Unitrack Update

While I’m now planning a layout based on flex-track, I’m still interested in Unitrack. However, when a new announcement caught my eye, I realized that I’d missed some announcements late last year also, and thought I should bring my pages up to date, and do a Musing to summarize the new items. I haven’t bought any of these, and probably won’t, so I don’t have pictures to post. Some of this may be old news to readers who pay closer attention to Kato than I have of late, as several items are from last fall.

Simple Structure Lighting

It’s been a REALLY long time since my last post, since I got caught up in several other things after I started this review. I also planned to do more real-world testing with the lighting system reviewed here. I haven’t found time for that either, but I kept procrastinating on posting hoping I’d find a spare weekend. I didn’t. So I’m going to post what I have, and I expect I’ll eventually do a follow-up when I’ve had a chance to light a couple of buildings.

Woodland Scenics came out with their Just Plug building lighting system a couple of years ago, and I’ve been meaning to take a look at it, and see how useful it would be ever since. On the surface, it appears to be a dead-simple plug-and-play method of lighting buildings that you can power off any low-voltage AC or DC supply, such as the AC accessory outputs on a DC power pack or a simple “wall wart” power adapter. And it is.

It’s not cheap. A pair of stick-on LED lights with wires sell for US$10, the basic hub goes for US$17 without lights, and the expansion unit for a similar cost, and they’ll happily sell you a 1 Amp power supply for US$20 (about three times what you’d pay from a good electronics shop). A large system, with two expansion hubs, eight light hubs, and 32 lights would cost about US$348, or US$10.88 per light (with power supply). You could build the same thing yourself for less than a tenth of the cost. Except for two things.

Detailing A Viaduct Station I

After a fairly long break, I’m working on a model railroad again. I’ve returned to work on the One Point Five Meter Line, my compact (1’ x 5’, or 30 cm x 150 cm) light-rail line layout for displaying my structure models. See that page for the track plan. See my Display Layout link for other musings about this layout. See my Urban Station page for a detailed construction log for this building.

The first order of business is to get the track down, but to do that, I need to install the station at the “urban” end of the layout that supports the track on a Viaduct. This is a Kato Viaduct Station Entrance building with one of the associated “shops” buildings, supporting two lengths of Viaduct Platform 248 mm (9 3/4”) each in length. While you can buy a large set for this (23-125) it has parts I don’t need, so instead I’m using two smaller sets (set 23-230, the Viaduct Station Entrance, and set 23-231, the Viaduct Station Shops).

These are pre-assembled structures, but I want to detail them, which includes adding lighting, interior details Kato omitted, and paint. I also need to modify them so I can run wires through them up to the track, as well as to the underside of the viaduct they support.

Tram Platforms

Kato recently introduced a couple of low-level platforms suitable for trams. There isn’t much info available on these, aside from machine-translated Japanese summaries, which don’t really explain much. And I thought they were interesting as possible candidates for my One Point Five Meter Line layout, even though that’s using Tomix FineTrack and they’re designed to be used with Unitrack. So I ordered a couple, and now that I’ve had a chance to play with them, I can provide my impressions.

One Point Five Meters

One point five meters, or about five feet. That’s how much space I’m giving myself for a short layout designed to display my buildings separate from the main layout. It’s also going to give me a short rail line that I can use with the controller I’m working on for the tram line on the Urban Station scene.

The germ of this idea was a conversation at a local hobby store that holds an annual show in the store to display the model-building skills of its customers. Last month, just before the show, I was asked about some of the pre-built buildings I’ve been detailing for my Village scene. At the time, I didn’t think the couple I’d mostly finished were really in a displayable state, but the idea of perhaps doing some kind of diorama crossed my mind as we discussed how to display something next year.

I also wanted some way to actually see the tram line in operation, as on the layout it’s going to be hidden away behind buildings, providing some background activity without really being visible (something I really need to fix on a future layout). And that led me to think: how small can I make a layout with the tram controller and my buildings?

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...

Planning the Village II

Eighteen months on from the first post on this topic, and the scenery in my Village area hasn’t really progressed, but I’ve turned my attention back to it, and am close to having a final layout of buildings. I think. From here, things should start to move. The overall design hasn’t changed: still a broad avenue with commercial buildings up the middle, two typically-narrow side streets, with businesses mixed with residences on one side. The exact selection of buildings, and their placement, has evolved though.

