Saturday, September 19, 2015

Converting the Blacklog Wye to Narrow Gauge

In my last post, I explained how the purchase of a used dual gauge wye on eBay led to years of frustration as I tried to integrate the wye into my dual gauge yard.  My first attempt at a solution was to leave the main line through the wye as dual gauge while changing the two legs and the tail track to Micro Engineering HOn3 flex track joined by a Shinohara #3 wye.  The result looked good, but keeping two of the original hand laid dual gauge turnouts made the entire wye operationally unusable.  I finally bit the bullet, ripped out the entire wye, and started over.

I decided that trying to rebuild the dual gauge wye was not practical.  Fabricating three rail switches from scratch is beyond my ability -- at least for now.  However, I had successfully constructed a narrow gauge wye at Robertsdale, on the southern end of my East Broad Top line, using commercial track and switches, and it worked fine.  So the die was cast.  I would replace the ancient dual gauge wye with a modern narrow gauge facility.  That left open the question of what to do about the dual gauge tracks that extend beyond the wye, including a dual gauge spur servicing the Altoona Brewery. More on that in a bit.

The first challenge was to plug the hole in the layout caused by cutting out the old wye.  My layout, as you may recall, is constructed on 2 inch extruded insulation, or what is known in the business as "pink foam".  I live on Cape Cod, where finding building supplies is a real challenge.  Transporting a 4 x 8 foot slab of insulation was another problem -- there was no way to fit it in my Prius!  Finally, a friend volunteered to secure the insulation and bring it to my layout in his pickup truck.  When the foam arrived, I was surprised to find it was blue, not pink.  No problem, I thought to myself.  Two inch foam is the same, pink or blue.  Wrong.  More on that later.

My first step was to make a template for the wye-shaped hole in my layout  I used a sheet of cardboard laid over the hole, and from under the layout I marked the outline of the opening with a Sharpie marking pen.  I then cut out the template and test fit it over the opening.  I used wooden skewers stuck in the foam to support the pattern.  Some cutting and fitting was necessary, but the result was surprisingly accurate.

Once I was satisfied with the fit, I removed the template from the layout, sprayed the back of it with Aileen's Tacky Spray glue, and set it on the block of blue foam.  The outline was traced with a marking pen and the cardboard removed.  I set the foam on saw horses, then used a jigsaw to cut out the base of the new wye.  The layout was constructed from blocks of extruded foam on a wooden grid of 1 x 4 lumber.  In the following photo you can see the supports where the old wye was removed. The plan was to set the new foam into the hole and glue it to the grid with adhesive caulk.

In the next photo you can see the blue foam wye in place on the wooden support grid.  The switches were placed to get an initial sense of how the track would be laid, and how sharp the curves would be.  The tightest curves on my layout are 18 inches, found only on the wyes.  Experience proved that my Hallmark brass 2-8-2 locomotives can safely pass over this tight a curve, as the center drivers are blind.

More problematic than a tight curvature was the discovery that all foam is not the same!  Look carefully at the above photo, and you will note that the blue foam is not level with the pink foam in which it rests.  It is about 1/8 inch higher!  I am not sure why this discrepancy exists.  Maybe the pink foam shrank over time. The layout is over six years old.  Or it may be that blue foam is simply slightly thicker than pink. Whatever the reason, I had a new dilemma to resolve.  The original dual gauge wye sat on a 1/8 inch cardboard roadbed.  When I installed the old wye, I used wooden risers to raise the plywood base, so the track was at the same height as the dual gauge yard (to the left of the photo).  I intended to dispense with risers, setting the new base directly on the wooden supports, like the foam around it.  The blue foam sits on the grid, but it is higher than the surrounding base.  That left me with no easy way to lay the track on cork roadbed, as I had intended.  I made the decision to lay the flextrack directly on the foam, reasoning that with ballast and scenery, no one would notice the lack of a raised roadbed.  I then applied adhesive caulk to the supporting grid and fixed the foam in place, weighting it down while it dried overnight.

After the caulk was thoroughly set, I began to play with the flextrack and switches.  Track was laid directly on the blue foam.  Two of the three legs of the wye were fixed by the tracks connecting with the dual gauge yard on one side, and the main line as it continued straight through.  There was some wiggle room with the tail track, and I ended up having to move it slightly in order to keep the curvature of the track at 18 inches.

Once I was satisfied with the placement of track and switches, I removed the tracks from the foam, and painted all the exposed areas (pink and blue) with a non-descript beige latex paint.  Track, ballast and scenery would be applied over the brown base.

When the paint was dry, I relaid the track and switches.  After some experimentation, I decided to use a #6 turnout at the top of the wye, and #3 wye switches for the other two legs.  All turnouts were Shinohara with code 70 rail.  The flextrack was Micro Engineering code 70 weathered track. The switches were put in place first, then the rails connecting them.  Cutting the rails while trying to curve the track turned out to be tricky, and several sections of flextrack were discarded when it turned out I had cut one rail too short!

After the track was in place, I ran a car over the wye a number of times, making adjustments where there were problems.  In some places it was necessary to shim the flex track to adjust for one side or the other being too high or too low.  The track was affixed to the foam with long steel pins to hold it in place.  I first tried gluing the track to the base with caulk, but found it easier to simple pin the track in place.  When the ballast was applied, it would cement the track to the foam anyway, and the pins would be removed..

Once the tracks were securely fastened down, Tortoise switch machines were installed from below the layout.  A number of tests were run to confirm that a locomotive could be reversed from either direction without derailing.  When I was satisfied that the new wye was operating properly, it was time to apply the scenery.  I decided that the wye would be located in a grassy meadow, created with static grass over matt medium.  The tracks were ballasted with the same color ballast used on the original wye.  A dirt service run runs along the through track.

