Monday, October 15, 2018

The NCE Illuminator With Woodland Scenics Just Plug

One of my objectives with my T-Trak layout has been to take advantage of as many DCC functions as I can. Also, I want to use the Kato Unitrack architecture to combine the power bus and the DCC track power via the Unijoiner connectors to make each module self-contained, with no need for additional wiring circuits.

One new feature of DCC is the ability to use a new product, the NCE Illuminator, to control and power the Woodland Scenics Just Plug lighting system via the DCC power bus. The full Woodland Scenics Just Plug system requires a separate power supply, a separate wiring circuit, and separate control hardware. This is a lot of extra work, especially if you have to crawl under the layout to install and maintain it.

Running a version of the Just Plug system off the DCC power bus makes things much easier. In addition, the Just Plug system by itself allows individual LEDs to have brightness adjusted via the Light Hub. Individual strings of LEDs can be turned on and off via the Auxiliary Switch. However, these are both hardware products, and on medium or large layouts, you have some complexity having to go to individual Auxiliary Switches to turn individual strings on and off.

The NCE Illuminator offers a great deal of extra flexibility. Individual Illuminator decoders can be switched on and off by addressing them as "locomotive decoders" on the command station and using F0. No need to walk around the layout to do it. Beyond that, each individual port/LED combination can be configured via CVs on each individual Illuminator. These features include:

  • Steady on and brightness while on
  • Slow flashing
  • Fluorescent flicker A, more on than off
  • Fluorescent flicker B, more off than on
  • Fluorescent flicker C, a definitely dying fluorescent tube
  • Random on/off (times from 4 seconds to 1 minute)
  • Random on/off (times from 4 seconds to 2 minutes)
  • Random on/off (times from 8 seconds to 4 minutes)
  • Mercury vapor street light coming on (takes about 30 seconds to full brightness)
  • Rapid flash.
The Just Plug system doesn't provide any of these features. For instance, the random on/off features could be used to turn vehicle headlights off and on in a parking lot, or to turn individual room lights in buildings on and off.

I started with two Illuminators to try things out. Here's my first installation, on a plain vanilla T-Trak module;

This again is my standard practice, with a terminal strip on each module connecting each individual track and each DCC decoder to the DCC bus/track bus. The Just Plug ports on the Illuminator shown can be used to connect any Just Plug LED or other Just Plug accessory like a building with lights or a street light, and each one can be programmed for any of the lighting features listed above.

My practice with T-Trak modules is to include documentation on the underside of each module, as shown here. This will record what CVs have been set on each port.

Here is the top of this module. It will be used for a Kato N North American Station kit. This and other town buildings will have lights that come off Illuminators. I will probably install at least one more Illuminator on this module.

Here is an LED connected to the other Illuminator I got for evaluation on another module. This goes inside an N Scale Architect PRR Harris Tower kit:

The cost to set up very basic layout lighting with the pure Woodland Scenics system, based on the current prices at MB Klein, would be Power Supply $14.99; Light Hub $12.99; and two pair of LED Stick-on Lights @ $7.49, or $14.98, for a total of $42.96. Divided by 4, this gives a cost of $10.74 per individual light.

To expand the system beyond four ports requires an expansion hub at $11.99, and if you want to control the on-off for individual strings of lights, an auxiliary switch at $7.49. So if you wanted to have a total 8 lights, your additional cost would be $11.99 plus $7.49 plus another two pair of stick-on LEDs at $14.98, or $34.46.

Adding the additional cost of $34.46 to the basic cost of $42.96 gives $77.42. Divided by 8, this gives an average cost per light of $9.68.

An individual NCE Illuminator at MB Klein is $13.59. A single Illuminator has 3 ports. To even out the cost comparison, let's take two Illuminators at $27.18 and three pair of stick-on LEDs for $22.47 This comes to $49.65 for six lights, or $8.27 per light. So the average cost of using the Just Plug components with an NCE Illuminator is slightly lower per port than using the full Just Plug system, but there are the advantages of operating the lighting system off the DCC bus without the need for a separate wiring circuit with additional control hardware, the ability to control the lighting functions from the DCC control station, and the additional function features available from the Illuminator.

So for those on DCC, the NCE Illuminator is a cost-effective and flexible way to add additional lighting features with minimum extra complexity.

Monday, October 8, 2018

P.C.C.M 50J -- I Catch A D&H Westbound

I had a very bad day trainwatching on the PC Chicago Line west of Selkirk, but once I gave up on the PC and headed southwest, I caught a westbound with some of the cars that had been heading east earlier in the week. Here's the scene at Zenith:
An N&W loco in the middle of a D&H consist wasn't unusual.

