Notes on Building a Triangular Helix

Laying out a helix as a triangle is not all that difficult, but it’s a little bit more involved than an oval.  I laid mine out using simple geometry tools.

I started out by figuring what radius I wanted to use, and how long I wanted my straight sections to be.  Once I had an idea about that I made a cardboard model to help me figure out the angles I needed.  For my layout I chose a 15 inch radius,  two 25 inch long straight sections, and one 6 inch long straight section.

On some box cardboard I grabbed out of the trash, I drew three ovals at a scale of 1mm to 1 inch.  The ovals need to be pretty small so you can find the angle on a regular sheet of paper.  I set the compass at 15mm, and using a ruler I drew two circles 15 mm apart with the centers along a line.  Did the same to make another oval.  Then I made a smaller oval by drawing two circles with their centers 6 mm apart.  Using a ruler I drew lines across the tangents of the circles.  That done I cut them out closely with scissors and ended up with these:




Next, I pinned all three of them together through the centers with pushpins:



I taped the three pieces together to create a template from which I can determine the angle to cut the roadbed of my helix to make a triangle out of a circle.  First I drew a straight line across a sheet of paper.  I laid the template on this line so that one of the long straight sections lined up with the pencil line.



Holding the template in place,  I laid a ruler along the other long straight section and drew a line against the ruler where the ruler intersected the original pencil line.



Now I can measure the angle of the intersecting lines with a protractor.




Now that I have this angle determined, here is how I laid out my roadbed to make the triangular helix:



The circle is cut up into segments.  The segments get rearranged, and the straight sections are added in to come up with the triangular oval shown here:

Two of the straight sections of my helix were the same length.  That meant I only had to find one angle to cut the circle to make it a triangle.  If all three straight sections are different lengths, you’ll need to find two angles.  It doesn’t really matter which two, just pick two and the third angle will take care of itself.

One other point to mention, and one I didn’t realize until after I committed to building this beast, is that a triangular helix doesn’t really save much space when you compare it to a round one of a larger diameter:

Still, it saves some, and if you want a turnout in your helix, having a straight section is the easiest way to incorporate one.  Unless you handlay your turnouts, of course.  Perhaps a triangle of a different shape might fit into an odd spot easier than an oval or a round helix.

In Case Anyone Thinks Railroads Aren’t Still Relevant

A good online friend/blogging colleague of mine, Randy Tinseth posted a neat snapshot of a railcar that is a bit special in itself and very special and important to Boeing Aircraft, as it actually forms part of the production line for Boeing’s highly popular 777 airliner.

While the ‘rest of the US” is struggling through years of bad business, companies who actually “build thing” rather than create crooked bond derivatives, are booming.  Boeing is in the process of increasing production of the 777 from 7 to 8.3 airplanes a month.  To do this, they need more parts moving on the assembly line.  To have more parts ‘on the line’, they needed more rail cars.


Pretty interesting to see how special purpose rail cars are linked right into the assembly of the newest technology aircraft.

Thanks, Randy:

… Our 777 flight decks travel about 2,000 miles by rail from Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita to our Everett factory. Those flight decks are packed in specially designed railcars—very large railcars—measuring 60 feet long by 12 feet, 8 inches wide. Right now, we have 16 of those railcars but need four more to handle the rate increase from 7 per month to 8.3.


The specialized railcars for the 777 are called “deep-well” because of their unique design. (Dan Ecker photo)

The company that designed the first railcars back in 1993 has since gone out of business. But Dan Ecker, a facilities equipment engineer in Boeing’s Shared Services Group, still had the original car drawings.

“No Federal Railroad Administration or Association of American Railroads testing was required on these railcars, as we were able to build to existing drawings,” Ecker said. “We also found the original acceptance paperwork showing the case file of these railcars and when they were blessed for service.”


Here’s what goes inside the railcars. (Dan Ecker photo)

Two of the four new cars have already been completed by Ebenezer Railcar of Buffalo, N.Y. All four new cars should be in service by this November…

So does anyone know of a commercial model of this car or a close facsimile?  Anyone want to build one?

