Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Way back when, I used to frequent a website known as the Cyberspace World Railroad. One of the things I liked about it was that each month or so they would post an oddity-something seen along the tracks that made you go....hmmmm.

I've always liked that type of thing, and am on the lookout for something unusual whenever a train is about. One of the oddities I've noticed along the BNSF the last year or so is a sizeable number of late model covered hoppers with heralds that look like this:

I've conjured up a couple of theories as to what is going on with these cars. Maybe some elevator has a car mover that grabs the cars and pulls them ahead, and wipes the grime off the car where it is grabbed. Or maybe-well, I guess I only thought of one possible cause. And that one is, admittedely, a stretch.

Here's another example of what I'm talking about.

This next picture finally got it through my thick skull that the cars are having a reinforcement welded to the car body near the slope sheet. You can barely make the plate out in the photo above. This next photo is about the best illustration of the reinforcement that I have.

Next question was why is this being done? A (poor quality) photo shot as a train passed through Staples the day of the World's Greatest Hobby show proveded a clue as to why these cars are getting worked on. The area where the reinforcing plate would be installed on this car is kinked. That can't be a good thing.

That's my story of one of the strange things you might see while looking for trains. And it's an example of the reality that when you see something strange, keep looking. The answer is probably out there if we just keep searching.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Z

Fate left me all alone this afternoon. There were a lot of things that needed doing, but the lovely weather was a temptation as well. A check of the ATCS revealed a solitary westbound the other side of Philbrook, so after puttering around the house for a bit I decided to head for the most west-facing segment of track in the Wadena area to see if there was any nose light to be had.

I waited less than 10 minutes before hearing the train blowing for the crossings to the east. The weather nice enough to leave a window down giving me plenty of notice. A cranked up zoom yielded the first shot, as the train approached the bridge over the Leaf River.

This Z train was moving fast, but there was time for a couple of more shots as the train approached. The train had a nice looking set of power, three Dash 9's all with decent looking orange paint. There are a lot of really ugly Dash 9's on the rails, and it's a pleasant surprise to see three that look like these do.

After the train passed, it was back home again, for a session playing with CV's and soldering feeders to the track.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Short. Sweet.

The title pretty much describes today's railfanning outing. Company at home, including Mr. L4T Jr. and Granny L4T, made me want to stick around as much as possible. The tip from some OMR fans that we may see a late 8 on Saturday was enough, though, to get me to check the status of the Builder. On learning of a morning passage through the area I decided to venture out for a bit and try to catch it. A near 10 AM arrival at Detroit Lakes was the final piece of the puzzle. I decided to try the curve at New York Mills:

As you can see he was meeting a westbound coal empty at the crossing so I got two trains for my half hour invested in railfanning. The Builder was flying when I shot this-I only got one chance at it. Had to be close to the speed limit on that section of track.

Then I spent some time modeling this afternoon, and with a little long distance help from Chris was able to get my third DCC engine (and first with SOUND! Toot Toot! F1 baby!) up and running. I can see this DCC business is going to make some long cold winter evenings pass a little faster, what with speed tables, ditch lights, and the like.

So that's my day of involvement in the railroad hobby. Thanks for looking, and hope all of you had as productive a day as I did.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Winter Wonderland

After managing to re-arrange a scheduled day in New Ulm today, since the drive home after work looked light a bit dicey, I was tucked in the bedroom office catching up on a stack of that stuff you put off when more important things are calling, until it becomes more important itself. I made good progress before lunch, hardly looking up from the paperwork and keyboard, so when Mrs. L4T hollered that the soup was hot, weather conditions caught me by surprise. It was snowing like it does in Cass Lake!

After lunch was gobbled down ATCS showed an eastbound lined through Wadena. The combination of a train and the snow was enough to get me to play hooky for an hour or so. The eastbound and I arrived at the crossing similtaneously, so no shot in Wadena. The ultimate target was Staples, and with the road conditions there seemed no way to catch up to that train. He must have been running slowly, though, since by the time I made the four lane I was on his tail. I spent a lot of time in the snow covered passing lane but made it to Staples ahead of the train and jumped out of the Escape at the depot, to shoot these two as he approached:

The snow was really coming down at this time. It was almost snowing too hard to take a picture.

