Ochanomizu Station Signals

JR’s Ochanomizu Station (御茶ノ水駅, Ochanomizu-eki) is an important part of my modeling plans. As seen in the photo above, it’s a mix of old and new architecture. And it’s built along the bank of the Kanda river (the temporary construction platform on the right is actually erected over the river). It’s slightly below street level, with a city skyline climbing up behind it from a front rank of buildings around six stories in height to taller ones further away. It’s pretty much ideal as a modeling subject visually, and it sits at the junction of two busy lines, so there is a lot of activity.

I have been trying to figure out how the signals here and nearby work so that I can include a reasonable subset in my model, but photos in and around the station tend to focus on other subjects than signals for some reason. Thanks to one of my readers, George Roberts, I now have a number of photographs taken around the station and adjacent areas that include these signals (and other interesting details).

Signals II: Block Systems

On a railroad, lineside signals provide information to the person driving a train (the driver or engineer, depending on which country you live in; I’m going to use the word “operator”). This allows them to go faster than if they were limited to what could be seen directly. Trains are heavy and steel wheels on steel rail slide fairly easily, so it can take more than a mile (1.6 km) to stop a train moving at a reasonable speed.

Braking distance isn’t the only thing that affects train speed. At places where tracks diverge, or when changing tracks, a train may need to slow down due to the speed limit imposed by the turnout(s) being used. For this reason, signals used at places like this (one of several types of “interlockings”) get more complicated. As noted above, I’ll address that aspect in a future post.

Where trains don’t have a choice of direction, what controls speed are two things: unchanging limits imposed by equipment or track, and variable limits due to conditions ahead. Inherent limits are things the operator knows before boarding the train: the limits of the equipment and permanent speed limits imposed by track geometry (sharp turns, etc), and temporary limits (such as a limit imposed until a known problem can be fixed). Those limits may also be posted on signs, although this depends on the railway, and often the operator is required to memorize both the normal limits and any special limits in effect that day.

Block signals historically have worked to limit speed based solely on knowing how many block sections ahead of the train are clear, up to some maximum. The speed limit associated with a given indication is either encoded into the interpretation of the signal (e.g., “yellow means 30 mph”) or another detail the operator needs to memorize. The signals work by using electrical “track circuits”, which can also detect rails that break due to accident or environmental conditions (rails stretch and shrink as temperature changes, and sometimes they snap).

This makes block signals, usually, much simpler than interlocking signals. However, block signals adjacent to an interlocking may be a hybrid of the two, and able to display additional information relevant to the interlocking while still being part of the block. We’ll cover that aspect with interlockings, and today focus only on block signals away from interlockings. These are sometimes called “intermediate block signals”.

Fundamentally block signals provide an indication of the distance (in block sections) a train has before it must come to a halt. That can be “unlimited” (meaning longer than the worst-case braking distance) or some number of blocks. It’s not that simple of course.

Signals I: Development, Regulation and Use

For more than 150 years, signals beside the tracks have been used to provide guidance to the operators of trains. Originally this was a simple “stop” or “go” message, but over time it became more elaborate, and the signals themselves more complex. Today signals provide fairly detailed guidance that allows for efficient and safe operation. But how they do that varies a lot between railroads. Signals have also become specialized, with signals at stations, junctions and similar points (“interlocking signals”) behaving somewhat differently from signals along uninterrupted lengths of track that exist mainly to separate trains (“block signals”). There are also many other, more specialized, signals.

Signals used in Japan are both simpler than those used in many other places, and allow for some capabilities that others do not (or that they do using more complex methods). But they also have a lot in common with signals used elsewhere. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as Japanese practice originated, as did that of many other countries, in British practice of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However they were also influenced by North American practice (which itself originated from mid-to-late-nineteenth century British practice). And they created some things unique to themselves. But I think that to understand them, it helps to take a look at how signals are used on railways around the globe, particularly block signals, as Japan has streamlined their system by focusing on block functions.

