About me

"Dreams are not meant to be dreamed, they are meant to be fulfilled."

“Dreams are not meant to be dreamed, they are meant to be fulfilled.”

“Start Line”, Aikatsu Stars!

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESHi, my name is Thomas Rackers, and I’m currently a member of the Japan Rail Modelers of Washington DC (www.japanrailmodelers.org), a group of model railroaders which specializes in models of Japanese trains, scenery, and the occasional Godzilla (literally ゴジラ or Gojira, but we just call him Goji).  At this time our club has two layouts which we exhibit at public events, including the annual Sakura Matsuri of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC every spring.  The larger layout is a “sectional” layout, where the large modules which make up the whole layout go together only one way.  At venues where space is more limited, we exhibit our “T-Trak” modular layout, where the modules can be rearranged as needed.  There’s more information at the club web site above.

On my own, I’ve begun working on the components of my own sectional layout, which is something I’ve wanted to do in one form or another for many years.  I’ve also been into electronics and computers, dating back to around my high school years (back in the Second Millennium).  Actually, far enough back that the first real computer I had access to was an IBM 1130 (Hollerith punch cards and all) which filled a room at Thomas More College in Northern Kentucky, where I started as a Physics major right out of high school.  I was impressed enough with the computer’s 16k words of 16-bit core (yes, magnetic core) memory and 3 hard drives of about half a million words each.  (Nobody talked about “bytes” back then.)

Anyway, back to the train layout.  I was inspired early on by a series of articles in Model Railroader magazine by Bruce Chubb about his “C/MRI” or “Computer/Model Railroad Interface” project.  I decided I wanted to do something like that… but for decades, I was constrained by combinations of time, space, money, and life in general.

Well now technology has caught up with me, with all these Arduino processors and Raspberry Pi’s and such available nearly everywhere.  (Okay, I don’t think Walmart sells any of them.)  So I’m finally starting serious work on making my own layout, still using Japanese model trains of course, incorporating enough electronic widgets to make it really fun and entertaining.

I’m starting off by creating a breadboard layout of a point-to-point single-track tram line with two station stops between the termini; one of the two stations is a double-track passing section where trams running in opposite directions can meet.  The idea is patterned after the Toyama Light Rail system in Toyama, Japan, which I had the pleasure of riding in May 2015 during my first (and hopefully not last) trip to Japan.  Toyama doesn’t seem to get a lot of gaikokujin (foreign) visitors, but I had already accumulated a collection of N-gauge models of five of their seven PORTRAMs, and rode along many times via YouTube videos.  So of course I wanted to ride the real thing, and now I want to make a model patterned after it.

As time permits I’ll be adding some pictures of the real PORTRAMs, and of my little models of them.  But this blog is mostly to document some of the electronics I’m putting together to animate this small layout, and eventually the full-size layout with shinkansen and passenger trains and light rail and all that other cool stuff.

Here’s a short description, in no particular order, of the subsystems I plan to build.

  • Track sensors, using infrared reflectance sensors mounted below the track to detect the passage of a train above.  These will be connected to Arduino-type microcontroller boards.
  • Throttles, or variable power supplies, to provide the electrical power through the rails to drive the trains.  (And for any model railroaders reading this, this will be a DC system, not a DCC or “digital command & control” system.)  The throttles will be based on an Arduino Uno with a 4-channel Motor Shield.
  • Block switching using a matrix of reed relays to allow electrically isolated track blocks to be connected selectively to any of the throttles.
  • Switch machine controllers to allow the switches (model railroaders prefer the term “turnouts”) which route the trains to be thrown upon computer command.
  • Trackside signals for the benefit of our imaginary teeny little train drivers.  These are LED based, and will be driven by microcontrollers to achieve some special effects.

And all of this electronicky goodness will be under the control of some form of Raspberry Pi computer, which will probably support optional manual controls so we humans can join in on the real-time fun.

Thomas W Rackers

February 2016