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Tracks-12-20 -- Model Railroading Newsletter

December, 2020

Building Your Model Railroad:
Tips, Techniques and Information
for All Ages and All Gauges

Tracks Newsletter - December, 2020
Holiday Edition

Christmas Night Train in Heavy Snow by Robert ByronChristmas Night Train in Heavy Snow by Robert Byron (with permission)
Photo 8086129 © -

Articles in This Issue:

Railroad History

Safety Tips in the Train Room

Modeler's Tips

Occupancy Detection

How Does a DC Electric Locomotive Work?

How to Photograph Your Model Railroad

More Great Videos:

  • Big Boy in Kansas
  • Tony Koester's Nickel Plate Road in HO Scale
  • Large Private Basement Layout in O Scale
  • Scenery from Start to Finish by MRH ( Model Railroad Hobbyist)
  • 10% Discount at the Hobby Central Train Station


WELCOME to the December, 2020 issue of Tracks - a monthly newsletter published by Building Your Model Railroad, devoted to providing breaking news and tips to model railroaders of all ages and all gauges in a quick and easy-to-read format. Resources are always credited where appropriate.

Whitelisting the email address of this newsletter is important. It assures that it doesn't end up in your Junk or Trash box every month. Please right click on the email address of the sender, copy the link and then go to your contacts program and paste it there as a new contact. You only have to do it once.

Note: √= sponsored link - See disclosure page for details. If you see a √ next to a link on this page or on the site, that signals that the link is an ad. So if you click on it and purchase something, I might get a small (very small, I might add) commission on it. Just so you know.

Requests: If there are any particular subjects that you would like to see in the newsletter, please let us know at [email protected]. Even better, if you have a tip or something you would like to add to the newsletter, please send it in!  Use the form in the Comments section of the BYMRR website.

Back Issues: And don't forget, there is a huge amount of information in the 33 issues of the old newsletter called BYMR-Zine as well as previous issues of Tracks.  Back Issues are available here.

Thank you for subscribing. We have lots of new tips and tricks in this issue to add to your model railroading pleasure. And please tell your friends about us. The more we can spread the word about model railroading, the better.

Photos: We're always looking for new photos for our Gallery pages. If you have photos of your layout that you would like to share with other model railroaders, I'd love to post them on the site. Send them in to [email protected].

Contributions Encouraged:  If you have a tip, picture, video or an article about model railroading that you would like to share in this newsletter, please let me know.  I'm always looking for more information.

Railroad History

Steam Train

One may think that railroad history is an unnecessary topic under the broad subject of model railroading, but most serious model railroaders know that this couldn't be farther from the truth. First of all, if you are interested in modeling a railroad or even just a structure or a locomotive, there is a certain curiosity about where it came from. How did it get to be what it is? Even if you are freelancing and using unusual names on your cars and locomotives, they are still based on some historical creation, which existed in a particular time or era. It's actually quite fun and interesting to explore the history of the prototypes and even the history of the model-building industry itself that created the models based on those prototypes. 

For example, if someone asks you about an EMD GP-40, would you have any idea what they are talking about? What company made them, when and why? Or a USRA 0-6-0? A Baldwin 4-6-0? Or a Mikado 2-8-2? 

How about an ALCO RS-1? What does ALCO stand for? 

I certainly don't know all about the history and specific types of locomotives (there are hundreds of them), but every time I hear or see a term describing a particular loco or road-name, I try to look it up. If I have a particular type of loco or railcar on my layout, I want to know the name and type of that equipment and a little about the history of it, so when my kids or friends ask about it, I can tell them about it, and also because it's a little embarrassing if I don't know. So, I started keeping a little notebook in my smartphone about railroading where I can type in something about these things when I run across them, at least the more common ones, that I want to remember. I have found that my enjoyment of the hobby greatly improved when I knew more about railroad history and the specific types of equipment that were used in what era.

Safety Tips in the Train Room

Are you safety-conscious when working on your layout?

Here is a list of safety items and tips that should be considered a MUST for every model railroader:

~ Fire extinguisher - up to date.

~ Safety glasses or goggles

~ A single on-off switch (permanently installed or remote) that controls the power to everything in or on your layout.

~ A fire and carbon monoxide alarm

~ A mask to avoid breathing in paint and other fumes

~ Use a ventilated paint booth when spray painting or airbrushing

~ Gloves when necessary to avoid cuts and scrapes that could get infected

~ Circuit overload protectors or fuses to prevent short circuits from causing overheating, fire, or damage to your equipment.

~ Avoid clutter. Keep cords, tools and throw rugs out of the aisles and off the floor where you might trip over them.

