Field Trip: BNSF Kansas City Rail Yards

In mid-December, I had the opportunity to head out to Kansas City, MO for BNSF to install some IT equipment in their Kansas City intermodal yard which will host workloads that control some of the container cranes.  As part of the visit and because they know I am a train nut, the customer organized a yard tour of both their Argentine hump yard and the LPKC intermodal yard.  Since I am not a BNSF employee and have not undergone the mandatory safety training, I was not able to actually get on or in any of the locomotives or on the track in the yard, so most of my photos were from inside the vehicle.

Video of refueling facilities:

An old Santa Fe bluebonnet SD40-2 and a newly repainted/rebuilt SD32ECO (previously an SD45-2)

A C44-9W idling:

A long-nose SD40-2 with remote control equipment installed

Me beaming in front of the Dash-9:

The hump yard was super interesting – the entire yard from the hump down to the sorting tracks is completely automated. As the cars approach the hump, each freight car is identified via an RFID identification tag. Any unreadable or unidentified cars are sorted to a designated inspection track to the side of the yard. All cars are then weighed and counted, then released at the top of the hump.  Gravity does all of the work from there on out along with a series of retards that “pinch” the flanges to slow the cars down.

The car(s) need to end up on the correct sorting track and ideally at a coupling speed of 3-5mph, which is a function of car weight, number of curves where the cars may lose momentum, distance for which the cars need to travel (as sorting tracks fill up when they build trains, the distance reduces). They measure where the last car on the sorting track using electrical signals through the rails.  The last car’s trucks “short” the signal and the distance along the track can be calculated.

The yard and hump is graded and surveyed extremely accurately, so the system “knows” the speed at which the car(s) need to travel through the yard and when they should reach each checkpoint, however other factors such as wind speed and direction, precipitation, load aerodynamics, wheel bearings, etc can result in the car(s) deviating from the ideal speed based on the algorithm.

As the car(s) move through the yard, their speed is measured at set points using radar (similar to what Police used to use before switching to laser speed detection), and the appropriate amount of force applied to the retarders is calculated to determine how much speed to shave off.  Note that cars can only be slowed down (never sped up) so it’s critical that no more than necessary is shaved off. The yard control system is so intelligent that the retarders are actually applied while the wheels are moving through them at different times to even the wear on the retarders themselves.

If all goes expected (which happens the vast majority of time), the cars are sorted into the correct sorting track, couple at around 5mph (although admittedly they have tolerances up to 7, since it’s better to err on the side of speed) and trains are built.

In the event that a car is sorted incorrectly (less common), a knuckle left closed, or a brake was left on (more common), they will temporarily pause operations and send a switching locomotive out to move the car.  Most of the switching locomotives are remote controlled as well with a big remote that an engineer straps on and can control while on the ground.

I wasn’t able to take any photos within the control room since the system is proprietary, but it also speaks volumes to BNSF as an organization – they deployed their own hump yard control system entirely in-house and the system is incredibly impressive.  They are currently rolling out the updated system to hump yards across their trackage.

I wasn’t able to get any photos at LPKC due to where I was sitting in the vehicle, but here is a photo of the facility (not my photo – taken by BNSF Logistics):

Field Trip: Eric’s Trains

It’s been a minute since I’ve posted an update to the site, mostly because we’ve been busy with other things aside from trains (house projects, holidays, weekend adventures, and work).  That being said, we did take some time today to head up to Woodstock, GA to check out Eric Siegel’s layout as part of the Piedmont Pilgrimage. Eric is well-known in the hobby thanks to his YouTube series Eric’s Trains.

We arrived right as doors opened at 10am and were surprised to see there was already quite a showing. We were greeted by Eric’s partner who was extremely warm and accommodating. We learned from her that they expected about 500 people to visit today which is incredible and a testament to their hospitality and hospitality!  We admired Eric’s collection on display as we made our way down into the basement to see the layout in person.

In the basement, quarters were tight due to the number of people visiting as well as the sheer size of the layout, but we managed to make it to every room to see the layout in its entirety.

