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!

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!

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!

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!