I caught an Empire Belt hopper in the train:

And a real find, a Susquehanna boxcar:

Here's the train passing West Zenith:

And entering the tunnel at Rattlesnake Rocks. where we saw the last of UP Extra 53 last week:

Monday, October 1, 2018

P.C.C.M 50C -- Union Pacific Extra 53 East

This post will cover traffic heading to Selkirk from the West Coast on Union Pacific Extra 53 East. UP 53 is a U50. Behind it is UP 2883, a U30C, and CB&Q 143, a U28B. The Burlington unit is in run-through service and heading back to home rails.
At the head of the train are several stock cars headed to Chicago.
Also in the train is a block of express cars headed east. They may be empties, as they're in a priority freight rather than a mail-express train. The REX reefers are either empty or in dry service.
The rest of the train is filled out with reefers.
Here are glimpses of the train passing through rock formations, somewhere in Nevada or Utah.
But here it's detoured onto the D&RGW. Must have been a derailment somewhere in Wyoming.
Here's the caboose, also in Burlington run-through service, leaving the East Portal of Moffat Tunnel.
And descending the east slope in full dynamic:
We know we're leaving the west when we pass a Rock City barn:
And passing through Woollett. The New Haven caboose makes me think we're getting awful close to Selkirk, wherever we are:
UP 53 leaves Tunnel 1 and passes Rattlesnake Rocks
And a final glimpse as it crosses over Zenith Yard as it enters West Zenith.
I assume the stock cars and reefers will go east on NY-4 or LS-2.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Stock Traffic

When I started this layout, I kept meaning to include stock traffic, but I never really got around to it. However, I discovered some stock projects that were lying around almost finished, so I decided to get going with them.

The biggest is probably the oldest car I still have in its original form, a Tyco Rio Grande stock car from about 1961. My memory is that my dad took me to the hobby shop to get it as a reward for good grades, which up to then had been in short supply. Over the first several years I had it, I gradually worked on the paint and lettering. The original flying Rio Grande on the Tyco car was orange, so I painted that out and replaced it with a decal at some point in the 1960s.

I wasn't satisfied with the number that was on the car for whatever reason, so I painted it out and replaced it with a decal. I do remember how frustrating it was, in the 1960s, to find out what numbers Rio Grande stock cars actually had. Equipment Registers weren't part of the vocabulary at the time, I couldn't locate photos, so I just gave it any old number. I'm on the fence as to whether to correct this.

I did remove the horn-hook couplers from the trucks, but typical of teenage modeling in the 1960s, I just glued some Kadees to the floor, which of course wasn't satisfactory. Not long ago I pulled this out and attached a new set of Kadees with screws.

To do the job properly, I'll still need to replace the trucks completely.

I pulled out a Walthers 1990s GN stock car kit and an Accurail run from about the same period:

Then I turned to the question of how to load and unload stock cars. Stock pens actually take a lot of space, as do stockyards connected with slaugherhouses. I don't have room for any of that. I did find a laser stock loading ramp kit on eBay that was pretty reasonable, and I added it to Malabar:

I'll need to weather it more. I'll probably add one of these to the spur at Tennessee Pass as well:

Friday, September 21, 2018

T-Trak Progress

My T-Trak modules have been going slowly, although I've expanded the layout to a 30" by 6' folding table. I've started scenery work and finished some basic wiring on one of the new modules:
One advantage, that I've talked about before, of my approach to T-Trak is that the DCC bus uses the Unijoiner connectors to pass current between modules. Each track is connected to a single terminal strip on the bottom of the module. If any connection via Unijoiner connectors is unreliable, any other connection will pass the current to the terminal strip, so that the overall electrical net is very reliable.

Also, the DCC bus is available on the terminal strip on each module. In this case, I can connect a Digitrax DS52 switch controller to the bus on the terminal strip and address it via my PowerCab. As I add structures, I can also add NCE Illuminator decoders for the Woodland Scenics Just Plug lighting system. These are also powered off the DCC bus and can be connected to the terminal strip on each module.

The electrical work and DCC decoders are self-documenting on the bottom side of the module surface. This continues with the idea that each module is self-contained, but there's a lot more function available than with the standard T-Trak system.

I'm starting to follow Roy Smith's ideas (via the YouTube channel linked in the last post) on ballasting Unitrack. Scenery on this module is started. The foam area will be covered with spackle and then ground cover and vegetation added. There will be an industry located on the spur.

