I’ve been a model railroader since around 1970. The material selected in our videos of the real railroads reflect the items that many model builders can use to make their layouts and models more like the real thing. When these videos are created, it's often with a modeler's interests in mind. The mix of freight cars, their color schemes, weathering, line-side structures and ballast colors are a few things that the videos bring to the modeler.
Our videos feature things that are now gone from the landscape. In the past we all relied on books. Until recent times most were all in black and white. Now with video DVDs we have a wider view of what the railroads were like and how things, decades ago, moved and sounded like back when people were shooting color movie film.
I occasionally wished I’d started in O-scale after building HO-scale models for some time. The opportunity for better detail was the lure. I tried one O-scale, scratch built model of a vintage, wooden DM&IR caboose. It was from a prototype article in the Mainline Modeler magazine. The caboose was eventually in an article published in Mainline Modeler Magazine's 1993 August issue. It may be my best model yet built. But I’m glad now that I didn’t change scales. I resigned to the fact that the space needed for an O-scale layout would be hard to come by. The DM&IR caboose is sitting on the HO-scale layout rail just for a quick photo having some type of background.
In 2009, a new HO-scale model railroad layout was built that's shown in the photos here. Many of the models were built years ago. The layout is presently 12 by 20 feet with plans to expand it as time permits. Lots of future video projects will slow that plan down a bit. The existing portion of the layout is of the Southern Pacific in the late 1950s. The region modeled is based on the Oakland and Emeryville, CA industrial area and rural Contra Costa County to the east. A bit of ‘artistic license’ has been used to make this peculiar geographical compression possible.
An example is the Sacramento Northern Ry. Walnut Creek station in the photos. On the layout, it's "relocated" on a SP mainline. Some of my earlier models were built with only a partial view, in a photo, from the type of railroad books printed decades ago. They were not much better than black and white newspaper photos back then. I guessed at the proportions, colors and details from one photo in an old Ira Swett book. It turned out fairly good, but the front roof overhang is foreshortened in the model. Many years later, more books on the SN came out with better photos. It's much easier today with the internet, videos of old movie film and better quality books available to the modeler.
I’m still attached to the early models I’ve built. They were built back when scratch building was the best way to get what you needed. The layout plans were generated to include them from the beginning. In some ways the planning may have been compromised by my effort to work them in. The Wizard Gas station is another example of that. It was built from a July, 1988 RMC article. Working it in squeezed the area behind it where fruit reefers are loaded on a spur. When I build the future extension, the fruit loading area will be relocated to more spacious conditions. The spur behind Wizard Oil will then be re-purposed to support a small lumber dealer. It's amazing how many times I’ve wished I had a one inch wide strip of extra room just to fit things in better -- and more convincingly.
Some of the locos are still painted in the post-1958 scarlet & gray colors. They will be repainted to the older black widow colors. The electric Sacramento Northern freight operations will also be modeled to use the fleet of traction models already built. The SN electric loco models are all in the 1950s black with orange "tiger-stripes". So they will fit right in.
All the brass locos bought in the 70s have had new power chassis built to use modern mechanical and electrical solutions. Those old brass diesels, and traction models, really didn’t run very well. I suspect that most of them never left the owner's display cases, or they remained in their boxes, parked in collector's closets.
I ran trains over all the trackage for several months to make sure that trains would stay on the tracks before I began ballasting and adding scenery. I read that ballasting is best done after running trains to give the bench work, and track, time to stress-relieve itself. I ran many operations with locals switching out all the sidings to see if the track plan needed any revisions. It did need a few. Several tracks were changed around the Sherwin Williams paint factory to allow better use of space for other buildings that surround it.
I found a few track problems and fixed them. Most were around turnouts. Eventually I could run 35 car trains forward and backward without derailing. I could leave a train running to go make a cup of coffee and come back, confident, that it would still be running.
Really, most of the early derailing problems were from the trains themselves. Things like sticking or drooping Kadee couplers on cars that were built long ago. They all had to be reworked. The uncoupling pins can snag on turnout frogs if the couplers aren’t installed to Kadee specs. Also some of my scratch built cars had underframes that needed modifications. Their trucks had limitations in turning around tighter industrial siding's curves. Notching the frames cured that.
When I started, all my locos lacked DCC control. So I wired the layout with standard "block control" wiring supporting two "cabs" – or power packs. The block control panels have 5 DPDT (center off) switches each.
