**IMPORTANT** Announcement Regarding Boxcar Premium Instructions

The staff at Brick Model Railroader has an important announcement regarding the premium instructions set to be released for sale today, April 21, 2017.

We have encountered an unforeseen problem regarding the ball bearings used in the freight car trucks. Essentially, the metal Lego axles that would sit in the bearings are too large to be installed properly without ruining the bearing. Therefore, we are not able to install bearing in the Technic bricks either.

The BMR staff does not want to deliver a product that we feel does not meet our quality standards, and we also do not want to deliver a product that is not what we said we would deliver. We would like to humbly ask the Lego train community for more time until practical and workable solution is achieved.

We apologize for any inconvenience this causes and we apologize for not being able to launch the premium instructions today.

We appreciate the continued support of the community, and we hope we haven’t let anyone down.

 

Cale Leiphart and Glenn Holland

Brick Model Railroader Staff

Brick Model Railroader is live on YouTube!

With Philly Brickfest 2017 almost upon us, one of the goals I had for BMR before then was to get our YouTube channel up and running, and here we are. Presenting the new Brick Model Railroader YouTube Channel! You can find the link on the “Follow BMR” page as well.

It is still a work in progress. There’s work I need to do to get everything connected properly and running smoothly. But, as of noon today, we already have a video posted for your viewing pleasure with a second (and maybe third) on the way.  As time permits, I plan to upload some videos to the BMR channel featuring shows where trains are displayed at, reviews of our premium instructions, and hopefully more.

Just two days now to Philly Brickfest 2017, and hopefully there will be a video covering all the great train action there too. Be sure to subscribe to the channel so you’ll never miss a video from us, and stay tuned for more!

PFx Brick Train Integration Demo

Fx Bricks has been busy uploading some videos to their YouTube channel recently.

In the interest of us train fans, they have posted a two-part video demonstration showing how the PFx brick can be integrated into a stock locomotive.

Part one shows the physical installation of the control system in the locomotive…

Continue reading PFx Brick Train Integration Demo

The Modular Track Switch System, Now on Kickstarter!

We as Lego Model Railroaders are being treated pretty well these days. After the launch of the PFx Brick Kickstarter 10 days ago (who, by the way, have just said they will include Bluetooth in the PFx Brick!), 4DBrix decided to launch a Kickstarter for a 3D printed Modular Switch Track System.

Until now, there was not really any way to obtain other than the standard L-Gauge switches for your Lego railway, unless you were into some forms of extensive modding. Thanks to the Modular Switch Track System, this will be a thing of the past. 4DBrix actually has come up with a pretty nifty system that could rival with TLC’s own ideas:

I had the opportunity to ask the founder of 4DBrix, Tom Lowa, some questions in regards to using these switches for ‘pros’ like us. Mostly, I was wondering about any anti-studs on the back of the switches, how durable 3D printed switches are, and also, why they don’t do injection moulding.

Continue reading The Modular Track Switch System, Now on Kickstarter!

Details Regarding the Boxcar Premium Instructions

We have been getting a lot of positive comments and seeing a lot of excitement about the coming release of our first run of “premium instructions.” We feel that we now have all the important details in place, so we would like to clarify some of the questions we have been receiving in a little more detail.

Box cover for the boxcar premium instructions. Final design may vary.

Continue reading Details Regarding the Boxcar Premium Instructions

Introducing PFx Brick: A new sound, lighting and motor control system for your LEGO® models

If you’ve been to a model train show in the past several years, you may have noticed that the layouts on display have more than just trains running around track with some static scenery in the background. Modern scale train layouts are becoming increasingly more dynamic, with sound, advanced lighting, and animation beyond just the trains. These elements add a whole new world to the typical model train layout, from stock cars emanating the sounds of livestock, to signals flashing to let engineers know if it’s safe to proceed with their train, to animated scenes on the layout such as kids playing on playground equipment. These bring a train layout to life, and make the experience more fun for all. Many builders in the LEGO community have incorporated these elements into their own creations, but there’s never been an off the shelf, “Plug and Play” solution to creating and controlling many of them until today. From the minds of LEGO hobbyists Michael Gale and Jason Allemann has come the PFx Brick.

Continue reading Introducing PFx Brick: A new sound, lighting and motor control system for your LEGO® models

DIY Tracks – What The Others Already Did

After Glenn Holland showed the types of curved tracks that are currently available on the aftermarket and what can be expected, I thought it could be interesting as well to tell about the ways how to make your own track. Some if it is from before the ME Models era, some of it actually is a bit younger.

