Maine Central, Lamoille Valley

Maine Central, Lamoille Valley
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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Op Session #2 Lessons Learned

Op Session #2 went pretty smoothly last week and I am very happy with the results. Definite progress in getting the operations plan tweaked, and a few things learned to help going forward.

We had 1 extra guy, making a crew of 7 plus myself. I think it probably runs better with 6 guys, but all in all, things went pretty well. I think when the schedule is balanced better and the guys are more familiar with the layout, things will run well. But good to know I can accommodate an extra guy if that happens. And if we only had 5, I would probably have to jump in to help, as just 2 road operators would slow things down. There are also a few trains on the schedule that could be skipped if necessary, without disrupting other trains.

First time attendee Rick B. is dropping some cars from MEC RY-2 at the interchange in Whitefield for the B&M.

We started rolling trains at 7:45 and finished up about 11:30. Ideally I'd like to be done by 11 so it is not too late for the guys heading home. As there was still a fair bit of instruction to get things started, I do know that time will be shaved off at the start as we do this more often. Normally it will not take 45 minutes from when guys arrive to when we start running, even with a bit of socializing.

Three trains did not run. The Amtrak and CP TOFC trains could have run - these need to run near the same time as they must pass each other in St. Johnsbury. I held these trains as things were pretty busy enough in St. Johnsbury without additional trains coming through. Ideally these will run at a time when the yard quiets down, perhaps when the yard crew guys are grabbing a snack. And the CP 904 northbound train which is scheduled to depart late in the session did not run again. This was really just a time issue as it was too late.

The Crew Call Sheet at the end of the night.

I tried to be as accurate as possible in recording train times for started and ended. Some of the crew helped out too filling this in as they came off duty and returned the train card. I made some on-the-fly changes in the schedule to keep things balanced and will use that in sequencing the trains for next time. I also will fill in start times for trains based on the info from this session. I'll update this with actual times during the next session to see how it compares.

The goal will be to get a good spacing of trains and allow crews a little down time to snack and socialize, knowing what else is coming up. This works well on other area layouts, and hopefully I can get there after a few more sessions. 

Mark F. and Joe C. held down St. J yard duties again. I thought it would be helpful not to start moving people to different assignments yet as I try to get the operating plan nailed down.
The guys were still having some trouble with the waybills and I had to do some explaining now and again. I thought about the questions they were asking and ways that I might address some of those issues encountered.

One of the things I have on my waybills is information about where the car is coming from and going to off the layout. For example, a car of cement might be coming from Howes Cave in New York, and the waybill reflects that.

While this is pretty cool (at least I think so!), in the heat of operations, guys are pretty much just wanting to know where does the car go NEXT. That can be difficult not knowing as much about the layout, the railroads modeled and the geography of the area as I do. What is easy for me to figure out is not quite the same for everyone else.

With that in mind I am making some subtle changes to the waybills to assist. First, on the To and From boxes, I am using only actual layout locations. This will assist yard crew in figuring out which cars go on which trains. For example, if a To destination is East Deerfield, that car needs to get onto CP 917 heading south, the only train heading to that destination. Even if the car is later destined for Howes Cave NY, that is off the layout and does not really concern the crew in St. Johnsbury. As much as it is nice to have waybills that are more prototypical, if it does not help the crew get the job done, then that is an issue during operations

The other change will be to highlight the Consignee destination box for any car that will be spotted locally on the layout, i.e. a car that will not end up in staging. This is just one more helpful hint to assist the operator.

An updated waybill, the To and From are layout destinations now, while the Shipper and Consignee contain some of the prototype info that I want to include on waybills (and used to be in the To and From boxes). This car will be set out locally at Ciment Quebec, which the highlighted box helps convey.

It is now easier to tell the crew to just look at the colored sections of the waybill: The upper right color assists yard crews in sorting trains (orange is a MEC destination), the highlighted To box is where this car is going next, and if highlighted, the Consignee box indicates the 'local' industry receiving the car.

I also know that the turnout controls operated via DCC with the throttles are slowing things down too much, and are not making for a good experience for the crew. This is another thing that worked well when it was just me operating the layout, but does not work as well for a visiting Ops crew. This I already have started to address and will write up in a new post later.

There was also a few mechanical type layout issues (a dead frog, a short circuit issue, some cars not operating well) that are normal things to fix on the layout, but are not necessarily an issue with the operations plan.

For now, a couple more pictures from the last session. As always, I wanted to take more, but when things get busy, I just forget to do so!

Bill H. again handled duties at Morrisville, keeping the Lamoille Valley humming right along. Bill provides good feedback and has helped me in refining the operations plan.

John R. ran the MEC local YQ-1, seen here spotting cars at Ciment Quebec and Maple Grove Farms in East St. Johnsbury. In the back is another newcomer, Phil D., handling the paper mill switch job on the B&M at Groveton.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Moving Along

I have been able to dedicate time just about each day to the layout. I have another Op Session scheduled for the end of the month, and there were "hit list" items I wanted to address.

