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The Randall Museum in San Francisco hosts a large HO-scale model model railroad. Created by the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club starting in 1961, the layout was donated to the Museum in 2015. Since then I have started automatizing trains running on the layout. I am also the model railroad maintainer. This blog describes various updates on the Randall project and I maintain a separate blog for all my electronics not directly related to Randall.

2019-12-21 - A Lightweight Junior Engineer Day Setup

Category Randall

We have not reestablished the GGMRC’s Junior Engineer Day (JED) at Randall since the re-opening in 2017. I originally had plans for it, and shoved them aside due to two reasons: one is technical, the other is staff involvement.

The technical reason is fairly simple: The GGRMC used to reconfigure the layout from DCC into DC mode for JED. Trains used were DC engines, and a DC throttle was used. Four trains were needed (2 freight trains and 2 passenger trains). Just before the club stopped, I did make a proposal to run the event in DCC, and demonstrated a prototype using software running on an Android tablet to control DCC trains. I also provided a makeshift DCC throttle similar to the previous one with a large lever for kids. Once we reopened at Randall, we did not have the necessary equipment with four DCC trains suitable for this task. I had plans to incorporate the JED flow into the automation computer so that once a train got started by a kid, the train would come back automatically to the station for the next person to take on it. I shoved that project aside as we were busy setting up a reliable automation for the museum. The lack of equipment to run JED and the automation could be solved with time and effort, the main hurdle is elsewhere.

The real issue is staffing. The GGMRC JED event required at least four volunteers to run: one person to distribute tickets and handle the crowds, one person to select the desired train and manage the throttle, one person in the back bringing back the train to the station, and finally one or more extras volunteers to relieve others as these are tiresome events. One core issue with JED at Randall was that the event was too popular, with long lines, and way more kids wanting to run than time available. So frankly, it was a bit of a zoo, and the fact it was free meant people had no incentive to keep their allocated time slots, or some people were just trying to run more than others, or some parents were trying to make their too-young-kids run where not suitable.

As the GGMRC JED workflow was not explicitly defined nor written anywhere, at least one or two “old timers” members were needed who knew how to setup the layout and to manage the whole operation. When we started running again at Randall, it was clear that there would be no staff support from the museum, there weren't any volunteers around to make this happen, and the current operators lacked a lot of the technical proficiency required. So I just shoved this aside.

In between, Wilcox got a variation on JED working at CRMS. The context at CRMS’ open houses is a lot better. The event is not free as there’s a $5 entrance fee (they call it a donation, but let’s call it what it really is). And CRMS is reasonably out of the way enough that only people who are really motivated into model trains go there and take the time to visit it. Thus the crowds are inherently more sophisticated and well behaved than what we have at Randall in a free SF kids museum. As for the operation itself, it’s a lot more simple and low-key than what was done at Randall. From what I was told, a train operator simply gives its NCE throttle to a kid to run for a few minutes. These throttles look like big remotes with large buttons, and controlling a train requires no training at all, just slide a little wheel to change the train speed.

If the JED event were to come back at Randall, I’d push to have a format similar to the one at CMRS.

I personally think the key at Randall would be to limit the attendance. There’s some obvious reluctance to charge for this event (I already asked in the past) and maybe instead it could be a members-only event.

The actual workflow would be a lot simpler than the old GGMRC JED one:

  • We would have two trains on the mainline -- one waiting at the Stockton station while another one is running and completing the loop.
  • We use two NCE throttles, with clear labels or colors (one for each train: throttles A & B for trains A & B).
  • When a kid is ready to run, the operator simply gives them the NCE throttle corresponding to the train currently waiting at the station; if needed the operator shows them how to operate it (using the speed wheel) and asks them to not use the other buttons (see below for how that can be improved).
  • The kid gets to run the train from Stockton till it reaches Summit.
  • At that point the operator asks the kid to kindly give the throttle back.
  • Once the operator has the throttle back, he can focus on the next kid running the next train at the station.
  • In the meanwhile, another operator in the back takes control of the ongoing train, lets it complete the loop, and stops it when it gets next to the Stockton station -- ideally the previous train would have left already; if not we just wait for it to be free before moving the train there so that there’s always one train ready at the station.

The key point of the workflow above is to simplify by having just two trains in a loop. Kids don’t get to choose, they run whichever train is waiting at the station. To keep it simple and low key we would use the NCE throttles directly. We do need to limit the running to kids who are able to use these throttles; I’d say 5-yr old or older would be fine.

That’s enough to do a “pilot event” for this. There are a lot of variations possible. If a “pilot event” was deemed successful, a few things could be streamlined:

  • Instead of using full NCE ProCabs, we could use NCE Cab06 -- these are smaller wireless throttles with a big knob that one turns to control speed. They are even easier to use.
  • We could make our own dedicated throttles; I just tend to reuse existing off the shelf components when adequate; I also favor something tactile with knobs and buttons instead of using a cell phone app.
  • A custom-made throttle could have some kind of time limit built-in. Running a train from the station to the Summit takes about 5 minute, so we could have a 7-minutes timer for example, to avoid someone running too slow from preventing others from running. We could and very likely also should have a maximum speed limitation to avoid derailments from kids running too fast.
  • I could automate the part where the trains come back to the station (JMRI can pull the list of active NCE cabs and their loco/speed/state from the command station memory).

Staff wise, we need at least three train operators (one with the public, one in the back, one in reserve when another one needs a break). Similarly we need some museum staff to handle crowd management, or e.g. handle tickets to define a queue order. To make it clear, I still see this as the main blocking issue here. First we cannot expect any museum staff to be proficient with the throttles, thus some of the usual Saturday train operators would have to run the show.

Inevitably something will go wrong and would need to be fixed on the spot. Although current train operators are fine when dealing with derailments, they do not have a lot of technical proficiency if anything else goes wrong. I provided them with some written documentation explaining how to troubleshoot the more common issues yet they mostly rely on me to fix everything. Concretely that means if we had to run this, I’d have to be there and babysit the whole operation, something I’d rather avoid.


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