and you’re ready to drive the screw and hold the joist to the plywood.



I placed several pockets to attach to the boards above.  No part of the screw protrudes above the surface of the plywood when they’re driven.



I think they’ll all be out of the way as I need to drill switch throw holes in order to place the switch motors, but if not, I’ll just move the joist.  That is the beauty of the whole L-girder system after all.

The jig is from Kreg and can be ordered online or from your favorite local hardware store.


Switch Motors Ready For Use…

Switch motors ready for use...
Switch motors ready for use…

I’ve been cleaning up the boxful of used Tortoises that I got at the last State Fair flea market.   I’ve removed the wires from each one, cleaned up the contacts, and soldered on a header block.  It’s my green frog version of the Terra Cotta Army.

Header Block

These headers are .156″ spacing right angle headers, which are designed to work with Molex connectors.  They work well enough on the Tortoise — whoever designed the board at Circuitron made something that almost, but not quite, works correctly with standard connectors.


I used to use the EDAC connector plugs (available from Greenway), but these are $7 or so apiece, and they only mostly work.   They can be installed off by half a pin or so, which causes them to not work reliably.  They also can slip off due to vibration, since the board on the Tortoise isn’t the same thickness as the plug expects.

I’m going to use the RSMC (Remote Stall Motor Controller) board, which will take a logic hi/lo signal (such as from the Arduino, or a single pole single throw toggle/pushbutton) and swap the polarity on the 12V power to the tortoise.     These board have the matching connector to the headers I just soldered to all of these Tortii.

RSMC ImageI also can wire up the rail power to the RSMC, and I’ll get the correct frog power based on the switch position.  There are additional connectors that I can use for LED indicators on the fascia.

RSMC Installed

I have all the parts for the RSMC boards on my bench, except for the PC board.  I’ve ordered them from Seeed Studio in China, and they’re somewhere on the way between Shenzhen and here.   The total cost of the board, the components, and the connectors will be about $5 each, which certainly compares favorably to anything which uses the EDAC connector.

There’s a different edge connector available in the last few years:


This one fits a little better, but not so much that it really is much better.  It does have the advantage of being easier to use on a circuit board (the Hare, of which I have one for testing, uses this connector).  It’s also a little bit cheaper (about $3 each).

But nothing beats the solid connection you get from the Molex connectors.  Combined with screw terminals for the other connections, I like how the RSMC is fairly easy to replace if necessary, and I don’t think they’d slip off in a Richter 8 earthquake (something my friends in California might worry about, but I don’t here in Minnesota.  Thank goodness for that.)

Maybe I should get started on laying track, so I have someplace to use these sometime soon.

DCC on a Board

I didn’t have a good box for this, or else it would be DCC-in-a-box.

All of my interesting DCC bits are tied together in one place.


This board has three “upstream” connections: 2 x 120V AC (from the power supply brick and the terminal server) and one wired Ethernet (not shown).

Downstream (towards the layout) are connections for:

  • LocoNet (throttle bus)
  • Digitrax Simplex wireless throttle support
  • Rail A, B (DCC input to the circuit breakers that feed the power districts)
  • Programming A,B (with the Programming Track Booster in place)
  • Serial ports (via the terminal server) to the LocoBuffer and to the CMRI bus that will go throughout the layout.

The configuration shown here (except for the CMRI connection) has been built, tested and used for various locomotive projects while I was between layouts.   This makes the wiring of the layout a bit simpler and also makes it easier for me to trust that the basic DCC wiring configuration is good, and that any problems I encounter as I lay track and wire it up is due to the new work and not these components.

Electronics Shelf

I’ve put in a shelf to hold the DCC board.  I’ll have a separate switched circuit under the layout to be able to turn the layout on or off from a single point.   This switch will have a light easily visible from the main room entrance, making it hard to miss if I turn out the room lights and have left the layout on.

If you happen to care, download the DCC on a Board image as a PDF file: DCC on a Board

Power to the People

My bench work is a U shape, with the two uprights set in from the outer walls of the basement (since layout edge is more important to me than running length). The big downside to this is that the inner portion of the layout now has no convenient access to power outlets.

Today’s project was electrical. Run some 120V power to outlets on the inside of the U. A side bonus – one of those outlets has a pair of USB charging points. That will keep my streaming tunes (and news) running.

Overall, a simple project. But the payoff will continue for a very long time.

Next will be the switch (with pilot light) for the RR electronics.



I find that I use my laptop a lot when programming locomotives. So I put in a laptop drawer right next to where the roundhouse goes. Now I will be able to set up the laptop anytime I need it. This drawer will have the Locobuffer’s USB cable attached, so everything I need for programming will be right here.