Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Progress Report 16 - Freight Operation

Although Peckforton station has not yet been completed (see Progress Report 15), I am beginning to think about how the line will operate. With five stations and the copper mine, freight operation will become as important as passenger traffic and so I've decided to create a simple system for generating and managing freight traffic.

My indoor 00 line comprises a terminus to 'Denny' fiddle yard - a four track reversible cassette. I use a card system and dice to decide which wagons should remain and which should go on the daily pick-up goods. For the garden railway, I needed something a little more sophisticated. I have for some years dabbled in an amateur way with a relational database (4th Dimension - now simply 4D) which was given away as a freebie on the cover disc of a computer magazine many moons ago - version 6 which is way out of date but still works! This sophisticated application includes a programming language for handling the data. After a considerable amount of trial and improvement, I came up with a computer-based system for generating and managing my freight traffic.

As with most things I do, the system is simple and straightforward: I want to spend time running trains, not operating a computer!

4D is a relational database - ie sets of data can be related to each other. One dataset holds information about the locations.

As can be seen, The name of the location is entered plus an abbreviated name. In my database, one location is designated the 'Central Location' to which all the stock can be returned, say at at the end of the season (or a session). I have only test-run the system, but it is my intention to store the stock on separate shelves for each location at the end of every running session, so operation can resume 'where I left off'. However, the 'return to base' option will be useful at the end of the season or on occasions when I just want to start-over.

Another data set holds information about each wagon. As with the locations, each wagon is given a unique identification code. In addition, the length of the wagon is indicated to ensure the system does not generate trains which are excessively long. The wagon's location is entered and a percentage likelihood of it travelling from one location to another. For example, in the above example, this tank wagon has a 50% chance of going from BM (Beeston Market) to BK (Bickerton) but will never go to BY (Bulkeley) or the Copper Mine (CM). This screen lies at the heart of the system as it determines which wagons are most likely to be rostered into trains and which locations they will visit.

Finally, this screen is used to generate the freight trains. The potential length of the train is entered and a train is generated based on each wagon's current location and the likelihood of it travelling elsewhere. If I decide the train presented by the computer is acceptable I hit the 'Accept Train' button and the system assumes I will then move the wagons to their new locations. Alternatively, if I'm not keen on the train which is generated I simply keep clicking on the 'generate train' button until it presents me with something more acceptable.

I've not used the system 'for real' yet (I'm still accumulating sufficient stock to make it viable) but I've included an option for generating a series of trains for an operating session and printing out the rosters, so I don't need to keep returning to the computer each time I need a new train.

Once I have a chance to get back out into the garden, I will let you know how the system operates!

Update: June 2013
 I've now been using the freight management program for around five years. Although the program is somewhat idiosyncratic, I am now used to its little foibles. What I like about it is that the semi-randomised way in which the freight traffic is generated means that sometimes I am required to carry out freight movements which I would probably not have thought-up without it (eg see Progress Report 46).

I am now rewriting the program in VBA Basic for MS Access as my original version of 4D does not run on Windows 7.

Until I've got to grips with Access VBA programming, I am forced to use my old desktop computer which runs Windows XP - but I am not certain as to how long that will last as it's already creaking somewhat. I'm finding Access to be a bit clunky but that might be because my programming skills are fairly rudimentary at this stage.

Update - March 2015

 After battling with the complexities of Access VBA for over a year, I had to admit defeat. There were some aspects of the program I just couldn't replicate - the logic of the programming language were beyond me. I then came across Livecode - which is a freebie programming environment which is based on Apple's Hypercard programming language, HyperTalk. Having used this many (many) years ago and marvelled at its high-level conversational approach to programming, I have now started implementing the program in LiveCode. I have found it (as with most Apple derived software) to be a lot more intuitive than VBA and have already made more progress in a few months than I did in over a year previously.

Hopefully, I will be able to complete this re-programming in the next few months. LiveCode will apparently create standalone applications which will run on any platform, including Tablet PCs. Fingers crossed!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Progress Report 15 - Beeston Castle is developed

As you will see from Progress Report 14, in addition to building the extension to Beeston Market Station and the copper mine, I also took the opportunity to add another passing loop and create Beeston Castle Station. Not only will this enhance the realism of operating the passenger and goods services, it will also provide a second passing loop for those days I simply want to run trains around the main circuit in opposite directions - maybe one day under computer control - one day!

