Hello dear readers. Yes, I know our regular train content has dropped in recent weeks. Preparing for a major convention, Brickworld, and launching our new store has monopolized much of our time. But we’re back from Brickworld, we’ll have a full report later this weekend once all our photos and video are sorted through, and the store is now going. So lets get back to LEGO® trains.
Nothing too serious today. But I wanted to take the opportunity to spot light some nice LEGO train models that have appeared on line lately. So let’s do some LEGO Railfanning.
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.
I love coming across new (or maybe just new to me) train builders when perusing through flickr, or one of the other LEGO® train hangouts online. Especially when their models are as good as these two by Aaron Burnett.
We’re back! I know it’s been quiet here the past few days. Philly Brickfest has been a huge time sink for myself and several of the other contributors here to BMR. Building, prep work, set up at the event, running the PennLUG train layout, tear down, unloading the trailer at home, and then catching up on all the other stuff we put off while the event seemed to consume our life, has left little time to write. But now things have finally settled back down and it’s time to get back to providing you with the great articles on the LEGO train hobby that you expect from us.
The PennLUG Lines takes on Philly
So for those of you who may be just joining us, myself, and contributors Nate Brill and Glenn Holland participated with our club, PennLUG at Philly Brick Fest 2017 on April 20th to the 23rd. This was also the first event Brick Model Railroader has officially attended.
What exactly is Philly Brick Fest? It is a Brick Fest Live Event coordinated by Learn With Bricks LLC. This group puts on numerous LEGO conventions across America year-round. Philly Brick Fest is the big AFOL convention that takes place every April in Philadelphia Pennsylvania drawing LEGO fans from across the US. This was the 4th year for the event which PennLUG has participated with from the beginning. It’s also our largest LEGO train layout we display each year and our home convention, this year our layout costumed a 25 foot x 65 foot space on the show floor with three running loops of track, a working roundhouse and rail yard, huge city layout, and plenty of country side scenery.
Running a train layout this large is a lot of work!
A LEGO train layout as large and as detailed as the one PennLUG displayed this year is a ton of work, and it starts with planning. Planning for our Philly layout usually starts a year before at while at the event. While setting up and running the layout at the show, we are also brainstorming about what we want to add next year, what we want to change to make things better, and what parts of the layout may have run their course and are ready to be retired. Train shows are the best inspiration and motivation for building a layout, at least they are for me.
Next comes the building. We’re always building something for the layout. Most of the time it’s individual stuff, a new locomotive, some new rail cars, a new building for the city, personal projects that the PennLUG members want to add. But we also have large group built sections, building for these usually starts several months before the show, and steadily ramps up in pace as the show gets closer. We also finalize our layout plan as the show gets closer and start preparing everything we need.
This year our big addition to the layout for Philly was phase one of our new forest corner. I briefly detailed the Forest Corner plan in a previous BMR article. The first phase, the one we wanted to complete before Philly, was the creek and lake section as well as the general track work for the whole corner. We decided to start with the creek and lake as it sits on a set of lowered tables, so we needed to build up this part anyway to make all the track work complete. Building started in February with Nate Brill and myself, and continued over several weekends with Glenn Holland joining in. This new section is one of the most technical landscape area of our layout, with variation in terrain hight, water, and multiple bridges, both at off grid angles adding to the challenge. I plan to write a more in depth article on this new layout addition in the future, but for now you can see the completed section in my photo set from Philly.
Once the show time arrives, we load up the PennLUG trailer with all our models, tables, and gear and it’s off we go. Philly is our home convention so we don’t have to travel very far, most members live close enough that it’s only a short commute from home. I live about 1.5 hours west. We arrived earlier than most attendees, getting to the expo center Wednesday evening to get a head start unloading the trailer and setting up our tables. Thursday morning set up began on the PennLUG train layout in a huge way. With all hands on deck we started at 8:30am and finished up the last little details Friday afternoon. Of course we stopped to eat and have some fun here and there through set up, but overall we estimate maybe 17 hours from start to finish, with help from 10 members on site at various times, to get the layout ready to show.
Once the work is done, it’s time to play.
Once everything is set up, and the last little detail has been put in place, it’s time to run some trains and enjoy the weekend. This layout may have been a big project, but it was also a lot of fun. Sitting back and looking at all the great models, and wonderful detail that went into the PennLUG train layout brought smiles to all who contributed. And this was also one of the best layouts we’ve done yet for running trains. This was the first show where we’ve had 3 complete loops of running track, and we took every advantage to run as much as we could. From Thursday evening to the end of the show Sunday we usually had three trains running whenever we were at the layout. We also had a full operating rail yard, which used to do some switching, building up and breaking down trains that we we’re running. We had plenty of running opportunity and plenty of trains to run, with 6 members bringing locomotives and rolling stock to use, there was always a train in motion throughout the weekend. Many of us in the club don’t have a train layout at home to run on, so shows like this are our time to have fun, and we very much did.
