Custom Markings for a BCR loco

For a while now we have had a small yard shunt that we were able to cram a no-sound decoder in, but it was painted a garish orange. So we repainted it black and it ended up with no markings.

By a lucky coincidence, Mark was changing the cartridge on the household label printer (a Brother PT-310) and noticed its colour scheme was white on gloss black.

We now have our first loco with custom markings!


Shunt 6 with new markings

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Our New Loco Shed

A small project we have had in mind for a while is building a shed for the locomotives that run on the canyon rim line. We have a two siding spur off the slip switch for this purpose that is jammed up against the ceiling in a corner, so a kit building simply would not fit.

What we needed was material for the walls and ceiling that is thin but sturdy and can be printed on. It turns out the cardboard back of a pad of paper is just right and by good luck will feed through my laser printer which has a straight-through print option, so no curling the paper while it printed. Here is a picture of leftovers after printing the roof plus walls.


cardboard roof on left, remnants of wall on right

So where does the design come from for the layout you see above? We found an outstanding online resource called PaperBrick . It provides a very simple tool for creating a brick pattern in a PDF which you can then print on whatever your printer will digest. We selected a simple brick pattern for the walls that basically provided mortar lines and a different pattern for the roof that looked roughly like slates. Here’s the finished product after cutting, folding and gluing.

And here it is in place, with and without loco.

You can see an inside wall that was cut and pasted directly to the wall before the shed itself went in. As it turns out, you can’t really see the roof because it is so tight to the ceiling.

So for the price of no purchased materials and about an hour and a half of work, our canyon rim loco now has a place to rest overnight.

Videos of number 7230 entering and leaving the shed are up on YouTube here:

Entering and Leaving

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Understanding the Tortoise

We don’t know about you, but we found the Circuitron instructions about wiring lights to a Tortoise confusing. But it’s actually very simple. The picture below shows the wiring to connect a single lamp through a terminal strip. OK, we’ll admit it doesn’t look simple so let’s walk through it.

What we discovered is this: the Tortoise provides pairs of connections that complete a circuit depending on whether a switch is thrown or not. There are eight connection positions on its strip and the outermost (1 and 8) control the motor. So if all you want to do is throw a switch, you connect the outputs from your stationary decoder (a DS52 here) to positions 1 and 8 and you’re in business. That’s what we have running to the left from the DS52 for the loco parking turnout.

If you want to control something else, in our case lighting a lamp when the switch is thrown as in the picture above, you loop your lighting circuit through one of these pairs of positions:

  1. power to lamp when thrown, no power when not thrown: 3 and 4 or 5 and 7
  2. no power to lamp when thrown, power when not thrown: 2 and 4 or 5 and 6

If you have Circuitron’s reference page in front of you, its Figure 2 describes condition 1 above, power when thrown.

As we wanted our lamp on when the switch is thrown, we chose the 5/7 pair and wired the lamp circuit through those. To facilitate rewiring, we used a terminal strip for connecting the circuit and tapped the power for it from the DS52 power terminals that serve the Tortoise motor, in the following way from top to bottom on the strip in the picture:

  1. power from DS52, power to motor connection and position 5 for the lamp circuit
  2. connection from position 7, connection to one side of the lamp LED
  3. connection from other motor connection and other side of LED, power return to DS52

I have deliberately stayed away from referring to positive and negative connections, because it gets confusing. When the Tortoise operates, it’s a result of the DS52 switching polarity on the connections, so knowing what’s positive or negative requires knowing also what switch position is intended and that makes it more complicated than is necessary.

What we found easier was to wire it up through the indicated connections, then power the DS52. If the light goes on in the switch position you wanted, you’re done. If it doesn’t, it’s because the LED is sensitive to which side is positive or negative, so all you need do is switch its connections at the terminal strip (turn your stationary decoder off first). We had a 50/50 chance and got it right the first time. If it still doesn’t work, it’s likely just a loose connection or a blown LED (you tested it in advance, right?).

The bottom line is we have an indicator light that lets us know at a glance that the slip switch has been thrown. We will be doing the same for the turnout that controls which siding a loco is routed to for parking (to the left of the slip switch). If you want to have a light on the panel, it’s just a matter of running a pair of wires that far. The Circuitron documentation warns though that you get about a 2 volt loss for every LED so the Tortoise will run more slowly.

This was our first lighting adventure, so of course there were casualties, two LEDs in the waste bin. One of them answered the question: can you take the lamp circuit power off the track bus? Just don’t.


