Building a Steam Locomotive in LEGO Part 2 – Motorization and Electronics

In my previous previous article I introduced the topic of this series – my process for building a LEGO steam locomotive, and discussed researching and choosing a prototype. In this article, I will discuss choosing motors  for a steam locomotive, options for batteries and receivers, as well as how to integrate other electronics into a LEGO train, such as lights and sound.

In past projects, after completing my research, I would typically start building up the frame of my steam locomotive. I would focus on articulation between driving wheels, pilot truck, pony truck, and tender and make sure my design could handle standard LEGO track geometry. This time, however, I wanted to build more electronics into my locomotive than just a motor, so I needed to sort out all of the electronic issues before doing any building. Still, I began with choosing a motor.

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The Barriger Railroad Library

Today I would like to draw some attention to one of the coolest Flickr accounts I’ve come across in some time. This one does not have any LEGO train content, but at it’s core, it is proving to be an incredible resource for modeling North American railroads.

J&L steel mill is seen from the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie RR mainline looking east toward J&L tunnel, Pittsburgh PA

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Richard Lemeiter’s 141 R Mikado – A Look Back at a Great Model

I began building LEGO trains in a serious way in about 2008. At the time, I had no clue where to start with building something like a steam locomotive, so I looked for ideas and techniques online at places like MOCpages and Brickshelf. There were plenty of people building LEGO trains then, but a few models really stood out. Richard Lemeiter’s 141 R Mikado #840 was one of these.

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The Wonderfull 7-Wide World of Erik

Erik (Adult_Boy) should not be an unfamiliar name within the Lego Community. However, after having build quite a lot of Space and Sci-Fi themed stuff in the last years, he has now gone on a train-related building spree again. Most of what Erik builds is 7-wide, but he manages to very skillfully merge Lego’s own building style with a high level of details, closely mimicking the prototype he is recreating. However, I think it’s best if the models just speak for themselves:

Pere Marquette 1225 with Modified Troop Sleeper
M53, based on Baltimore & Ohio “wagontop” style boxcars
Make the town theme great again!
CLUB CAR 1OOO2
grain train

Want to know more about how Erik did this? Click!

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Battery Powered vs. Track Powered

Young and new recruits to the LEGO train scene will never have known anything other than the current generation of power functions. Battery packs coupled with infrared receivers and remote controls, each taking up precious space in your build. However, it didn’t used to be this way. The previous generation of trains (ignoring the aborted RC train theme) used metal rails to directly power the motors. Both generations had their own advantages and disadvantages, which I will attempt to shed some light on. In a follow up article, I will go over some advanced applications of each, and hybrids that combine the best of both technologies.

Batteries take up space. In my eye, this is Power Function’s main drawback. Additionally, the current generation Infrared (IR) Receiver is quite large and the sensor on it needs to be visible from outside the locomotive for the signal to reach it.

IR Receiver with the shell removed. Why is this thing so big?

Trying to incorporate the AAA/AA battery pack and the IR Receiver into a model is often very tricky, especially when working with 6 or 7 stud wide models. Additionally, batteries need to be recharged or replaced after several hours, so the battery pack needs to be accessible or removable.  When running for many consecutive hours at a convention, swapping batteries becomes a chore. For home use, it is not such a big deal. The IR receiver also has difficulty reaching more than a few feet when there aren’t any walls or ceiling to reflect the light off of. On the other hand, the IR receiver and battery boxes are still currently in production, which means they’re cheap.

PF track Vs. 9V track

Track power has always been my preference and I’ve iterated through several generations of electrical systems searching for the best configuration. LEGO’s classic 9V train controller is simple, turn the knob and your locomotive starts to move. The biggest limiting factors are being limited to metal equipped track and the original 9V train motor, (meaning no double crossovers). Additionally, laying out certain track geometries will cause short circuits. Also, once your loop gets to a certain length, additional power hookups are required so as to avoid slow downs. Of course, the main drawback is price. Expanding or building a new 9V layout is very costly. 9V straight track hasn’t been manufactured in almost 10 years and averages $3.50 each used and $5.50 new on the aftermarket. Original 9V train motors average $35 each used and $75 new.  Many clubs still use 9V systems, and with ME Models finally shipping their metal track, will continue to do so for years to come.

Things start to get interesting when you get rid of LEGO’s speed controller and start substituting your own electronics. Swap in the third party Bluetooth controlled SBrick in lieu of the IR receiver and not only save space, but also gain control range, gain 2 more channels for a total of 4, and lose the line of sight requirement.

In addition to being gigantic, the output power per channel is low.
2 Channel PF IR Receiver3rd party SBrick, approx 8x available power output in a smaller footprint

 

Get rid of the LEGO 9V train controller and use constant track power to feed a Bluetooth motor controller. No batteries! Or better yet, use batteries and track power together: constant track power feeding a Bluetooth motor controller, with batteries for backup. With such a system, a track powered locomotive can continue through double crossovers, over draw bridges, maintain consistent speeds through spotty connections on dirty track, or possibly even charge itself. With the track providing power most of the time, the batteries will rarely need to be recharged.