In any way,  it shows our community is far more versatile and creative than one might sometimes think, even back in the days when the 9V system limited us to 1 radius, 1 type of switch and 1 type of straights.

Seeing how much there is out there nowadays, I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list. So, if you have any additions, feel free to add them in the comments.

Continue reading DIY Tracks – What The Others Already Did

Supercapacitor Power Packs

As an electrical engineer, I have always found lithium batteries to be…. amusing. They’re extremely volatile; if overcharged, they explode. If over-discharged, they explode. If charged too quickly, they explode. If discharged too quickly, they explode. If punctured, they explode. If they get too hot, they explode. If they get too cold, they simply don’t work. Think back to the recent debacle of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery woes. But yet, these are the best batteries that are currently mass produced. Almost everyone carries one in their pocket and frequently holds it close to their face. For applications where the energy density (energy stored per volume) or the total energy stored (in Watt-hours) isn’t important, there is an alternative storage media that might be of interest to my fellow model train fans. Enter supercapacitors.

Not quite the same thing.

What follows isn’t for the electronically faint of heart. Accidentally short circuiting an alkaline battery or similar for a few seconds isn’t going to cause much harm. Short circuiting a bank of supercapacitors will melt wires and turn your supercapacitors into charcoal in no time. Be smart.

A supercapacitor is different than a battery in several important but sometimes subtle ways. For a model train, some of these differences are to our advantage, others are not. First off, when a battery is discharged from 100% to 0%, the voltage is fairly consistent. The difference between the full and empty voltages and the rate at which it falls depends on the type of battery. For example, a NiMh battery is about 1.45V full, and 1.2V empty. A capacitor is different; when empty, it is 0V. The “full” voltage is whatever you charge it to. Different capacitors have different maximum voltage ratings. When discharged, the voltage falls from the charge voltage to 0V. Most supercapacitors are rated for either 2.5V or 2.7V. Similar to batteries, putting multiple capacitors in series is how you get the desired voltage capacity. For example, a 9V system would need 4 2.5V/2.7V supercapacitors in series. When the system is charged up to 9V, the voltage will be split evenly with 2.25V each on the 4 capacitors.

The second major difference between the two technologies is the speed at which they can be charged. NiMh and LiPo batteries are usually limited to some fraction of their amp-hour capacity for their charge rate. Meaning, a 2000mAh NiMh battery can be safely charged at 1-2A. Of course, this varies based on manufacturer specs, and charging them faster will degrade their capacity faster, but that is neither here nor there. A supercapacitor has a much higher safe charge/discharge rate. The small ones I like to use in my locomotives are safe up to 3.3A! Much higher rated ones exist too, I built an experimental system that used 100F supercaps rated up to 35A. Additionally, a rechargeable battery typically is only rated for a few thousand charge cycles. A supercap can be charged several hundred thousand times.

The major downside to supercapacitors is energy density, or how much power you can store per volume. My choice supercaps are 4mWh/cm^3 whereas a 2000mAh NiMh battery is about 350mWh/cm^3. So they’re less dense by about a factor of 100, useless, right? No! If all we need to do is get over an unpowered track section, for example an unpowered ME Models R104 180 degree curve, we only need about 10 seconds of run time. So if we have an equal volume of supercaps to AA batteries, our run length will be 1/100th: an AA battery set lasts several hours, call it 2h on the conservative side. That means an equally sized supercap bank will run for 1.2 minutes, plenty of time for zipping through a short unpowered track section!

Some of the difficulty in implementing a supercap bank is limiting the charge current. From the perspective of your power supply, capacitors are more or less a 0 ohm short circuit which means the theoretical charge current will be infinite. You can limit this with a resistor, but realistically this is unfeasible. A resistor spec’ed correctly would have to be very physically large to allow for high heat dissipation. It’d get hot enough to melt LEGO (ask me how I know)! Additionally, as the capacitors charge, the charge rate slows down exponentially. Luckily, there are other methods available to limit the current. I found a cheap, small product on eBay that fits the bill perfectly: a CC/CV regulator. Not only can this thing limit the voltage to the bank, but it can also limit the current.

With a CC/CV regulator set to never charge past the supercap’s rated voltage and current, the next step is regulating the output of the supercaps. Because we don’t want our train to slow down as the supercap bank discharges, we need a DC/DC regulator. There are some nice cheap ones on eBay for about $1.50 that just so happen to be exactly 3 studs wide.

Above is my Amtrak B32-8WH being retrofitted with 10x 15F 2.7V supercaps. The small circuit board on the left is the CC/CV charger. The wires going down through the center lead to the fuel tank, which is where the DC-DC regulator, bridge rectifier, and bluetooth motor controller all live.
Complete circuit diagram of my supercap system. The bypass diode on the CC/CV charger was later removed.

