LCC, For Real

Well, it didn’t take long. The first useful commercial products based on the LCC standards are out, and I have a set. While I may have some reservations about the state of the standards themselves (see my earlier series of posts), I’m very excited to see real products, and at fairly reasonable prices. Well, somewhat reasonable; I’ll have some comments on that.

New Plans for a New Year

I'm going to usher in the new year with a new project, and try to get back to doing more frequent but smaller posts than I've done of late. I'm not quite back to railroading yet, although this is ultimately in support of that. But for the moment, I'm still playing with microelectronics. And today's post is just a summary of where I'm going and what I've done so far, which doesn't amount to much when you put it down in words.

I'm still thinking about and planning the next layout. Control systems are a big part of that, because I was never happy with the DCC-throttle control of turnouts I used on Sumida Crossing, and my attempt at a single big computer-driven system never got off the ground, and would have had some of the same issues if it did.

As you may have noticed, I've spent a lot of time looking at control bus systems over the last two years. I'm still on the fence about what to use, as I don't particularly like any of the current systems. LCC has promise, but so far that's all it has, and I'm not expecting much from it in the next couple of years; it's too new.

Track, Turnouts and Servos

If you follow the RSS feed on the main page, you can see that my interest in signals continues. However today’s topic is about what signals describe: track, and in particular the turnouts, or track switches, or just switches, used to direct the motion of trains, although I do mention the relation to signals briefly. And yes, it’s finally a post about the layout, even if it is about the as-yet unbuilt future layout.

I’ve been spending some time thinking about how I’ll do turnouts on the new layout. As part of my overall design, I’m planning to use code 55 rail on a mixture of concrete and wooden tie track (I’m undecided between PECO and Micro Engineering). And I may custom-build some track to replicate slab-type track, which is used by both Shinkansen (sometimes) and in some newer construction for narrow-gauge track, particularly in stations and on viaduct. Although I dislike unnecessary work (and hand-laid track is, to me, generally more effort than it’s worth), I do plan to put substantial effort into getting the track to both operate reliably and look as prototypical as I can. And thus hand-laying some portion of it for appearance purposes may be worth the effort.

Note: some Japanese models have issues with code 55 track due to larger-than-spec wheel flanges, and I’ll need to do some testing. But most of my models are Kato, and they generally use low-profile flanges that should work.

I’m also planning for very wide radius curves, although I have not yet picked a specific standard or minimum radius. I want both Shinkansen and commuter stock to look good on curves, with minimal overhang. That means I need much wider curves than the minimum operating radius. I may skimp a bit for storage and yard tracks, including modeled layover terminals where trains are kept off-peak. But mostly I’m considering track radii in the 30” or larger (750 mm or larger) range. And that raises the related question: what type of switches do I want to use?

Computer Support

A computer is part of my model railroad. Why, and how do I use it? Well, the answer to the last question is “not very much”, so far, but I have plans. I recently had to re-do the monitor support attached to the layout, and I thought I’d discuss the reason it’s there, as well as the work on the support itself.

Decoder Wars II - Lightboards

Comparing decoders for cab cars is actually relatively simple. These don’t need to do very much, so it’s really about checking basic functionality. I’ve laid out the full testing details on my Decoder Comparison Testing page, and here I’m going to summarize the findings for the capabilities of interest to me.

Configuring The EM13 Part I

Kato’s EM13 DCC decoder (29-351) is a specialized decoder used for the motor car in an EMU/DMU model or other “DCC Friendly” models made by Kato. DCC Friendly (the English term is used even in Japanese, rendered as “DCCフレンドリー” or “DCC furendorī”) isn’t the same as “DCC Ready”, and it is a phrase used by others to simply mean that a model is relatively easy to convert to DCC. But when Kato uses it, the phrase means “will accept Kato FR11, FL12 and/or EM13 decoders”. And the models that do so are primarily Kato’s N-scale Japanese prototype models: commuter trains, limited express trains and Shinkansen (bullet trains). They also use it in some steam locomotive models, including the American-prototype GS-4.

DCC Speed Tables

My plans to start installing decoders were somewhat upset when a large quantity of the ones I’d ordered turned out to be out-of-stock, and a box arrived containing only a couple of decoders and some wire. I actually have a number of decoders on hand, though not enough to do a full EMU the way I want, or all of the models I wanted to experiment with. So, while I could have made a start, instead I decided to spend some time working out my standard configuration settings for the Digitrax decoders. I’m going to have a number of these even if I don’t use the DZ125 wire-in decoders, since my Kato “DCC Friendly” models use Kato’s EM13, which is essentially a Digitrax FX3-Series decoder. And I have a few models with lightboard replacement Digitrax decoders.

Decoder Programming Prep

As noted last time, I’m going to (finally) install DCC decoders in some of my commuter (and other) trains that aren’t Kato “DCC Friendly” designs, meaning I have to use wire-in decoders. And since these are EMUs where the motor car is in the middle of the train, that means installing three decoders per train, a Motor Decoder and two “function-only” decoders for the cab cars.

