Bachmann EZ-App / BlueRail Trains RS-3 First Impressions

EZAPPRS3I picked up one of the Bachmann EZ-App HO RS-3s to assess its suitability for a dead rail conversion. The plan, overall, is to use the mechanism and electronics to power an On30 “doodlebug.” For my use, I didn’t really care about the roadname, so my Bachmann pusher got me a Pennsy unit like the one shown here.

My initial tests have been on powered track, using an MRC Tech III power pack. The pack has reasonably accurate meters for voltage and current, and can reliably deliver a couple of amps to the rails at up to about 14V, so it’s a decent test supply for model trains.

2016-01-22 08.38.47For my initial tests, I followed Bachmann’s included instructions closely. I downloaded the app to my iPhone 6s, powered on the loco, and launched the app. And … nothing. It took several attempts to get the app to recognize the new loco. Once the app found the RS-3, I was able to change the loco name, and it recognized it every time I powered up the loco.

When everything’s powered up, and you first launch the app, you’ll see a list of your locos, and options to connect or disconnect. Locos that you’ve accessed in the past, but are not currently powered on will read as “not available.”

2016-01-22 08.37.31The app allows for standard, single train control, or a mode which allows control of multiple locos from a single device. So far, since I only have a single EZ-App loco, I’ve just used the standard control. By default, the throttle layout is what Bachmann refers to as “classic.” There’s a big slider for speed, and buttons for direction, long horn blast, short horn blast, bell, and lights. There’s also a little fly-out menu for some additional sounds.

Speaking of the sounds … The sound implementation is a little strange. Instead of coming from the locomotive, the sound is produced by the phone. And frankly, they’re horrible. The diesel sound is a generic EMD prime mover, and sounds to me like a turbo-charged EMD 645. There are loops for the throttle notches and sounds that ramp between the notches. Unfortunately, the loops don’t match well to the transitions, and there are often gaps in the sound when ramping up and down. The horn sounds sort of like a 5-chime Wabco, and while the short sound is passable, the long horn is one of the worst jobs of looping I’ve ever heard. The bell, if you can call it that, is reminiscent of the old PFM sound system bell, only worse.

2016-01-22 08.37.41 2016-01-22 08.37.49Moving back to the app, there are two other versions of the throttle display available. I prefer the one called retro.

In order to move the train, you need to first tape the start-up/shut-down control. The noise will begin, and after the startup sound finishes, you should have control of the train. Sliding up the throttle control will cause the loco to move out smoothly. Control is reasonably good, and the loco seems to run well. Tapping the “gear” icon reveals an advanced settings screen which allows adjusting momentum effects and maximum speed. What I don’t see are controls to change the interpretation of what “forward” is. This is important for locos like the RS-3, as some railroads ran them long-hood forward, while others ran them short-hood forward. I also don’t see any provision for consisting.

My next tests were to see what the lowest acceptable operating voltage would be. The results were certainly not optimal for 2-cell LiPo packs. At full charge voltage (8.4v), operation was fine. However, as I decreased the voltage, performance degraded rapidly. At 7.4v, the loco would run about 40% of the time, and a 6v, there was no response at all, except that the head and back lights would flash indicating low voltage. Simulating a 3-cell pack, the results were better. I quickly realized, though, that there is no low-voltage cut-off for LiPo batteries! A 3-cell pack should never be allowed to drop below 9V, and as noted, the loco still runs with the voltage below that minimum.

2016-01-21 21.19.56

I opened the model up to access the board and see if there was any indication of a way to remedy this. The BlueRail board, while very large, is well labeled, mostly. There are only a couple of mystery connections (one, labeled “+ SC -“, and a series of jumper positions). The board looks well made, but is much larger than it needs to be, leaving plenty of potential for miniaturization. The only part that can’t be changed is the Rigado Smart Bluetooth module, which handles all of the communications and control functionality. The external parts are for the power supply (left 1/3 of the board), high-current switching and motor drive (middle of board), and LED drivers for up to 4 LEDs.

