An unexpected change of plans

Some sad news. Due to unforeseen circumstances I will be unable to continue with this model railway project, so I’m going to be selling off the stock and track that I have accumulated so far.

Basically, I have an opportunity to move abroad and start a new semi-retired life with my partner, something I have always wanted to do but always assumed would be many years down the line. That may sound ideal – more time for modelling, right? Well, no. We’ll be moving to Southeast Asia and our destination is just too hot and humid for a model railway to run reliably. It’s just not worth risking hundreds of Euros worth of stock going rusty and becoming worthless.

It’s sad from a modelling perspective, but at the end of the day I’m not going to deny myself this chance to realise a life-changing dream just for the sake of a model railway.

Soooo… I have to find new homes for an assortment of Swiss N Gauge locomotives, coaches, wagons and Fleischmann track.

I hate Ebay with a passion, and so I’ve decided to do it via the various Facebook groups I’m a member of. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be placing ads offering my stock for sale, in the following Facebook groups:

I’ll probably start by posting in ALL the above groups, and then look for which ones generate the most interest and focus on just those.

I’ll also look at assembling a master for-sale list to post on a separate page on this site.

Meanwhile, if you’ve seen something on this blog that you’d like to buy and don’t want to wait for it to be advertised in a group, you’re welcome to get in touch via Facebook Messaging – here’s my Facebook Messenger link. I’ll be using PayPal as the payment method.

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Short and long term plans

Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to decide how to proceed with getting a layout up and running as soon as possible. The thing is, the size of layout I want (at least 8 x 3 feet) just isn’t possible in my current apartment, and although I have plans to move to a larger property, I won’t be able to realise those plans for at least several months, and possibly a year or more, depending on how long it takes to get a buyer (the Malta property market is unpredictable and can be slow).

I’ve also been getting rather frustrated with setting up a layout on the kitchen worktop or dining table to do some testing and running, only to have to take it down again within a few hours because the space is needed for frivolous, unnecessary things such as cooking and eating.

I’ve decided to get a much smaller baseboard and build a small test layout on it, so that at least I can start building my tracklaying and wiring skills (and run some trains!) while I wait to move house and plan my main layout. In the longer term, once my main layout is under way, I’ll cannibalise the test layout for parts or sell it locally.

So I’ve ordered a 4 feet by 2 feet baseboard from Model Railway Solutions, and taking into account their current backlog I should receive it via TNT courier by the end of May. It’s a few more weeks but that’s OK. It will sit on the dining table when in use, and stand in a corner when not. It will also fit in my car. I decided to buy a baseboard rather than build one due to my woodworking skills being somewhat on the poor side of amateurish.

The plan I have in mind for my test layout is shown below. I’ve already got all the track for it in my track box, acquired from various Ebay purchases over the last few months.

It’s essentially a basic double loop and the curves are quite tight (Fleischmann radius 2), but I’m not going for realism at this stage – I just want somewhere to run trains, program locos, do some DCC wiring, and try out some wire-in-tube techniques for switching points and uncouplers. I probably won’t even add any scenery.

The small head shunt bottom left (or the siding bottom right) will probably be wired up as a DCC programming track with insulating joiners and a separate switchable feed.

So now I’m looking forward to having a semi-permanent place to run these wonderful beasts!

From left: Minitrix SBB RE 460, Fleischmann SBB Ae 6/6, Fleischmann SBB Re 4/4 II, Arnold BLS Re 4/4
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Adventures with JMRI

Well that was an interesting three hours…

My Sprog IIv3 DCC controller arrived last week, and today I decided that, busy though I am, I absolutely had to see my new locos moving before Christmas. Here is a gratuitous shot of the locos again, simply because they’re such beautiful models.

New readers should be aware that I’m coming back to N Gauge model railways after 35 years away from the hobby, and my decision to use DCC has effectively turned me into a total newbie.

So I wired up some straight track to the Sprog, connected its power supply, connected it to my MacBook via USB, and launched the JMRI software. After some initial pseudo-random clicking around the application, I worked out that I should remove its settings folder (I had fired it up once before without the Sprog connected), and let it run its “first run” wizard so I could tell it to recognise the Sprog.

