Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Range on a Frosty Sunday

Faced with the prospect of a return to work following a 10 day hiatus over the Christmas holiday, a railfanning trip seemed in order. After casting a trained eye on the weather forecast a couple of days ago, Dan Mackey had contacted me with the idea of heading out on Sunday morning to hunt for some loads of steaming pellets under code blue skies. Who could turn down such an offer? Certainly not me. And so it came to pass that I found myself in the passenger seat of a 4 wheel drive Ford headed north on roads that looked to have been treated by a Zamboni as the sun rose this morning. 

Before long a phone call from Scott Carney indicated that our party was about to get bigger. First things first, though, a southbound behind a CN SD40-2 was calling our name and fell under the spell of our lenses at the S-curve near Kelsey. I was disappointed that this wasn't a pellet train, but Dan encouraged me to hold out hope. 
Next stop was supposed to be the gas station at the junction of 7 and 37, but that was interrupted by the sound of a train somewhere close. After fits, starts, and u-turns, we managed to pin down this taconite train bound for Two Harbors. It was cold on the range, and the ice fog combined with steam from the pellets to obscure all but the power as they pounded the diamond at Ramshaw. 
That train was hardly moving when it passed us, due (we surmised) to some unknown speed restriction related to the cold. Surely there was time for a stop at the Lucky Seven in Biwabik, before heading on to catch the train in dandy light. 

Except....there wasn't. As we approached the overpass after a quick pause, the train flew under the road, much to the chagrin of a truckload of fans. Time to regroup and carry on, or as the Brits say, "Keep Calm and Rail Fan". We headed back to Iron Junction. 

Where we found a gaggle of trains. A manifest with an SD70 leader was waiting there, behind another manifest led by the squeaky clean GEVO shown below. 
The train in the photo above had no crew. After a short wait, a northbound led by yet another shiny GEVO passed by. The paint is so fresh it still reflects the other engine.
Next up was the EMD led train that had been waiting at Iron Junction. I got this one passing the crewless train at Keenan Road.
We headed south and stumbled across a T Bird that was just finishing the unloading process at U Tac. Power for this train was a pair of Dash 8's, with the 15 year anniversary graphics on their flanks. Mr. Carney grew quite excited at the sight of these former CNW units. 
After talking him off the ledge, we managed to make it to Alborn and witness a meet between the 2847 (the shiny southbound we had shot earlier with no crew) and limestone loads for the range. Needing to get home, we elected try one more shot south of there, and picked a crossing north of Bear Trap. The blue sky in these last two shots doesn't convey how cold it was by this time. The wind had picked up and a couple minutes outside was literally uncomfortable. But we GTS.

'Twas a great day, with lots of excellent memories. Thanks, men, for the tour. Let's do it again on another clear, cold winter day when the ghost of the DMIR is busy once more. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013


I got up early this morning, and after drinking a pot of coffee with Mrs. L4T headed east for Superior through the gloom and flurries of a Twin Ports December morning. My destination was the Mackey basement, where the mission I had accepted involved helping Dan with some of the staging benchwork on his massive HO layout. Coffee was consumed, plywood was butchered, jokes were told, and in the end even a little work was completed.

Dan takes a different approach to layout building than I have in the past. As you can see in the photo below, he is committed to ensuring things are plumb, level, and square, not to mention well built and intended to stay that way. 

I think I have accumulated a lot of BNSF coal gondolas. Actually I probably do have one of the larger fleets that I am aware of of those particular cars. Amazingly, I think Dan has more woodworking clamps than I do coal gons. There are clamps everywhere you look. He clamps things up and down, side to side, back and forth, and I think if you cut yourself working on the layout he could likely clamp that shut too. The only thing he has failed at clamping that I know about is my mouth shut. If it's not expressing one crazy idea or another, it's likely eating fresh baked corn bread. Thanks Dan!

I just had to take a picture of the joint shown below. I used to do woodworking as a hobby and would have been pleased with such a joint in a piece of "fine" furniture. But this is in model railroad benchwork, and in a place where very few if any people besides Dan and I will ever see. Once the staging is completed you will likely have to crawl under the layout with a creeper and flashlight to see it. 

It was the impressiveness of this joint, I think, that caused me to blurt out something on the order of "Dan! That's amazing! I have used CARDBOARD for benchwork construction in the past!" Dan might have thought I was crazy, or making this up, or gone 'round the bend, but I soon had him convinced that this was absolutely the truth. On my old layout, I repurposed the cardboard corner protectors used for shipping heavy objects for legs. They worked really well, too. Didn't look near as nice as what you see above, but still...

