The times, they are a changin’ . . .

More accurately, the scales are changing. I’ve made the decision to switch scales from O P48 to S scale P64 standards. A somewhat quick decision, but one we’re going to roll with.

I blame Lionel Strang and the Modeler’s Life crew for this change, specifically the episodes featuring Robert Fraschella and Mike Ostertag. The talk of S being the “perfect scale”, plus some folks I respect and who model the modern era that I’m interested in, got my attention and started my brain going on the possibilities. Not to mention the enabler of enablers, Trevor Marshall, who connected me with the local S scale community. And I haven’t even picked up Model Railroad Planning 2022, which features an article expounding on the potential of today’s S scale.

In no particular order of influence, the following all played a role in my decision to try something new:

  • O scale is big, I mean really big. It’s almost overwhelming looking at the models in terms of the physical presence. Sometimes that’s an advantage in conveying the feel of real railroading, particularly when combined with deep bass from a Tang Band speaker. Other times that size is too much for my basement.
  • That size makes it difficult to 3D print freight cars. I would have had to upgrade to a really large, expensive new 3D printer to try to get the freight car sides or whole cars that I wanted, whereas for S scale cars and locomotives I can move to a medium-sized, more affordable printer.
  • The basic building blocks are the same as in O scale. There is a small, very basic selection of quality, modern-era locomotives and freight cars available from suppliers such as S Scale America (Des Plaines Hobbies) and American Models. But just as I figured when working in O, I was planning on designing and building the majority of the diesels and freight cars I would need on my own, which is now somewhat easier in S (see previous point).
  • Just as in O scale, perhaps even more so, there is a small cadre of talented S scale modelers within driving distance of my home who are proving themselves to be very generous in sharing their time and experience with me as I get started on this journey.
  • S scale really is the perfect size. It’s big enough that my aging eyes and fingers can still manipulate and appreciate the details, but it’s just small enough to allow for a better scenery to track ratio, or to fit in more of the particular prototype railway that I am modeling for my given space. And I think I can still fit in those awesome Tang Band speakers!
  • I derived much pleasure in the level of detail that I could model P48 track, and I believe that P64 is large enough to still allow me this joy. I can use code 83 cast frogs from Details West, readily available Micro Engineering rail, and 3D print or laser cut/engrave all the tieplates and joint bars, etc. that bring the track model to the level I want.
  • S scale locomotives and freight cars are very reasonably priced relative to O scale. Rather than having to pay close to $90 USD for Atlas O cars and then still have to spend almost the same amount in Protocraft couplers and P48 trucks/wheelsets, I can get Athearn-level freight cars for $40-$60 and install Northwest Short Line P64 wheelsets and Kadee couplers for less than $20. American Models diesels are right around $249 USD; that’s a very reasonable starting point!

So there we go, a new adventure awaits. A gorgeous Red Caboose GP9 and Atlas SW1200rs will remain in my O scale stable, perhaps on an Inglenook module to take to shows, mostly because nothing beats the sound emanating from those Tang Band speakers (can you tell I love them?). It’s as close as I’ve come in a basement to standing beside a real locomotive.

And my fledgling collection of S scale diesels and cars will soon be operating on a new version of the Guelph Spur. Or will it be OSR’s Ingersoll-Tillsonburg line? Or the Brandywine Valley RR? A new scale opens up potential for a new prototype. Stay tuned!

Social Distancing

What the heck, everyone is writing or talking about it nowadays. My version is the same I’ve always practiced, getting out somewhere railside and leaving the warmth of the car (it was only +2C this morning) when the distant BLAAT of a train horn wafts through the cracked window. It also helps to have a scanner tuned to the dispatcher’s channel and hear them acknowledge CN train 421 clearing Jordan.

For the first time I ventured to St. Catherine’s and got this nice view of the oncoming train from the 7th Street overpass. Will have to venture back here again, the clear view and open background is a nice change from the usual overgrown or hydro tower obstructed views elsewhere along the Grimsby sub.

3D Printing to the Rescue

The tangle of wires and Kapton tape that one typically sees in DCC installations has always offended my sensibilities. There had to be a way to make sense of the chaos. For my install of an ESU decoder and Tang Band speaker in an Atlas O SW1200rs, to become Ontario Southland 1210, I took advantage of some modern technologies.

To start, I picked up a Nix Trainz Decoder Buddy. This handy board allows for the orderly connection of all the various motor, track, and lighting wires, while facilitating the removal of the shell without having to unsolder the connections on the board.

I then jumped on Fusion 360 and modelled up a sub-chassis to which I could mount the Decoder Buddy, a TCS Keep-Alive, and the speaker. The beauty with having a 3D filament printer in the basement, in my case a Creality CR-10S, is that I could design, print, and test fit my first draft in the same day. I’m on my third iteration now, involving fine tuning the speaker mounts to allow for firing downward and to create a cradle for the Keep-Alive. I should be able to update the photo at the top of this post with the latest (final?) version this weekend. And all for pennies in PLA filament.

A test run has left me quite satisfied. The installation is nice and clean, with no wires getting caught under the shell as I slip it over the sub-chassis. And the ESU / Tang Band combination is killer. Happy days!

Railroad Reading

I was in Chicago recently and made sure to stop by Des Plaines Hobbies. A great store with plenty of stock, but as has been happening more frequently for me lately, I left ultimately disappointed. I think it has to do with modelling in O scale. The selection of modern era rolling stock is rather limited. I go in with high hopes of bringing something neat home but just can’t find models that catch my eye.