That’s where things got interesting. There were two possible entries for the Sprog in JMRI’s list of devices, one just called “SPROG” and another called “SPROG Command Station”. (Much later on I worked out what the difference was but I’ll get to that in a bit.) There were also a number of options for which port it should use, including 2 with the letters “usb” in them, also with no hint as to which was the right one.

I decided that it was time to RTFM (read the flippin’ manual) and found the Sprog and JMRI documentation online. Neither gave me exactly what I wanted though I gleaned a few hints.

In the end I picked some options and continued, encouraged by the fact that the Sprog’s power light was blinking, which meant the track had power.

I worked out that I had to add a loco to the roster, and that was the next hurdle. Trying this with my Minitrix SBB Re460, I found that JMRI was reading the decoder ID as 15227, which is ridiculous considering (as I was told) decoder IDs only go up to 9999. It also would not automatically detect the decoder model, so I had to set it manually to the correct Minitrix one.

To cut a long story short, I spent quite some time adding, removing, and re-adding the loco, trying to write a new decoder ID to it, and getting my throttle window in a mess… I got repeated errors saying “address out of range or throttle in use by another loco”, before I at last managed to set the loco to have a short decoder ID of 3.

That’s not a very scientific description of the process I followed, but I wasn’t doing things very scientifically at this point – I was getting thoroughly befuddled and my scientific method goes out of the window when that happens.

But this last action worked. A little clicking in the throttle window and my loco was crawling satisfyingly along the test track, until of course it hit a dodgy track joint and stopped. But that’s a different problem, solved by solder and wires not software.

One down, one to go…

Having conquered the world of DCC software programming (or so I thought), it was time to get my other loco – the Fleischmann SBB Ae6/6 – running.

This time nothing worked. As with the Minitrix loco, JMRI wouldn’t detect the loco’s decoder, and so I had to try the available Fleischmann decoder entries one by one. But I also couldn’t get JMRI to write a decoder ID. It would read one – in fact it read it as 3 (clashing with my Minitrix loco!) but I couldn’t change it. The program window kept saying “Java null pointer exception” which, since I’m a computer geek, I knew was a serious software error.

If all else fails try another computer

Well. I couldn’t try another loco because this was the only one left to try. I couldn’t try another Sprog because I only have one. So I switched the only thing I could switch – I decided to try with a Windows notebook instead of the Mac.

So after installing the Sprog USB driver and JMRI on my girlfriend’s old Asus ultrabook, I went through the JMRI setup wizard, selected “SPROG” as the controller, the software found the right port automatically, and pretty soon the Minitrix loco was edging down the track once more. At this point I should say that I found a setup guide on an American Sprog website that I hadn’t found before, which was very helpful.

Encouraged by the absence of null pointer exceptions, I put the Fleischmann loco on the track instead of the Minitrix, and added it to the roster. This time, although for some reason I couldn’t get it to accept a short decoder ID of “4”, I did manage to get it to accept a long decoder ID of “150” (picked randomly) which I could then read back.

And sure enough, when I opened the throttle, there was a quiet satisfying hum and the Ae6/6 started moving. I even managed to find and click the stop button before it went off the end of the track.

And this is when I worked out the difference between “SPROG” and “SPROG Command Station” on the device list in JMRI. It turns out that “SPROG” optimises the software for programming decoders (and only allows the use of one throttle at a time), whereas “SPROG Command Station” optimises the software for operations, not programming, and lets you have several throttles in use at the same time.

Back to the Mac?

So, I have a Windows notebook running JMRI with two throttles open, I have a Sprog IIv3 linking the computer to the track, and I have two locos that move happily up and down the track. I’m really impressed by their ability to crawl at almost indetectable speeds by the way – I guess this is a benefit of DCC as opposed to old-fashioned DC.

But do I go back to the Mac, or do I leave well enough alone? In the end I’ve decided that I (eventually) succeeded in fulfilling today’s aim, which was to make sure my new locos worked by getting them moving, and that’s enough for one day.

I’m going to write down all the settings from the copy of JMRI that’s running on the Windows notebook, and then when Christmas is out of the way I’ll then try and configure the Mac JMRI correctly, now that I know both locos will run, and what their decoder IDs are. That way I won’t be stealing the girlfriend’s notebook every time I want to work on the railway.