The craftsmanship and scale of what Dan is building never ceases to amaze me. It's a lot of fun to have even a tiny role in building this empire and participating in operating sessions will be even more fun. Thanks for including me in what you are doing, Dan!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

"I'm an Idiot"

I know that there are people who would agree with the post title, or at least say it's true about me sometimes. And they would likely be right, but that's not where the quote came from today. But more about that later. 

This week's big snowstorm went on without me. In Michigan for work, I dreamed dreams of shooting trains in the snow. Dan Mackey even texted me to find out if I was willing to venture into the teeth of the blizzard with him when work got out early one day. When I told him I was out of town he mentioned heading out over the weekend to take in the fresh blanket of white and predicted code blue skies. Sounded like a winner to me, so Friday evening I texted him and finally, with Scott Carney's assistance, was able to goad him into heading out. So after a hearty breakfast at Big Daddy's we headed to Superior to meet Scott, where we promptly came to the conclusion that the confluence of sun, snow, Saturday, and free time led every area railroad to take the day off. 

After some fancy driving, fancier planning, and world class scanner interpretation, we found ourselves in the path of a CN stacker climbing Steelton Hill. With poor sun angles for a wedgie, we settled on this broadside as the train climbed out of the St. Louis River valley. 

FYI-there is a lot of snow out there. Feet and feet of it, as a matter of fact. And the temperature was in deficit territory, likely double digits at the time this was shot. The clothes required combined with the snow depth and a short jog darn near gave me a heart attack.

With a set of GE's in the bag, we were alerted to traffic on the Hinckley when a detector announced the arrival of something with 500 plus axles approaching Boyleston. Turned out to be an all rail empty headed for Allouez. Oddly, when I looked at ATCS, the train was lined into 28th Street while we headed east for the intercept. Shortly after I announced this to the gang, the train crew piped up and asked the dispatcher if they weren't supposed to be headed to Allouez. His response has to be an all time great, "I'm an Idiot". Sure enough he had them lined wrong. 

The delay gave us a chance to hike in and get this as he crossed Sawyer Creek. Lots of nice creaking and groaning as the power crossed the trestle. 

I widened up a whole bunch to get him once more. Gotta say there is still something special about them MAC's to me.

After that we headed back to town, and Dan headed home for a day of domestic chores. Scott agreed to give me a lift home, and on the way over the bridge we decided to stop and check on the paper mill switch, which luckily enough was just coming out of the plant while we watched. Sort of like crossing the tracks and seeing a headlight. It's a bonus BNSF shot.

Really was good to get back out and do some semi-serious railfanning. Weather was spectacular, there were a few trains, and best of all, the company was great. Thanks, guys, lets do it again soon!

Friday, September 13, 2013


I have had past chances to shoot multiple maroon units in a day, most recently last spring during a trip up the NSSR to retrieve coal empties that had been stored during the winter. In that case, though, both were museum pieces. Today, I got one of those, along with an active DMIR unit.

The retiree was at the depot this morning, after it finished doing some switching preparing a train for the 2719 to take to Two Harbors. Even though the light was on the rear of the unit, it was so nice I couldn't resist a photo.

And then after Mrs. L4T and I got home from supper, I dropped her off and headed to Proctor in the hopes of catching the 215 working Proctor Yard. Sure enough, along with a few other fans, we got what we were looking for as the sun dropped toward the horizon. 

Along with some steam shots this morning and a quick stop at the Cloquet Terminal in between, it was a great railfanning day with lots of good company and a few photo opportunities. Blue skies and cool temps were the order of the day and I look forward to getting to do it again. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Under Pressure

(NOTE: as a rookie fireman, there are very possibly mistakes in the following. Please be patient and let me know about any errors so they can be corrected. Thanks, Jim)

Seems like a good title for a post discussing the life and times of a greenhorn steam engine crew member. Many of you are likely aware of the fact that I've recently been inducted into the steam locomotive brotherhood, having done a couple of turns on the SOO 2719 as she hauls passengers from the Duluth Depot up to Two Harbors and back.

What's it like to spend time in and around an operating steam locomotive? There are quite a few words that partially describe the situation-some that come to mind include hot, dirty, exciting, exhausting (in more ways than one), confusing, stimulating, educational-where can I stop? Oh, I can't leave out nerve-wracking. All in all it's an information overload if you've never done it before.

