Saturday, 12 August 2017

Exhibition #2 Pine Rivers

It's been a week since I exhibited Philden for the second time at this year's 2017 Pine Rivers Model Train Show in the northern Brisbane suburb of Strathpine. I'm glad to say the layout is now back safe in our apartment by the sea in Caloundra, and once more standing proudly above my desk as I write this. But first of all, I wanted to share with you the biggest challenge I face each time I decide to pack Philden in the car and take it on the road; getting it down the stairs!

There's 6 flights of stairs between the door of our apartment and the garage.

While I enjoy great ocean views from our top level apartment overlooking the sea, getting the layout out the door and down six flights of stairs to pack it safely in the car remains my biggest hurdle. At each and every turn on the four landings between the door of our apartment and the garage, there is just enough room for one person to stand holding the end of the 1.9 metre long main layout section while the other person has to stand sideways and twist while passing it up and over each handrail. While the layout is not very heavy, it is an awkward process to say the least! Once the layout is packed safely in the car however, it takes less than 45 minutes to unpack, setup and have the first train running when we arrive at the other end.

I use old grocery plastic bags to wrap my buildings in and transport to shows in a separate box.

The other thing I always do when taking Philden on the road, is carefully pack both the station building and the railway goods shed, which are both removable, into a sturdy box like I've shown above. Unfortunately, I left this box at home on my desk shortly after taking this picture, and didn't realise until I had the layout set up at the venue. Thankfully I travelled to and from the Sunshine Coast to Brisbane each day for this show and could simply bring it with me the next morning! (Reminder to self; don't dare do this should we take the layout to Sydney!)

Has this blog gained me a reputation in being located beside the fire extinguisher? Don't know what I mean? then click here.

For this show, our country music playlist on the highway was a mish-mash of everything modern, but fittingly as we passed by the Caboolture exit we had Keith Urban blaring in the car. The venue for the Railway Modellers Club of Queensland show at Strahpine was a good one. The Strathpine Community Centre was spacious, modern, had good lighting and facilities and most importantly had a level floor.

There was only one moment of panic for the entire weekend, and that occurred shortly after I'd set-up and test ran a locomotive on the layout. One of my staging shelf sidings was dead, and it took me 20 minutes to trace the problem back to a broken wire connection beneath the layout on one of the isolating toggle switches. It must have broke loose at some point between packing and unloading the car. Thankfully I always carry a fix-it box full of things like pliers, screwdrivers and a soldering iron for if things go wrong. In this instance I was able to use some wire glue to re-do the join to the toggle switch and I was back and running.

The RMCQ members were friendly to the point of ushering both Denise and myself out the back of the venue for an impromptu sausage sizzle the moment we arrived on a Friday evening to set up, something which was much appreciated given how rushed we both were in finishing work, packing the car and travelling down from the Sunshine Coast in dreaded Friday afternoon traffic. The hospitality then continued all weekend long with constant reminders to help ourselves to free tea, coffee and biscuits in the exhibitors canteen. Saturday evening saw my wife Denise head off for dinner with our daughter who lives in Brisbane, while I stayed behind for a bbq and a chin-wag with the boys. I must also thank fellow blogger Craig Mackie for the impromptu tour of the nearby RMCQ club rooms in Brendale. The facilities and sheer size of the club layouts was more than just impressive, and makes a strong statement about just how healthy our hobby is here in Queensland, Australia.

I deliberately included this photo as a reminder to myself of what havoc the venue lighting poses for photography.

I got so caught up talking to people throughout the weekend at this show, that I totally forgot to take the camera out and capture some photos of other people's layouts. Instead of coming back with a swag of photos, I came back with a short list of names and numbers of fellow modellers who I'd really like to meet up with later, including a fellow modeller I discovered also lives in Caloundra. I think my calendar is going to look busy for the remainder of the year.

The above photo I've included to show the difficulties in photographing a layout with a perspex panel. While the layout was easily viewed from every angle with the naked eye, taking out the camera and photographing the reflection of the hall's ceiling lights is proving a bit of a drawback. Despite the plastic chain barrier keeping most hands at arm's length, the perspex has saved my models at least a dozen times from over-keen youngsters trying to poke at the scenery. Given that my bookshelf layout is so narrow and built to the edge, I still think that for now I'm just happy to demonstrate the feature of having a removable perspex panel to the keen photographer, and keep it there when the show is busy with a large number of families. After all, it is getting by far more positive comments from the visiting public about what a good idea the perspex is to stop the layout from getting damaged, than it is remarks about it being difficult to photograph on their smart phones.

