Category Archives: Locomotives

My First DCC Conversion, PT. 1…

This is my first DCC conversion as opposed to my first decoder install as the early Athearn, Bachmann and LifeLike engines came DCC ready. All you had to do was pop out the jumper plug and add the decoder. All were without sound. Ah yes, a project for another day.

As I had mentioned before the test subject is a Athearn Blue Box SD 40-2. I also had mentioned that I had started this project about 10 years ago. Not much was really accomplished, I had gotten a couple of things for the conversion and started working on the shell.

What I had accomplished at that time was cutting out the front radiator fan and fitting a winterization hatch to it. Not sure of the brand but it has an etched metal grill. Perfect for a speaker to be mounted under it. I also had built the baffle for the speaker. Again not sure of the brand of speaker, though I suspect it is from Sountraxx. In addition to the speaker the other purchase at the time was a better motor than the stock Athearn. It is from Accurate Lighting and a quick web search shows that you can still get them from

The Accurate Lighting motor upgrade, I had picked up two of these.

The speaker baffle and winterization hatch.

Baffle and hole for the speaker, will be covered by the winterization hatch.
Speaker installed into baffle.
Hole cut for the speaker, speaker installed.
Winterization hatch installed over speaker.

Once I do the final install on the speaker I will close up the enclosure. Also the four wires on the motor are for a an install on a standard DC locomotive, one pair to each truck. I will clip one set when hooking up.

Having the motor in place and the speaker ready to install the next step was to get power from the tracks. Using wire on hand, I soldered wires directly to the trucks. Red to the high side, this would be the one on the BB Athearn that had the metal bar running across the top of the motor and black to the low side on top of the truck.

The trucks wired for pickup, unfortunately the wire was to brittle and already had broken off the top of the right truck.

Unfortunately the scrounged wire was too brittle. A little handling and one broke off right away. So, off to the internet, specifically Amazon where I found a very flexible 28 gauge wire. Unsoldered the old and installed the new.

Trucks wired motor installed, ready to start the final hookup.
Let there be light…

Part of the conversion was adding new lights to the engine. I believe one of the reasons I had not gone much further with the project was that I needed to add new lights to the engine. The old Athearn incandescent bulbs were to big and I knew that even smaller incandescent bulbs ran hot, so clearance was needed as to not melt the plastic of the cab.

Well in the time between then and now, LED’s have really come into their own. I stumbled across LighthouseLED’s. Their selection is quite complete. Everything from 5mm down to pico size bulbs. Didn’t even know there was a pico size LED. And you can get any of them prewired with a resistor. Saves a lot of time and frustration. My first order included a white SMD LED mounted on a small resistor board with leads. It was hard to tell the size of the board from their diagram. It turned out to be about 1/4″ by 3/8″ (sorry, didn’t feel like running down and measuring). Which meant the it would show if using to light the front headlight. But it fit in perfectly to the rear of the engine for the rear light.

LED board with resistor installed for the rear light.
Rear light lit.

For the front I ordered a prewired 3mm bulb. I made a bracket out of styrene to hold it up in the headlight/number board housing. Still working on fit, will get you a couple of photos when placed. In addition I ordered some prewired pico sized bulbs that are amber. These are for the beacon on the cab roof. My thought was that when I got the bulb I would drill out the beacon and slide it in. Turns out I didn’t need to as Details West had already done this.

Thought I was going to have to drill these out. Luckily they are already cored.
The unlit pico sized LED for the roof beacon.
The amber pico sized LED for the roof beacon.
The pico sized LED in the strobe housing.

The decoder that I’m using is a Sountraxx Econami ECO-PNP. I chose this one primarily based on price and basic functions. It has standard motor functions, sound and front and rear lights. In addition it has several extra programmable functions. One of which is a Strato-Light beacon function. I have to image the decoder will make the beacon flash like the original. My dilemma now in seeing the size of the pico LED’s is do I want to add front wheel slip lights and step lights. Or keep it simple for first install and go with what I planned.

At this point I think I’m going to go with simple. I have all the parts ready to install. Just a little afraid after reading posts of people whose installs didn’t go as planned. But I’m ready to muscle past that, as I’m really wanting to see a diesel with a flashing beacon, something that doesn’t seem to be on many factory diesels.

As of now that’s where I’m at, will update in the near future.

Till then, happy modeling….





The Evolution of a Paint Scheme…

As you may (or may not) remember that the reason I model a freelance railroad is an off hand comment made to me by an experienced model railroader friend of my fathers. He was over once visiting my father and stopped down in the basement while I was running trains on my older brothers layout. My transgression was (as far as I know) running an engine from one road with the caboose from another. He told me I was doing it wrong and that wasn’t the way a real railroad would do it. No offense, but I was 6 at the time of this heinous crime. That comment always stuck with me.

