How do you get to the Open House? Practice, practice, practice!

First, allow me to show you a sight that hasn’t been seen in about a year:

First cars loaded into the Zion yard

That’s the Zion freight yard, stuffed full o’ cars! We’re officially up and running on the western end of the railroad, from Midway to Zion; now we need to get cars onto the rails and organized into trains. (And lemmie tellya, you don’t appreciate a re-railing ramp until you’ve had to load a massive freight yard with a couple hundred cars.)

Our next step: Practice, practice, practice. Though the track plan hasn’t changed, how that we have DCC, the Sierra Pacific Lines is essentially a whole new railroad. Dispatching is different and operating is very different. In order to be cab qualified, PMRRC members have to know the entire railroad, including where the blocks begin and end (no easy task with a 28-scale-mile mainline). Under DCC, the computer (usually) won’t let the operator overrun a block, but the operator has to know these points forwards and backwards in order to avoid the train lurching to an embarrassing (and unrealistic) halt.

Loading trains into the Midway yard

So for now, we have to run trains, run more trains, and run a few more trains — and who could complain about that? After all, we’ve been waiting a year to run trains on our railroad! Our test runs are also allowing us to do some final debugging; for now the railroad is running extraordinarily well, so well that it’s sometimes hard to contemplate the enormity of what we have completed so far.

We’re eager to share our updated railroad with the public at our upcoming Grand Re-opening and Open House, scheduled for November 15th, 19th, 20th and 22nd. You’ll find all the details at our Open House page, and we hope you can join us — we’re eager to show you our new railroad!

Join us for our grand reopening!

PMRRC Open House Spring 2015With over a year of work under our belts (and a bit more still to go), we’re just about ready to open to the public — and we are pleased to announce the dates for our Fall 2016 Open House!

The Pasadena Model Railroad Club will re-open to the public for our Fall Open House on November 15th, 19th, 20th and 22nd. For a complete schedule and details, check out our Open House page.

Digitrax controllerThis is more than just an ordinary Open House — it’s a grand reopening. For those who have visited us before, the scenery will look familiar, but underneath this is a whole new railroad.

Upgrading to Digital Command Control allows for big changes in the way we run the Sierra Pacific Lines, allowing us to move beyond the confines of fixed operating positions and the old block-control system. Operators will be able to roam the railroad with their trains, just as real-world engineers do, and mainline operations no longer need be split apart from switching work. We’re excited about the possibilities and eager to share our new railroad with our friends and fans!

We still have lots of work ahead of us, and we’ll keep you posted on these pages. Please join us in November. We can’t wait to see you!

Rollin’ on the west end!

A track cleaning train running under DCC on the western division, August 30, 2016
A track cleaning train running under DCC on the western division, August 30, 2016

Check out the above photo of your favorite 5,000 square foot HO scale model railroad. But this isn’t just any photo of your favorite 5,000 square foot HO scale model railroad. See that red arrow? That’s a train (albeit a very small one) on the main under DCC! (You can click the photo to zoom in if you are so inclined.)

Last night we successfully ran our test train over almost the entire western end of the railroad, from Midway to Upton. For those unfamiliar with the Sierra Pacific Lines, the railroad is organized alphabetically from Alhambra in the east through Midway in the middle to Zion in the west. So this means we’re operational under DCC from M to U. (We would have run through Vista but for a glitch in the Upton-Vista connector.)

This means we’re well on our way to our goal of having the western half of the railroad running by fall. Since the west end comprises the outer sections of the layout, an operational west end means we can resume our Open House schedule and open our doors to the viewing public this fall!

Mind you, we’re not there yet—we still have to deal with Zion yard, which, judging from our experience with Midway yard, will be no picnic. For Phase I of the project, we’re only converting the mainline to DCC-compatible Tortoise turnout (switch) motors; the yards will retain their “analog” turnouts (which use military-surplus motors from B-17 bombers). This greatly reduces our budget, but greatly complicates the wiring, as the turnout motors also control power to the frogs (the metal bits on the turnout that have to change polarity) as well as the surrounding track.

Nevertheless, it feels great to have a train on the Western main!

