Friday, July 30, 2010

grumpy got an update

This was about time. I built Grumpy several years ago with Debian 3.0 Sarge, and left apt sources pointed to stable (and testing for some time, as well as debian-multimedia, which sometimes has more recent versions of system software ...) I never ran apt-get dist-upgrade, and only updated packages I really needed, since it took me some time to get this system working properly with MythTV. I started this when MythTV 0.19 was the latest and greatest, and I didn't want to fiddle a lot with a computer that serves mainly as an entertainment system. What is Grumpy today has changed hardware twice.

Over time this had the funny side-effect of an only partially updated system. Yesterday, I finally took the plunge and brought grumpy up to Debian 5.0 (Lenny), a current kernel, new Nvidia drivers, the latest MythTV 0.23, and so on.

I followed the usual approach of pointing my apt sources at lenny explicitly, aptitude update and then aptitude safe-upgrade. This ran into an issue with /usr/bin/add-shell, which probably moved in etch from package passwd to package debian-utils, and passwd has a dependency on debian-utils. Some manual dpkg -i while ignoring dependencies got debian-utils installed, and then passwd installed properly. Remembering my days fighting with RPMs on RedHat and Fedora systems, I continue to be impressed by how well the DEB package installation process works. dpkg --configure -a became a close friend. Once that completed I ran aptitude full-upgrade and got to choose which dependency resolution approach I wanted to use. There weren't too many problems, mostly related to mythweb, apache, and kernel 2.6.18 dependencies. I pinned apache and removed some packages (I really didn't need gcc4.1) to get through this.

Afterwards I still needed to manually install the 2.6.26 kernel image, and the mktemp package (that was surprising).

Shortly before booting, I checked the raid status and noticed that the 1TB RAID partition holding all downloaded TV episodes we record in Germany, as well as my vacation videos was degraded. Sure enough, Nagios is checking disk full, but not raid status. Gaaah!

A little while later that Western Digital 1TB drive was replaced with a Seagate 2TB drive, and the partition was syncing from the partner drive. Then I broke the mirror the other way, and put in a second 2TB drive, since we were running somewhat low on disk space anyways. Videos and video editing eat up disk space very quickly. Nagios is using nrpe and check_md_raid (from to verify RAID health.

This reminded me again that I need to revamp the Nagios configuration. I set this up in a kinda crooked way years ago, and it didn't bother to make this more logical and straight-forward since. Maybe some other day...

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The train room got a good cleanup today. It was badly needed with all the construction dust, cork scraps, wood chips, and what have you. Now it's looking actually presentable.

With all the lights on, the room is getting toasty. At some point I need better ventilation ...

After running some trains I was reminded again, that a lot of the action happens underneath, and I need to automate operation of staging, since it won't be easy to see what's happening down there once the scenery will start to get installed.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Power districts

Today -- well, yesterday mostly -- I finished a long-standing item on my to-do list: power districts.

The main benefit of districts is that derails in one area won't affect operation in another. Also, when the built-in booster of the Intellibox isn't sufficient any more, I can get one larger booster (say, 5 amps) and still limit the power draw per district to e.g. 2.5 amps, and limit any damage due to shorts.

I'm using the DCC Specialties PSX circuit breakers. They are very nice. Solid state operation, fail fast, very configurable. Can even be controlled by DCC accessory commands, and support POM.

Breaking up the existing layout into districts involved making several cuts in the rails in a somewhat hard to reach location. Another task I avoided for a long time. Now that the railroad is taking shape it was time to do it, since that location will be even harder to reach once the turntable goes in...

I planned for 3 power districts from the beginning, roughly corresponding to the 3 levels of the layout, and ran wires accordingly. Still, one surprise I ran into was that the PSX doesn't appear to play well with the Tam Valley Depot Servo controllers at the 1.27 power draw limit setting, so I installed the also long planned DCC accessory bus to the two controllers that need it, and hooked the new bus  straight into the main DCC power bus. That's a good thing no matter what, since I now can throw switches, even wile having a short in that segment.

Tomorrow (well, today really), I'll try to finally digitize the BR50, which has a fairly finicky wheelset, and run more tests to ensure reliable operation. Also, I need to make sure the railroad is operational for Sunday.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Faszinating how cold it got last night. Wasn't it supposed to be summer?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


The day had more annoying news: chipping in the counter top, and rats in the back yard. urgh.

However, I did break through the modellers block, and soldered the feeder cables to the long tunnel track along the wall between Talheim and Emsingen. The track is laid, the glue is drying. Using some flex track I managed to dance around some more clearance issues on this supposedly straight section of track.