To get here, I finally mapped out the ground I had to work with and put that into a drawing program, then I created outlines of the footprints of each of my candidate buildings, and set to work trying different arrangements by dragging the outlines around on a second layer above the drawing. Layered object drawing programs are so useful for exercises like this; I used Omnigraffle on the Mac, but anything with basic shapes and layers should work similarly.

Along the way I finally decided that the Tomix gas station, as much as I liked the model, really wasn’t going to fit. I’d somewhat realized that last year, which is one reason work on that structure had halted last summer. I may reuse parts of it, although I anticipate scratchbuilding most of the new gas station, which will be sized to fit a spare corner. I also had to abandon plans to use one of the more traditional brown wooden residence/business buildings made by Kato, as they just didn’t fit anywhere.

I also decided, based on purusing Google Earth views of the banks of the lower Sumida River, that some of the oddly-shaped corners could be used as small parks with trees, and perhaps recreational equipment for children, as that’s how such gaps are used in the real world.

Apartment Building Complete

It’s taken quite a bit longer than I expected when I started, but the first Kato Apartment Building is done. This really wasn’t as hard as it sometimes seemed. I probably spent the most time trying to decide what photos would go on the inside. I had the building painted and the interior wall units assembled in late March, then I got distracted by other things. Finally, after doing up most of the Bike Shop work, I decided it was time to start putting the Apartment Buildings together. The other one is less complete, and will likely be procrastinated over for a few more weeks while I work on other things, but getting this one done felt like quite the accomplishment.

Bike Shop II and May 2012 Status

The nice thing about the “Bike Shop” is that it’s a small model, and hence fairly quick work (by my standards a month really is quick). I’d written about this model a couple of weeks ago. At that point I’d finished the structural work, and given it several coats of paint from spray cans, providing a solid flat black layer to make it light-tight, and then a white interior layer for reflectivity, followed by a colored outer coat to give the “stone” a concrete look. Read More...

Bike Shop

It’s been a while since I started working on the buildings of the “village” section of the River Crossing scene, and progress has been slow, but not non-existent. I’ve built and painted the interiors for the two Kato apartment buildings (well, most of them, I’ve one left to finish) and have been working on collecting images to glue into them. I’ve also started work on what will likely become a bicycle shop, starting with a Bachmann Plasticville Drive-in Hamburger Stand (#45709). Read More...

Kato Viaduct Track

A question on the JNS Forum the other day started me thinking about viaduct track. I’ve used this in the past, although not at present. And at the time, I found it confusing, and the lack of English-language information about it compounded the problem. In attempting to answer the question and refresh my own knowledge I did some research and decided to fill out those notes a bit and add them to the site. There’s a new page for that, linked below, but I’ll provide a quick summary of the interesting bits here. Read More...

New Kato Catenary Sets

Kato recently introduced several new sets of model catenary poles for its N-scale Unitrack. Like the earlier ones, these are non-functional plastic castings that snap together, and clip to bases that align them with the track. Two of the new contributions stand out: one is a set of four-track catenary supports, and the other is a set of platform detail parts, including catenary, for a Shinkansen station. I’ve updated my Kato Catenary page with new photos and details, but I wanted to say more about the interesting ones here.


No, I’m not writing about the ones from the 70s TV series. These are the electrical kind, Kato kit 23-401, which is actually a Heljan-produced model, although apparently not one sold directly by that company. The kit contains material for three high-voltage electrical towers of a common design. In fact, they’re nearly identical to those in a photo of Shin-Yokohama described as owned by JR East (see my Electrical Reference Images page). List price from Kato USA is US$19, but I’ve seen them for less. Frankly, they’re overpriced for what you get. Read More...


It’s been two years since I last wrote about catenary, the wire above the track, which is a long time considering that my modeling is all about electric trains. In a real electric railroad, catenary is a vital component: without it there would be no power, and trains wouldn’t run. There are some model trains that can run off overhead power. But in Japanese models, the catenary is non-functional, merely a bit of scenic window-dressing. In fact the major manufacturers sell model catenary poles, but no kind of wire to string between them.