The corner in which Beeston Castle is now situated was always one of those areas with which I have long been dissatisfied. A well-meaning relative had given me a few monbretia bulbs which had rapidly spread to not just fill but to engulf this corner. First job was therefore to attack it with fork and spade and remove all traces - though I suspect there are bound to be a few bulbs lurking in there somewhere.
The axe was needed to attack the roots from the stump of a poplar tree which had once occupied this corner.

I decided that, as I was going to erect Beeston crag and a representation of Beeston Castle I needed some sort of foundation to support the piled-up earth. Two paving slabs were sunk, side-on, into a bed of concrete and had their corners lopped off with hammer and cold chisel.

I still call them 'breeze blocks', but I am assured by the builders' merchant they are hollow concrete blocks. However, these were next laid roughly along the intended line of the passing loop and levelled carefully with a spirit-level. Fillets of concrete were then forced into the gaps between them to firm them up and to prevent weed-growth.

Next came the interesting bit, laying the track. As previously, this was fixed to the block with rawlplugs and screws. All rail joints were bonded using copper wire and my trusty 75 watt soldering iron - what a useful investment that has proven to be!

Chunks of sandstone were positioned behind the blocks and bedded in concrete to hold back the soil and to provide a natural looking backdrop to the station. Clearances were checked using the widest stock ........
.... and a few test trains were run. Fortunately, the loops proved long enough to accommodate the longest planned trains - though I do have some fine-tuning to do on the pointwork - I made the mistake of soldering a wire too close to the plastic frog on the point leading into the station from the bridge and have unseated one of the point blades. However, nothing that can't be fixed with a file and some roofing felt to raise up the frog.

Lastly, while the weather still held, I took the opportunity to lay the foundations for the castle itself by building-up the crag on top of the hill and creating a rough stone wall with fragments of sandstone and some cement. I must admit that it is a bit of an insult to the craftsmanship of Medieval stone masons, and will need to be attacked with a wire brush when the cement goes 'green', but it is beginning to look like a ruined castle - of sorts!

The exposed bits of the slabs will be hammered off with the cold-chisel and more foliage will be added - probably some dwarf heathers. Also, a representation of the gatehouse will be created at the foot of the hill - probably when the platforms are added.

Tidying up poor track laying.

Whilst I had the track-laying tools out, I took the opportunity to re-lay some of my least impressively laid trackwork below Beeston Castle station. I try, where possible, to avoid joining flexible track on curves. I don't have a rail bender which might enable me to add consistent curves to the ends of the rails: curving the ends is impossible by hand! Anyway, by all accounts, these are quite tricky to use. I'd made the mistake of trying to save time and money by putting a joint on a curve, and as can be seen, it was not that successful. Most stock ran through it successfully, but from time to time, a wagon would fall foul of it.

My solution was to cut back the offending sections of track either side of the offending joint to the nearest straight sections and put in a length, suitably curved (in the middle), to fill the gap.

Peckforton Station
I also took the opportunity to lay the foundations for Peckforton Station. I still can't decide whether to put in another loop here or simply to have a halt with a single siding. I'm toying with the idea of putting in two sidings, one for general goods and another to a timber yard. The Peckforton estates are into forestry in a small way and I could justify adding another lineside industry to add interest and increase opportunities for freight handling.

The Tenmille track which was removed for Beeston Castle Station will readily provide the two sidings - all I need is some more pointwork. Something for the Christmas list???

Unfortunately, work beckons and so there is likely to be a lot less activity over the next few months - but this summer has been quite productive.

Monday, July 28, 2008

How I built the extension on timber supports

Unlike the majority of the railway which has been built on raised beds, the extension down the side of the garden has been supported on wooden baseboards. These have been positioned in an existing laurel hedge which was cut back to accommodate the line. Ultimately, the hedge will be trimmed to frame the baseboards.

As with all my postings, I am not professing to be an expert, but hope that others who are planning for build a garden railway may benefit from sharing in my experiences - even if it's to say, there's no way I'll do it like that!

Stage 1 - Cutting back the hedge
The laurel hedge had been there for years, planted to act as a screen between the garden and the belt of woodland beyond. Originally, this hedge was overshadowed by the dense foliage from overhanging trees and laurel seemed to be the only hedging plant which would tolerate these conditions. However, last year one tree blew down and three trees were felled after a series of storms and so it might be that other more appropriate hedging plants could be used as laurel leaves are somewhat over-scale.

