Thursday, December 22, 2016


A missing important physical feature of my layout has been an operator platform for Crescent Lake—the upper level staging yard.  We have made do for the past year and a half with step ladders.  I always intended replacing these with a more permanent solution, but the design of the eventual platform involved several compromises.  I needed operational experience for the Eugene Arrival/Departure yard, down below and the developing job of “Santa Clara Tower Operator.”  Though the Eugene engine facility is incomplete, sufficient experience has been gained with the intended operation to proceed with changes to the physical arrangements in the area. 

A pacing task has been placing the Dispatcher’s Desk on wheels so it can be moved into our Exercise Room when needed, but otherwise stored out of the way.  The previous post documented that shift.

The new operator platform is eight feet long and follows my standard construction design for such platforms.  The platform occupies half the space between the Eugene A/D Yard below and the stairwell wall.  It necks down as it approaches the stairwell pass-through—a busy place.  Nonetheless, the narrow end sits even with the pass-through wall.  Using a short stool, I can reach the far wall and the in-bound switch ladder for Crescent Lake.  The platform depth does not extend all the way to being under the upper level layout edge, but all of the key areas are within easy reach—at least for me.  Compromises. 

New operator platform for Crescent Lake (upper staging).  The papers taped to the wall at the stair end show where the Dispatcher’s Desk has been located.

The new platform is the same height as Cascade Summit, 30 inches above the floor.  This, too, is a compromise.  A bit more height might be useful for some of the shorter members of my operating crews, but I have consistently maintained a seven feet overhead clearance for the layout.  This height is a nod to my own height and friend John B, who stands even taller.  We have had plenty of adaptation in our lives for doors and ceilings not quite high enough.  Shorter folk can use stools.  Our adaptation is a lot more difficult!

End view of new Crescent Lake operator platform.  The width compromises can be seen in the floor level aisle width versus matching the platform to the overhead layout edge.  That speck of blue tape on the floor in the foreground is directly under the corner of the overhead layout edge.

The pair of projects represented by the Dispatcher’s Desk (now on wheels!) and the Crescent Lake operator platform received active requests from my operating crew.  The two-month break between operating sessions (November to January) gave me a great opportunity to tackle both.  All of us are looking forward to the operations enhancement they make possible.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


A task on my “To-Do List” has been a more permanent Dispatcher’s Panel.  The basic desk, cardstock track schematic, and paper system used for the first dozen formal operating sessions served to point the way to more routine operations.  The “temporary” system and initial desk location beside the basement stairwell in the “back” room (staging yard room) outgrew both system and location.  With large crews of twenty or so operators for most sessions, the back room location could get noisy despite best intentions. 

The new Dispatcher’s panel is a steel sheet attached to a plywood back that, in turn, is attached to the desk.  The desk has now been mounted n caster wheels with brakes, so it can be moved easily to the desired operating location.  The steel panel supports using magnetic train markers which can be moved along the track schematic as block clearance is granted.  My first attempt with the markers features pointed plastic strips with the magnetic tape material on the back.  We will continue to use Post-Its™ to list train identity and other critical information.

New Dispatcher’s Panel.  Orange Post-Its are for Westbound trains, blue for Eastbound.

The track schematic includes the mainline and sidings and only a representation of secondary tracks.  I have additional thin vinyl tape on order to represent more of that track.  The block boundaries are indicated by the vertical blue stripes.  This system will develop over the next several operating sessions.

Meanwhile, here is a view of the old desk setup.

Old Dispatcher’s Desk occupying space needed for an operator’s platform for Crescent Lake.

A critical part of the new Dispatcher arrangements was to put the desk on wheels so it could be rolled into our Exercise Room.  Yes, people chuckle when they see that room function identified on the track plan, but in fact it serves exactly that exercise function every morning.  The Dispatcher’s Desk needs to be stored elsewhere between operating sessions.  I finally figured out how to guide a precise cut on the legs of the existing, assembled table, so the rest was a matter of getting materials and using them.

New Dispatcher’s Panel and desk located in our Exercise Room.

Now I need to run a long cable for the fast clock system for use in the Exercise Room and build an enclosure for the clock.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


Important locomotive models for my 1984 operations are Southern Pacific’s rebuilt SD40Rs.  Though overshadowed on the SP roster by SD45s, the SD40 always turned in reliable performance, particularly on the long, slow hauls up mountain grades.  During 1980-81, SP’s Sacramento Locomotive Works rebuilt the 86 SD40s remaining on the roster, redesignating them as “SD40R.”  Remanufactured to “like new” standards with upgraded electrical systems, the SD40Rs provided solid service to the SP.  One attractive feature of the rebuilt units is they emerged with full SP light packages on both ends.  The SP SD40R screams “Southern Pacific!”