Read about my experiments in hybrid systems in depth in my next article.

The Union Pacific Type – Building a Steam Locomotive in LEGO

This will be the first in a series of articles about my process of building a LEGO steam locomotive. I intend to cover a variety of topics in this series including research, the use of custom elements, aftermarket electrical devices, and building techniques. While I will focus on a specific locomotive project I am currently working on, this series will not include a full set of step-by-step instructions to that locomotive. My intention is to share some experiences and techniques that I hope people can apply to any steam locomotive project, and perhaps other types of LEGO models as well. At any rate, my designs are usually pretty fragile and don’t really lend themselves to redistribution via instructions. Instead, I will lay out my approach to building a steam locomotive and why I think it is effective. I hope that this will help people who are struggling with what I think is a particularly difficult type of model to build or, at least, be of some interest to the readers of this site.

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Decals: Where to find them. “North American Edition”

Good decals can greatly enhance a model. They can take an ordinary model and make it interesting, and they can put the final jewel on a great model. This will be the first in a series of articles on decals. We plan to cover where to find decals, how to apply the various decal types, and even how to make your own. This first segment will cover where can you get decals for North American railroad models. Since I live in the United States and model US railroads, most of my decal experience in from there, so that’s where I’ll start. I hope to cover more international sources in the future, so if you, our readers, have any recommended suppliers I would love to hear about them.

If it’s decals from a LEGO set that you need you can always turn to Bricklink. But official LEGO decals are limited when building trains based on real life prototypes. When you need decals for a Union Pacific boxcar, or a New York Central diesel locomotive, where do you turn? Fortunately the scale model railroad hobby has numerous decal suppliers to fill our needs. But not all decals are made the same and not all decal suppliers cover the same subjects. This article is intended to be an overview of the more common sources of model RR decals in North America and what they offer.

Decals from the Maryland & Pennsylvania RR Historical Society help make my model of Ma&Pa caboose 2005 a stand out build.

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Getting to work on the Lewiston Branch

Don’t mind the mess on the floor.

I’m making slow and steady progress on the layout.  I want to get the basic terrain, track, and ballast down so I can start operating the layout as quickly as possible.  After that I can worry about landscaping, buildings, and other details.  This will help me stay motivated to completion, because what’s the point of having the trains if we can’t play with them?

 

Examples of basic MILS rails modules used by NELTC

 

I participate in a club that uses the Modular Integrated Landscaping System (MILS) for rapidly assembling layouts at shows.  In addition to making layouts a snap [1], the modules also provide some depth to the terrain and provide ways to hide wiring.  We have some general guidelines for incorporating rails into the modules, similar to the PennLUG baseplate standard, though differing in that we always want half a baseplate between the viewing edge and mainline. 

 

I’m diverging slightly from the standard ballast profile of the club guidelines because looking at historical photos of the yard, the tracks ran at ground level.  Yet, I need to maintain the same rail height for club layout compatibility. That means the ground level ends up being twice as high as the MILS standard and each of these modules ends up consuming twice as many bricks.  I can already see the payoff with the canal that runs through the yard and the extra brick of height gives the right feeling of depth. 

[1]       see what I did there?

Matson’s Landing in L-Gauge – Truckin’ Along

If you’ve been following the Matson’s Landing in L-Gauge series here on BMR, you’ll recall that I’ve settled on both a prototype, a Series B Climax locomotive, and a scale of 1:33, which works out to roughly 8 studs wide. With the initial high-level requirements defined, it’s time to start working on the actual brick design of the motive power.

When I studied architectural design back in college, one of my favorite professors had a saying: “Form follows function.” What he meant by this was that a pretty design isn’t useful if it doesn’t work. This is especially true when it comes to designing things that move, such as locomotives. If I built a gorgeously detailed locomotive that can’t run on a track, it’s not very effective for a working layout. With this in mind, my first task is to build a functional drive system. Once I know that I have something that performs reliably, I can then work on making it look nice.

The drive system of the real-life Climax locomotive actually lends itself very well to being replicated in LEGO form. A main axle below the locomotive turns gears that drive gears connected to each axle of the locomotive’s trucks, or bogies. Power is therefore transferred from the engine to each of the four wheel sets. For my first attempt at a bogie design, I set out to replicate this setup.

LEGO Scalar measurments of Climax truck
View of truck gearing from the Climax Locomotive Catalog

My first step was to take measurements and notes of details of the Climax trucks using the plans that I had found in Model Railroad Craftsman. The side frames of the trucks measured about 7 studs along the top edge, and 5 along the bottom edge. The trucks are assembled from iron bars, angled from bottom to top, with springs on the bolster and both journal boxes. Looking back at the Climax Locomotive Catalog, I found an image of the interior of the truck. It shows bevel gears on each axle, rotated opposite each other, driven by smaller bevel gears along a center axle. With this information, I sat down and started building. Some people work better building virtually at first, then translating to brick. I tend to work in the opposite direction, especially for pieces that have to move. I build first, then document what I’ve built using MLCad.

