Friday, August 21, 2015

Kickin' the Anthill

Wednesday was the start of a brief vacation break for me, after a hectic couple of weeks. Since I hadn't been to International Falls, where my parents and my sister and her family live, I decided an overnight jaunt was in order. Wednesday morning I headed north under heavy clouds and light rain. 

I stayed on Highway 53 all the way, so the only chances I had for rail action early in the trip were overpasses, which came up empty. However, with the Ash Lake area yet to come I hadn't yet given up hope of shooting a train in the rain. Sure enough, the first signal south of that siding was glowing red as I approached.

In a few moments a train appeared, headed south. I made a quick u-turn and high tailed it back to Cusson in time to get this shot, as the train sped out of the gloaming. Wow, a pair of GE's. 

I quickly resumed my northward journey, and just as quickly aborted it, as a second southbound was right on the blocks of the one I had just captured. One more quick reversal of course yielded this shot. Three GE's this time.

And once again I started north, but made it only as far as the actual Ash Lake when a northbound appeared beside me, accelerating out of the siding. One more stop allowed me get this train, which won the GE championship for the day with 5 big units up front. 

And then I continued north. 18 minutes first shot to last. Not bad work for one kick at the anthill.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

More Operations

A couple of days after last weekend's shakedown op session on my layout, Dan Mackey sent out a text announcing a trial run on his huge, still under-construction WC layout. I snapped up the invite and planned for a fun evening with a group of like-minded model railroaders. 

I showed up last night to join an enthusiastic group looking forward to giving what Dan has built so far a good workout. Although I would estimate that much less than one quarter of the track is laid (probably safe to say less than 10%), there was plenty to keep four or five operators busy. One thing this tells me is that Dan is building a railroad that will accomodate lots of operators once it is complete. 

One of the locations Dan has been working on is the trackage for the Biron paper mill, seen in the photo below. Matt and Don are working the mill with a GP30, lining up a train for me to pick up after I drop another cut for them to sort and deliver.
My power set for the evening, as I lugged cars back and forth between Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids, was this stellar set of high-hood SD24's. While in real life, these units were not popular with all those asked to operate them (as I learned in exquisite detail from Kent Rengo-I got the impression they pulled like Yugos and smoked like Alcos), in Dan's model world they are great pullers in the hands of the right engineer (namely, me). At least until you try to bring 28 or so cars up the helix with them, at which point you will stall, end up doubling the hill, and clog up the mainline for an hour or so to the consternation of the Trainmaster. Live and learn, is one of the adages I live by. Although you wouldn't know it by the stupid expression on my face.
 Speaking of the Trainmaster, here he is. Most likely he is dreaming up some near-impossible mission for the haggard crews to carry out. Something like requiring us to swap ends on a long train, while making sure the tank cars meet all hazmat rules, but without providing a runaround track. Whatever the latest "Mission, Impossible" is, it's guaranteed to make your head hurt.
 Kent and I chatted about train length while I ran my final train down the helix. One nice thing about a helix-it gives you a moment to think as the train winds its way up or down. In my limited operations experience, any free time you can devote to thinking and planning on how you will get your work done, safely and efficiently, is precious. I don't do a good enough job using my thinking time, which can result in embarrassing events like when I ran through a switch that was lined wrong and shorted out half the railroad last night. Events like that will earn you a nickname. They should inspire a motto as well, something like "Slow down and double check the switch."
After the work was done, Dan sat us down to pick our brains about the layout and any suggested changes. The session really showed how his construction techniques result in a dependable and smoothly operating layout. Unlike my session last week, derailments were rare as hen's teeth. Everyone had a good time, although there was a moment when the lack of a runaround track did result in raised hackles, but with some professional railroading advice, we managed to work through it. 
I'm looking forward to doing it again. When this layout is done, Dan will have to bus in people to keep it all operating. It's gonna be a sight to see, that's for sure!

Saturday, January 24, 2015


There are a great many enjoyable aspects to model railroading. As you know if you are a long time reader of look4trains, creating new things from scraps has always been one of my favorites. Another thing I've always enjoyed is imagining how the minature world I'm constructing would fit into the larger transportation system. 

There comes a time, though, when making new things and watching trains run make you hungry for more. In my case, I've long wanted to see if what I imagine would work. The only way to test this case is to put the railroad through its paces, which requires people. I've had a taste of operations, as it's known, on Phil Keppers large NP layout here in Duluth. And I liked it. Quite a lot. So much, in fact, that I wanted to do it on my layout as well. So it came to pass that I invited a group of modelers over this Saturday afternoon. Here's half the group that attended, mostly engaged in observing professional railroader Kent Rengo as his train heads back to the yard after working the cement plant, paper mill, and lumber siding. 
Here's a shot of the power on Kent's train as it approacheds the helix that will take it down to the staging level.
Across the room, it appears a job briefing is underway as Scott Carney and Dan Mackey confer over the safe way to the get the work done. Now Dan isn't sitting down on the job, rather, his Soo Line transfer job is dropping cars at the lower level staging yard and the office chair gives a better view of the work.
Finally, in a scene that might be common to all model railroad operating sessions, at one time or another there is a traffic jam. This time it's Kent in the hot seat, as he switches out the cars his train just brought down the helix. Scott is working the paper mill switch job, while Dan's Soo power is running light back to the Soo yard in the other room. Henry Carney is just visible behind his dad, and waits for Dan to pass so he can use the main to run around his grain train before shoving it into the Rengo Storage tracks. It's a busy spot, working as designed. Luckily I left some room for people when I designed the layout. Probably one of the only things I did right.
In all, we ran 5 trains, including the Paper Mill turn, Soo Line Elevator Job, Soo Transfer, Grain Unit Train to Rengo Storage, and the Paper Mill switch job. It was enough to keep us entertained, if not continuously busy, for a couple of hours. Just right.