Yes, that is the latest Model Railroad Planning book on my desk for my next plans...

So returning home on the Sunday evening, with Keith Urban once more filling the silence from two days of me being talked-out, we left the layout in the car until Monday morning when once more we hiked it back up six flights of stairs, and re-assembled it above my desk. I had a list from the Brisbane Model Train Show back in May of things I wanted to improve ahead of Philden's next outing, but sad to say I only got around to one of them for the Pine Rivers Show, and that was replacing all the lighting in the buildings with LED's. So after two days of once more having the layout incorrectly identified on account of all the railway memorabilia that is mounted on the framework (you can take your pick with Granville, Point Clare or Broadmeadow), I'm glad to say I have ordered a custom-made LED sign with the name PHILDEN spelled out in Countrylink colours. They assure me I will easily have it in time for the layout's next outing at the Gold Coast Show in October. So there will be no mistaking Philden the next time it is exhibited, and maybe, just maybe, I might exhibit it without the perspex panel in place to gauge the difference in interest levels.

In the week that followed the Pine Rivers Model Train Show, the trains have sat quietly above my desk as I've been inundated with work on all fronts. Including an interview with ABC Radio Southern Queensland about my latest book Last Train to Brisbane, and strangely enough having one of my earlier novels Last Wish of Summer featured on this year's Bookworks Summer Reading List in the States. I don't know why after almost 5 years, but fortunately I made the novel available as an independently-released eBook in the weeks that followed being dumped by my previous publisher, so any sales at this point are most welcome for Philden's future layout fund!

Speaking of which, that's the finished and rolled-up plans for my next layout project in the above photo. After waving the white flag at any upper-level extensions on Philden, I've decided to leave any extension plans for when I have a dedicated train room in which to turn Philden into a much larger L shaped layout. These plans are instead for what is going to go beneath Philden. Yes, it will replace my current desk. Yes it will be a change of scales, and if my Star-Wars-esque quote on Philden that says "somewhere in New South Wales, at a railway station far, far, away..." is anything to go by, then it will entail a trip to the dark side. For as I discovered from a weekend a chatting with modellers of other scales and interests, the saying is true. "Come to the dark side. We have cookies." But as usual, I'll let that be a story for another day.

See also; Exhibition #1 Brisbane Beginnings

Monday, 24 July 2017

A between shows refresh

It's less than two weeks away from Philden's next public outing at the Pine Rivers Model Train & Hobby Expo on Brisbane's north side. So thankfully this weekend I completed a general refresh of my small layout's appearance, concentrating mainly on replacing the incandescent light bulbs in the station building with LED's, and adding some more LED light poles to the small yard. The photos above and below show the finished result. The warm white LED's not only rid the model of that bright "high-beam glare" that got the better of me back at the Brisbane Model Train Show in May, but being such a low voltage they don't show through the tiny cracks in the roof that developed where the glue had dried out from two days of constant use with the now removed incandescent grain-of-rice light bulbs. The LED's also make photographing the waiting room at the station a lot easier as you can see below.

The station building and waiting room are now fitted with low voltage LED lights for a better look.

I also added a pair of railway yard light poles alongside the tracks that double as marker points for where the locomotive is able to couple onto my stationary goods wagons. One can be seen in the top photo in the left of picture. I decided to use the other light pole as an excuse to add some extra line-side detail. As you can see below, the light pole is incorporated in a new fence line I built using a roll of silver mesh ribbon trim I bought from Spotlight fabric store. Compare it to an earlier photo I found taken from the same angle, and you can see that the simple fence gives my cement plant and steel unloading apron a bigger presence without obstructing the line-side view of the layout.

The new fence line is built alongside the abandoned siding and features movable opening gates.

Before adding the fence line, there was nothing to define the cement plant's property line.

For now the chain mesh fence can look like a newly erected fence that was built along the access driveway to Cement Australia's Philden Plant. The gates are also operable, I just hope the foreman remembers to lock them at the end of his shift, or rail fans might wander onto the property to photograph some trains.

