Marshall and New Ulm

My trip has moved westward to Marshall and New Ulm, Minnesota. Only one day has been sunny which is a shame but this did not stop me taking photos.

Marshall is a key location on my model railroad with key industries such as the ADM plant, Schwann Foods, Reinhardt Food Services, scrap dealer, propane dealer, and more.

Whilst New Ulm is not represented on the layout, it is a good place to check out industries. It is also well worth a visit to the Schell Brewery for some beer tasting and tour of the facilities.

I will head north to Minneapolis today and hope to get to a model shop or two. I have pencilled in Scale Model Supplies and Becker’s Hobbies.

Tomorrow I fly out of Minneapolis to Los Angeles and then back to Australia.


My US trip has focused largely on model railroading. However, today was my day to see some prototype train action. Once again, Waseca was the place where I saw some main line and switching action. First up was AC4400 locomotive CEFX 1025 and Canadian Pacific ES44AC locomotive number 8708. They were initially setting out a grain car at the western end of Waseca beyond the grade crossing. They were later to take a very long train, comprising mainly covered hoppers, out east.  In town was DME 4005 sporting it’s DME blue and gold livery switching on the branch just near the Waseca station building.

As the morning was surprisingly sunny, I also took the opportunity to take some building photos. These photos will form the inspiration for several industries on the model railroad. First up was the Birds Eye factory with it’s terrific assortment of building structures almost the length of a street. I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of guys from the plant who explained that some product still comes in and goes out by rail. In my time period of 1995-96 there was even greater rail traffic with the plant. I also took photos of various grain elevators and feed mills. I noticed that Brown Printing is now Quad Graphics and this remains an interesting building, albeit hard to photograph well.

I drove west to Mankato and had a scout around before ending up at Applebees. I took a few photos of the building as a possible structure to model, although by this time it was overcast. I met a couple of guys there who were surprised that Applebees were not in Australia.

I continued west and decided to spend overnight at New Ulm at my usual hotel chain. There is an Applebees restaurant close by but I decided that I would save the experience until later in the week, perhaps in Marshall (MN). I might go to the Schell Brewery if a tour is available.

Tomorrow I will go back to Waseca to catch up with a chap who hopefully will introduce me to a former DME engineer. I hope this can happen because I need to get a better understanding of prototype operation in the mid-1990s.

The rest of the week is forecast to be overcast with some rain. This is not ideal but I just have to deal with the weather as it plays out.


Another trip to the DME

There are lots of reasons, both good and bad, as to why this blog is not as active as it should be. I’d like to say it was because of all the time I pour into the layout that prevents me from blogging. Alas, this is not the case.

What I can say is that the layout (lower deck) is operational. I have had a few small operating sessions where trains have been run and some problems identified and corrected. It is still very much “plywood junction” but that’s ok for now. The upper deck remains unfinished and the incline is still without power. One of my friends is always lobbying me to forget the upper deck all together!

At the same time, there is some uncertainty in our household whether to move house or make some substantial renovations to the current house. This is not model railroad related but one of the key renovations could mean moving the model railroad from its current location in the double garage. A decision on all of this is yet to be made.

However, the really exciting news is that I am off to the US again in just over a week’s time. I will be visiting a friend in Kansas City before heading over to Ames, Iowa for the Thousand Lakes Region/Mid-Continent Region NMRA convention. It has been a few years now since I last went to a TLR Convention. I have made many friends from these convention visits and I hope to catch up with people this year in Ames.

After the convention I am getting a lift with a friend to Minneapolis. From here, I will hire a car for ten days to drive around DME/CP territory in southwest Minnesota. Although this will be my third visit to the prototype DME, I have more time this trip. More time means not rushing around and driving hundreds of miles each day. I intend to spend some time in Waseca as this location never disappoints for seeing DME trains. I anticipate going as far west as Brookings (SD) and east as far as Rochester.

If you’re out and about in Ames, or in DME territory, I hope to say g’day!

Do you see what I see?

One of the issues I have been wrestling with recently is determining the most effective method of track occupancy detection.  I have four stub-ended staging yards that will be hidden from the operators.  Operators will need to know what tracks have trains and those that do not.