BlueRailThere has been indication from BlueRail Trains that future boards will feature provision for battery connections. Hopefully, low-voltage cutoff will be a part of that functionality.

I will be continuing with the conversion project, and will post updates as I progress.

 

 

True Scene Trials … and Tribulations

A few years ago, I wrote about a scenery product called True Scene. To re-cap, it’s a fibrous material that you mix with water and slather on your layout to give some scenic form and as a base coat for your scenery. This past weekend, I decided to give it a try, as I have a module that needed to be sceniced quickly, for a train show this coming weekend.

module temp

After mixing and coloring the True Scene material per the instructions, I applied the material to the module, and followed it up with my base coat of scenic materials. In the photo above, it’s the right-most section — where the track isn’t ballasted, and all along the back edge.

The True Scene folks say that it takes 24 hours for the material to dry. I finished up on scenery yesterday about 3PM, and so I would expect that by 6:30 this morning, there should be some change in the consistency of the “batter.” However, that is not the case. It still feels just as gooey as it did when I spread it out yesterday. As we know from the past, I’m not the most patient fellow when trying out new things (remember my experiences with Woodland Scenics’ water products?). Although heavier, hydrocal or spackle or Cell-u-clay or any number of other materials would have been fully set up by now, and I’m kinda wishing I’d gone with a known quantity on this.

At this point, I’m hoping against hope that I won’t have to scrape all this stuff off the module and start over when I get home, as I frankly don’t have the time. I still have two other big projects for the show that I need to complete before departing for the show on Thursday morning — converting a Bachmann On30 Davenport to battery operation, and a new 1-hour presentation on Dead Rail.

You Get What You Pay For

At the most recent Great Scale Model Train Show, I ended up running a couple of my old Bachmann Moguls all day, both days. They ran great, and looked pretty good, all things considered. But, they were awfully quiet, as I hadn’t yet put any sound system in them. And, since they aren’t going to be regular runners on the Corinna & Searsport, I really wasn’t too keen on the idea of spending a hundred bucks each or more to add sound.

What to do?

Digitrax SDH164D
Digitrax SDH164D

I was looking around on the Litchfield Station web store, and noticed that they had the new Digitrax SDH164D for under $40 each. I figured that for that price, I’d give them a try.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not all that impressed. Sure, they huff and chuff, and there’s a whistle and bell in there. Maybe I’ve become spoiled by the tremendous sound quality of the SoundTraxx Tsunami and ESU LokSound decoders, but these decoders from Digitrax sound downright toy-like. The closest thing I can think of to compare it to is the ill-fated MTH Loco-Sound system that MTH put in their least expensive train set engines for a while.

I’m sure that in a train show setting, where the acoustics are terrible and there’s lots of background noise, the SDH164D will be just fine. In that environment, the sound is primarily to entertain the kids, and let us know by the sound that our train is still running around the layout. But, if you’re considering this decoder for a more exacting application, be warned: You get what you pay for.

The Freight House at Corinna

The Freight House at Corinna

With the exception of details, the Corinna freight house has been completed. I used the Banta Modelworks “Herbert’s Crossing” kit for this structure, for two reasons: 1) it was on hand and (2) it’s a fairly typical structure that fits the Maine prototypes well.

Description

The Banta kit is what I’d call an “old school” laser kit — a mixture of old and new techniques and materials. Since it’s been a while since I’ve built a kit like this, I spent some time reading through the instructions. And then, I read them again, because, honestly, they are not written very well at all. Since this is a relatively simple kit — one that should be good for beginners — I would have expected that each step would be well detailed. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Entire steps were missing, or were very inaccurate. At least one step and the parts diagram reference tabs and slots that don’t exist in the kit.

The kit instructions ramble on about painting/staining prior to construction. My experience with this has not been good no matter what kind of paints I’ve tried, so I opted to wait and paint each sub-assembly as I completed it.

