The Railroad: October 2017 Update

October 30, 2017

Night time.

It’s been a tough year for the railroad, but things are looking up. I’ve been very lucky to have never lost anything to lightning before this year, but I suppose my luck ran out – this spring we suffered a couple of lightning strikes. Judging by the path of destruction it appears to have come in on our cable line and used the ethernet as its guide. (Make sure your cable connection is properly grounded, kids.) Most frustrating, it seems to have caused some damage to my Lionel Legacy base unit, which took some time to get repaired and doesn’t seem to be fully resolved yet. I may need to make a budget allocation for a new one. Needless to say I am aggressively unplugging the layout nowadays.

A more happy development has been that I’ve found an operating group to be a part of. (This is also the nerdiest development of the year.) If you’re unfamiliar, “operating” on a model railroad involves a group of people getting together at somebody’s layout and running trains. But not just running the trains – running them as if they were part of a rail railroad. Typically there is a signup board with a schedule of trains. Each train starts in one place and usually ends up in another. Along the way you may have stops to make, cars to pick up and drop off, and other trains to safely make way for, with the dispatcher’s help. They tend to run around 3 1/2 hours and while they were initially pretty intimidating, I’ve found them to be quite a bit of fun. The people are great, and you end up learning quite a bit about how railroads operate – more on that in a moment. Perhaps best of all, I’ve found it to be helpful in keeping me motivated to work on my own layout. On that note…

Rock work.

The most obvious development on my layout over the past few months has been the mountain range, a chunk of which can be seen above. This range separates “Town A” and “Town B” on the layout plan (the two lowest towns). I originally intended this to be a backdrop dividing the two, but after mocking it up I quickly nixed it upon determining that it cut up the room too much for my liking.

The profile of the mountain is formed by 2” pink foam, and then the traditional cardboard webbing with plaster paper towels gives it some body. Rock walls give its steeper inclines some detail, which brings me to another development: I learned how to make latex rock molds! It turns out to be quite easy; the hardest part is finding good rocks. As I mentioned in the last update I used the methods demonstrated by Rich Battista in the Black Diamond Railway to fill in the gaps between the molds.

Eventually everything but the rock faces will be covered in trees and greenery. For now it has been painted a dirt color, as you will see in the later photos.

Town D work.

Over the past week I’ve started to develop some more concrete ideas about “Town D”, the highest and largest municipality on the layout. The seeds of this have come from my involvement with the operating group – I’ve learned why you might want to have a “passenger main” and a “freight main”, and why the track configuration and positioning of key structures like the passenger station might be arranged a certain way. I had designed (and built) Town D to have a lengthy siding, but it turned out that this didn’t allow for the passenger station to have my preferred orientation (toward the viewer) while having the other track be the freight main (from which industry spurs extend). So I’m reworking the path of the siding to be more effective freight while allowing the passenger station its rightful prominent location.

Oh, and the passenger station is new as well: an Atlas O kit that I picked up from Legacy Station. I used a brush to paint the roof and decided that that was way too much work, and so I dug out the airbrush and used it to finish the rest. This was my first time doing anything of substance with the airbrush, a device which can be almost magical when you are operating it properly. Unfortunately I have found the learning curve to be significant. More practice is needed. The cool thing is that it does use a tiny amount of paint, and of course the finish is very smooth.

There is still work to be done on the station: installing the window glazing, interior lights, maybe some very basic interior. I’d also like to weather it at some point. Maybe in 2019.

Day time.

Lastly, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lighting on the layout. For a few years now I’ve wanted to do some sort of RGB computer-controlled lighting so that I could simulate a day-night cycle, or at least have a more credible nighttime lighting mode than “lights off”. This is one of the few areas of model railroading where there isn’t a well-trodden path to follow. There are a number of people experimenting with this, but it seems like it hasn’t been fully figured out yet. So I’m joining the group of people experimenting with it.

I’ve determined that LED strips are the most reasonable and economical way to achieve this effect (RGB smart bulbs are much too expensive to be practical, and frequently their version of “soft white” is not terribly good). The trick has been finding the right LED strip that is bright enough. A good number of people are using LED strips on their HO and N scale layouts, but those scales can get away with having the lights much closer, say 18” away from the track. For my O scale layout I’m looking for a minimum of 24”, and preferably more to keep the lights out of your face and camera field of view.

After trying out a number of strips I have finally settled on SMD2835 600 LED/5M warm white strips. The photo above was taken under one such strip, 32” off the track.

The photo at the top of this post was intended to resemble a night shot, lit using only the blue channel from an RGBWW strip I had handy.

(The California Zephyr car is one of the only pieces of rolling stock I added this year. While it doesn’t have any business on an appalachian railroad, it looks too damn good not to be on my railroad, if only for photo ops.)

Lighting test, behind the scenes.

Here’s my test lighting rig. The plan is to suspend these light bars from the ceiling.


I didn’t get nearly as much done as I might have hoped, given my progress over last winter, but I’m optimistic for the next few months. One thing I’ve learned about this hobby is that many times the hardest part is making decisions. Especially when deciding what contours the landscape should have over a vacant space. The usual advice is to look at what a real railroad did, and model that. I should do more of that. While I have vague ideas that my railroad lies somewhere in western North Caroline, or maybe north Georgia, or perhaps even part of Tennessee, and I’ve visited those areas many times, I haven’t made dedicated trips to take photos of the landscape for this purpose. (It turns out that you can do a certain amount of this research using Google Maps streetview, which is especially handy when it’s not the right season.)

I’m going to continue to focus on a few small scenery areas, in the interests of filling in those voids, so that I can start to experiment with how to make trees and so forth. And while I’m happy to have made a decision on the lighting, I’m not sure how aggressively I’ll work on it. It’s one of those things that can wait, and there are more problems to be solved (how, exactly, am I going to build those bars? And how will I power them? Control them?) I haven’t even mentioned signals and occupancy detection in this post. (I also haven’t made much progress on it.) So many interesting little things to figure out and build, and new mistakes to make and skills to develop.

Until next time!