For someone whose pre-conceived notion of steam locomotive operation could be described as "show up, make sure it's full of water, and shovel like a madman", it took just a few minutes to learn how wrong I was. The details of shaking the grates, raking the fire, shaking again, dumping ash, and raking some more (and more, and more, to get those chunks and clinkers broken up)...

And those things came after removing the exhaust cap and blowdown plugs. Remember, we still haven't tossed a single scoop of coal or started any appliances on the locomotive. Any movement is only due to the assistance of a diesel. Finally, we are set off at the track where we can take water and begin the process of bringing the old girl to life.

A comment here-something I've observed about steam locomotives. In my very limited experience, an operating steamer is not so much a machine as it is a living being. Like a living being, it requires food (coal) and water. For the most part, just as in interpersonal relationships, the fruits of the interaction will be directly proportional to the effort you are willing to put in. Neglect her needs, and there will be consequences, and in rare cases those consequences could be severe. On the other hand, paying close attention to non-verbal cues can give you good input on what she expects of you. I suspect no two are exactly alike, and even the most familiar locomotive can surprise you from time to time.

In many ways, dealing with a steam locomotive is like dealing with a woman. Treat her right, and she will return the favor.

Back to the day's preparations. With a sprinkling of coal on the grates, ignited by the remnants of the previous day's fire, we have begun the process of building steam for today's journey. Now remember, it's crucial that someone monitor the sight glasses and try-cocks in the cab to ensure that the boiler water is kept at a safe level. Occasionally, we're required to inject water into the boiler. If you happen to be walking past the engineer's side of the cab when the injector is activated, be ready for a bath as water rushes out of the drainline under the cab. Keep in mind that it may well take two or three tries to get the injector working. Don't forget that with the throttle closed, you will need to run the blower at a low speed to maintain some draft through the firebox and provide combustion air for the coal you continue to sprinkle in a thin, even layer across the grates. If the tender isn't full of coal, this will also be a good time to climb up and shovel a few tons forward for easy access during the coming trip. And don't forget to monitor the water level in the tender if you are filling it, lest you encounter this:

And never forget to monitor the fire you are establishing.

But you still aren't ready to go. There are more inspections to complete, and more appliances to prepare for service. We won't be going anywhere without compressed air, so it's about time to open the drain cocks on the air pump, give the lubricator 50 turns, and SLOWLY open the steam valve to start the pump. Be sure there is plenty of oil in the pump before starting!

Speaking of oil, we don't want the oil in the pilot truck bearings contaminated with water, so someone will have to crawl under the locomotive and drain each of the four bearings to remove any accumulated water.

With any luck the guy doing this job won't drop one of the plugs. If he does, it makes more work. And on the subject of bearings, be sure to check the journals on the tender.

During this process, be sure to keep an eye open for anything unusual as you walk around the loco-missing cotter keys or pins, loose nuts or bolts, or any of the other myriad of fasteners and components that together create a machine. Only an experienced eye can take in the entirety of the machine and detect that one abnormality that may lead to trouble down the road.

As the dynamo comes on-line with the opening of the steam valve feeding it, watch a light to ensure it doesn't burn too bright. Now is the time to detect and fix problems.

With boiler pressure nearing 200 psi and the air pump thunk-thunking its rhythmic song, we are getting very close to ready to go. After a final check of the locomotive, it may be a good time to fortify yourself with a donut before the time to move arrives. This is also the time when a rookie fireman may get instructed in some of the finer points of feeding a boiler, a task which is not made any easier if said rookie happens to want to shovel left-handed. A few glances at the fire, and guidance on a firing pattern, and with a shovel in your hand you make the first tentative attempts at feeding the 2719. I'm not positive, but I think they do this to make you forget what firing will be like with the locomotive underway. It's hard enough standing still, the degree of difficulty goes up with each MPH added to the speedometer as the engine sways back and forth on the rails.

Then, in a great cloud of steam, water, and coal smoke, the time comes to back away from the servicing area. An experienced fireman feeds the firebox a "round" as the engineer backs down the 6/7 lead to the switch, then takes her ahead to run around the train. With boarding and departure fast approaching, we need to have time to pump up the air system on the train, do a brake test, and board passengers. Also there is no way we are leaving without a cooler chock full of water and gatorade on ice for the engine crew.

