Friday, September 24, 2010

Operations at Silicon Valley Lines

After living in the valley for over 12 years, I finally made it to Silicon Valley Lines today. This layout is clearly made for operations. The state of scenery varies a lot, from naked plywood in some places over areas in varying stages of construction, to nicely finished scenes. However, this should be somewhat expected as the layout is HUGE. While it takes a train on my own layout about 90 seconds to make one loop through all three levels and back, at SVL it took me a good 10 minutes to run a passenger train from one end of the layout to the other end. That includes station stops, but excludes time we had to wait for opposing traffic.

There are two main yards and several staging areas on the layout. The picture on the right is Bayshore Yard with Winston staging above, and Bakersfield staging below (bad quality due to cell phone camera).

Today was operations night, which means quite a few trains ran, a dispatcher was directing traffic, and the various train crews used FRS radios to communicate with the dispatcher who is sitting in a separate room. One of the freight assignments I ran was a super-long train traversing about two thirds of the layout. This run took us the better part of an hour due to some opposing traffic, but also because this train wouldn't move that fast. I quickly learned that it is easy to pull a long train off curved track if you accelerate too quickly. Overall, I ran 4 scheduled trains and an extra passenger train over the course of 4 hours. The people are very friendly, and I had a blast. I'll definitely be back for more.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Swiss visitor in Emsingen & Talheim

A co-worker from the Zurich office brought over his set of Re 460 and respective IC2000 cars. Here's a short video of the train running on the layout.

The cars are a bit longer than my longest cars, so we found that some of the curves in hidden staging don't have enough clearance for them to pass. Still we had quite some fun running the train on the upper two levels of the layout.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

First Operating Session

Today I hosted the first operating session on the layout.

The session ran for about an hour, and involved a high-priority long-distance InterCity train only stopping in Emsingen, a local passenger train stopping in both Talheim and Emsingen. In addition to the passenger trains a wayfreight dropped off and picked up cars in Emsingen, which were brought down to Talheim by a local freight, switching industries in Talheim, and bring the outbound cars to Emsingen for pick-up  by another wayfreight run.

Things that worked:
  • Wayfreight drop and pickup of cars in Emsingen, and use of the freight tracks in Emsingen
  • Local freight to Talheim, and switching in Talheim, including mostly keeping the through tracks available for passenger traffic
  • The long tunnel along the wall wasn't quite as annoying as I saw it recently, (at least for me) this might have been because I had two trains to look after in parallel.
  • JMRI/Withrottle/Android Engine Driver using my Android phone as a wireless throttle. This worked very well for me.
  • Mixing freight and passenger traffic, and keeping the single mainline track busy.
  • We had a lot of fun!

Things that didn't quite work as  well:
  • Some switches caused trouble with the IC2000 cars we used for the InterCity, so we had to run the InterCity in a loop on the upper two levels (and only in one direction). Thankfully, I do have a track on the upper level I can use for storing trains between appearances.
  • Some low-voltage situations. With at times 4 locomotives in operation (one of them with sound) concurrently, ocassionally there was a significant drop in voltage on the track and trains slowed down. Either the booster in the Intellibox was running hot, or the respective transformer was getting overloaded. Either way, this clearly showed, that I will need to upgrade power at the latest once I have automated staging.
  • Switching instructions, or more generally car routing and identification. While we wrote a switch list before the start of the session, and picked destinations for the various cars on the layout, once the wayfreight arrived in Emsingen, there was some chaos determining which cars go where. This is made worse by the habit of european railroads to use very small car numbers on the cars, so it's not nearly as easy to keep track of a given box car by its number as on most American layouts. I'm contemplating to use carcards with waybills, and include a photo of the car on the car card for easier identification. I've seen templates on a FREMO website that looked quite nice. However, this will make staging the railroad for operation more cumbersome.
  • I need more locomotives active, and I need the engine servicing facilities built. The locomotive of an arriving wayfreight should couple off and top off water and coal, while a switcher takes care of the car movements.
  • I need to activate the Schienenbus for local passenger service. A 151 with two coaches is a poor stand-in ...
  • Two person operations works reasonably well, but the job of running passenger trains becomes somewhat dull after a while. This can be made more interesting with an actual timetable and more variety in both passenger train types, as well as variations in routing.
Overall, this was a lot of fun, and it showed both strengths and weaknesses of the layout. Thanks Balasz, for coming over and putting up with all the little problems we ran into.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Why should the return flight be less chaotic?