Customizing Buildings III

I haven’t been making a lot of progress this week, but I thought I’d post a couple of photos and talk a little about what I’m doing. As usual, larger versions of these photos are available in the Village Photos photo album.

I’d mentioned last time my intent to use photographs for interior detail. This uses the same approach I use for sign-making: reduce images found online to scale size, print them on a 4x6 sheet of glossy photo paper on my inkjet, and glue them to a styrene backing. For the flooring I found some patterns for tatami mats, and assembled room floors by tiling appropriate numbers of mats. Downloadable versions of those were included in last week’s post.

But I’m also using that approach for some of the walls. This is a bit harder, as I need actual photos of walls, but not ones taken at a sharp angle (which is, unfortunately, typical of interior photos). Further, while some furniture is okay, it needs to be subtle, otherwise it’s obvious that the “table” is really a part of the rear wall of the room. With the large windows on the river-facing side of these apartments, the rooms are going to be quite visible (as seen in the test picture above). I ultimately found some usable photos (via Google mainly), but unfortunately they’re all copyrighted, so I can’t share them. Google for “Japan Interior Images” and you’ll turn up a lot of them.

Customizing Buildings II

Work on the buildings of the village continued this week, with more painting, some detailing and work on interiors, and the beginning of work on the village scene itself.

One thing I’ve been considering for a while is how to make the very large gas station fit the limited space. It comes with a sidewalk part that can be added to one side, and I was clear that I didn’t want to add that. But it also has a large sidewalk/apron area in front of it, and after much consideration I decided that needed to go. My street here is going to have a much smaller sidewalk, perhaps as little as 5mm, and putting this behind the sidewalk didn’t look good or make any sense. Building a custom sidewalk also means it can match the rest of the street, and have clearly separate entry and exit drives.

Customizing Buildings I and Feb 2012 Status

I’ve always enjoyed building plastic models. When I was a kid I made many, many models of ships, planes, tanks, spaceships, dinosaurs and whatever else caught my interest. This included some train car kits for my HO layout. Some I even painted moderately well. The less said about my decaling skills, however, the better.

But sometime in High School I lost interest, and it wasn’t until working on the first adult HO layout that I dusted off my skills for some new kits, and also did some customization of kits (commonly known as “kitbashing” in the model railroad hobby). But until this year, those skills had languished again.

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 Kato Grade Crossing

While I still plan to build my own grade crossing eventually, Kato’s update of their automatic grade crossing (model 20-652) to be compatible with DCC gave me an excuse to put that off some more (see Kato’s Japanese page for some pictures and a video of it in operation). Or at least, that was the plan. What I forgot in my enthusiasm is that I’d put my layout’s one grade crossing on a curve, so Kato’s straight crossing can’t be used. I can move it closer to Riverside’s commuter station, and I think I will. But I may end up using it somewhere else (perhaps on the “subway” tracks where they run at ground level under the Urban Station). I need to think on this some more, but I’ll outline my current plan after describing the crossing itself.

Planning The Village

The “village” is what I call the collection of buildings tucked inside the four-track curve of the River Crossing scene. Today this is just a set of pre-made buildings, mainly from Kato and Tomix, placed roughly on gray-painted foam. The bridge across the river for the “commercial avenue” is likewise temporary, just a slab of gray foam-core with lane markings painted on it.

Once I realized that the road behind the elevated station in the Urban Station scene was largely out-of-sight, the village became the place that I wanted to carefully detail in its entirety. Detailing the buildings of the urban scene themselves is still important, particularly the upper floors of those buildings that will be front and center part of the scene. But the village is going to be where my ability to craft a convincing scene will be most on display. So, no pressure, eh?

July 2011 Status - Expressway and Website

The month of July largely went to work on the expressway as part of the JNSForum’s 2011 contest, described on my page for the contest. The results so far can be seen in the photo above: one 6-inch segment of what will ultimately be a four-foot section of elevated expressway. Still missing is the guardrail down the median.

Expressway Deck I

I’ve begun work on building the deck of the elevated expressway. As mentioned last time, the expressway is a four foot long structure with a roadway assembly (road, guardrails, signs and streetlights) made of styrene, which rests atop a narrow winding strip of plywood held up by 1/4-inch threaded rod sheathed in one inch PVC tubing. So far, all I have is the plywood, and the beginnings of the roadway assembly, which I’m calling the “deck” for short.

