Sunday, November 17, 2019

Progress With NCE Illuminators

Well, after several weeks of struggle with NCE, I'm making progress. I got four Illuminators back from support, though I was still puzzled that only one port, the one defined in the documentation as the W/G port, would light. The others were "off". Now, the NCE Illuminstor is generally thought to be an equivalent to the Woodland Scenics Light Hub that I talked about here, except that it runs off the DCC bus and can be controlled from the DCC command station or cab.

What gets me is that NCE has a real winner of a product in the Illuminator. The Woodland Scenics Light Hub requires a separate AC/DC circuit or even a wall wart. Then it needs special accessories to gang light hubs, control extra functions, turn things on and off, and so forth. These cost money and take space. The illuminator will do the extra functions via DCC commands without extra cost, takes less space, and is still otherwise fully Just Plug compatible. But NCE doesn’t even market it as a Just Plug product, and now I find that you have to reprogram it to make it work with Just Plug. But what other use can the product have?

So I finally heard from higher-ups at NCE, who at least explained what the actual defaults are in an Illuminator and how to turn the other two ports on, which are off by default. Except that fewer than half the Illuminators I bought were shipped with those defaults, which of course was part of the confusion. But at least I now know how to make a product intended to act like a Woodland Scenics Light Hub actually work like one. Here is my Illuminator installation reinstalled. These nine ports control about a 24-inch segment of 14th Street in Bay City.

It simply would not be possible to mount equivalent Just Plug Light Hubs in the same space. The nine ports control nine different lighting features, six buildings, two street lights, and an East Coast Circuits lighted River Point Station mantainer's truck. I tried out two Walthers Cornerstone street lights, which I spliced into the Just Plug-compatible plug pigtails that come with an Illuminator:
These are the concrete column lights, which look a lot like the ones near where we live. These Walthers lights need one Illuminator port per light.

Here are the structure lights. These are done with Just Plug stick-on warm white LEDS, with the plugs fed into Illuminator ports.

And here is the River Point Station maintainer's truck in its final position on the layout. This has the lead wires spliced into the Just Plug-compatible plug and pigtail provided with the Illuminator. These have come in very handy for my lighting projects.
Clearly the Blue Bird Cafe is also due for lights. Once I got the Illuminators figured out, I'm seeing that lighting projects are fairly simple and fairly inexpensive, but they add an enormous amount to a layout. And since I'm pretty much full-up with rolling stock for the rest of a lifetime, lighting is a good way to put effort into a layout that doesn't challenge existing space constraints, since it mostly involves buildings and scenery that are already in place.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Struggling With NCE

I've said before that outside of the cabs and boosters it makes, I've had a 30-50% defect rate in NCE products across its line. I'm not sure why the boosters and cabs seem to be exempt from this. I've had a Power Cab for seven years that's worked without a problem, and earlier this year I got an SB5 that so far works fine. But their decoders are a completely different story.

The NCE Illuminator is a recent product that can substitute for the Woodland Scenics Light Hub in its Just Plug system. It has some real potential advantages that include the ability to program individual outputs for features like flashing, random on-off, and even flickering fluorescent bulbs. Another one from my point of view is that it can run off the DCC power bus, which can minimize layout wiring. In particular, since T-Trak uses the Kato Unijoiners to carry power between modules, the track can become the DCC bus, and Illuminators can run off the track DCC via a terminal strip on individual T-Trak modules.

The problem is that, as I've been working with Illuminators on T-Trak modules, I've been finding the defect rate is about the highest I've experienced with any NCE decoder. Last month, I packed up four and sent them back to NCE for warranty support. One problem, though, is that NCE's warranty support is slow -- even if they replace a decoder, it takes them weeks and months to ship the replacement, which puts any project on hold or requires you to buy a new one anyhow if you want to finish the project on time -- but there's no guarantee that the new one or the replacement will work, either.

Their warranty support is a guy named Matt, whom I've gotten experience working with over the past year or so. He's a passive-aggressive sort of guy who's slow to get back to you. Rather than use e-mail, he leaves phone messages, and if you try to reply to his phone message with an e-mail (rather than play phone tag), he simply doesn't answer. But if you return his call, he wants to talk to you for half a hour.