Athearn Trains delivered their latest version of the SD40 this past year, including four units detailed as SP SD40Rs.  I quickly grabbed up that set plus a couple more for re-numbering.  Railfan photos from my own efforts and those of other photographers show these units working in many trains in the Cascades in the early 1980s.  Indeed, although photographed before the rebuild, an SD40 appears as the second unit in the locomotive consist of the train at Salt Creek Trestle that I use as the inspiration photo and background of this blog.  These are important units in my locomotive fleet!

Athearn SP SD40R models.  SP7372 (front) came from SP’s first SD40 order, but had trucks swapped during the rebuild program.  It now has high brake cylinders.  SP7351 came from SP’s second SD40 order.  It has a rear brakewheel and stand.  It also had trucks swapped during the rebuild so it now has low brake cylinders.  Note the air tank on this unit is slightly ahead of the rear of the fuel tank, as opposed to SP7372. 

Unfortunately, Athearn stubbed their toes a bit with one of the units, SP7351.  This unit was one of the ten units originally built in SP’s second order (EF630-2), delivered in 1968.  These units had a number of detail changes from the original order built in 1966. One of the more notable differences was the movement of the locomotive handbrake from the nose to a brakewheel on a stand mounted on the rear platform.  Unfortunately, Athearn produced this model with both the correct rear brakewheel and stand and an incorrect (and redundant!) short hood brake ratchet.

Athearn acknowledged the mistake and began a shell swap program.  At the end of August, they announced the details of the program.  Owners of these units were to remove the shells from the chassis and ship the shells only back to Athearn’s Parts Department.  At the end of October, I received my two replacement shells, but had to defer mounting one as I prepared for my early November operating session.  I have now performed the required reconnection of lighting wires to the locomotive electrical board on the chassis and reassembled the units.  As an aid to others completing this task, shown below are a photograph of the connected electrical board and a diagram of the lighting connections.

Athearn SD40R decoder and light board with lighting connected.

Athearn decoder and electrical connection board for SD40R.

With my SP7351 returned to operating status, my attention turned to the re-numbering project for my “spare” pair of units.  I dove into my usual sources for detail on Southern Pacific’s diesels.  In this case, two books authored by Joseph Strapac, dean of SP diesel detail to SP modelers, were the primary sources.  Joe’s Southern Pacific Historic Diesels, Volume 17, EMD SD40 Family Locomotives, Shade Tree Books, 2012, Bellflower, CA, provides the history of these units.  His Diesel Locomotive Compendium, Volume 2, Shade Tree Books, 2007, Bellflower, CA, provides tabular data.  I cannot overemphasize the importance of Joe’s publishing work that provides SP enthusiasts an outstanding resource of information on the SP’s diesel roster.  Another vital resource on SP’s diesel fleet is provided on-line by Richard Percy’s great website: “my Espee Modelers Archive,” with locomotive information indexed from:
Many photographers have provided photos of SP diesel locomotives which Richard Percy has cataloged and made available on-line.  All SP SD40Rs appear in at least one photo on this site.

My first research effort was focused on the original second order (EF630-2 class) units of which 7351 was a member.  Strapac’s Diesel Compendium provided a table that identified the new unit numbers (7300s) for the ten members of this class.  All ten survived to the rebuilding program of 1980-81.  Using those numbers, I searched the Percy website for photos of each unit.  I was surprised to discover that eight of the ten units experienced truck swaps, likely during the rebuild program at Sacramento.  Eight units ended up with the early low brake cylinder mounting of the original HTC trucks found on 1966-built SD40 and SD45 units on the SP roster.  Athearn did a GREAT job picking up on that feature when they chose to model SP7351.  I expected some truck swaps, but was surprised that the vast majority of the units from this class had their trucks swapped during rebuild.

In addition to the rear platform brake stand, the original EF630-2 class were built with L-window cab fronts, a feature Athearn captured correctly.  As I looked over the model and prototype photos, I became aware of just how much more work Athearn did on these units.  There is a correct subtle difference in the air tank mounting above the fuel tank.  The EF630-2 air tank is slightly forward of the rear of the fuel tank, as these units were equipped originally with a second fuel filler spout at the rear of the fuel tank on both sides.  I also noted a change in Athearn’s paint for “classic era” (“roman” lettering) SP gray and scarlet units.  Earlier Athearn models had a great deal of white striping on the steps and at the end of the traction motor duct, reflecting a late paint diagram.  My photos, memories (also tied to extensive locomotive modeling and painting), and others photos all show a simpler scheme through the early 1980s.  Athearn reproduced this simpler paint standard on these SD40R models.  BRAVO!

