Return of the Emerald Rocket

The Emerald Rocket is the premiere long-distance passenger train on the Sierra Pacific Lines. Each car is named after a PMRRC member who played an instrumental part in the creation of the club and the railroad.

Power for the Emerald Rocket comes from two sets of Alco PAs, an A-B-A set (Athearn drives with metal Hobbytown bodies) and an A-B-B-A set (ironically, Hobbytown drives with plastic Athearn bodies). Three engines are sufficient to pull the train through the east end of the railway, but the steep grades between Midway and Zion require an additional B unit, and SOP has been to swap in the four-unit Hobbytown set.

The job to convert these old locomotives to DCC was given to yours truly and the Athearns weren’t much of a problem — but the Hobbytowns gave me fits. Each A-B set is permanently coupled with a drawbar. A single motor in the B unit drives all four trucks via driveshafts that run underneath the units. Electrical pickup is spread across both units, and I just couldn’t get a good electrical path.

Fortunately, we have a new apprentice named Mike, who does DCC conversions for The Original Whistle Stop in Pasadena. He was kind enough to lend us his time and expertise — and now the Hobbytown PAs are running under DCC, complete with a working Mars light!

The Emerald Rocket's 70s-era Hobbytown PAs, now running DCC!
The Emerald Rocket’s 70s-era Hobbytown PAs, now running DCC!

We test-ran the Emerald Rocket, and the Hobbytown units did great, grinding along at their usual leisurely pace. (We didn’t bother with a sound decoder; it’d be impossible to hear over the drivetrain noise.)

Unfortunately, the cars did not do quite so well — they need a cleaning and a check of their electrical continuity. All of the cars are illuminated, and DCC is a bit more sensitive to these things than DCC. One or more of the cars is causing shorts on certain sections, something I’ll be digging into this week.

Meanwhile, I love the fact that we have forty-plus (maybe fifty plus?) year old engines running in the modern world of DCC! This is one of the aspects that makes railroading with a club such a great thing — no matter what problem we run into, there’s generally someone who can solve it.

Thanks, Mike, for helping to keep this important piece of PMRRC history running on the Sierra Pacific Lines!

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!

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: