Sunday, November 29, 2020

Friday, November 27, 2020

Accurail #80792 Wescott & Winks 40' Wood Reefer

I purchased this Accurail kit several years ago on another business trip that included a stop a Eastside Trains in Kirkland, WA. There were several versions of this wood reefer on the shelf, decorated mostly for PFE, MDT, and other well-known carriers. I didn't want to renumber the car, so I got one I knew wasn't on the club layout. 

Here's the car body straight out of the box.

I started with the underframe and applied washes of rust, dirt, and railroad tie brown. I generally just dip the brush into the color, and thin the color in a drop or two of water. That's enough for one pass. While the blotches of color and brush marks look quite terrible at first, after several applications, the blotches combine to translucent layers and create a very nice and natural color effect. At the very end, I apply a thin dusting of Pan Pastels Raw Umber Shade to pull everything together.

For the metal roof I started with a wash of light rust, focused on the ribs and crevices. When that was dry, I cut off the molded grab irons and stirrup steps and replaced them with painted Tichy grab irons (I need a finer drill for smaller holes...)

I left the molded ladders intact, because the replacement ladders I have are very finicky to deal with and seem too fragile for an operating car.

I followed the rust wash on the roof with several layers of Pan Pastels Burnt Sienna and Raw Umber shades. I toned down the car sides a bit with a Pan Pastels white shade and a light dusting and streaks of dirt still on my small deer foot brush. I'm very pleased with the overall result.

I did make a big mistake and while dusting the car side hit a spot I had painted white earlier. The pigments stuck to the slightly tacky paint clearly bringing out the outline of the paint. I made it worse by dabbing over the spot, and ended up with a nice round dark splotch on the white car side. After that I called it a day yesterday evening, and let the car sit overnight.

Today I tried fixing the blob, scratched off some of the paint and pigments, and tried to hide the mistake with white shade and dirt. This created some white splotches on the roof, which I thankfully could mostly wipe off. I could not fix my mistake 100% without having to start over on the car, but at least it's not an ugly round splotch anymore. 

I still need to add a tiny dab of paint to hide the oversized drill holes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Accurail #5129 50' plug-door BN/RBWX box car

RBWX 79248 painted and weathered, but I skipped all further detailing
I've never built an Accurail car before. Why would I want to build a car if there are many finely detailed ready-to-run cars available? And why build one that won't even run on my railroad?

I picked up this kit on a business trip last year -- in the olden days before the pandemic -- along with the Bowser cars I wrote about before. The club requires metal wheel sets, so I ordered Intermountain wheel sets to replace the plastic wheel sets that came with the kit, and I should replace the plastic couplers with the respective Kadee couplers (looks like #148 is the right one). 

The car body is preformed, and the plug door needs to be installed. I wanted to the body to be closed, because otherwise I'd need to find a solution for hiding the weight that runs the length of the car. I popped off the roof walk when I toyed around with the kit in February and haven't touched the kit since. It bothered me that the roof walk is the same color as the car body, so I decided to paint it aluminum and tone down the sheen with a dirt wash afterwards.

I painted the trucks, wheels, and axles in rail tie brown, which is a nice undecipherable dark dirt color, and  applied a wash to the trucks to accentuate the details a bit more. The floor underside got a brown wash over the black molded plastic. I don't usually look under my cars, so I did this mostly to break the black plastic sheen.

I found a color photo of a ... reused ... RBWX box car and noticed that the ends are painted a brown-red commonly found on cars in reefer service. The Accurail car has the same yellow everywhere. I like the brown ends better, so I fixed that. The car numbers would need to be restenciled in white, but I'm not going to worry about that.

While I was applying a wash to the roofwalk, I also started dirtying up the roof. That didn't quite come out the way I imagined, but that's ok, the final weathering with Pan Pastels took care of that.

I used Neutral Grey extra dark to darken the roof, Burnt Sienna extra dark and Burnt Sienna Shade to set some rust highlights, and streaked these as mixture along the rivet lines on the sides. I used a make-up sponge and a fine brush to apply the Pan Pastels. Finally, I used deer foot brushes (medium and small) to tipple and brush the pigments around the car to create some variety of color shading.

I was after a slightly dirty look on the sides and a dirty, but well maintained roof. The sides got dirtier than I had planned, and the roof detail worked out differently than I imagined. However, I was happy with the look, so I sealed the paint job with Dullcote. The Pan Pastels thankfully don't react and disappear with Dullcote like the Bragdon powders do. Phew.