The big "communal" T-Trak layouts tend not to have switches on the modules, since you really can't have individual module owners throwing switches and interfering with the main line trains. In addition, the T-Trak standards require the two main lines to have opposite polarity, so you can't have any sort of crossovers between the two main lines. I think this is unnecessarily limiting for home use. The ability to cross trains from one main to the other is a very good feature for home operation.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Couple Of Very Different YouTube Channels

Considering the possibilities available with Kato Unitrack in N, as well as Kato N equipment covering the contemporary passenger scene, I'm surprised there's so little on these subjects on YouTube. But there are two exceptions.

One is Roy Smith's N-Scale Union Pacific Evanston Subdivision YouTube channel. What I like in particular is that Roy updates his channel at least once a week. The episodes are well shot, intresting, and done with a script, which a lot of modelers don't do. Here's an example:

Roy is a friendly guy. He lives in Panama, which leads to some interesting problems for his modeling, but his layout is an inspiration.

Another YouTube channel I found recently is very different, but this guy is clearly having fun:

This guy has a lot of well-shot prototype scenes as well, and he also likes airliners. I spent the last part of my working career doing heavy traveling -- at one point, I commuted from Los Angeles to Connecticut -- so I identify airliners with a certain amount of suffering. But even the die cast airliner models he shows look like you could find a way to include them on a layout.

Both channels are inspiring as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

ScaleTrains Norfolk Southern C39-8

I recently got one of the new ScaleTrains Norfolk Southern C39-8s. These models have a lot of pros and a few cons, which I'll discuss. The version I got was DCC-ready with no sound, with as-delivered details and paint. Since they were set up to run long hood forward as delivered, here's a shot of it the way it's supposed to be:
At some point in the late 1980s, NS decided to turn things around and run locos short hood forward. I get the impression from DVD videos that NS, like Norfolk and Western, actually never had a specific preference for which direction locos should operate. Even after N&W went to low short hoods, and even before NS formally designated the short hood as front, you could see locos running with the short hood forward. Here's the loco facing the other direction.
The DCC ready version comes with a 21-pin plug for a DCC decoder. However, only the ESU LokPilot decoder will operate all the model's lighting functions. In addition, the DCC-ready loco has a keep-alive capacitor built in, and only the ESU LokPilot will allow the capacitor to function correctly. I did in fact get a LokPilot to use with the loco, and it functions as specified in the ScaleTrains owner's documentation. Here's the chassis with the LokPilot installed:
The LokPilot goes in with the white circular sticker facing up. The DCC and sound loco sells for $249.99. The DCC ready goes for $164.99. A LokPilot decoder with 21 pin plug goes for $26.39 at MB Klein. This totals $191.38 for a DCC loco without sound, not cheap.

The two biggest cons of this loco are the problems with shell removal and the related problem of couplers. The shell comes off simply enough, that is, once you get the couplers out. The problem is that the plows interfere with removing the coupler pockets, which must come out to get the shell off. This requires a great deal of fiddling that is almost inevitably going to disturb the various details on the loco. One set of end handrails simply fell off the loco as soon as I took it out of the shipping sleeve; another came off in the process of trying to get the couplers out.

It's a good loco, but some of these features are too clever by half. In addition, the ScaleTrains couplers are their own design, without magnetic loops for Kadee type opration, and the coupler boxes are too narrow for simple Kadee drop-in replacement. I found a couple of YouTube videos that show how to use a Dremel to grind some width off the Kadees to get them to fit. As you can see in the photos, I did this and replaced the stock couplers with Kadee 156 long shank scale head whisker couplers, which fit if you grind a little width off the rear portion.

The lighting features with the LokPilot and the NS version of the loco are:

F0 turns on the headlight, which changes direction with the direction of the loco.

F1 turns on the numberboards. These stay lit in both directions -- I'm not sure if you can tweak this with a CV.

F2 turns on the class lights -- these also stay lit in both directions, again, I'm not sure if you can tweak this with a CV.

Getting the shell off, installing the decoder, and replacing the couplers, plus putting the end handrails back in place, especially after one fell on the floor and I had to go hunting for it, was a non-trivial task. I hope ScaleTrains will revisit the coupler issue on future runs.

However, the loco is very well detailed, with a fair amount of detail visible through the screening on the body vents. It is a very smooth runner, and this may be the first loco I've installed a decoder on that started running at sped step 1. When I turned off track power to test the keepalive capacitor, the headlights stayed lit for only about a second. I think this feature is primarily to avoid interrupting the sound decoder, not to overcome major dirty spots on the track. But it's there. So I'm happy with it, but I'll need to be even more extra-careful with the CR unit I've ordered.