What I did leave with is a fantastic book on the subject of life as a Milwaukee Road employee in the 70s. “Milwaukee Road, Tales from the Racine & Southwestern” by author Jerry Pyfer and published by White River Productions is a photo-packed recounting of life on the railroad during very interesting times. The stories of railway operations, especially switching practices in an era of hand and lantern signals, are fascinating. It helps that the Milwaukee Road is everyone’s favourite underdog. The pictures of worn out track and locomotives bring home the struggles that the railroad was facing at the time and to which it would ultimately succumb. Lacking any real familiarity with the geography of the area that Jerry worked, a photocopy of the map inside the front cover helped me stay properly oriented in each chapter.

For anyone looking for firsthand stories of life on the railroad and 1970s operating practice in the Midwest, I would highly recommend picking this up. It deserves a spot on your bookshelf.

Operating switch stand

After a long period of experimentation, I successfully installed my first complete switch stand mechanism that fulfills the criteria I had set for myself:

    Low-profile to the fascia, to avoid snagging
    Simple connection to Bill Billinger’s simple laser cut switch machine (
    Ability to compensate for varying benchwork depth behind the fascia, i.e. my desire was to keep the switch machines mounted 3.5″ above the bottom edge of the fascia, but the benchwork thickness under the track varies considerably, which means the switch and throw mechanisms are not always at the same relative z-height
    Rotating switch targets
    Slow motion actuation
    Key operation to simulate what happens in real life: unlock, rotate to new position, lock
    As simple and flexible a connecting mechanism as possible

The end result is based upon one of my employer Southco’s compression latches. I happen to be able to get a special version that has an even 180 degree key rotation, rather than the standard 195 degrees, which I find visually cleaner.

I designed and 3D printed a hasp that allows for padlock lockout as well as not presenting a significant snag point to operators in the aisle.

On the back side of the latch another 3D printed part allows for the 1/4″ linear translation offered by the compression latch to be transmitted to the switch machine without being affected by the rotation of the latch shaft, which is unnecessary for my purposes.

Connection to Bill’s laser cut switch machine is via a .047″ wire. The beauty of the long shaft on the compression latch is that it allows for compensation if I bent the wire slightly longer or shorter than ideal. My mechanism contains a sleeve with set screw to allow for positioning along the threaded shaft.

I am using printed CN and CP prototype switch stands purchased from Eastern Road Models’ Shapeways store. A .025 wire serves as the shaft of the stand upon which the target is mounted. I soldered a small piece of brass strip at tie level, into which I drilled a small hole for attachment of the rod from the end of the tie bar. The offset to achieve close to 90 degree rotation of the target was a bit of trial and error, as the tie bar does not move as much as I had theoretically calculated.

The final result is extremely pleasing to me. Check out the video:

Today’s little task completed

Spent my 15 minutes this evening soldering a short piece of square tube to the underside of my throw bar. This will be the receptacle for the wire coming up through the benchwork from the PDC switch machine I will be using. This removes the need for a hole through what is a pretty narrow throw bar, hopefully making the throw bar that much stronger.


My recent decision to  revert to track power meant I needed to keep the switch rails insulated from each other, and the easy & strong soldered joint method previously employed would no longer work.

Right O Way’s recommended method of gluing the two tie bar halves together with tissue paper as insulation wasn’t to my satisfaction. I found that it was easy to kink the two components so that they came undone, so I put my thinking cap on to see if there was a better solution.  As is often the case, a glance at the prototype lead to the answer.

The prototype tie bars turn out (pun intended) to be straight strips, and looking at the photos in my library with fresh eyes, I thought I recognized PC board ties, Z scale ones, in fact. I’m pretty sure I saw the idea elsewhere previously on the internet, but a quick glance at Fast Tracks’ website revealed that the Z crossover copper clad ties were an appropriate width and long enough to work as an O scale throw bar.

An order was placed and Saturday night I experimented in the layout room until, voila, the points were connected and moving smoothly back and forth.

I’m very pleased with their visual appearance and quite confident that some paint and weathering will adequately hide the gap I filed in the middle for electrical insulation purposes.

Because I am so enamoured of the filigree look of the rods between the header ties, I’m going to try to throw the switch from the switch stand rather than by extending a rod up from below in the typical position half way between the points. Stay tuned for an update on this next experiment.

Back at it

I’ll spare you all the other model railway things I’ve been doing since my last post, but suffice it to say that work on the layout itself has been sparing for the best part of 2019.

Well, that changed this November when I decided to move from dead rail to powered track. While I really enjoy how quickly laying track can go when there’s no need to add feeders and gaps, etc, I have long been frustrated with the work required to add the battery and electronics to my locomotives. There’s not a lot of guidance online, the cost adds up quickly, and I just got tired of not seeming to make progress. And I realized that everyone I know who applies graphite to their rail seems to have no issues with power pickup.

So the three layout sections are one by one ending up on their sides on my workbench (one of the benefits of lightweight construction) while I planned the routing of the bus underneath and placement of the feeders. It was much easier to do than originally feared.

Where I was not spiking down new rail (and thus able to solder a feeder wire to the underside), I used phosphor bronze wire for the feeders. I would choose a tie location, drill through the tie plate hole, homasote, and foam, and scratch off the paint on the base of the rail so that I could tin it.

The phosphor bronze then got a “spike” bent into the tip so that it was essentially indistinguishable from the actual rail spikes holding the rail in place. A quick tinning of both ends followed, then push through the hole until the spike was against the rail. Finish off with a touch of the soldering iron. Easy!

Underneath the layout I wrapped the end of the wire with a feeder, quickly soldered them together, and then joined the feeder wire to the bus with a 3M Scotchlok connector.

I’ve been taking the time as well to spike all the ties that were skipped originally. It is still as relaxing an exercise as the first time, even if I’ve noticed my eyesight is not quite what it was even a year or two ago. I had to flood the area with lights and, as is the norm nowadays, use the Optivisor.

Next up, optimizing turnout construction.

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