The morning was a madhouse as I ran around trying to make last minute changes to switchlists, yard trackage, worked at cleaning track, arranging cars, etc. One of my takeaways is that good preparation will be rewarded with smoother operation. A second learning is that operating sessions will test your track work and rolling stock. Murphy's Law is in full force, and if you think something may cause a derailment, you pretty much bet it will. More than likely, you will come away from the session with a punchlist of required repairs as long as your arm. But that's OK. Continuous improvement is how we get better.

So even with some hiccups, it was great fun. As someone said in the post-session discussion, the cars got where they belong, and no one got hurt. That's a success. Thanks to all who participated. Hope to get some of the glitches fixed and try it again soon. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015


Creating things with my own two hands is one of my favorite parts of model railroading. Not only is it fulfilling, it can be the only viable way to model certain items. Plus, it is often cheaper than buying a kit or ready to use item. Win-win-win.

In order to create, your own two hands work better when augmented with the proper tools. I learned about one of these tools recently, when I stumbled across this thread discussing the use of what is called a Silhouette Camea craft cutter in the making of components of models. There is some fantastic work illustrated on that page. It inspired me enough to want one of these machines.

Fast forward to the day after Christmas, when Mrs. L4T thought it a good idea to check for Christmas merchandise markdowns at the local Hobby Lobby. Turns out one of the great deals was a Cameo for $160, which is the cheapest I found it anywhere. Result: an impulse purchase. Yours truly became the owner of one of these machines.

The immediate question became what to try making with it. I've always admired the spindly towers that are often found in industrial settings, supporting things like pipe racks, conveyors, or other machinery transporting material to and fro around the plant. I know Walthers has marketed an etched brass version of these towers (I think I even have a kit around here somewhere) but this seemed a good candidate for testing the capability of the Cameo. I fired up the included software and quickly drew what I thought such a tower should look like for the machine to cut the parts.

I posted a photo of my first attempt on Facebook, reposted below.

It was pretty crude, but a worthy first try I thought. Before I forget, I thought I would also share an "under the hood" photo of the device as well.

Anyway, today I decided to try and improve on my first try. I cut a finer set of sides, an example of which is shown below. This is cut from .010" styrene sheet. Note that there is a fair amount of work with the xacto knife to free the "hanging chads" from the triangular spaces in the part. And yes, that is a dime in the photo to illustrate scale. Those cross pieces are really, really fine.

The resulting framework is extremely lacy and airy. It is quite amazing the level of precision this simple machine can acheive. I am sure that as I learn to operate it the results will only get better.

With four of these sides cut out, I rummaged around in my styrene box and found some angle. For this attempt, I glued the framework sides to the inside of the angles with MEK. The resulting structure is surprisingly robust yet still retains the fragile look that I am going for.

So far I am quite happy with the machine. I am sure it will be useful for producing a wide range of model railroad related items, limited only by my imagination. Visions of steam and pulp lines criss-crossing my paper mill are already dancing in my head. I can also see that it will be useful for producing a custom-designed conveyor support when I expand the storage capacity of my grain elevator and need to provide access to both sides of the tracks.

Wish me luck as I experiment with the Cameo. I will need it.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Your Challenge if you Choose to Accept it: Numberboards

While my model railroad layout is not strictly "date limited", it is clearly a modern day layout. There are still good numbers of Cascade Green diesels on the modern day BNSF, but as far as I know they are all patched to the reporting marks of the current railroad. As a result, the unpatched BN units I still was running bugged me. Yesterday I set out to correct this.

I have patched a loco before, but this time I intended to do it somewhat accurately. That turned out to be easy for BNSF 2079, a GP38-2 that kept its prior number when it was patched. BN 3508 presented a bit more of a challenge, though, since the GP40M's were renumbered when the patches were applied. Oh well, how hard can this be. I found some photos of a patched 40M and was off to the races.

First problem was to find a unit that matched the striped front end of my loco. The BNSF 3005 fit the bill.

I also like that the original road number on the long hood was patched with two separate patches, as that was my preferred method. A quick inventory of decals revealed that I had the required material on hand.

Things went acceptably well until I got to the numberboards. At this point, things went very badly indeed. They were a complete failure. I soon burned through all the tiny decals I had, with not a numberboard to show for it. To soothe my wounds, I ran some trains.

