Tuesday, 17 October 2017

JMRI Operations & Car Roster

I finally succeeded in tweaking JMRI Operation until I got what I wanted. Until now, I got LCL cars playing ping pong all over the layout and unable to go back to staging. As expected, it quickly clogged layout spots. The answer what rather simple. Since I wanted to receive LCL but also send LCL, I originally created a single commodity called "LCL". Sounds logical... Many spurs were scheduled to receive and ship such commodity. But as expected, when a car was loaded it was routed to the nearest available spot, thus on the layout instead of the far away destination in the staging area. It was a disaster in the making, the endless waltz of cars shuffling around the place forever started.

To address this issue, I simply created a LCL-IN load for inbound traffic and LCL-OUT load for outbound stuff. The car swapping ended since going to staging was the most logical (and short) way to handle the loads and empties. A human brain is able to tell LCL is going in and going out, but that must be explained flat out to the software

Another problem emerged as a result of saturating the layout with incoming cars. This was due to the inbound traffic being set using the Walthers carfloat maximum capacity which is well over sixteen 40ft cars. That's a lot of traffic for a small crowded terminal and soon enough, the place overflowed with cars. JMRI - even if it was against it's own scheduling rules - had to route cars back to staging. Since the staging spurs weren't designed to accept such loads, the cars stayed stranded forever on the carfloat (acting as a yard) searching forever for a spot that didn't even exist and slowly but surely reducing the carfloat capacity to bring new cars in and get others out. Just like a Tetris game going wrong, the layout was destined to be game over in a matter of time.

However, the solution was once again very simple. I found out Harlem Station was served - most of the time - by platform carfloats. These special carfloats have a platform in place of the central track. This implement is generally used to unload cars directly on the platform which is linked by a sliding ramp to a pier or a warehouse (look at "Pier Platform" in the glossary). This is particularly useful when cars are bound to a non rail-served marine terminal. Why Erie did use the platform carfloats to serve Harlem Station is a mystery, but I guess they had them and it was handy at that time.

But that type of carfloat plays to my advantage: the number of incoming car is reduced to 12 cars maximum. Given most pictures and statistics show an average of 6 to 8 car was typical, I changed JMRI so the longest train is made out of 12 cars. Also, I made sure to set a random value in such a way the number of incoming cars varies and is generally around 8 cars.

Finally, I better assigned customers' and storage spurs following what I could understand from old pictures and historic sources. It certainly isn't 100% accurate, but it is a fair enough approximation of the real thing. Moreover, with less but better routed cars, I got rid of the loaded cars stranded on the carfloat. Now, every car is routed correctly to its scheduled destination and goes back to staging as it should be.

Given this is my first serious effort using JMRI, I'm quite happy to have reached a decent level of proficiency in less than 4 days. Certainly, this is enough for a small switching layout, but I'm well aware I could go further with it, taking in account the days of the week and cargo-specific conditions. This will be done in due time thought I already made some adjustments that brings life and unexpected events.

On another hand, JMRI made me understand how much a small car fleet (about 60 cars) can get repetitive with a 55 cars layout capacity. As I said in my previous post, this is getting quite boring fast and it disrupts completely the suspension of disbelief. For this reason, I tracked down parts and decals to complete or kitbash cars in my collection that had no purpose. I'll probably be able to add about 11 new reefers and I still have decals to build more Erie boxcars. In itself it doesn't bother me since bashing and improving rolling stock is always a nice way to spend time in a creative way.

Until then, the next step is to clean out the rails and wheels for flawless operation and experiment first hand with the new switchlist. Jérôme is already working out the mechanical aspect of the fleet including trucks, wheels and coupler height. It seems I did a poor job protecting the wheelsets from over spray and it quickly gunked the rail leading to poor electrical pickup. Lesson learned!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Setting Up JMRI & New Discoveries

Work on Harlem Station recently resumed. I’m mainly motivated in finally implementing JMRI Operations on this layout to create automated switch lists. While the learning curve is quite steep, the software itself has a lot of potential, particularly for such a terminal.

