July-Aug 2021

Tracks-7-21 -- Model Railroading Newsletter

July-Aug 2021

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

Articles in This Issue:

Automated Traffic Signals

Sound Effects

Visual Illusions

Garden Trains

More Great Videos*

  • How to Build a Garden Railway (by PIKO)
  • Building an Outdoor Garden Train  (with LGB)
  • CABEDOMA G Scale Garden Railroad
  • Train Ride Through American History
  • Easy Model Train Automation with Arduino
  • Build Working Street Lights from Scratch
  • Light Genie from MRC: Control Layout Lights Wirelessly
  • How to Model Realistic Roads and Paved Areas

WELCOME to the newest issue of Tracks - a bimonthly 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.

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*Videos: One of the most common requests that I get from the survey is to show more videos. I have included several in this issue and will continue to do so as it seems to be appropriate. Incidentally, if you have not already done so, you may want to consider upgrading to YouTube Premium, mostly so that you can play the videos without having to watch the ads. The videos displayed here are carefully selected for their educational content and fall under the fair use copyright code. Showing them here does not cause any economic harm to the creators and BYMRR makes no income from them. If you see your video displayed here and prefer that it not be displayed, please let me know and it will be removed immediately.

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.

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Automated Traffic Signals

Installing traffic signals is another easy and exciting way to add more realism to your train layout, especially if they're automated.

Model Power fortunately manufactures ready-to-install traffic light kits made of brass with incandescent lights. If you're handy with miniatures, you could potentially change the lights to 3 or 5mm LEDs which would have the advantage of lasting longer than the incandescent bulbs, although you would have to include a 1000 ohm resistor for each traffic light.

You could just take each traffic signal out of the box and connect it to your power supply. A selector switch is included so you can manually change the lights from green to yellow to red and back. If you hook up several of them in parallel operated with one switch, you could synchronize the lights if you wish.

As neat as that is, I think it's even better to automate the traffic lights so that they change automatically without you having to throw any switches. That way, you can concentrate on running your trains while all of your lighting effects are occurring by themselves!

How do you automate these lights?

You need a circuit board that is designed for this. Enter Circuitron TL-1. This board will automate changes for up to 6 LEDs or incandescent lamps as long as all the lights use the same voltage and amps. Thus, you would need one circuit board for every 2 traffic signals (3 lamps per signal) that you want to automate. Also, the changing times for the red, yellow and green lights are adjustable.

Circuitron TL-1: A circuit board designed to automate traffic lights on a model railroad.Circuitron TL-1: A circuit board designed to automate traffic lights on a model railroad.

The wiring diagram and instructions are included when you buy the circuit board. You can use either AC or DC power (10-18 volts) connected to the + and - terminals on the board. You should probably solder these wires on to the connector pins on the board so the connection will remain stable.

If you're using incandescent lamps, connect the black (common) wires from each traffic control signal to the "L" connector pin.

If you're using LED's, connect all the positive leads from the LED's of one traffic light to one 1000 ohm resistor(1/2 watt-rated) then connect the other end of the resistor to a wire that goes to the "L" connector pin.

Then take the colored wires from one traffic control signal and solder each one to the corresponding connector pin (R1, Y1, G1). Do the same for the second traffic control signal connecting each of the colored wires to the corresponding pin (R2, Y2, G2). Although it would be nice, to save money, to connect more than 2 traffic signals to each board, but Circuitron advises against this.

On the board there are places where you can use a small screwdriver to adjust the amount of time that each light will go on and off. This may take some time to get them adjusted just right.

When you're done you've got another great automated enhancement for your layout!

Other options: 

Dual Traffic Light Controller - LED Sequencer / Model Railroad Compatible HO,N,Z

Dual Traffic Light Controller - LED Sequencer / Model Railroad Compatible HO,N,ZDual Traffic Light Controller - LED Sequencer / Model Railroad Compatible HO,N,Z

Sound Effects for Your Model Railroad

Train Sound Effects - Don't underestimate the impact.

One of the best ways to liven up a layout is to create scale-appropriate sound effects.  These can not only include the obvious sounds of locomotives and railcars, whistles, horns and braking, but also ambient sounds – birds, water rushing in a creek, city traffic, or even a sawmill in the distance.