The Build

I knew that I was going to have to modify the kit so that the loading platform would be at the correct height for my narrow gauge trains. This required figuring out the freight car deck height, and then figuring out how long to make the posts supporting the platform and structure. I moved along according to the instructions, which omit the step of joining the two deck sections together — one piece is laser-etched to represent an offset 12″ board pattern on the exterior portion of the platform, while the other is scribed basswood representing 6″ tongue-and-groove interior flooring. While the two pieces are of the same thickness, they are definitely different types of wood — the exterior portion of the deck is of a much higher quality, harder wood than the interior section.

The last step in the process of building the platform calls for ringing the deck with scale 2x8s. There was not enough material in the kit to finish the edge boards. Fortunately, I had extra stock in my scratch-building supply bin.

Once the glue was dry, I stained the platform using dyes from Hunter Line — an application of light brown, creosote black and then medium brown. Within about an hour, the interior section of the platform had warped upward, managing to pull off the glue joints. I re-glued the joints, parked about 10 pounds of lead shot on the deck and moved on to the next part of the structure.

Building up the windows and doors follows modern practice — making and sandwich of 1/64″ peal-and-stick plywood. It’s best to pre-paint these parts, which I did using craft store acrylic paint. While the paint was drying there, I moved on to assembling the walls, which were made from some rather porous, soft scribed material.

Magnetic Gluing Jig

In this case, the wood was pre-warped. Since it’s important to be sure that the walls are square, I used a magnetic clamp base to hold everything in place while the glue set, and I went back to assembling the windows.

With the walls built up, and the windows ready for installation, I moved on to painting the walls. For the exterior, I used a band of dark green on the bottom six “boards” and a light green the rest of the way up. On the interior, I used a neutral gray color. Usually, when both surfaces of a wood are painted with the same or similar paint, they won’t warp.

Warped end wall

I don’t know if the “pre-warped” condition was the cause or not, but in this case, the walls warped considerably, and in multiple directions! By the time I got the camera out, the walls had straightened out and then warped in different directions! The extreme warpage, along with a generally flimsy feeling to the walls prompted me to add structural supports to the interior, using spare materials I had on hand.

Added interior bracing

The resulting box was solid, rigid and square. Note in the photo that the new framing continues across both door openings. This was done to hold the thin section between the doors in line while the paint dried thoroughly.

The roof is made up of two slabs of soft, flat wood with scribed lines intended to be used as guides for the tarpaper roof. Unfortunately, there was no tarpaper material in the kit. Instead, there was a quantity of too-small paper shingles. Additionally, the roof panels are the same size, and there is no provision for the roof halves to overlap, nor is there a provided cap strip — and, there is no mention of how to handle the roof peak in the instructions. I opted to bevel the edges where the roof halves join together, and proceeded to build the roof structure basically according to the instructions.

For the roofing material, I decided to use a product I’m developing for market: printed shingle stock. To affix the heavy paper shingles to the roof structure, I use double-sided carpet tape. This approach avoids warping the structure and wrinkling or bubbling the paper, as occurs when using various glues to hold the paper on. The carpet tape also has a little “give,” so when changes in humidity cause the paper or wood to expand or contract, there’s no warping or bubbling. I hit the outside edges with a brown Sharpie to simulate the edges of the shingles, and stained the underside of the roof with light brown stain. Then, I applied the 2×6 trim strips at the ends as in the instructions, and added strips along the bottom edges as well to match the construction of the passenger station.

Roof underside.

While all this was drying, I installed the doors. After some hemming and hawing, I decided to install the doors in an open position, which meant removing the braces across the doorways. I was pleasantly surprised when the wall didn’t spring into some odd position. Using tape as temporary “hinges,” I glued the doors in place.

Conclusion

With the three major pieces of the kit completed, I can say that the results were worth the effort. However, I would also say that this kit could use some improvement. I am reminded of a kit I built over 15 years ago — one of the first laser kits — whenI was still modeling in HO. The unclear, incorrect and incomplete instructions made the kit more difficult to build than it needed to be. And better quality materials would have reduced the number of additional steps I had to complete. Finally, if I had not had extra material in my shop, I would not have been able to complete the kit as designed. At U$46 for this relatively basic kit, I had expected a better experience, and in the future, I will certainly plan to inspect kits from this manufacturer prior to purchase.