Setting up a credible operating plan isn’t as easy as one could think even if this layout is rather small. It is quite a busy place and space is at premium. It quickly becomes a real issue when you run a few passes with JMRI and see how the car moves on the property.

As a matter of fact, most of you know I set the layout date to 1952. It is mainly based on information found in an article about Harlem Station that ran in Erie Railroad Magazine that specific year. It provides a list of customers and commodities handled by the terminal, which is premium information to start building a decent switch list.

But nothing is ever simple or straight forward with Harlem Station and I’m still struggling with the track plan even if I’m studying this terminal since 2010 (it’s been 7 years!). Erie Railroad Magazine mention there is 10 sidings for a total of 55 cars that can be handled. But on my layout, I’ve got about 13 sidings that can hold more than that. What’s the problem? Where did I mess up?

The answer is simple, but finding it required to study a lot of old pictures, most of them bad reproductions of printed material. To booth, some parts of the yard are seldom photographed, probably due to accessibility and the fact most photographers prefer to shoot locomotives. Add to that the fact I’ve never been in New York of my life, the prototype no longer exist and I’m stuck with limited access to primary and secondary sources… no wonder it’s so hard to piece up the puzzle.

Let’s identify every siding on the layout with a number in order of succession from the car float pontoon to the yard lead:

01 - Short coal siding near the pier and parallel to East 149th Street
02 - Short siding to the pier on Harlem River
03 - Long siding parallel to the car float
04 - Long siding to the concrete loading ramp
05 - Long siding superposed to the freight shed/thawing shed up to the concrete loading ramp
06 - Siding #1 to gantry crane
07 - Siding #2 to gantry crane
08 - Siding #3 to gantry crane
09 - Very short siding parallel to Exterior Street
10 - Long siding parallel to Exterior Street
11 - Siding #1 to freight house
12 - Siding #2 to freight house
13 - Long siding between Freight House and gantry crane

Then let’s clarify some things about the different structures at Harlem Station. From now on I’ll call “Freight House” the large brick and concrete structure standing near Exterior Street. This is the office and it acts as the defacto “station”. The gantry crane was standing on the property, on the same spot, from day one until the terminal closed down under Erie Lackawanna tenure. The concrete loading ramp also seems to have been there since the beginning too.

Now, let’s tackle the freight shed/thawing shed issue. This is the long wood structure built by the concrete ramp and a lot of speculation exists about it. Without much fanfare, here are my findings. Reminder: please bear in mind most historic Harlem Station pictures aren’t in the public domain and by respect to their owner, I won’t publish anything. This freight shed is not an original building. On pictures shot in 1929 and 1932, even if not clear, the shed doesn’t show up. In the 1932 one, it is particularly clear two sidings run parallel up to the concrete ramp (sidings #04 and #05. My layout is based on that design and while not very accurate, the 1928 Sanborn Map do show the big freight house, the pontoon and what seem to be a structure over siding #09 (I wouldn’t be surprised this short siding used to be an engine house similar to the one standing at the adjacent CNJ Bronx Terminal.) However, no trace of the long freight shed which would have caught attention of people surveying the area.

The next piece of evidence is the 1942 Bromley Map which clearly depict the long freight shed built over what used to be siding #05. In fact, that siding is still – partially? – in place and run up to the shed wall. The next photo evidences are from circa 1951. At that point, we have relatively good shots of the shed.  While we can clearly see the turnout leading to siding #05 is still in place, there is not enough space to spot a car in front of the shed. Interestingly, a large pair of door exists on the end wall has if cars could have been shoved into the building. This is probably what lead peoples to propose – as an unverified hypothesis – it could have been a thawing shed for coal hoppers. While this idea would be great and logical, this is not my conclusion after carefully analyzing the architectural feature of that structure.

