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.

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.

In memoriam: Larry Helscher

Larry Helscher, PMRRC Member #150, 1921-2016
Larry Helscher, PMRRC Member #150, 1921-2016

The members of the Pasadena Model Railroad Club are saddened to announce the passing of Larry Helscher, Member #150.

Larry was born in San Jose, California, on May 7th, 1921, the only child of Larry and Beatrice Helscher. He was raised in San Francisco, and remembers looking out the windows of his high school and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge being built.

Larry was drafted into the military in October, 1942, and served with the Army Air Forces in Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa, and Japan. Larry was a radio operator in a variety of airplanes during WWII. In January 1946 he reenlisted and was stationed near San Francisco flying in RB-29s that patrolled the Russian border, ostensibly performing “weather observation”. Larry described one mission as chasing a cloud clear across Canada and all the way to Great Britain. Whether or not that cloud strongly resembled a Russian aircraft is a matter on which he would not comment.

After being honorably discharged in 1952, Larry studied television technology at the RCA Institute in New York City. He worked briefly in the Midwest before moving to Hollywood to work for the CBS network.

A childhood summer spent in San Rafael led Larry to fall in love with the Sacramento Northern Railway. He also enjoyed watching the Southern Pacific and Western Pacific railroads, and as a young man he worked as a clerk at the SP’s Bay Shore Shops.

Larry joined the Pasadena Model Raiload Club in November 1984 and remained a member for over thirty years, primarily serving on the electrical crew. When the club first began experimenting with Digital Command Control for our McSweeny branch line, Larry eagerly dived in and took an active role.

“Even in his 80s, he embraced new technology,” remembers PMRRC member Don Phillpott. “He was like that guy in the commercials, the Most Interesting Man in the World. He was very enthusiastic about working with Digital Command Control. And he was always a gentleman.”

Don recalled a time when Larry was in a wheelchair after a fall in which he fractured his wrist and hip. The electrical crew was discussing an issue on our Port branch, and Larry insisted on being wheeled over to one of the openings, crawling under the layout, and having his wheelchair pushed in after him so he could take an active role in the discussion.

Along with his interest in railroading and model trains, Larry was an avid sailor. He owned his own sailboat and was a member of the Cabrillo Beach Yacht Club for 50 years.

Larry died of natural causes on October 2, 2016, at the age of 95. He was interred with full military honors at the Riverside National Cemetery, and we are privileged to have his flag of honor at the club.

Larry had no children, and regarded the Pasadena Model Railroad Club as his family. He provided generously for the club in his will, leaving a substantial endowment that will allow the club to perform much-needed repairs to the building, complete our DCC conversion, and make financial investments that will ensure the club’s future. For this, as well as his friendship and devoted service, we are exceptionally grateful. Highball, Larry!

Scenes from the Fall 2016 Open House

A big THANK YOU to everyone who joined us for our Fall 2016 Open House and grand re-opening! We had a tremendous turnout, and everyone who joined us was very patient when we had technical glitches (like when we blew the most difficult-to-change turnout motor on the entire layout).

Some scenes from the Open House:


Something we haven’t seen for over a year — members of the public lined up in the aisle to see the Sierra Pacific Lines in action! For many of us, this was the most gratifying sight.


Here’s Zion Yard, stocked full o’ trains. As always, we tried to give our visitors a good variety: Passenger and freight, steam and diesel, Western and Eastern roads.

Doublestack stringline at the Fall 2016 open house

So, did we mention glitches? Here, a set of double-stack cars derailed and tipped over heading out of Midway Yard. Oops.


What we like best: Trains, trains, and more trains. Now that we are running under Digital Command Control, we can bring even more cool stuff to the rails. The SP Black Widows and the UP Centennials behind them all have sound and light effects, and the railroading action was better than ever!

Now that the Open House is behind us, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work — we still have the eastern end of the railroad to convert, and that includes Alhambra yard, which posts the biggest challenge. Once again, thank you everyone for joining us, and we’ll see you at our Spring 2017 open house!

Our open house is open!

Our grand re-opening is underway! This past week, we opened our doors to the public for the first time since we began our DCC conversion. (Sorry, no pictures, as your Webmaster was dispatching the railroad… and the less said about that, the better.)

This was our first “real” operation under DCC, and it went pretty well — we had a few technical glitches, but for the most part, things ran smoothly. (Thanks to all who were here for being so patient!)

Our open house continues this weekend and this coming Tuesday, and we hope you will join us. Details can be found on our Open House page. See you soon!

Correction: This story originally mentioned the open house taking place next weekend. The open house takes place this weekend (11/19 and 11/20) and Tuesday evening (11/22) only.

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?