ATCS told me that I should soon see a westbound as well, so after a wait of a couple of minutes, here came a pair of ACe's. This COLX train only had the two units up front, as I waited through the blizzard to shoot the DPU and got nothing. The pine trees on the right edge of the shot make it kind of Christmas-y.

When I had checked ATCS earlier, another train was shown as waiting at a red signal on the Brainerd Sub. So I swung over to shoot yet another coal empty, this on led by a GE. Still snowing!

It looked pretty dead after this, so I decided to chase the second coal train back to Wadena. I still had some of the semi-important work to get done. I snatched one more photo on the way home, at Aldrich.

By the time I got home, the snow had ended. As long as it seemed over for a while I shoveled the driveway and then went back to work. I had a nice little break from the drudgery of the computer today!


Sunday, November 21, 2010

My DCC Adventure

Today, November 21, 2010, was the first day of a new age in my model railroading career. Yesterday I came home from the WGH show in St. Paul with a pile of brand spanking new Digitrax equipment and a credit card that had a serious hurt on it.

I was beat when we got home last night, so just grabbed the manual for the Zephyr Xtra system and sat down in my recliner. Like a lot of other tech heavy things, the manual didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I need to get my hands dirty (figuratively, in this case) before I start to understand what is really going on with a piece of equipment. And so this morning, an Athearn Genesis SD70MAC in H2 paint came off the layout for some work.

Not even knowing how to get the shell off, I adopted my usual style-pull until something breaks. That takes about 15 seconds with one of these models, as there is a boatload of very fine detail on them. One bent grab iron, two broken sanding hoses, and one detached air tank later, the shell was still on the model. I called Chris for advice. Strangely enough, just as he answered the phone, I heard a defect detector sound off. The temperature was something like 19 BELOW. Turns out he was up along the Canadian border fanning the CN and the temps must have been in Celsius. He gave me some advice about 4 hidden tabs that poke through the bottom of the frame and need to be disengaged to remove the shell. Back to work.

Some time later, having detached the second air tank from the unit, I finally managed to get the shell off. Happily, I stared at what I believed to be a DCC-ready light board with a quick plug hanging off the end. Comparing what I was looking at to the decoder that Chris had helped me select, I figured out where the harness had to come apart.

Except it wouldn't. Pull, pry, lever, pray, curse. Nothing worked. Finally, in desparation, I read the instructions. Oh, you have to pinch all the wires and pull-OK, let's give that a try, even though I know it will never work. Oops-I guess it does work. Now to plug the new decoder in. This locomotive may just survive this installation yet.

Not having the layout wired as completely as I want yet, a piece of flex track was prepared and plopped on the kitchen table. Since reading the instructions worked so well for removing the quick plug, I gave in and read the quick start guide. Step by step, the moment of truth approached. Digitrax told me to try running a DC loco first, by selecting address "00". Hmm, something's happening, the loco is giving off a humming noise. Select forward and open the throttle-it moves! Hurrah! Next step is to select a DCC equipped loco, so I removed the GP40 and set the MAC on the track. The brand new decoder was supposed to have an address of "03", so I pushed the loco button, 0-3, then the loco button again. Put 'er in gear and open the throttle-IT'S MOVING!!!!

And you can even make it move the other way. Say, what do all these other buttons do? Why, it has lights! Headlights, and ditch lights! And I can turn them on or off, whether or not the loco is moving. This is kind of fun.

Getting the shell to latch back on wasn't as much fun, but it finally went. Next up was the Atlas GP40, which should only take the moving of a jumper to enable the decoder that came installed from the factory. Once again I selected address "03", but this time there was no response. Hmmmm......

Back to the drawing board. The loco still worked in DC, so I haven't totally destroyed it-that's a good thing. What's this program mode business, and CV readbacks? Why the address is "08", not "03". Guess what, now the loco is working.

DCC is fun, cool, and has the potential to be frustrating. Running two locos on one piece of flex track, independently, with one or two throttles, was a rush. I can't wait to get the layout switched over, and sound installed in the next loco. How sweet it is...


Saturday, November 20, 2010

When They Say "World's Greatest Hobby"

they mean it, whoever they are.