Our first takeaway was what an incredible job Eric did making use of his space – it’s a bit difficult to get a sense of scale of the room and layout from his videos and his live webcams, but when you see how the different rooms and tracks tie together in person, it’s incredible. He has done an amazing job of maximizing his trackage in an interesting and dynamic way within the bounds of his rooms. The trains weave in and out of tunnels, around buildings, over roads, and through multiple rooms, making the operation of the layout mesmerizing and entertaining.

Our second takeaway was the immense amount of detail featured on his layout – not just realistic scenery, mountains, and buildings, but also details like figures, roads, backdrops, and terrain changes. It’s obvious up close just how much time, effort, and thought has gone into his layout.

Our third takeaway was how impressive Eric’s collection is.  If you watch his YouTube series and see his hundreds of reviews and how-tos, this won’t be a surprise to you, but much like the effective use of space, you don’t get a full appreciation until you see it on display, both in cases and in operation.

Our last takeaway is that Eric is a really good guy – never mind the fact that he welcomes an untold number of strangers into his home, he takes the time to answer questions and speak with his guests.  I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit surreal to finally get to meet him in person after watching hours, we felt like we already knew him, however at the same time, he knows nothing of us!  We really enjoyed speaking with him, learning about his collection and layout, and gleaning tips and tricks on how he created his masterful layout. Selfishly, we wish we could have stayed and talked with him all day, but we know he had other guests to attend to, and trains to run!

All in all it was an incredible experience and we hope to see him again soon!  For more information on his layout, collection, and himself, check out his web site. Here are a few photos from our visit:

Not-so-modern Pulling Power

After my normal perusing of eBay and Trainz.com, I found a few locomotives that peaked my interest (although aren’t on my short list). Despite my attempts to keep myself to a “short list,” I did find a deal I could not resist – so welcome to the fleet an MTH NYC 2-8-2 Mikado:

The downside of my “eBay special” is that for some odd reason the drawbar was missing from the locomotive. I followed up with the seller who was not able to locate the drawbar, so I had to fabricate my own.

I used another similar generation PS2 locomotive and pulled the drawbar to measure and came up with the following using my digital calipers:

78mm Long
7.55mm Wide
2mm Thick

I went to Lowes to look for some brass or metal to make my drawbar but the best I could find was some ~1/16″ thick “welding plate.” I used a chop saw with a metal cutting blade to cut my plate into a rectangle (took far longer than I had hoped – chop saw was not ideal for the application but it’s the only heavy duty metal cutting tool I have as I didn’t thing the dremel would cut it (pun intended)). I then used my vice and a dremel to grind down the bar to the shape close to the MTH part, then I drilled my two holes in my drawbar, before giving it an even coat of black metal spray paint.

End result worked the charm, can’t even tell it’s not the original piece unless you pull it off the locomotive and inspect it.  That being said, all told it probably took me about 1.5 hours worth of effort (not including the time spent milling around Lowes looking for materials).

Would I do it again, I’d probably use ABS plastic from Plastruct or Evergreen… alternatively I do have a jig saw with some metal cutting blades, but I’m not sure the jig saw blade is substantial enough to cut through 1/16″ steel.

Modern Pulling Power

Slottown residents can observe the latest in locomotive pulling power with the recent acquisition of a CSX ES44DC.  Modeled after what we used to see almost daily in real life by our apartment near CSX’s Hulsey yard in Cabbagetown (Atlanta), we can double-head the latest GE ES44DC along with an EMD SD70ACe to pull our modern freight trains.

