Another Open House is in the history books!

We’ve just wrapped up our Fall 2017 Open House, and we want to thank everyone who came out to see the Sierra Pacific Lines in action!

Opening day, Saturday, was… well, not our finest. The Sierra Pacific Lines often gets a bit cranky at the start of an Open House, but this time she was in full rebellion mode. We had some major problems with the boosters in our Whiskey block, which brought the railroad to a halt. For a while, it felt like we were going to spend as much time fixing the layout as we would running trains. Our communication with our visitors was not as good as it should have been, and for that we apologize. Happily, our outstanding electrical crew was able to rig up a fix and we had trains rolling by late afternoon.

Sunday was a much better day — aside from a few known glitches, the layout ran like a champ, and the guests — who came in droves — clearly had a much better time. Tuesday night was busy as well and the layout ran just as smoothly. We saw lots of smiling faces, and that’s what we like.

Many of our visitors were exceptionally generous and offered more than our suggested donation, which we appreciate — donations from the Open House play a big part in keeping the Pasadena Model Railroad Club going!

Our next Open House usually takes place in the spring, but we are eager to finish our DCC wiring project (the remaining step being to convert the Alhrambra and Zion yards). Give us some time to make our plans, and we’ll announce dates soon.

We’re ready for our Fall 2017 Open House!

We’ve been busy getting our railroad ready for our next Open House, which takes place this coming weekend — Saturday, November 18th, Sunday, November 19th, and Tuesday evening, November 21st.

Here’s the Alhambra freight yard, stuffed full o’ trains:

Trains ready to roll out of Alhambra
Trains ready to roll out of Alhambra

So what goes into getting the Sierra Pacific Lines ready for an Open House?

Prepping the trains is one of the biggest (and, for the most part, enjoyable) tasks. For the Open Houses, we run trains from one end of the layout to the other (as opposed to an operating session, in which freight cars are delivered from industry to industry). Members will often bring in extra equipment for the shows, and since we want the smoothest experience possible, we test-run every train — and since it takes about an hour to get from one end of the layout to the other, this is a time-consuming process. Any locomotives or cars that misbehave are removed from the trains. (Why take a chance?)

We also need to prep the operators, especially now as we are getting used to running our layout under digital command control (DCC). All of our operators need to know the fouling points (ends) of each block by heart, so they can follow the dispatcher’s directions. Test-running the trains gives us an opportunity to practice as well.

Cleaning is also a big deal — especially now, as we’ve just had some dust-generating maintenance done on the building. Fortunately, our steel rail is pretty robust stuff. We hand-clean the yards and most of the turnouts, and run a track cleaning train with an abrasive cleaner, alcohol tank cars, and a magnet car to pick up the debris. It takes a lot of power to get the cleaning train up those 2% grades.

The track cleaning train at Vista
Mid-1960s New York Central power shoves the track cleaning train through Vista


The track isn’t all that gets cleaned; we’ve also done some clean-up and scenery repair on the layout, and the building itself gets a scrubbing. (Unfortunately, as we were dismayed to discover, our bathrooms don’t clean themselves.)

Our ongoing DCC conversion presents more challenges. Our mainline conversion is complete, but we’re still running analog turnouts and control panels in the yards, which has led to a few electrical glitches that need to be tracked down before the Big Day.

But most members will agree that all the work is worth it when we see a nice long freight train cross the Sierra-Upton bridge — and we love to see the looks on the faces of visitors who have never seen such a massive model railroad in action.

What will you see at the Pasadena Model Railroad Club? Here’s a quick preview of some SP power on the Sierra Pacific Lines:

We hope you can join us for our Open House this weekend. You’ll find dates and times on our Open House page and directions on this page. We look forward to seeing you!

Next Open House dates have been set!

We’ve set the dates for our Fall 2017 Open House: Saturday, November 18th; Sunday, November 19th; and Tuesday, November 21st. Opening times and other information will be posted on our Open House page.

Additionally, we’ve been invited to participate in the Summer Train Festival at Union Station on July 15th, 2017. It’s only a short drive from Union Station to the club, so we’ve decided to open our doors to the public that Saturday as well. Once folks have had their fill of full-size railroading at Union, they can hop on over for some 1:87-scale action on the Sierra Pacific Lines!

Some of you might be wondering what happened to our Spring 2017 open house. Because work on the east end was still progressing, and as we were still troubleshooting on the west end, we decided to have a smaller event for friends and family on April 29th. We barbqued, we gave tours, and we ran some trains, and a good time was had by all. We look forward to opening our doors to the public in July and November — and possibly even more often in the future. Stay tuned!