There are a number of options that are available for consideration:

Track occupancy determined by current draw – this type of detection on a DCC layout uses the additional current draw from a DCC locomotive to indicate if a section is occupied or not. The NCE BD20 is an example of a device that registers this current draw and indicates occupancy with a coloured LED on a control panel.

Track occupancy by infrared light detection – this type of detection is where an infrared beam, or pulse, of light is broken by a stationary or passing train. The beam of light can either come from between the rails or from the side. Examples include irdots from Heathcote Electronics, the reflective proximity sensor from Iowa Scaled Engineering, and infrared model train detection units from Azatrax.

Track occupancy is made visible via a camera and screen – this is where a small camera is set up to view the yard throat or yard of a set of hidden staging tracks. Vision is displayed to the operator on a screen attached to a control panel or on the fascia of the layout. I have read of layouts using this method with very satisfactory results. That said, I am experimenting with one such set-up using a car reversing camera and screen I bought cheap off eBay. More sophisticated (and expensive) options are available using home security cameras and screens.

Track occupancy determined by human eye. You might wonder how this is going to work if all the staging tracks are hidden!  Well, two of the stub-ended staging areas are easily visible by the dispatcher who sits inside the turnback loop (peninsula) of the layout. As for the other staging track areas, I am considering a viewing slit between the top of the 3mm MDF scenic backdrop and the bottom of the upper deck so that operators can see all the tracks by eye (the hidden staging tracks would be illuminated by strip LEDs). This method is possibly the cheapest and the most assuring to operators, but it is less visually appealing in terms of the scenic backdrop.

I understand one can also do something with reed switches and magnets but this is not part of my considerations.

In the recent NMRA Magazine (October 2016) there is a very favourable review (pp:40-41) of Azatrax track occupancy detection. The review covered two methods – current draw and infrared detection. Since I am using dead sections at the end of each staging track to kill power to the locomotives, and therefore stop them running over the edge, I don’t see how track detection by current draw will work for me in that situation. The infrared method is the more effective solution, albeit I would need to ensure that the detector was at a suitable midway point along the stub-ended staging track to incorporate trains coming in and going out of staging. I wonder how often the gap between rollingstock plays havoc with the accuracy of the infrared detection!

As an operator, I must say that I prefer being able to physically see the staging tracks as I don’t trust technology to be 100% accurate all the time! This option can be accommodated by the camera/screen method, or via the gap between the top of the backscene board on the lower deck and the bottom of the upper deck. The latter method may not be too bad for me. My scenic areas on the lower deck are not directly under the top deck – they are stepped out so that the top of the scenic backboard reaches the front of the upper deck.

While I wrestle with the options and permutations, I can just continue with the current “method” which is the easiest of all – have no backscenes on the lower deck at all. Hidden staging is now well and truly visible!

The tethered throttle dance

Over the past couple of months I have had some operating sessions with 2-4 operators to test out the layout. These operating sessions are pretty primitive in that there is no formal scheduling of trains, no switch lists, and no waybills. We operate on the DME and BN lines on the lower deck which means we run out of staging and through Ivanhoe, Rosa Park and Marshall (or vice versa) for DME trains and from staging through Marshall for the BN.  A DME train may do some switching in Marshall or Rosa Park. The photo below shows DME GP9 (#1471), a Proto 2000 model, switching one of the “industries” in Marshall.


The purpose of these informal sessions is really to test the trackwork, circuit breakers, and DCC system (NCE in my case). I have three throttles at the moment, all of which are tethered. I purchased the two tethered CAB06 throttles for the purpose of switching the two main freight yards at Marshall and Rosa Park. I will use radio throttles for the train crews, but I am still to buy these throttles.

With three operators running trains at the same time with three tethered throttles it became quite a dance around the layout as we followed our trains around. With more operators and tethered throttles, the dancing would have been much more complex.

While I am sure that we can manage with tethered throttles, even with a couple more operators, I think radio throttles will definitely be the way to go. The tethered throttles can definitely be used by the yardmasters, and for staging. But the convenience of radio throttles for train crews is clear-cut.