When I was about 11 or 12 I became a more serious modeler complete with a subscription to Model Railroad Craftsman.

It opened my eyes to all the hobby had to offer. And yes it showed me that railroad A would not run a caboose from railroad B. I also became aware from the letters pages that there were a lot of people who were ready to point out that someone had not done something prototypical. That old comment came back to haunt me and I was afraid to do something wrong.

I also became aware of the “Freelance Railroad”. One that had their own way of doing things, but within the context of what was prototypical for that region. The most famous was the Allen McClelland’s Virginian and Ohio. It’s still talked about like it was an actual railroad. My favorite though is Frank Ellison’s O scale Delta Lines. Frank would remove the pilot trucks from steam engines because they caused derailments. Though a well detailed and scenic layout, operations were more important than scale fidelity.

So I decided at 12 that was the way to go. Came up with a semi plausible name and a totally hideous paint scheme.

When I returned to the hobby I decided to stay with the freelance theme. I refined the name to the Grand Forks and Western Minnesota, DBA the Grand Western. From there I started work on a paint scheme. The early attempts sometimes bordered on circus like. I think I kept the local hobby shop in business just buying undecorated Athearn diesel shells. A big part of the problem was that they were too intricate for someone with no airbrush or masking skills. It was spray can and hand brushing.

I finely landed on a scheme, that looking at it now was very close to the Southern Pacific’s. It was a light gray body with a red cab, nose and rear end. The roof was painted black with the thought that it hid the diesel exhaust along the top. A basic utilitarian scheme and easy for the shops to keep up. And I could use a spray can for the gray and brush paint the rest.

The original diesel paint scheme, kept it simple and utilitarian.
A change of name and paint…

First of all you will note the change of name. I went from Grand Western to Continental Northern because for what ever reason people couldn’t understand the Grand Western name, but will go Oh, OK when they see Continental Northern.  The black patch below the cab is where the GF&WM reporting marks were. The gray paint is no longer available so I removed the reporting marks and left the black patch.

But before we talk new engine paint we have to look at cabooses. I had painted one in the gray and red scheme to match the diesel scheme. It never struck me as very caboosy. (I know, not a word). The scheme I landed on was the basic red caboose.

The older wooden cabooses of the fleet.
Side view of the older wooden cabooses in the traditional red paint scheme.

When I started painting the modern steel cabooses I wanted something a little more modern and interesting looking. I remembered a paint scheme from a video a rented from the LHS from Model Railroader. It was on airbrushing, as my wife had gotten me a vey nice/expensive new airbrush. I found the process daunting with prepping the surface, mixing the paint with thinner and clear coating the finished car. Add to that the clean up with oil based paints and it was a lot. I held off airbrushing until acrylics came in to their own.

But I always remembered the finished caboose that Jim Hediger painted in that video. Bright red with yellow ends. With my airbrushing and masking skills greatly improved I decided to recreate that look for my road.

Side view of the modern (steel) cabooses in the “Safety” paint scheme.
Rear view of the modern cabooses in the “Safety” paint scheme.

Side note, I have found a great resource for LED’s. It is Lighthouse LEDS. I found them while gathering supplies for a different project. They have prewired flashing red LEDs. I plan to equip the cabooses with rear red flashing lights powered from the rails.

So when it came time for the diesels I figured I would just carry that scheme forward to them.

And this is the look…

The new “Safety” high visibility paint scheme. Wanted to update the look of the diesel fleet.

The Continental Northern refers to it as their “High visibility Safety scheme”. The diesel itself is a Athearn BB that I have been converting to DCC/sound (for like the last 10 years) and is the subject of an upcoming post. I had the shell ready for paint and it became the test bed for the new scheme.

More found stuff…

The reason this became something of a priority was that as I was digging through the shelves looking for cars that needed to be put together, I came across two Broadway Limited Import SD 40-2s and a Bachmann GE 8-40c that were undecorated. The BLI engines are DCC/sound and the Bachmann will need to be converted.

So loving the new look I went ahead and started the BLI engines, held off on the Bachmann as I need to check out decoders for it.

Fresh out of the paint booth. Last color applied, soon to be unmasked.
Fresh out the spray booth, time to put them together.
The BLI SD40-2’s front view. Painted and assembled, waiting for decals. Then final assembly.
Rear view of the BLI SD40-2’s. Ready for decals.

And that’s where I am with them at this point. They just need decals and then final assembly. After that it’s off to the programming track and then the layout. Will keep you updated.

Till next time, stay safe and happy modeling…



Repairing an Athearn Challenger…

So this is my tale of repairing an Athearn 4-6-6-4 Challenger. SPOILER ALERT: it has a happy ending.

I had bought the Athearn Challenger back when they were first released. I believe in 2005 or 2006. And it has been a solid performer ever since then.