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Do the Locomotion

I said in an earlier post that my next purchases would be a DCC loco and a Sprog controller, these being the remaining things I needed to actually get a train moving.

Well, yesterday I took delivery via insured post of not one but two brand new DCC locos – a Minitrix SBB RE460 passenger loco in red and a Fleischmann SBB Ae6/6 heavy freight loco in green. Both are suitable for the era I am modelling (approx 1990 – 2005), and I’m really pleased with the level of detail on both of them. I am so scared of breaking those pantographs however, and was reassured by the presence of spare parts ordering info sheets in the loco boxes.

first-locos

In the Fleischmann box there was a tiny (8mm x 5mm) circuit board, not attached to the loco in any way, which concerned me a little. However, the supplier (DM Toys) enclosed certificates for both locos saying “this loco was tested using DCC power and is running fine” (rough translation from German). So I assume that the circuit board is redundant while the loco is operating in DCC mode. Not that I’m going to discard it of course.

A few days ago a rake of second hand Lima SBB coaches arrived from Ebay, and I also acquired 3 wagons suitable for the layout – one Arnold Swiss tanker and 2 box wagons (from Atlas and Ibertren) that are actually FS (Italian Railways) but branded for Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain, Migros.

s-l500

wagons2

So I am now probably the most frustrated a railway modeller can be – I have track, I have locos, I have rolling stock, but I have no controller!

Hopefully the Sprog IIv3 I ordered a few days ago will arrive soon, and I can start testing things properly.

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First layout thoughts

OK, so this is the big one. The start of the layout design process (which I suspect will take many posts). I’m going into this process with two main requirements: firstly, the layout must be small enough that it will fit in a medium car in no more than three sections, and secondly it must allow enough variety of train movements to hold my interest.

I’ve been sketching all kinds of layout ideas, experimenting with out-and-back layouts, dog-bone layouts, figure of eights, continuous loop with branch line, etc etc, but I’m not settled yet.

I’ve done a lot of browsing on the web as well, googling for “n gauge layouts”, “n gauge shelf layouts”, “n gauge small layouts”, you name it, and I’ve found a number of layout designs that have fired up my imagination.

I’m going to share two of them here – one is a city terminus (or is it?), and the other is a branch line shelf layout. Though they are very different from each other, both have potential for lots of interesting train movements, and both are reasonably compact. Both of them made me think “yes, I could adapt this a bit and have a lot of fun”.

The City Station Layout

Created by a german guy whose name I couldn’t find on his website called Dieter Buehler, this is a continuous running layout, it’s an “out and back” layout, it’s a dog-bone layout, it’s a city terminus layout, it’s a through-station layout, all in one. I think its only weakness is the lack of a fiddle yard but that could be remedied.

You can see photos and plans at track-plans.net. On the plans, pay close attention to the hidden tracks exiting the back of the station. Yes, that’s right, one of them curves right round on itself from one platform to another, and also branches to come out of the neighbouring tunnel. I think this is a really clever design and it increases the variety of possible stock movements by a long way. It’s a very creative way to use a 2 x 1 metre area.

The Quiet Branch Layout

This layout was apparently created as a commission by a British guy called Steve Hornsey, and I think the buyer intended to run American outline on it.

But I can see its potential as an industrial town scene, with a small passenger station on the left and then low-profile industrial buildings along the two backscenes. It looks like it’s about 6 feet by 1 foot, and if it were expanded to 8 feet by 18 inches (2400 x 450 mm) there would be room for slightly longer trains, a better bridge and road and more shunting possibilities with maybe one or two extra sidings or another passing loop.

Either one of these layouts could be adapted to a Swiss setting. I know, a Swiss layout without any mountains – what is the world coming to? But I actually like the idea of modelling a city or town location rather than the usual load of mountains, cliffs and chalets that you always see on a Swiss layout.

So right now I’m still undecided. I could adapt the city terminus layout (I think I would mirror-image it as well as modifying some of the track runs), or I could model a small branch line terminus with some industries, or I could delve through a huge stack of papers on my desk that are filled with other layout sketches.

One part of me likes the idea of adapting an existing layout, because it’s been proven to work, whereas another part of me wants to have something totally unique, not consciously based on anyone else’s design.

This needs more thought.

If any of the photos in this post are yours, please let me know and I’ll add a credit or remove them if you prefer.

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