But to start with, I need to set up my workspace since it’s been a while since the last decoder install, and the various elements had all moved off the bench to other uses. And the bench had filled up with important stuff (meaning junk I couldn’t stuff somewhere else), so I needed a better workspace. Besides, I’m going to want to sit down for this work, and the workbench is really better for standing work. Read More...

NMRAnet - Why You Should Care

In August, the NMRA adopted standard S-9.7.1, NMRAnet Physical Layer, and a short article about it appears in the November issue of the member's magazine. What is this, and why should you care about it?

Well, if you care about Digital Command Control (DCC) for controlling a model railroad, it's an important addition to model railroading that will enhance that. And if you don't care about DCC, it's compatible with other control systems, and you may still want to use it. Read More...

Fun with JMRI II and September 2011 Status

I’ve been playing around with JMRI some more, and trying to debug my transponding problem with the first of the electronics boards. This is really baffling. I checked the wiring, and it was fed through the RX sensor properly. I replaced BOTH the PM42 and the BDL168 circuit boards (I’ve got a stack of them waiting for more electronics boards once I get this one working) and I tried using other blocks. And I had more transponding sensor failures. On both sets of RX sensors. One defective set I might accept, but two?

So I tried a variety of things, and noticed that the non-functional detectors would, every once in a while, work. In fact, I discovered that with the train motionless, one of them would periodically cycle from detection to non-detection, emitting a LocoNet message reporting the change in status each time. I tried moving the wires. I pulled a fresh RX1 set out of a bag, and set it up atop a trash can (see above) with every wire fed through it fully separated from every other wire in mid-air (about the middle of this I was holding things in both hands and wishing I had a third arm). And that failed too, reliably as it were.

Fun with JMRI

Some weeks I don’t get much done. Well, that’s not quite true, I did a lot of work on the website this week, but the railroading time suffered. I did find some time to play with the test track I’d set up last week though, configuring JMRI to report block status based on the BDL168 outputs.

If you’re not familiar with JMRI it’s a free software package that allows a computer to interact with any of several DCC command stations that support computer interfaces, including Digitrax. It’s also available for Windows, Linux and Macs. And while not the most Mac-like program, it works, even on the ten-year-old iMac I’m using for the layout controller.

So what I have is a test track that’s an oval divided into two electrical blocks, each connected to an output of the BDL168. I named them, creatively enough, “One” and “Two”. And I used the Layout Panel editor to draw a schematic of the track. When displayed, red shows occupied (it’s configurable) and green shows clear. Even on my old computer, the change is nearly instantaneous once the locomotive crosses the insulated rail joiners from one block to the other.

A Matter of Time

Railroads have always been concerned with time. Early ones used timetables alone to keep trains on the same track from colliding. This didn’t work very well, particularly given the accuracy of mid-1800‘s pocket watches and the lack of synchronized time sources, and many lives were lost. Signaling systems and other protection methods were gradually developed. But timetables continued to be important for all trains in scheduling the use of tracks even with other systems used for protection, and timetables were required for passenger trains, as trains from different places needed to coordinate their arrival and departure at interconnection points, so passengers could move smoothly from one to the next as part of a longer journey. Railroads gradually developed standards for time-keeping (and they’re responsible for the adoption of the standard time zones used in the U.S.), and also influenced the development of clocks and watches to provide accurate and synchronized time sources.

Japanese passenger trains today are famed for their obsessive adherence to schedules, with deviations measured in seconds, not minutes. So it only seems reasonable that a model railroad of a Japanese passenger line should operate to timetable (well, eventually,I need a yard/staging tracks before that will be much fun).

LocoNet: A DCC Control Bus

DCC is really about getting power and control information to the track. But there’s another side to it: how do the commands from the throttle (the controls) get to the DCC system, and how do different parts of the DCC system communicate with each other? The first part isn’t covered by the NMRA’s DCC standards, so each manufacturer does the throttle-to-command-station link in their own proprietary manner. The second part is partially standardized, as the NMRA has Recommended Practice RP-9.1.2 Power Station Interface to describe how a command station sends commands to booster stations, but they don’t say anything about how devices like stationary decoders or occupancy detectors report their status, although there’s a draft of a standard for an “NMRAnet” control bus being developed which will probably fill this gap, someday.

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.

More Electrical Work

Rather than turning my attention immediately to the Riverside Station scene, I decided to get the electrical systems ready for the eventual use of the two “ground level” loops, which will require DCC. And that meant I needed to finalize my plans. And although most of them had been worked out last year, and revised (in my head if nowhere else) over the winter, there was still a bit of planning needed before I was ready to start cutting wire. This had to encompass the DCC systems (both power and the LocoNet control bus) as well as the various power strips to supply them, and some additional power supplies for eventual LED lighting. I’d started thinking more intensely about this while I was working on the wiring recently, but needed to bring that to conclusion and write down the results.

Inaugural Train

The first train ran tonight. As you can see, the table is still a bit unfinished. I added the legs and framing for the end that won’t have scenery, and put down the plywood for the subway level return loop. Read More...