Wiring Without Solder

Well, I’m not moving the site just yet. Conversion of pages is going more slowly than expected, and there are more pages that I consider necessary than I first thought there would be. So I’ll probably have a few more posts over the next couple of weeks before switching over to the new software and hosting provider. However, for the curious I’ve included some jpegs of the new main page and one of the subordinate pages showing the new layout and navigation links in the Diagrams album (these are reduced somewhat by iWeb; the type used for text on the page is about the same or slightly larger than the type used today).

May 2011 Status, Trams and Signmaking

After a relatively quiet winter and spring, work on the layout is picking up (most people do this in the winter, but I don’t seem to work that way). As mentioned in the last musing, I spent most of May working on the subway station of the Riverside Station scene. And I’m still basking in the glow of completing that. I go down to the basement every few days and turn the station LEDs on just to grin at it for a few minutes and think: it’s done, I actually finished something!

A big part of that was making signs using found photographs and graphics images. I’d described that briefly earlier in the month, but hadn’t gone into much detail. This method worked out very well, and I used it to produce the station platforms signs (using images from Tōkyō Metro’s website plus my own text), the subway maps (using an online map, vastly reduced in size), the advertising billboards (from photos found online), and even the vending machines on the platform (from photographs of real ones found on Flickr).

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.

April 2011 Status, Subway Station Planning and a Bus System

April sped by rather quickly, as least in part because I had some non-railroad distractions that took me away from the layout. Not much was done in concrete terms, but planning for the Riverside Crossing Subway Station made good progress. Mostly I acquired parts for some more power management wiring (PM42 circuit breakers, BDL168 occupancy detectors, and RX4 transponding sensors, as well as wire, terminal strips, and miscellaneous connectors). I also painted several sheets of cut-to-size plywood with primer, to which I’ll attach all the electronics and wiring. Then I’ll hang the plywood under the layout, where it can be easily wired to terminal strips, but remain far enough away from the track and bus wires to avoid interference with the transponding sensors. I’ll have more on this after I’ve built the first of these.

Kato Passenger Platforms and V15 Track Set

Passenger trains are boarded from areas alongside the track called “platforms”. As the name implies, these are often elevated structures at the height of the interior of the passenger car. Although “ground level” platforms, usually roughly level with the top of the rail, are fairly common on light-rail systems and North American commuter and rural stations, in Japan the “high level” platforms at car-floor height are nearly universal.

Kato makes a number of high-level platform elements that go along with their Unitrack and various station models. These are broadly divided into side platforms, where the platform is beside one track, and island platforms, where the platform is sandwiched between two tracks. These are all based around the standard Unitrack length of 248mm (9 3/4 inches), although the ends come in varying length. And the width of 41mm is designed to allow the island platforms to work with either Kato’s #4 or #6 switches, which widen track out to a 66mm center-to-center spacing between main line and siding when used with the correct track. For a list of all of these platform elements, diagrams of the track configurations used with them, and photographs of the platform types, see my Passenger Platforms page.

Miscellany and March 2011 Status

March was another of those “not much obvious happened” months. I did manage to get the layout back together, with two of the circuit-breaker/block-occupancy-detector systems wired up. And I installed some lighting in the Subway Station as a test. But I still don’t have the track back together and operational (I’m waiting on some more DCC electronics on order). In the meantime, I’ve amused myself with several things and some work on the website as I plan my next moves.

First, I’ve taken more photographs of the Overhead Transit Station (photo above) and the associated platforms I’m using on the Urban Station scene, and updated my pages for it and for the Unitrack platforms. The photos were also added to the Stations photo album. Once I get the Riverside Station track operational, I’m going to be turning my attention to the Urban Station for a time (and as noted last time I’ve added a page about the Urban Station itself). I have some new track (Kato’s new V15 20-874 set and 20-875 single-track concrete-tie track) on order for that, about which more after it arrives. I really like the combination of the Overhead Station (and expansion for a second platform), the new platforms, and the V15 set; this makes for a really nice modern-looking station.

I’ve also done some more testing of DC power packs, checking out the behavior of pulsed power on motor temperatures (no effect that I could measure) and examining yet another power pack. The notes on both have been added to the DC Power Pack page. Photos were added to the Electronics photo album.