I laid out a 5-toggle switch printed circuit board (PCB) with a CAD program. The PCB has FastOn terminal-pairs at both ends of the board for a 12-volt power-feed bus. This allows the 12-volt power to daisy-chain to the next switch panel group. Each block control toggle switch is to control a remote relay board at each block location. The control wiring to each remote relay's coil is a pair of small 22AWG wires. The polarity is switched to be normal, reversed or totally off. The remote relay board turns these three "states" into turning on relay A, B or neither to select power pack A, B or None in each power "block".
The block control PCB has a bi-color (green/yellow) LED for each block. Green is when power bus A is selected. Yellow is power bus B and off is None selected (switch center-off). As an operator you could visually go by the three switch positions. However, the lights add a nice finishing touch and they are inexpensive.
Two heavy power buses made from 12-AWG wire-pairs run around the layout. The remotely controlled relay boards can select power bus A, B or neither to send to each block. The remote relay boards were laid out with a CAD program. They were sent out for etching and silkscreen. Each board has a pair of relays, with 12-volt coils, that switch both sides of the rails. The relay PCB selects power bus A or B or neither. All the cabling between boards uses a modular approach to make swapping boards out and troubleshooting easy. I never liked the little "suitcase" flying-splice concept. It makes revisions and fault-isolation too difficult.
All the PCBs were made at Pad2Pad using their free CAD layout software. Pad2Pad is a great solution for the hobbyist and experimenter. They made these PCBs from the "Gerber" files generated by the free software. At my engineering job we always used CAD software (such as P-cad) but that was far too expensive for my model railroad use.
Some of the newer locos have DCC. Eventually everything will be DCC. The total of 10 block-control switches will remain to isolate any future problems once everything is DCC. Plus, I can kill the power to any siding and make sure parked trains stay that way.
The same block-control switch panel PCBs were used for controlling the Tortoise switch machines. A different overlay graphic, made in Photoshop, is made for the turnout control panels. Each is custom-made for the track section controlled. A Kodak ESP-7 printer, with heavy gloss-finish photo grade paper, was used. A 1/16th inch thick clear acrylic cover (drilled for the switch holes) protects the paper finish from fingerprints.
Each switch control board is mounted to a thick, steel, right-angle bracket (also drilled for the switch holes). These were laser cut and bent at a local fabrication company in Sylmar, CA called Fastbracket. I have all my metal work done there from my drawings. They do excellent work and have friendly pricing. It has saved me many hours of time -- compared to me making multiple parts in my own shop.
The toggle switches are the same DPDT type -- but with no center-off position. Power polarity is reversed to control turnout direction. A single 12-volt power supply is all that's needed when the DPDT switch is used to change the output polarity. The panel LEDs are red for diverging route and off for straight. The low-current bi-polar approach is used to control the Tortoise machines, it takes only two 22-AWG wires to control each Tortoise machine.
I also bought five, old Proto 2000, GP9s in SP's old colors. Three were bought from a friend that bought them at a probate sale. Two more came from Trainworld. The first three, from the probate sale, all had cracked axles and needed to be repaired. SP light groups were added with white LEDs. Two others, from Trainworld, were changed from Cotton Belt to SP lettering and modified to have the SP-style barrel-lights. These have the colored wings on both ends to reflect the fact that they had dual cab control stands. They became passenger units on the SP out west in the late 50s when Cotton Belt quit the passenger business.
All my old Athearn Blue-box diesels, built in the 80s, have Proto 2000, Atlas and Stewart chassis and drive-trains now. It was a lot of machining work to make them fit. What a difference in running smoothness – and without stalling. These Athearn models have lots of SP detailing and I couldn’t just toss them away. They now need repainting into black widow colors -- but they will do for now, as-is.
All track is code 83. Mainline turnouts are all number 8. Yards use number 6 turnouts. A few industrial sidings have number 5 turnouts. All 36 turnouts are controlled by Tortoise slow-motion switch machines under the layout. Mainline curves have a minimum radius of 36-inches. All the mainline curves are super-elevated.
The backdrop is one continuous piece, curved in the corners, and painted with an airbrush and hand brushes in acrylic paints. The overhead lighting is supplied by 24, large LED spotlights of 770 Lumens output each. These replaced 24, 50-watt Halogen spotlights that consumed 1200 watts total. The excess heat they generated, and the electric bill, was a problem until the LED lighting was adopted. Besides only using 360 watts total, the colors seem more accurate now with the LED lighting. They are 3000-K color temperature and they work well for photography.
Being an electronic engineer made this part of the layout construction what I consider to be an interesting task. An important part of the layout is a security alarm system complete with video cameras wirelessly linked to a remote recorder. It all runs independently from the regular building power. Maybe someday I could run trains from "an undisclosed location" away from home.