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Plarail: Percy, The Engine That Couldn’t

After scouring recycling shops in Japan and finding some 300-series Shinkansens... I did a little more investigation (aka. purchasing) of tracks and other relevant equipment to set up a test track. This then kept expanding once I'd realised that Tomy released Plarail in Australia under the Thomas brand.

Trash and Treasure is a usual haunt on Sunday mornings and I have been happening across more and more Plarail equipment. Sure, it's for 2-4 year-olds, but some of it is just so simple and easy, that it can actually be rewarding. You then look at the components available from Japan and start to realise what can actually be built! I reckon, with a little bit of further modification and automation, you could create some seriously crazy layouts.

The design and equipment is also rugged and resilient. As that it's made to be run on carpet (by children), the tracks are easy to connect and hold together after being kicked and beaten. The locomotives also are built to cop a beating, with internal gearing to allow the axles to be held whilst the train is trying to move. You can even wrench them backwards when they want to go forwards. Of course, with age, any fail-safe equipment can also fail.

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I've only learnt all this recently. I picked up a Percy The Small Engine from Trash recently and found it to be defective. With zero loading, the loco could move around... but as soon as you gave it something to haul it just sat still. The engine was still rotating... you could even see the gear on the driving axle spinning. It seemed to have quite a 'click' on every rotation.

The cause turned out to be a split final gear on the driving axle. It was still on the axle, but due to a split between two teeth, it had very minimal grip. This meant that it'd keep contact with the axle on light load, but spin incessantly on anything else.

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The gears are held onto the axle by friction. The axle is roughed-up where the gear is finally meant to sit, but the diameter of the hole in the gear is smaller than the diameter of the axle to ensure a proper fit. This meant that, any attempts to glue the gear shut would fail; the pressure would snap the gear back open as soon as I tried to slide it back on.

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From here, I tried to widen the hole in the gear, to allow it to slide on easier. This worked, and I then attempted to also glue it to the axle. Unfortunately, I had no type of glue that would correctly bond to both substances.

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Not even Araldyte worked! The next step was to scour eBay for gears. Turns out they're dirt cheap.. when purchased from China. Of course, that means 4++ weeks of waiting. So.. 4 weeks later, the following arrived.

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Included was a total assortment of gears. Around 6 of them were in the right ballpark. The blue ones fit way too easy and I've have to work out a method for securing them to the axle. I tried the hot-glue-gun... but I was just making a mess.

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The next effort was with one of the white gears. They were the right diameter, but too wide. Their hole diameter was also too small. Firstly I widened this with a ~2.0mm drill bit in the dremel. Make sure that you drill perfectly perpendicular and centered!

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Once on I then used a grinding stone chomp the gear in half. I filed it down afterwards to clean it all up. It actually worked!

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Based on the note above, the first one I did actually failed to run smoothly... Percy had a huge limp! Turns out I drilled out the center hole completely off-center. The gear actually 'wobbled' around the axle badly and pushed the innards of the gearbox up into the chassis! Be really careful. The second one worked perfectly and Percy was grinding along again once more!

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26Feb/160

Converting a Kato Power Pack to 240v

This was as easy as the I.M.A.S.S. Power Supply that I converted previously.

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These are easy to pop open... pull the feet off and then undo all the screws.

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Find a transformer of similar size and voltage from your trusted and local electronics store and then swap the existing 110v transformer out.

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There's the usual make-it-fit work. The newer transformer had bigger feet and I didn't have a clean way of sizing them to fit. So I removed a bit of the plastic casing on the base of the power pack.

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Re-do the wiring... the powercord is fed directly into the transformer. Tie a knot in it to stop any yanking from doing damage. Then solder the two internal wires.

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Black is ground (tested this with my old workhorse multimeter.) And that was it... works perfectly!

31Aug/150

Simple Short Circuit Protection

My vintage power supply from Japan did not have short-circuit protection. I couldn't deal with this, as the brass models were also ancient and shorting out all over the shop. A little googling presented me with Homemade Circuit Projects: Short Circuit Protection. This article has a nice 'mechanical' short-circuit protector. A relay is energised to begin the power output and, on short, is tripped, cutting the supply.

There are no integrated circuits whatsoever inside this power supply, so I thought I'd go the mechanical way.

The circuit

A relay is used to allow power from the source to the output. This relay is initially de-energised. The momentary push-button, when activated, will provide power across the coil in the relay, energising it. There is a secondary feed to the relay's coil which goes via its switched output. As the relay switches, this secondary power is activated and the current then also flows across the coil. This provides a sort of infinite loop where the power through the relay contacts infact keeps the relay energised.

A short on the output causes a drop in voltage. This voltage is required to keep the relay energised, so a drop will actually de-energise the relay and cut the output power. The push-button will need to be activated once more to re-energise the relay.