Weathering sealed with Dullcote.
So, why do all this? I eventually want an all weathered locomotive and freight car fleet on my own layout, so this is good practice and learning. I'm happy with the roof, not so happy with the sides, but that's ok. On to the next victim.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

More LocoNet Components

One of my projects today: I'm finally building a LocoNet cable tester. This is a design created for FREMO. While putting the kit together, I watched more footage from yesterday's NMRAx event.

There isn't a whole lot of space on the circuit board, and orientation of a couple parts is not obvious from the board, so it's important to follow the instructions carefully. I hot-glued the LocoNet sockets into the box and added more screws for additional stability.

I also used the opportunity to build LocoNet boxes by HOfine. These are commonly used at FREMO modular meets for plugin throttles. I put the cable tester to good use on the boxes.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Before and After

My workbench has been an unmitigated disaster for many months now.

Half-finished, started, abandoned, and stalled projects were piling up and collecting dust in a corner of our dining room. I'm truly thankful that my wife hasn't put me in the dog house yet. With the Silicon Valley Lines events wrapped up for the year and a holiday week coming up, this weekend was a good opportunity to clean ship. I threw out what I no longer needed, sorted and packed away what I don't need right now, and organized projects for the near future.

The following might make an appearance on this blog soon:

  • FREMO LocoNet boxes and LocoNet cable tester.
  • Weathering the two RSD5 for Silicon Valley Lines.
  • Two Accurail car kits and three Bowser car kits. I showed some of these before.
  • A livestock car kit from RST Modellbau.

Here's the cleaned up and organized workbench. Let's see how long I'll manage to keep it this neat.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

SVL: Fall Open House

Remotely controlled train 4837 entering Kaos Jct on a green signal

The Silicon Valley Lines Fall Open House is in the box. I had a lot of fun, but as such events go, it was also stressful. The video-enabled Webthrottle worked well for remote visitors, once we got over a major mistake I made when sending the throttle URLs to the first visitor group.

After that I got more into a rhythm: Send emails with personalized throttle links to confirmed visitors, have them join on the video conference, give introduction talk, hand off to train master, and while the session is running work on the next batch of emails.

At the Audio/Video control stand preparing email notifications for the next session (Photo Credit : Josh)

We had planned for running a round-trip session every 20 minutes. That was a bit too aggressive, since it takes a train about 15 minutes to drive the Open House loop. We had pre-staged trains around the layout, so 3 visitors could start with running their train right away. However, 5 minutes was not enough to get operators on the video conference, familiarize them with the throttle control, and oriented on the layout.  Including an occasional break for the crew would have been nice, too. When we do this again, we should clock the departures on half hour increments, but otherwise can use the same process. 

I lost all audio output on the main computer controlling the Youtube Live stream for a while, and couldn't get the audio working again, so I substituted with a room microphone. However, audio quality on that microphone was very poor. Now -- with some distance -- I'm thinking I should have restarted the computer at the cost of dropping the live stream for a while. That would have been better than having the live stream with no usable audio.

Train 161 rounding the curve at Bayshore

The crew in the layout room was great. The cameras and the trains worked really well. The DSL connection held up well with only minimal drops affecting quality, even though we had the upstream bandwidth maxed out at times. 

We learned a lot during this Open House, which was probably the first time ever multiple remote operators ran trains on a club layout in parallel with individual video feedback. We have a long list of things we can improve on, but we'll get to that another time.

As we shut down the layout in the afternoon and closed up shop, everyone was tired, but happy. I got only positive feedback from visitors during and after their sessions. This was a long day, but totally worth it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

SVL: Rebuilding Camera 3

Back in September, as we were gearing up for another full-blown socially-distanced ops session at Silicon Valley Lines, I quickly needed to build another camera car. I had already built a supplementary power supply for James' Dash9 dummy locomotive using a well car and a 10,000 mAh USB power bank. I wanted a self-contained camera car, so I decided to build a cradle for the second power bank I had, and mount the camera on the side of the power bank. That setup became Cam3.

This worked, and we used the car in ops sessions since. However, over time it became obvious that for some reason this car had worse wifi reception than Cam4, my original camera design. That's very curious since it's basically the same hardware ... with two exceptions: Cam4 is powered with a JuiceBoxZero connected to a Li-Ion battery, and Cam3 hugs a big hunk of metal. Side by side comparisons showed that Cam3 performed clearly worse than Cam4, even after reducing the network data requirements of the video streams as can be seen in the SVL operator training video.

