Category Archives: Random Thoughts

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.




I’m reaching one of those points where I’ve put too many irons in the fire. I really need to back down and finish some of the older ones before picking up any new ones… but it’s so tempting. The problem is, my ADD kicks in and I run off chasing the next shiny object, and then other things get dropped.

For example, already to-do are:

  • Finishing painting the train room
  • Starting benchwork for the layout
  • Writing three different magazine articles
  • Putting together a clinic for my local NMRA club
  • Building up a Shapeways NRE Genset locomotive
  • Building up at least 3 different HO scale covered hoppers
  • Moving all my tools and supplies upstairs
  • Planning a shelf switching layout as a demo
  • Continued work on the CH&FR website
  • Getting out to take some good train photos
  • Completing my coal flood loader scratch-build
  • Completing customization of my kitbashed log cars

And then there’s the usual non-train related stuff going on, such as:

  • Keeping up with the housework
  • Building and maintaining my son’s Boy Scout troop website
  • Travel and family fun stuff
  • Painting and updating the rest of the house
  • Work
  • Continued practice on four different musical instruments

… and so on.

And then there’s the new projects I want to take on…

  • Creating a diorama for a contest
  • Scratch building a special flat car
  • Custom designing detection and signaling equipment
  • Getting my layout video blog started
  • Finding hours to volunteer with my club

And that’s just the stuff that comes to mind right off my head. I’m sure I’ve already forgotten a few things.

It’s definitely time to focus and knock some things off. I don’t want this to sound like a brag sheet. Truth is, almost none of this (except, of course, work and the honey-do list) is actually getting done, at least not with any speed or efficiency or effectiveness.

In the case of the hobby stuff, it’s not so important. What matters is getting a little bit done step by step here and there, moving the ball forward and having fun with it.

Enough blogging. Time to get something done to blog about!

The Enemy of the Good

Feeling a bit philosophical this morning, thought I’d toss something out based on some unrelated things bouncing in my head and some things said in a forum thread…

So this is just me, tossing something out there, for folks to chew on, think about, and discuss… I really don’t think I need a pep talk or anything like that, but I’m just curious what folks’ thoughts and opinions are on the topic.

Anyway, the topic is getting comfortable with one’s personal limits, as opposed to “settling” or doing less than one’s best.

The unrelated topic:  I’ve been watching this Discovery TV series about folks climing Everest.  This one guy made it up to, I dunno, 24,000 feet or so, and started getting sick, had to bail on his dream.  Later in the show, he talked about how he was satisfied, how he had reached his “own summit”, even if he hadn’t reached the actual top of the mountain.  He really had done his best, it was — i think — his second attempt at the mountain, he had done all the right things, but his body just couldn’t adapt to the altitude.

Watching this show, and thinking about the outdoor stuff I like to do and would like to do more of, I realized that I will NEVER climb Mt. Everest.  Even if I had the $50-70K to pay for a guided trip, there’s no way I’d make it across the crevasse ladders in the Khumbu Icefall, let alone the challenges at higher altitudes.  There are a lot of other fun things I’ll never do, too… sailing around the world, driving an F1 race car, playing tennis at a seriously competitive level, climbing a long, hard technical route, flying a fighter jet, doing the Hawaii Ironman triathlon, etc.

But there’s plenty of other exciting things I can do, instead, and push my personal limits, though they may not be so grand on a world scale.  I could climb Mt. Hood.  Far less expensive, much, much easier routes, and less than 12,000 feet.  I can hike all over the place, maybe even backpack the Appalachian Trail someday.  I could do some very easy, basic technical climbing.  I could take one of those “Skip Barber” type racing car classes.  Volunteer at the museum (more) and learn to run the locomotive.  Fly a Cessna.  Do a local triathlon (maybe even Ironman Louisville someday). You get the idea.

Yes, yes, the world is my oyster, I can do anything I set my mind to, don’t limit myself.  But as I get older, I’m beginning to appreciate that there is much joy to be had in embracing the achievable challenge.  That thing that is just beyond my personal limit, that pushes,stretches and grows me, even if there are others for whom it would be easy.  DOING something achievable wins out over not even trying the impossible, every day.  I will never be Ed Viesturs or Dale Jr. or Lance Armstrong.  I’m OK with that, or at least I should be.

