Saturday, June 13, 2009

A whole lot 'o nuthin.

My apologies for the lack of updates, which is in direct proportion to the lack of progress, which is directly proportional to my lack of funds.

Well, sort of. Here’s the situation as it is now:

As I may have reported previously here (I’m far too lazy to reread my updates!), the ½ in. PVC pipes that I got to form legs simply won’t cut it. The whole rig is far too wobbly to be of use. So it’s back to the drawing board. My new I idea is to construct a table-like uh…construction using PVC. Of course, this time, I will use a larger diameter of PVC pipe—perhaps even two inches. I should be able to build a fairly strong frame using this method that the layout will simply sit on.

If that method fails, I guess I’m going to buy a portable table. But right now, I can’t do anything, because I simply don’t have the funds to purchase either a table or the PVC. Other things have to come first. You know. Like….eating. And Air Conditioning.

In the meantime, I still haven’t figured out a track plan for the interior of the loop that I have completed. I have a few general ideas, but nothing concrete. I’ve kind of been holding off on working on anything until I get the base built. So it will be awhile. But hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the cool kids say.

Anyway, I’m not too concerned about the lack of progress. Model Railroading is a long-term hobby. If you’re looking for instant gratification, this isn’t the hobby for you. It takes planning, time, effort, and money to build a model railroad. So when these are lacking, it’s time to sit back, read the most recent copy of MR, and dream.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Some ramblings

Well, there hasn’t really been any construction progress recently. I haven’t had any time or money, so I’ve just been watching trains go round and round. I have added two more sets of feeders, and plan to add two more. Everything runs pretty smoothly, save for a few trouble spots that I continue to work on. I think my steam locomotives are just a bit cantankerous. Which makes sense…a steam locomotive isn’t a machine, it’s a woman. And as we all know, they can be finicky creatures.

Anyhow, I though I would write down some thoughts about various things.

On the subject of DCC:

Earlier in the blog I mentioned that I was considering switching to DCC. Sense then, I think I’ve decided against it. But I thought it would be worth writing about exactly why.

I suppose I should begin by explaining just what the heck “DCC” is, for those not in the know. Essentially, DCC is another method of powering a model railroad. Our models are much too small to contain real boilers, fires, steam, etc. (at least in N scale—there is such a thing as live steam in HO!). So to make the train go, we use a conventional motor controlled by DC current. Turn the knob on your powerpack, the voltage rises, and the motor spins faster. Simple.

So what’s wrong with DC? Well, it’s great if you have one train on one piece of track. But what if you want to control two trains? Then things get a little tricky. All of the track has to be separated into multiple “blocks” of electricity. You can then use two powerpacks to control two trains. But of course you have to make sure you have the block switched to the right powerpack. And of course your trains can only be as close as your power blocks are. Not to mention that following the train and flipping all the correct blocks can be quite tedious. And as you can imagine the resulting rat’s nest of wires is quite a pain to deal with. Ne’ertheless, DC has worked well for decades. It’s fairly easy in that it doesn’t require a huge understanding of technical knowledge to do. And if you just have a power pack and some wires, it’s easy to set up.

But in a model railroad, we strive for realism. And DC operation just isn’t very prototypical. You can’t run locomotives right up next to each other as you can in the “real world.” And switching operations require a lot of fiddling of blocks that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. So although DC works well, it’s not the best solution.

Enter DCC. DCC stands for Digital Command Control. The idea has been around since the 70s, but it’s not until the last decade that it has really taken off. The basic idea is this: every locomotive has “decoder” placed in it, that’s essentially a computer chip. Instead of merely controlling the voltage to the rails, your handheld throttle sends a bunch of zeros and ones (computer code) through the rails. The Decoder decodes these bits and interprets them into signals: run forward at half speed, ring the bell, and so on.

With DCC it’s possible to control each locomotive individually, just like the prototype. It’s a far more realistic way of operating a model railroad. And it makes wiring much easier, too; there are no blocks to worry about and all rails are hooked up to one single power source.

So why am I not jumping on the bandwagon?

Two primary reasons: Cost, and decoder installation.

First of all, I would have to buy a DCC system, which would run about $150 right now. Then each locomotive would require its own decoder, which would be about $15 per locomotive.

That’s money that I simply don’t have to spend right now. So far I’ve spent about $200 or more just on layout building materials and track. So I’ve got to lay off the spending for awhile. Damn this economy.

But even if I had the money, I’d still be wary of converting. The decoders are not simple drop in installations—at least not for steam locomotives. They require lots of fiddling/soldering, etc. And since I run steam, they are all a pain in the butt to install. And that’s not something that I’m interested in.

If I were starting out for the first time with no legacy equipment, You can bet I’d go DCC in a heartbeat. But it’s pretty hard to consider spending all that time, effort, and money to convert right now.

In any case, what did you expect? I’m an old-fashioned romantic who’s stuck in his ways. Change!? Bah!

Speaking of romance, I wanted to touch upon another subject that I’ve been thinking about.

Last week I came upon this website:

It chronicles an “urban adventurer’s” journey through the abandoned world. He breaks into abandoned properties and photographs them as they lie, dormant and untouched save for the ravages of time. There are some stunning photographs on his site of abandoned amusement parts, mansions, and even a Titan missile silo. I found it fascinating, and it made me think about model railroading and why I desire to create in miniature a world that is long gone.

I never got to see the golden age of railroading. By the time I was born in 1983, steam was long gone (at least in the United States) save for tourist railroads. Where I grew up, there wasn’t a huge rail presence. Sure, I’d see long Santa Fe (and later BNSF) Autorack trains on trips, but that was about it. My exposure to trains was strictly through the LGB Large scale trains that we had, and visits to tourist railroads (The earliest of which was a trip on the Durango and Silverton on which I have been told I acted like a complete ass).

So why am I drawn to model railroading, then?

I think the romance has a lot to do with it. A steam locomotive is by definition an element of romance. A steam locomotive isn’t a machine; it’s a living, breathing organism that requires tender care to keep her running well. In the early days, the railroad wasn’t just some nameless transporter of freight. It was the lifeblood of the community. The entire town revolved around it. Passengers coming and going, goods bought and sold. The friendly engineer giving the neighborhood boys a tour of the cab and bringing the younger ones a lollipop once a week, like clockwork. The wife of the conductor baking fresh pies for her husband’s crew, hot and ready-to-eat when they returned from a long and grueling day hauling coal over the Appalachians. And so on, and so on.

These scenes are gone from the visage of American History. The number of people living that now remember these times dwindles every year. I think this plays a large part of why I’m drawn to the idea of recreating these idyllic times in a miniature world of my own design. It’s a chance to not only remember and pay tribute to these bygone eras, but perhaps to somehow vicariously experience the very feelings and emotions of them, too.

So right now, I can only watch my trains rolling around the pink foam plains. But if I squint my eyes, I can see the green mountains, the black soot of coal; I can hear the chimes of the end-of-shift bell at the mine. I can smell the ocean air blowing in from the coast, the salt tickling my nostrils. The world that was once dead is summoned to life once again. As long as it exists in my own miniature world, it will never truly be gone.

I suppose this entry has gone on long enough, so lets call it the end for now…