Probably the biggest highlight of the weekend came on Sunday when we ran one of the longest trains ever on our layout. The train was led by my Norfolk & Western A class and Y6b, articulated steam locomotives double heading. Nate Brill’s awesome Erie Triplex added a third locomotive as a pusher on the rear of the train. The rest of the train was made up of 23 freight cars and one caboose, later we increased it to 25 cars and 3 caboose, practically emptying our rail yard of all rolling stock. All three locomotives are Power Functions based. My two N&W engines in the lead are running 2 XL motors each with an I.R. receiver and PF rechargeable battery box per each locomotive. Nate’s Triplex on the tail uses 3 L motors and the I.R. receiver and rechargeable battery. There was no other power for the train, just the locomotives. Truthfully the train was a little over powered, just one of the front pair of locomotives could have probably pulled the train without the help of the other two. Coordinating starting of the train proved to be quite a challenge. Each locomotive had to be started simultaneously or the train would pull itself apart, even with using neodymium magnets between the couplers to increase coupler hold. But the challenge was worth it as we watched one of the coolest trains we’ve ever assembled make lap after flawless lap on the PennLUG layout. Fortunately there was plenty of video evidence to document the feat.
And lastly PennLUG had the opportunity to test out some prototype R104 turnouts from BrickTracks. The turnouts performed flawlessly all weekend, we ran several different trains through them, some at considerable speed, without issue. Scott Hoffmeyer has done an excellent job with refining the design and plans to launch a Kickstarter for molded plastic versions in june 2017. But is you really can’t wait you can purchase the 3D printed prototype from Shapeways now. You’ll be hearing more about BrickTracks in the coming weeks.
Brick Model Railroader Attends it’s First Official Event
So this was the first show BMR has attended as an official entity since we launched at the beginning of 2017. Myself, and contributors Glenn Holland and Nate Brill were at the show all weekend. Though the PennLUG layout consumed most of our time, we did get a chance to meet with people and talk about BMR. Of course there are many things we wanted to do, and like the best laid plans of mice and men, not all of them went according to plan.
We wanted to have BMR T-Shirts available by the show. But delays in finding a printer, as well as time spent on PennLUG projects shoved the shirts to the back burner. But we still plan to do them, and now that Philly is over and we can breathe a bit, we want to get back to making this happen.
The BMR Boxcar Premium Instructions were all set to go on sale the Friday of the show, but Murphy’s law slapped us pretty hard. The problem comes down to the bearings we planned to use in the kits. When Andy Mollmann first told me about the bearings he found to fit LEGO train axles, I bought a few to test and didn’t have any issues. They fit the older and newer style LEGO train axles fine. They work great at reducing rolling friction so we wanted to use them in our instructions for the BMR boxcar. So I bought 200 more for my own use not expecting any problems, and then another 200 for BMR instruction kits. Turns out I was wrong. Two batches of bearings later and both genuine LEGO axles, and non LEGO equivalents, we’ve found that while the bearings are an excellent fit for the old style axles (the one the push through the wheel), the newer ones are terribly unreliable in fit, most being a little to large in diameter to work. The older style axles are 1.95mm in diameter, where as the new ones average between 1.97mm and 1.98mm, which is too tight to fit the bearings in most cases.
So we’re looking for an alternative solution to the problem. Using the older style LEGO axles and wheels is not a viable long term solution, too expensive and limited in supply. So, we need an axle the right size, 1.95mm diameter, that will work. We have a few good leads, so hopefully we’ll have more to report soon.
The bottom line is that you only get one chance to make a good first impression. We at BMR don’t want to release any product with our name on it that is not the best we can provide, or fails to deliver what we promised. We fumbled a bit on our plans to release the boxcar instructions, but we intend to find a solution to the problem and release the kits as we promised. So I hope you, our readers, will remain patient for a little longer.
What a Ride!
So Philly Brick Fest has now come and gone. All the hard work, sleepless nights, blood, sweat, and tears are behind us. It was quite an experience, many memories were made. Thank you to every one who came out to see us at the event, we will be attending more in the future, the next being Brickworld in June.
And one final thing. My winless streak at Philly Brick Fest remains intact, 4 years and not a single trophy. But that doesn’t bother me one bit. Because my club, PennLUG, picked up Best Collaborative for our train layout this year. I’m super proud of my crew, every member at the show, and a few who couldn’t make it, pitched in somewhere. We worked our tails off and this was a great reward. It was a tiring and sometimes stressful weekend, but it was also a lot of fun. To all my club mates, you are all awesome!
You can find all my photos from PennLUG’s Philly Brick Fest train layout on Flickr.
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.
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…
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→
Central Railroad of New Jersey 1940’s Commuter Train in LEGO
This is my LEGO model of a 1940’s Central Railroad of New Jersey commuter train. This train is typical of those that made up the CNJ’s short haul commuter service in the first half of the 20th century. You may have already seen the locomotive in my recent article on Vinyl Decals, or on a recent youtube livestream. Now that the locomotive is properly decaled, I finally took some time to photograph the whole train and write this article.
The seeds for building this train were planted several years ago while on a trip to visit Steamtown National Historic Site. While there one of the locomotives that caught my attention was an odd little Canadian National engine, no. 47. Canadian National no. 47 is what is referred to as a “Suburban” locomotive. These locomotives were built for short haul service on commuter lines. The Suburban type had its tender, carrying coal and water, integrated with the main frame of the locomotive, rather than having a separate “tender” car semi-permanently coupled to the locomotive. This gave the locomotive excellent dual directional capability, handy for when there were no provisions for turn the engine around at the end of it’s run. It was not uncommon to see these engines running backwards pulling their train on a return trip.
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.