To accommodate the railway I decided some drastic pruning was needed. I did this in late spring when growth seemed to most vigorous. Probably, it should have been done during the late winter or early spring. However, the hedge seems to have survived and plenty of new shoots have appeared on all the stems which have now been exposed to daylight.
I cut a 'shelf' into the hedge about two feet from the ground and, where feasible, I left stems towards the rear of the hedge at around seven foot, to act as a screen from the woodland. I had thought of erecting a seven foot high fence, but it seems a pity to spoil the natural view with a stark fence.
Stage 2 - Planting the posts
Having decided roughly where the line was going to go, my next task was to put in the posts to support the boards on which the line would run. I decided to create the baseboard in stages so I could make adjustments as I went. Using the existing railway as a baseline, I dug holes approximately one foot deep and three to four feet apart along the line of the railway.
The next step was to cut a post to the required length. I used a builder's level to match the height of each new post with its predecessor.
Using the line as a guide, I marked off two sides using a tri-square to ensure the top of the post would be square and cut it using a decent saw ( a Stanley Jet Cut panel saw). I've learned it's worth investing in decent tools. In the past I have tended to buy the cheapest I could find, but almost ways regretted it.
After positioning the post in the hole I checked again to see if its top was level with the preceding post. I've found it's better to keep checking than regret it later. With a few posts I had to adjust the height by digging out a little more soil or filling-in. Once happy, I then half-filled the hole around the post with stones and rubble which was then tamped down.
When landscaping and gardening I tend to put any stones I dig up into a bucket and store them for occasions such as this. I also tend to accumulate chunks of broken bricks and concrete slabs which can be therapeutically smashed up with a hammer. Alternatively, when these sources run out, I have been known to buy the odd bag of gravel.

Next, I mixed up a fairly stiff mix of concrete - four spade loads of mixed sand and gravel to one of cement (see How I made the platforms - if you need more guidance on mixing concrete).

This mix I then shovelled in around the post to the top of the hole and used another spirit level to check the post is upright.
The final step was to smooth off the top of the cement with a trowel. I tend to angle the cement up the post above the soil line. This is on the assumption that this will help drain rain water away from the post and prevent contact between the soil and post which encourages rot. I have used this method on fence posts erected over 15 years ago and have not, as yet, lost one to rot.
Of course, you could use 'Metapost' bases to save all this trouble . However, I prefer this more labour-intensive approach as it is cheaper, I do not intend to move the line once erected and - I just love mixing concrete!
Stage 3 - Fixing the baseboards
Before cutting the boards, I loosely positioned each plank in place and placed the track on it temporarily to ensure the boards were in roughly the right places. I use flexi-track so I can tailor my own curves and so can make adjustments if the boards are not quite right. If you are intending to use set track pieces it would be advisable to lay the track out on the ground before digging the holes to ensure the boards are in precisely the right places.
As can be seen, I used the wheelbarrow as a temporary support while I manoeuvred the boards into the right places, before then marking out precisely where the board(s) needed to be trimmed to fit together.

After sawing, the boards were positioned and checked again by loosely laying the track. Sometimes, further sawing was necessary to improve the angle between the boards. On some of the bends, extra fillets were needed to support the track. Where boards joined on top of a post, the boards were screwed directly on to the post. Where boards joined between posts, a section of board was cut to support the join and clamped together while being screwed.

For the copper mine and station sections, the baseboards clearly needed to be wider. Here two posts were erected and a cross-member was attached to support the boards.
Here, we can see the baseboard which will eventually support the mine sidings. As can be seen, each track conveniently occupies six inches, so three six inch boards provide precisely the right width needed for the three parallel tracks. The right hand track will provide a hidden link to the interchange siding at Beeston Market station to enable full and empty ore trains to change places (see How will the garden line be developed?).

After all the baseboards had been completed, they were given a liberal coat of dark brown wood sealant to improve durability and also to help them blend more into the background.
I was in two minds as to whether to cover the boards with roofing-felt. Whilst I can see that it keeps the worst of the weather off the boards, I have concerns about pockets of damp getting trapped underneath. However, I decided to give it a try. As I already have some boards laid without felt, it will be interesting to see which last the longest.