It must be noted the end doors, while sufficiently tall to clear a freight car, aren’t large enough. Also, some 1950s pictures clearly show a wooden platform serving that door with delivery trucks. This is further confirmed by the presence of a floor inside the structure. If I could describe it better, I’d say the freight shed was built over a wood platform erected on concrete bases. The presence of that platform or floor can be attested on every picture showing the freight shed. Thus, it would have been impossible to shove cars inside the structure. Finally, on some picture, it is clear siding #05 is buried in dirt and used by trucks to access the freight shed loading dock. All these evidences – combined with the fact the shed bear very little architectural resemblance to real thawing shed – proves it was a freight shed probably built to supplement lack of storage space at Harlem Station. It seems sacrificing a siding was less important than getting additional warehousing capacity. Thus, it is not a mystery this structure disappeared circa 1957 when the freight house was substantially enlarged. Since many sidings were removed at that time and the wooden freight shed was redundant, siding #05 was put back in service again.

Now, some people will ask what happened with siding #05 when the freight shed was built. My educated guess is the siding was left there and the structure built over it. There was little incentive to remove the track and maps and photos all agree the turnout and rails were still in place when the freight shed was still standing. This is interesting because it could indicate the freight shed was a temporary measure and Erie didn’t thought it was required to remove the track since they could be used later. It should also be noted the freight shed was quite a hastily-built structure clearly not made to last a long time.

But how all that new information impact the layout is interesting because it helps to understand the discrepancies between Erie Railroad Magazine description and my track plan. So let’s see things through new lenses.

Clearly, the sidings referenced by the 1952 article could be #01, #02, #03, #04, #06, #07, #08, #10, #11, #12 and #13. But that brings the count up to 11. Certainly #05 didn’t count since it was buried under the freight shed and unserviceable at that time. #09 was very short and all photographic evidences (including aerial photos) show this track was not accessible by road vehicle (no concrete pad, no dirt road and no grade crossing). It seems it was only used as an extra off spot car storage (some pictures show a car spotted there), maybe still used as an engine track from time to time. Unfortunately, is it hard to tell what was the last siding omitted. All of the remaining ones were actives and used to load and unload cars. My first idea was that one of the very short sidings at the pier (#01 and #02) was omitted. But both had a road access and were in use. Even the shortest one did hold two hopper cars for Miranda Coal. Could siding #01 have been only a storage track for Miranda since it would have been hard to unload a car there into a truck? I can’t tell, but on aerial photographs, there is a hint of a small concrete pad build against 149th Street retaining wall. Anyway, there is no trace of coal handling at siding #02, confirming that commodity was unloaded on siding #01.

Then could it be that siding #02 was used only to hold extra cars even if it was perfectly accessible by truck? It could be. After all, a 1957 photo shows a loaded PRR coal hopper left there but in a spot that couldn’t be used for unloading purpose. Also, cars are seldom seen spotted on siding #02. A set of picture shot there in 1951 show a boxcar on the pier while the locomotive is picking up and setting out cars on the car float while a color picture from 1955 show a flatcar hastily left on the siding in similar conditions. This brings me to think this track could have been used as extra space when sorting out cars. It is perfectly located for the task and can be used to store extra cars the rest of the time. It would have been really handy and if required, it could have been used as an extra spot on demand.

Thus, I can now affirm with a decent level of certainty the ten sidings used by customers (this precision is critical) back in 1952 were #01, #03, #04, #06, #07, #08, #10, #11, #12 and #13. Erie Railroad Magazine mentioned the terminal could handle 55 cars at once which, incidentally, is exactly the capacity JMRI computed for my layout. This, I feel, is a great achievement.

Thus, I reach the conclusion of my research. Certainly I could go further, but the hours invested wouldn’t probably pay off in term of enjoyment. The layout is as accurate as can be with the data I can reasonable gather. At this point, continuing the search would divert resources, time and money that would better be invested directly on the layout. Such efforts would be to scratchbuild the freight shed and modify (or replace) the Walthers car float so it has only 2 tracks and a center platform as it used to be the rule on Harlem River. This would bring the maximum of cars brought to the terminal at 12.