Based on my experience this past week, I located the guy who seems to be in charge at NCE (he isn't listed on the web site), who seems to be James Scorse. I sent him a snail-mail letter, since his e-mail isn't public:

Dear Mr Scorse,

Over the past several months, I’ve purchased eight NCE Illuminators. Five of these have had various problems, including not functioning at all when connected to DCC power and output ports set to non-default values. In two cases, I was able to debug the problems myself.

Nevertheless, I think you’ll agree that a new product unpacked from its factory package that does not function according to the documentation shipped with the product is defective. This is a defect rate for recently purchased Illuminators of over 60%.

I was unable to debug three of these and returned them, along with another one that had burned out, to Matt in Warranty Support, on October 26. Matt left me a phone message on November 6, and I had a phone discussion with him on November 7, at about 11:15 AM EST. In that discussion, Matt insisted that there was “nothing wrong with” these Illuminators.

It took about 15 minutes for me to ask enough questions to get Matt to explain to me that what happens is that at the factory, technicians will do things like turn off the Illuminators or change CVs to test them, but they do not return them to factory default values. Matt was, in my opinion, extremely argumentative and sometimes sarcastic and condescending in explaining this, and his view seems to have been that I should have figured this out for myself and not claimed the Illuminators were defective. The entire discussion lasted over 30 minutes, in my view because Matt was unwilling to acknowledge that NCE had shipped defective decoders.

However, the decoders were either non-functional or did not function as documented when shipped from the factory. Matt admitted as much.

I can’t tell you how to run your business, Mr Scorse, but it appears to me that you have a problem in your factory, which is shipping products not set to factory default values, and you have a problem in Matt, who seems extremely defensive and unwilling to resolve a legitimate customer problem promptly or courteously.

My experience with NCE is that its products have unacceptably high defect rates, with support staff unwilling to resolve problems promptly or courteously. My preferred DCC vendor is not NCE.

I applied additional pressure on NCE to retrieve the four decoders I sent in (or get replacements), and I got a shipment notice Friday. We'll have to see how many work when I get them back. I'm hoping to salvage at least a few for use on T-Trak modules, but I've decided it's too much of a crap shoot to continue using them on my HO layout.

I'll update if I get any reply or better treatment from NCE, but I'm not expecting anything.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Little Hell Gate Portals Are Almost Finished

For the last few months, I've posted now and then on progress with the strange pylons that make up the portals the Austrian engineer Gustav Lindenthal designed for his Little Hell Gate bridge, which spans a former East River channel in the Bronx. This would have been a major bridge itself, but Lindenthal didn't want them to detract from the Hell Gate Bridge. Even so, I find them fascinating and much better suited to a model railroad! They seem to reflect a tendency in US architecture at the time to stress abstract form, and they remind me a little of the architect Bertram Goodhue's (1869-1924) late work.
To recap, after studying all the photos I could find, including screen shots from videos taken from Amtrak trains, I started the project by building a paper mockup to help me understand how the overall proportions would fit the T-Trak module:
After giving it some thought, comparing how it looked in the photo to known dimensions and other photos, I made some adjustments, came up with basic dimensions, and began to assemble the basic structure from 1/32 basswood sheet, using old fireplace matches for stiffeners:
I settled on wooden craft beads from eBay held up with dowels to create the balls at the top:
Then I used Elmer's Wood Filler to build up the curved shapes:
This starts out in a violet shade, but when it's dry and ready for sanding, it turns to a wood color.
Now ready for sanding:
The sanding has turned out to be easier than I had expected, but it's still a pretty long process. It's a question of sanding close to the shape, then filling in where needed, and sanding some more.
As I study photos, I realize these don't need to be perfect or perfectly smooth, as the concrete has spalled and eroded over more than 100 years, and I'm not sure if they were perfect in the first place.

They're also deceptively large and will turn out to be the major feature of the T-Trak module where I mount them. In fact, since I guesstimated dimensions to fit the module and Kato Amtrak equipment, I probably made them smaller than actual scale. They should be ready for paint and installation in a few days.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Two Test Runs

Having basically lost patience yet once again with the NCE defect rate -- around 30-50% across every product in its line except the boosters and cabs -- I decided to swear off NCE Illuminators for all but T-Trak modules and am in the process of replacing them for lighting on my HO layout. I would have preferred to stick with something that runs off the DCC bus, but I do have two 16V AC circuits that cover the whole layout with plenty of terminal strips, and the Woodland Scenics Just Plug system will run off 16V AC from a power pack.

