Digitrax to the rescue!

Last week I reported on my Digitrax DT400 Super Throttle dying after 6 years of faithful service. Ian MacMillan mentioned Digitrax’s throttle repair policy to me, and man, what a deal it is! Even though the DT400 is out of production, Digitrax charges a flat rate of $25 to repair any throttle. So, what would have been at street price a $160+ replacement out of pocket was a mere $25 and 10-day turn-around (including shipping both ways). In fact, my DT400 came back to me with the locomotive addresses I’d been running still selected!

Thank you Digitrax, for great products and great service!!!

Before & After

Few items go directly to my layout without some sort of treatment.  Most things out of the box have a plastic sheen to them that screams “toy.”  Some new models, however, come with a beautiful matte finish that looks very realistic.  However, most of those models have shiny pad-printed lettering applied.  I use a product from Testor’s called Dullcote.  It kills the sheen on any surface (although be careful, it reacts with isopropyl alcohol or CA glue to form a haze) and is probably Patricia’s least favorite smell.  I use it outside.

Typical of what I do to a “new toy” is what I did today with a Bowser Penn Central N5 caboose I got on clearance at M. B. Klein’s in Cockysville, MD.  The lettering scheme is not correct for the real Penn Central 19070, but it looks cool enough. Take a closer look at the car, and you can see a lot of things that need to be corrected. Start with the couplers; these Bowser cars still come with ancient 1970’s-era Rapido couplers.  Note too the glossy sheen.  Students of the Penn Central will also note that the handrails and steps should be yellow.  Lastly, there is no ACI barcode plate, which was used between 1967 and 1977 to track railcars.  Penn Central existed from 1968 to 1976, so all PC equipment should have ACI plates.

Penn Central class N5 shown "before."

I started by replacing the couplers with Micro Trains knuckle couplers.  I used a light wash of Penn Central Green to add a slight fade. I used MicroScale decals to add ACI plates and a COTS (Clean, Oil, Test, & Stencil, circa mid-70s), and then shot the car with Dullcote (I slipped the glass insert out with the roof to avoid “frosting” the windows).  I used a paint pen to paint the handrails yellow, and painted the steps with Poly Scale CSX Yellow.  The trucks and wheel faces were painted Poly Scale Railroad Tie Brown.  I then weathered the car with acrylic craft paint washes.

Penn Central N5 caboose... "after."

While the result is a tad incorrect from a lettering position standpoint, the overall effect is typical of Penn Central cabooses at the time of the Conrail merger.

Industrial Revolution

Evening in Lewistown... The setting sun illuminates the smoke stack of the American Viscose Corporation's plant.

When I first built the layout about six years ago, I intentionally avoided modeling specific prototype PRR scenes, opting instead for a more generic Pennsy-like look.  Consequently, the town on the layout was named Lewisport; a combination of Lewistown and Newport, both towns on the PRR Middle Division in central PA.  I built a DPM Gripp’s Luggage factory with very little modification and called it Juniata Machine Tool Company.  That sounded like something you might find in Pennsylvania’s industrialized river valleys.  In this very early 2006 photo, you can see the factory peering over Lewisport’s freight station:

Early photo of the Juniata Division, showing the freight station and Juniata Machine Tool Company factory behind it.

Photograph from the road showing the former Juniata Machine Tool Company.

Fast forward to 2010, and I’d renamed the towns on the layout to real Middle Division names. Lewisport became the more proper Lewistown, PA, which was not only a significant junction, yard, and source of traffic on the PRR, its depot (the oldest in Pennsylvania, by the way) now holds the archives of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society.  The freelanced town I built resembles Lewistown in only a vague way, as for starters, there was no stand-alone freight station of the type I’d built at the real Lewistown Junction.  There’s also no tunnel portal there, and the train station is very different than what’s on my layout.  Nevertheless, behind the Lewistown depot was a real factory in approximately the same location relative to the station as the Juniata Machine Tool factory I’d built.  However, the factory is Lewistown was a huge, sprawling complex made up of many different buildings.  The American Viscose Corporation Lewistown plant was a major employer in Lewistown and finally went out of business after Hurricane Agnes flooded the Juniata valley, damaging the plant beyond profitable repair.