Now you have been introduced to the process of preparing to leave. Next time, some discussion of what it's like out on the road. Hope you enjoy!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Along County Road 7

Today Mrs. L4T and I had to head north for a graduation party in International Falls. Since there has been a tremendous dearth of railfanning in these parts recently I cleared a deviation from the Highway 53 routing and we headed west to follow the former DMIR right of way.

Made it as far as South Coons before we spotted our first victim, a loaded pellet train sitting at the signal.

In a flash we were northbound once more, uninterrupted by any trains until we passed Kelsey. Another loaded pellet train was headed south and a quick u turn got us in position for a shot as the power rolled over the bridge crossing the Whiteface River.

Third unit in that consist was a beauty.

That was it for the trip north, the Peg was quiet all the way to the Falls. We did see a train pass through Orr on our return trip but I was gassing up and had no chance for a shot. Highway 7 was our intended route at least part of the way home again, though, and the gates were dropping just east of Iron Junction as we approached the crossing. I guess this could be called a "leaping" shot, as I lept out of the car to shoot it at the very last minute.

We continued south in the hopes that something else would show. Sure enough we were not far south of Zim when a headlight appeared and I pulled across the tracks at a handy crossing. A long CN Manifest was making its way north behind a trio of EMD's. I got a friendly toot-toot from the engineer as they passed.

That was it for trains. The photos are not much to brag about but it was fun to get out along the tracks and do some railfanning. It's been way too long.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Staples Sub Redux

I lived along the Staples Sub for 8 years. Spent a lot of time railfanning the tracks in the Wadena area over those 8 years, in fact, the majority of the posts on this blog are related to the Staples Sub. In a way, it was and always will be my railfanning "hometown". All this means that cutting ties with the area is bittersweet. And yesterday Mrs. L4T and cut our final material ties with Wadena when the sale of our house closed.

That meant a trip over to Wadena, with the attendant visit to the Staples Sub. MN Chris has joked I don't know how many times about my comment on crossing the tracks and seeing a headlight. Well, yesterday I didn't even make it across the tracks before a headlight showed up, just as we were approaching the Staples depot. After some fancy driving I found myself in position to fire off three quick poorly lit, badly composed frames, which caught the entire consist of a track inspection train headed east on the Staples.

I made it all the way to Dower Lake before being distracted once again. This photo was shot on the trip home, but is an overall view of what that distraction was. What strikes me about this is change-whereas it used to be expected to see a number of coal trains staged in the yard at Staples, currently you are much more likely to catch it with oil trains in residence, as we did yesterday.

That north train had interesting power as shown here. I haven't had the chance to feast on NS heritage units as many of you have, so this was a must-shoot for me. Viva Penn Central!

We arrived in Wadena with a bit of time to kill, and one way we did it was to get a shot of the pair of GP50's on the Wadena local. Not sure what was going on that kept them tied up the entire time we were there, but something unusual was in the works. Anyway, here is the mismatched couple:

And then our closing was pushed off for an extra hour and a half. With nothing to do, a ride west seemed to be in order. We made it to New York Mills and were on the way back when we encountered a classic Staples Sub coal empty passing through Bluffton. A true reminder of times past.

Then it was time for business, followed by the long drive home. A couple of poorly lit eastbounds accompanied us to Staples, where we took the diverging route the follows the Brainerd Sub east. That was quiet with the exception of a loaded coal train encountered near Deerwood, which we chose not to shoot. 

It was a day that brought back many good memories. I will always look back on the time we spent in Wadena fondly. While I know I will railfan the Staples Sub again, it will be as a visitor, not in my backyard, and that will be different. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Guess Who's 5?

That kind of crept up on me. 

It was 5 years ago today that the first post appeared on I've made it a tradition to wish myself happy birthday each year, and I figured why not do it at least one more time? Here's 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012

In the past I have done a bit of a round up in each of these posts, looking back over the past 12 months. There's less to look back on this year than in the past. My posting rate has dropped way off, partially compliments of a job change and move which greatly reduced my railfanning time along with resulting in the destruction of my previous layout. I've had to start over, and at times it has been slow. Matter of fact, the 9 posts I have made this year are fewer than lots of months in past years. 

I still enjoy sharing occasional stories in this venue, although it's become more common to share photos on flickr or facebook, which reduces the amount of blogging material I have. 

Here are some fun facts about As of the time of this writing, blogger says there have been almost 74,000 pageviews. The all time most popular post was "What is ATCS?" from 2009, which is responsible for nearly 1000 of those views all by itself. The second most popular post features a photo of some great railfanning friends at the Granite City Train Show: "When They Say the World's Greatest Hobby". The total post count is up to somewhere around 420. 

