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About the Model Railroad

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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 for 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. 4 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 was similar to the previous one with a large lever for kids. Once we reopened at Randall, we did not have 4 DCC trains suitable for this task, yet that wasn’t a large issue. The full plan was to incorporate that into the automation computer so that once a train got started by kid, the train would come back automatically to the station for the next person to take on it; although I did not work on it, I had plans for it and this, too, wasn’t a blocking issue.

The real issue was with staffing. The GGMRC JED event required at least 4 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 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.

The GGMRC JED workflow was not explicitly defined nor written anywhere, so at least one or two older 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, and there wasn’t any volunteers around to make this happen, and the current operators lack of a lot of technical proficiency. 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 motivated into train layouts 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.

I’d like to see something similar at Randall.

I personally think the key at Randall would be limit the affluence. 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 (one for each train).
  • When a kid is ready to run, we simply give him the corresponding NCE throttle; if needed we show him how to operate it (using the speed wheel) and ask him to not use the other buttons.
  • The kid gets to run the train from Stockton till it reaches Summit.
  • At that point he relinquishes the throttle back to the operator.
  • Once the operator has the throttle back, he can deal with 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 stop 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 reading at the station.

Staff wise, we need 3 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. Most of the current volunteers do not have a lot of technical proficiency and just rely on me to fix anything that goes wrong instead of resolving it themselves, up to a point where they frustratingly ignore written documentation I made just to help help solve basic issues. 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.

The key point of the workflow above is to simplify by having just 2 trains in a loop; to keep it simple and low key we use the NCE throttles directly. We do need to limit the running to kids who are able to use these throttles; I’d say any 5~7 yr old could do it fine.

That’s enough to do an MVP / prototype of this. If deemed successful, a few things can 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.
  • I can 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).

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