Unitrack Update

Still from a gif by Nzrst1jx (会話 | 投稿記録)
CC by 3.0 (wikipedia)

While I’m now planning a layout based on flex-track, I’m still interested in Unitrack. However, when a new announcement caught my eye, I realized that I’d missed some announcements late last year also, and thought I should bring my pages up to date, and do a Musing to summarize the new items. I haven’t bought any of these, and probably won’t, so I don’t have pictures to post. Some of this may be old news to readers who pay closer attention to Kato than I have of late, as several items are from last fall.

I’ve also updated several of my pages that contain information on Unitrack to reflect these new items.

North American Grade Crossing

First the big news: Kato’s DC and DCC-compatible automatic grade crossing is coming out in a North American version this spring. It’s been five years since the Japanese version came out (which I reviewed here), but finally a U.S.-spec version is, according to Kato USA, coming in May. I don’t plan to buy one, but I’m sure it is good news for many. The part number is 20-652-1 (the Japanese version was 20-652).

Based on the Kato USA photo linked above, it has red/white crossing poles and typical U.S. street markings. One obvious difference from “typical” U.S. practice is that there are poles on both lanes on each side, something that’s much less common here, except for “silent” crossings (which have other differences). Presumably the audio has also been changed to be correct for North America, but they don’t mention that.

As with the Japanese version, you can buy add-on sets to change it from one track to multiple. In fact, it’s the same part (20-653) since there are no markings on the actual street track section. You can also get extension cables (20-654) to put the sensors further from the crossing on high-speed lines.

One thing worth mentioning: the North American version lists for US$220, while the Japanese one (still available) retails from one typical Japanese store for US$143 (that’s marked down from a standard US$172). The set may be marked down in U.S. stores, and postage from Japan is not cheap. But assuming you don’t mind the differences, you’d probably save a significant amount buying the Japanese version.

Iida Line Bridge

Another interesting development is that Kato came out with a set of curved single-track bridges. These are available singly, or in a set that is intended to replicate a famous prototype on the Iida line, the “sixth Mizukubo River” bridge, also known as the “S-shaped bridge” for its curve.

This is shown at the top of this post, but for some better photos, see this Japanese-language blog on Yahoo Japan. The bridge was built like this to avoid a fault in the rock alongside the river, which they would normally have just tunneled straight through. Actually, they did tunnel through it, but the tunnel collapsed during construction. Then they built the bridge. So now the line crosses over the river and back to avoid the problem area.

The photo at the top of the post shows the actual bridge (apologies for the poor quality, but a still from a low-res gif video was the only image I could find with an appropriate license). This is during the dry season, when the riverbed is mostly stone. At other times the water stretches across the entire width.

If you want to find more photos, do a google search on “第6水窪川橋梁”.

As for the Kato track, this is a straight box-girder bridge with curved track atop it and a walkway to one side. It’s very similar to the 20-46x series 124mm Plate Girder bridges, in fact it may be the same bridge molding with different track atop it. The curvature is quite wide: 448mm, or 17 5/8”, which is larger than any normal Unitrack single-track curve (except for the odd 778mm curve used with #6 switches). Each bridge provides 15 degrees of curvature. The boxed set includes four bridges, five cylindrical pylons (standard Kato Viaduct 50mm or 2” height) with inspection catwalks, and riveted box-girder catenary poles similar to those of the prototype.

The bridge catwalk is on the inside of the curve, just like on the prototype, and the catenary poles mount to the pylons on the outside.

20-823 Curved Bridge Set (green bridges)

20-465 Red bridge

20-466 Green bridge

20-467 Gray bridge

20-069 Single Track Bridge Pier #5 with Trapezoid Shape (5 pcs)
I don’t know why they call it a “trapezoid”. To my eye it is a tapered cylinder, so “spindle” would be a more correct description.

20-058 Warren Brace Catenary Pole set (12 pcs)

Note: all of the above do not appear to be available outside of Japan today, although they should be orderable from Japan via the usual online stores.

All things considered, this is a very nice bridge, and it would be a great scenic detail on any single-track rural Japanese model railroad.

Other Unitrack Additions

While not anything near as interesting as the grade crossing or bridge, Kato has made some other updates to their Unitrack line. With one exception, these do not appear to be available in the U.S. yet.

First, they have two 186mm (7 5/16”) straight track sections for modeling engine-house tracks with pits between the rails. Once is a fairly modern-looking maintenance service pit, of the kind often found inside a diesel or electric engine or car maintenance building. The other is a steam-era pit, normally found in a roundhouse or similar structure.

Because these are in ordinary Unitrack sections, the “pit” isn’t very deep, which is reasonable for an ash pit, but would look rather odd for a maintenance pit. But I suspect you could paint it a dark color and it would look fairly good.