I arrive in time at BOS for my return flight. Make it through security, and arrive at the gate a comfortable 25 minutes before boarding at 18:15. While I'm looking at the monitor, the departure time changes to 19:45. The staff at the gate didn't notice at first, then called dispatch and learned that SFO has delayed our flight due to weather.

5 minutes later they announced that everyone should make their way to gate 34 for our flight, but the monitors are still showing departure 19:45. ...

Another 5 minutes later they announced that SFO is operating off one runway due to low visibility. Flightstats shows clouds at 800 ft, and since the two runways at SFO are so close together, they can't both operate at instrument flight conditions. yay.

There is also the FAA Website showing delays and reasons at major airports nationwide.

By the way, my flight to SFO will take 6 hours 30 minutes. Look how long it would take to fly from Boston to London...

Update (19:35):
Well. I'm still in Boston. If we're lucky we start boarding in 10 minutes, and might be in the air around 21:00, with an arrival in SFO some time after midnight...

Update (20:00):
Yay. We are boarding.

Update (09/19):
We were ready for push-back 20:20, but had to wait for a ground crew to show up, so we ended up leaving BOS just before 21:00 with a projected arrival time in SFO at 0:25 Saturday morning.

After a very uneventful flight, we started the descend into SFO. While I normally have a pretty good idea where we are as a plane gets ready to land at SFO, or SJC, this time I was completely lost. The pilot flew so many waiting loops I lost track of the direction we were flying in. Given the direction we were coming from on final approach, I think we were circling above the strawberry fields of Watsonville. Shortly before landing we passed through a very dense layer of clouds (also known as "fog", or "marine layer"). I was sitting at the rear of the wing, and the fog was so thick that I could barely see the front edge of the wing. The position lights at the end of the wing were also hard to make out. These clouds weren't very thick, a couple hundred feet maybe, and as soon as we came out the view across the Bay was very nice. However, this illustrated nicely why SFO was on instrument flight conditions with one runway shut down.

We finally were at the gate at 0:55 and I was out of the place 20 minutes later.

At 1:45 I was sitting in the Shard Ride Van shuttle home, ... with 8 other passengers. Each of them groggy and tired. Each of them going to a different stop. The shuttle dropped off people in San Carlos, Redwood City, Menlo Park, Stanford, Palo Alto (2), Mountain View, San Jose Downtown, and finally myself in South San Jose. It took us 90 minutes to go from SFO to downtown Mountain View.

"This shuttle is so not worth it."
Frustrated rider bound for Mtn View after 1h in the bus.

I was home at 3:40 in the morning after a 2 hour ride. Next time, when arriving in the middle of the night at SFO, I'll consider taking a cab. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) runs public transit around Boston and Cambridge. Yesterday when I arrived at Boston's Logan airport, instead of using a shuttle service to the hotel, I took the Silver Line bus to South Station, then the Red Line subway to Park station, and the Green Line trolley to Lechmere station. Total cost: Two dollars

Boston was the first US city to build a subway system. It's age is quite obvious when one looks at the layout of the tunnels and passages connecting the various lines in the inner city stations. Narrow stairwells directly connect the various platforms, usually on the most direct route, which leads to the amusing situation, that if you use the wrong stairwell, you easily end up on the platform for the wrong direction of the connecting line, and have to find your way through more connection tunnels to get to the other side of the tracks.

Amusingly, Lechmere station, the northern terminus of the Green Line, was featured in yesterday's Small Layout Scrapbook as a prototype example for a trolley terminus station with lots of tight curves and space efficient storage of trains.


When I'm traveling I rarely get out of the office before it's getting dark. Which is true for my visit to Cambridge as well. Still, today I got out early enough to leisurely stroll through the MIT campus down to the Charles River Basin.

The campus is huge, some areas have nice walkways like this one near the library, or open spaces with funky sculptures like this one at McDermott Court.
Once I got to the river the sunset was in full swing.

Along Memorial Drive on the banks of the Charles River is this gem of a street sign on the approach to the Longfellows Bridge. There are a couple underpasses with very low clearance so the Boston transportation department helpfully put up huge signs advising that this route is only for cars. However, do you notice how the branches of the tree on the left almost completely obscure the signs? The only good thing is that the branches hang so low that any sane truck driver wouldn't dare to go there anyways in order to avoid hitting the branches.

Surrounded by joggers I crossed the river into Boston. From the Longfellows Bridge I had a nice view of the Cambridge river bank with the remainder of the sunset.