This hobby continues to be about people more than anything. One of the great blessings of the past year for me has been getting to know more railfans and modelers. I really feel that I have been welcomed to the Twin Ports area and can't overstate how much I appreciate that welcome. I certainly miss Wadena and the Staples Sub but the guys around here make up for it. On the plus side, hopefully I can round up a bunch of fans to bring to Verndale this year and add some Duluth/Superior flavor to that annual get-together. 

A new job has greatly reduced the amount of time I spend along the tracks, although I do get to see the occasional lake boat out the office window now. I never realized quite how lucky I was to have the chance to combine work with pleasure, but now I do. It does make the time I get to spend along the tracks now even more special. 

On the modeling front, progress has been slow but steady. It will take years before I get to the point I was when I tore down my last layout (I'm a slow worker) but the journey is enjoyable and that's the important part. 

Finally, I am still blessed with a Mrs. L4T who is willing to humor my desire to "train hunt", sometimes by accompanying me, and other times by letting me run off on the spur of the moment and stay out longer than I told her I would. For her patience and understanding I will always be thankful. 

PS: I am still taking some train pictures. One from last Saturday:

And here's one from today, spotted on the way home from work and shot after a short detour down the interstate:

Til next time, keep looking!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Dream Trip

Today was a special day for a railfan (me). I received a call from Dan Mackey a couple of days ago, informing me that I just HAD to take Thursday off. When asked why, he just said to trust him, it would be worth it. Sure enough he was right.

The big surprise turned out to be a trip from the Depot in Duluth to Palmers, via rail. Specifically, a pair of ex-DMIR SD's headed up to grab a coal train that had been stored on the North Shore Scenic Railroad for the winter.

We started the day with a healthy breakfast at the Sunshine Cafe on Grand Ave in Duluth. Soon we were at the Depot, doing all the things that need to be done to prepare locomotives for work. Anyway everyone else was, while I mostly just tagged along doing what I was told. (That's a specialty of mine.) After what seemed like forever, much of that time involving things like locomotive inspections, adding 20 gallons of oil to one unit, and getting a track warrant, we were off. Engineer Mackey was sporting a fancy new Enbridge Rail North Dakota hat as we prepared for the trip through Duluth.

My co-workers heard the horn as we passed in front of my new office, the tracks just across the interstate from the downtown Duluth office where I should have been sitting. We got waves from a number of folks on the lakewalk as we passed. 

The further up the lakeshore we went, the deeper the snow got. Just a couple of miles before reaching Palmers, the track was completely covered and the pair of EMD's got a mini snowplowing workout as they cleared track unused since fall. After we arrived at out destination I jumped out and grabbed a shot of 316, which had led us up the line long hood forward and wore some snow on her pilot as a celebration of April in Minnesota. 

It was shortly after this that I learned my purpose for joining the group on this trip. Today was my first lesson in how to assist with a brake test. I also was reminded what it is like to wade through heavy, wet snow nearly knee deep. It's hard work that reminded me of meter reading back in the old days. It also reminded me of why I kind of appreciate an office job. Oh, and by the way, I also snuck away to shoot the power after it was coupled up to the train. 

I had to be back in the office by 2 PM for a VIM (very important meeting). One thing I DO know about railroads is this-late trains tend to get later. This one had left the depot just a bit later than I was comfortable with given the 2:00 deadline I was facing, and I chickened out and grabbed a ride back to town so I could be assured of making it in time. Before leaving, I noticed the sun had come out and blue skies were moving in, so I grabbed one more shot of the train. 

My apologies to Kevin Madsen for posting a shot with the door open :). But with a crew like this, whatcha gonna do? 

I made it back with 10 minutes to spare after having to park on the 5th level of the parking ramp at work. When I walked in the office, my co-workers were all a-twitter with questions about my adventure. They know more about the NSSR than they did before. 

All in all, a great day. It's a rare event to even get to see a pair of locomotives like this working together in 2013, much less actually get to ride in the leader. Wish I could have stuck around for the return trip, but duty calls and all that. Thanks to Dan, and John, and the entire crew at the railroad for making me feel welcome and actually finding something I could do to help. It was a memory I won't forget. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Railfan Gods Giveth, and they Taketh Away

Today was one of those days when the railfan gods had to be sitting in their warm caboose (or wherever it is they plot against us mere mortals) laughing so hard they could barely stay in their chairs.