I’m going to leave Japan for this post and wander the globe for a bit before I get back to explaining Japanese signals in a separate post. But I will include Japan in today’s discussion.

Signals and Signaling with Arduino

I’m going to vary from my normal focus on modeling Japanese railroads today to talk about signals and modeling them in a more general sense. Heck, who am I kidding, there haven’t been many posts on modeling Japanese railroads of late. But I digress from my digression. Back to the subject: signals.

If you want to cut to the chase: I’ve written an Arduino library for controlling lineside LED-based signals. It’s only part of a complete signaling system that I’m working on, and at present you’d have to do more work to make practical use of it. But the code is public and can be used independently of anything else I’m eventually going to create; skip down to the end for details.

Transition Curves and Superelevation

All of my Japanese-themed layouts to date have used sectional track, either Kato Unitrack or Tomix Finetrack. I haven’t built a layout using flex track in more than twenty years. And that layout was a relatively simple one, modeling an American freight shortline, with low-speed trains and no “mainline” trackage. That let me cut a few corners.

But now that I’m thinking of building a new layout using flex track, and particularly one with mainline track for both moderate-speed commuter and high-speed Shinkansen, it’s time for me to confront two of the more complicated aspects of trackwork that I’ve so far been able to avoid: transition curves and superelevation (for more information on these, see my Easements page). And it turns out, neither is really complicated after all.

A Small Parking Garage

Many people who live in cities, even cities with much poorer public transportation than Tōkyō, can get by without an automobile, and do. Access to work, shopping, and social activities is often possible on foot or via what public transportation exists. Or other methods of transport, like bicycles, may be sufficient. But while that is true, many people who live in cities, particularly large, sprawling cities, do choose to own cars, and Tōkyō is no exception.

People can live a long distance from work, or may simply want a car for weekend use or to visit distant friends or relatives, particularly if they need to travel to rural areas where public transportation is less prevalent. Whatever the reason, many people have cars. And in Tōkyō, you can’t own a car unless you can prove you have a place to park it. Street parking is relatively uncommon.

Much of the city is comprised of small apartment buildings, and even houses. Houses may have a small space inside the property line to park a car, not so much a driveway as a paved front yard. But apartment dwellers need something else, and small parking lots or garages are fairly common. Read More...

Express Freight

Those two words sound like an oxymoron: freight isn’t fast. What usually matters most is high capacity and predictable delivery, even trains carrying perishables aren’t in a great hurry. For most U.S. modelers, a “freight” is something that trundles along at 40 mph (64 kph) or less, and “express” probably conjures up images of the old Railway Express Agency, which handled parcel and small package transport via express cars on passenger trains and other methods, until highways made it unprofitable (REA had stopped using express cars on passenger trains well before it filed for bankruptcy in 1975). High-speed trains also cost more to operate, not simply in fuel, but in terms of constructing and maintaining track to the more exacting standards needed for higher speeds.

Electrical Substation

It might seem like stating the obvious, but an electric railways needs a supply of electricity for the trains to run. I’m not talking about the model trains, but the prototype. A typical commuter train can use up to 1.5 MW (megawatts) when accelerating. A Shinkansen can use 10 MW. At any given moment hundreds of trains are operating in the Tōkyō area, with power demands larger than a small city.

Where does that power come from? JR East buys some of it from the local utility (Tōkyō Electric Power Company, or TEPCO). TEPCO operates fossil, nuclear and hydroelectric power plants, transmitting power along transmission lines at up to 500,000 volts (500 kV). At substations this is reduced to much lower voltages (6,000 volts or less, according to wikipedia, although distribution lines can be higher-voltage) and sent along street utility poles to local pole-mounted transformers that step it down to 100 or 200 volts for residential use. Industries typically take the distribution voltage and have their own transformers as needed. Both Transmission and Distribution lines are typically three-phase AC power, with three wires (plus a ground, which is often not present on towers). AC is used because transformers only operate on AC, and higher voltages can be sent longer distances.