An Old Favorite New Again

install DCC in a BL2

Or, Overhaul and DCC Installation in a Life-Like BL2…..


install DCC in a BL2
Old Favorite MoPac BL2

I’ve had this locomotive since I was a teenager. I’m pretty sure it’s something I wheedled my mother into buying for me, and it was my favorite engine for a long time. I’ve since bought many other locomotives, and even acquired new favorites. But with a history like the one this has, I really wanted to keep it in the active fleet. So a conversion to DCC was in order. The BL2 was one of a series of similar Life-Like models in the early 90’s, so the methods I used to convert it should be nearly identical for the other plastic-framed models, such as the Life-Like FA2, GP-18, GP-38, F7, or F40PH.

I chose a Digitrax DN135 decoder for this conversion only because it was the cheapest one I could find and it fit. I ordered it from Tony’s Train Exchange.    Ordering things sight unseen always poses some risk, and when my decoders arrived I was immediately disappointed with the size of the wires coming off the decoder. I couldn’t believe how big they are. My only other decoder installs used TCS CN-GP decoders which have very fine wires, and I just assumed that the DN135 would have such fine wire. Alas, it was not to be. Still, I am fortunate as there is actually quite a bit of room under the shell of the BL2, so I can make it work. One feature of this decoder is the plug and socket construction. I’m not overly fond of this as that socket is big, but if there’s a problem with the decoder later I won’t have to unsolder anything, I can just unplug the decoder and swap it out.

Shell Removed



Above is a photo of the loco with its shell off, and the decoder sitting about where I’ll cut it in. I’ll also be replacing the light bulb with LED’s front and back.

But it’s always advisable to get a loco tuned up before converting to DCC, so I’ll begin with removing the 20 year old accumulation of grease from the mechanism.

Weights lift right off


To remove the trucks, the wires from the pickups must first be disconnected. Since we’ll have to isolate the motor from the pickups when we install the decoder anyway, I chose to unsolder the pickup wires at the motor leads. Also, since we are replacing the light bulb with LED’s, I nipped that off when I removed the rear truck.

Before removing the trucks, mark them somehow so you know which is the front truck and which is the back truck, just in case you forget while the loco’s disassembled. This is especially important on an old or well-broken in loco, as the gears will wear themselves together somewhat. If you reassemble them backward, the loco may not run as smooth as it used to. I did this, but ended up just removing one truck at a time anyway….

Remove this pin to remove truck

So, next step in removing the truck is the pin (indicated by the yellow arrow) must be pushed out. This pin is only 1/16” in diameter so something smaller must be used to push it out. I used the back side of a drill bit, but I also had a blunted finish nail handy in case I needed to give the pin a little tap to loosen it. You shouldn’t have to force these much. Now the truck can be gently removed from the bottom. The pin serves as the axle for the center gear, so don’t be surprised if that falls out as you remove the truck. It’s fairly obvious how it’s supposed to go back in. The truck detail side frame just pops right off.

Someone once gave me advice when cleaning plastics to start with the mildest solvent you can. Keeping that in mind I decided to try 70% isopropyl alcohol from the medicine cabinet to degrease the gears. It worked nicely, so I used an old toothbrush and some Q-tips to scrub up the mechanism. The two idler gears in the truck are not held on by anything, so they will come off their axle nubs. Don’t lose them. This is a good time to scrub the pickups as well. I was scared to try any contact cleaner (sometimes it makes plastic brittle) so I just cleaned the contacts best I could with the alcohol. As you can see from this photo, a good scrubbing is past due on this guy:

Truck removed, full of gunk


Parts in dire need of cleaning

Don’t forget to give the worm gears a good scrubbing too.

Cleaned up and ready to reassemble


Once all the parts were clean, I used a tiny bit of Hob-E-Lube HL657 White Grease on the gears as I reassembled them. I put the pin back in temporarily so I could roll the truck along and distribute the grease through the gears. I was unhappy with how that spread so I used a couple drops of Hob-E-Lube HL655 Gear Lube instead, and that worked nicely. I also lubed the brass bushings of the worm gear with tiny drops of Hob-E-Lube HL654 Lite Oil applied with a pin. Once satisfied with the lubrication, I reassembled the trucks to the chassis.

