In the layout room, nobody can hear you scream

Op session recap

There was an op session on the Mighty MKT last night, and I had seven of my favorite people over to bring the layout to life. It was a fun and adventurous evening!

For me, the build-up to a session starts about a week earlier. I have a formal checklist that I have created and refined over the years, reminding me of the myriad big and small things that are necessary for a successful session. I have the layout-checklist items down pat, but it’s the non-layout items that sometimes can fall through the cracks. For example, “load the crew lounge chiller with sodas” and “put batteries in the radios”. Or “buy Fiddle Faddle snacks for Steve and Dan”!

Once the trains are all staged, and the industries have waybills turned and balanced, my attention goes to the final two items. It seems that I always save them for last, mainly because I dread the tasks: cleaning the track and cleaning the locomotive wheels. Oh! How I wish I had the HO sized wheel tread and rail, with their larger surface area and heavier locomotives. For an N-scale DCC layout to run with any modicum of silky smoothness, you need scrupulously clean track and wheels. And powered frogs. And hand-built turnouts.

I try to finish wheel cleaning the day before the session, just so it definitely gets accomplished. Track cleaning is an on-going and continuing (and continual) process and occurs right up to (and during!) the session.

About 20 minutes before the session, I was doing a final walkthrough, testing turnout operation and the lift bridge. I noticed that the east Rhineland turnout was not throwing. Darn! That was on my to-do list. The tortimus fulcrum had fallen down and had been meaning to fix that for the past two weeks! I shut the power off the layout (to relax the torti motor). Grabbing the Kasper commemorative wand-o’-light, I dove under the layout to fix that fulcrum. I head a “snap” and “sproing”, but I thought that it was just the plastic fulcrum snapping into place. I gave it no further notice and went to the computer to restart the system.

I need to digress a bit and explain that, about two months ago, the computer used to run the computer/model railroad interface (C/MRI) that drives the dispatching screen, and signals (among many other things) had been misbehaving. The C/MRI program would repeatedly crash, then would work properly, then crash, then work, etc. Then, as suddenly as it began, the crashing problem disappeared. At the time, I had a bit of a freakout, and prepared a backup computer in case the computer glitch appeared during a session. So I sort of forgot about it. Silly me.

Back to my story: After fixing the torti fulcrum, I went to the dispatcher desk to restart the layout. And it crashed. Restart. Crash! Restart! Crash! Curses!

It’s now 6:50 and I am expecting guests at any moment. Ok. Take a deep breath. No problem. I’ll just pull out the backup laptop and all will be well. I recalled that I had even recently upgraded the backup computer with a solid state drive to improve performance. Wait! After I installed the new drive, did I reinstall the program and USB drivers needed to make the C/MRI program work? I can’t recall. With sweat dripping down my face, I booted the backup computer. Curses again! I did not install the C/MRI items! It’s now 6:55 and I hear footsteps of some of my guests coming down the basement stairs.

What to do? What to do? My backup to the backup is a half-baked Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI) program. It will power the layout and throw the staging turnouts, but the signaling system will not work. And the dispatcher’s screen is not fully functional. I start up the JMRI panels and go out to greet the operators.

We have a brief orientation session (not my usual entertaining 45 minute presentation, much to the relief of my regular crew!), and Bill graciously offers to dispatch. I tell him that it will be a special adventure in the dispatcher’s chair today. Joe is the yardmaster, so he’s up to speed, so I spend my time with Bill, showing him the features (and idiosyncrasies) of the JMRI train monitor screen. All in all, the JMRI program worked pretty well, with the exception of a couple of turnouts that the train crews couldn’t throw in the field. The dispatcher was able to throw those turnouts, so we made it work.

About 20 minutes into the session, Engineer Rick commented, “East Rhineland turnout is missing a point!” I run into the layout room and, sure enough, the point is laying about 5 inches down the track! Hmmm, maybe that was the “sproing” that I heard just before all hell broke loose with the computer program. I gathered the soldering equipment in anticipation of making a field repair (or begging Joe to make the repair), but we were able to replace the point temporarily and work around the broken turnout during the session. Another item for the to-do list!

Overall, the session went about as smoothly as can be expected, with only a balky turnout or derailment here and there. More importantly, everybody seemed to have a good time.

Like Ragnarok in Norse mythology, where the world is destroyed, only to be subsequently recreated, so now it’s back to the to-do list and the cycle starts anew!