So I got a Just Plug light hub as proof of concept and installed it under the benchwork at the Manhattan Transfer stub terminal.

I only had enough LEDs to fill two ports, but they work well.

I took a new Broadway Limited SW7 in Indiana Harbor Belt for a test run. Broadway Limited locos are very sensitive to dirty track, but this one isn't too bad. I ran it down to pick up an MP boxcar at Forley Lithography in Manhattan Transfer.

The building behind the PRR semi trailer has Woodland Scenics Light Diffusing Film and a Just Plug LED installed, powered from the Light Hub shown above. The street lamp and the lighting in Red's Hot Dog stand is an earlier project running off the existing 16V AC circuit. More buildings in this area will be lighted off the Just Plug system.
You can see that the area under the building above the roof of the Penn Central baggage car is lit. This is also off a Just Plug stick-on LED. I plan to add more of these under this building, which serves as the Manhattan Transfer terminal head house, to light the platform area there. This would not be possible using the old incandescent bulbs and encourages me to detail this area further with newsstands, platform gates, and so forth.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Working With The Just Plug System

When I started this layout 25-plus years ago, I wanted to incorporate lighting in many of the structures. I did in fact do this, although the available means were basically 12-volt flashlight bulbs in little screw stands from Bachmann and Model Power. Over the years, these have pretty much all burned out, come unsoldered, been damaged, or whatever. Discovering the Woodland Scenics Just Plug system has rekindled my interest in lighting, and I'm beginning to install new lighting in buildings or reinstall Just Plug LEDs to replace old burned-out bulbs.

In addition, last week I picked up some woodland Scenics Light Diffusing Window Film at the hobby shop. This is very useful for letting light shine through windows, while keeping a viewer from looking inside the building and seeing there's no interior. For instance, here's the Light Diffusing Film installed in a Campbell Carstens Flophouse lobby. (On my layout, this is the McKittrick Hotel on 14th St in Bay City.)

Even without the lights, this is very useful stuff. For instance, I found a basic set of walls for the old SS Ltd San Francisco office building at the old Caboose Hobbies in Denver several decades ago. I built them into a nice oblique corner building for Zenith. I even went as far as to add floors and an elevator shaft, but I knew adding a full interior would be something I'd probably never get to, even though the large windows beg for it. Here was the result:
I added the Light Diffusing Film and another type of tinted film that comes in the same box to darken and block out the view inside. I think this is a big improvement even without lights in the building.
There's other capability available with the Just Plug system, which is the ability to set individual strings of LEDs to turn on and off at random. I am doing this with an option in the NCE Illuminator, which runs Just Plug LEDs off the DCC bus, but Woodland Scenics offers a light hub with the same ability. Basically, if you add interior walls to a building, or have LEDs in separate individual buildings, you can have them turn on and off at random. Here's how I've set this up in a pair of storefronts on 14th St next to the McKittrick Hotel:
Here are the lights turning on and off individually. The storefront windows have also had the Light Diffusing Film applied:
I'm doing the same thing with lighted buildings on the N scale T-Trak layout.
However, as I work more with the NCE Illuminators, I'm finding these have a high error rate -- like 30-50%. While NCE has a return policy, their support staff is hard to deal with, makes errors (I had to send back to them a set of decoders they'd fixed for a different guy, and they want to play phone tag instead of use e-mail), and they keep your defective decoder for weeks before sending a replacement, which itself will be iffy. As a result, I'm going to continue to use Illuminators only with the T-Trak modules, where running off the DCC bus will minimize wiring, while I'm going to move to Just Plug light hubs on my HO layout.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Virginia Railway Express Train

I'm feeling my way toward modeling contemporary passenger and commuter operations. Although there are N and HO models out there, the range is a little sketchy, and few commuter modelers post regularly on blogs or YouTube. The fact that couplers, wheels, and car weights aren't very well standardized in N makes operation using models from different manufacturers a problem, too. Her's a Virginia Railway Express train I recently finished and got into preliminary operation.

The lead car is a Kato Nippon Sharyo cab car with an FL12 decoder for head and tail lights and a lighting kit from an 11-212 set:

I also added Kato catenary bridges to the scene. I painted these for the red oxide New Jersey Transit uses on its Morris and Essex ex-Lackawanna routes, but VRE either operates under black ex-PRR bridges that have been de-wired or Amtrak bridges that are gray.