20-015 Ash Pit Track

20-016 Straight Pit Track

Kato lists these as 015/016, but one store had them listed (likely incorrectly) as 115 and 116. Oddly, 20-015 is available from one U.S. store, but not 20-016 or any of the items listed below.

Despite the name, the “Ash Pit” track is the track element they supply with their roundhouse as an inspection pit inside each stall, and it appears that the differences between them are more of era (steam versus diesel) than use. Ash pits were generally located outside, and used to clean out the firebox before putting the locomotive away for the night. You wouldn’t dump ash inside a roundhouse, as it would get all over everything. It also usually contained live coals, which could start a fire indoors.

20-060: Buffer Track D (35mm) (1 7/16”) (2 pcs)
End of track bumper with a tie across the rails and both rails bent up to form wheel stops. This is, per Kato, a typical style used in low-speed stations and on local lines.

20-092: Adjustment Track Set B: 33mm (1 5/16”) and 35mm (1 7/16”) (4 pcs of each)
The 33mm segment can be used on a 90-degree curve to adjust center-to-center spacing from 66mm to 33mm.
The 35mm segment can be used when constructing figure-8 layouts with a 90-degree crossing in the center.

Finally, in the “what were they thinking?” category, comes a set of turnouts with colored LEDs embedded in the ballast to show which way the switch is thrown. I suppose it’s useful for an on-the-floor layout where you don’t care about scenic realism, but to me these look terrible.

29-653 #6 Left Unitrack Electric Turnout with Railroad Switch Indicator Lamp

29-654 #6 Right Unitrack Electric Turnout with Railroad Switch Indicator Lamp

They also make these characterized as “DCC” for about US$20 more. I can’t tell if that means DCC-compatible, or DCC-controlled from the limited text. These come in both #4 and #6 switch versions. They’re out of stock at my usual supplier, or I’d be tempted to buy one just to see what it is.

29-551 #4 Left DCC Electric Point (w/ Railroad Switch Indicator Lamp)

29-552 #4 Right DCC Electric Point (w/ Railroad Switch Indicator Lamp)

29-553 #6 Left DCC Electric Point (w/ Railroad Switch Indicator Lamp)

29-554 #6 Right DCC Electric Point (w/ Railroad Switch Indicator Lamp)

As suggested by the 29- part number, these come from Kato’s low-volume custom shop, and probably won’t be sold outside of Japan. And they may be limited-production items that won’t remain available.

And that wraps it up, at least for now. I’m still hoping for more single-track concrete-tie track, but Kato just doesn’t seem interested in producing that, as it’s been a number of years now with nothing new in that arena.

A Quiet Year

As you can see, I’m hard at work…

You may have noticed that things have been a bit quiet here this year, or at least the last half-year. I noted back at the beginning of the year that I had several projects I planned to work on. These were microprocessor-based systems for the planned layout. Those projects all stalled out for one reason or another. Not abandoned, but I ran into problems I couldn’t easily solve, and set them aside for other things, not all related to the railroad. One of them was a software project unrelated to the layout that ate all my spare time this fall. If I can get any of my railroad projects actually advanced next year, I’ll report on them.

I am still planning a “new” Sumida Crossing that’s more directly based on real-world urban Tōkyō. I have lots of ideas for what I want there, but it’s centered on JR East in the vicinity of the Sumida River. Which, honestly, doesn’t really narrow the scope all that much.

Simple Structure Lighting

It’s been a REALLY long time since my last post, since I got caught up in several other things after I started this review. I also planned to do more real-world testing with the lighting system reviewed here. I haven’t found time for that either, but I kept procrastinating on posting hoping I’d find a spare weekend. I didn’t. So I’m going to post what I have, and I expect I’ll eventually do a follow-up when I’ve had a chance to light a couple of buildings.

Woodland Scenics came out with their Just Plug building lighting system a couple of years ago, and I’ve been meaning to take a look at it, and see how useful it would be ever since. On the surface, it appears to be a dead-simple plug-and-play method of lighting buildings that you can power off any low-voltage AC or DC supply, such as the AC accessory outputs on a DC power pack or a simple “wall wart” power adapter. And it is.

It’s not cheap. A pair of stick-on LED lights with wires sell for US$10, the basic hub goes for US$17 without lights, and the expansion unit for a similar cost, and they’ll happily sell you a 1 Amp power supply for US$20 (about three times what you’d pay from a good electronics shop). A large system, with two expansion hubs, eight light hubs, and 32 lights would cost about US$348, or US$10.88 per light (with power supply). You could build the same thing yourself for less than a tenth of the cost. Except for two things.

Learning XTrackCAD

Today's post is about my latest (and more successful) attempt to learn to use XTrackCAD for layout design (see diagram above). I've made a few half-hearted attempts in the past, but was always turned off by the amount of up-front work needed to learn the dang thing. It's not at all obvious, at least not to me. This time I started knowing it was going to be a pain, but with the commitment to see that through.