~Read the directions carefully for your power tools, especially the safety sections.

~ During the coronavirus pandemic, always wear a mask during operating sessions or when family and friends are visiting the layout. Use social distancing as much as possible. An even better solution would be to invite your friends and family to see the layout virtually, instead of physically.

~ Consider having insurance to protect any damage that occurs to your layout or expensive equipment. It is not that expensive and provides a lot of peace of mind. 

Modeler's Tips

Christmas Train Photo by Ryzhov SergeyChristmas Train Photo by Ryzhov Sergey
Photo 60816830 © -

Add these to your notebook of favorite model railroading tips:

  • Holiday Decor for your layout: Make wreaths for the fronts of your locomotives or for buildings and houses. Take a pipe cleaner and bend it into a small circle appropriate for your scale. Then dip it in white glue and sprinkle on some green ground foam. Add some detail by painting little spots of red with a small brush to represent apples or bows. You could also use green colored pipe cleaners to spiral around your lamp-posts in the city for decoration. Add a pine tree containing tiny LEDs or fiber-optic light strands for a Christmas tree to complete the effect.
  • Pipes: Save those plastic pieces (sprues) from your building kits after you’ve cut off the plastic parts that you need for building the structure. You can cut and paint those scrap pieces and use them to make pipes coming up out of the ground going into buildings or as railings or fences and probably a lot of other things if you think about it.*

  • Using Cotton for Fire and Smoke: Small wisps of cotton can be glued to a chimney or smoke stack to simulate smoke. You can use a little gray or black spray paint on the cotton first if you wish. For an area with a lot of chimneys, make sure the wisps are all pointed in the same direction to indicate wind flow.If you want to display a burning building, use red-orange spray paint on one side of a cotton ball and gray or black on the other side. Let it dry. Then stretch out the gray part of the cotton to simulate smoke arising from burning flames. Glue the red-orange side of the cotton to a "charred" (made with charcoal powder) hole in the roof of the building or to the window where the “fire” is coming out.*
  • Steep Rocky Embankments: These can be made with a mixture of Sculptamold and talus (small stones which can be purchased in different sizes from hobby stores). First, mix up a batch of Sculptamold and add in a small amount of earth brown, raw umber or burnt umber acrylic paint. Then add enough of the small stones so that the mixture is very lumpy. Use a putty knife to spread the mixture on the area where you want the embankment and smooth it out. Then spray the embankment with a mist of plain water. After it dries, you can touch it up further with paint washes if you wish, or add a light black wash to bring out the details. Add grass or weeds or ground foam to the spaces between the rocks for a more realistic effect.
  • *Ref: LifeLike Tips Guide - 13th Edition

(Reprinted with updates from BYMRR-Zine, Dec., 2011, with permission.)

Occupancy Detection

Occupancy Detection is an important part of automated train operation.  This requires some type of sensor that can relay a signal to a, you guessed it, a relay switch, which can then cause an action to occur. So there are 3 parts to this - the sensor, the relay, and then the action. 

One type of sensor is an optic sensor, which uses a photo-electric "eye", that create an electrical signal when there is a change in the amount of light that hits the sensor. For example, if an optic sensor is located between the rails, then when a train on the mainline rolls over the sensor, it blocks out the light, which then activates the relay switch to turn a signal from green to red. The same signal can be automatically sent to a section of crossing track to prevent any trains from crossing the main line while the first train is still occupying that track. Infrared sensors can also be used for this purpose and are usually set up on each side of the track, so when the train goes by, it blocks the infrared signal from traveling to the sensor on the other side. Another one is the Hall Switch, which is located between the rails and is activated by a magnet glued to the bottom of the locomotive or railcar. 

Relay switches are commonly used in circuit boards that perform these automations, but if you don't have one of these circuit boards, you can use an Atlas Relay Switch for simple operations such as the one mentioned above. 

Of course, you can buy circuit-boards that can create all kinds of animations and automations From Dallee Electronics, Azatrax and/or Circuitron.

If you are the DIY type, you can make your own circuit board with a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino mini-computer. This really brings model railroading to a whole new level.

How Does a DC Electric Locomotive Work?

Photo 30534147 © -

Model analog locomotives made by companies like Athearn, Atlas and many others have been using DC (Direct Current) power for decades. One of my visitors recently asked me, how does DC current drive a loco? 

This goes back to the principle of electromagnetic motors which require a magnetic field to rotate.

The DC current travels from the DC power source (transformer) through the positive rail of the track, through the metal wheels on one side of the locomotive (the wheels have to be insulated from the wheels on the other side), which are connected to the positive terminal of the motor. The motor consists of a coil of wire surrounding a core. The current travels through the core to the negative terminal which then connects to the wheels on the other side of the locomotive, then to the negative rail and then back to the transformer. 