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Return of the Slip Switch

John and Mark have been busy the past few weeks increasing our inventory of rolling stock, and culling a bit too. This week we finally got down to a project that had been pending: automating the slip switch and the loco parking sidings beside it.

We had installed PECO solenoids to operate the slip switch but with one of the point’s spring missing, the point would not stay tight against the rail. So our solution was to replace those with a Tortoise which has the advantage of using spring tension to hold a point in position. The photo below shows what we did.

wiring and turnout control devices below an elevated HO scale model train track

a pair of Tortoises

On the left you can see the Tortoise installed upright to control the unseen turnout directly above it. That directs the loco parking traffic on to one of two sidings to the left. Here’s the overall layout of this level. This section is at the top left corner.

diagram of an oval model railroad track

Baden Canyon Railroad Rim Line Layout

The slip switch has a pair of points that are thrown together, so its Tortoise installation required the remote actuator kit and an additional remote actuator. You can see it mounted horizontally to the left. Thin cables run through Teflon tubes from the actuators to the Tortoise’s throw arm, so the pair of points get thrown at the same time from the single Tortoise. The instructions have over forty steps, many of which had to be repeated for the second actuator, so this turned out to be a multi-hour job.

The last step was wiring the Tortoises to a Digitrax DS52 which can control two independent outputs. It’s in the middle and is powered from the track via the red and black bus wires to the left.

We now have a fully automated turnout path from the bottom of the climbing wall to the canyon rim oval and now across to the loco parking sidings.

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The Climbing Wall Workhorse

You will have figured out by now that building the climbing wall turned out to be the easy part. Now we are deep into making it work and what we needed most of all was a powerful loco to move ore cars up and down the wall. Here is our choice:

Climbing wall shunt

Climbing wall shunt

It is a terrific workhorse as it will take five heavy ore cars up our 8.3% grade with no complaint. We run it DCC and its sound reproduction is superb. What we are using it for now is to run cars singly and in groups to test their behaviour across all the grades and switches. Some are – quite literally – not making the grade and are set aside for adjustment or (every car’s nightmare) just display.

It has one quirk – it will stop and restart when it runs across some but not all non-conducting frogs. This seems odd given it picks up from the track at front and back.

We hope to post it running a group of cars on our YouTube channel in a week or two.

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More on The Approach

In our most recent post, I described ‘The Approach’ without a photo. Here it is now with white text labeling its switches.

top down view of HO scale model railroad tracks with switches labelled in white

The Approach

At the top you can see the bottom ramps of the climbing wall. Switch 14 is hidden under the ramp and controls access to the inner siding to the left and the first ramp which peeks out to the right under the second ramp which is in full view.

Switch 15 controls access to a parallel siding to the left.

Switch 16 feeds access to the climbing wall from the shunt sidings (upper, leading to switch 17) or the layout (lower, leading to switch S2-1).

Switch 17 opens to two sidings to the right for shunt storage in a shed and a utility siding.

Finally, Switch S2-1 controls access from the layout oval below to the climbing wall through the switches listed above. It’s basically the entry to ‘The Approach’.

The straight line through these four switches is plainly at an angle to both the climbing wall and the oval, and runs across ground that is at a slope, which is not too apparent in the photo, but if you look to the left you can see a green patch beyond the oval curve meeting the stone colour at the base of the climbing wall. Where they meet is a low point that slopes up towards the top and bottom of the photo.

Operationally, a yard shunt will push a set of four or five ore cars through S2-1 to siding 14, then detach and return for more. The wall shunt will run from its shed to the right of 17, through 16, 15 and 14 to pick up the ore cars and take them up the climbing wall to the train assembly siding at the top.

A quick note on naming conventions: the entire layout is divided into four zones, the climbing wall being one of them. Our convention is that its switches are referenced without a prefix, whereas S2-1 belongs to the S2 zone, so it requires a prefix to avoid confusion with switch 1 in the climbing wall zone. Clear as mud?

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Cleaning up the Approach

We have started to call the run of turnouts connecting the climbing wall to the layout, ‘the approach’. It turns out it is technically a very difficult area to straighten and level, because the terrain:

  • slopes away from the climbing wall to the layout, then climbs again at a different angle
  • gives a bit when you press on it because it’s foam and so will drop and rebound about a quarter inch
  • is not quite level from the bottom-most climbing wall siding to the exit turnout from the layout (the intent was to set the entry and exit turnout at the same level, with adjustments they are probably out by half an inch)
  • varies continuously in both height and slope because the connection path runs at an angle across the slopes.