Much of what I learned was basic, but some of it was very specific to what I'm doing, which is a flex track layout in Japanese N scale. If you weren't already aware, Japanese N is 1:150 scale rather than the usual 1:160 used in American/European N, and, oddly, for Japanese Shinkansen models, but I'm modeling normal trains for the most part. And I'm also planning to hand-lay at least some turnouts using the Fast Tracks jigs, although that turned out to be a lot simpler to design in XTrackCAD than I'd expected.

Memory and the Arduino

It's been a while since my last post, as I've been deep in a programming project and not working on anything else. It's model railroad-related, and I’ve written a lot of code, but as yet it doesn’t actually do anything and there's nothing really interesting to say about it. I’ll write about it when I actually have it doing something. Maybe next month.

But, as is usual for me, along the way I've tripped over a few of my own misconceptions, and learned a number of useful things. One of the latter is that I now know a heck of a lot more than I really wanted to about Arduino memory use, and in particular about how that changes in the Cortex ARM M0+. Since this version of the Arduino doesn't seem to be well-documented online yet, I thought I'd write up some notes about what I’d learned. This is fairly off-topic for a model railroading blog, but since a lot of what I'm doing these days relates to model railroad control and signaling systems using the Arduino and other microprocessors, it's not entirely off-topic.

And if you skip to the end, you'll find a useful function if you're programming one of these.

Arduino Knobs

This is one of those “interim posts” I mentioned at the beginning of the year, posts where I don’t have something yet in a state where I can really talk about it, so I focus in on one detail that’s been taking a lot of my time, as a form of update. But today’s topic, rotary controls for computer-based systems, is a generally useful one, so I don’t think you’ll count this post a waste of time. At least not if you are interested in this aspect of the hobby.

A rotary control, or knob, is a control that can select a continuous range of states arranged in a circle, such as the volume knob on a stereo. Any rotary control can also be laid out as a linear one, simply by straightening out the underlying mechanism (they have to be designed that way, but often are). In schematic diagrams, a linear symbol is typically used to describe either kind, since from an electrical perspective they are identical.

In model railroading the most common application for this kind of control is a throttle. My first power pack, an ultra-cheap kit pack from Tyco, had a linear control (actually it was rotary inside the box, but the lever sticking out the side looked linear to me). Later, my first good DC power pack (my MRC 501, which you can see on my Power Pack Testing page) used a knob, albeit a simple one.

But today, I need a continuously variable control for a digital system, an Arduino to be specific. And yes, it’s for a throttle, but I’m not going to talk about the actual project I’m working on, as it’s still in the early design stages and there’s nothing much to say yet. Instead, I’m going to talk about the various options for this one control, and then go into more detail about the one I’m using, seen in the photo above attached to an AdaFruit Feather M0 Proto (a type of Arduino) for testing.

Ochanomizu Station Signals

JR’s Ochanomizu Station (御茶ノ水駅, Ochanomizu-eki) is an important part of my modeling plans. As seen in the photo above, it’s a mix of old and new architecture. And it’s built along the bank of the Kanda river (the temporary construction platform on the right is actually erected over the river). It’s slightly below street level, with a city skyline climbing up behind it from a front rank of buildings around six stories in height to taller ones further away. It’s pretty much ideal as a modeling subject visually, and it sits at the junction of two busy lines, so there is a lot of activity.

I have been trying to figure out how the signals here and nearby work so that I can include a reasonable subset in my model, but photos in and around the station tend to focus on other subjects than signals for some reason. Thanks to one of my readers, George Roberts, I now have a number of photographs taken around the station and adjacent areas that include these signals (and other interesting details).

Modeling Prototype Signaling I

Today's post follows my earlier series on prototype signaling (Part I: Development and Part II: Blocks), but it's about how to capture a specific prototype environment on a model railroad. For example purposes, I'm going to look at a real-world location I plan to model, Ochanomizu station and the crossovers just west of it. This is a fairly complex case, as it involves a junction of two double-track lines. On the other hand, it's a relatively simple station without multiple platforms per track, which simplifies things a bit.

The question at hand is: how would I replicate somewhat realistic prototype signals for this location? It's an important question, as I'll eventually need to do it. And determining the right answer is a good way to clarify my understanding of the topic, so I can create similar solutions for other locations on the layout. I may or may not actually do it this way when the time comes, but working through this example now helps clarify my thinking.

But I’ll get into the detail of that in another post. For now I’m going to focus on the signals and related systems around a simple crossover (above) so that I can introduce the various pieces that make up the whole, and explain how they fit together.

I started by studying everything I could find about the real signals at this location, which I wrote up as part of my post about this line. Mostly that involved looking at photographs, although before that I'd studied the MLIT document (PDF) that defines how Japanese railroads are supposed to use signals, as well as checking Wikipedia and other sources. I cover all of that in my prototype Signals pages.