While working on other projects, I will quite often get 2 or 3 trains orbiting the layout. It’s really nice to look over and see the passing trains while sitting at the workbench. I will get them going and match their speeds as closely as possible to avoid a collision.

This particular time I happened to look up and see that the Challenger was struggling to pull its consist while another train was about to catch up from behind. Jumped up and started shutting everybody down before the impending impact.

Having stopped all trains, I walked over to the Challenger and as I was picking it up to see what was wrong I noticed that the front set of drivers spun freely.

I debated what to do. My first thought was to contact Athearn, but since the engine was 14/15 years old I figured they would probably not cover it under warranty. I decided to tear it apart and see if I could figure out what was wrong and fix it. Being pretty sure that parts would be available. Very happy I chose this route.

I got the engine to the workbench (had to clear the current project at hand out of the way) and looked it over trying to figure out how to get it apart. Had that DUH moment and grabbed the owners manual with the exploded view.

The disabled Challenger on the bench for repairs.

Turns out that there are two screws that hold the super structure / shell to the frame. One under the sand dome and one under the steam dome.

To remove the superstructure you need to remove only two screws. Plus pull the front of the smokebox off.

Plus you have to pull the front of the smokebox forward as there is a pin on the top and bottom that helps release the shell. Also you need to pull the rear grab bars (?) out the holes on the back of the cab.

Once the shell is off (it won’t go far as there are wires for the head lights attached to it) you encounter the circuit board on top of the weight.

The circuit board on top of the drive. Made a diagram of where the wires go.

The black caps pull off and the wires can then be removed. Made a quick diagram of where the wires go.

Circuit board wiring diagram.

With a working diagram of where the wires go once I started putting things (hopefully) back together, I pulled the plastic caps off and removed the wires. A couple of screws got the circuit board off and more screws released the top half of the weight. With the top weight removed the layout looks pretty much like any Athearn diesel.

Motor and drive set-up, just like the diesels.

Looking at the setup and marveling at how it was very familiar, I absently reached out and pressed on the front tower clip. With a little pressure it clicked back into place.

The tower that popped off.

That was it. After 14 years the front tower had popped off. The engine was fixed. Problem solved. How very anti-climatic.

Since I had it apart i figured I should add an Engineer and a  Fireman.

Source of the engineer and fireman.
Engineer and fireman installed.

The engine is now fixed. It not only is running as well as always, it has a crew in the cab.

Another problem encountered and solved.

Till next time, Stay Safe…






September Update…

We’ll go with the September Update, but it should be called “what I did on my summer vacation”. Furthermore it probably should be labeled “part 1”, as there is way more than one post should have.

So, with that in mind I’ll start with something of a highlight to the summer. Union Pacific #4014.

Minnesota got lucky with the touring locomotive. It rolled into St. Paul on a Wednesday afternoon. Spent Thursday open to the public outside the newly refurbished St. Paul Union Depot. Friday it headed north to Duluth, Minnesota. Spent Saturday outside their depot, which by the ways house an impressive amount of historic locomotives and railcars. One of them being the Big Boys contemporary, the DM&IR’s Yellowstone.

On Sunday it headed on back to St. Paul’s union Depot. I believe on Monday it rested and on Tuesday headed off to Chicago through Wisconsin.

My dilemma was where to see it. Going to see it in St. Paul would involve finding a place to park and then fighting the crowds. Odds were that you couldn’t get a decent picture or get close be cause of the crowd size. I later learned from some friends who work downtown that it was a madhouse down there.

A check of the UP’s schedule for the train showed that it would be stopping for fifteen minutes in Northfield, Minnesota on it’s way to St. Paul.

Northfield is about a half hour south of the Twin Cities or an hour south of me as I live on the north side of town. Having a time and a place, I looked at a map of the town and saw that the tracks ran right past a large park. This would give me a place to park and space to shoot photos and a video.

Unfortunately I was slowed by a couple road construction projects and I rolled into town at the same time the train was supposed to be arriving. So instead of heading to the park, I stopped at basically the first place I found. It was a convenience store parking lot at the junction of the mainline and the main road in (which comes into play later).

Hurried trackside with phone (video) and camera in hand, and then waited. For about an hour. They were running late.

Though I thought I had a pretty good position for photos, when the headlight appeared down the tracks everyone milling around suddenly moved closer to the tracks. This forced me to move almost to the ballast line.

Rolling into town.

This killed any hope of a clear video, but I got a couple of good shots.

Union Pacific 4014 rolling into Northfield Minnesota July 17th.
Tail Car for the 4014. Love the Herald on the gate.

With a couple shots in hand and a not so great video, I decided to head on home instead of trying to see the engine. Problem was, as you can see in the last picture, the observation car was parked across the road back out to the freeway.  Having looked at maps before hand, I knew there was nothing heading south out of town.  My new plan was to head north through town, get ahead of the train and then find a way back out to the freeway.