Now, bringing this back to the hobby at hand.  I have limited time and resource to apply to this or any other hobby.  Got kids to raise and all that, after all.  I’m just a beginner in many aspects, and my personal best will not stack up to those who are more experienced and/or more talented than I, nor most likely than to those who have more time to devote.

I stare at my blue landscape with track, and quite often I become paralyzed because I have this vision of a Jon Grant-esque photorealistic stunner of a finished layout, and at the same time, I know my skills are not up to the task.  So I do nothing, and the layout (scenic-ly) grows dust.  It’s like this voice in my head is saying “If I can’t climb Everest, I just won’t do any outdoors stuff at all.”

So, instead, lately I’ve been laying down some grass, and cutting up foam for streets, and basically saying “Heck with it.  I’m going to do something, and if it turns out bad, I’ll just re-do it later, or I’ll learn from the experience and do it better next time.  Doing something badly — but my current personal best — and having some fun and making some progress that I can feel a sense of accomplishment with is far better than doing nothing.

There is an analogous saying in the software world: “Code wins.”  The idea is that the guy who actually writes code that DOES a needed task, even if it is not the theoretically optimal code, wins out over the guy who has 12 different — and arguably better — ways to accomplish the task, but hasn’t actually written any functioning code.

And so far it’s working!

I haven’t taken pictures yet (well, I have, but I’m not ready to share them), but I’m finally making some progress on the industrial end of the layout.  It’s perhaps mediocre (or perhaps more accurately, beginner) work at best, but it is the best I can do right now, given the time, money, talent, skill, and so on that I have to bring to bear.

It’s far from perfect, but I hope you will agree that it is GOOD, if for no other reason than that it is DONE.

Thank goodness for “Find my iPhone”!!

Well, this is rather tangential to the usual topic of this blog – if not outright off-topic! – but I consider it relevant because (a) I use my iPhone a lot for capturing photos and video of my trains, and (b) replacing it would be a major setback to the train budget.  Besides, it’s my blog, eh?

Last night I went to the grocery, and as is my usual habit I had the grocery list in my Paperless app.  So I plopped the phone into the little “coupon basket” on the handle of my cart, shopped, checked out, and returned home.  A few hours later, I patted my pockets only to find them phone-less!  I quickly realized that I had left my iPhone on the cart in the parking lot!

Fortunately for me, Apple has made their iCloud “Find My iPhone” service free… I was able to log in to my iCloud site on my computer, locate my phone on a map (it actually showed that the phone was sitting in the “cart corral” at the store!), and LOCK IT remotely.

As soon as I could, I drove to the store, checked the cart corral, and retrieved my phone, much to my own relief.  I was rather impressed by how accurate the location on the map was.  At my home it usually shows the phone is somewhere in the back yard (off by ~50 feet or so), but at the store, it was almost dead on.

Find My iPhone is both an app that can be used from another iOS device, or through the iCloud website.  And it’s no surprise that there’s a comparable app for your Android device as well.

You can’t have too much rolling stock!

Well, I suppose when it overflows into the living space, or impinges on the food budget… but really…

I thought I would share a few of the latest additions to the rolling stock fleet, including a few units of particular interest.

First up is a coal hopper from the WP&P, a freelance railroad situated in central WV and owned by an friend of mine.

A coal hopper from the WP&P

Next up is… another coal hopper!  This one has wandered all the way from North Dakota, and is lettered for the Dakotah Western, another freelance railroad owned by another friend of mine.

A coal hopper from the Dakotah Western RR

These two “kittens” were a surprise gift from yet another friend, a particularly generous fellow who has supported the CH&FR on a number of occasions…

Two more kittens to add to the Chessie fleet

One more for today.  This car isn’t exactly new.  It’s been more than a year in the making.  It is a MicroTrains boxcar kit that my son and I designed, painted, built and added custom decals to.  I offered him the opportunity to have a counterpart to the “Bessie Car”, and he decided that the local video store was going to need a way to get their inventory.

A CH&FR Boxcar painted for GameStop

I should note that this sort of “billboard” boxcar is very rare to nonexistent in the 1:1 world, as it violates FRA regulations about advertising on freight cars, but in the world of Glover’s Bend, if it puts a smile on my kid’s face, it’s probably going to pass muster!

