Track Plans With a Little Virtual Help

I recently completed most of the remaining track work on the Old Main at the north end of Circleville. All of the industries along that stretch have their track, turnouts, and associated wiring in place, excepting Container Corporation’s shipping and receiving yards. Most recently, I added all of the turnout controls, making the north end fully operational. More on those details in another post.

That milestone got me thinking about extending the track work further to the east, along Huston Street. The major industry here was Purina Mills, which I wrote about in a previous post. The trackage around the area is relatively complex due to the nearby interchange between the N&W and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Reproducing that in model form is going to be difficult due to the prototype’s track layout and the relatively confined space I have to squeeze the reproduction into.

I kicked around some ideas, but decided I needed feedback from people who regularly operate model railroads – folks that could tell me whether my proposed plan would work or not. The problem was, how do you do that when having visitors in the layout room is difficult?

The solution was to use what everyone has become familiar with in the past nine months – video conferencing. Several modelers with operations experience volunteered to help, so it was up to me to work out a way to present the prototype and model situations in a way that made sense on a video screen.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Zoom Video Conference application
  • Google Maps
  • Three cameras;
    • iPhone 11 (my current phone)
    • iPhone 7 (my previous phone) with a Joby Gorillapod tripod
    • An iPad
  • Laptop to manage the call and which camera views were visible.

Setup

I suspended the iPhone 7 above the layout using the Gorilla-pod. This was the first time I’ve tried using this tripod in a hanging position, and it worked really well. The iPad setup was simpler; I propped it up at track level, on the opposite side of the scene from the iPhone.

Before the call, I built a Google Map (learn how here) to show the actual track layout in Circleville in order to provide context. In the screenshot below, the N&W is indicated with red lines and the PRR with green. The fatter/brighter lines indicate where the model’s track would have to deviate from the prototype to avoid the basement wall.

Presentation

I started the call by sharing my desktop with the Google Map displayed. I described the railroad’s route Circleville, followed by zooming into the specific area I needed help with – the Purina Mills complex. The reason for showing the entire map initially was to give the viewers a better sense of how trains would approach the area in question.

Following the map overview, I stopped the screen share and went to the video displays – the ground-level iPad, the aerial iPhone 7 and the iPhone 11. The latter I used temporarily to walk around the basement in order to connect the map overview with what I had built in model form, and how it led into the area I needed help with.

Making more than one video feed usable requires using a more advanced feature in Zoom called “Spotlight”. By default, Zoom will show the video of the person speaking (or their name if their camera is turned off). This is fine for a normal conversation, but isn’t helpful when everyone needs to talk and see a particular video feed!

To solve this, the host adds one (or more) videos to a list of spotlighted views, which keeps those views on everyone’s screens, even during back and forth conversation.

The image below shows what everyone saw during the discussion. For a short time, I had the third, walk around, camera on the screen as well. I turned that camera’s video off as soon as the walk around was complete to keep things simple.

The final track arrangement for Purina Mill and the N&W/PRR Transfer Track is pictured below. The major differences, compared to the prototype arrangement are:

  • Purina Mill will have one warehouse track instead of the prototype’s two. In the photo, the warehouse track is next to the brick building, with three boxcars
  • There is no second track (running track) parallel to the PRR main. Compare to the Google map screenshot above.
  • The warehouse and transfer track (marked with green tape) will both connect directly to the PRR main, instead of a separate running track
  • The transfer track is straight and the PRR main is curved, the opposite of the prototype

My goals were to retain the general feel of the area and reproduce the three diamonds created by the crossing of the PRR over the N&W’s double track main line, and single track Old Main industrial track. My concern was whether those two goals would impact operability – my main concern was the relatively short PRR main to the right of Purina, which would have to serve as a tail track to switch the industry.

The general agreement was that it was long enough (three 40′ cars and a locomotive), and was right-sized for the transfer track (three cars) and warehouse track (also three cars). The end of the track is a long reach, but the coupling area is within reasonable reach.

Closing

Overall, the virtual brainstorming was successful, from my point of view. I got some good feedback on my track arrangement and had a chance to test video-conferencing in a “hands on demonstration” capacity. I am the Superintendent of my local NMRA Division, and wanted to test this use case before suggesting it to the members in my Division for similar training and/or educational purposes.

There are a couple of caveats to doing this. I was using a “Pro” account which allows longer calls with multiple members. You could also do this with a free account, but the call would be limited to 40 minutes – and the “Spotlight” feature may not be available. It also is worth mentioning that this entire presentation could have been accomplished with one camera – it just would have been a more limited view.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you have any questions or additions, please share a comment in the section below. If you know others that might be interested in this blog, feel free to share the link.

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