Now it’s time to start the decoder install. I painted a bit of gray paint on the rear lead weight for contrast, and marked the cuts to be made with an X-Acto knife. Then I mounted the weight in a vise, and using my trusty razor saw, cut it to fit the decoder.

 A bit of file work finished it off. I also took a round needle file and made a channel for the yellow wire to get under the decoder to the rear headlight.



Here’s my test fit of the decoder. There was about 1/8” extra shrink wrapping on the decoder end. I sliced it off so I wouldn’t have to remove as much of the weight. A little Kapton tape over the end protects against any shorts just in case I cut a little too deep. With the front truck removed, I pushed all the decoder wires through the truck’s mounting hole and put the body shell back on. The decoder fit fine.


Looks good so far, so it’s on to the headlights.


I’m using warm white 1.8mm LED’s I bought from .   That store is geared toward the model railroader and is a great source.

These LED’s are BRIGHT. I calculated a minimum resistor value of 470 ohms, but that looks bright as the sun. I’m modeling the 50’s, when headlights were a lot dimmer than they are today. So I needed a bigger resistor. It takes a lot of resistance to dim these things, apparently. I ended up using 12k ohm resistors. Trust me, they’re still plenty bright. The rear headlight is mounted right behind the decoder so there’s not a lot of room for the resistor. The LED’s lead has to be cut quite short. The instructions in the Digitrax Mobile Decoder Manual say to put the resistors (one for each LED) on the cathode end (the short lead), although that makes no sense to me. I’m not sure why a single resistor couldn’t go in the blue wire, but that’s a question for another day. I followed the instructions. Here’s my setup for soldering the resistor to the rear headlight.


I was lucky enough to borrow a buddy’s resistance soldering set. A very handy tool to have. The first wire I connected was the yellow wire to the rear headlight’s resistor. I used some very fine blue wire (leftover from another decoder install) to run under the decoder and down the side of the weight towards the front of the loco, where the blue wire from the decoder and the front headlight will be connected.


Next, we’ll put the rear weight back in place and connect the two fireman’s side pickups with the red wire from the decoder.


Yes, this is backwards from the decoder’s instruction sheet, and will require a bit more programming later, but I didn’t want to try to cross the wires behind the motor. I feared a lack of space. I did route the green wire across to the other side of the loco though. I was thinking there would be a shortage of space on the fireman’s side with the blue common wires attached there too.


Next, the orange wire is attached to the motor lead.


Then the front weight and headlight are installed. The blue wire from the decoder is attached to the anode wires from both LED’s. (I’d have used blue from the front headlight too, but I was out… Had to use black instead.)


Notice the headlight sunk into the metal weight… I spent a good deal of time carving a pocket in that weight to accept the headlight, only to discover later that it made the headlight too low. There’s more space inside the shell than I thought there was. That’s all the connections on the fireman’s side. On to the Engineer’s side!


The green wire is for a third function. I’m not currently using it, but maybe someday in the future I will want to add a beacon, or classification lights, or something. So I just nipped the wire so it’s still long enough to be useful, then tucked it out of the way.


Next, the engineer’s side pickups are connected to the decoder’s black wire.


Then the gray wire to the motor lead.


Finally, the white wire to the headlight’s resistor. (This picture shows the final position of the headlight and resistor)


Now that she’s all wired up, we’re ready to program!! I took the loco to a buddy’s layout for the programming. He has an RR-CirKits LocBuffer II, which lets us program the decoder using JMRI DecoderPro. We started by clicking the Read Type button in Service Mode, thereby reading the info off the decoder. That produces a list of possible decoders the computer thinks it might be. The Digitrax DN135D is a relatively new decoder, and DecoderPro didn’t have it on record. It wasn’t one of our choices. So we selected the DN143 off the list of possibilities and used that as our programmer template. It worked just fine.