Whenever a current travels through a metal core wrapped with a coil of insulated wire, it establishes a magnetic field that can pull or push other metal objects either towards the field or away from it depending on which pole of the coil that is near the object. You can do this experiment yourself at home by taking a long nail, wrapping a coil of insulated wire around it several times. Then connect the end of the wire at the head of the nail to the positive wire from the DC transformer and then connect the end of the wire at the point end of the nail to the negative wire from the transformer. Turn on the power of the transformer and place a metal object near one end of the nail or the other and see what happens. 

So, inside the locomotive, there is a DC motor constructed in the same way, called the armature, with windings of wire, usually wrapped many times over in varying parallel directions. Surrounding the motor, there is a cylinder of stationary magnets, each of which has its own pushing and pulling polarized magnetic energy field. When power is applied to the coil, using brushes to allow for free rotation of the motor, a magnetic energy field is produced which causes a pushing and pulling action against the stationary magnets depending on their position and polarity. This causes the core and the coil to rotate. 

On one end of the motor core, there will be a circular gear that rotates as the motor rotates. This gear connects to series of other gears that result in rotation of the wheels.

That is a very simplified explanation. You can get a more detailed and more complicated explanation here.

How to Photograph Your Model Railroad

Tripod for Model Railroad Photography

Probably the most important thing to remember here is to NOT to try to take pictures of your model railroad with any handheld device. No matter how steady you think you are, and even if you have an "image stabilizer" in your camera, nothing beats a tripod when it comes to taking pictures of small objects. Also use the self-timer on your camera, so that the picture is taken without you having to touch it. If you are using a digital SLR camera, you will need to use a large F-stop number and a long shutter speed (sometimes several minutes if you're doing a night scene) to get better depth of field and better light exposure.

The newer smartphones cameras can also be used as long as you use a tripod and set the self-timer. Sometimes it's easier to get the smartphone into a small area of the layout than it is to get the SLR in there.

Depth of field is frequently a problem when photographing your railroad, because the foreground may be in focus while the background is not, or vice versa. One way to get around this is take the picture from a distance using a very high resolution and a large F stop number ( smaller aperture) and then crop the photo in your computer software. The other thing you can do is take three separate photos, one with the foreground in focus, one with the mid-distance in focus and one with the background in focus. Then go to your computer and use Adobe Bridge to put them in layers and then photoshop to fuse them into one picture  - a process called stacking.  A much easier way to do this is to use a product and software called Helicon Focus. The Helicon FB tube is a special extension tube for your digital SLR that automates focus bracketing. Then process it in Helicon Focus software, so that you end up with a very sharp image from foreground to background. You don't have to have the FB tube. It just automates the process of taking 3 pictures in a row with different focus points.

The camera's point of view should be at eye level with your scene as if you were standing there near the tracks. This is much more realistic than if every one of your photos appears as if you took it from a helicopter.


"A Model Railroader's Guide to Digital Photography", by Brooks Stover, MMR - PDF

"How to Do Model Railroad Photography Part 1 and 2" - video

More Great Videos:

Big Boy in Kansas

Tony Koester's Nickel Plate Road in HO Scale

Large Private Basement Layout in O Scale

This layout requires three full time employees to keep it going. 

Scenery from Start to Finish by MRH ( Model Railroad Hobbyist)

Featuring Ken Patterson and Tim Schreiner

Check out our Hobby Central Train Station for all your train supplies -  everything you need to build your own model railroad. (Also available: RC cars, trucks, planes, helicopters, games, puzzles, tools, gifts and much more.

  • FREE SHIPPING on most items.  
  • Lots of Holiday trains, toys, gifts, etc.
  • Competitive pricing - especially considering free shipping.
  • New discounted products added every day.
  • FREE DVD with every order over $50.00.  
  • Also get a one-time 10% discount just because you read this newsletter. Use the secret Coupon Code S0DQ3M2185O7 at checkout.  (Only good during December 2020.)

Hope you enjoyed this issue of Tracks. Feel free to pass it on to your friends, family and other model railroaders. If you have a great tip or article that you would like to publish on the website, please let me know - The more, the better. Any comments or suggestions are always welcome. You can either go to the Comments/Contact Page and enter your suggestions there or contact me directly at [email protected]

Thank you for your support and for subscribing to the free newsletter for Building Your Model Railroad.

And, as always, thank you for visiting the BYMRR website at We are committed to providing all the newest techniques, tips and articles to help YOU build your own great model railroad!

Take care and be safe.

-Greg Warth


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