Scale sound is a phrase referring to the differences in the sounds you should hear when associated with different scales.  For example, the sounds associated with an N scale layout should be significantly softer than those used for an O scale layout.  If your sound is too loud for N scale then the sound is “out of scale”, the same as an O scale building would be out of scale on an N scale layout.

The difference in scale sound is mostly a matter of volume; however, it is important to remember that when the volume is low, the human ear picks up only midrange sounds.  The low frequency bass and the higher frequency sounds may be lost.  There are certain ways to enhance these frequencies even when the volume is low.  For example the “bass boost” controls on many small stereo systems are just for that purpose. 

DTS technology has improved sound systems to the Nth degree, but you will need a receiver and speakers that have this technology. If you are playing your sound effects through a smart phone or computer, you can get audio enhancing software that will improve the sound for you.

Wireless audio adapters can be attached to your speaker system so that your smartphone or computer doesn't have to be tethered to your sound system.

There are various kinds of sound systems available for you to consider when thinking about adding sound effects to your train layout…

On-Board Train Sound Effects

Many, if not most, locomotive manufacturers produce locomotives with sound units already included.  They can produce exhaust sounds, chuff, whistles, horns, etc.  This is the easiest way to get sound effects on your layout – just purchase a locomotive that already has a sound unit on board.

However, if you’re like me, you already have some older locomotives that don’t have sound that you don’t really want to put up on the shelf yet.

 If you want to install a sound unit in your analog loco, tender or railcar, you can get one from Soundtraxx for DC (analog) operation only.  The circuit board contains the sounds so you don’t have to record anything.  The sound effects on many of these units will change according to the amount of current used by the loco.  Some can be controlled by a remote power unit, or set off by a magnetic reed switch on the loco that is turned on when the loco runs over a magnet in the track bed. However, these devices are not readily available these days and have largely been replaced by DCC sound decoders, although you can still find them occasionally on eBay.

Another type of analog system is to have a sound unit located at the control panel and use the track rails as “wires” to send the filtered audio impulse to a speaker on board the loco or hidden within a building.

You could also use an FM broadcast from a unit on the control panel, use the rails as antennae to get the signal to the rails under the loco.  The signal then jumps to the receiver and speaker mounted in the loco. Tiny receiver and speaker units for this purpose can sometimes be found on eBay.

When DCC entered the picture, we suddenly had a new way to get sound effects into the loco, using decoders and remote stationary units or walk-around throttles to control the sounds.  This is a little more expensive, but probably offers the best quality and most versatility of all the on board systems mentioned.

Commercially Available Trackside Sound Systems

One of the simplest sound systems to install is from MRC - Model Rectifier Corporation (www.modelrectifier.com).  It comes in 2 versions – each containing 18 different sounds accessed via remote control: 

• Sound Station 312 – Diesel and steam engine sounds, brakes, horns, whistles, bells, etc.  Some of the sound effects can be made to play continuously and you can add additional sounds as you wish.

• City and Country Sound Station – all kinds of city sounds including traffic, car sounds, jackhammer and country sounds like roosters, cows, thunder, etc.

You can mount the speakers anywhere where they sound the best – overhead, on the wall, or under the layout.  You should probably test the sound with the speakers in various locations to see how you can get the best effect.

One of MRCs more recent transformers called Tech 6 can control the sound in any locomotive, DC or DCC, as long as the loco has a sound unit or decoder installed.

An older system that was easy to install and use is Maxx Traxx by QSI.  You might be able to get one from a private dealer or on eBay, but it's no longer available from QSI.  This system uses a special technology that makes it difficult to tell where the sound is coming from.  Engine sounds correlate with the speed of the train to create a realistic effect.  There are only 3 buttons on the control unit, but using the buttons in various combinations create a great variety of sound effects including grade crossings, crew sounds and multiple train sounds.  There is only one speaker.  Installation is a breeze: 2 wires from the control unit are connected to the track and 2 wires go to the AC output of the power transformer.  The hardest part is figuring out where to put the speaker.  QSI also provides railroad sound systems for Atlas.