Given the preponderance of truck swaps under the original EF630-2 class, it was easy to choose to stay with the chassis supplied with 7351 and pick another number.  My second unit of this type became 7328.  My original plan had been to do a swap of shells between this unit and a unit numbered 7305 with high mount brakes, but the photo research showed that was a bad idea.  Further, the air tank shift between the two original SD40 classes (further forward for a fuel tank filler on the EF630-2 class) cemented the choice to keep shell and chassis together.

Removing cab numbers from Athearn SP SD40R models.  A fresh bottle of Microsol, a brush and a Q-tip do the job.

As hinted at above, my second unit purchased for renumbering was a model of SP7305.  This model had high-mount brake cylinders on the trucks.  Until my extensive photo research on the Richard Percy website, I thought this was a bit of an anomaly that I intended “correcting” by swapping chassis with the “spare” SP7351 model.  My research revealed a different story.  Twenty-nine of the seventy-six units of the EF630-1 class built in 1966 received swapped trucks.  Though built with low-mount brake cylinders, these units received trucks from later construction—both from the EF630-2 class and the many SD45s on the SP roster.  As Joe Strapac notes, the SP moved from low mount brake cylinders to high mounts where the brake gear did not get damaged during minor derailments.  There was an interim design wherein one cylinder per truck was mounted high while the other three cylinders were mounted low, and several of those are included in the twenty-nine SD40Rs receiving swapped trucks.  Rather than fight several detail issues, I elected to remain with a unit that received high mount brakes for my renumber of an SP 7305 model. 

In line with Athearn’s improvements for these models, I noted a couple more detail points.  First, the EF630-1 class was equipped with what EMD called an “extended vision” cab front.  This features a wider middle engineer’s window resulting in a thin post between that window and the taller window immediately in front of the engineer.  This is a configuration the late Gordon Cannon once labeled a “wanna be” (L-window), as it was the step between the standard cab window arrangement and the L-window.  SP had these cabs on some GP-35s and the first order SD40s and SD45s.  I was surprised to discover Athearn tooled a die for this cab configuration.  Make that another BRAVO for Athearn!  The second detail feature I discovered is that Athearn has tooled a version of the long hood without rear number boards.  This is the way SP specified these units when built.  If one looks at the variations of SD40 long hoods Athearn has tooled, listed in the parts diagram, one finds 26 variations listed.  WOW!  Athearn has been busy.  We have come a very long way from “one size fits all.” 

Two different cab fronts on SP SD40s.  SP7351 from SP’s second order in 1968 has an L-window.  SP7372 built in SP’s first SD40 order has an EMD “extended vision cab front” where there is a thin post between the two engineer windows on the right side of the cab.

If all of this discussion of diesel detailing subtleties seems like an advertisement for Athearn, so be it.  Athearn made a production mistake on their SP7351 model, but to their very great credit, they devised a shell swap program to correct that error.  That had to be expensive—likely producing a new wave of replacement shells and mailing those shells to customers.  That mistake caused me to research these units more fully.  What I found surprised me (lots of truck swaps in the SD40R rebuild program at Sacramento).  That also led to closer investigation of Athearn’s models which led to the very happy discovery of the extensive development work Athearn has quietly put into these units.  I have always been a solid Athearn customer.  That comes with my chosen favorite railroad. 

What I see now is a detail development program that rivals my own extensive modeling efforts in years past.  I began serious SP diesel detailing before the existence of Detail Associates and Details West.  I had to use shaped plastic kit sprue for the single red UDE gyralight found on the nose of an SP unit until DA and DW provided those parts.  I retain that detail knowledge, though today all of my time goes into layout construction.  Athearn is in the forefront of manufacturers producing detail-specific models in a mass market.  That allows me to purchase ready to roll models that meet my detail expectations, permitting my concentration on building and operating my layout.

A final note concerning the equipment era on my railroad right now.  When faced with building my layout and equipping it for operation for the NMRA National Convention in Portland last year, I needed to chose an initial equipment era.  Even though I have done a fair bit of model work for the 1950’s, I needed to do much more to equip my new railroad for operations.  My 1980s fleet was closer to being ready in numbers sufficient to equip my large railroad.  An important factor is that Athearn had produced a large group of late-production SP cabooses (SP classes C-50-7, -8, -9).  Further, it was relatively easy to open up the modern hood units to pop in a decoder and then add Kadee couplers, thus producing a layout-ready locomotive.  My earlier era models required far more work.  Athearn’s provision of many models important to the 1980s operation was a key part of my “era” choice.  It is 1984 on my railroad right now.  It is morning in America.  The SP is still an independent railroad.