And I built another of Don’s LOLBoosters, and ran some tests for him. Not much to say on that, but I added a couple of photos and some text to my page on it.

July 2010 Status - Behind the Scenes

Much of July went to more electrical work, partly planning, but mostly just crimping spade lugs to wires. Around 200 of them this month. There are now a total of six bus wire pairs beneath the tables: two for DCC (command station and future booster), two for the two tracks of the outer (Rapid/Shinkansen) loop, which will be switchable from DC to DCC, and one each for DCC accessory power and the Occupancy Detector & Signaling systems. I also wired up the control panel for the power.


Grade Crossing Plans

I should be building the topography under the soon-to-be Riverside Station scene’s Commuter Station, instead I’m still obsessing over the scenery where that scene meets the River Crossing scene, and specifically the exact design of the grade crossing I’m going to build there, someday.

Kato’s New Buildings

Kato’s four new tower buildings are available now in Japan, and mine just arrived. Although these aren’t modular (like Kato’s older towers), and the signs are all pre-attached, these are still very nice structures. Two very interesting details came to light once I had them.

Subway Track Cleanup, Etc.

This weekend went largely to the beginning of the final (I hope) laying of the subway track, which has been in place, in whole or in part, through more than six months of construction. As a result, it has gotten a bit dirty. All track was pulled up, cleaned with isopropyl alcohol on a cotton pad, and relaid. At the same time, insulated unijoiners (black, in the photo above) were inserted to divide the track into electrical blocks (for power feeds and future occupancy detectors) and power feeds were wired up to terminal strips under the table. I didn’t get it all done, perhaps a bit more than half, but I should be able to finish it during the week and run trains by next weekend.

Kato Modular Buildings

Today I’ll turn my attention to what goes atop the scenery: buildings. There’s going to be much more on this, and I’ve created a Structures section of the website with its own index page to contain such material, but so far it’s pretty vacant. Today’s post introduces the first page there, describing Kato’s modular multi-story buildings.

Kato makes several modern six-story buildings that are generic enough to use in any city, although they also include signs to decorate them for a Japanese one. But what really makes these buildings special is that they’re modular, and while Kato doesn’t sell the floor units separately, you can combine two or more buildings to make some reasonably tall structures. Read More...

Riverbank Scenery and April 2010 Status

April was a fairly busy month. The Urban Station scene received a tram line, and had the viaduct station structure finished. I also built the second level of the unsceniced return curves at the far end of the layout. And then I began working on the other bank of the large river (I’d done the far bank back in February).

I hadn’t done much on the riverbank by the end of the month, although it’s progressed a bit since then. The temporary expressway has been “completed” with the addition of some construction paper guardrails and support beams, as well as being lowered 1.5 cm. I’ve also rough-cut the foam that will go under it, although it needs to be trimmed back a bit, and then shaped to provide a levee up to the level of the bridge crossing the river, with a sloping hillside above it. Read More...

Viaduct Station Extensions

The elevated station was originally intended to be made entirely using Kato’s Viaduct Station (23-230) and Viaduct Platform Extension Set (23-232) sets. The problem was that at the ends, the flat supports I was using to hold it up would come down into the space needed by the subway train, and raising it up another quarter inch wasn’t very desirable. Without those supports, the plastic tended to sag where it was unsupported. Read More...

Tram Platforms

Streetcars often allow people to enter from ground level, without requiring use of a platform, much like a bus and for the same reason. Kato’s recent Unitram model of the Toyama City Portram (like Tomix’s earlier models of the same) depict such low-floor trams. However, Tōkyō’s two remaining light-rail lines use high platforms and trams designed for them, which is one reason I didn’t use the Portram. Read More...

A Tram Line for Sumida Crossing

The latest change to the evolving design of the Urban Station scene is the addition of a light rail line, or tram as they’re commonly called in Japan. This is a simple half-loop of double-track, with stub terminals at each end, and one mid-route station. The line begins immediately under the main station, heads towards the river and curves across the “commercial avenue” that parallels the station, then runs along behind the row of buildings until it reaches the far end of the scene, away from the river. This use of a private right-of-way running behind buildings is typical of the two remaining tram lines in Tōkyō. Read More...