The method I decided to adopt was to cut strips of felt wide enough to fold down each side of the boards. After a couple of false starts I eventually arrived at a technique which seemed to ensure the felt fitted squarely and crease-free.

Firstly, I measured the length of the next straight-run and cut a strip of this length, sufficiently wide to overlap the two sides of the board.
Next, the strip was laid roughly on the board and adjusted until the overhangs were roughly even on each side. Then starting from the middle of the front edge and working outwards towards the ends, the felt was tacked using 1/2" galvanised clout nails.

After that, the back edge of felt was tacked down in the same fashion, pulling it tight to ensure there were no wrinkles or looseness.

I wasn't sure at first whether to glue the overlapping sheets of felt together but realised that if I did not it would be highly likely that water would easily get in under the felt. From past experience, I know that the bitumen-based adhesive is horrible stuff to deal with, it gets everywhere! I therefore decided to tack down all the felt before going back and gluing the joins.

I made sure I left the overlaps untacked, so I could lift them up to apply the adhesive.
Once the adhesive had been coated on both surfaces with a brush I left them for around ten minutes until they were tacky.
I then pressed the top flap down and placed a weight on top to help seal the joint while clouts were tacked into the sides.
After a couple of hours I removed the weight.
I would suggest you wear disposable gloves for this job, wear your oldest clothes or some sort of overall and have some white spirit and a cloth to hand to remove the adhesive from, for example, the handle of the hammer.

Stage 4 - Laying the track
The track was fixed in place with 3/4" chipboard screws. I started from the R3 point linking the extension to the existing line and worked progressively towards the terminus. I used the same techniques for laying the lengths of LGB flexi-track which I use for OO gauge tracklaying.

Firstly, the preceding track was trimmed to provide a neat end, particularly where the track has been curved and the rails are unequal lengths. I find a junior hacksaw is more than adequate for the job.
Next, a couple of LGB rail joiners had their tails removed, by wiggling them up and down with a pair of pointed-nose pliers until they snapped off.

Next, with a craft knife, I removed the chairs from the last sleeper on track which has just been laid and the first sleeper on the next piece of track.

The rail joiners were then slipped on to the ends of the rails and the new length of track connected. A small expansion gap was left between the lengths of rail ready for the next heatwave!
As mentioned previously, flexi-track was used to allow for curves to be tailored to fit the boards. As some of the curves are quite tight a few R1 curves were used, particularly in conjunction with R1 pointwork. I would have preferred to have used R3 points but their cost and lack of availability meant that R1 points were used for the copper mine sidings and Beeston Market Station.

A quick tour of the new line .........

The junction with the existing line.

The line from the junction running behind the leylandii hedge

The line emerges from behind the hedge. The swing-bridge in its parked position in front of the hedge.

The line winds round the foliage to the copper mine sidings.

The other end of the sidings. The main line is to the right.
The 'hidden' link to Beeston Market Station is on the left.

Beeston Market Station.
The 'hidden' link on the left will be used to exchange loaded with empty ore wagons.
The plank in the middle distance is being used to test the height for the platform.

As with the existing track, all joints were bonded using copper wire loops soldered to each rail. The idea of using loops is to allow for expansion and contraction (see How did I bond the rails).
Stage 5 - Testing the track
This was done at the same time as the track was laid. I used one of the largest items of rolling stock to check clearances. I also find that running a bogie coach at speed through the newly laid trackwork gives a fair indication as to whether it's been laid properly.
Stage 6 - Wiring the track
When the original line was laid, conventional switched sections were incorporated as it was assumed that control would be through traditional transformer controllers. However, some unexpected income enabled me to invest in digital command control using LGB's MTS (see Progress Report 13 - Digital Developments). As a consequence, wiring for the extension was extremely simple - a length of 13 amp twin and earth was connected from the extension to the spare switch in the control box (see How did I make the control panel). I will retain the sections to enable me to run unchipped locos should the need arise.

At present, none of the points on the new section has been electrified. It's anticipated that eventually some of the key points (eg the branch junction, the loop crossover) will be operated through MTS control interfaces. Th rest will be manually operated, as I intend to follow the trains around to oversee shunting operations (see Progress Report 16 - Freight Operation)
The first trains roll into and out of Beeston Market Station