This all makes leveling and straightening this short run very challenging. We settled on leaving the connecting turnouts leaning at the same angle. As it is a low speed area, there were no derailments when we tested it.

I’ll add a picture later. Next session will be firming that up and fixing a mystery turnout failure. One Atlas snap switch in the approach refuses to operate even though it makes movement sounds when energized. More on that later.


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Improving the Climbing Wall

We have been having our challenges getting a clean run of even just a single loco up and down the wall, so we considered throwing a level on the shelves. Guess what: gravity makes things sag. It turned out most of the shelves leaned out a full bubble or two, so we constructed an additional pair of columns to hold up the ends of the shelves where they met the sloped ramps. Take a look below.

a set of connected shelves with HO model train track on them with three narrow columns in front for support

Two new columns to level out the sidings

If your eye is sharp you will notice the centre column is a little different than the one before. We took the opportunity to change the brick colour and style a bit. The columns themselves are wood wrapped in paper on which a brick pattern was printed. The paper is held on with ordinary tape on the back and a dab of glue where the page edges meet. Each column is a stack of six or seven wraps.

To fasten the columns themselves, we simply put a line level on the switch, John pushed on the shelf to level it, and Mark used a nail gun to pin it in place permanently. We have some nail head covering still to do, but the effect of releveling the sidings has been enormous: our wall shunt runs up and down like greased lightning.

That also changed the height of the left bottom siding so our approach (by the yellow and green tool handle) was raised and its three switches and runs had to be releveled. This turned out to be a bit more difficult, as the ‘ground’ is by design not level and slopes away from the wall, so the support under the tracks has to be in the form of a wedge, i.e. one side shorter than the other. Some finicky work with shims and wood scraps fixed that up too.

We will be back at it tomorrow. Our next challenge is coupling and decoupling groups of ore cars at the top and bottom of the wall. One particular difficulty has been aligning the Kadee couplers: if they hang too low, they catch the roadbed; too high, they’re too far from the magnet to decouple.

PS – here’s a shoutout to Derrick at Paperbrick. He has a site that generates a PDF with a wide variety of brick sizes, patterns and colours. We used his site to create the brick for our three columns. Here is a link to his site.


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Visiting the Train Museum in Aruba

Mark abandoned the cold of Ontario for the warmth (and very persistent wind) of Aruba for a couple of weeks. And it has a Train Museum.

Museum is a bit of a grand word – it’s really just a private collection of mostly HO scale trains, some other scale models and some railroad memorabilia. It’s located on the ground floor of Jan’s house. Here are a few photos.

   He has traveled extensively through the US and Canada and claims to be very fond of our part of the world. In fact if you look closely above in the photo of the display case of HO stock you will see an Ontario Northland model. That’s Jan himself in the red jacket on a CP locomotive.

You can whiz through in fifteen minutes but plan to spend an hour as there are a few stories about pieces of his collection. Here’s the link to the tourism site if you want to pay him a visit.

Click for link to train museum details – most recent click-through test on Feb 21/2016


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New Loco on the roster (pix fixed)

One of our cheap and cheerful strategies is converting older locos to DCC with generic decoders. One of the problems we all run into, though, is fitting a sound card and speaker inside the shell without rebuilding the whole unit. We lucked out this week and managed to fit a MyLocoSound card and speaker into an old Bachmann unit.  Here is what it looks like on the outside.

model railroad locomotive in black and red with CN and road number 5075

number 5075 ready to run

What we discovered is its motor sits over the rear bogie only, leaving a fair amount of space in the middle. Some of that was filled with its weight, but it was easily removed and replaced with smaller bits packed around the card, like this.

model railroad locomotive with its shell removed showing the internal wiring and mechanisms incuding a newly installed decoder card

number 5075 on the inside

On the left you can see the speaker which by sheer luck fit exactly inside the red portion of the shell. That silver colored piece in front of the right side of the card is exactly what it looks like: a fishing sinker.

Once we got it on the programming track, we configured it up and ran it around.  The only problem with it is that we need to run the throttle up over 70% just to get it rolling at which point we can dial it down to 45 or so for lower speed. But that means it’s not much good for low speed or fine movement. We’ll need to experiment with some CVs to see if better control can be achieved.

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