Circuit placement inside the power supply

This circuit needs to be placed after the bridge rectifier as it requires DC power. It also needs to be placed prior to the direction switch, as the polarity needs to be constant and one-way around. This leaves us with the choice of putting it before or after the throttle potentiometer.

I had originally placed it between the rectifier and the potentiometer. I wanted the continuous voltage, otherwise I'd only be able to energise once the throttle was more than zero. Unfortunately, in this position I found that it only tripped when the throttle was at maximum. It seemed that the potentiometer was capable of absorbing the short if any resistance was provided. Prolonged exposure to a short would no-doubt heat the coil of the potentiometer and cook it.

Moving it to the other side of the throttle worked perfectly. Even at throttle setting '1' it would trip. Of course, it would only energise when on throttle '1' or higher. I considered adding more components to allow a secondary source to trigger the relay, but found that I could adjust my usage of the power pack. Now when wanting to drive trains, one must shift to low throttle, hit the trip switch and then throttle further.

Required Components

Based on the diagram above, you'll need 2 100uf electrolytic capacitors at 16v or higher, a diode capable of the amperage/voltage, and a relay. The relay should be DPDT if you also want the status light.

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As above, you can twist the diodes together in parallel to make them suffer higher currents. I used 1A diodes and wanted to make sure they could cope with the 2A transformer... but then I got bored and twisted 4 of them together. You can then see my prototype hookup to see if it all worked.

Status Light

I wanted to know when the switch was in trip mode. I didn't want to have to pull my multimeter out each time to work out where a fault was when no power was available. To do this, I used the second side of the relay to provide a 12v source to the led inside the momentary switch. This would light in the normally-closed position. As mentioned above, the relay only provided output power when energised (Normally-Open), so I wanted the light on the NC side so as to illuminate when the power was cut off.

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The switch indicated that it was rated at 12-volt and 240v. I took this to mean the internal lamp/LED? was 12v and the contacts could switch 240v. I didn't want to risk it though, so I put a 470ohm relay in series to limit the current. The resulting brightness worked perfectly well.

Case Modifications

Adding the switch wasn't going to be easy. The nicest one I could find had a huge barrel. I used the smallest drill-bit I could find and then proceeded up. I hate cutting in to metal... always worried something will go flying and take a limb off. The metal shavings aren't much fun either.

Fortunately my friend has a dremel... so we hacked away with that and made the switch fit. The best location was on the front panel. I do like the finish.

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End result

It works perfectly. Setting the throttle to '1' or higher lights the switch... it always starts in trip mode and needs to be activated. Pressing the button switches modes and the relay clicks. The LED switches off and, depending on the position of the direction switch (and the power requirements of the locomotive on the track) the locomotive will start to move.

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In fact, it shorted as soon as I tried to apply power to my ED100 on the test track. Turns out an axle had dislodged from its mount hole in the bogie frame and was happily shorting. After a realignment, all worked well. The bogies on these Tenshodo/KTM models have quite a bit of flex. The lateral screw isn't 100% tight and so the bogie frames can skew.

28Aug/150

Vintage IMAI.S.S. Power Supply Voltage Conversion

I've recently returned from Japan and have brought a loot with me. Whilst in Tokyo, there was the annual Antiques Jamboree at Odaiba and I happened across a box of HO KTM brass that I could not refuse.

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This set included a lot of track, two powered locomotives, rolling stock and a power supply. Thanks to the age of the kit, the power supply was 110v only. Preliminary testing in my Tokyo hotel proved that everything was in fantastic working order. I assume this box has been in someone's cupboard for quite a while.

Don't plug anything rated at 110v into Australian sockets

You don't want to try this at home. Our powerpoints are more than double the voltage of that in Japan... I wonder if this explains why we have a ground line. Either way, any Japanese equipment that is not dual-voltage will bake if you plug it in. This beautiful old transformer would never handle it's new home.

I had the option of chaining in a power converter, but this would have been tedious. In fact, this is my first 110-only product and I would've needed to purchase a step-down transformer. Instead I chose to pull the thing apart and replace the transformer.

What were you expecting? Integrated Circuits?

I opened up the power supply and felt that I'd opened a treasure chest. I could pick out the potentiometer for the throttle, the switch for the direction and the transformer. The final component needed to be a bridge rectifier to convert the AC to DC, but it ... didn't look like one at all.

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Following the wires, it seemed that there were 5 contacts on the device I assumed was the rectifier. A little googling informed me that this is a vintage metal rectifier with selenium insulation acting as the diodes. Very cool actually.

Purchasing a replacement transformer

Jaycar is my local electronics store of choice (if not the last available store in Australian cities) and perusing their site came up with a valid substitute.

