Sunday, 10 December 2017

How to Clean Your Layout: Track Cleaning Alternatives from Hornby, Dapol and Gaugemaster

Keeping a layout clean (at least the important bit - the tracks) is a bugbear for many active model rail enthusiasts. For those of us that either have our layouts in dusty environments (attic and garage) or travel with them, dirt and grime is a constant worry.

|When it builds up on the tracks, it can prevent proper electrical connection.

Although it is less noticeable for high speed trains that run around in a big loop, many of us are also downsizing to smaller layouts due to lack of space. This leads to lower speed shunting layouts with Class 08s crawling at low speeds and over pointwork which can be very susceptible to dirt.

Track Cleaning Alternatives

Here's a brief overview of (almost) all the options, plus links to examples:

  • Hornby track cleaning coach - small yellow coach, a bit garish but functional, with old-style D couplings;
  • Gaugemaster track cleaning pads - pads that hang below the axle of any coach/truck, but do not scrape or press down at all, so only really good when used in conjunction with a high frequency electronic track cleaner (see below);
  • Dapol track cleaner - motorised track cleaning locomotive: expensive but effective, pair up with Dapol rack cleaning fluid;
  • Track rubber - simple, effective, and quite time consuming (also, you need to be able to reach all corners of the layout);
  • Electronic track cleaner (Gaugemaster) - always-on, detects instants when connectivity is broken, and uses a high frequency current to burn off any dirt before it can build up;
  • Track cleaning kit (Woodland Scenics, pictured) - contains everything needed to thoroughly clean your track, including a telescopic arm on which you can mount the cleaning pad to reach the most distant corners of your layout. 
Essentially, there are three different approaches to cleaning track, one of which (the electronic cleaner) is more about prevention than cure.

Of the other two, there is a difference between the more abrasive approach of the Dapol, Hornby and track rubber solutions which rely on scraping to remove dirt, and the pad approach, which is gentler.

Cleaning solutions that use scraping need two things -- downwards pressure on the track, and movement, usually powered.

The Hornby cleaning coach needs to be pushed around by a locomotive (and comes in at around £30), whereas the Dapol track cleaning unit is self-powered, but also over twice the price (expect to pay around £70).

Everything else requires good, old-fashioned, elbow grease.

Tips for Better Results when Cleaning Track

There are a number of reasons why keeping track clean is a good idea. Besides the obvious -- dropping power and stopping -- any dirt that is present on the tracks will be picked up by locos and can get deposited on the pickups causing a longer-term issue.

So, the first key to keeping tracks clean might appear counter intuitive -- keep the loco wheels clean!

It is also important to avoid over-oiling the tracks as this will affect running and pulling power, is it may cause the wheels to slip. However, light oiling can help protect the tracks and prevent dirt build-up, so some model rail enthusiasts swear by it, usually using a citrus based product.

Finally, for the best wipe-off cleaning results, an alcohol based fluid or cleansing wipe, or good old lighter fluid (but be warned, it's highly flammable!) is a good option.

However, as I point out in my Hornby Track Cleaning Coach article, a dedicated track cleaning truck, or coach, cannot be beaten.

Friday, 8 December 2017

The Next Generation of Onboard Video Cameras for Model Rail

It's been around 4 years since I originally wrote my "Best Video Camera for Model Rail" post. It remains one of the most popular, and generates a lot of questions.

Many of those revolve around how to put the micro video camera inside rolling stock, for aesthetic reasons.

My original solution was to use an 808 style key fob camera, which I later upgraded to a USB stick look-alike. However, I didn't quite have the guts to pull these apart and put them in a wagon.

First off, there's the Aobo Wifi Camera, which, according to the reviews is a clear favourite among modellers.

It's been fitted to model aircraft and cars with success; one of the strong points appears to be the battery life, while another is the dual WiFi control and SD card slot.

This allows the user to both start and stop recording, get a live view, and record to the built-in SD card slot (the card is an optional extra).

There are two versions of the Aobo -- 640 and 1080 -- at two price points. It's probably worth paying the extra to get the updated HD version, but those on a budget will be glad to see that the 640p version is coming down in price as more recent versions hit the market.