Northbound Mixed Freight

So I haven’t had much to post lately.  Real-world life has been keeping me busy.  But I have a couple of model projects in the works that I’m waiting till nearer completion to post on.  I think you will be pleased.  There’s actual scenery cropping up on the Glover’s Bend layout!

In the meantime, here’s a video of a Norfolk Southern mixed freight headed Northbound out of Lexington that I caught.  There are a few interesting cars, including a SOO LINE covered hopper up on a flatcar and a former CB&Q covered hopper where the old logo is still (barely) visible.  Some pretty interesting graffiti, too, if you’re in to that sort of thing.  A BNSF SD70MAC and two NS Dash 9-40CWs up front, and it is flying.

I always seem to be on the wrong side of the sun for these things, and while the iPhone video capture is better than nothing, it’s less than ideal for this sort of thing.  Still, enjoy!


I Love Time Machine!

OK, this post could be considered off-topic, but not really, because the main reason this was a “problem” is the thousands of photos I have very quickly amassed, only some of which are archived online.

There was a day when I didn’t really worry about backups.  I would keep an extra copy of my Quicken data files squirreled a way just in case, but everything else on my computer was more-or-less disposable, and I relished a good computer crash as an opportunity for a clean slate restart.

Then I had kids.  And I bought a digital camera.  And I decided to mothball my CD collection.

Now I’ve got several thousand photographs stored on my computer, chronicling the first decade of my twins’ lives, not to mention my model railroading adventures.  Not to mention it took a LONG TIME to copy my big stack of CDs into iTunes.

So somewhere about the time I bought my current Mac Mini, I also picked up a 1-Terabyte USB hard disk, and I signed up for’s online backup service.  And I turned on Time Machine.

(Mind you, setting up Time Machine is as simple as choosing a destination disk and flipping a switch from “off” to “on”… really!)

That was a couple years ago, and I almost forgot about Time Machine until last week, when my Mini booted up to a grey screen with a folder marked with a blinking question mark in the middle of it.  Hard disk crash.  Yes, Macs may “never fail”, but they are subject to the same hardware failures as any other electronic gadget.

I probably could have recovered by re-formatting the drive, but I elected to crack the case (my warranty is expired anyway!) and install a new 500GB internal hard disk.  That was a bit of a challenge, as the Mac Mini really wasn’t designed to be opened up and modified.

Here’s the nice part.  What to do about restoring the system???  In the old days, I would have done a fresh install of Windows, then a fresh re-install of my mission critical applications, followed by reloading my Quicken data.  Once all that was complete, I’d slowly reconstruct my environment the way I wanted it, adding back in apps as I needed them.  This process worked, but was tedious, and there was always something I simply lost, some device driver I had to hunt down and custom reinstall, or something that never quite worked right again.

This time, it was much simpler.  Once I had the new disk installed, I plugged the Mini in and booted from the OS X (Snow Leopard) install CD.  I then clicked “Options->Restore from Backup”, and it asked me which Time Machine backup I wanted to restore from.  I could have chosen pretty much any point hour-by-hour for recorded history, but obviously I chose the most recent one.

That was all.  About 3 hours later, my system was back up, looking and functioning EXACTLY like it had been (including my wife’s and children’s accounts) less than an hour before it crashed.  Drivers, applications, data, EVERYTHING.  Less than half a dozen clicks, and we’re back up like nothing ever happened.

Big sigh of relief.

Now, I’m glad I also have the Carbonite online backup going, just in case one of the kids drop-kicks my USB drive, but the simplicity of this system restore astounded me.  It turns out that Time Machine not only keeps incremental backups of your user data and such as it changes, but it keeps an exact copy of the entire disk image around for just this purpose.

Did I mention the simplicity of it all?  Sure there are more feature-rich backup systems out there, but all I needed was something that would make me whole, put me back where I was before the crash.  Time Machine did exactly that, no more, no less, and with almost no fuss.

I often tell folks that I switched from Windows to Mac when I got tired of (and no longer had time for) fiddling around with my computer and just wanted it to work, to enable me to do what I wanted and otherwise stay the heck out of my way.  Time Machine is an excellent example of this mindset.  An extremely simple setup, and then I literally forgot about it, while it quietly did its job in the background, until I needed it, and then it was there, ready to save my … photo collection.

