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

Monday, 10 July 2017

Finding Gremlins in Locomotives

Performing surgery on a locomotive is a daunting task. Taking the body shell off to poke around inside and find out where a peculiar noise is coming from can very quickly take on the mantra of 'here goes nothin'. But a weird noise that had developed inside my 82 class diesel that only occurred when the locomotive ran in one direction, finally got the better of me. When it came to removing the screws as the instructions stated, the two screws holding the plastic body shell to the locomotive frame were fused in place. I only just managed to remove the first screw, bringing with it a smear of plastic shell that was embedded into the tip of the thread. The second screw wouldn't budge, and I soon burred the head off the screw completely. The simple task had brought on an attack of The Gremlins. The only way to get the shell off would call for me to drill the screw head out.

Fortunately the hole will be concealed when the fuel tank is reattached.

The cleanly drilled hole above wasn't easy. It took a full afternoon of trying different size drill bits before I soon realised that even with the screw head gone, the body shell would not budge from above the point where the screw shaft was still holding it firmly in place. I then proceeded to use a 3 mm drill bit while working at a very slow pace to completely drill the long screw out. This was hold-your-breath stuff as there wasn't a lot of room for error.

As you can see, there isn't a lot of room to be drilling through the die-cast chassis.

The finished hole needed a good clean-up and so did the area around the brass flywheels.

The culprit was this long screw that was fused to the plastic body shell. It still wouldn't come out.

Even with the body shell removed, the tip of the long screw still wouldn't budge when using a pair of long nosed pliers. Either there was an extremely strong factory worker in China who assembled this model, or the screw thread into the plastic body shell was torn out during assembly and the screw was then glued into place. In the end I just snipped what remained of the screw as close as possible to the shell, and left it there.

The noise ended up being the masking tape around the wires. It dried out, came loose and was rubbing on the drive shaft.

I thoroughly cleaned the inside of the model, removing the green plastic circuit board and both blowing out any metal shavings and dabbing every nook and cranny with a cotton tip dipped in methylated spirits. There didn't seem to be anything amiss, or any reason for the strange noise apart from the paper masking tape that had been used around the wires leading to the locomotive cab. It had dried out, come loose and had possibly been rubbing on the drive shaft powering the worm that drives the nylon gears. Because of the angle the loose paper tape hung down, it was plausible that it would only make a loud noise when rubbing against the direction of the drive shaft, not with it. It would make sense as I only heard the noise when the locomotive travelled in one direction.

I also inspected the gears beneath the cover plate beneath the bogies, or trucks, and cleaned away some dried up lubricant.

I also removed the cover plate from the bogies, or trucks. Some of the excess lubricant inside had dried up to a goopy-green paste and collected around the axles. I wiped this away with a clean cotton tip and put the cover plate back on.

I taped the wires back up using blue electrical tape and then screwed the body back in place.

With the locomotive thoroughly cleaned, I placed it back on the track and it ran without any noise. One nuance with the model had always been the coloured wires leading to the locomotive cab that were visible through the windows of the driver's access doors. So I replaced the dried out paper tape with some blue electrical tape before screwing the body back in place with the one remaining good screw. The fuel tank clipped back into place and concealed the 3 mm hole I had drilled.

The re-taped blue wiring is less visible through the driver's door window than before.

Placing the locomotive back on the track, not only was the noise gone, but the driver's door window looked much better. If you can see a hint of wiring in the above picture, it at least matches the colour of the locomotive. One thing I will give this model, it is made of sturdy materials. Nothing broke or came loose during surgery which I suppose is a credit to On Track Models. However, the fused screw and shoddy paper masking tape inside, turned what should have been a 5 minute inspection into a trip to the dentist! I wonder how many other owners of this particular model have run into the same problem? However, given that this loco has now performed over 2 years of service on my layout, I'm just glad to have an old favourite sounding healthy again.

See also; Review: On Track's 82 Class