Here's a straight Kato Nippon Sharyo coach with an 11-212 lighting kit:

Wheels of Time brought out C&NW bi level cars in several schemes, including one Virginia Railway Express scheme. These cars were leased from Chicago METRA. The six-window style I believe was built for C&NW by St Louis Car Company, and these were completely withdrawn from METRA, while METRA kept running some of the ex C&NW Pullman 4-window style cars. However, the VRE 6-window cars were recently returned to METRA, which has put some back into service still lettered for VRE.
The Wheels of Time cars would not go around curves coupled to Kato Nippon Sharyo cars. I fiddled with some options to fix this until I found the Wheels of Time diaphragms would simply snap off the car ends, which eliminated the conflict, and both cars will now operate in a train around the T-Trak module curves. Even so, I think I need to tweak the way the Micro Trains trucks are mounted on the Wheels of Time cars to get more reliable operation.

Another Kato Nippon Sharyo coach. One thing I like about the newest locos and passenger cars is the ability -- at least with Kato -- to add lighting kits that give an extra prototype dimension to the models. It's a shame the Wheels of Time cars don't have this ability. However, Kato will be bringing out the C&NW Pullman style 4-window bi-levels in METRA in another month or two, and I'm assuming these can be lit like the Nippon Sharyo cars.

The way N scale works, I'll be looking forward to running METRA trains with both Nippon Sharyo and Pullman cars that are fully compatible via Kato. Here's a Pullman I shot in Elmhurst, IL in train with later stainless cars:

I'll need to check to see if VRE had any of the Pullman 4-window style cars. If so, it would be great if Kato would bring them out for VRE.

And here's a Kato MP36 shoving the train.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

How To Assemble Kato N Catenary Masts

My focus in N scale has mainly been contemporary passenger operations, and this includes things like the Northeast Corridor, New Jersey Transit, SEPTA, and other prototypes with electric operations. I've been intrigued with adding Kato catenary components to parts of the layout as scenic detail features, although actually powering N catenary is more than I want to take on. So the Kato components are an interesting idea, snce they're meant to be scenic features only. But they aren't much used in the US, and attempts to get info by posting queries on Facebook groups have been unproductive.

So after some searching, I've come up with an explanation of what the various components are about and how to use them. I found this English-language web page on the Japanese prototype for Kato catenary is very useful. This discussion will cover the catenary components that are used for standard Unitrack, not the wider plate track.

We'll start with the 23-056 catenary pole base set. This provides bases for either style of standard double track catenary bridges, as well as the single track gantries. The set contains two styles of base. Both come in the same package:

If you separate the bases into two types, the style on the left is for use with standard Unitrack, both wooden and concrete tie. The style on the right is for use with viaduct sections. I'll concentrate on the standard Unitrack in this post, although I've also added the viaduct style to viaduct sections on one T-Trak module.
The standard Unitrack bases have moldings that will either let them fit onto the bezels under the track centers or the gussets under the ballast slopes:
The bases extend from beneath the track on two sides. One side goes to a socket for the catenary bridge base. The other side goes to an interface that will allow two bases to keep two parallel tracks at the correct distance for double track catenary bridges:
For single track, you just use the one base with a Kato single track catenary gantry, 23-059. For double track, two bridge styles are available. The one below is 23-057, a curved arch.
This, according to the Sumida Crossing site linked above, is a modern Japanese style used on both the Shinkansen and narrow gauge lines. You can occasionally see arches like this in the US, but they aren't common. Here's one that's been cut out and installed on the bases with double track:
The good thing about this system is that the bases can be permanently attached beneath the Unitrack, but the bridges can easily be removed, replaced, or swapped out with a different style. Especially for T-Trak, this is very desirable to prevent damage in handling the module. Here's a first crack at installing a Kato bridge in scenery:
However, the Kato 23-060 style of Warren truss catenary bridge is much more like what you see in the US, in some parts of the Northeast Corridor, METRA electric, and New Jersey Transit. I have a set of these on order. I find that unless the bases are glued down and permanently attached to the Unitrack, the whole assembly is pretty flimsy. But the components make good scenic details for passenger operations in urban areas. In addition, on former Conrail electrified freight lines where the wires have been removed, the catenary bridges are still in place, so they're also prototypical in modern freight only areas.