The Smaller Railroads of Tōkyō

Railroading in Tōkyō isn’t just huge railway stations and double-track commuter lines bringing people into the city from hours away, there are a number of much smaller railways, serving neighborhoods, industrial areas, or what have you. The photo above (from flickr, photographer: haribote) shows one of these, the Keisei-Kanamachi Line, (see also Japanese wikipedia) a mostly single-track line running 2.5 km through a residential neighborhood of Katsushika City, one of Tōkyō’s 23 special wards (which formed the original city of Tōkyō). The line runs due north from where it meets the Keisei Main Line at Keisei-Takasago station. The last station is adjacent to JR East’s Kanamachi Station on the Jōban Line.

Truth is Stranger than Model Railroading

It’s often said that there’s a prototype for everything, and there probably is. But that’s usually meant as “do what you think is right, somebody, somewhere probably did it that way”. Now I’d be the last person to say that there’s a “wrong” way of making a model railroad layout. You can do highly prototype-specific layouts, or completely fictional ones, or anything in between. And scenery can vary from entirely imaginary to near photo-perfect. And if you want to run nineteenth-century steam locomotives alongside twenty-first century electric trains, or whatever, that’s cool too. It’s your railroad.

But I think that if you want to have a railroad that is interesting to someone else, whether than someone else is a family member, friend, or an audience at a show, “anything goes” is perhaps a bit too open-ended. Because ultimately a model railroad is a representation of something. If that something lives entirely in your own head, than it just needs to meet your requirements. But for someone else to participate, they need to understand what it’s representing, and be able to see that themselves. And if, like me, that’s what you want, then you have to make it happen with planning and deliberate action.

Subways of Tōkyō

You’d think someone who’s built a Tōkyō-inspired model railroad with a subway on it would know a bit about the subways of Tōkyō. But in fact when I started construction I knew next to nothing, and I’ve only recently begun to rectify that. Part of the reason is that I’ve been focused on the commuter trains of JR East, and JR doesn’t operate any subway lines (although they do operate a couple of subway trains, as we’ll see in a bit). And part of it was that models of subway trains weren’t all that common, and I hadn’t collected any.

Off in the Weeds

I’m modeling urban trains, so I don’t usually spend much time thinking about rural railroading in Japan. Which is a shame, because in some ways it’s at least as interesting. Between diesel railcars and DMUs, small electric trains (EMUs) and the “mini-Shinkansen” (standard-gauge trains operating over rural lines that interconnect to the main Shinkansen network) there’s a lot going on back in the hills. And hills they are: away from the coast Japan’s topography takes on a vertical aspect, and trains run along wooded hillsides and over ravines filled with rushing streams to reach isolated valleys that are mostly agricultural. It’s incredibly scenic.

Of Vending Machines and Subway Stations

It took longer than expected, but the Riverside Subway station, now known as the (fictional) Tōkyō Metro Kawate station, is done and servicing commuters and schoolkids making their way about Sumida Crossing. Or at least it will once I finish the much-delayed work on the power systems and get the trains running again.

The Joy of Trains

Back in October when I wrote about Joyful Trains I mentioned Micro Ace was coming out with models of three of them, and I’d placed reservations. Well, they finally arrived, and that’s given me reason to write about them. As I write this, Hobby Search still has two of these in stock, although the Hana has already sold out.

E231 Commuter Train: JR East’s Flagship

Commuter trains, and in particular urban commuter trains, are the workhorse of the Japanese narrow-gauge passenger lines. While there are plenty of suburban and regional passenger trains, the ones that move the most people, over 90,000 passengers per hour at peak time on some lines, are the urban commuters. These are heavy-rail electric multiple-unit trains, typically of 10 to 15 cars in length, running on headways of only a few minutes during rush hour, often sharing their tracks with suburban and regional trains, and in some cases freight. Typical speeds are low, often well under 100 kph (62 mph), with frequent stops, so power and efficient use of power, rather than raw speed, is most important.