At this point I had to deal with the fact that I had a narrow gauge wye connecting to the dual gauge yard at one end, and a long section of dual gauge track on the other, which was now cut off and unreachable by standard gauge trains.  Then I had a brainstorm.  I imagined that the original dual gauge wye was being rebuilt by the railroad to simplify track work and reduce cost.  There was little reason to maintain a dual gauge wye, since the standard gauge yard switchers could operate quite well without the need to turn the locomotives.  (In fact, this was exactly the case at Mount Union on the prototype, where the yard goats were never turned.)  As for the brewery on the far side of the wye, the occasional refrigerator car could be transferred to narrow gauge trucks on the EBT's Timber Transfer crane and pushed through the wye to the spur on the narrow gauge tracks.

To support this explanation, I placed piles of old, broken ties near each of the three turnouts, and sections of rusty rail along the right-of-way, as if left there for later pick-up by the crews removing the old third rail.  Beyond the wye, I painted the top of the third rail a rusty color as if it hadn't been used for some time.

When the scenery was finished and the railroad restored to its original form, no one would suspect the work that went into creating this quiet country scene.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Rebuilding the Blacklog Wye

Some years ago I acquired on eBay a beautiful hand laid wye, once part of an anonymous HOn3 layout. Perhaps the builder had passed away, or been forced to dismantle his model railroad for some reason. At the time I bought it, the wye didn't really fit on my standard gauge Blacklog Valley Railroad.  The ballast and scenery had a definite western character.  I had only begun to tinker with the idea of adding an HOn3 section based on the East Broad Top narrow gauge railroad, but the wye was so impressive I couldn't resist.  So for a number of years, while I did little more than add Tortoise switch machines, the wye sat gathering dust.

When we moved to Cape Cod, I found myself with an empty 20 x 17 room waiting for me to fill it with a model railroad.  Along the way, I also had purchased several brass models of EBT engines, as well as the gas-electric M-1 and a pile of narrow gauge rolling stock.  The model railroad that emerged was a combination HO/HOn3, with a dual gauge yard and space at one end to include -- you guessed it -- a dual gauge wye!  I inserted the wye at the end of the Blacklog yard, with the tail track wrapping around a mountain and quarry, and a brickyard on the opposite side.  Here you can see the wye with the mountain on the right and the refractory on the left, while a conveyor belt soars above.

Almost immediately, I began to encounter problems with the wye.  The hand laid trackwork, especially around the dual gauge turnouts, was beginning to show its age.  Rails came loose, and the original ties were so old they failed to hold new spikes.  The techniques used for constructing the switches were decades out of date.  The wye was built long before anyone thought of soldering rails to PC board ties.

There was frustration over keeping the rails in gauge.  A key problem area was the "draw track" on one leg of the wye, where the narrow gauge rail moved from left to right to allow the tracks to meet the switch correctly after turning.  Engines and cars derailed constantly.

Part of the problem was that the wye was constructed on a sheet of 1/2 inch plywood with cardboard under the ties.  The rest of the layout was built on 2 inch foam with cork roadbed.   The rails on the wye were not at the same height as the rails on the foam, and I was constantly fiddling with rail height.

As beautiful as the wye appeared, it was not particularly reliable for operating model trains.  I wanted the narrow gauge railroad to move cars prototypically, hauling empty hoppers from Blacklog to Robertsdale, turning the train on the narrow gauge wye there, then pulling strings of loaded hoppers back to Blacklog where the coal was cleaned and transfered to standard gauge hoppers.  The engines would then be turned on the Blacklog wye and the whole process would repeat.   Maintenance of the dual gauge wye soon became a constant problem, making operation less than enjoyable.  Something had to be done.

My first idea was to tear up the two legs of the wye leading to the wye switch and tail track, and replace them with Shinohara code 70 HOn3 track and a #3 Shinohara wye turnout.  I reasoned that the change would simplify the trackwork and replace the undependable hand laid track with commercial flex track.  I wanted to leave the main line dual gauge track since there was a long section of three rail trackage on the far side of the wye, including a dual gauge spur serving a brewery.  However, the rails between the switches would be removed and replaced with Micro Engineering weathered flex track.

Once the tracks were properly laid, wired, tested and ballasted, scenery was reapplied to the wye to disguise the damage caused by removal of the two dual gauge legs.  The result was pleasing to the eye, as can be seen in this photo of the altered wye.

Unfortunately, while the commercial components of the wye worked as expected, I had overlooked one little problem:  The entire wye still depended on two ancient, hand laid dual gauge turnouts.  The issues that confronted me with the original (all dual gauge) wye were still there, as soon as a locomotive encountered one of the hand laid switches.  Derailments were not eliminated; if anything, they were worse than before.  All the handling during the conversion had only made the switches more unreliable.

You might ask why I didn't simply replace the original hand laid turnouts by building new ones, using PC ties and modern methods.  The answer is two-fold.  First, the only remaining components of the original dual gauge wye were the turnouts.  There was a certain nostalgia in wanting to preserve some trace of the original track work.  Second, even though I am pursuing the NMRA achievement certificate in civil engineering, which includes building several switches, I wasn't prepared to take on anything as complex as a dual gauge turnout built to exactly fit the space on my layout.  At least, not at that point in time.

After having struggled with the same problems for years, I finally decided it was time for drastic action.  I would remove the entire wye -- the plywood base, the original turnouts, and the newly laid flex track, and replace the hole in my layout with a block of 2 inch foam on which I would lay a completely new, narrow gauge wye, using all commercial components.  Before I had a chance to change my mind, the deed was done.

In my next post, I will describe, step by step, how I built a replacement wye, some of the issues I encountered along the way, and what I did about the remaining dual gauge track extending beyond the wye.