I'll write up a small article on how I built a scene like this for under $10 after the Pine Rivers Model Train Show and submit it to our leading model railway magazine here in Australia. The next major refresh on my layout will be the remodelling of the siding you can see the louvred wagons, or box cars sitting on. Hopefully if I've the time, that will occur between the Pine Rivers and Gold Coast shows. But as usual, I'll let that be a story for another day.

See also; Exhibition #1 Brisbane Beginnings

Thursday, 13 July 2017

DC or not DCC

DCC, NCE, MRC, ESU.... Confused? Well I am. Its enough to send your mind whirring faster than a passing freight train. If you answered no, then chances are you have already got your head around the various terminology that goes with model train set Digital Command Control, or DCC as its commonly known. Easily the most heated debate amongst railway modellers here in Australia, is which operating system is better? DC or DCC? Let's be honest, asking a retailer which is better will always guarantee you the same answer. They'll always try to sell you the more expensive option. I can be a bit more blunt with my answer however, in that I write simply for myself so don't stand to generate anything from this post other than a few laughs.

DC or Direct Current, has been around for ages. A simple positive and negative 12 volt set of wires connected to your track from a transformer power pack that lets you control the amount of current sent to the track by the throttle. To some, DC represents the stubbornness of our hobby in hanging onto outdated technology that is well past its' use-by date.

Here are my Top 5 funny meanings I've heard model railroaders give this acronym.

  1. Dinosaur Control - an oldie but a goody.
  2. Dummy Control - as in only dummies still use it.
  3. Dunny Cab - Australian for toilet, you figure the rest.
  4. Dull Control - as in it makes operating a layout more boring.
  5. Death Cab - as in they're not interested in change, and will stick with DC until they die.

DCC or Digital Command Control, supplies power to a block of track by one set of wires, and sends individual digital signals to the locomotive via the decoder chip that is fitted inside, enabling individual command control of things like speed, headlights, ditch lights, cab lights etc. Being able to operate lights individually on a locomotive while it is stationary, without having the brightness respond only to an increase in current or speed is a good argument, in fact a very good argument as to which system may be better. But it does have some drawbacks, namely the added cost of converting your layout to DCC operation.

No-one that I've spoken with about DCC operation has had the guts to say anything bad about it. Maybe that's because there is nothing bad to say about it. Or it could be a case of The Emperor's new clothes, and everyone just agrees for fear of ridicule. Well, maybe its about time someone stood up for the humble DC modellers in this hobby, or the manufacturers might think we no longer exist and stop producing quality DC locomotive models in the future.

So in that spirit, here are my Top 5 funny meanings I feel DCC could be short for.

  1. Doesn't Come Cheap - an obvious place to start.
  2. Digital Computer Crap - here's another blasted contraption I have to learn.
  3. Darn Cruel Contraption - as in all that money and it just fried another decoder!
  4. Diesel Confused Comprende - does anyone know what number I'm programmed under?
  5. Definitely Couldn't Care - as in I'm way too old for this and I will stick with DC until I die...

For the past few years, I've noticed a changing trend in the way model railway manufacturers are advertising new models. We've moved on from the self-explanatory DCC-ready, (as in capable of fitting a DCC decoder chip inside the locomotive to convert the model to DCC operation at a later date), to more confusing terms like Bachmann's DCC On-Board and the latest trend of advertising models as DC/DCC with sound. In fact, there is a growing trend among model railway manufacturers both in the U.S. and here in Australia to produce sound equipped models that are already installed with a decoder capable of recognising and then running on either DC or DCC track. At first glance, this appears to be the next step in finding a one-size-fits-all approach to keep both DC and DCC modellers happy, and sound in our hobby is a big selling point. But is DCC on DC still DC? Or is DCC on DC more like DC and 1/2?

I've now had two experiences with running DC/DCC sound-equipped locomotives on my DC powered layout, and to be honest they were both disappointing. To be fair, I won't name each manufacturer, as in each instance it wasn't their product that was at fault, rather the way that sound-equipped DC/DCC models are perceived in the hobby, and the reality of how they actually perform on a DC layout.