On the Boston side, I hung right and walked into an area called Beacon Hill. Narrow cobblestone streets. Old brick houses. Old-town style street lanterns. A pretty place with surprisingly many people walking the dog, picking up dinner, or chatting with friends. One of the restaurants on Charles Street, the main street of Beacon Hill, has their kitchen out to the front, and one can watch the cooks from the side-walk.

After walking for almost an hour I reached Boston Common, a nice park next to Beacon Hill. The view of the skyline was fantastic.

There is even a small, creaky carussell.

And here is a photo of a little sideyard, off Charles Street. In the back they had a rug, and sofas, and it looked quite comfortable. An outside living room. Who would have thought I'd see that here. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Air travel is never dull

5:25am Get up. Shower. Have a quick bite to eat.
6:05am Leave the house with Wolfram and Lamia heading to SFO
7:00am Arrive at SFO rental car facility
7:15am Rental car returned, waiting for Airtrain
7:22am Arrived at Terminal 3.
7:35am Cleared security (long lines, but they were moving fast)
7:36am The monitor says "UA172 Boston 8:25 DELAYED"
7:38am Checked online at No delay posted. WTF?
7:45am Got coffee, a joghurt/muesli thing, and a chocolate crosissant at Peet's Coffee.
7:46am Coffee is GOOD!
7:52am Pick up a copy of Freakonomics.
7:55am Arrive at Gate 90 just in time for scheduling boarding.
7:56am "The aircraft is still in the maintenance bay. We don't know yet when it will be at the gate."
8:00am "We've been advised that the aircraft is ready. We are planning for a 9:00am departure."
8:30am Boarding begins. The gate attendants are super-efficient, and everyone co-operates. Great!
8:45am At my seat. Hmmm. No audio program yet. Video monitors are still dark. Strange. Engines off?
8:50am "This is the captain speaking, my 1st officer found a slightly bent blade in one of the engines while doing the walk-around. Maintenance is looking at it."
8:57am "This is the cabin attendant: This aircraft is not operable. Everyone please get off and wait in the terminal area."
9:20am At gate 81, waiting for replacement airplane. New departure time 10:25am.

What the hell was maintenance doing that they didn't notice a bent blade in the engines? LAME!

I should have taken the 10:30am flight to Boston on Virgin Atlantic...

We did leave on time on the second try. It's funny to travel alone, sit in the cabin and know exactly who your seat neighbors are going to be, even though they haven't boarded yet. We touched down at BOS shortly after 6pm local time, i.e. only one hour late even though we left two hours late.

I really like United's "Flight Deck" channel where they relay the conversation between pilots and air traffic controllers. However, it got turned on only when we crossed 10,000 feet, along with the other entertainment programs, so I couldn't listen to the pre-take off conversations while taxiing. Then, as we crossed a really wide river  (probably the Mississippi River at the Iowa/Illinois state border), they turned it off for the remainder of the flight. I suspect the initial black-out is for safety reasons, so people don't have to evacuate with earphones in their ears (lame...). The blackout for the second half of the flight is probably due to some braindead security restriction flying in the North-East of the US. Sigh.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Feeding the fishes

I knew this would happen...

As much as I like whale watching, I don't like the part where you (and the people around you) feed the fishes. When we left Monterey Harbor shortly after 9am the naturalist aboard Sea Wolf II suggested: "If you are planning to take sea sick medicine, now is a good time. -- It's been a little bit choppy out there the last couple days". Uh oh.

That said, the trip was fabulous. Not even an hour into the 4-hour trip, halfway to the Monterey Bay Canyon, we saw a ~90ft long blue whale. As soon as we got to the canyon edge, the show continued with several groups of humpback whales, and then later with lots and lots ("thousands") of dolphins playing in the waves around the boat. Occasionally, it looked like the water was boiling around us from all the dolphins. There was lots of krill, including the famous "whale soup" that shows up as a redish stain on the water from all the krill in that spot.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Goodbye Cable TV. ... Goodbye Internet Service????

I canceled my residential Comcast Cable subscription yesterday, and specifically pointed out that I still have and want to keep my Comcast Business Internet service.

Dude on the phone: "I see only your Cable TV subscription here. Do you want to cancel that?"
me: "Yes, please"

Today my Internet Service is down, too.

I somewhat expected it to go down, given previous experience in dealing with Comcast. *sigh*

A technician is on the way to fix this. Supposedly, they should be here before 18:00.

The technician did indeed show up 10 minutes to 6. "Did you have Cable TV and cancel it?" - yes. "Well, yeah, this is not supposed to happen. They should leave our stuff alone, ..."
I'm up and running again.