Purple Mountains, Magesty

Some good progress on the layout as of late, I’ve been derelict in my duties posting updates.  Most of the work has been focused under the layout or securing supports:

  • Applied Appalachian Mountain Backdrop from Backdrop Warehouse
  • Glued down elevated table supports to Homasote using LiquidNails
  • Added a second AIU to the layout
  • Wired all 16 Fastrack switches to MTH DCS AIUs so they can be controlled via the DCS Wifi App (I got tired of having to pull out my 90s-era Cab-1 remote every time I wanted to throw a turnout and I like the ability to set up routes)
  • Ensured track power drops are all connected correctly (with track shifting during adjustments, the spade connectors often disconnect)
  • Painted remaining BridgeBoss supports as well as scratch-built truss bridge supports flat black
  • Mocked up final locations for buildings

Here are some photos of the layout as it is today:

York TCA 2018 Recap

Life achievement unlocked! We attended the TCA York meet in York, PA this past week which was my first (and likely not last) York TCA meet.  We flew up Wednesday evening and attended the meet Thursday and Friday, and we had an absolute blast. It was certainly an experience, never have I seen so many O gauge trains in one place across all walks (new / used / pre-war / post-war).  Highlights from the show include:

  • Met and had a chat with Mike Wolf from MTH
  • Met and chatted with various vendors, forum members, other hobbyists that I’ve gotten to know over the years
  • Deals on locomotive and rolling stock
  • Ideas for layout scenery and buildings

All told, we stayed within budget and ended up coming home with a moderate take:

  • JT’s MegaSteam Smoke Fluid
  • Replacement Bulbs for MTH passenger cars
  • Pewter Figures
  • Lionel Standard Gauge #312 Observation Car
  • MTH Premier Continental Grain Covered Hopper + MTH Club Membership
  • MTH Premier Southern Tank Car
  • MTH Premier Savannah & Atlanta Caboose
  • MTH Premier BNSF SD70ACe

Here’s a few photos of the new rolling stock:

The Opposite of Congress

We’ve made a fair bit of progress on the layout since the last update:

  • Removed all track, bridges, and accessories and painted homasote and plywood to seal and prep for scenery
  • Painted elevated bridge sections in flat black
  • Cut Gargraves track sections to connect track to switches
  • Installed Ross O-54 switches and wired up the DZ2500 Switch Motors for non-derailing operation
  • Wired up first two drops for the elevated section

We painted the homasote and plywood to seal out moisture and give it a more dirt and stone look. Given that homasote is a compressed paper product, we want to ensure as we’re adding scenery and gluing it down with white glue and water, the homasote doesn’t swell.

The elevated section is coming along nicely, we’ve been able to run a test train around to test connectivity and the non-derailing features of the switches.  We still have the following to do for the elevated section:

  1. Extend insulated rail section for non-derailing operation to allow for faster trains on the upper loop
  2. Wire two more power drops for the elevated section
  3. Cut, paint, and glue track support girders under each switch curved section
  4. Glue down bridge supports in their final locations
  5. Figure out how we want to wire up the DZ2500 switch motors for remote throwing

One “lesson learned” from the Ross switches, or rather the Z-stuff DZ2500 switch motor, is that unlike the DZ1000 motors, the DZ2500s throw at a prototypical speed (read: slow).  While I’m sure it looks great for switches closer to the observer, it’s not really needed for our elevated section since the switches are at the back of the layout and we’re really aiming for fast performance rather than prototypical operation.  What I may do is wire up the non-derailing wires (green and yellow) rather than the Thru and Out wires (blue and white) so the motors will always throw at their fastest speed.

Once the elevated section is complete, we’ll have all tracks operational and be able to run four trains simultaneously with no operator intervention (and five trains if we keep an eye on it).

Yes, we realize there’s some odd consists running on the layout (a 2-10-4 Texas with Intermodal cars and an O-27 Lionel 2037 with a scale Superliner), but that’s just to test overhead and curve clearances 🙂

Lastly, we added a new locomotive to the roster – an MTH Premier Southern PS-4 Pacific.  The purchase was a bit impromptu – we were at Legacy Station picking up our Ross switches and scenery and we saw the Pacific on the display shelf – after seeing it run on the test track and hearing the sound system, we couldn’t leave without it!