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There were quite a few to choose from, actually. As the amperage went up, so did the weight. I assume the copper coil mass dictates how much current the transformer can deal with.

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Transformer transplant

This all went quite swimmingly. The existing wiring was labelled for safety-sake.

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It turns out that the 110v input wires were hardly twisted and taped together. I would hope that this wasn't an original factory job... but as far as I know this is a Japanese brand and this should have been the original factory plug. Quite interesting... let alone dangerous.

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Once the 110v transformer was out, the new transformer was soldered and then bolted in.

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It just fit. I mean.. a few millimeters more and we would've had to determine if Jaycar does returns.

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The 240v feeder was passed in and the wires were heatshrinked, the rest were soldered in place as per the previous construction.

Plugging it in...

With breath held, I plugged the transformer into the power board. It worked. The light lit dimly and no smoke came out.

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I rigged up a quick test track from the box of treasure purchased in Japan and tested the KTM ED100 that also came with it. After a little wheel and track cleaning the locomotive started bolting along.

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Success! This transformer is solid... although has zero short-circuit protection! Smoke started to appear during a motor short.. but I couldn't determine the source... I'll make bloody well sure in the future that shorts don't last too long.

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The directional switch is momentary unless you force it to either extremity. This is a nice touch as you can set your speed and then pulse the direction as required.

After running my brass EF62, I found a screw left on the track... the downfall of brass locomotives is that they're bound to shake things loose eventually!

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I was nothing short of ecstatic to have found this box at the antique fair in Tokyo.

20Mar/140

Table Railway – Continued

It's been green for a while.. but I thought I might as well provide a long-overdue update. The table layout has received a fresh coating of grass and it in quite a reasonable state after moving house. It coped with being held upright through doorways and thrown around in a car... so it seems my process of painting, gluing and spraying ballast and foliage worked well.

Painting the base scenery

The last thing you need is white plaster showing through the scenery base. It really does ruin all of your hard work very quickly.

To prevent this I coated the entire base with an appropriately colored paint. Japan is ultra-lush, so green here will work well.

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Adding the grass

Adding grass to the green paint brings it to life. Texture is the key here and un-even-ness is to be achieved.

Don't be scared to glue layer upon layer upon layer. I've used a glue/water ratio of around 3-10 to make sure everything sticks. It's a little thicker than you'll need for a layout that won't be thrown around as much as this one will.

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Sinking and Ballasting the track

I'd done this before on my previous railway and the effect is much more realistic. Although the plastic ballast that comes with Unitrack isn't ugly, it easily removes from the realism of a layout. To get around this I've cut a trench for the track and glued ballast down the sides. Be careful not to completely cover the track with glue...

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It's about time to add a city.

12Dec/130

Yet another layout…

It was about time to fill the table I'd bought from an op-shop a long time ago. I'd attempted a layout for this prior using the Arduino and CAN Bus to control it... but I somehow lost interest and demolished it. Hence we begin with the 810mm(Squared) Table Layout Version 2.0.

The space was relatively small and, thanks to my previous attempt, I knew there wasn't going to be much more than a loop-the-loop. The whole reason for building this was to run my 300 Series Shinkasen and that meant wide curves and wide clearances. For some reason I then decided that a loop-the-loop was boring and that I could fit a loop-the-loop-the-loop in.

I set to work on Anyrail.Net and found that a triple-loop was going to be tight. Unitrack had enough different radii curves to get the loops in, but I'd have to be using the tightest available... not too good for a 7-car Shinkansen. So... I started breaking the mould and making everything not-quite-fit together in the layout software. This meant slightly wider curves but potentially dangerous track joins where I would be 'stretching' the limits of unitrack to fit. Fortunately it turns out to be pretty forgiving.

I went to a not-so-local hobby store and found they had a HUGE selection of Japanese stock. I had my list printed from Anyrail and went about collecting. I also got some Walthers gradient foam for my crazy layout.

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After a little fiddling the track was laid out and temporarily elevated into place. It all worked... but was a squeeze. With nothing stuck down you'd attempt to get track to connect in one spot and it'd fall out of alignment in another... I don't really recommend jamming Unitrack together in odd formations!

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The result was a successful session of test running with all of the stock I could find!

16Oct/130

Kato Unitrack vs. Moisture/Humidity from setting plaster

It probably should've been obvious, but I've just found out the hard way of the effects of drying plaster (Woodland Scenics Plaster Cloth) and Kato Unitrack when kept in a small enclosed space.

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I've been building a new layout recently in a coffee table I acquired from a secondhand store. It's around 80x80cm and fits a nice loop-the-loop-the-loop layout.