This morning, I sat down and thought. "Surely", I said to myself, "SOMEONE has figured out a method for adding numbers to a numberboard that a normal human can accomplish." Then I asked the Google if it knew who the special someone was. I didn't know whether I should be surprised or not when I arrived at the CP Rail Manitoba & Minnesota Subdivision blog. Having made numerous visits before, and seeing creative solutions to modeling problems, I couldn't be too suprised. The specific answer to my question was under the post on "Easy Numberboards for HO Scale Diesels", which was exactly what I was looking for. I followed the directions, and it worked! Here is a shot showing the results of the efforts on the 3005. Click on the image for a high resolution view.

Basically, the solution involved printing the numbers at an appropriate size using a black background and white text on white paper. I used Photoshop Elements to create the raw material and my home laser printer to print them. After the paper numberboards were prepared, it was a simple matter to use Elmer's to glue them in place. Since the background was black as well, they blend in nicely. It's an inexpensive but effective solution, the best kind.

So thanks, JDL, for the tip on the numberboards. Turned out to be just what I was looking for. And it worked so well, I applied them to a second unit this morning as well. Like them just as much on that unit.

The upshot is this-I no longer have any BN power running around my layout set in the 21st century. Another small step in the right direction. Sure, there is still weathering to do, horns to move, plows to install, etc., but every little step in the right direction is one step closer to the layout we dream of.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Fading Away

While the title could be applied to my blogging career, in this case it's not. Instead I thought I would take the opportunity to explain some of what I've been doing in the basement lately. Here's a visual example:

The itch to make some of my cars look a little more realistic-which in the case of anything with BN reporting marks would mean older-is what I've been trying to scratch. In the past the effort has involved spray cans, airbrushes, and sandpaper. None have been completely satisfactory, and especially in the case of airbrushes, the need for a place to paint and the clean up time are stumbling blocks to getting anything done. Recently the efforts have been influenced by advice like this.

So I've gathered up a small supply of tools and material, for example, this stuff:

And then I go to work as shown in the link to Jeremy's Dry Brush Technique, above. 

Once I have completed the fade and sealed it with dullcoat, I bust out the Pan Pastel powders and a small brush to start dirtying up the car. If you try this, go easy, the powders are powerful strong, much more so than any weathering powders I have used. While my skills are far from perfected, I am somewhat pleased that the cars aren't ruined. At least I'm still willing to leave them in sight on my layout. 

One of the challenges of weathering, for me at least, is knowing when to stop. Most of my earlier efforts tend toward the grubby, grimy side of reality, which while it does exist, certainly is not illustrated on the majority of rolling stock seen on the rails. On the other hand, I want to be able to tell I've weathered the car. Combined with a lack of patience, this probably leads me to over-weather a lot of things. 

Another challenge is trucks. The slippery plastic that is used to mold HO scale trucks is tough to get paint to stick to. I have had some luck with oil paint, but one needs to be careful not to overdo this as well since the paint can easily fill all the finely molded detail on the trucks. 

Finally, wheels are models too. I have been just slapping a layer of burnt umber oil on them, for the most part, although in a few cases this is followed up with some weathering powder. Another work in progress. 

Here's one final example of what I've been fooling with.

If you are interested in weathering, one final piece of advice. Set aside some time to listen to the Model Railroad Hobbyist podcast featuring Gary Christensen. His description of the frustrations of learning how to weather, and the revelation that is Dullcoat, are valuable information for the aspiring weathering artist. Gary has shared an article that clearly demonstrates that we don't need expensive equipment or material to acheive realistic results. The guy is truly an artist. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014


Man it's been a long time since I posted! On this Independence Day weekend when our thoughts turn to revolution, I'm back to discuss evolution of a model railroad layout.

I have been hard at work building a layout that pretty closely follows this trackplan (note-click on any of the images in this post for a larger view):
In another room on the right, there is a small staging yard for SOO line power and transfers, as well as a helix to get me to the lower level BNSF staging yard below the paper mill. All in all, that's my layout. 

I had a couple of friends over for an inspection the other night, and they ran some trains. One thing that I noticed was that this layout, as built, was pretty much limited to one train at a time. In order to switch the industries, the only "main" track was tied up, preventing another train from getting by. Since I hope to host multi-person op sessions, this troubled me. I started thinking about possible changes that would correct this, up to and including starting over. Which I most certainly am not inclined to do. 

Then I had a light bulb moment. One small change would enable the layout to accommodate more simultaneous traffic. I came up with this:
Simply adding some double track would free up the railroad, allowing the SOO Line transfer to bypass the BNSF job working the paper mill, or the mill switcher trading cars on the siding for cars in the mill. It would also give me a runaround that would handle the 20 car grain trains the elevator is designed to accept. 

And so today I started tearing apart my still-abuilding railroad. Fascia, and some completed scenery, out the door. I needed to extend the shelf on the left of the drawing some 2 inches to allow the installation of the parallel track, and wrap it around the top. Two additional turnouts will also be needed, but luckily these are in inventory. I've got the work well underway, with one turnout installed and two sections of flex track in place. Here are a couple of photos of the work that is in progress.

So that's the story of evolution on my model railroad. It's not revolutionary, but hopefully it makes for a more enjoyable, more "operable" layout that will allow more people to participate in sessions.