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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.

2019-12-24 - Retrospective for 2019

Category Randall

What got done in 2019, and what did not?

Repairs and maintenance that got done in 2019:

  • NYC 4-6-4 Hudson pulling the Automated Freight train. That was a nice change. However each automation engine change takes about 2-4 hours to adapt the program as I need to figure out the appropriate train speed and the timings to get it to stop where we want, and then try it several times to make sure I get it right.
  • The Branchline automation changed from the Rapido RDC SP-10 to a Rapido RDC Santa Fe. I rushed to get that in because I was told it was important to show the engine in operation to Rapido; turns out nobody cared there.
  • Branchline repair due to a broken turnout.
  • Branchline repair due to a dead spot (a rail joint solder that fail).
  • Spent a lot of time understanding the wiring of the Branchline; I redid the Branchline Interchange schema I got from Mr. Perry; the goal was to revive the whole Branchline but I never got to complete that; right now the part that is not under automation is simply powered off.
  • May Mainline Automation Update: UP with two coach cars, Santa Fe F7A engine for Freight.
  • Napa Yard Cleaning; full cleaned all the tracks, with the goal of making it available for operators.
  • Napa Yard automatic polarity reverser for the balloon track, to make it easier to use by the operators. Demonstrated this to the operators. I don’t think anyone used it.
  • The Sultan lead has a dead spot; identified the issue yet did not fix.
  • Jupiter Steam 4-4-0 Engine. The goal was to get this on automation; turned out to have really bad running performance, so I tried to make it run better by adding a capacitor and adjusting the pickup brushes. Eventually I just gave up.
  • Cotton Belt 9389. That’s an engine which Jim got and looked promising. Turns out the tank fuel is too low and hits the rails; I tried to adjust it and gave up.
  • Turnout T06 Repair.
  • Elusive electrical issues with block B350; sometimes a dead spot, and sometimes working. This prevented the UP Passenger automation from working properly. It took a while to narrow down on the issue and finally I found one broken rail jointer solder.
  • Repair for turnout T410 by William.
  • Things started behaving mysteriously in the Stockton Yard and adjacent mainline. Some engines would run, some wouldn’t. Turns out an operator likely touched an old DC-era toggle under the layout. It took quite some time to figure that out, what it was for, and why it had any impact. Eventually I removed the old toggle, rewired the panel, and it solved the issue.
  • I also removed all the old T-Twin detector resistors that were having some undesirable effects (basically injecting a weak DCC signal on blocks that were supposed to be turned off).
  • Warping issue in the Napa yard, the Richmond yard, and at least some in the Stockton Yard. I started working on the Napa yard to add some expansion gaps, that task is still in progress. I will likely leave the Richmond yard as-is for now. There was also some odd intermittent shorts in the Stockton Yards at the time, which seem to have vanished when the warping resolved itself. In retrospect, these are probably related.
  • More Passenger Automation Changes.
  • More Freight Automation Changes.

I only managed to do a few of the things I really wanted:

  • Wyze Cameras & System Status using my web page for the Wyze cameras. That was really useful to remotely monitor the state of the automation as many times when it would fail the staff would fail to notify us.
  • Moved the Auxiliary Power Supply with Allen; from time to time it would trip; however it was located in a hard to reach location under the layout where operators or staff would ignore it. I moved it to the next to the automation computer, easy to reach, and added a status LED on top.
  • Reworked the Staff User Manual with help from Sarah. We spent quite some time reviewing the old one; we defined a glossary so that we can name things consistently, and I updated some labels on the layout accordingly. This has helped the museum staff a lot.

There are a lot more tasks I wanted to accomplish and never got to:

  • Update to the automation software. I’ve spent a few months at home working on the next generation of my automation control software. This is maybe ½ done and needs more time, which I lack. I don’t even bother discussing this as I’ll get the usual unsupportive “but there’s nothing wrong with the current one”, and that dismissive attitude is discouraging.
  • Fairfield Industrial Yard… just put some ideas down. I’d like to automate it and have a few engines and small trains running there. Did not have time to start anything.
  • Developed a couple more ideas for automation around the SIA/DFS area. I did not have time to focus on it.
  • I’d like to rebuild the signal crossing that was stolen by Marvin Chow at Fairfield. No time to focus on that yet.
  • Branchline: Goal is to revive the currently unused part and automate more of it. I spent a lot of time looking at the schemas I have and understanding the discrepancies. I did not have more time to deal with it.
  • One pending repair is to move the whole Stockton Yard onto its own circuit breaker. Right now it is powered indirectly via the mainline, which causes issues when operators short the line when setting up their trains. I also spent a lot of time looking and revising the existing schemas, yet did not have time to do anything about it.

Overall the bulk of the year was maintenance, repairs, and fixing other people’s mistakes. That took a lot of time and energy, which I then did not have to complete any more serious projects -- there’s only so much time I can allocate to the train layout as a volunteer.

Quite annoyingly, I haven’t even listed all the calls I got when things “mysteriously” fail after operator sessions, and I get there only to find it is trivially fixed by flipping a toggle. I wrote some documentation for the operators to fix common issues, and I don’t recall anyone mentioning having a look at it to help themselves at fixing trivial issues. After all they just need to report them to me and I’ll come to fix everything. I’m not very fond of that kind of nanny babysitting role.

The whole thing is turning into a thankless chore most of the time. There’s a chasm between what operators want and what I want. I feel like I waste a lot of energy on what I see as pointless babysitting tasks, and that saps my energy and prevents me from doing tasks that are more rewarding to me. I tried to point that out and the audience was less than receptive.

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