By the way, if you’re wondering what exactly is making up that silly-looking consist, it’s a pair of PRR Geeps surrounded by two track cleaning cars. Between time spent not running and scenery construction, the rails have picked up a lot of dirt, and keeping the locos running is a chore unto itself. (The Geeps were substituting for a pair of F-units, seen here during our Midway East pod test, that have dropped from exhaustion.)

Elsewhere in the photo you can see bearded apprentice Peter cleaning rails in Midway, while Frank (blue shirt, hidden behind the pillar) repairs scenery that got knocked around during the Midway yard work. In the background you’ll see Tim and club president Martin following PMRRC protocol by not looking where their train is going.

Meanwhile, car inspection continues apace; below you can see several dozen cars ready to return to the rails. Members, if you have rolling stock that you’ve checked out and tuned up (couplers centering, wheels clean, loose parts secured, etc.), please bring it in for inspection.

Rolling stock inspected and ready to return to the railroad
Rolling stock inspected and ready to return to the railroad

Cars, cars, cars, cars, cars

With nearly all of the pods built, our DCC conversion is progressing rapidly; we expect to have the western end of the railroad up and running by October, and we plan to schedule an open house for the fall. (You heard it here first!)


Of course, we can’t run trains if we don’t have trains to run, and clearing (nearly) all of the rolling stock of the railroad for our DCC conversion has given us the rare opportunity to inspect everything and make sure it meets our strict standards. This week we started working on our club-owned cars — cleaning the wheels and inspecting them for proper gauge, weight and rolling resistance and working couplers.

Getting the club cars back on the layout is a slow process. We generally don’t pull a car off the layout unless it derails, so many of these cars have been on the railroad for years or even decades with no maintenance. Some of them need serious TLC, and a few will have to be retired. Worn trucks are the biggest culprit; if a car can’t roll down a 2% grade on its own, we won’t put it on the railroad. (We could swap the trucks, but we generally sell off these cars instead. We’re not exactly hurting for rolling stock.)

As the club cars get done, we’ll ask members to start bringing their own rolling stock back. (Full members of PMRRC are allowed to keep their equipment on the railroad.) This should speed up the process greatly, as members are responsible for maintenance of their own equipment. Club cars we have to fix ourselves.

Needless to say, we love having members’ equipment on the railroad, and the more varied, the better. We don’t stick to any one era or location, so all rolling stock is welcome, and the cooler the better. If you’d like to see your own HO scale cars on the Sierra Pacific Lines, why not become a member?

We expect to be putting at least a thousand cars on the railroad, and probably closer to two thousand, so it’s going to be a long process. Your author just happens to be one of the club’s car inspectors, which means its time to stop writing and start inspecting cars. Anyone seen my Kadee coupler height gauge?

We have power!

20160715_F7_MidwayIt’s been a while since we’ve posted an update, and a lot of people are wondering how we are doing. The photo above should give you some idea: That’s an F7 at speed through Midway! (And yes, it’s running on DCC!)

We’re a long way from being done, but all of the smaller pieces we’ve been preparing are starting to come together into a whole. Most of the pods are built and in place, as are the Tortoise switch machines. We’ve wired track power to a large section of the mainline and we’re stringing our LocoNet cable.

Now, on a typical model railroad, we’d be in the final stretch… but this is the Sierra Pacific Lines. Although we’ve pulled some 800 lbs of wire out from under the railroad, there’s still a lot of wire that needs stay in place, and tracing the right ones (and the wrong ones), particularly in our three main yards, is a time-consuming task. Some of our old switch machines are staying in place, and that complicates things quite a bit. Still, we are now able to run DCC locomotives (and, theoretically, entire trains) over large sections of the main line — and that’s progress!

While the electrical crew works under the railroad, the scenery crew are working up top, building new scenes (like the mine we talked about earlier) and re-doing some old ones. We’re sure frequent visitors will notice the changes when we have our next open house.

We’ll try to update the site more frequently; as you can imagine, we have quite a lot of work to do. For now, it’s back to the layout floor…

Recycling the wire

Here’s what the wiring pile looks like now:

Empty wiring gallery

With the wire overflowing the gallery, we decided it was time to ship it out for recycling. We considered sending it by train…


…but none of our lineside industries were interested in four and a half million HO-scale carloads of wire. So we shipped by road in Tim’s pickup truck.