Remember the red and black wires are reversed? This made the locomotive run backwards, as well as the lights operate backwards. This was easy enough to change. On the Basic pane, I clicked the box to reverse the Normal direction of motion. I also set it for 28/128 speed steps, turned off the Analog Conversion Mode (to prevent runaways), and put in all the identifying info. I set the address as the loco number, 4104, and clicked the Write All Sheets button to program the decoder.


I punched up the loco number, set direction forward and opened the throttle. Now the locomotive ran forward when it should, but the lights were reversed. And even at full throttle it was slower than molasses in winter. So back to the programming track.


Once I got back into the programmer I realized I’d clicked a button on the basic speed control which caused the decoder to use that instead of the speed table. As all the values in the basic speed control were at zero, that explained the slow speed. So I just set the max voltage at the high end of the slider bar and the mid voltage to the middle and called it good. Next, those pesky lights.


I opened the Function Mapping pane and clicked the check marked boxes for Forward Headlight FO(F) and Forward Headlight FO( R). I then clicked the LED 2 box for Froward Headlight FO(F), and the LED 1 box for Forward Headlight FOF( R). That reversed the headlights so they should operate normally now. Again I click Write All Sheets and the decoder is programmed.


A quick check confirmed that the lights work properly and the top speed is much more acceptable now. All told, it took less than an hour to program, test, and debug. DecoderPro is the ONLY way to fly when it comes to programming!

Back home after programming, I couldn’t wait to put the shell back on. The original lighting of the BL2 was a little unique. The single light bulb illuminated both the front and rear headlights by using clear plastic rods as light pipes.


These rods need to come out, but don’t toss them. We’ll reuse their ends.


Once the rods are out the shell goes back on. Two problems readily became apparent. First and foremost, while the loco ran just fine with the shell off, it barely runs at all with the shell on. Apparently something’s binding. The other problem was a real surprise.


The front LED was sitting far too low. I didn’t see before disassembly just how much space there is between the top of the weight and the shell, although it’s right there to be seen through the windshield.


So, off with the shell to correct these problems.


I surmised that the binding was due to the wires between the motor and the rear weight using up all the slop from the original manufacturing. So I took a file and added in a little more slop. I could have taken the rear weight off and filed it, but I tried filing the front weight as shown below first to see if that would give me enough play. It did, so I didn’t bother with filing the rear weight.


To raise the headlight I cut a small piece of matchstick to fit into the pocket I’d carved in the lead weight to raise the LED. That done, the shell goes back on and we verify the operation (no more binding) and the LED height (much better.)


With the shell in place, the LED’s now appear sunken into the body. That’s unacceptable. We want lenses in the headlight holes. So we’ll use bits of the light pipes we took out earlier. To determine how long they need to be, I took a handy bit of white wire and gently stuck it in the headlight hole until I felt it touch the LED. Using a pencil, I marked the wire at the face. I used the other end of the wire to mark the depth of the rear LED.


I transferred those lengths to the light pipes with a fine tip marker and cut it with my Atlas Super Saw, the finest-pitched saw I have.


Wet sand the cut end with the finest grit wet-or-dry sandpaper you have.


Then, holding the cut end level, put a tiny drop of liquid cement on the end. Don’t touch it after you do.  It needs to sit and dry for an hour or two, which is why I put it in the third hand. This will chemically polish the end of the light pipe.

Of course you do these steps with the light pipe from each end.  That’s my favorite plastic cement, BTW… Faller Expert.

Once the cement is dry, poke the light pipes back in place, and put the shell back on. This project’s DONE!

Recently refurbished BL2 passing a GP9


It’s been a week or so since I finished the loco, and in that week she has reclaimed her place as my favorite loco once again.  I wonder if Mom had any idea when she bought that loco that I’d still be enjoying it nearly 20 years later.

Likely not, but there it is.  So thanks again Mom, for the locomotive.   I love you.

What is a Short Line, Anyway?