A couple of freight cars had issues and these were corrected and put back into service. I am also trying to add a few more cars to the layout as I find that I really do not have enough cars to adequately fill out trains. This was evidenced by trains that terminated in staging only having a couple of cars, like the LVRC MV-1 train and the CP 917.

What I need to add are simply some cars for interchange, going from one railroad to another. I spent a good deal of time making sure I had cars and waybills for local industries across the various railroads on the layout, and also some run through cars, but not enough cars that get passed to another railroad and then terminate off line in staging.

So I have been putting a few of my more recent acquisitions on the layout and generating the appropriate waybill for them. As usual, my "workbench" in Lyndonville has been a convenient location to do this work. The picture here looks messy but really is not that bad. I have a few cars in progress, getting weight and checking wheels and couplers. The cars actually on the track are part of the CP RS-2 and RS-1 trains getting restaged before moving back into the staging yards.

Once I get the rest of the track in Lyndonville, I'm going to miss my "work station"!
I also took care of some other things like raising the Digitrax UR91 and UR92 receivers up above the backdrop to get better overall reception. I was able to control a locomotive from out in the other room of the basement, so I think this will alleviate the issues we had in the first session.

In St. Johnsbury yard there was an issue in having space for the MEC power on RY-2 and YQ-1. I found that the tracks used to store the power for RY-2 and get to the storage track for YQ-1 were just a little short when the caboose was included. I do not have a dedicated caboose track, as St. J was not really that type of yard in the 1970s. The cabooses tended to stay with the power. So it was a relatively simple matter of adding a little flex track to 2 stubs in the yard to address the problem. 

Extending this siding to hold three MEC U18Bs and a caboose from RY-2 was easily accomplished. The RY-2 power lays over until later in the session when it returns to Portland, Maine as YR-1.

Another issue operators had was knowing exactly where to spot cars in some locations. I made sure the waybills identified the location and contents, and I know where it is supposed to go, but it is not that obvious for the operator who does not know my prototype so well. So I just used a few post-it notes for now to identify where cars should go.

At Gilman, empty boxcars go to the Outbound paper track to be loaded.

Also at Gilman, it might be obvious where the Kaolin tank cars go, but this is also the Inbound pulp unloading track. Bales of pulp from another paper mill in Maine are shipped here to be processed into paper goods.

I also worked on a couple of track issues in Hardwick. I had to replace the throwbar on a Central Valley turnout and then instal la ground throw. I also had to install a missing ground throw to the team track spur. After doing this I test ran a locomotive and some cars to ensure all was operating well. This peeked the interest of our one cat Roxie. From the looks of it she might be in line to be a future operator!

She just needs a throttle in her paw as she intently watches the LVRC train pass through the covered bridge.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

St. Johnsbury Yard Power

A few years ago I purchased a Proto 1000 of Canada CP Rail RS2. I have seen many pictures of these units holding down the switching duties in St. Johnsbury yard. I also have a few slides from my late friend Glenn Salvatore showing these in St. J circa 1980.

Glenn captured CP RS2 8403 in St. Johnsbury yard in the Fall of 1980. This view shows off some of the interesting details, like the front numberboard, extended cab window, ditch lights and radiator fan cover,

A few months back, getting ready for the initial Op Session, I finally got around to installing a DCC decoder. The space inside the cab area allowed for a speaker, so Tsunami sound it was!

Unfortunately during the Op Session, the yard crew mentioned that the RS2 just did not have enough power, or more accurately weight, to push long cuts of cars given the slight grade the loco gets to once the cut of cars gets long enough. It looks good (even without weathering and a few specific details) and sounds great, but it can't really cut it in operations, at least not by itself.

Some of this is my own doing. First of all, I imposed a grade just outside the yard as I needed the CP mainline to drop down before hitting Newport staging. In hindsight I should have kept the parallel MEC track level to avoid a grade in the same spot, and that would have helped, but maybe not completely.

I also have weighted my freight cars a little heavier than NMRA specs. A 50' boxcar comes in around 8 ounces, nearly double the spec. I enjoy the operational benefits, but once a grade is encountered, things get a lot more like the prototype and you start needing more horsepower to move tonnage. This wouldn't be an issue at a yard, but with compressed distances, that grade comes a lot sooner than on the prototype.

The third thing working against the little RS2 is my application of graphite prior to the session. There is no doubt in my mind that this has now caused a slightly slippier rail for the trains to traverse. BUT, given the benefits and much improved electrical contact, there is no way I am giving up on the graphite.

Here you see the (unweathered) CP RS2 pushing a cut of cars uphill into the yard. The yard crew would on occasion have to give an assist when the loco had more than it could handle!

I could consider doubling up locomotives for the yard job, although that is not real prototypical. The best solution would be to add more weight to the RS2, and I'll have to see what is possible.

For now I will go back to another locomotive used by the CP in St. Johnsbury yard, an Alco S2 made by Atlas. Most layout owners will agree that these heavy little switchers are great for yard operations, and can really push a cut of cars. The S2 was used by CP in St. Johnsbury in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the late 1970s and early 1980s the RS2s were more common.