It’s been a while, but we have sooooo much to tell you…

There hasn’t been much activity on the web site lately (blame your busy webmaster), but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any activity on the Sierra Pacific lines. No, far from it. Our members have been hard at work on our DCC conversion, and we have some big news…

We now have DCC running on the east end of the railway!

Yep, the wiring is complete, and we can now run the entire railroad, from Alhambra in the east to Zion in the west, on DCC!

This is the point in the post where I should add a photo of Alhambra yard stuffed full of trains (which it is). I don’t have one of those handy, so here instead is a photo of Chris Holt’s beautiful Challenger on a reefer train:

Look at that clean stack — clearly we’ve got an ace crew in the cab.

(Chris here – We actually do have some photos of Alhambra full of trains!  Well, when I say ‘we,’ I really mean ‘I’… which explains why Aaron couldn’t post them!)

Opening up Alhambra yard to trains freed up a lot of space in both Midway and Zion yards, though I’m sure we can deal with that in short order.

So, where were we? Ah yes, the conversion. We have the east end wired up, but that doesn’t mean the conversion is finished — no, a long way from it.

Now begins the troubleshooting. Our old analog control system required lots of cuts in the rail to provide for isolation, protection zones, etc., and getting them all powered for DCC takes careful troubleshooting. (We’re still doing this on the west end as well.) And since our old analog switch motors and control panels are still in use in the yards, there’s a lot of work involved in getting the old and new systems to play nicely — or, more specifically, to keep the old bits from sending power spikes to the new delicate electronic bits. We also have quite a bit of work in the engine service areas (including getting the turntables working again) and some scenery repair.

Still, we’re very happy to be running trains the full length of our layout. Our DCC conversion isn’t done, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, it’s a train — and for us, that’s good news!

Happy 2017: Looking back, looking forward

Happy New Year, everyone! We know some people are pleased to put 2016 behind them, but as far as the Pasadena Model Railroad Club is concerned, it was a pretty good year. Among our accomplishments for 2016:

Alex fixes a hard-to-reach turnout motor
One thing we learned in 2016: The more inaccessible a turnout motor, the more likely it is to cause problems. Here, Alex risks life and limb to fix a turnout under the ski resort town of Powderhorn.
  • We completed the DCC conversion on the western half of the railroad, along with Midway yard.
  • We completed a major portion of the work to get the east side of the railroad up and running under DCC.
  • We built a new iron ore mine (Thanks Dan!) and made other scenery improvements.
  • We set up the railroad in TrainController Gold to allow easier dispatching and automated train operation.
  • We inspected, repaired, and recertified hundreds of club- and member-owned freight and passenger cars.
  • We had our first Open House with the new DCC control system.
  • We hosted a handful of film and video shoots, which generated income for the club.
  • We restocked on the 70th Anniversary DVDs, as requested by several people on our Facebook page (and we’re halfway to being sold out already!).
  • And, most importantly, we welcomed two (almost three!) great new members, Peter Leinhos (#255) and Owen Wagonner (#256). Chris Holt completed nearly twice as many hours as required for his apprenticeship, and we expect him to be voted in as member #257 at our very first business meeting of 2017.

Unfortunately, not all of the news for 2016 was good: We mourned the passing of Larry Helscher, member #150. But we are pleased that his legacy will live on: Larry provided generously for the club in his will, and his legacy will help to ensure the club’s survival. Some of his rolling stock has been passed on or sold to other members, and will continue to roll on the Sierra Pacific Lines.

We’re gearing up for a busy 2017. Among the things on our to-do list:

  • Complete the DCC conversion of the eastern end of the railroad.
  • Restore functionality of the turntables at Midway and Zion/Alhambra Engine Services.
  • Formalize our standards for DCC- and sound-equipped locomotives and our electronic roster.
  • Continue operational training under DCC.
  • Make repairs and improvements to the club-owned building.
  • Hold our first Open House with a fully-operational railroad.
  • Welcome more new apprentices and full members.

No doubt we’ll be adding to this list as the year goes on!

We thank all of you who have supported the club — by visiting our Open House, joining us as apprentice members, buying cars, pins, patches, and DVDs, liking our Facebook page, reading our web site, and stopping by to visit. We look forward to your friendship and support as we highball into 2017!

Back by popular demand: PMRRC 70th Anniversary DVD

We’ve had a few requests come to us for our 70th Anniversary DVD, so we’ve ordered another (small) batch. This 40-minute DVD follows an Amtrak Superliner from Alhambra to Zion, with lots of HO-scale railroading action from all ears and roads in between. There are great shots of the engine services area, our mountain scenery, our old analog control system, and even our test bench! We have a limited number, so if you’re interested, now is the time to act. Head on over to our merchandise page for information on how to purchase.

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?