My Hobby, Model Railroads

by William (Will) Knapek, OMICRON electronics, USA

Electrical engineer by day, Train Engineer by night.
Yes, I lead a double life...

I have a passion for model trains.  Trains have fascinated me since my childhood.  My brother had a train layout in our basement when we were growing up.  He went off to college and it became mine.  My uncle also had a layout in his basement.  Each year we would visit him in Milwaukee and I would spend hours running his trains.  I was hooked for life.
With my job now, I have a heavy travel schedule.  When traveling I always look for a layout or museum to visit when I can.  I have seen some fantastic layouts around the U.S. and Europe.  One of the most memorable is in Hamburg, Germany.  (Figure 2) The Miniature Wonderland is a massive layout that features not only trains around the world, but a scale model of an airport with planes that land and take off.  Others around the U.S. include a great layout in Greely, Colorado.  They have an HO layout and a caboose inside the museum.  Some others I have visited are in Chattanooga, San Diego, Sacramento, and numerous home layouts in the Houston, TX area. (Figure 3).

Model railroading is done in many scales.  Several popular scales are O (1:48), HO (1:87), TT (1:120), and N (1:160).  Model Railroaders will build a layout depicting a geographical area, a particular railroad, or a certain era of railroading such as steam engines or diesel engines.  There are even outdoor layouts in G scale (1:22.5) or garden trains and a ride on scale (1:8) that some people have built in there yards.  I almost bought one in Texas a few years ago.  

Model railroads have adapted a Digital Command Control (DCC).  It can be loosely equated to GOOSE messaging.    Before DCC, the trains were controlled by a DC system, if you increased the voltage, the train went faster.  All trains on the tracks ran approximately the same speed and direction.  With DCC, a Pulse Width Modulated (PWM) signal is on the track, and each locomotive or stationary device has a decoder that reads the digital commands in the modulated pulse width signal.  The locomotive then responds to the command for speed, direction, lights and even sound.  So even in my hobby, many parts of my day job apply.

My Layouts
My first layout as an adult started with an old 4x8 foot plywood sheet on our dining room table.  I had a double loop with a bridge.  I was planning to add some sidings when my Army career ended and we had to move.  I put the layout away and shipped it to my new home.  Well life happened and it was several years before I found the time to get back to building my dream layout. 
Our new home had the space, but it was an unfinished room above our garage.  This never happened.  I did get time to pull out the layout, strip it down, and start over.  I saw a design in a hobby publication and wanted to try to build it.  (Figure 4)

Well as it happens, life got in the way again.  My company wanted me to move, so I packed it up once again.  The new home had a spare bedroom, so my wife Jackie, gave me permission to use the room for my trains.  I seemed to have a mental block on how to proceed, so I purchased a layout kit with all the track, terrain, buildings and landscape. (Figure 5).  I worked on that layout for almost a year and as fate would have it, we were going to move once again.  So, I had to pack up all my trains and construction materials so that the house would show well for prospective buyers.  Why they would not appreciate the train layout in the bedroom was beyond me.  I added a power house and substation to this layout.  Can’t leave my day job out of this.  (see Figure 5)

Therefore, the search for a new home began and my wonderful wife insisted that our new house had a place to build my trains.  She found a home with a full basement and a workshop that could be my playground and I could finally build my dream layout. 
We bought the house and I set out to plan my layout in the space I had.  Of course, I could have used more space that I had, but I had to set limits on my plans.  As any good engineer would do, I set out to develop my scope and figure a construction budget.  Things were moving right along.  I estimated that the planning and my real job would take a while and I was in no rush. 

I was setting into my new home and found a model railroad club in the area.  The Knoxville Area Model Railroaders. I joined and started going to operation meetings.  (Figures 8a, 8b) This is where you bring your engine and throttle (controller) and you are assigned a train to run.  You pick up the train with your engine and run the assigned route, dropping off and picking up cars at the various industries on the layout. 
This is quite challenging at times trying to figure out how to break up the train, take cars from the center, place them at the assigned location, pick up the new cars and make sure you have room to do this on the track and keep your engine in the correct orientation for the return trip.  As a newbie to this, it can take me up to three hours to figure this out and complete the task successfully.  This is what the real railroads do on a daily basis.

My move was in April and late September, I received an email from the train club about a layout for sale.  A gentleman has passed away and the family was selling his model railroad.  Now he was an absolute train fanatic, he had a real caboose in his front yard, which also was for sale. 
Well, I had to go look to see what if anything I could purchase and add to my planned layout.  My wife and I visited the home and found one of the most elaborate layouts I have seen in a home.  It covered a 25-foot-by-25-foot L shaped area of his basement. 

The layout was modeled after the Columbia River Gorge area of Washington State.  (Figures 6a, 6b, 6c)  For the readers that are familiar with the Western Protection Relay Conference in Spokane, one of the two railroads he modeled was the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad. 
Well, I had to have this layout.  It would add over forty locomotives to my collection and 130 pieces of rolling stock (cars).  The track would save me a great deal with being able to use the layout.  I made an offer on the layout and it was accepted. 
I also got in the purchase his entire workshop with tools and an extensive library of books and modeling magazines.  I was like a child at Christmas. 

Then reality set in.  How was I going to move it and where was I going to put it.  The layout took most of a 25-foot-by-25-foot area, I only had a 12 by 25 foot area in my basement. 
The layout was one solid piece.  The only way to get it out of the basement was through a standard doorway.  This masterpiece had to be cut up into small sections to get it out of the existing house and be transported 40 miles to its new home.  In addition, how could I reuse the pieces?

With the help of my wife and my brother, we went to work cutting the layout into manageable pieces and carrying them out of the house and transporting them either to my home or to a storage shed I had to rent.  I know the man that spent over 30 years constructing this layout was turning in his grave at each cut I made. 
I found that most of the plaster landscape structures were not as sturdy as I anticipated so they did not make the trip.

Well that pretty much brings me up to date on where I am:
  I first am taking inventory of all I have
   Then the task of deciding what I can make fit and what has to find a new home

I started by taking the larger pieces and working to get the track repaired.  Most damage was done by disassembly and moving the layout and the rest just needed maintenance since the layout had not been run in many years. 
I have been repairing wiring and adding up to date digital control systems to the sections.  (Figures 7a, 7b)

My final goal is to fully automate the operation of the trains and switch yard.  I need to remember a sign I found hanging on the wall at the house I removed the train from, it read “Slow Down, Enjoy the Hobby”
So the next time you hear a train whistle or sit at a Railroad crossing waiting for a train to pass, try to imagine a time when you liked to play with trains.  Perhaps you may stir some thoughts of starting a model train layout of your own. 

William (Will) Knapek received a BS degree in Industrial Technology from East Carolina University in 1994.  He retired from the US Army as a Chief Warrant Officer after 20 years.  During his time with the Army Corps of Engineers, he held positions as a power plant instrumentation specialist, a writer/instructor, and a Facility Engineer for a Special Operations.  He has been active in the electrical testing industry since 1995.  He worked for NETA in the Nashville, TN area until joining OMICRON electronics as an application engineer in 2008. He is currently the Sales Manager for the Southeast Area of North America.  He is certified as a Senior NICET Technician; Plant Engineer, and a former NETA Level IV technician.  Will is a member of IEEE and Vice chair of WG I23 of the PSRC.


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