Two loads, 800 pounds of wire at 33 cents per pound. Your webmaster argued the funds shoud be used for a new Atlas U36B for our Auto Train. (Sadly, I lost that argument.)

We’re making progress…

It’s been a while since we’ve updated our blog (blame the webmaster), but we’re making good progress. We have two of the main pods in place, Midway East and Midway West. Midway, as its name implies, is the mid-point of the railroad, and it’s also one of three major yards — and it’s now under DCC control!

The completed DCC pod for Midway West
The completed DCC pod for Midway West

On this blog, we’ve talked about the importance of bringing outside skills to the club. We’re very fortunate to have a skilled cabinetmaker as a member. Brian, who joined PMRRC in 1993 as a high school freshman, has been building the woodwork for our DCC pods.

Brian cuts wood for our DCC pods
Brian cuts plywood for our DCC pods

Meanwhile, work on our scenery continues. Zion Station, one of the landmark buildings at the western terminus of the railroad, has always sat at ground level. Now it has a sidewalk, and soon it will have a proper connection to the roadway, which means Sierra Pacific passengers will no longer have to teleport from their cars to the waiting room.

The new sidewalk under Zion station
The new sidewalk under Zion station

Most of the wire has been pulled, and last week we removed the relay panels from underneath the operating gallery. It’s a curious thing to be able to see the underside of the layout from beneath the old control panels…

The view under the control panels with the relay boards gone
The view under the control panels with the relay boards gone

Here are some of the relay boards. A lot of our old electrical components have value, so we’re salvaging what we can.

Old control relay boards
Old control relay boards

And for those who have been keeping track of our wire-pulling exploits, here’s the pile s far. It’s about to overflow the viewing gallery!

The wire pile as of 4/30/16
The wire pile as of 4/30/16

First pod test: Success!

The blog is running late, but the DCC installation is progressing nicely. On March 29th, we installed and tested the first pod at Midway East, near the center of the railroad.

The first test pod installed at Midway East
The first test pod installed at Midway East

The pod is, in oversimplified simple terms, the set of components that delivers the signal from the controller to the tracks. We’ll save you a long story: The pod worked, and we were able to run our first train since we shut down our analog control system. Here it is:

First DCC test train at Midway
First DCC test train at Midway

Yep… Pennsy power. That’s not going to sit right with a few of our members…

Meanwhile, we continue to pull out wiring that won’t be needed (and perhaps a bit that will). For those keeping track, here’s the discarded wire pile as of March 19th:

The scrap wire pile grows...
The scrap wire pile grows…

Oh, and for those who can’t get enough of seeing Don Philpott covered in wire (I know I can’t!) here he is, hard at work in the operating gallery:



The first cut!

Martin Booker cuts the connection from the cabs to the track
Martin cuts the connection from the cabs to the track

This is it — the point of no return! Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, since wire can always be spliced. But we did pass a major milestone on Tuesday, March 1st, when club president Martin Booker cut the wires that connect our analog control system to the track wiring.

Those who saw The Hunt For Red October will remember the scene between Sean Connery and the Master At Arms…

MAA: We could still go back.

RAMIUS: There will be no going back.

We have resisted the urge to talk to each other in Scottish-Russian accents, but the point is still the same: Power is cut to our analog system, and when the railroad comes back online it will be digitial!

The importance (and the frustration) of standards

Aaron's new "Amquipment" on the PMRRC test track. Note the #6 switches and 2% grade.
Aaron’s new “Amquipment” on the PMRRC test track, which features #6 switches and a 2% grade.

Real railroads run on standards, and so does the Sierra Pacific Lines. A train car is a train car on a 4×8 tabletop layout, but when you are pulling a 50-car train up a 2% grade, any car that isn’t in tip-top shape has a good chance of going on the ground. PMRRC has developed a strict set of standards for rolling stock, and all cars must pass inspection before they are allowed on the railroad.

Our trackwork is so good that if anything derails, the problem is almost always with the car. When a train goes on the ground, our standard operating procedure is to place the affected cars in the bad order tray for re-inspection and get the train moving again. In most cases, the train continues without a problem and we almost always find something wrong with the car.

As a newbie car inspector, I’ve been amazed at the things that can cause a car to kiss the ties: Continue reading