This picture from RailPictures.Net shows CP S2 7098 in St. Johnsbury in May of 1975. Note the trackwork, dirt and oil, good modeling reference!

I did however have to address an issue with this locomotive. A few years ago I swapped the decoder I had in it with an MRC sound decoder. Nicely engineered, this MRC decoder drops in and has a speaker already mounted on the board. There is a small section of weight to be cut off, but nothing too significant. Unfortunately the sound quality out if this is just OK. Certainly not Tsunami.

But the real trouble was the way the locomotive continued to deteriorate operationally. For some reason, no matter how much programming and resetting I tried, the loco would just not operate very well after a few years. Talking with another modeler he mentioned that sometimes the MRC decoders just start to go and the motor controls stop working well even though the sound is still there. That is what I was seeing.

So a quick pop open of the hood and back in goes the original decoder and out comes the MRC one. Nothing too complicated and only about 20 minutes at the work bench. And the best part is that the old decoder is already programmed from when it first resided in 7063!

That is the MRC board now removed. CP 7063 is now ready for yard duty again, repalcing the RS2. This should be good news to the St. Johnsbury yard operators at the next Op Session!
The RS2 will now get MU'd to the other RS2 I have operating on the CP local out of Newport, the RS-1 (that is not too confusing is it?).

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Preparing for the next Op Session

With a bunch of summer activities done, I am getting some things accomplished on the layout each day in preparation for Op Session number 2 later this month. This will be followed up by the MER Convention at the end of October, and I have a list of operational and scenic things I'd like to get completed.

The first thing I did was assess the layout and see where all the trains were from the last session. There were a couple of trains that did not complete, and 2 that never left their staging tracks. This I hope to address through some changes to the overall train schedule. For this first restaging I decided to generally put the cars back where they were for the first session instead of flipping waybills. The main reason is I want to make some minor adjustments and assess how well cars got to their intended destination. In some cases the waybills will need some updating for clarity to the operators, and in other cases I think a car may be in the wrong place to start based on the sequence of trains.

An example the first condition is a car not picked up by the MEC QY-2 local heading back to St. Johnsbury. Looking at the waybill I can see how the operator might be confused about whether to pick up the car or not. So I can fix that.

An example of the second condition is the LVRC train from St. J back to Morrisville, MJ-1. Once that runs, any additional cars for the LVRC that come into St. Johnsbury yard won't get picked up until tomorrow (the next session). What this means is that I should have some previous day cars in the St. J yard already for the LVRC to pick up.

This was evident by the small size of the LVRC JM-1 train, and the accumulatiuon of LVRC cars in the St. J yard at the end of the session. Starting with no LVRC cars in the yard was the issue, and I can balance that a bit by getting some cars into the yard before the session starts, and reduce the amount coming in on later through trains accordingly as these will sit until the next session. Overall the LVRC MJ-1 should be the same size I planned for.

Another reason I want to use basically the same cars again is to take better notes on how I staged things and how many cars in a train were destined for other locations. I realize now I need this data to properly balance the consists of trains in staging and make sure I get proper staging for the next session. Some minor differences are OK, but each session should be about the same when it comes to the number of cars in each train.

One issue I am sure each owner of an operating layout deals with are cars missing their car card, and car cards missing their car. I had one of each as shown below.

A Conrail Gondola was missing, while this SP&S car that I know came from North Stratford into St. Johnsbury was missing it's car card and waybill.

Many times it might be a car and car card get swapped, and if you find one, you've found the other. No luck in this case. I checked every inch of track for the CR gon to no avail. Looking at the waybill was even more confusing as this car came out of Newport staging on train 917, briefly stopped in St. J as other cars came off the train, and then continued on to East Deerfield staging. Really no where it should have gone off of that train.

So next I started looking under the layout. Really nowhere else to look! And there it was!!

Now how did this gondola fall from the staging yard approach and land on top of this box?

My first thought is that there was a derailment when the operator brought the train out of staging. But this seemed unlikely as the operators were real good about pointing out any issues that occurred, and a derailment there would have been obvious and reported.

What I think really happened is that I myself derailed the car while doing the initial staging before the Op Session. The car card was in the middle of a block that was just passing through from staging to staging so the St. J operators did not even notice. Anyway, mystery #1 solved.

Now the missing car card is still that - missing. I checked everywhere obvious, and all car card boxes but no luck. It could have been dropped, so I will need to do a thorough check on that. It is possible it ended up going home with someone but no one has reported that yet. Worse case I can reprint the car card and associated waybill.

So, restaging is nearly complete - all trains are restaged, but now I am checking and balancing things. Just a few more cars to balance out and a few additional cars to add to a few trains and in the yard. It is amazing how many cars a layout will consume for operations. And more amazing there are still some cars I need to acquire or get up and running to represent certain traffic that is missing. Just a single siding that receives 1 car can theoretically mean I have 3 cars on the layout representing that traffic. I'll write more about that in the future.