The Maxx Traxx has been mostly replaced by another system called the Dreamplayer by Pricom.  This provides a multitude of train and atmospheric sounds to which you can add more sounds that can be downloaded from the Internet.

HQ Sound Modules made by ITTC (https://ittproducts.com) are a great way to provide localized sound effects coming from anywhere on the layout.  You can purchase several of these modules which each contain different sounds, like barnyard animals, sawmill, honky tonk bar, track crew, and lots of others.  Each module contains hookups for the power unit, a control switch, and one speaker.  The switch can be a regular toggle switch on the control panel, a momentary switch so that the sound only stays on while you are pushing the switch, or a magnetic reed switch hidden in the track ties that is activated by a magnet on a passing train.

RAM digital sound devices (www.ramrcandramtrack.com) are another option for a layout sound system that includes on-board circuit boards and/or trackside devices that can be set up to provide a combination of train and trackside sounds.  √Magnetic reed switches are used to operate these devices.

Surroundtraxx by Soundtraxx (www.soundtraxx.com) is a high-fidelity sound system that creates both train and trackside sounds and can be used with either DC or DCC operating railroads.  This system involves placing hidden speakers all around the layout using block detectors in such a way that the sound appears to follow the train as it travels around the layout, and it can do this for more than one train at the same time.  Meanwhile, it also provides ambient sounds that are appropriate for the particular location that the train is traveling though at the time.  Not only that, but the sound effects can be different at different times of the day.  This is probably the most sophisticated of all the sound systems available thus far.

Creating Your Own Sound Effects System

If you don’t really want to invest the money in any of the systems described above, or if you just want the satisfaction of doing it yourself, you can make your own sound effect system inexpensively by using several portable CD players, each containing CD’s with looping prerecorded sounds, which can be controlled remotely to play at different times.  Small speakers can be attached to the headphone jacks and strategically placed in locations that are appropriate for the sound produced.  The location and direction of the speakers are critical to create the right effect, so it pays to spend some time placing them properly, sometimes bouncing off walls, sometimes facing to the back sometimes to the front, etc.  Use your scenery to hide the speakers or mount one or more of them under the layout with the speaker opening to the surface, just so at least 2/3 of the speaker is not covered.  Don’t allow any loose items like ground turf to get into the cone, and make sure you don’t get any glue spay into the cone either.  The sound is better if the speaker is mounted in a small airtight enclosure made of wood or hard plastic with no rattling parts.

You can add a small 2-5 watt amplifier for your speakers like those made by Ramsey.

The soundtracks for your system can be found at various locations on the Internet including https://www.fantasonics.com, and others.  There are many CD’s available containing environmental or nature recordings that you could use as ambient sounds in combination with train and trackside sounds.  

If you have an √Echo device, either stand alone or attached to your speakers, you can just use your voice and ask Alexa to "Play train sounds" or whatever else you want to use for your background sound and it will play these sounds continuously from the Amazon Music database.

You can also download various sounds from a website called Epidemic Sound, including weather sounds like thunder and lightning. If you also have a sound activated lighting system like you can get from Aspect LED, you could create quite an impressive storm over your layout! You could even add some clouds that you can make yourself as in this video! Also, check out this thunder and lightning module from ITT Products.

You can use one or more of the above systems in combination, along with your own creativity, to make your railroad environment an interesting and exciting experience.  It will certainly add to the realism and atmosphere of your train room, making it a pleasant place to work on your trains as well as a delight for your visitors.

Visual Illusions

Boys in Soapbox Derby on Lehigh Valley RR. Note the illusion of the road going into the layout backdrop and how the billboards and cars help to establish the era of the railroad.Boys in Soapbox Derby on Chuck Davis' Lehigh Valley RR. Note the illusion of the road going into the layout backdrop and how the billboards and cars help to establish the era of the railroad. (Photo by Greg Warth, Courtesy of Chuck Davis)

Visual Illusions are an exciting way to enhance your train layout and delight your visitors when they see what you’ve done to trick their senses.