Today I had the opportunity to take in the St. Paul edition of the World's Greatest Hobby show and I came home impressed. Not just by the vendors and manufacturer's represented, but also by the number of people in attendance, and the operating layouts on display. First up, an old favorite:

Steve and Chris giving well deserved accolades to the Holmes family for their "7 day model railroad" depicting Wingett's Recycling, where old rail cars go to begin the process of being turned into new rail cars once again.

This layout never fails to captivate me. Ian always has some kind of eclectic little locomotive or car mover running and he's a pretty good brakeman from what I hear. Not much of a throttle puller though, that is left to his better half.

At the other end of the layout spectrum, size-wise, was an enormous collection of HO modules put together by the MN FreeMo group. Although the lighting wasn't great for photography, I managed to get a few shots of small sections of the layout. Here Eric and Chris mug for the camera with a curve on the layout in front of them.

And maybe John needs to be reminded that "Model Railroading is Fun!". Take it from me, not always.

I apoligize for not remembering who the modeler was that contributed this spectacular operating lift bridge to the layout. I watched a train cross the bridge, then saw it raise and lower by remote control. Wow.

And last, a couple of shots of one of the industries on the pike. There was just so much railroad, and so many trains. Great job free-moers (if such a word exists).

After all the socializing and the layout viewing was completed, the time came to see what a guy could leave with. In my case, that turned out to be more than I could afford. After the show I picked up Mrs. L4T from the Rosedale Mall and informed her that I had personally started a stimulus plan for Digitrax. I've thrown in my lot with DCC, having become the proud owner of a Zephyr Xtra system, a couple of decoders, a UT4 throttle and throttle plate. I've got a whole new adventure ahead of me. The train show was great, thanks to everyone who exhibited a layout and it was great to see a bunch of people I know and meet some new ones.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Owatonna Struggles

It's been over a week since these feeble attempts at a train picture but since I uploaded them I figured I may as well share them. 3 days in Owatonna seemed to offer hope for some photos but it seems the UP has my number and ran trains right past the office window while I slaved away with work. Darn them anyway.

I did manage to get away one evening for a short run to Waseca to see what the DME was up to. It turned out that they were mostly up to hiding anything photogenic from me. I had to work my way into a spot where I could even see any blue and yellow power, and even then there wasn't much to shoot. Here's the sorry result of my effort.

As I left town on Thursday afternoon, the UP finally offered up something to shoot. They're yellow, but they don't say UP-these lease units must have come home for a family reunion.

So, you drive nearly 500 miles, even go out of your way one evening, and nearly get skunked. This can be a frustrating hobby at times. Still, it keeps me coming back for some reason.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Odds and Ends

A frenzy of running around has seriously limited railfanning recently, but I've managed to pick up a few shots during my travels. This past week I was in Fairfax and Hawley, and saw a train on each trip.

Tuesday in Fairfax, the TCW had a CAT powered GP unit hard at work most of the day. The elevator must have been loading corn, and the locomotive was shuttling cars around town from morning to early afternoon. This was shot pretty early in the morning:

The grain car fleet on the MPLI and TCW is a dukes mix-former cars of many types, most of them just patched into their new owner. I had to shoot the one just outside my workplace for the day as the early morning sun illuminated it. Mother Nature is the most accomplished weathering artist I've ever seen!

The Fairfax depot has been restored, and is protected by a semaphore that has recently had its blade repaired. I was wandering the town early that morning as the sun hit the lenses in the signal, and it seemed like a worthy candidate for a photo.

Wednesday morning dawned cloudy, and dashed hopes of a glorious morning shot on the way to Hawley. The further I went the heavier the overcast, and by the time I reached DL the fog was settled in. I encountered a train near Audubon, and had to try a shot in the fog.

And that's the entire take from almost 500 miles of travel over a bit more than 2 days. But fear not, there is always the chance of another train just around the corner. Never stop looking for trains.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Here a Coal Train

There a coal train, everywhere a coal train. Last Saturday, Mrs. L4T agreed to a quick trip to Brainerd. Luckily, there's a railroad to watch for most of the way.