First was a model fitted with a DC/DCC QSI sound-equipped decoder, that after going through its usual start-up sound sequence, moved off the mark very slowly thanks to the built-in inertia. It stood to reason that it also stopped very slowly, which on a short bookshelf layout quickly proved to be very frustrating. Most of the time I had to stop the model quickly as it neared the end of the track, and instead of enjoying the shut-down sound sequence the model would just come to a silent, abrupt halt. The horn function required a quick back-and-forth flick of the throttle's forward/reverse function to activate. Most of the time the decoder misinterpreted this as the power turning off, and would come to an abrupt halt and revert to going through the whole start-up procedure again. Needless to say, it soon frustrated me to tears. Given that the model wasn't really the right match for the era I was modelling, (I'd purely been enticed to buy it for the sound function), it was soon sold on eBay.

More recently, a model fitted with a DC/DCC Loksound sound-equipped decoder gave me grief right from the moment it was placed on my DC powered track. After going through the long, drawn-out start-up procedure, the model just stood still and shook with the sound spluttering in and out. Turning the throttle up would result in the loco suddenly taking off at near full speed. I had to phone the manufacturer who put me in touch with Paul Baker, the expert on all things DCC at The . Paul gave me perhaps the most honest answer with what was wrong. A DC/DCC sound-equipped locomotive operating on a DC layout is not DCC. The loco simply was not drawing enough power.

A DCC power pack supplies an average of 16.5 volts to the track all the time. A DC power pack by comparison supplies 12 volts, in increments from zero through to 12 volts as controlled by the throttle. The decoder in a DC/DCC model requires 9 volts for the decoder to start, and it isn't a simple matter of starting the model at a higher throttle setting. Once the start-up sequence is completed, the model then responds instantly to the throttle setting. Smooth starts are impossible. As for the horn sound? On this particular decoder it was not possible in DC mode. For that, you guessed it, I would have to upgrade to a DCC system. Needless to say, the two pre-orders I had for other sound-equipped models have now been cancelled.

When it comes to a one-size-fits-all approach, a model touted as being DC/DCC compatible is just a gimmick, and a misleading one at that! For the extra bucks a DC modeller will pay for a locomotive that is DC/DCC sound equipped, they get a locomotive that is very limited as to what extras they can actually utilise. Yet they still have to pay DCC prices and are still subject to the same problems of shorting decoders and the expense of replacing them should anything go wrong. Trust me when I say a decoder can still go 'pop' on a DC layout! A DCC modeller on the other hand, already has a DCC equipped layout and won't really care if the more expensive locomotive is capable of running on a less expensive DC system. DC is still DC, just as DCC is still the only option for those who want to turn the lights on their locomotive individually and listen to the engine idle while their train is stationary.

I had my crossroads moment, and I chose to stick with plain old DC operation. At the end of the day I have a small bookshelf switching layout, and as Paul Baker kindly explained, if I were to go down the digital path I would most likely want to de-program the momentum from each locomotive anyway to continue operating a small layout enjoyably. If I were to change my mind in the future with DCC, I'm sure my first point of call will be to contact Paul at The Trainman.

Although enjoying sound while operating a loco would have been pretty cool, I'm now more interested in seeing if I can incorporate something like Broadway Limited's Lightning & Thunder pack into my layout. If you haven't seen or heard what this new product is all about, then you must watch the YouTube clip above. And best of all, it's a DC product that won't require anything more than installing two LED strips and mounting the sub-woofer beneath my layout. I first need to find out whether I can get it to work using a household Australian 240 volt plug before I invest any more dollars.

There are plenty of new Australian prototype HO scale models due to be released in the next 12 months, and the majority of these are now being made available in either DC or DC/DCC with sound versions. Southern Rail Models will soon release their 10 Class steam locomotive, then Auscision Models will follow with their 442 Class and NR Class diesels, an 85 Class electric locomotive and even a Railway Pay-Bus in 2018. While over at SDS Models we are all waiting word on the re-release of the Austrains 81 Class and their own version of the NR Class diesels. With the average price difference between the DC and DC/DCC with sound models offered by each manufacturer being $100.00 Australian, I hope I have at least shed some light on what standard DC modellers like myself can expect if tempted by the idea of adding sound. My advice is an echo of the old saying, 'in for a penny, in for a pound.' Either go all-out and invest in a decent DCC system, or just stick with a tried-and-true standard DC locomotive and save yourself the price difference.

Perhaps in future there might be some more development in the Australian market with off-board sound for DC modellers, such as the KATO Unitrack Soundbox. I know I would be interested.

See also; Railway Modelling Vs. Blogging