Various illusions can be used on your layout for the purpose of providing the following effects:

• Forcing perspective

• Making your scene appear larger than it really is

• Creating a place for trains or cars or rivers to go even when no place exits

• Increasing the size of a lake or pond

• Enhancing an underpass scene

• Adding more structures where there are none

• Making structures larger than they are

• Adding more scenery where there is none

• Making double-sided signs

Forced perspective has been mentioned briefly in other areas of this website. Basically, it involves the use of different sizes of scenery material, structures, trains and/or backdrops to make the scene appear larger and deeper than it really is.

For example, if you have an HO shelf layout, and you place the usual HO equipment and scenery in the foreground, then place N scale structures, trees, or even an N scale train running along the backdrop in the background, you have created forced perspective. When this scene is viewed at eyelevel, as it should be, it appears much deeper than it really is.

You can also create roads or rivers that taper from wide to narrow very quickly from the foreground to background to give the illusion of depth. Fences can be made to get progressively smaller as they follow the road into the distance. The people and cars in the distance should be smaller too.

Canyon walls that taper from large to small quickly behind a trestle bridge scene also help to provide this effect.

If you are good at painting backdrops, the roads, rivers, trees and mountains should all get progressively smaller in the mural to give it depth. This effect may be even easier to do with city scenes where all the roofs, and other horizontal lines of the buildings line up to one point in the background on the mural.

Flat mirrors can also be used to create illusions. This was pioneered and made popular on train layouts by the late great John Allen, builder of the famous Gorre and Daphetid Railroad. He often used mirrors to create many of the effects listed above.

The main secret to the effective use of mirrors is to not give it away – i.e., don’t let it be obvious that a mirror is in the scene. You do this by…

• Not placing the mirror in such a way that viewers can see themselves.

• Hiding the edges of the mirror using structures, bridges, overpasses or scenery.

• When using the mirror to extend the length of road or track, it must be perpendicular, or at a 90 degree angle, to the path of the road or track; otherwise the extended road will appear to be at an unrealistic angle to the real road.

There are several ways to enhance the realism when using mirrors…

• Any structures, figures, train cars or autos reflected in the mirror should be painted a different color on the front and the back, so that the reflection appears to show a different structure, person or car.

• The cars or trucks that are reflected in the mirror can be altered (cut in half and re-glued together) so that they either have a front on both ends or a rear on both ends. That way, when they are viewed at eye level going into the mirror, it appears that the car in the mirror is heading in the same direction on the same side of the street as the real car.

• Place inverted signs on the backs of reflected structures, street signs, commercial signs so that when they are reflected in the mirror, the lettering can be read normally. The items in the mirror will then have the appearance of being completely different structures than the real ones especially if they’ve been painted differently on the backsides as well.

• You can also place the back of a structure directly against the mirror giving the appearance that the structure is twice the size it really is. The roofline should be lined up at right angles to the mirror to get the right effect. You may not be able to use a building with irregular rooflines. If you’re not sure, try and see if it looks realistic. If not, then remove it and try a building with more standard rooflines.

• If the thickness of the mirror reduces the realism of the scene by creating a gap between the real and reflected scenery, see if you can find a mirror that has the reflective coating on the front side of the mirror rather than the back side. Some of them are made this way, and may serve your purpose better.

The above ideas are just suggestions and ideas that have all been tried successfully before. You can use your imagination to create your own illusions perhaps stemming from the ideas above. These techniques are a lot of fun to use and to try out on your friends. See if they can find where the illusions are on your layout and figure out how you created the effects.

Garden Trains

It's summer again. Time to get out of the house into the great outdoors. What better way to enjoy your backyard than to create a garden train for you and your family to enjoy.

One of the main advantages of running garden trains in your backyard is that it brings your railroad into full view for all of your family and guests to see without it being hidden away in an attic or basement.

Another advantage is that your whole family can be involved in helping you build and operate it. Some members will like doing the construction. Others will like placing and nurturing the plants. Everyone can help with the cleaning and maintenance; and more importantly, everyone can enjoy it together.


The first thing to do is to determine the best location on your property to build your garden train layout. One of the best places is near your back patio where the railroad is easily visible and can be a topic of conversation. Or it could be located in a central courtyard that is present in many homes these days. It can greatly enhance your rock garden or your terrace as well. You could have track going around the pool or lining the front of your flowerbeds. Also, a garden railroad would be a great addition to a greenhouse.


