Category Archives: Design & Planning

Office Shelf Inglenook

Every day I go into the office, and there’s a shelf above my desk… it’s about 13″ deep and 48″ long.  I have some “stuff” on it, but it’s largely unused… from time to time, I look up and wonder what I could do with that space…  and I have some leftover turnouts and bits of track from the main layout construction…

Here’s my most recent thought… an Inglenook puzzle in N scale!

The Inglenook is a classic switching puzzle.  The three yard tracks hold 3, 3, and 5 cars each, and the lead track is just long enough for a locomotive + 3 cars. The goal is to arrange 5 randomly selected cars (out of 8) in a particular order on the main track while working within the limited space available… and it just so happens that my shelf is just long enough to do this in N scale.

Since my main layout is modern day and eastern, I might instead go with an older time frame and something Southwestern or Pacific Northwest.  Maybe early BN or even steam era.  I’m rather fond of the BN green/white color scheme, and this might be a good excuse to pick up an older SW unit in those colors.

My thought at the moment is to construct a 13x48x1″ box of some nice hardwood and fill the inside with extruded foam.  The track would be ME Code 55 flex and Atlas #5 turnouts (because I have spares).  The scenery shown here is just for illustrative purposes, but I do have a spare plate girder bridge that would go nicely.

Due to the way the shelf is constructed (modular furniture) there will be about 3″ of space behind the layout backdrop that could be used for storage or to house the power pack.  I could even make the thing wholly self-contained, with throttle controls directly mounted in the fasica.

Power would be DC, most likely, though I might consider getting an Arduino and using DCC++.  Since it’s a workplace setting I would not want to leave anything complex or expensive, and since there is only one operating locomotive, there’s not much need for DCC unless I want sound.  I could provide a power jack in the fascia for a power connection, so the throttle / power pack would not need to be hooked up full time, and I could even possibly incorporate an under-table sound decoder for layout sound (again with a headphone jack in the fascia.

Another benefit of a “side project” like this is it gives me an opportunity to practice some scenery techniques before applying them to the main layout.  If I make mistakes here, it’s easier to correct.

When will this all go down?  Probably not until later in the spring when the weather is nice enough to do woodwork in the garage… and I get just a little bit farther with the main layout.



February Progress Update

I’m a little surprised that it’s been over a month since the update video! Looks like I should be getting the camera out again. Progress has been slow, and not always photogenic, but there have been a few changes worth reporting on in the last six weeks. Lots of “real life” things going on right now that are keeping me from moving forward, but even slow progress is progress!

This post will be something of a mixed bag of content, since there are several different work items going on, and I feel I need to get the blog caught up quickly.

Structure Mock-Up

First up, this is a construction paper mockup of the Commonwealth Paper Products structure that will be on the narrow shelf behind the entry door.
Commonwealth Paper

I drew the building structure in SketchUp, and then printed 2D views of the model to glue onto a core that I built from cereal boxes. I think it’s a pretty convincing stand-in, and I plan to do these for many of the structures on the layout.

Custom Electronics

Next we have a couple of different electronics projects… a trio of CDU-based Kato turnout controllers that I built for a friend, and the completed control circuit for my animated swing gate.

Kato Crossover Controls

The CDUs are based on an integrated design I have that incorporates a switch and indicator LEDs, but my friend wanted to mount these remotely from his control panel, so I provided connectors for the switch and LED. These are a very simple design (not mine, just adapted), and the selected capacitor is powerful enough to handle a double crossover.

Stepper Motor Control

The swing gate control board has screw terminals for all of the motor, sensor, and control connections, and sockets for an Arduino Pro Mini and a stepper motor driver. This is ready to hook up, once I solve the mechanical issues with connecting to the shaft of the swing gate itself.

New Power

CXST1141 Atlas MP15DC

This is the latest addition to the power roster, an Atlas MP15DC that I bought second-hand from a friend and that will be used in the yard. It’s DC for now, but I will upgrade it to DCC soon. I’ve tested it on the branch line, and it runs quite well.