We spotted a BNSF westbound before reaching Staples, but poor light and a tight schedule prompted me to pass him up in the hope that something more interesting might come along. Sure enough, a Becker load was leaving town just as we passed through. That's not really interesting, but the DPU was, to me at least.

One of the very few MAC's I've had the chance to shoot in the wedgie paint scheme. Not sure if I've shot this one before, but the paint looked fairly fresh so perhaps not. While the exec painted units have always been a favorite of mine, MAC's in wedgie paint are a close second, if not a new leader, especially since the cream and green units have been vandalized by the removal of the nose logo.

Well, that was a nice surprise. We quickly continued on to Brainerd, where Home Depot and Mills Fleet Farm were priority stops. Just a few minutes before leaving Fleet Farm, I though I heard a train blow for the 371 crossing but didn't know which way he was headed. I learned it was an empty as we approached Staples on the way home. The empty was crawling towards town. I quickly made my way to the east crossing and waited for the ACe leader to arrive. He promptly stopped. I responded by taking a picture of the stopped train.

Another eastbound load was heading down the Staples Sub, so I waited for him to pass and chatted with another railfan. All of a sudden a westbound Z sailed into town on Main 1. No wonder the empty was stopped on the Brainerd Sub. The dispatcher was making way for the Z train.

The short, fast moving Z was gone in a flash. Fort Worth quickly lined the switch for the empty, and he approached as the load was still passing. This offered the chance at a shot of the "meet"-the head end of the empty passes by the DPU of the load headed down the Staples Sub.

And that was it as we headed for home. It turned out to be a somewhat productive railfanning outing, even though we didn't start out with that as a primary purpose. Sometimes you see more trains by accident than by design. Keep looking!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Just Call Me Sparky

Being crazy busy at work, while driving all over the state under cloudy skies has kept me from posting much lately. Even when there has been a bit of free time, being infected by the modeling bug once again has also cut into what was once internet time. Maybe that's a good thing.

So what's been keeping me so busy? The idea that I wanted to be able to let one train run on the loop around half the basement while switching with another at the same time led me to create this:

So what's that, you say? Well, all the REAL model railroaders have fancy control panels, and it seemed like I needed one as well. But I didn't want to spend a whole lot of time or money on it, so this panel is cobbled together from odds and ends. It allows you to select the main or siding for one throttle, and operate the yard with the either of the two throttles at your choosing. No fancy DCC system for this old timer (yet anyway). Applying my PhD level electrical knowledge, some old lamp cord, kindergarten-level soldering skills, and a handful of wire nuts along with some actual store bought SPST and DPDT switches, I came up with this:

That's the rear view of the panel shown above. I'm thinking this isn't the way you really want to do something like this. In fact, when I started trying to troubleshoot why things weren't working like they should have, it became crystal clear why people use many colors of wire, along with wire labels and terminal strips to connect up things like this.

But after a bit of troubleshooting, it worked, and that's what really counts. The first time an intermodal train drifted by the yard while I built a train to leave later, it was worth it. This model railroad bug bites hard and hangs on tight. One of the troubles with it, though, it that every time you accomplish some little thing like building a panel that allows you to control more than one train, you have to stop and play with it for a few minutes hours. And so once again progress comes to a screeching halt as a string of covered hoppers is assembled so the yard job can take them down to the local elevator for loading. And the paper mill needs 4 more clean box cars. Oh, and I almost forgot there are two kaolin tank cars to drop there as well. Those coal gons that were set out last night need to go to the RIP track. Sounds like this will be a full shift...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

More Highway 10

A Tuesday morning trip to Owatonna gave another chance at some railfanning on the road. Traffic was light on the Staples Sub, but between St. Cloud and Clear Lake a train finally showed up. As seems to be the pattern on weekday mornings, it was a stopped eastbound on Main 1.

After taking a moment to shoot this train, I decided to continue on down the line and cut across to the Interstate at Monticello. Turned out to be a good decision, as another eastbound was sitting near the potato farm. This time it was crude oil tanks.

That was it for Tuesday. I did get a glimpse of a few UP trains passing through Owatonna, but there was no chance to get a shot. Heck, who's interested in those yellow locos anyway? Actually, next time I just might share a shot of one.