According to 1951 Erie statistics, about 1800-1900 cars were handled that year. With a 6-day per week schedule, it would be an average of 6 cars per day, which is consistent with period photographs which show about 6 to 7 cars on the float. Doing so would reduce the exhausting workload generated by JMRI (16 cars per carfloat) and help alleviate the layout saturation with cars. This little detail as caused many car routing issues due to the impossibility to find open spot. And we must keep in mind that with an average of 32 moves per sessions, at about 3 minutes per move, operating the layout can take over 90 minutes which seems to be a little bit over the top if it happens to often. On the other hand, an average of 6 cars brings the session length to a comfortable 35 to 45 minutes, which I consider optimal to ensure the crew isn’t exhausted and isn’t bothered taking time to operate as prototypically as possible.

Finally, another aspect that JMRI brought forward was how often cars come back on the layout even with more than 60 cars on the roster. It became almost a joke after building several virtual trains. At some point, many cars were in and out at every session to the point suspension of disbelief was no longer working. It means three things: bringing the number of car per train lower will reduce the need to feed cars onto the layout, fine tuning the schedules will be required so cars won’t magically appear the next session when they should be traveling thousands of miles  and the roster will need to be buffed up. This last item isn’t truly an issue since I have many cars in my stash that could make great modelling projects. The diversity of rolling stock handled by terminal such as Harlem Station is also a great opportunity to learn better about railroading all over North America.

By the way, I’d like to point out I’ve been using OPSIG customers lists [ML1] to bring life to my layout by using real life customers for the layout. It certainly isn’t required, but felt it brought a sense of purpose to the layout. Isn’t it great to know that specific reefer is loaded with Carnation Milk from that plant or this Bronx based waste paper broker sell is stuff to a large paper mill in upstate NY? No need to go in great details, but knowing a few real customers of Harlem Station, the commodities handled and the roadname of cars seen on photographs really helped to shape a credible and immersing world.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

A New Facelift

This blog appearance wasn't altered since the original "defacto" blogger design was selected back in 2010 and I feel it no longer fits what I'm trying to do with this layout.

As much as content is important, the container can tell us a lot about the author's attitude and can set the mood perfectly. When creating the Connors Branch blog graphic design, I found out Blogger was much more versatile than I first thought. Certainly less than WordPress, but still workable.

Since I've been reading old Erie Railroad Magazine (ERM) issues lately, I thought it would be a good idea to redesign the blog as if it was an old 1950s publication. I didn't had to search very far since the first page of ERM was graced by a gorgeous illustration of a pair of speeding steam and diesel locomotives. It was only a matter of changing the title and keeping the fonts as close as possible to the original ones.

I certainly hope the new appearance will please the regular readers. In the near future, some additional sections such as "About The Author" and "First Time Here?" will be added quite similarly to what can be found on the Connors Branch blog.

To be noted, all broken image links from my Photobucket account have been repaired. Pictures are now directly hosted on Blogger.

Finally, I also started to acquire better rolling stock for the layout with the goal of ultimately replacing every blue box kits with more prototypical cars with state of the art details. This is another proof a layout is never finished, which is a good thing.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

In Search of... Erie Railroad Magazine February 1952 Issue

The title being quite obvious, I'm looking for Erie Railroad Magazine's February 1952 issue which had a detailed article about Harlem Station property and operation. Many websites and later articles about the Erie 149th Street Terminal refer to this article, but while trying to figure out the tenants, it has become quite obvious each author has its own interpretation of the facts. To be blunt, there are a lot of discrepancies and available historical photographs paint a slightly different pictures.

So, I need some help to locate a printed or scanned version of that precious article since it is directly related to the layout era.

One of the main reason I need the article is to locate precisely Harlem Station tenants so I can devise a somewhat accurate way to operate the layout.

My target era would be 1952 or 1955 though I prefer 1952 since the thawing shed was still standing and the Erie Railroad Magazine gives a lot of information about that specific year.

Tentative location of tenants

If you have any information about the tenants, let me know. As far as I can tell, I've been able to locate the following tenants precisely:

-Bay Transportation trucks were generally found near the freight house, particular on the north side near 150th Street.