Dixie Cup Factory Model

I’ve built up a SketchUp model of the Dixie Cup factory as well…

Dixie Cup Mockup

Dixie Cup Mockup

Dixie Cup Mockup

New Lighting

Finally, I replaced the ceiling fan in the room with a much, much brighter 4-tube fluorescent lighting fixture with 5000K daylight tubes. It’s almost too bright in here now!

New room lighting

As part of the lighting upgrade I also moved the wall switch for the room down below the layout deck. The “standard” switch location was behind the backdrop and would be impossible to reach once scenery was in place.

New room lighting

The new wall switch incorporates a very convenient outlet that will help with working on that part of the room.

That’s all for now! I have some track laying progress to report, but I will include that in a separate post after I take some better pictures with the new lighting.

Sometimes you do need a pro…

If you are ever in the need for some expert layout design help, contact M.C. Fujiwara at Yardgoat Layout Design.  This guy is “the man”.

I was growing increasingly frustrated with the design I posted earlier, and the various changes I was making to it.  I could not clearly articulate in track and scenes the concepts that were swirling around in my head, and the pressure of this being my “main” layout was causing me all kinds of grief.  I was getting plenty of helpful advice from some trusted advisors, but it just wasn’t coming together. Continue reading Sometimes you do need a pro…

Frost River Moves Upstairs

After a long discussion with the “Planning Commission”, the CH&FR has been ceded property rights to the 10×10 foot spare bedroom upstairs. Plans are progressing for an around the walls shelf layout (with a peninsula) that will provide point to point operations for several people.

The proposed track plan is based closely upon the HO scale “Midwest Branch Line” plan designed by Lance Mindheim with some modifications for the continuous run and the point-to-point (vs. out-and-back branch) operations. And of course conversion to the different room dimensions and N scale. Continue reading Frost River Moves Upstairs

Staging Yard Extension Complete

  by BGTwinDad
, a photo by BGTwinDad on Flickr.

In other news that I’m trying to get caught up on, the new Williamson Staging yard/shelf is now largely complete and operational.  The extension hooks onto the layout via a clamping fixture (for lack of a better term) on the end of the layout proper, and then plugs into the DCC bus via a pair of Anderson PowerPole connectors.  When not in use, the extension is made to hang on the wall out of the way, using shelf-track hardware for the wall mounting.

The extension provides 3 single-ended storage tracks, plus an A/D track with a run-around.  All tracks are wired to easily retrofit train detection hardware, when I hit the lottery.

This yard, as it plugs into the layout, represents the Williamson end of the track schematic.  Trains exiting the yard throat enter the layout at the upper left corner and proceed clockwise around the right end before reaching the Glover’s Bend yard.

The track interface at the layout/extension joint has no joiners, and relies upon a simple “tight fit” similar to those used in the FreemoN modular standard for the connection.

Computer Work Ongoing

There’s more to this railroad than just the layout.   On a Prototype (real) railroad, much goes on in offices and on computers around the country and around the world.  There is also much going on off the layout with the CH&FR.  Here’s a taste of some of the ongoing work.

I’ve already posted, I think, about how we do “virtual interchange”  through the MRICC Virtual Interchange facility hosted by Jim Stanford.  He has a nice web-based system that allows folks to send railroad traffic back and forth between our model layouts, without actually mailing the cars around the world.  I’ve been working on using JMRI‘s operations package to track those cars, along with cars from my friends at and the somewhat more old-school Virtual Interchange setup we have going on there.  That keeps the cars going.

I have gained lots of friends in model railroading, but unfortunately many of them live in other states or countries, and will not likely ever be able to visit for an operating session, let alone do so on a regular basis.  So one of my goals is to use my computer skills to set up a system whereby a selected person can fill the Dispatcher role, directing which trains may go where on the mainline and when, over the computer.  Lately I’ve been making several strides in that direction.