I’ve also made a system with 10x 100F supercaps. The added capacity doesn’t really add any utility over 10F-20F supercaps, so all of my recent systems are 15F. One of the downsides to charging the supercaps as quickly as possible is the sizing of the power supply required to handle the peak current, especially when you have multiple locomotives on the same circuit. Luckily for me, my work has stacks of 24V 6.5A power supplies lying around. Unfortunately for you, they are not cheap new. A used PC power supply can be rigged up to perform similarly, but as always, the exercise is left to the reader…

Matson’s Landing in L-Gauge – Gearing Up (or Down)

It’s been several weeks since I’ve updated the Matson’s Landing in L-Gauge series. In all openness, there hasn’t been a lot of progress. I find that, from time to time, I need to take a break from a project and come back to it with fresh eyes at a later time. I was running into some design issues with the Matson’s Landing locomotive, so I moved on to other projects. This week I returned to this locomotive, and find myself energized to work on it again.

In my last article on the design, I promised to document the main drive system for the Climax logging locomotive that I’m building. First, though, for the beginners, a quick run-down of the LEGO Power Functions technology that I’m using.

The Power Functions (PF) system was released back in 2007, at about the same time that the LEGO 9v and RC train systems were discontinued. Power Functions elements were designed to be used cross-theme, with elements showing up in both Technic and Train sets. The first official Power Functions compatible train was the Emerald Night (10194), released in 2009.

At its most basic, a PF system consists of a battery box connected to a motor. The battery box has an on/off switch, which sends or cuts power to the motor. There are a few different types of battery boxes available. For our purposes, we’ll use the box with a 4 x 8 stud footprint.

PF Battery Box with Medium Motor
PF Battery Box with Medium Motor

The next step up from the basic box/motor setup is the Rechargeable Battery Box (8878) (http://brickset.com/sets/8878-1/Rechargeable-Battery-Box), connected to a motor. The rechargeable box, in addition to the lithium polymer battery, has a small speed-control dial built into the top of the box. With this, you can set or change the speed of the motor. This is good for models that stay in one place, but difficult to use for models that will vary their speed and direction often.

Rechargeable Battery Box with Medium Motor
Rechargeable Battery Box with Medium Motor

To gain more control over a model, an Infrared Receiver (8884) (http://brickset.com/sets/8884-1/IR-Receiver) and Remote Control (8885) (http://brickset.com/sets/8885-1/IR-Remote-Control) can be added. The receiver will pick up signals from the controller, then send the information along to one or more motors. The IR Receiver can pick up signals over 4 channels on two ports, allowing up to 8 motors or other outputs to be controlled. The basic controller allows for forward/stop/reverse movement, which must be monitored by the user.

Rechargeable Battery Box, Infrared Receiver, Medium Motor with Remote Control
Rechargeable Battery Box, Infrared Receiver, Medium Motor with Remote Control

Another step up, and what most brick train builders use, is to swap out the IR Remote Control for the IR Speed Remote Control (8879) (http://brickset.com/sets/8879-1/IR-Speed-Remote-Control). The Speed Control remote allows for all the basic functions of the IR Remote, but also adds speed dials to the mix. Each speed dial can be increased or decreased in steps, allowing for smooth control of locomotives and other models. Each speed dial also has a red kill switch, which will immediately send a signal to the IR Receiver to set the power on that port to zero, effectively stopping the motor.

Rechargeable Battery Box, Infrared Receiver, Medium Motor with Speed Control
Rechargeable Battery Box, Infrared Receiver, Medium Motor with Speed Control

For the Matson’s Landing Climax, I’m using a very simple application of the last PF setup. The battery, IR Receiver, and a Medium Motor (8883) (http://brickset.com/sets/8883-1/M-Motor), will ride on the base of the locomotive. An small 8-tooth gear is attached to the output of the motor. This gear meshes with a second 8-tooth gear to transfer power to a larger 24 tooth gear that rides just below the base of the locomotive. The large gear drives the axles that are connected to the universal joints of each truck, thereby driving the locomotive’s wheels. The small to large ratio of the main drive system gears the power down, decreasing the overall speed of the locomotive, but increasing the power. While it doesn’t look as flashy as a speeding locomotive, it is more typical of a logging locomotive on a mountain line.

Climax Locomotive Main Drive System
Climax Locomotive Main Drive System

In the next installment, I’ll talk about track testing, and how the results will drive the design of the Matson’s Landing track plan.

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