Tag Archives: Power Functions

The Lego Trains Book by Holger Matthes: A Review

No Starch Press reached out to Brick Model Railroader recently and offered an advance copy of The Lego Trains Book by Holger Matthes. We graciously accepted the offer, and have decided to write and share some of our thoughts on it.

A very attractive book cover.

Before even opening the book, I’m reminded of the (former?) comprehensive resource book for those looking to get started in the hobby. Perhaps some of the older train builders are familiar with “Getting Started with Lego Trains” by Jake McKee, also published by No Starch Press, as far back as 2004. I remember buying that book online and reading it cover to cover more times than I can count. This book predates the end of the 9-volt era, so a new book for Lego trains has been long overdue, and there were certainly some big shoes to fill.

My own tattered copy of Jake McKee’s Getting Started With LEGO Trains.

The Getting Stated book included a solid introduction and a great review of the current market for Lego trains. At that time, the Santa Fe, My Own Train line, and more was available. There was also plenty of information on effective use and operating tips for the old 9 volt system, as well as a comprehensive list of equipment needed to start running a 9 volt layout.

There were also some instructions for those looking for an instant way to jump into 6-wide 9 volt building. While I never actually built any of the models, I definitely wanted to. They were good models because they were appealing to look at, easy enough for a beginner but complex enough to learn real techniques.

As I’m writing the introduction and background information about Jake McKee’s book, I haven’t looked through the book, save for a relatively brief skim and a glance at the instructions included. So without much more delay, let’s dive right in.

First off, I have to say the photography quality is amazing, so big points to photographer Andy Bahler. Following acknowledgements, Michael Gale (of the PFx Brick team) offers a well-written foreword, briefly discussing his lifelong fascination with trains, and growing more and more into modeling them in Lego. The introduction is also very well-laid out, allowing the reader to become familiar with the official Lego website, as well as Bricklink and Brickset. Nomenclature (set numbers, part numbers according to Bricklink, etc.) is also discussed before moving into the real content.

Holger does an amazing job describing the history of Lego trains in vivid detail, from #182 to #10233 Horizon Express, and everything in between. Train operation, track availability, parts, wheels, and more are covered for each train system. I feel the Getting Started book did not do enough of this. Holger certainly has not missed a detail, even including a summary and a look at each system from a current perspective.

An example of the Blue Rail era history.

Moving into the Power Functions era (current), each component which may be used in train building is laid out and described, even shortly describing the possibilities of building your own drive trains. Monorail and even narrow gauge is covered. In all, awesome history.

Next is a section titled “Basic Principles.” I love this section, as it contains a lot of information I wish I had several years ago. Holger describes basic part naming and shows numerous examples of each type, and also describes the studs and anti-studs system (which gives Lego the clutch power, for those unaware). He also details technic connections, and legal vs. illegal connections. SNOT techniques are covered with convenient color-coded diagrams. All of this information gives the reader a great foundation for diving right into building their own MOCs. Other cool techniques demonstrated in this section include brick-built striping and using parts to simulate different textures.

There’s even a Reverse Engineering Challenge!

The next section is titled “Designing Your Own Models,” and gives plenty of thoughtful content regarding various building scales, including the old 6 wide – 8 wide debate (as well as 7 wide, to make Andy Mollmann happy), and designing locomotives and cars to run on the track geometries on the current market.

This section also includes some hardcore Lego train engineering practices, such as trucks, couplings, pivot points, and more. There is also information regarding effective steam locomotive techniques! For those of you who have been pulling your hair out with failed steam locomotives, I recommend this section. I often describe building steam as a dark art, and it sure can be sometimes, but Holger has done a great job making a lot of potentially difficult information easy to read. Concepts like wheel quartering and basic steam locomotive components are covered here. One of the things I particularly like about the steam locomotive section is that Holger lists a few key design points to consider before or while building.

Showing the custom rods from TrainedBricks, and some good points to consider when building a steam locomotive.

Power Functions drive train basics, along with use of train motors, is included here as well. From there, the Holger moves into modeling details and key features of a particular prototype, such as colors, doors, windows, roof design, and more. Further still, track and layout design is discussed, explaining the differences in curve radius, and BlueBrick (a Lego track software).

The next section dives into case studies with very specific techniques and features. Those of you interested in reverse-engineering Holger’s Vectron electric locomotive, this section is for you. The BR10 model is also discussed in detail, and there is a link to Holger’s website for instructions.

Speaking of instructions, that’s the final section! There are instructions for five of Holger’s AWESOME models, with links to his website for his BR80 locomotive. Sorry North American builders, nothing on our side of the pond in this book. (Maybe Cale and I can fill the void sometime…?)

In all, I have to give this book a 10/10 score. There was not a detail that was skipped over. This is certainly the new Getting Started With LGEO Trains, without any doubt. The instructions may be for foreign (to me) models, but they offer a lot, not to mention the countless other photos and well-written paragraphs full of useful stuff. I would recommend this book to anyone, even myself. There’s plenty in here I haven’t even thought of.

Well done, Holger. Thank you for your amazing new contribution to the amazing LEGO train hobby. I’m confident this will be the go-to book for a long time.

Steam Giants of the Norfolk & Western Railway

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

My A class and Y6b milling about in PennLUG’s rail yard.

Continue reading Steam Giants of the Norfolk & Western Railway

Duluth, Missabe, & Iron Range “Yellowstone”

It been a while since we’ve seen a big articulated steam locomotive from LEGO® train builder Anthony Sava. But the wait is over as Anthony’s long planed model of the Duluth, Missabe, & Iron Range class M4 “Yellowstone” is finally completed.

Powerful Brute

Continue reading Duluth, Missabe, & Iron Range “Yellowstone”

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.

Hybrid PF/9V Systems

Following up on my previous article introducing LEGO’s 9V system and their Power Functions (PF) system, I’m going to go a little more in depth about building hybrid systems that utilize both PF battery packs and 9V train track. I’ve developed and iterated through several different systems that combine the best of both and have come up with several easy to implement systems.  Anyone with a few dollars, a volt meter and a soldering iron can hack together one of these hybrids in a matter of hours. Continue reading Hybrid PF/9V Systems

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.

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

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.