What I like is that the camera is on a ribbon, which means that you can put the camera wherever you like, and not be constrained by the shape of the camera housing.

For even more flexibility, and at a slightly cheaper price point, is the Magendara 1080p Micro Video Camera.

It may not feature WiFi control, but it does come with a wireless controller, records to SD card (up to 32Gb, but not included) and has a 10 hour battery life.

Again, the camera is on a ribbon, which makes for easy installation in rolling stock, and the body (battery included) is even more compact, as it doesn't have any kind of casing, just a heat-wrap.

However, reviewers report that this camera is quite delicate, so handle with care. Otherwise, results are seemingly on a par with the Aobo.

Moving down again through the price points, Flylinktech have a number of miniature video cameras, hidden in everything from a door mounted clothes hook, to watches and fake (eye) glasses.

While these are about half the price of the Aobo and Magendara cameras, fitting them to rolling stock will, like the 808 Key Chain Camera, take some modification.

Easiest to modify would appear to be the hook -- there are a couple of screws in the back which, looking at the photos, ought to allow for easy removal.

Otherwise, you could cut the arm of the glasses off, and use it as-is, or work out a way to get at the electronics.

One final miniature video camera category to explore might also be the latest FPV cameras designed for use with micro drones. The come with the FPV camera, but need various wireless transmitters and receivers.

They have a kit-building feel to them, and a suitable list can be found by following this link.

For my money, I think the Magendara 1080p Micro Video Camera might represent the best value, so, as soon as I get an opportunity, I'm going to give it a whirl!

Model Rail Christmas Gifts: Hornby Track Cleaning Coach

The Hornby Track Cleaning Coach (R296) popped up on Hornby's annual Top 10 Model Rail Christmas Gift list. It rolled (pun intended) into 10th place, but to my mind should have been higher.

Reading the reviews, there are a few negatives to go with the largely positive opinion of this tidy inexpensive solution to the perennial problem of dirty tracks.

This analysis of the R296 is based on a mixture of these reviews and personal experience. My own layouts are in a loft space and the garage -- both pretty dusty and prone to picking up dirt -- as well as the seasonal Christmas train around the tree in the sitting room.

This last is perhaps the worst, but due to fluff and not dirt: the tracks are pretty clean!

How Does the Hornby Track Cleaning Coach Work?

The point of a track cleaning coach is that it has to be abrasive to work. It scrapes the dirt off the tracks; replacing the need to go round with a track rubber.

A track rubber is an excellent low-cost solution if you can reach all the corners of your layout. In the garage layout, which is on wheels, I can. In the loft, where the layout is built into a corner, that's not the case.

Enter the track cleaning coach: two strips of wet and dry paper, held in spring-loaded clamps that force themselves onto the rails, pushed around by a suitable locomotive.

Most layouts that aren't actually grimy can be cleaned with a single trip around the loop. Obviously, dirtier tracks will need more attention, and for some only adding some form of cleaning fluid will have the desired effect.

So, for a lightly dirty track, this is the perfect solution. Points (a.k.a. turnouts or switches) don't unsettle it, but use with care, and consider cleaning them separately. They shouldn't usually be in inaccessible places on the layout anyway, for several reasons:
  • if they're powered, they can go wrong;
  • if they're manual, you need to switch them;
  • if they're wire-in-tube, then they can suffer mechanical faults.
One point that most reviewers agree on is that you should also buy replacement strips at the same time because you don't get many in the box, and they will wear out.

Alternatives to the Hornby Track Cleaning Coach

I'm going to do a feature on this before Christmas, but 

For ease of use, realistic price, and as a great Christmas gift for any model rail enthusiast, I'd go for the Hornby R296 Track Cleaning Coach.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Lego Christmas Train Sets: Lego Train Videos, Sets and Christmas Gift Ideas

I've written before about the Hornby Santa's Express Christmas Train Set, and I actually took the step last year of buying it! However, I've also been drawn to the Lego Winter Holiday Train, also known as the Lego Christmas Train Set, which offers an opportunity to create as well as display.