First, I’ve set up an Apache Web Server on one of my computers, and I’m in the process of building and publishing a “CH&FR Employee Website”.  This is set up just like it would be if the CH&FR were real, and has information that Dispatchers, Conductors and Engineers would need in order to operate trains on the “real” CH&FR, along with model-specific info where necessary.

In order to do the actual dispatching, the crews need a way to communicate with the Dispatcher, so I’m also installing a Murmur Server for Mumble  to provide voice chat capability during the ops sessions.  With headsets and microphones, everyone will be able to talk to each other, just like the MMO gaming guys do.  I’ll probably also add a text chat tool to the website as a backup and “sidebar”, but that’s in the “extras” list.

The Dispatcher will need a track diagram, with occupancy indicators and turnout (track switch) controls.  JMRI has some powerful tools for doing just this with its PanelPro and underlying features, so I’ll be leaning heavily on that capability.

And then, just so the Dispatcher can see what’s going on — not that he needs to in order to do his job — I’ll be setting up a couple of webcams around the layout and streaming the video out to the website.  This should allow a handful of spectators to enjoy the session as well.  I don’t think the video stream will be “real-time” enough for train operations, but it should provide a fun addition to the whole package.  I’m still learning how to do this part, but right now it looks like I’ll be using VLC to create the video streams.

Add all of this to the powerful layout control, operations, and dispatching support capabilities built into JMRI, and I hope to provide a very exciting experience for my remote friends.  Stay tuned. I’m making steady progress, so I hope to be getting this deal off the ground and running in a few months.

Virtual Sound Decoder for JMRI

Here’s a little software project I’ve been working on, alongside of my more “hard” modeling work.  I made a video demo, as it can be hard to express how this is all supposed to work in words.


This is the result of a confluence of several factors.

I have long wanted to have sound on my layout, but I was balking at the expense and the lack of sound quality from N scale sound decoders (this has more to do with physics and tiny speakers than the quality of the available products).  SoundTraxx had been pre-announcing their SurroundTraxx product for a while, and a couple of online friends of mine have been toying with under-the-table sound systems being driven by hardware sound decoders and larger speakers.  And I had been playing with the JMRI Java Model Railroad Interface project.

It occurred to me that I could write a software program that would emulate (or simulate, if you prefer) the function of a hardware sound decoder, listening to the layout interface for throttle commands and responding to them  just as a hardware decoder installed in a locomotive would.  And most PCs these days come with surround sound audio systems!  JMRI already provided much of the foundation for this, including the layout interface, a nice abstraction of the throttle, and integration with the OpenAL 3D audio system, so it seemed a good match.

I’ve been working on this for a few months.  The basic idea follows very roughly the scheme of an add-on sound decoder.  For each engine you want to have sound, you launch a “Virtual Sound Decoder” (or “VSDecoder”) on the PC, select a “sound profile” from a “VSD File” and assign it a DCC address.  The virtual decoder then sits in the background and generates sounds in response to the throttle inputs.  Thanks to the way JMRI handles throttles, it will respond to any throttle on the system, whether a hardware or software throttle, or a wireless-attached throttle on a PDA or smart phone.  Buttons on the VSDecoder allow the user to directly trigger sounds, bypassing the throttle if desired.

The “VSD File is somewhat like a Digitrax SPJ file, though the two are completely incompatible.  The VSD file is a Zip archive containing all of the source audio files, plus a configuration file (written in XML) that tells the Virtual Sound Decoder when and how to use the sound files.  Each VSD File can contain one or more “Profiles”, each of which describes a specific configuration of a locomotive.  This could be multiple variants of a particular type of locomotive, or several completely different types of locomotives. For example, a VSD FIle might contain profiles for several different EMD engines based on the 567 Diesel prime mover, or an eclectic collection of engines belonging to the Pennsylvania Railroad.  VSD Files can be easily constructed by and shared among folks who are interested in doing so.

Work progresses steadily, and I hope to have a version of this included in the 2.13 development release of JMRI at some point.  In the meantime, if you are interested in developing or providing sound files, let me know!