My little factory got redecorated as the American Viscose factory, but it lacked the prototype’s huge industrial character.

The redecorated American Viscose Corporation factory at Lewistown. Only the signs have changed.

The end of the factory spur. An uninspired clump of trees intercedes between the factory and the hill.

Although I didn’t leave myself anywhere close to enough room to model the American Viscose factory even in a compressed sense, I did have enough room to add just one additional building to at least suggest a larger structure.  I have a number of unfinished Walthers Cornerstone kits lying around for use as “parts,” and so I reached for my Walthers Modulars and the smoke stack from a Walthers Northern Power & Light power plant.  I have to say, I struggled a bit with assembling the smoke stack.  The parts really didn’t fit as well as I would have liked.  Nevertheless, I matched the colors, both of the brick and of the mortar, to the walls on the factory building I’d painted some six years before.  One emergency popped up…  I’d painted the original windows with Poly Scale Pullman Green six years ago, but I didn’t have any on hand today.  So, with a makeshift palate, I mixed Poly Scale’s Reading Green, PRR Brunswick Green, and a drop of UP Dark Gray.  It isn’t a perfect match, but it’s close enough.  The result is a boiler house and smoke stack that makes the factory look at least a little more worthy of rail service.

The expanded American Viscose Corporation factory includes a boiler house, smoke stack, and (not visible) a smoke duct from the boiler house to the stack.

All in a rainy day’s work…

The expanded factory makes the area look a little bit more like Lewistown, albeit in a very abstract way...

There’s an app for that…

I’ve had a Digitrax PR3 for a long time but never got around to setting it up.  My intent was to use the WiThrottle app that turns your iPhone (or Droid, if you’re so inclined) into a DCC throttle.  Well, the death of my DT400 throttle renewed my interest in the system.

Note:  I sent the DT400 off to Digitrax for repair…  They charge a flat, reasonable $25 rate to repair throttles out of warranty.

Many thanks to Ed Kapuscinski for a very easy-to-follow web article on how to set it up.  You’ll need a PR3, a laptop running JMRI (software that allows you to interface your laptop and model railroad, including DCC programming, CTC operations, and connecting your layout to the internet, among any other things), a six-wire phone cable, and your smart phone running the WiThrottle app.  The only real snafu I hit was that somehow the USB jacks on my Mac couldn’t be recognized by the JMRI software.  My wife Patricia got her Mac working with JMRI, but then proposed the best solution: using the old PC laptop that otherwise runs our weather cam.  This laptop got me through my PhD program at NC State, but hadn’t really been used (or needed) since I got my Mac in 2009.  Patricia patiently updated all of the software, installed JMRI, and troubleshot the system while I was at work.  I came home on Monday to a functioning WiThrottle server!

WiThrottle even allows dual cabs; very handy for guys like me with a double-track round-round.  Using the PR3 programming functions in JMRI plus the WiThrottle gives me just about the same functionality as the DT400.  Nevertheless, there’s something comforting about having a no-kidding throttle with a knob when you’re backing a loaded coal train through switches into the yard…

Oh, and maybe the coolest part of setting up the PR3 and JMRI is monitoring the Digitrax Loconet.  With this window open in JMRI, you can watch every single packet of information being sent through the command station, from locomotive address slot changes to speed changes and turnout positions (if you have decoder-equipped switches).  Years ago I remember visiting Train Buddy DCC specialists in Wake Forest, NC, and they had an entire layout, signaled and all, which operated completely on its own.  Trains started, stopped, and did their business all from a timetable and CTC routine running in JMRI.

This ain’t your daddy’s train set anymore!