I also found a potential solution to allow for easier switching moves in Talheim while also taking care of the clearance issues between the main out of Talheim and the circular track. I need to get another pair of switches for this, so for now I glued down some roadbed that is taking the narrower route from the tunnel portal to Talheim.
I decided to drop the approach semaphore in Talheim and allow switchers to pull out cars up to the tunnel portals on either side of Talheim. It's easier to switch Talheim if I can use the train as a handle...

Did I mention I have a lot of tunnels? One of the compromises I made when planning for this room. Yes, I'm not particularly fond of the time trains spend out of sight, but I'll live with it. ... At least for now. One of my favorite views is only visible to the camera...

Avoiding unpleasant tasks

Unpleasant, but necessary.

I hate soldering track feeders, but as much as I try to avoid this task, it's coming back to haunt me.  I can't permanently install the tunnel tracks without feeders. I can't close up the tunnel without permanently installed track. I can't start with some scenery without closing up the tunnel. I can plan for, but not really do anything for the backdrop, since that  -- again -- requires an idea where scenery is going to end up.

I'm not a big fan of soldering decoders in tight spaces inside locomotives either. I cleaned a bunch of freight cars yesterday, and as a result the yard in Emsingen is overflowing to a level that it's not workable anymore. I need to put a bunch of cars on a train into staging, but lack the motive power to pull them there.

The TEMPORARY sectional track alignments in Emsingen are mighty tempting to install them as permanent, since then I don't need to fiddle with flextrack, though I know that the curves will look much nicer if I used flextrack.

This might actually be an incarnation of "modellers block". Similar to writers block, I'm all pumped up and ready to go, and what do I do? Fiddle with tiny things. The sky got a bit more blue. I reinstalled the OS on the train room laptop, which really needs some more memory if I really want to run JMRI on this thing. I put the shapes of scenery on the backdrop ... on two of 4 walls.

On the plus side, I installed toe kicks and a quarter round in the kitchen which leaves the corner shelf as the last remaining major item to be installed. Maybe I should do that instead of sitting here and complain ...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lessons learned

I found out a couple things today.
  • The BR194 with the old style LCFM motor draws sufficiently enough power to trip the PSX at the 1.27amp setting. The power spikes don't show up nearly as strong on the analog ampmeter I have in the line off the transformer, so they must be quite short, but regular since the trip LED is flickering on the respective PSX as the locomotive travels between power districts.
  • There's enough space around the yard in Emsingen to squeeze in 4 tracks if I pack them quite tightly. Which also means I can pack the 3 tracks I planned for more tightly, and get the clearance I'm looking for near the machine factory in Talheim.

First operations moves in Emsingen

I built Emsingen station matching the plan I had laid out months ago but with a 3 track yard, instead of the two track version I planned for in October. The supports are in, cork roadbed is installed in all areas that are settled. I laid out track everywhere, but didn't fasten it yet. Also, no track feeders or switch machines are installed. The main purpose right now is to see whether the track arrangement "works". Here is the right hand side (or east side) of Emsingen with the loading ramp. The steamer is standing on the yard arrival/departure track near the run-around / team track.

Today I tried actual switching moves with a train arriving on the arrival/departure track in Emsingen. I quickly realized that the access switch to the yard tracks as planned is too far in the middle of the arrival track to allow for any satisfactory switching without fouling the main track.

The solution was to move the switch for the yard track closest to the main to the arrival track, so that the yard track becomes an extension of the arrival track (see picture left, the green car in the front is on the arrival/departure track).

This way I can take a 9-10 car train, and if needed, back the whole train into the extension track on either side of the arrival track. During switching moves this trackage can hold up to 8 cars. Regular storage capacity is 3 cars with the other two tracks holding about 4 cars.

The yard in Emsingen is used only for sorting and shuffling cars destined for local deliveries in Emsingen and Talheim, as well as to hold the returns, and assemble a local freight (Ng) to staging (Hausach or Freiburg), so the yard tracks aren't particularly long (there's also that pesky room wall in the way...)

Typical train length for switching in Talheim is 4-5 cars. Maximum train length for meets in Emsingen is 9-10 freight cars, or 4 passenger cars. Yes, train lengths on this layout are rather paltry compared to many US layouts.

Here is Ng 34724 getting ready to leave Emsingen from the arrival/departure track for Talheim.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Layout Status

I spent the last two days pretty much constantly in the train room, much to the dismay of my family.