Digital Cab Control, DCC, Model Railroading
Digital Cab Control, DCC, Model Railroading
This NOT the Faire to Midland Terminal

We just started this blog and already I notice a lot of searches wind up here because of the phrase “Short Line”.  In railroad terms, this really doesn’t refer to the length of trackage a railroad owns, but it is a term that signifies a railroad that has less revenue per year than a “Class 1” railroad (more than $346 millions) and has less that 350 miles of track (which would make it a “Regional” rail carrier).

For the foreseeable future, the Faire to Midland should always stay comfortably in the Short Line area, based on those definitions.

But just because a rail line is defined as “short” doesn’t mean it can’t be doing important things for the country.  And even though the F to M focuses on historical, “period” modeling doesn’t mean short lines are a dead or dying industry.  They are a growth industry, pretty important in today’s world of dire employment figures.

Today there are more than 500 North American short line and regional freight railroads. These small businesses have carved out specialized niches within the overall U.S. rail network (and now Canada, too). The short line and regional railroads have a long, proud history of being scrappy competitors and service-focused innovators in the railroad business. In many cases they have found a way to succeed where others have failed, and have saved thousands of miles of rail lines that were near abandonment.

Short lines and regionals represent the “growth segment” of the rail industry. The number of small railroads has more than doubled since the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, from about 220 companies in 1980 to more than 500 today. Today 29 percent of the rail mileage in the U.S. – – 50,000 miles of track – – is owned, maintained and operated by non-Class I railroads. A change in the law in 1980 revised the line sale mechanism and abandonment provisions. The effect of these changes has been to encourage sale of lines that were identified as surplus or slated for abandonment by their Class I owner.

This approach worked remarkably well and has helped to transform the rail industry. Entrepreneurs bought hundreds of light density lines across the country. With business plans that typically include more attention to customers, innovative marketing, flexible and “user friendly” service, lower operating costs and a “can do” attitude, these new operators have been able to turn around the majority of these lines.

Rail lines across the country made the transition from being money losers and abandonment candidates for their previous Class I owners, to being viable small businesses for their new owners. In the process, many thousands of miles of rail lines have been preserved and rail jobs have been saved, predominantly in rural areas.  Read more about regional and short line railroads here.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Vincent Desjardins

A dirt-simple 2 position light signal

Inverter circuit for crossing flashers

Inverter circuit for crossing flashersThis is a nifty little circuit I came up with the other day while playing with a transistor, trying to puzzle out how it can work as an inverter. This circuit looks to be very useful as it can run 2 lights from one output, such as from a logic gate or I/O interface. One LED or the other is always lit. LED D1 is dark and LED D2 is lit when the logic output is 0 (grounded). When the logic output is 1 (+V) then LED D2 goes dark and LED D1 lights. This could be handy for lighting a dwarf signal, old style traffic light, crosswalk lights, or some other 2 light signal. Use some sort of oscillator to create the logic signal and you could have alternating flashing lights for a grade crossing or emergency vehicle.

Now I’m sure I didn’t invent anything here, but I did discover this through my own experimentation and thought I’d share the discovery. Have fun with it!

So who is this guy, anyway????

Trainman-150x150 Hello and welcome to my blog,  My name’s Ian, although I’m better known as ranulf on and a couple other forums.  I don’t really have time to keep up with more than one forum though, so nscalenet is where I spend most of my forum time.  I’m a model railroader, avid reader of railroad books, amateur railfan, collector of old railroad junk,  and general all-around train nut.  I have other interests as well, but I don’t know how much of that I will go into on this blog, I mostly wanted a place of my own on the net to talk about railroad-related stuff that interests me and possibly (hopefully?) others as well.

So you’re probably wondering what this Faire to Midland is?  That’s the name of my N scale railroad empire, representing a fictional shortline in the foothills of the Ozarks somewhere around 1960.  The FM occupies its own 9’x15′ room in the basement, and is well on her way to filling said room.  It’s a work in progress… More work than progress perhaps, but she’s coming along, and you’ll be seeing regular updates as I progress along.