This is illustrated in the designer video shown on the right.

Particular points to note are the minifigs that are included as well as the festive elements such as the tree, presents, and toys (themselves mini copies of Lego creations!)

Like all Lego Expert builds, it is a challenge for children to put together, but if they are Lego-adepts, not impossible. The age rating of 12+ is perhaps a little cautious.

However, it is important to note that this set is un-powered.

Powering the Lego Creator Holiday Train 10254

For a set that costs around £85, it may come as a surprise to learn that it has no battery, remote, motor or lights.

It's interesting to note that the Lego battery operated train set 60051 City High-Speed Passenger Train is only slightly more expensive, and yet comes with motor and remote control.

On the other hand, the Holiday Train set comes with a lot more interesting festive elements, even if it will only get a 'proper' outing once a year! And, as an ongoing project, you could add powered features as extra presents on the day, or even into the future.

Since the individual powered items are also compatible with multiple kits, they will also be useful additions to future Lego creations projects. Here's a list of what's needed to turn the Holiday Train set into a Lego remote control train:

A word of warning: on the box, there is the Power Functions logo. On the back, however, the box lists the above elements. Do not be tempted to buy the much cheaper "Lego Technic Power Functions Set 8293" as it is not compatible.

Should I Buy The Lego High Speed Passenger Train 60051?

Here's the thing: the 60051 set is powered. And I've checked the back of the box, and the battery box, remote, motor and receiver look suspiciously like the ones in the above list.

So, I turned to, the reference for all things Lego, and the Lego site (for the instructions and all-important parts list), and made a few discoveries.

The first is that the 88002 set comes with axles and wheels. The axles are the standard Lego Technic ones, but the wheels are custom. However, the instructions for the Holiday Train clearly show using the supplied wheels with the powered or un-powered version, so that's a tick in the right box.

The second discovery was that the other parts appear in the parts lists for the City train, other powered sets, and crucially, in the parts lists for the kits mentioned above. So, they all look to be compatible.

The upgrade items will cost around £80, and the High Speed Passenger Train 60051 kit around £10 more. For the extra money you get a whole new train to play with, as long as you can be bothered to swap the motors around once a year.

If not, then at least the remote control with work with either, and you only need to buy it once.

Lego Christmas Stocking Fillers

If all that seems a bit expensive, never fear.

I've got two items which won't break the bank, and will make excellent presents to have under the tree, or, if you're of an extravagant nature, in a stocking.

The first is The Lego Trains Book, a hardback, illustrated guide to all the Lego train kits through the years.

It goes right back to 1966, and covers the kits, their power sources and building styles and methods right up to the present day.

The book also has a section on Lego geometry, and a useful guide to building your own train variations. From here, it also goes into designing layouts and track plans using various bits of track and items of rolling stock and scenery.

The last two sections round out the discussion with a set of design case studies and a set of building instructions.

It's a very well-rounded book, and something that apprentice master builders will appreciate, as well as armchair enthusiasts.

Finally, let's not forget the younger generation with the rail-less but nonetheless amusing Christmas Train Ride 4062 kit.

It's a great seasonal item, isn't terribly expensive (around the £15 mark), and can be combined with the Christmas Town Square for future gift opportunities.

The box contains pieces for a push along train, a small tree (un-decorated) and a collection of Christmas-themed market stalls and signage.

All in all, Lego has Christmas pretty much covered, and there's something for everyone. Happy Holidays!

Monday, 8 May 2017

Not Model Railway Related: Play Rock Paper Scissors Online (Just for fun!)

Okay, so this isn't related to model rail, but I thought that some of you -- you know who you are -- would appreciate it!

Turns out there's a new server where you can play rock paper scissors online against the computer. They're doing fun things like tracking the success of humans against the machine, and there's a kind of rock paper scissors FAQ, too.

Talking with the creator, there's also some plans in the works to try and see if player vs player would be popular, and if the computer can be made smarter, and increase its win ratio.

At the moment, there's a pretty even split between Humans winning, the Server winning, and a healthy number of draws!

So, to get involved, head on over to the RoPaSc site and play a few rounds...