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.