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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.

2019-02-10 - Fairfield Industrial Yard

Category Randall

Right in the middle of the layout is a fairly large industrial city. When visitors walk in, it’s right in the middle visible above the Mountain Panels.

When I discovered the layout back in 2014, this part of the layout was not powered, and it is still not functional today. I had started looking at it back in 2015 and realized there would be quite some work involved in making it fully functional (as in “tedious but not impossible”). But does it need to be fully functional? Since the layout runs as an “automated exhibit” now 4 days a week, I just realized this area has some great potential for some simple but effective automation even within its current state, and that would add great value to the visitors.

This represents the industrial park of the Fairfield, California and includes a good portion of street running. I am not sure what year this represents. This was designed for switching. There’s a dedicated control panel in front of it (see below).

The track plan:

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2019-01-27 - NYC 4-6-4 Hudson pulling the Automated Freight

Category Randall

Courtesy of Tom Eikerenkotter and Jim Evans, the freight train is now pulled by a New York Central Hudson steam engine:

Train 5278 approaches the Sonora Station pulling a short freight.

As usual, computer automation controls the train movement, light, bell, and whistle. It starts when motion is detected in the room. This route works in “shuttle” mode. The train automatically moves to the small station and then reverses to the main station after a short stop:

A NYC J-1 Hudson (4-6-4) pulls our short freight train on the Automated Line on the HO Scale DCC Layout at Randall Museum, San Francisco.

New York Central “Hudson” 4-6-4 steam engines were originally built by ALCO for NYC in 1927-1931 to pull passenger trains. Our operation is unique, pulling a short freight train with an SP caboose! ;-)

2019-01-08 - Wyze Cameras & System Status

Category Randall

Over the last year we had a number of automation failures, and one thing that quickly became obvious was how hard it was to remotely identify that the automation had failed and why or how it had failed -- we were not always immediately notified and many times details were lacking. To work around this, I first added a couple Wyze cameras at strategic locations. Here I am solely interested in identifying whether the trains are running and whether they are stopped at the right place at the end of the day.

Although that was a good start, I needed a better way to handle this than made available by the Wyze mobile-phone app, and so I recently created a web page for the Wyze cameras with the ability to capture the state of the automation:

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2018-12-29 - Visual Guides & Labeling

Category Randall

One of the issues we were having lately was how to explain to the staff & operators where the trains are supposed to be stopped when they are idle at the station.

The automation computer only cares about the train being on the proper block, but there’s no strong indication of where the blocks start and end. There are no road-side markers, and the gaps in the track can be fairly hard to spot for the non initiated.

Jim came up with the excellent idea of placing little HO-sized cars where the trains stop. I further added some labels:

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2018-12-26 - Sonora / Branchline Update

Category Randall

The Branchline mets the Mainline at a point named “Angel Camp”. Although we have the Rapido RDC stationed here, I thought it looked a bit empty. There are interchange tracks and a 3-tracks yard. So I added this today:

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2018-12-21 - RDC Hide & Seek

Category Randall

The RDC stopped working today. Even when looking for it, we could not find it. It wasn’t at the station, it wasn’t stuck at the reversing block, and it was on no other part of the Branchline I could think of. After crawling under the layout and looking under the scenery and not finding it, I went back to the front of the layout and finally noticed this.

There’s a short tunnel at this place. On the other side is the canyon trestle bridge, and it’s nearly impossible to spot the engine in the tunnel from the other side’s angle. The amusing thing is that it fits nicely in this little short tunnel

The good part is that there was nothing visibly wrong with the Rapido engine and it started working just fine once I moved it somewhere else. Issue was just dirty track, as we had not cleaned that one in a little while, so I did scrub that a bit and then cleaned the engine wheels.

2018-12-15 - Automation Train Changes

Category Randall

The main automated route operates two trains in alternance. We used to have an Amtrak GE engine with one coach car, and a Santa Fe pulling that little freight train.

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2018-12-12 - Randall Repairs: Turnout T161 (1st fix)

Category Randall


Turnout T161 (end of siding between Bridgeport & Sultan).


Intermittent loss of power on frog. Eventually turnout motor stopped.

Summary Fix

Replaced Fulgurex motor by another one.

Description of Issue

We’ve had engines stop-and-go on turnout T161 for several months, especially steam engines, or short non-MU engines. The turnout was always in the normal position when this happened.

The turnout is hard to access as it’s more than 3 feet away from fascia, and the only other access is above the adjacent mainline which partially covers the turnout motor.

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2018-11-22 - More Automated Routes

Category Randall

Based on last week experimentation at Randall, here are a few more idea of automated routes, with a focus on what would be needed to make them happen. To be clear, none of this will happen any time soon, or even at all.

1- Trolley

Jim got this little trolley a while -- it is the Atlantic City from Bowser streetcar. We’re not using it yet and I can see two automation options:

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2018-11-13 - New Power Coming Soon

Category Randall

The current mainline route is automated using an Amtrak Dash 8-32 for the passenger train and Santa Fe Dash 8-40 for the freight train. We have new power and I’m working on using it for the passenger train.

The original intent was to replicate the UP Special Train as they use it with Operation Lifesaver. However I am no longer keen to deal with the headaches of a push-pull setup so I’ll probably start with a very conservative and minimalist setup with just one engine and an UP coach. Jim got the dome car so we can expand later if it proves reliable.

In an ideal world, I’d place this train on track #2 in the station and we could alternate daily or so between Amtrak and UP for some variety. Unfortunately that turnout T311 that joins the station to the mainline has been giving me some troubles, which is the reason why our 3-coach train currently only has only one coach in automation.

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