Simplicity in Railway Design

It’s a stereotype, and incorrect, to say that the Japanese prefer simplicity in all things. There are plenty of counterexamples. But Buddhist philosophy emphasizes simplicity in life, and some of that mindset has clearly influenced the design of Japanese railways.

Since I started researching for my model railroad, one thing that’s impressed me is the straightforward design of the Japanese railways. Trackwork around stations is usually quite simple, with limited cross-overs and sidings. And mainline track may be one or two tracks in more distant areas, but in urban areas it’s typically a pair of tracks for each line, used in a unidirectional fashion (i.e., each track is always used for trains going in one direction).

That’s not to say dedicated tracks are the rule: there are many single-track lines, even in urban areas, and on single-track lines stations will often have two tracks to allow trains to pass. Also, at secondary stations (particularly on Shinkansen lines) the platform tracks will be separate from the mainline, to allow express trains to pass locals. But in large urban stations, it’s often much simpler, rather than being more complex, which was a surprise to me when I first noticed it. Take a look at the platform assignments described on the Wikipedia pages for Nippori Station or Tōkyō Station, for example.

The Humble Boxcar

The boxcar is one of the earliest types of railway car, and they were in use in the U.S. in the 1830’s, almost as early as the first railways here. The earliest railway cars were probably flat cars or gondola cars, as the use of the latter to carry coal over rails predated the invention of steam propulsion (they were horse-drawn) by over two centuries, and possibly by much longer. But it didn’t take long for someone to realized that fully enclosing some cargo was important to protect it from the weather, or to keep it secure in transit.

Originally boxcars were used for both “less-than-carload” (LCL) shipments originating at freight stations and for whole-car shipments originating from private industry sidings. As LCL traffic shifted to trucks, or express baggage cars on passenger trains (essentially a specialized type of boxcar if you want to be pedantic) they were left to carry whole-car shipments that for one reason or another weren’t better carried in some other kind of car. Often a cargo first carried in boxcars would later have specialized cars developed to better meet its specific needs (automobiles were first shipped in boxcars, before multi-level autorack cars were developed).

Paging Captain Nemo: Japan’s Distinctive Train Designs

As I’ve mentioned before, Japanese trains are often visually quite distinctive. The Nankai Railway’s 50000 series rapi:t is one of the most distinctive, and evokes images of Victorian engineering and Jules Verne science fiction novels. It operates as an airport shuttle service between Osaka and Kansai International airport (about a 30-minute trip). According to wikipedia it was designed by an architect working with the theme of “outdated future”, which suggests that he was trying to create the “futuristic” look found in early twentieth-century works such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Whatever the intent, the result is distinctive and unique, and very far from the utilitarian design that characterizes most western trains (or other machinery).

Old and New: Japan’s Joyful Trains

One of the defining characteristics of Japanese Trains, and of Japan in general, is a mania for newness. When Japan National Railways was broken up, one of the first actions of the newly-formed Japan Rail East was to begin planning a new model of commuter/suburban train with a design lifespan of just 15 years, quite short for an electric train. The reason was to lower construction and operations costs, compared with the existing trains that were due for replacement and very labor-intensive to operate and maintain. But it also had a PR dimension, in that JRE needed to shake off the public perception that JNR had as being out-of-touch with its passengers, and a new fleet of trains without the two or three decades of wear their then-current trains had was a good way to do that, by catering to the perception that “new” equated to “improved”. That effort was successful, and while most of that first generation of “15 year” trains (the 209 Series) are still in service, they’re gradually being replaced by the new generation of E231/E233/E531 commuter and suburban trains which form the bulk of my collection (and which, to be fair, do represent a substantial improvement over the 1960’s technology JNR had been using, in both comfort and economy).

Buildings and Freight Branches

I’ve been spending some time recently looking at gas stations, which might seem like an odd thing to do. Well, okay, it is an odd thing to do. Read More...