The informal sessions so far have highlighted a couple of problems with the track in places, and the drop-down bridge track connections to the layout need some adjustment. Nevertheless, we have had fun running trains and dancing in the aisles with our tethered throttles.

Colour light touch toggles

Testing of the layout continues.  I have found a couple of spots where wires had not been connected to the DCC bus and this is being rectified.  Some track adjustment at Rosa Park is occurring after some early operational “play”.  In addition, I have made the decision to push the second deck up another two inches higher. I will explain that in a future blog post but for now I want to look at turnout control (I use both Peco and Tortoise turnouts where manual throws are not possible).  The turnout motors are still to be wired up.

I was reading the May 2016 issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist magazine last night.  In that issue was an advertisement for Berrett Hill colour light touch toggles. These are toggles that can be used for both solenoid-type turnout motors (such as Peco) or for stall-motion turnout motors like the Tortoise brand from Circuitron.

The installation of these toggles looks pretty simple, even for someone like myself who finds the electrical side of the hobby the most torturous. The touch toggles can be used on a control panel for a single light (red/green) or double light (red/green) to show turnout route selection. The single light (red/green) option can also be used with a separate small mounting plate where a control panel is not required (e.g. where you might just have one turnout to throw by itself).

The toggles certainly look good and they seem easier to wire up than using the regular DPDT switches, resistors and LEDs.  My only “concern” is the red/green light option which may be confusing for people who are colour-blind. Personally, the red/green lighting is fine by me but I acknowledge that there may be a potential operator on my layout who finds the red/green colours confusing.

Any comments on the Berrett Hill colour light touch toggles, and/or the issues around red/green indicator lighting more generally, would be greatly appreciated.

Trains are running at last

It has been a long time coming but trains are finally running on my DME layout.  The lower deck and all the wiring has now been completed.  Many thanks to David L. for soldering all the droppers while I banged my head under the layout attaching the droppers to the barrier strips and then to the bus.  All the PSX circuit breakers are installed and wired too.

The first train did the circuit on the lower deck yesterday, Sunday 27th March. My test locomotive was actually a Wisconsin Central loco (#6001) but this failed on the momentous first circuit and was replaced by another Wisconsin Central loco (a Kato SD40).  This loco did the circuit without any problems at all.

As most of my DME locos are currently being sound-chipped elsewhere, I managed to dig out one of my Proto 2000 DME GP9 locomotives (#1471) for the photographic shoot that takes a rake of test freight cars around the layout.  Take it away the City of Watertown….

This first photo shows the train leaving the (hidden) storage sidings and entering the layout over a hinged drop-down flap across the doorway.  The track is only temporarily laid down here as there will be a turnout on this flap to direct trains to the DME main line and the BN main line.  This train will enter the DME main line at Ivanhoe, SD.

DSC03546_webThe next photo shows the train in Ivanhoe, SD.  There is a siding and a spur here to service the local grain industry.  Last year I said that I was going to have a branch line joining Ivanhoe with a moveable cassette from the aisle-way.  I decided not to go ahead with that and put Ivanhoe back to where it was on my original plan. The track in the middle towards the rear of the photo that goes diagonally from left to right (just in front of the Tortoise motors) is the BN track that will connect to a turnout on the flap shown in the previous photo.  You can see four tracks on the far left and these are (hidden) staging for BN trains.  The town of Wabasso will be on this section of the upper deck.

DSC03547_webWe leave Ivanhoe and go around a 180 degree bend and come to Rosa Park.  Rosa Park is a busy industrial area to the west of the main town of Marshall (MN).

In the next photo the DME train is on the DME main line.  Immediately to the right are sidings for some industries that include Red Owl food distribution, Sealed Air plastic packaging, and a lumber dealer.  Immediately to the left will be a large grain facility.  The tracks on the blue mat will be (hidden) staging for the BN.  The DME and BN lines cross on a diamond just in front of the water tower.  In my previous (ancient) post I said that I would hide the diamond and use some form of lighting indicator to let operators know where the BN train was sitting as it waited to cross the diamond.  I am now keeping the diamond open to view.