Next you will want to be sure the drainage is adequate in the location you have chosen. Before installing the railroad, inspect the area during or after a rainstorm and see where the water goes. If there is a lot of pooling in the middle of where you want to put your layout, you may need to put in some drainage tile or pipe to carry the water away from the area to a lower level.

Other options would be to elevate your railroad using salt-treated wood or to build up the gravel roadbed fairly high to keep your tracks from flooding when it rains.

Another consideration might be to make a small water pond in the middle of your railroad or nearby so that water will naturally gravitate to and accumulate in the pond away from your track. You may want to use a combination of any or all of the above. The important thing is that you don’t want to have standing water or mud on your tracks if you can help it.

Plan Your Layout

For a simple oval or figure 8, draw your garden train track plan on a sheet of paper first. You may want to include where you want to put structures like train stations or freight houses and where you might like to put bridges or tunnels. Also include which plants you want to put in and where.

If you want a more complicated plan with switches and sidings, draw those into your plan as well.


You can pour a 3-4 inch pad of cement as a roadbed or use salt-treated wood. For rigid roadbeds like these, make sure to consider expansion joints to allow for expansion in the heat of the summer and contraction in the winter.

The other option would be to use a so-called free-floating roadbed using crushed gravel on top of flat ground on which you can lay your track and then use finer gravel to fill in between the ties to hold your track in place. I would use the latter method if there’s a good chance you may want to change your track plan later.


You may want to use a ground covering tarp that will keep weeds from poking through. These can be purchased in rolls from your home or building store. An inexpensive way to do this is to just lay newspaper down. This will work just as well to prevent weeds, but they will have to be replaced more often.

Put these weed guards down on the ground wherever you don’t have the tracks and roadbed. Then cover them over with a thick 3-4 inch layer of high quality mulch, being careful to keep the mulch from getting on the tracks or on the gravel roadbed.


Now it’s time to select whatever plants you want to use and figure out where to put them. You should mostly select small low growing plants. Make sure that when they grow, the roots or plants won’t interfere with the track or the garden trains. Try to select ones that will be relatively low maintenance. Your favorite garden center should be able to help you pick out the right ones.

Garden Train Equipment

Your trains should be kept indoors except when you are using them.

The track of course can be left outside. Make sure you use a high quality of track that will be durable outside in harsh weather. Some tracks that come with starter sets are best replaced by better track more suited for outdoor use.

Locomotives containing batteries and electrical motors will not do well if left outside. Some people cover them to keep the rain and wind off, but the best thing is to bring them inside where the humidity can’t get to them. Some folks like to use a pet door and put track through it so that when it’s time to come in for the evening, the train can be run inside through the pet door!

G scale seems to be the most popular and the most appropriate for garden trains. You can use O scale equipment outdoors these days since there are now manufacturers like Atlas and others that have produced O scale track that is relatively weatherproof. The electrically operated O scale locomotives may require more meticulous attention with respect to making sure they stay out of bad weather and keeping them clean and lubricated.


Most of the G scale structures you buy for outdoor use are fairly durable in harsh weather and can be left outside unless you live in an area where the winters are particularly severe, in which case freezing rain and ice could crack some structures. You should make sure your structures are anchored well enough to withstand wind and rain. You don’t want to have to reposition everything after every storm.

In Summary

If you have a backyard and if you love model railroading or just love trains in general, this is for you. It will get you outdoors and off the sofa. You will constantly be tinkering with it wanting to change this or that, add more plants, build tunnels, etc., etc.

The quality and number of locomotives and rolling stock that are available now for this hobby are ever expanding. Many of them can blow smoke and have lights, bells and whistles that you can operate from a handheld device.

Also, the garden trains in G scale are very impressive. It’s been said that if they were any bigger, you would have to buy a ticket!

More Great Videos:

Build a Garden Railroad

Building an Outdoor Garden Train

CABEDOMA G Scale Garden Railroad 

Train Ride Through American History

Easy Model Train Automation with Arduino

Build Working Street Lights from Scratch

Light Genie from MRC: Control Layout Lights Wirelessly

How to Model Realistic Roads and Paved Areas

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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
https://www.bymrr.com. 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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