After acquiring a power bank in a smaller form factor, as well as a low-profile, right-angle Micro-USB plug I was ready to replace the first design for mounting Cam3. I decided to install the PiZero horizontally, but since the USB plug is sticking out quite a bit, I mounted the PiZero on a styrene sheet and built a support structure into the well car with the PiZero mount sticking out about 1/4" on both sides of the car.  I verified with an NMRA gauge that the wider platform is still within the loading gauge. Next I built a camera mount over the board and was very satisfied with my work. Here is Cam3 on the well car next to Cam4 ...

That satisfaction lasted for about 5 minutes, when I remembered that we have a couple signal masts in Jacksonville that are mounted between the tracks and clearly this arrangement is not going to fit.

It was time for design number three, which I call "The Fin".

I rotated the camera 90 degrees, so that it stands on its side. The angled Micro USB plug is now at the top and the USB cable threaded through the support structure.

I was careful to make sure that the camera is well behind the lead truck. I needed to rotate the camera image, which is easily accomplished by passing -rot 90 to mjpg_streamer. I'd still like to find an actual low-profile Micro-USB plug. There are some variants of what I'm thinking of available from Chinese suppliers (e.g. reasonably cheap on, or very expensive on, but they all have lead times of about 4 weeks and the plugs look very finicky and prone to failure. It's probably easier, and definitely cheaper, to just solder the charging leads directly to the PiZero.

In either case, now that I liberated Cam3 from the hunk of metal, it seems to performs much more smoothly.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

SVL: Fixing CabCam video throughput issues


Last Friday I went to the club layout and tested the Web Throttle code. The code worked, but video quality was terrible. As soon as I tried to get two video feeds off the camera to WebThrottle and OBS respectively, the video streams produced only one image every 10 seconds at best. That's clearly not acceptable for what we are trying to do here.

I experimented with camera settings over the weekend at home. My theory was that due to the difficult Wifi conditions in the layout room, we're simply not getting the network throughput we need to get stable video streams. When running two streams at home I found that the PiZero kept a network send queue of more than two Megabyte or more, i.e. mjpg_streamer is stuffing bytes into the network queue, but they are not making it off the device fast enough. Eventually, buffers will overflow, the network code backs off, the queue drains out, and we see skipped video. In tunnel sections on the Welztalbahn, the queue dropped to about one Megabyte. My tunnels are very dark, so the jpgs produced by mjpg_streamer are much smaller and the network can catch up. In addition, the PiZero CPU was only about 30% idle when processing camera data to two streams when a train is moving. Not a lot of headroom. As a consequence, while the video works ok, even at home it was a bit choppy.

So with two streams we are simply pushing too much data into the network layer that can't get drained out fast enough over the network. The solution is to push less data. I reduced the video resolution from 640x480@15fps to 480x360@10fps, which reduces the raw bandwidth need to about one third. Testing on the Welztalbahn yielded a very smooth and stable video stream.

Sunday evening I was back at SVL and tested my theory at the layout. A single WebThrottle stream to my smartphone was smooth and stable, even in the Cavenaugh area that is particularly problematic. Next I pulled out the laptop with OBS and streamed the camera feed to Youtube while working on mounting location signs for the upcoming Open House. While before we often had a lag of a bit less than 5 seconds when watching the camera stream, video now was almost realtime and so smooth that you can see the flat car sway back and forth on the rails.

Towards the end of the evening, I pulled out camera 3 which is known to have reception issues because of how the PiZero sits right next to the large USB power bank. With the adjusted settings, quality is better, but still visibly worse than camera 4. You can see the difference side by side starting around 1:08:00  in the work video. That needs to be get fixed before Saturday.

I used the work video source to make an instructional video for Open House operators showing how to use the WebThrottle and what the location signs look like.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Friday, November 06, 2020

Mt. Umunhum Hike (take 2)

Today was last week's hike in reverse. We drove to the top of Mt. Umunhum, car-pooled to the Bald Mountain parking lot and hiked back up to the top. A nice hike, not too tough, and good views, despite the low clouds.

The cube is fascinating, even on the second visit. 

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

SVL: JMRI WebThrottle with Cab View Video Feed

In preparation for the upcoming Virtual Open House at Silicon Valley Lines, I have been toying with the JMRI Web Throttle code to integrate a video view. I also somewhat limited Web Throttle functionality to meet the needs of the Open House setup. It's not perfect, but seems to work reasonably well on the Welztalbahn. The real test will be Friday evening, when I'll try this out at the club.

Contrary to the earlier tests I did, this version's video link URL and locomotive name are set dynamically in JMRI, so that it works correctly even for remote operators out on the Internet.