Passed this on the way through town. Happy I didn’t walk down to see the engine close up.

The crowd in Northfield looking at the 4014.

As I headed north out of town there was no way to cut across. I figure I would go to the next town up the line where I knew there would be freeway access. As I was driving I watched the dirt roads (I was out in farm country now) and saw small crowds (emphasis on small) at the crossings.

New plan. I turned off onto one of the roads and followed it to the crossing. Found the crossing and the small crowd .Had a great time talking to the people while waiting. Some had been leap frogging towns from the Iowa/Minnesota border and had plans on where they were headed to catch it next. Also talked to one guy who had been at the park I had planned to go to. He had said it was really crowded.

Anyways, did shoot a decent little video.

up 4014 video

That’s it  for now, many more updates to come real soon.

Till than, Happy Modeling…







Addendum to 10/1/2014 post

As I was reading through my last post after publishing it, I realized that some may get the impression that I was going to run the railroad with about 70 railcars and a whole lot of engines. And cabooses.

The home road lettered cars that I talked about, the coal hoppers and boxcars, would be in addition to the other cars that I have lettered for other railroads. These would be the other railroads that operate in the upper Midwest and northwest that would interchange with the Continental Northern. Examples would be the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, the Union Pacific, Soo line … you get the idea.

The number of home road cars that will eventually be on the layout has yet to be determined. Right now I have 30 hoppers lettered for the CN, but I know that I will need another 15 for basic operation. The 20 boxcars that I had mentioned is just a start. I have to get every thing out on the layout to see what I have. From there I will make sure the percentage of home road cars to “foreign” cars is right.

For those who don’t know, when a shipper sends something in a boxcar, for example, and the car is interchanged onto another railroad, the receiving railroad has to pay the home road for the time that the boxcar is on their line. The receiving railroad would then make sure that the car got to its destination as quickly as possible, was unloaded and sent on its merry way. Either back to its home road or loaded with something new and shipped of to a destination on some other railroad. That is why the greatest percentage of a type of car will always belong to the home road on a layout. And that is why I have to see what I have and then adjust so that I have the appearance of a reasonable percentage of cars.

There are those out there with enough experience that probably understood this from the beginning, but it was bugging me and I felt that a clarification was in order. OK, clarified. I hope.

Below are a couple of pictures: the first is of a 2-8-2 Mikado with a string of hoppers.( sorry about the fuzziness, still working on depth of field) The second is of a pair of SD-7’s, one lettered for the CN and the other for the old road.

blog photos 007

blog photos 008



Locomotives and rolling stock of the Continental Northern.


I have tried to keep the Locomotive and rolling stock roster for the Continental Northern as appropriate as possible. When dealing with a freelance railroad the trend is sometimes “anything goes”. The bulk of the motive power is 2-8-0’s and 2-8-2 Mikado’s. These wheel arrangements would handle the Midwest flatlands relatively well.  The lighter engines are supplemented with  4-8-4 Northerns and 4-8-2 Mountains, as they had to handle the mountainous regions out west. Add in several compounds because: A. other roads used them to get through the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest and B: they are really cool. There are also several GP and SD-7’s as dieselization shows up even on this subdivision.

The thought process is as follows: as the Continental Northern dieselizes, the newer power ( diesels ) are used out west where the lack of needed maintenance and frequent refueling ( water and coal ) are better suited to diesels. The older steam engines are moved to the eastern divisions, where there are shorter runs between towns and maintenance facilities.


The main reason I backdated the layout to 1954 was that inexpensive, high quality steam locomotives became available. Bachmann ( and Athearn ( led the way followed by Broadway Limited ( with their  DCC/ sound equipped locomotives. The hardest thing to give up was the diverse rolling stock of the more modern era’s. It seems as if each commodity has it’s own type of railcar. When I first switched I figured there would be a whole lot of boxcars and not much else. At least I would be able to cabooses on the trains, oh well.

Once I started to research the era more I realized that, yes there would be a whole lot of boxcars, there were a lot more types of cars in use. So yes, there will be boxcars, as well as hoppers for hauling coal, flatcars, tank cars, gondolas and short covered hoppers, which were starting to show up for some commodities. And cabooses.

I have the bulk of the hoppers for coal, I bought data only hoppers from Walthers ( I still need to get another set. These are lettered for the Continental Northern. I have looking at picking up about twenty data only boxcars from Accurail (, however they have been out of stock. I hope they will do another run soon. These will also be lettered for the Continental Northern. I have been lettering the cars with custom decals from Rail Graphics (, I would highly recommend them.


There won’t be any “name” trains running on the railroad, as the run from the Twin Cities to Duluth is only about 120 miles. There will be daily passenger runs, but the trains will be mainly coaches. These will be mostly older, heavyweight cars.