Atlas DCC GP-40 Woes

So, I picked up a new locomotive, one I have always wanted from my FLHS (Friendly local hobby store).  This Would be a great way to test out the new JMRI software, get my test track all dusted off and working and do other things too.  Instead, it became something of a nightmare.  Not a huge one, but enough that it ate part of my weekend!  I did manage to make it  to the meeting of the New Mexico RailRunNers though.  Still a great bunch of folks, I have to say!

Atlas GP40  So, back to the Loco.  The bright, shiny new GP40 all painted up in Providence & Worcester colors, looked great I have to say.  Although Atlas is by no means Kato, they do seem to be doing good work out there in Atlas-Land.  Good detail, and the units (normally) run pretty well.  The grabs and handrails are way to heavy, as usual, but a far cry better than in the 80s :)  Note I said they “normally” run well, though.  This one, unknown to me, would turn into a beast.

It all started on the programming/test track I have.  It is just a re-railer and some track PR3_jpg_350x900_q85sections, with a Digitrax PR-3 programmer soldered to one end.  The other end has my coupler height gauge, a coupler and a series of marks on the base for weight (by NMRA standards, of course).  I use the test track to do all my car and locomotive check-ups.  It also hooks to my laptop that runs JMRI so I can program decoders on it.  It is my portable programming track, if you will.  No loconet connections, but it is a handy thing!  There is where the fun begins…

I was able to program the locomotive, but only barely.  I could get the lights to work, but no movement of the locomotive at all.  I thought this had to be my rustiness with the systems and bad programming.  I checked everything again, no joy.  To make matters worse, for me at least, I went and got another loco, tossed it onto the test track and it worked fine.  Put it on the programming tracks, and it “seemed” to work ok as well.  (Bad troubleshooting on my part, I should have seen the signs…)  To make a long, frustrating story shorter, it turned out the problem #1 was a bad USB cable that went from my PR3 to the laptop.  I had run into this once before, but I did not file it away or write it down.  So, I got to re-live my failure again…  Swapped out the cable with a spare and voila, everything programs just like it should.

But still, the GP-40 does not move.  It programs on the programming track, but on my testing loop, it fails to even budge an inch.  (Dangnabit, great-googley-moogley and other cuss words!!)

IMG_0243   Off to the bench I go.  This thing has to be disassembled!  And boy did it need it.  The decoder, as installed, as held in with friction, as many are these days.  But it also had these tiny little copper clips where it contacted the frame rails.  Very handy to ensure contact with the frame, but a huge hassle when disassembling.  Those would need to be soldered on for sure!  I also saw that all the copper pick ups were corroded to heck and back.  HadIMG_0244 to take the sand-paper to them just to get them shiny again.  And, as usual, the motor contacts relied on a friction based contact with the decoder.  So, there was work to be done here, to be sure.  First thing to do was solder the copper clips directly on to the decoder.  I know, this will make any potential decoder change harder, but it simplifies things on this side of it.  I also figure that if the decoder is being replaced, there is a reason.  If you do this, please remember to solder at a very low heat and use a flux (and lots of it) that is not acid based.  I also added a ‘bubble’ of solder to the contact pads of the decoder to improve the contact to the motor leads.  Normally, I would solder wires from here to the motor directly, but this one didn’t seem to need that.  In the picture, you can see the results.  Just remember to solder at low IMG_0242heat, and be very careful.  These things are tougher than you might think, and as long as you don’t go after it with gorilla paws, you’ll make it.  Although the picture does not show it, I added a thing film of solder to the motor leads as well, at the very tip to further enhance the mechanical connection they have.  So, I ended up with a decoder that fit very nicely into it’s frame and made very good contact with the frame halves, and the motor.  Happy camper, I was, I must say!  Cleaned up the wipers and the trucks a bit too.  Put the whole thing back together and voila!  The old girl ran like a top!

IMG_0245 IMG_0246  I was able to program the lighting effects, set some speed values (although it is not speed matched yet, that’s a different post altogether… lol) and set her out for her break in runs.  I run a loco at medium speeds for about 30 minutes, in each direction,  on my test loop to get the kinks out of them.  Here it is, going in circles, hauling some cleaning cars around the loop.  Looks like old 3002 will be a good runner.  Of course, have to weather it up, it looks like it just came out of the shops, and that will never do!!

All’s well that ends well, right?

Central Valley Model Works Bridge – fun kit!!

Plans are drawn and winter is here.   Its time to get to the train room and get to work.  That means doing something.  Didn’t feel well enough to tackle trackwork today, so I got started on the Central Valley Model Works bridge kit.  What a hoot that was to build.  It’s not the easiest, and the information from the N-Scale Railroading article (Mar/Apr 2010 Issue) helps a lot, but it’s not impossible without the article.

CVMW Truss Bridge

CVMW Truss Bridge

When done, you have a GREAT looking bridge that is very prototypical, at least from what I have seen.  I have not glued the ties/tracks down yet, because I still need to paint it, but it looks great right now.  It really makes me want to get to painting and weathering it.  I’ll add more later as I paint and finish it.  This kit is a total winner!!

Accutrack Speedometer – Very Cool!

So, I have been looking for a good N-Scale speedometer for quite a while.  I finally resolved myself to building one from an Arduino that I have here and made that work.  It was not great and the time involved with using it was so much so that it made me not want to do it.  Well, least weekend the wife and I trundled off to Denver for a quick vacation (On the way home we did the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad ride!).  While in Denver, any serious model railroader has to go to mecca, AKA Caboose Hobbies.  This is the hobby stores that I use to measure all others.