DSC03548_webThe train leaves Rosa Park on a 180 degree peninsula and then enters the main town of Marshall (MN).  On the curved section around the peninsula the inside track is the DME main line and the outside (aisle side) track is the BN main. Inside the peninsula is the small operating well where the dispatcher will sit.

The next photo shows the DME train in Marshall heading east (sorry, my east is to the left on this layout!).  The track next to the train on the left is the BN main line.  To the far right is more (hidden) staging representing the (former CNW) branch line northwest to Ghent.  The town of Ronald (after my father) will sit above these storage sidings.  The storage sidings here on the lower deck I have surmised as being a truncated branch line now operated by the Twin Cities & Western (TC&W). The TC&W has trackage rights over the DME from Marshall to Evan (MN) from where it heads north to Redwood Falls and onto Redwood to meet sister railroad, the Minnesota Prairie Line.  I understand that this Redwood Falls-Redwood rail link is not prototypical (or even possible) but I am relenting for operational interest.

DSC03551_webThe train does another 180 degree turn to continue through Marshall and the main DME yard.  DME trains are made up here and there is a small engine terminal and RIP track.

The next photo shows the bulk of the DME yard. We see the DME train on the DME main line.  The track on the right is for DME/BN interchange and it also allows DME/BN trains access to each other’s lines.  The next two tracks on the right are the BN main and BN loop line where the station will be.  I plan on running an Amtrak train and the odd “excursion train” on the BN main.  On the left are sidings for the DME yard and industries such as Schwann Foods.  You can see the plywood for the second deck in this photo as well and, ironically, there are no hidden storage tracks underneath it. This part of the second deck will support the town of Evan and the junction for DME and TC&W trains.

DSC03554_webThe DME train will continue straight ahead before curving to the left (right as we view the above photo) to start the climb to the second deck and the line to Evan (MN) and onto Sleepy Eye (MN).

You can see where the DME line is to go in the next photo where the Woodland Scenics foam incline starts. There are four (hidden) storage sidings under the upper deck baseboard here as well, albeit access is good from the garage doors.  Above will be the terminating storage sidings for the DME at Sleepy Eye and these will be hidden behind a narrow scenic barrier.  In front, as shown by the TC&W loco on the upper deck, will be the line from Evan to Redwood Falls.  The tracks on the lower deck in the open are the MSC/ADM industry sidings and spur tracks in Marshall.  The first two tracks on the left are the BN main and passing siding.

DSC03558_webAs the DME line is point-to-point (and the upper deck is still under construction) I am, for now, rerouting DME trains along the BN main line for a continuous circuit.

The next photo sees our train having backed up to get access to the turnouts that allows it to move onto the BN main line.  The BN main line is continuous run.

DSC03561_webThe next two photos shows our DME train on the BN main; the first photo showing the train passing the MSC/ADM complex on the left at Marshall. The second photo brings us almost full circle with the storage sidings on the left.  A scenic backdrop will separate the BN main line from the storage sidings here.

DSC03564_web DSC03566_webLastly, we see in the final photo below the freight wagons back in their storage siding and the loco is about to reverse back into loco storage (middle set of stub-ended spurs on the left).  You can also see the raised narrow strip of plywood (with a stacked set of foam risers) in the background which will take the DME line to the upper deck at the full eight inches in height.  [To explain – the first foam incline brings the DME track up to four inches above the lower deck.  To prevent additional drag on the incline on the ninety degree turn, I have maintained a four inch run around the curve. On the straight I will place the next four inch foam incline (8 foot in length) that will take the track to the full eight inches, crossing the doorway on a flap that lifts up this time].  The section where the DME goes from lower to upper deck (about 21 feet or roughly seven metres) is not part of the scenic layout and is ostensibly hidden.

DSC03568_webIt is a good feeling to finally get some trains moving around the continuous run of the lower deck. The last twelve months have not been easy as my dad was diagnosed last April with terminal cancer.  Amazingly (and thankfully), he is still with us.  Despite being in palliative care, he is still mentally alert and maintains his positive frame of mind at all times.  More recently, I have my own health problem which hopefully will be sorted mid-April with some specialist surgery.  All the more reason to get the trains moving on the layout!