I knew early this morning that one of the Norfolk Southern heritage units would be passing through the area during the day. With no chance to slip away from work and try a shot, I resigned myself to being the last remaining fan in a four state area to not have one of the NS's tributes to its predecessor roads grace my viewfinder. Still, a sense of curiosity drove yours truly to check the status of the lime green engine sometime after lunch. That's just about the time the BNSF decided to send the train that this engine was part of to Superior rather than on to Grand Forks.

With that bit of news, a detour seemed called for when I left work about 4 PM. I was crossing the 21st St overpass when I first glimpsed the engine, sitting facing a public road (and what was passing for the sun) near the engine facility. When I arrived a fuel truck was topping the tanks off, but after waiting a while the truck left and the wait for sun continued. I occupied myself with a couple of shots that included other power at shop:

Finally I was able to get the featured guest in decent light. It was a bit of a wait, and COLD. 

I wasn't alone in my quest. Max, Kevin, and the Rengo boys were also out sightseeing and speculating on how a cloud can travel in perfect synchronization with the sun. I tell you, the cloud that was just covering the sun never wavered for more than a few seconds the entire time I stood there.

Still, it was fun to see and more fun to discuss. Being an old timer, I gave up before the younger guys did, so they will likely have more interesting (and controversial?) shots to share.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Magic of Engine Driver

Last post, I talked at great length about how exciting it was to discover the Operations module in JMRI, the Java-based model railroad software suite. Operations was the answer to my wishes for some sort of system to create logical car movement on the railroad. After what seemed like an endless search, I (unlike U2) had found what I had been looking for.

With a couple of vacation days to use up this week, the goal became to dive a little deeper into the Java Model Railroad Interface, or JMRI. Little did I know I would end up discovering one of the most amazing applications of technology I have ever seen. And I've seen a fair amount of tech-starting with DOS running on 286 boxes, working through who knows how many versions of Windows, a touch of Linux, and a dozen or so cell phones and tablets. There have been some stunning uses of 1's and 0's on that list, including things like, ATCS, various photo and video editing software, and progressively more advanced digital cameras. Still, nothing matches the WOW!!! factor I felt today.

After wrestling with a Digitrax PR3 yesterday afternoon and evening, I finally managed to get it to perform its most basic function this morning, when I was able to read CV's and program DCC decoders. That was pretty stunning in itself. I never, ever would have considered using a speed table in a locomotive until I saw how simple Decoder Pro makes it. (Yes, Decoder Pro is just one part of the JMRI package, kind of like the Operations module is one small part.) Decoder Pro changed my whole approach to programming locomotives in about 3 minutes. Never again will I not change a CV because it is too much work, or takes too long, or I have to look up the numbers in a thick manual or on the web. No need for any of that now, just fire up Decoder Pro, open that roster number, make sure the loco is on the track, and program away in a point and click interface. Speed tables? No problem! Slice and dice them however you want. Momentum? Headlight effects? Kick start? It's all there.

And then I connected the PR3 to the layout, and the fun really began. I opened a "virtual" throttle on the screen of the laptop. I was able to control the locomotive while sitting at the computer! I could control speed, direction lights, sounds, the whole enchilada. And the throttle cost me nothing. Again, amazing is the word that jumps to the front of the list.

But the best was yet to come. I had downloaded something called "Engine Driver" onto my Android tablet, and it installed without a hitch. Somehow this was supposed to control locomotives wirelessly. I had no idea how but that has never stopped me before and so I clicked on a tab in JMRI that let me start a "WiThrottle Server". I clicked and poked and fiddled around until, wonder of wonders, I was controlling a train with my tablet. I could make it go forward, at any speed (at least any speed I allowed when I set up the speed tables). Or backward, or turn the lights off and on. Or make the horn blow or the bell ring. I was doing this with no wires connecting the tablet to anything. Here is what really amazes me-I was using software on a tablet computer, that was communicating with my wireless router, which was sending commands to my laptop, which was in turn talking to the Digitrax PR3 connected to it by a USB cable, which then was relaying information to the command station, a Digitrax DCS 51. THEN the command station was sending packets out the Loconet to the engine, which has a tiny computer chip inside that was deciphering those commands, and turning them into actions such as speeding up, slowing down, turning various things off and on, and changing direction. All at the speed of light.

Did I mention being amazed? Well I was.

The software is all free. I have the laptop, tablet, and command station. I paid around $65 for the PR3, which I really bought to use for programming, so this is just an added bonus.