Anyhow, they had this thing on the shelf called the Accutrack Speedometer for HO and N scale trains.  at $73.00 it’s not cheap, but the box made me want to have it, and when I asked about it, the guys at the store were all very convincing.  So, I grabbed it.

All I can say is – BRILLIANT!  It works perfectly.  I verified it’s readings against my manual system (Stopwatch and distance) and it was dead on.  I am very impressed with this box!  The unit is self contained and is set over the top of you track anywhere you like.  Locos run through the “tunnel” (if you will) and break 2 sets of IR detectors.  The first starts the timer and the second finishes it all.  The display reads out in xx.x format up to 10 mph then it reads xxx up through 999Mph… (really?)

The portability is a huge plus, you can use it on any layout or test track you want.  The applications for a good speedometer are huge.  Speed matching DCC locomotives, setting scale MPH markers on your handheld throttles or just showing people that they’re going un-prototypically fast!

In short order I was able to speed match 3 locomotives and more accurately than ever before.  I put all three on the track, set them for mid throttle (scale 40mph) and they ran flawlessly.  After a tiny tweak on one of them, they all ran great without gaining or losing on each other.  Now, I can speed match all my locos!  happy happy joy joy.

So, the combination of the Accutrack and the JMRI software is a bang-on home run!

RailDriver Desktop Controller

Ok, so I recently had a birthday, and that means getting something from the wife that you wouldn’t normally get for yourself.  In this case, I pleaded extra hard and was able to get a brand spanking new RailDriver® Desktop Train Cab Controller.  My wife was able to get it from Amazon from the company, even thought it says on their site that they are sold out.

When it arrived, it struck me that it was smaller than I thought it might be.  It makes up for that by being being BEEFY.  I mean, this thing is heavy.  It will NOT slide around on your desktop.  I also noticed that in addition the to the USB port, it had an audio connection.  In the manual, it tells you that you don’t need to set it up for pass through sound if you don’t want to.  I say DO IT!  More later.  Anyhow, installation is typical, if a bit tricky, but if you follow their directions, you will be fine.  I fired it up with Trainz Simulator 12 (yes, I bought the 10 year anniversary pack – verra verra nice!) which had an even more convoluted set-up, but it was easy.

The result… WOW.  Talk about FUN.  After you calibrate the controller’s levers and switches, you’re ready to go.  (Take the hint and when you calibrate the full throttle position, do not go to the full forward position, back off a tweak to be able to reach Run 8.)  Having the sound go through the box enables the bass driver in the box to vibrate realistically.  Even at idle, the box sits there and rumbles like a real locomotive cab might.

Running Trainz with this thing makes the experience even more enjoyable.  Having the break levers and all the others deepens the immersion into the sim and just enhances it overall.  It is true, the throttle is not “notched” for 8 positions, but you get over this pretty quick, I find.  (I am not a real railroad engineer, so take that FWIW).  Not having to look for keystroke cards and such makes the sim just feel better.  I also installed it for MSTS and found the same thing, it just improves the game.

The levers and knobs feel very solid, I never got the impression I might break it.  All of the buttons are programmable using the software that comes with the controller.  The sound that comes through the box are very good and help make the box more of a value.  The speedometer on the display is a very nice touch as well!

All in all, I have to give this an 8 out of 10.  It would better if the set-up were a bit more user friendly and if the throttle was notched.  Other than that, it’s a GREAT toy.  I realize the $200 price tag might be a bit steep for a game controller, but as I said, it’s an extravagance!

BLMA Trinity Spine Cars

Wow!  Ok, you heard it here first. These 5 unit Spine Car sets are awesome.  (Ok maybe you heard it elsewhere first, but it’s the first time you heard it from me!)

Here is a quick video I made of them running on my hobby room test track;

As you can see, these are great running even when empty, on a very tight loop of Kato Unitrak and with one of the trucks de-railed by yours truly.  Even with the front truck on the ground, they went through both Kato switches perfectly.  That’s pretty bullet proof.

I’m a veteran of the older con-cor spine cars that were quite the pieces of Shi… pooh.  They didn’t track for crap and they wobbled from side to side so badly that even weighted trailers would go launching in every corner.  The amount of work needed to make them work was not worth the time invested.

As a modern period modeler though, I was quite thrilled when BLMA announced these Trinity Spine Cars.  My friend George at Wig-Wag managed to save me a set even though I hadn’t pre-ordered them.  (Brain dead me! Thank the heavens for George and Debra!)  I got to pick a set up last night and wow, was I impressed.  I even managed to grab another set today as an Anniversary present (27 years… people have served less time for murder…LOL, I’m kidding sheeeesh).

The down side.  Very minor.  On the first set, there was a VERY tight truck, wouldn’t swivel at all.  A few moments with a round file and that process was fixed.  Also, a teeny-tiny detail piece fell off an was laying in the packaging.  No biggy, it was one of the channel pieces around the 5th wheel mount.  A tiny dab of super glue, magnifying glasses and all was well with the world again.  On the second set, a brake wheel had come off.  Again, super glue, specs and no worries in about 2 minutes.

The Up sides.

  • They track brilliantly, even unloaded.  They are cast metal and have some heft to them so they keep the track.
  • The gorgeous new 70 ton trucks from BLMA with profile metal wheelsets.  A joy to behold, need a lot of rust though…
  • MT body mount couplers.  YAY
  • Beautiful detail, all around!

I have heard some folks say that the 5th wheels are a pain to assemble and build.  I did not find them all that hard to do once you look at the pictures on the BLMA site.  Still, they are small and highly detailed, so take your time.

Overall, BLMA gets a solid A+ for this release.  Beautifully done.  A little later I may post a snap or two of putting the 5th wheels together and on the car in case people need a hand.