-Eastern Carloading trucks can be seen on the south side of the freighthouse.

-Victory Coal trucks are located near Eastern Carloading. More on Victory Coal later.

-The crane company used the concrete ramp and the west siding under the gantry crane (booms were transported on gondolas). Some people identified the crane company as Gerosa, but I wasn't able to positively find evidence of that name on pictures.

-Consumer's Coal used to be located on the siding located near the apron and carfloat. It isn't clear if they also were the company that used the siding near the thawing shed but that could be possible.

-Jerome Fuel was located on Consumer's Coal siding but near the turnout according to a mid-1950s photo showing their office shed under construction. However, according to Erie Railroad Magazine, they were already a tenant.Unfortunately, I don't know where they were located back in 1952 and 1951 statistics state it was the largest customer served at Harlem Station!

-Gassman Coal was located exactly where Consumer's Coal was. The change visibly happened at the same time Jerome Fuel became a tenant. It should also be noted that some New York City documents online indicate Gassman Coal used to sell Victory Coal. Thus, could it be Gassman was already a tenant and relocated at Consumer's Coal spot later?

-Mirandi (or Miranda) Coal was a tenant in 1952 but I can't locate it on photographs. However, I know the short siding on the pier handled coal hoppers and a small office and scale house stood there. Unfortunately, no sign is visible on pictures, but that would be a likely spot.

-Adolf Gobel is also indicated as a future tenant but it's hard to know where it was located. However, almost every reefer cars are spotted in front of the freight house.

-National Carloading was also another tenant, but I don't know their exact spot. They could have used another siding located east of the freighthouse. As a matter of fact, it seems boxcars used to be spotted on the eastern side of Harlem station while hoppers, flatcars and gondolas were handled on the western side.

-Finally, Harlem Station also dealt with wine. Some pictures of Harlem River show carfloat with Chateau Martin reefers, thus I guess it was the same kind of traffic that was handled at Harlem Station. However, I have absolutely no idea if the cars were spot sensitive or not.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Thawing Coal Shed and Customers

A lingering mystery about Harlem Station is the coal shed that used to stand near the loading ramp. This narrow and long structure would be quite easy to model, but photographic and graphical evidences clashes.

The thawing coal shed can be seen on the right side.
1951, Track Planning for Realistic Operation, 2nd edition, John Armstrong
Kalmbach Publishing

According to some maps (in fact, most of them), the coal shed – often identified by railfans as a thawing coal shed – was built on top of a track. It would mean coal hoppers we pushed under the structure. Photographs also show there was indeed two tracks leading to the ramps thought only one is visible on the Harlem River side of the shed.

My biggest concern is about the shed itself. If a track was under it, how the building structure was made. The pictures let me believe there was some kind of raised floor on each sides of the track, but it would make little sense to have one.... How would such a building be put in use?

Feel free to comment with your favorite theory, or to clarify my understanding of that neat structure in Harlem. I’m pretty sure someone got some knowledge of similar coal shed covering a track. Edit: While information abound about modern thawing sheds, older ones are less documented. According to several sources, the heating process was done by torching or with steam pipes. We can already exclude the later since Harlem Station didn't had any sizeable boiler room that could have supplied enough steam (except if something comes up).

By the way, as I’m planning to develop the operation concept for the layout, I’m searching for customers that used to be served by Erie’s Harlem Station back in the 1950s, more exactly in 1952. I already have on hand a list of names, but except for a few obvious ones in pictures (Gassman Coal, Jerome Fuel), but others are harder to locate since they didn’t have billboard on the property. Among them are, tentatively, Mirandi Coal (?), Victory Coal, Consumer’s Coal, Bay Transportation, National Carloading, Eastern Trucking and a company dealing with construction equipment (cranes in particular). Any glimpse of information would be appreciated. I have no knowledge about Erie’s archives, but under normal circumstances, papers and scale drawings of the property should survive with indications about tenants and their location.