I 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.
For 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.”
The 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.
Moving 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.
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.
There 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.