Time Machine – an OS X feature that I had almost completely forgotten about – is now my favorite thing about my Mac.

Locomotion, Part 1: Wheels on Rail

A recent online discussion spurred me to study in some depth just how a locomotive does its job… moving extremely heavy trains at speed.  I thought it would be useful to share an explanation of the science involved, and so here we begin a new series.

For this first installation, we will essentially ignore the difference between steam, electric, Diesel-electric, and even model vs. prototype engines and focus on what is happening between the wheel and the rail.

There are three basic forces at play:  inertia, friction, and the torque applied to the wheels by the motor.  Whoa! you say.  Big words in paragraph three!  Hold on, we’ll get there.

Inertia, you may recall from high school physics, is the tendency of a body at rest to stay at rest, or of a body in motion to stay in motion – in the same direction and at the same speed.  The locomotive must overcome the inertia of the train any time it wants to start, stop, or change the speed of the train.  For simplicity, we are lumping all of the drag forces on the train (wind resistance, bearing friction, etc. etc.) together under “inertia”, even though strictly speaking they are different things.  They all add up to “stuff trying to stop the train (or at least keep it from accelerating)” anyway.  We’ll dice out all those details in a later post.

Friction is the “gripping” force generated between two surfaces in contact with each other.  It is always directly opposed to a force trying to make the surfaces slide.  In our case, the friction is between the wheel and rail, and it is what allows the train to move.  The friction between the wheel and rail is called static friction because even though the wheel is rolling, the “contact patch” between the wheel and rail is not moving.  Once the force reaches the “traction” point – the limiting stating friction – the two surfaces will slip against each other.

Torque is the force applied to the wheel by the locomotive’s engine that tries to make the wheel turn and thus pull the train along.

The locomotive must apply enough torque to overcome the inertia of the train in order to move it, but if it applies too much torque, it will exceed the static friction limit, and the wheels will slip.  If the train’s inertia is higher than the static friction limit, the train is going nowhere, no matter how much torque is applied.  This can happen, for example, on wet or icy rails, or rails that are covered with leaves.  The rails are too slick, and the wheels cannot grip.

In short, one of three things is going to happen:

  • Not enough torque to overcome inertia:  train stalls
  • Enough torque to overcome inertia, but not so much we overcome the wheel/rail friction:  train moves!!
  • Too much torque: wheels slip.

In order to fix the first point – stall – we have little choice but to add more torque – either increase the throttle, or add more locomotives.  To fix the third, we must either reduce the throttle until the wheels stop slipping or do something – like dropping sand on the rails – to increase the friction so the wheels can grip.  Adding more engines can help, only to the extent that they increase the number of wheels (and locomotive weight) on the rail, and therefore increase the total traction (friction) available.

In the YouTube video posted above, you can see the effects of plenty of torque + too much drag + not enough wheel/rail friction.  It takes an hour of work to slowly get this coal train moving on the icy rails with no sand.

A practical example:  Yard goats with slugs.

Something puzzled me for a while… why in a yard, where engines are frequently starting and stopping and moving long cuts of cars around at very low speed, would you have a small, low horspower locmotive connected to a “slug”.  What’s a slug, you ask? A slug is a modified locomotive that has had its “prime mover” engine replaced with a hundred tons or so of concrete.  It usually is also missing a cab, and must be driven by a “real” locomotive.  It is merely an extra set of traction motors and a lot of extra weight.  Why on earth would we tax the poor Diesel under the hood of the main locomotive like this?

The above analysis gives the answer.  The engine and generator in even a small yard switcher can generate considerably more power (torque) than can actually be applied to the rails without causing wheel slip.  This extra power capacity is, essentially, wasted in a low-speed starting-and-stopping scenario.  By adding a slug, we provide eight extra contact points with the rails (assuming a 4-axle slug!), four more traction motors for converting the generator’s power to motion, and a pile of weight to create more friction on those eight extra contact points.

The slug allows us to direct the excess power capacity of the switcher’s engine/generator to the rails without creating too much torque at any given wheel.