Seriously, I was amazed. And then tonight I was playing with the setup some more and learned that while Engine Driver will run one engine, it is just as capable of running TWO. Just like my DT 402 throttle, yes, this software can control two engines at the same time.

I just love to discover new things like this. They are so much fun, and so exciting. And when you find something really useful, it's not just a temporary excitement, it lasts and lasts. I've got a feeling this is just the beginning of a long love affair with JMRI and the people who build it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Let's Go Railroading!

I'm going to guess that nearly all model railroaders, when they are starting out, are fascinated by the sight of trains going round and round. That was and continues to be true for me. There's a problem, though-no matter how much space we have, it's not enough. In a matter of a very few minutes (for most of us) or maybe half an hour (for the very lucky few with access to a huge layout) we will be right back where we started. And it seems that with each successive revolution, a little of the magic slips away.

Faced as I was with the prospect of less space for a railroad than I previously had, thoughts turned to ways to make that space do more-visions of peninsulas and multi-deck layouts danced in my head. I went so far as building a helix, as much to prove to myself I could do at as because I had a fully developed idea of how it would be used. That desire to solve the helix problem illustrates my relationship with model railroading in a microcosm. I absolutely LOVE the problem-solving aspect of the hobby. Faced with how I was going to move trains from one level to the next, I couldn't stop myself from diving right in to helix construction, because the opportunity to "figger out how to do it" was so attractive.

I remember feeling the same way the first time I installed a hard-wired DCC decoder, or an LED headlight, or during my initial track ballasting attempts. I've spent many, many joy-filled hours figuring out what works for me when it comes to painting backdrops. I've loved puzzling out how to build a functional drop bridge for entering the layout room or testing various designs for manual turnout controls. Just the feel of a garage sale sign and the smell of MEK brings a smile to my face. The problems and their solutions-MY solutions-are the attraction for me.

So I needed to come up with a way to create more problems for myself. I've always thought that the next step for me was to figure out how to make my layout operated like a railroad in minuature, rather than a toy train. My opinion is that even the finest looking and operating equipment is missing something if it doesn't have some imaginary work to do. The roadblock has always been finding a way to generate the work randomly, yet retain some semblance of reality and logic as the work is performed.

I am happy to announce that I may just have finally figured that out.

I don't believe I will ever again HAVE to watch trains run around in circles. My tiny trains now have a purpose-they move imaginary freight over an HO Scale transportation system according to directions received from a virtual traffic department in a way that makes as much sense as anything I can imagine.

The Twin Ports Terminal Railway has implemented a new, computerized, state-of-the-art freight car forwarding system known in the industry as JMRI Operations. This digital workhorse helped me with the process of defining the locations served by my railroad, entering information on the rolling stock into a database, configuring routes that serve the various locations defined earlier, and finally, creating trains that follow these routes as required to provide the service needed in my 1/87th scale world. When I want work to do on my railroad, all that is required is to open up the "Trains" screen in JMRI Operations, pick which train will be run, click on the "Build" button, and print out a manifest I will use to move the proper cars to the locations they are needed by my industries.

With the train manifest in hand, it's up to me to pick up the power, figure out the best way to assemble my train to perform the required tasks, and move the cars across the railroad. Every car that will be moved is identified, with it's current location and intended destination shown. The proper types of cars are directed only to tracks where they should show up-grain cars to the elevator tracks, for example, and boxcars to the Can track, where canned dog food is loaded. Since the cans are heavier than the bags we also make at my dog food plant, Hi-cube cars are only loaded on the bag track. The program handles that, helping me to maintain that thin veil of realism that I have long been searching for when playing in the train room.

Sometimes, the work is complex and time consuming. Other times, it is easier and faster. Funny thing, it seems to me real life is like that too. The variety is a good thing, in my mind. If I was moving 2 boxcars and 3 grain hoppers every job, that would get boring, but it's almost part of the fun waiting to see what your work for the day is like.