When I build, I use a process that the website development industry calls “iterative design”. Basically, you create a design, test it, refine it, test it again, and so on, until you come up with a finished product. For this project, I tried to document each iteration for you. This process took a few days, with each new design being slightly better than the last.

Version 1 – Basic Design

For the first iteration, I focused on replicating the prototype truck as closely as possible. I thought the overall design came out well. It was a bit over sized, but it had the basic look of the iron bar trucks with springs, and the gearing also matched the prototype. Testing, however, showed a huge issue very quickly. At 1:33 scale, the locomotive’s base would be about 28 studs long. With a truck on each end, there would not be enough room between the two to fit the axles and universal joints needed to drive the axles, and still allow the trucks to pivot.

Version 2 – Space for U-joints

For the second iteration, I kept the look of the outer frame, but redesigned the interior of the truck to remove one set of gears. This means that the locomotive would be driven more like a Heisler locomotive, with power to only one axle per truck, but allowing for much more room for the universal joints. During testing, these trucks worked well on straight trucks, but caught on switch points or uneven track. The bottom of the side frame needed to be raised by one plate to allow for more clearance.

Version 3 – More clearance

Version three of the Climax trucks turned into an almost complete redesign. This version uses a Studs-Not-On-Top (SNOT) approach, which allowed me more clearance at the track level. The change of design also allowed me to shorten the side frames to be closer to the prototype measurement, but still keep the spring detail. This version was also more solid, with no parts falling off while running. It does lose some of the iron bar look, but the overall angled shape remains. I found it to be a good compromise between function and form (remember: Form follows function). Track testing found this design to run well on straights, curves, s-curves and through switches.

Version 4 – Less clearance

Climax truck Version four was a slight redesign of the bolster section, purely for cosmetic reasons. Version three left just a bit too much space between the bottom of the locomotive base and the top of the truck frame. While functionally it worked, I wanted to lessen the space to make it look better. I was able to remove a single plate of height, which brought the measurement between the base and trucks closer to the scaled prototype.

Version 5 – Final?

Finally, we have the last iteration, Version five. While testing Version four, I found that the inverted plates on the trucks, when running through curves, were catching on the edges of the locomotive base that I’ve been using. I tried using inverted tiles on the ends of the bolsters, but found that these caught as well. The final solution was to use part 2654, Slide Shoe Round 2×2, to act as slides, keeping the space between the truck and the locomotive base, but allowing the trucks to pivot without catching.

Next up, I’ll start working on the locomotive’s main drive system.

Taking it to the next level – Corfe Castle Station

After the previous post on Ararat 1972 and Cale’s piece on Brick Model Railroading as such, I think the pieces are now set for the next installment in the series of inspiring layouts: Corfe Castle Station by Carl Greatrix. Lately, Carl has been the guy who has brought you the Caterham Seven and a lot of the visuals in the recent Lego games, but next to this, he is also a real trainhead and a lover of Scale Modelling. With the Corfe Castle Station layout, he had decided to fuse both of these to create an unique layout.

Corfe Castle Station – the eye-catcher and starting point of the layout
The (almost finished) layout at STEAM 2011

The first thing that you notice when looking at Corfe Castle Station is that it follows a typical “British” approach. At least, that’s how it looks like for me after having read so many British Model Railroading Magazines (like Railway Modeller) when I was young. This means that we are looking at two mainline tracks and a siding, with a station as the main visual element. In fact, it’s just a very big diorama. The layout is an oval of which more than half is the fiddle yard and thus not part of the diorama. So, just as with Ararat 1972, there is no large yard where you can show off your trains. However, it does have two continuous loops which are ideal to show of your trains in high speed!

Overview of the layout – Two ovals and a fiddle yard.

What sets this layout apart of most other Lego Railway layouts is the design choices he makes: instead of using studs everywhere, Carl uses Scale Modelling techniques for making roads, gravel and mountains. This means that not everything in this layout is made out of Lego! The effect works surprisingly well. Instead of looking like a layout made of Lego, this is a layout that uses Lego as one of its mediums.

An example of combining Lego with scale modeling techniques

It becomes even more interesting when inserting his trains. This is because Carl, unlike most Lego Train builders, tries to use as little selective compression as possible. The result are models that are so accurate, that they don’t even look out of place in an actual O-scale layout.

Carl’s trains in an O-scale layout. Not part of Corfe Castle, but too nice not to show.

As said, the layout not only uses Lego. Carl was nice enough to keep a diary over at Flickr in which he shows how he designed the whole layout.  This gives us the great possibility to dive a bit deeper into the layout and the way how it’s build.

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