Let’s put some (fictional and easy-math) numbers to this.  Let’s say the generator of a 4-axle yard switcher can create 8000 lb-ft total of torque.  Let’s also say that each wheel can apply only 500 lb-ft of torque without slipping on dry rail.  By itself, the switcher can only use 1/2 of its torque capability (500 * 8 = 4000 lb-ft) to the rails without slipping.  If we add a 4-axle slug, we add 8 more wheels (and 4 more traction motors) to the equation, allowing us to devote the full power of the generator (500 * 16 = 8000 lb-ft) to the job of starting the train.

We can see now how adding more weight and more wheels is a big asset when one is frequently starting and stopping trains.   But if the friction force is directly proportional to locomotive weight, why not simply make the engine heavier instead of adding the slug?  Good question.

In addition to the drag and friction and torque, we need to be mindful of the sheer weight on the rails – the loading gauge.  The rails (and the wheels!) can only support a certain maximum amount of weight at each wheel contact point without damaging them.  So there is an upper limit to the friction force at each wheel that is set by the strength of the rails (and the wheels too!).  To add more weight, we must spread that weight over more wheels.  Adding more wheels has the positive side effect of increasing the total contact patch area, which also increases the friction.

Note also that all of this applies to model trains as much as real ones, though it’s highly unlikely we will ever exceed the loading gauge of even N scale steel rails…

Why so few posts?

If you’re following, you may have noticed that there aren’t very many posts here.  Well, frankly I realized something.  I tend to post a lot of ongoing progress information in threads on the various “boards” I am a member of… mostly, but others as well.  I tend to think of this as a place to showcase completed projects or discuss “events”, rather than blog about ongoing work.  I should probably change that, but what has kept me from it is not knowing how to maintain the “threaded” nature of such things.

Well, I’ll think about that.

In the meantime, I’ve added a few things over to the right that may help.  One is a widget that shows a few recent photos from my Flickr Photostream, and the other is a “project list” where I’ve listed several of the ongoing projects I have going and a brief blurb about the current status.

This latter should help in two ways.  First, it will provide at least some evidence that I’m actually doing something.  And second, it will help remind me how many balls I’m juggling at any given time – which is usually quite a few.

Aside from wastingspending a lot of time on the internet, I’ve got a few cars “in the shop” awaiting new couplers and/or trucks, or other repairs.  I’m doing some custom painting of some other rolling stock – including a “special project” I’m not at liberty to discuss yet.  I’m building a diorama to kickstart scenery work on my Glover’s Bend layout, and I’m wracking my brains trying to figure out how to handle the tunnel portals on the front-right corner of the layout.

I’m helping my daughter build her first layout, a HO scale shelf-based switching design, and I was building a rolling stock management database.  It got trashed when my layout computer was mangled due to operator error (my fault!), so it’s on hold.  And I’m still playing with the Parvia stuff.

On that score, I brought some of it to a Cub Scout meeting and let my 4th grade (Webelos) scouts have at it.  They only had about 15 minutes, but caught on very quickly and made some significant, creative progress.  I need to get parental permission before I can share, though.  They were very excited and heartily requested additional time to work on their models.

And, of course, all of these projects are gated by funding, which must be carefully budgeted to make sure nothing is starved…

SO, if you’re still here, and still following, thanks.  I’ll try to post a bit more often, and not be so worried about intermediate progress not being “worthy” of a blog post.


Right place, right time, too slow with the camera.

Life has been keeping me from doing much “interesting” railroading or modeling lately, but that’s how the ebb and flow of the world goes.  I did see one interesting thing yesterday, though I was too slow with the iPhone and my camera batteries were warming in my pocket.  While walking through the parking lot at the mall, a southbound Norfolk Southern stack train rolled by.  Five units on the head.  The first three were standard NS black “catfish”, but the fourth unit was an SD60.  Specifically, CEFX#6003, which still carries its former SOO line paint scheme:

Photo of SD60 CEFX #6003
CEFX #6003, photo by Matt Petersen

This particular photo was taken in Minneapolis, MN in 2006 by Matt Peterson.

This is a fairly rare paint scheme, especially in these parts, so it would have been nice to “catch” it on the fly.  Maybe next time.

Oh, and the fifth engine… honestly I was too busy looking at #6003 to catch it, but it was light blue.  Quite possibly a (former) Conrail unit, though there are some leased units in a similar shade of blue.