The Build up before the (temporary) tear down

We’ve made some more progress on the layout this week – the elevated section is mocked up with what Gargraves track we have (we’ve ordered some Ross #115 and #116 O-54 switches with DZ2500 controllers from Legacy Station that haven’t arrived yet):

I also built some custom bridge supports using ABS H- and I-beams from Plastruct. It was an interesting exercise – we spent a good 3-4 hours on the whiteboard dusting the cobwebs off our High School trigonometry and geometry knowledge to ensure our angles and lengths were correct. SOH CAH TOA was quite handy and we were able to calculate all of our sections lengths and angles.  We’re pretty happy with the end result – the bridge height is perfect and it clears double-stack intermodal cars:

We were originally was using a Lionel ZW-C transformer with two 180 watt power bricks to power the layout, but given that we’re using DCS Wifi/WIU for most of train control, we didn’t really have a strong need for the throttles or buttons on the transformer and we don’t need the TMCC integration since track power can now be controlled via DCS – it actually became a bit of an annoyance since with throttles 1 and 4, every time we’d power the transformer up, we’d have to use the TMCC Cab-1 to “soft throttle” the voltage up.  Furthermore, when I went to run some old PS1 locomotives, I found there was what appeared to be a DC offset where the horns would blow constantly, as described in this OGR Forum Post. I considered splicing my 180watt power supplies directly into my DCS TIU as Eric notes in this YouTube video, but doing so would forfeit any traditional throttle control of the track power, and we found the MTH DCS Wifi App to occasionally require “refreshing” to control track power, so having a physical “fail-safe” would be beneficial. Additionally I’d lose accessory outputs, which means I’d have to rig up another separate transformer somewhere like Eric does on his layout, which is not what I wanted to do (we’re all about minimalism in Slottown). So after a bit of hemming and hawing, I decided to build a small shelf for an old MRC Dual Power O-27 I had in storage.  The benefit of the dual power is it’s low profile, still gives us the option of manual throttle control, and it has both constant 12v and 14v output for accessories.  At 270 watts, it should be sufficient to power the whole layout, including accessories and trains. The only downside is there’s no easy way to wall mount it like my other control packs so it requires a shelf. I had to temporarily disassemble the control board to secure the shelf, but ultimately I’m happy with the end result.

Lastly, I purchased a used MTH DCS AIU at a local train show this weekend, so I created a new mounting board for it and mounted it. I did have to purchase a new TIU to AIU cable, since the included one from the factory was missing from my train show purchase, so I purchased a 6P6C reverse cable on Amazon. In retrospect, I wish I had just bought a new one at the store rather than save the ~$20, but it was an impulse purchase.

Next up, we’ll be removing everything from the table top and painting the homasote with brown latex paint to help seal out moisture and prepare for ballast and scenery.  We’ve ordered 5 bags of Brennan’s Better Ballast. We will also be painting the BridgeBoss bridges and the ABS supports I built using black latex paint.

Tunnel/Mountain Platform Built

Made a bit more progress this week with the elevated platform that will soon become the base for Mount Krog and the Krog Tunnels.  The section is cut from 1/2″ plywood and supported by 7.5″ 2x4s and 1x4s. The elevated section can easily hold my weight. I plan on further testing the tensile strength of it by consuming more beers this weekend

Elevated Line

A quick layout update – we’ve begun building the “EL” line using laser cut bridges from Bridgeboss. I’ve worked with Jim from Bridgeboss to spec out the bridges and supports for our elevated line.  It’s definitely both an art and a science to ensure that the bridge supports clear the underlying track plan and overhand from long rolling stock and locomotives navigating curves. The plan is to use Jim’s bridges, along with a 40″ Atlas O truss bridge for the majority of the line, while building a mountain and tunnel platform on the North side of the layout.

All curves on the EL line are O-54, using Gargraves track and Ross switches.

For the most part, Jim’s plan has cleared the underlying track well, but for the few columns that don’t, Jim offers a “support exchange” where I can ship him back some of my column supports for different sizes. Currently, we look to only need to swap out two of the supports and I may need to order one straight section to support the Ross turnout that will “live” on the North side of the layout.

My hope is to get the plywood elevated section that will eventually become the mountain/tunnel complete this weekend before I revert back to Jim regarding which columns I need to swap out or add.

Here are a couple photos of the progress so far: