So…where was I?

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I could, I suppose, claim that the tsunami of workplace overtime hours since late March left me with no time for hobby activities, but that’s not quite true. My evenings did become shorter, and so did my Saturdays. I had a choice: spend my remaining, precious free time working with trains, or writing blog entries.

Well, which would you have chosen?

A brief recap

In the last two months, I got a few more decoders installed in my locomotives. I took some T-Trak modules to the Batavia show. While we ran trains on the layout there, I demonstrated the Command Project on Susquehannock Industrial Park, for the benefit of those who think DCC is just too complicated for mortals. I hosted the travelling freight car of the “N Scale Model Trains” Facebook group for a week. I finally installed the seven-segment display into my South Sinnemahoning module, nearly a year after purchase. I gave another one of Dana’s engines a once-over for him. I helped the club dust off and set up the Ntrak layout for the Lockport show, and left afterwards with just enough money to give to the tow-truck driver for the trip home. I received not one, but two plaques of appreciation at the club banquet (sorry, guys, but I stand by my decision not to run for office again). And I visited Sam for the first time in many months. All in all, not a bad season for hobby activity, especially with a little extra overtime money to grease the way.

My visit with Sam

Now, about that visit. Sam is an N scaler I’ve known for a few years now. He has a beautiful basement, in which his Basement Empire has been a work-in-progress since before we met. With every visit, I’d be greeted with major changes to the railroad, and usually more of it. I tried making a schematic of his main lines, for the sake of not embarrassing myself during operating sessions, but it was of a complexity that threatened to disrupt the space-time continuum. Sometimes I wondered if Sam wasn’t attempting to build a working model of “A Subway Named Moebius.”

After repeated attempts to stuff the entire railroad network of Washington state downstairs, Sam took some time off last year, did some re-evaluation of the situation, and ripped out major chunks. He invited a few of us over to survey progress, and it was heartening to see. Less railroad in the basement meant less time spent keeping it in running condition, and less anxiety over it. Sam was more relaxed about the railroad than I remember him being in the past.

Naturally, I brought the Command Project along in a shoebox for a little show-and-tell, and Sam was duly impressed. I asked if there was any way I could help with his railroad.

“Can you check some couplers for me?” he asked. “I can send a couple engines home with you, if that’s okay.”

“Sure,” I replied.

Well, “a couple” in Sam’s parlance turned out to be a dozen. The next morning, I got out my coupler gauge and checked. Three of Sam’s F-units were in need of some front-coupler attention, but everything else was fine. I then proceeded to get out my PowerCab, USB interface, and laptop, and spent some time reading CVs into DecoderPro. Sam, who has been placed on a low-anxiety diet by his doctor, had nonetheless expressed some anxiety the night before, over matters of speed-matching and consisting. With his decoder settings in DecoderPro for ready scrutiny, it was easy to see why. All the locomotives were consisted into pairs of matching units, and CVs within some of those pairs were wildly disparate. Either some locomotives had mechanical problems, or the speed-matching had been poorly done.

Have you done speed matching? It’s a tedious process. Most of the modellers I know sidestep it by consisting like-with-like, which usually works well enough. One Kato F-7 with a Digitrax decoder should run the same as another one, right? But things don’t always work out that way. You just purchased another Atlas U-25B off eBay, for example, only to find out that this one has the early chassis, with the faster-running motor. Your favorite decoder is out of stock, and you’ll have to use a different brand on your next install. Or, to use an extreme example, you’re an Erie Lackawanna nut who wants to recreate one of those crazy lashups with a U-boat, an RS-3, a baby Trainmaster, and two E-8s. Sooner or later, some speed-matching will have to be done.

Surprisingly enough, the DCC manufacturers don’t have a product to automate this process. You can get a digital speedometer with infrared sensors, which helps a lot, but there’s no easy way to close the loop by feeding speed values back into the command station, and having it adjust CVs until the target speeds are reached.

And that’s when it hit me. I have a DCC system that I can modify. I’ve worked with infrared sensors. Here’s another challenge.

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