And one more thing. My current layout is shown below. (Click on the image for a better view)

It's tiny, compared to my last layout, and even compared to what I have the space for now. But it's the most fun I have ever had operating. Last night I had to pick up two cars from the plant and exchange them for three cars on Tuffys Siding. By the time I got the three cars spotted in the plant, I had killed well over half an hour. That's to move a grand total of 5 railroad cars a cumulative distance of probably 30 feet. Of course, I had to shift around a few cars that were in the way in the process and place them back where they were needed. I also had to run around some of the cars to get on the proper end of them. It was a lot of work, and a lot of fun. After that was done, I got to run a Transfer job between the Duluth yard and Tuffys Siding, to pick up the cars from Tuffys and drop off a few for the next Plant Switcher.
I'm still inspired to build, but for a different reason that before. I want to share the fun with other model railroaders. Now I have a long term goal-get proficient enough at this that I can hold operating sessions that will allow others to participate as well.
I intend to make a series of posts over the next few weeks that share some of what I have learned about JMRI Operations. If anyone who has experience stumbles across this, please feel free to chime in in the comment section.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Workin' on the (Model) Railroad

I took the last couple of days vacation since I have time to burn before the end of March-use it or lose it. Turned out to be just about as busy as working, what with Doctor appointments, trips to the courthouse and City Hall, discussions with a Realtor, and a stop at the CPA, but I still managed to fit in a bit of modeling.

I'm trying to split my time between working on the rest of the train room installing ceiling tile and lights, and working on phase one of the layout. The layout won the last couple of days. I've been drilling holes for turnout controls, gluing down track, painting track, cleaning track, soldering feeders, and sometimes playing with trains. Thought I would share a couple of shots of what a layout under construction looks like at my house. First, the east end:

East End of Paper Mill/Dog Food Factory

And here is the west end:

West End of Paper Mill/Dog Food Factory

I titled these "Paper Mill/Dog Food Factory". Not with the intent of feeding the dogs paper, but rather, I am having a time deciding what industry this should be. I figure that a dog food factory needs grain, and would give me the excuse to deliver a few covered hoppers in some exotic paint schemes. Heaven knows I have them. Then again, the kaolin cars would look good at a paper mill.

Decisions, decisions. At least I have made one-the 19 degree crossing I was planning on using earlier is gone, replaced by moving a turnout into a different location. It seems to work OK for operating the layout. Time will tell if it was a good change or not.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Looking for (and Finding) Trains

Today after church, Mrs. L4T and I arrived at a consensus. The time had come to go looking for some trains. The sun was out, ATCS showed some movement, and it was a gorgeous afternoon, so off we went. After a quick stop for gas and food, we headed across the bridge to BNSF's Superior engine terminal to see what was waiting for assignment. Got a pretty nice selection of EMD's.

I suspected an inbound taconite train, and so we headed south out of town. I passed what looked like another railfan near Saunders, and found the pellet train was already past Boylston. A quick u-turn brought me back to Saunders, where I was soon joined by the Carney clan. Interestingly, at this very moment the CN decided it would be only proper to run a stack train through the area. Scott and I both made comments about how close we came to duplicating the situation Kevin recently got here, with a beautiful over/under.

 'Twas not to be, though. The BNSF train was couple of minutes late, and coming from the wrong direction anyway. Still a fun site to see.

Scott had informed me of a UP train off the Hinckley right behind the pellet loads. For once my ignorance of the area served me well. I was waiting at Saunders for the train that would never arrive (he was going into Pokegama instead of Itasca) when Mrs. L4T looked east and announced the arrival of the train. After explaining to her it wasn't coming from that direction, I finally looked and sure enough she was right. As usual. Here's a transfer with an SD75 running long hood forward. The Mrs. said this didn't really count as a train but I set her straight in short order.
 Next stop was Stinson, where the only shot to be had was a long range attempt at a nicely painted GP that didn't really turn out well. After that I decided to swing through the BNSF yard once more in the hope of a transfer leaving. Instead I got this, approaching 28th Street in nice light:

And then back to the engine servicing facility, where the switch engines featured in yesterday's post were found today. They're such a cute pair I couldn't resist one more shot.

Since it looked quiet on the BNSF, I proposed we work our way home via Proctor. I noticed a pellet train on the dock when we crossed the bridge and so a detour was called for, which allowed me the chance to catch the PRS as it waited to back the slightly steaming loads out onto the dock. It's hard to get tired of this view.

And then it was off to Proctor, where a pellet empty was creeping up to the overpass as we arrived, while the yard switch job paralleled him. I'm counting this as two trains in one shot, for the second time today.

Finally, having heard a train blow for the Midway Road crossing while on the overpass, we chased a CN manifest north to Munger, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a BC Rail cowl the second unit on this long train. The gorgeous blue skies are something I have come to treasure living in Duluth. Seems like clouds are more often the order of the day.

And that's the story of a couple of hours along the tracks in the Twin Ports. There seems to be no end to the excitement if you are just will to get out and look.