Tom Lowa at 4DBrix has worked continuously to bring new innovations to the Lego train hobby for some time now. Using their own on-site 3D printer, they’ve been making things like remote switch mechanisms and modular switch tracks, as well as a lot of monorail components, if you’re into that kind of thing. More recently, however, there has been two new additions to the 4DBrix online store that really gives them some good reputation.
If you missed it or haven’t seen it yet, I don’t blame you. It hasn’t been “officially” announced by 4DBrix yet, but rest assured it IS listed on their site. Enter the “Ultimate Railroader” series. Aside from a clever name, this is 4DBrix’s play at getting into a more serious scale Lego railroading market. Currently, the only two products in this line are nearly the same, but different enough to make someone want one of each (or more). Tom has listed R148 crossovers, in both right-hand single crossover and double crossover configurations, on his website. He was also kind enough to send us a set of the double crossover to review, which will be the main point of this article.
If you you’ve been following the LEGO Train Fan Club Facebook group recently you probably have seen the ongoing discussion on Mike Moon’s 3D printed car bodies for LEGO trains. If you haven’t, take a read through here.
Mike’s original post presented his 3D printed trolley car body designed to fit on a LEGO brick built train base. It has since ignited a discussion about what is and is not a LEGO train, and what techniques are acceptable to the community and what ones are a step too far.
My first encounter with the Blue Comet was at the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg Pennsylvania. It was an O scale model of the train made by MTH, sitting on a display shelf in the main display room. I fell in love with the train almost immediately. It was a very striking train, with the locomotive painted in an eye catching blue with gold pin striping, and nickel plated accents. The passenger cars also blue, with an attractive band of white running down the windows. It was beautiful train from a different time, a time when rail travel was king, and a journey on a train was something special. The Blue Comet had caught my imagination like so many before. I knew that I was going to be the one to bring this train to life again in LEGO.
I hope you, our dear readers, will allow me to indulge myself once again as write about my own LEGO® train building. Today I finally bring you my two most recent articulated steam locomotive models, the Norfolk & Western A class and Y6b. Those of you who have seen a PennLUG display in person over the past year, or read issue 46 of Brickjournal have probably already seen these, but it’s taken me a little while to finally upload photos and write an article on them for Brick Model Railroader. In my defense, I’ve been busy.
The Last Great Steam Railroad in America: Modeling its Finest Work Horses
Today I’m bringing you some sweet new prototype technology from our good friends at 4DBrix. Tom Lowa was at Brickworld recently to show off something he’s been cooking up, and I have to say, it’s a pretty sweet idea. I’ve been emailing Tom about the concept and here is the information they gave me.
4DBrix has engineered a way to transmit power via the magnetic couplings on train cars. A short video is posted below:
It’s a pretty ingenious idea. For those that enjoy building passenger trains with detailed interiors (and lights) this is a great way to eliminate those ugly wires between the ends of cars. It also eliminates the need for bulky connectors between cars, which can be difficult to plug in and are also unsightly.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this installment, we will discuss the scale my model will use, and why I use it, as well as custom and aftermarket steam locomotive parts.
First, the issue of scale. Model train hobbyists tend to consider scale before anything else because, in general, scale is rigidly established for most model railroads. Most people are familiar with the common model railroad scales, such as HO, O or N. There are countless others, but they generally have one thing in common – their scale is fixed based upon the track gauge. That is, the distance between the inside edges of the top of the rails. In the LEGO train world, that scale is not so rigidly fixed. LEGO never intended their trains to be part of a model railroad system, so they did not design their track and trains to be in the same scale. The first LEGO train system (not considering earlier wooden and plastic trains without a track system or power) was introduced in 1966. The rails were blue, and the ties white, but the gauge has remained the same in all subsequent LEGO train systems, roughly 38mm. between the inside of the rails. The locomotives and rolling stock were 6 studs wide, roughly 6 feet wide if we considered the rails to be standard gauge. That is obviously not a realistic scale for width but that does not make it somehow ‘wrong’ of course. Many locomotives in the real world are more like 11 feet in width, about 11 studs in LEGO in a strict track gauge equation. There are many excellent models out there in this scale, but it is not typical for a LEGO train layout, and it is not the scale we use in my club.
In my first article in my series on decals for LEGO® trains, I covered some popular model RR manufacturer’s who make decals suitable for use with LEGO trains. This time I want to highlight one of the options for making your own custom decals for LEGO trains, vinyl decals. This is a newer option that I’ve come across but it offers some great possibilities.
The story of how Maci’s Monograms got side tracked into LEGO decals.
This all started some time ago when I came across a post on Facebook about some decals that LOLUG – Lincoln/Omaha LEGO User Group had made using cut vinyl. My friend and fellow train builder Nate Flood is a member of LOLUG and he quickly brought me up to speed on them. As it turns out, Nate’s daughter Maci is the one who produced the decals, and she has started her own business for the purpose.
Last time, I spoke about how to start modeling a typical European style goods railcar. I have been speaking at length about all kind of fancy ways of making sure you understand your prototype. I hope you have been making notes because today we will immediately dive into the fun part: Building! Let’s just take off where we left now, shall we?
Step 4. Choosing your materials
After the scale has been set, it’s time to decide which part will be essential for your design. This might sound silly, but in my opinion every train model has 1 defining part (or technique, meaning several parts combined) around which the whole model is being build. In this case, I settled on the Lego Chair in brown, since I had a lot of them and wanted to get rid of them without selling. Also, the idea was that brown would nicely mimick the rust on the prototype (And trust me, some of them were far worse off than the one you just saw). Turning them into a railcar seemed to be the right solution. It didn’t work out as planned however…