Now I don’t know the original source, but I’ve heard the saying that model railroading is a “hobby of hobbies”, which sums it up very well.  That’s a good thing as there are so many pieces of model railroading that can inspire the imagination.  I have recently been bitten by the electronics bug while working on the layout, so you’ll be seeing a good bit of that.  I like to railfan steam trains when I have opportunity, so I’ll share my pics with you here as well.  I also love reading books about railroading as it was ‘way back when’, so don’t be surprised if you see a book review now and then as I share some of my favorites with you!

It’s going to be a fun trip, so stay tuned!

How to Decide Where the Track Goes

This is a sample article.  It will soon be replaced

When you start to build model railroad track plans you need to think about your ultimate goal. You can design and build so many track layouts but it’s important to understand where you are headed. If you don’t have a clear idea in mind then your plan will fail and you will not have a workable railroad.

railroad curved track
A lot of engineering goes into a simple curve

Many people think that building a model railway track is very easy, but this is not the case. Of course, following a workable plan is relatively easy, but creating your own requires a lot more thought and effort. It also requires a large amount of skill to know all the obstacles that need to be overcome.

For example, you need to know that you have enough track, enough length, corners, bends, scenery, buildings and so on. There are also other considerations to make should you have a certain theme in mind.

One of the most challenging model railroad track plans is to create everything based around a theme. You can choose from a large number of different themes to follow and create from. You can recreate a certain time period from history. Some of the most popular track plans to create are the golden era of the eighteen hundreds, which will usually have the train running through a small rural town.

You may also want to create a scene from the English countryside during the age of steam. This is also a very popular time period to re-create. Generally, you will create a steam train running on a track through the rolling hills and farmland. You can really let your imagination run wild with specific scenes.

Using a scene is different from what most people think about creating with railway track. This is a good idea if you are experienced and have been creating different layouts for some time. You can research the time period and then create it as accurately as possible. These are often some of the most exciting times as model train enthusiasts are very interested in history and details.

When you start to build your own model railway track layout, decide on the appropriate layout for yourself first. You might be more interested in a plain layout to begin with, instead of something more elaborate. You might have your own personal style when it comes to rail track layout.

Some people only like to create elaborate setups that take time and a lot of effort. Everyone is different, so it comes down to your own ideas and tastes. Always plan things out as much as possible before you go to buy more track. If you don’t do this, then you might find yourself with a very expensive shopping list.

This is the reason to start out small. If you try to make it too big to begin with, you will get frustrated and lose interest in the project. Build certain sections at time and ensure they work before making the track any larger. This lets you know the plan is working and you can also enjoy playing with the trains as you build.

Philip Redfearn is an avid model train enthusiast. For more great information on model trains, and to sign up for a free Ultimate Model Railway Secrets 11 lesson mini-course, visit

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Scale, Gauge, Size — Basics

This is a sample article.  It will soon be replaced

Model trains steam
The world of Steam Railrods lives on

If you are new to the model train hobby, you may feel a bit confused about the terms “gauge” and “scale” and find it difficult to differentiate between these two different terms. In part, this is because both of these terms relate to the size of model railroad components. However, they are actually quite different in meaning and should not be used interchangeably, and knowing the difference between gauge and scale can save you considerable hassle and expense.

Model train gauge is a size measurement for the railroad tracks of a model railroad layout. Specifically, gauge refers to the width between the two rails on the track. There are a variety of different gauges used in model railroading, and knowing the gauge of your track is important to ensure that the train cars you are using will run smoothly on the track you are using in your layout.

Model train scale, on the other hand, is the size of your model layout in respect to its real life layout. There are a variety of model railroad scales that are popular in model railroading: Z, N, HO, S, O and G are some of the most popular scales in current use. Each of these scales represents a different ratio of the model train to a real life train. For example, an N scale is at a 1:160 ratio, meaning the N scale model train is 1/160th of the size of a real life train.

Mistakes in selecting the right gauge to the right scale is one of the most common errors made by beginners setting up their model railroad layouts. It can result in a costly, not to mention, frustrating problem with your layout, as having the wrong gauge will result in derailments and other frustrations.

To learn more about model railroad layouts and how to prevent other costly and frustrating mistakes common for beginners in the model railroading hobby, you should checkout: Model Trains for Beginners.

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