We’re ready for our Fall 2017 Open House!

We’ve been busy getting our railroad ready for our next Open House, which takes placeĀ 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!

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!

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!

Happy Holidays from the Pasadena Model Railroad Club!

Sierra Pacific Lines overviewWe’d like to wish season’s greetings, a merry Christmas and a happy Hanukah to all who celebrate. Model trains have always been closely tied in with the holiday season, though the origins are fuzzy: Many sources credit the association to a store display with a Lionel train set circling a Christmas tree. The story says that the train was used to carry display items, but passers-by were more interested in the toy trains themselves. Whatever the circumstances, it seems that trains have been a part of holiday decoration since around the turn of the 20th Century.

Obviously, our club layout is a bit more elaborate than your average holiday train. The Sierra Pacific is designed to emulate a real railroad. We model not only the trains and the scenery, but the operations themselves: Passengers, raw materials, and finished products being transported from Point A to Point B to Point C.

The city of Echo on the Sierra Pacific Lines

But that doesn’t mean we don’t love seeing the trains run. The Sierra Pacific is like a Christmas tree train on steroids: Long, winding trains making a one-hour-plus journey from one end of the railroad to the other, up hills, over bridges, through cities and forests. It is, at the risk of offending some of the more serious modelers in the hobby, the world’s greatest train set. (And instead of running around just one tree, our trains meander through hundreds!)

If you’re intrigued by the idea of trains beyond the holidays, why not consider joining the Pasadena Model Railroad Club? You don’t need to be an experienced modeler; we have members who are happy to teach you. You don’t have to own trains; the club has plenty. All you need is a passion for model railroading, a congenial personality, and thirty-five bucks a month for dues. For more information, please see our Become a Member page.

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’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

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

Come as you are

Frank Sele and apprentice James work on the harbor area
Frank Sele and apprentice James work on the harbor area

On our Become a Member page, we say that no special skills are required to join the Pasadena Model Railroad Club, and we mean it. One of the things that makes PMRRC such a great club is we have a lot of members who not only have lots of talent, but are willing to share it. Here, Frank Sele and apprentice James work on the harbor area. Frank, one of our newest members, brings with him a wealth of knowledge on building scenery. He’s a retired teacher, and he’s still teaching here at PMRRC.

We’re grateful that Frank is willing to pass on his skills to our other members. If you’re looking to learn about model railroading — or willing to teach! — then PMRRC is the club for you.