Railway first thoughts

Many years in the thinking and planning, some bits purchased or given, will 2015 finally be the year that sees the start of building the model railway..??

So what are my thoughts so far:

I had a model railway when I was growing up. Starting with a simple circle of track, growing into a basic double oval and then into a much more complicated layout. The layout lived in my bedroom and by an ingenious base board designed and built by my Dad it folded down over my bed. So in the typical periods where I was not using it it could be folded up out the way.

As life often does things moved on, I became a teenager and time and interests moved away from the railway. When my parents moved then the railway go dismantled and stored, much of the track and trains become part of the layout my Dad built in their new house. So I’m in the lucky situation of still having all my rolling stock and controller to use on the new layout.

Let’s be clear about a few things at this point – I’m not particularly a modeller. My interest is much more around the electronics and control side of things. I’d be happy with a layout with multiple trains running with control over the points, automated signalling, but no landscaping. However I suspect it will take a while before I get there even!

The Space
As with all layouts the space determines a large amount of what the layout can be. In my case it will be a typical loft layout. Over the last 18 months we’ve had a new roof, boarded and insulated the loft so the space is actually useble for a combination of storage and railway.

The space itself is not as generous as would be expected for the house (a typical 3 bed semi) as the roof is set down lower into the upstairs bedroom. So the net effect is to reduce the overall usable space significantly. Enough room for plenty of storage, but rather tight for a model railway. There is also a tie beam across about 40cm up from the floor, so this effectively sets the height that the layout will be.

So the usable space will be about 2.85m x 2.40m and I need to maintain sensible access to all the storage underneath and into the eaves.

The first obvious question is which scale am I building in? My choice was really between OO which I had when I was growing up or to consider N to get more track and options in the space. While the additional running would be interesting, N is too small and fiddly for my taste. Then when combined with the fact that I’ve already got various OO bits then there is no reply decision to be made.

Looking at the space available I’ve got very few other options that to run something round the edge of the loft. My current thinking is the typical pair of running loops as the basis, and then station(s) and sidings off that.

I quite fancy two stations – a larger “town” style station with canopies, and then a smaller “rural” station to be more country style. I’d also quite like to try and get a bay platform on the country station, so effectively 2.5 platforms. The biggest challenge is going to be the maximum train length that will be able to stop sensibly at the stations. My current longest train is 4 full length cars, so takes up a significant amount of the available space.

One option currently under consideration is making one of the stations a high level terminus in one of the corners and then taking the running loops underneath. The challenge here will be getting enough height for trains to pass underneath bearing in mind there is a structural beam under part of the layout.

Finally I do fancy a few watery items – a reasonable length viaduct (design to be considered) and possibly a canal with lock sound quite attractive. Did I say I don’t do modeling…??

Control of the system will be an interesting area. While my existing controller and trains are all analogue DC, the appeal of DCC control and all the options it opens up are very interesting.

My current thinking is to run two buses round for the two main loops. These can then either be fed with DC or DCC, probably selected by switches somewhere. This will allow running in of trains or basic early operation under the existing DC controller while allowing for a path to get the DCC.

The next question is the choice of DCC controller. This seems to be an area with a large range of possibilities and a wide range of features. Since I’m new to DCC then I’m tempted to start simply with something like a SPROG and JMRI and see how I get on. Should I then decide I need something more fancy for real control I can continue to use the SPROG for testing and programming without affecting the main layout.

Signalling and Train Detection
One of the areas that does interest me is to try and get some level of automated signalling working on the layout. The key thing to make this work will be the need to know if there are trains in certain sections of track at any given time, so I’ll need to find a solution to occupancy detection.

Looking around on the internet there appear to be a couple of different standards – LocoNet and S88 appear to be the main standards. Different command stations support the different protocols or you need another device attached to the computer to read them. There also appears to be some off the shelf occupancy detection modules available, however the are not cheap. Then when you start talking about detecting on a reasonable size layout with sidings then the number of detectors required goes up significantly.

One thing I did find is there appears to be people playing with Arduinos to provide lower cost occupancy detection. So far I’ve not played with Arduinos, however it may be worth having a look.  I’ve also been wondering about the possibilities of using a Raspberry Pi, however so far the Arduino route looks like there are more people playing with  it.

What I might end up doing is working out where the detection blocks should be and wiring them into the bus separately so that I can add the detectors at a later date when I know what I’m going to use.

Next Steps
So the classic question of where next…..

One of the things I’ve come across in my reading round is the suggestion of building a test track. Since I have no practical experience of working with DCC this seems a sensible move in order to get my head around the basic concepts. It will also gibe me somewhere sensible to play with things like detection, signalling and potentially in the future automated running before needing to build them on the main layout.

So next stop will be to look at building the small track – probably a single track with passing place. I’ve got some track and turnouts, now what I need is a baseboard, DCC controller and train with DCC decoder fitted!

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