All ramps are now built. Cork roadbed is installed, except in two places where I still need to make up my mind where and how to route the track exactly:
  • At the south end of Talheim station the circular ramp intrudes a bit into the clearance of the southbound track. I worked around that by adding a 1/4 curve away from the hill. However, now the track doesn't flow well, and I'd still love to add that extra switch in Talheim.
  • The planned viaduct out of Emsingen turns out to not look nearly as high as I imagined. Additionally this section of track is part of the transition area down the hill towards Abzweig Talheim. Originally I planned to build a two arch stone viaduct, but I now fear it will look rather odd at this place. I'm now considering a steel through truss bridge. Until that question is settled track routing in that area will remain in limbo. I'll probably do a few cardboard mock-ups to help decide.
Cork roadbed is installed for most tracks in Emsingen station. Semaphore locations are prepared. The Emsingen yard tracks come close to the air space of the Machinenfabrik in Talheim. I'll leave this area alone until I can settle the question whether I need 3 yard tracks, or can make do with two.

Next up are track feeders and basic wiring for the upper level. Then I'll try running a few trains up and down the hills, see how they do, and whether grades need further adjustment. This will also give me a chance to try out some operating schemes for the two stations and their industries.

3880, 466, 8.3

Our roadtrip to Canada with a 31ft RV from Road Bear RV ended up being just under 3880 miles / 6244 km long. That is about the flight distance from New York to Amsterdam, or just slightly less than the length of the Amazon river, or the radius of the Earth.

Assuming I found all our gas receipts we pumped 295 gallons (US) and 651 litres (Canada) of medium grade gas, for a total of about 466 gallons / 1764 litres. That comes out to just under 8.3 miles/gallon, or 28.2 litres/100km.

I found a few more gas receipts and updated the numbers above accordingly.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sky. Ramps. Station.

I'm busy in the train room building the approach to Emsingen, as well as the station itself.

The backdrop (well, really it's just the room wall) got a nice coating of blue, and the whole room looks a lot more friendly now. I still need to experiment a bit more with my cloud painting skills, but one out of three commentators did recognize what I was trying to convey with my "art".

Emsingen station is shaping up now, too. The ramp along the wall is installed and the circular ramp is taking shape now as well. I was quite worried about space and track clearance in this area, but it seems things are working out reasonably well, though it's all very tight. Building on 8 by 9 feet in HO does require compromises...

Finally, a shot that shows how much a difference just the addition of a blue wall makes to a photo.

The only actual scenery in this photo is the creek in the foreground. The rest is basically cork and naked plywood.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Welcome to the 3 weeks of crazy

I'm off from work for another 3 weeks. While I'm still finishing up the kitchen, I'm also going to use this time to make the layout operations complete. Well, at least the trackwork.

Here's what's on the agenda:
  • paint backdrop on the wall (mostly blue sky and some mountain ridges)
  • complete ramps to Emsingen, both along the back wall, as well as the circle route to the return loop at Abzweig Talheim
  • install all double ended tracks in Talheim station, including roadbed, switches, and track feeders. 
At this point the railroad is operational again and I can run through trains and do meets in Emsingen (after all I'm modeling a single-track main line). I'm planning to slightly deviate from the track plan and use flex track in Emsingen station to break up the rather monotonous 4-parallel-tracks arrangement there.

Next up:
  • install single-ended tracks in Emsingen
  • wire up all track feeders
  • install switch machines for Emsingen switches
Now I can run freight operations on the layout, serving most online industries.
  • build lok station area, including turntable and related storage tracks
Phew, that's a lot already. Somewhere along the way I want to try and get computer control with JMRI running so that I can use my Android phone(s) as walk around throttle(s) and also get started with automating staging.

That will likely fill up the 3 weeks.

Later this year, once I ran trains for a while, converted more locomotives to digital, and generally have a better feel for what works and what doesn't I will revisit the track arrangement in Talheim. As mentioned before, I'm not that happy with the flow of switching operations there, especially serving the saw mill which requires quite a bit of zig-zagging to pick up and spot cars.

When the railroad is reasonably operational, I'll start with basic scenery.

For starters, today I built a cover for network and TV cables on the back wall so they don't get in the way of the back drop, and installed fluorescent lighting in the train room using the old bulbs and sockets we removed from the kitchen. Originally, I used a 300W halogen torch. Then I installed a cheapo 3-lamp ceiling light and put in very nice daylight CFLs. This worked reasonably well, but the light was very uneven in the layout area, and some areas in the foreground had deep shadows.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

I'm back

After 4 weeks in a RV driving the TransCanada Highway through British Columbia to the Icefields in Alberta, and back via the Okanagan Valley we are back home.

We saw some awesome Rocky Mountain scenery

Mountain goats, big horn sheep, elks, black bears, and this Grizzly Bear right on our campground in Yoho National Park.