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After planning and purchasing the track, I started to build up the scenery. Once the foam was down, the plaster was laid. Due to wanting to be neat, I returned the setting/drying scenery back into the table each night to dry. I noticed on the second day that the plaster hadn't really dried that much, so I chose not to run any locos (there had been a C50 steamer sitting in the table overnight too!.)
The next day I then noticed that the track had a strange tinge to it. I attempted to run the steamer, but the performance was terrible (although this was second hand and hadn't run 100% in the first place.) Another locomotive didn't do much better.

The cause was obvious on closer inspection...
(First image: notice that left track is shiny and right is dull. Second image: see mould.)

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After 'phoning a friend' on the JNS Forums, a few possible options came up... the most probably one being the chemicals used in the plaster cloth. These could well have hung around inside the glass table whilst the plaster was drying and adversely affected the track.

I'm still in the process of cleaning it all up (a quick once-over with a cleaning block worked fine)... the sides of the rails are still tarnished. Currently alcohol-wipes are doing the best job of cleaning this mess up!

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10Nov/112

Lima HO NS Koploper

I purchased one of these from Schaal Treinen Huis in Amsterdam after travelling on one to Groningen. The Koploper reminds me a lot of the JR West Thunderbird (683 Series).

The review? It runs like a dog due to it only having a single motorised end carriage (fortunately with all-wheel pickup) and the lighting shines brightly though the shell.

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As you can see, the train I bought included an add-on carriage and all packaging. The price tag was on-par with what I'm seeing on eBay nowadays. The train was in a glass cabinet on display when I bought it and I didn't realise that the base package only contained one coach. I have since found and purchased another coach from eBay and will attempt to extend this set. You can also see in the comparison shot of the two passenger cars that they are slightly differing in colour. Unfortunately, this is just a side-effect from purchasing second-hand; I have no idea what their story is and if the main set was left in the sun too long...

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Either way, it's a great looking train set.

2May/111

Playart HO Scale Series 0 Shinkansen (4-Car Set)

As luck would have it, I managed to stumble across this set a model train/toy swap meet over the weekend. I'd never seen anything by Playart before and was not expecting to see a HO Scale Shinkansen. I purchased a bit of track with it as I had only had N Scale on hand.

0 Series Shinkansen Passenger coupling Close up

I gave it a quick run on some flex-track with a 12v supply I had lying around. It was noisy, but for something of its age, moved quite well.

End car front bogies Rear dummy Both end car end bogies

Both end cars pick up power through their front bogie and both have internal lighting. It seems to be a standard incandescent light bulb and it actually lights up the entire nose of the train... makes it look very toy-ish... I would actually stop this from happening if I was to run these full-time, but I have no HO layout.

Comparison to N Scale Comparison to N Scale Top down

Either way, this is a cool set... and I was very impressed to find out that some company (I believe they are French?) made this back in the 70s/80s. As written underneath, they were made in Hong Kong.

Car One Car Two Car Three
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It turns out that the company also made a Series 485 EMU which reminds me of the Kita Kinki in Kansai.

There was also an Endou Vista 3-Car EMU in N Scale which I couldn't recognise (looked like something Kintetsu or Meitetsu...) which I'll try and pick up next time... information on it is here, here, here and here. And yes, it's Kintetsu.

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11Feb/111

Lighting a Japanese Temple

Actual Temple Kit

I'd decided it was time to light the temple after building the Torii for the entrance. This temple was the Tomytec Japanese Temple A (Main Building) and is still available for purchase from most Japanese online hobby retailers.

I've slapped LEDs in buildings before, but this time I also wanted to add lanterns to the front of the shop. I'd made the lanterns before, as in my previous attempts of creating the Torii, but I was to make a few changes this time as I wasn't totally impressed with the previous outcome.

Creating the lanterns

There was a slight change this time to creating the lanterns... instead of cutting them and sliding them over the LEDs, I shaved them down to fit and inserted them into the center of the tubing. This all worked well, but you must be careful when shaving down the LEDs as you can destroy them quite easily. To shave the LEDs, I held them in pliers in one hand and filed away with my pocket knife. It was pretty obvious to feel when you were no longer filing away at plastic and, unfortunately, this was usually the demise of the LED.

Shaving down LEDs LED inside plastic tubing

Mounting the lanterns

I used the same copper winding wire that I always do and bent it into a rectangular shape to fit the roof of the temple. I then started soldering the lanterns in place.

Lantern on wire Using wire to frame lanterns in place

I then pulled out the trusty Selleys Aquadere and, using random aligator clips found on the bench, glued the lanterns in place.

Gluing down lanterns in place Aligator clips do wonders

I also put two standard 3mm white LEDs in the center of the ceiling for building lights.

Central building lights

The finished product

After the glue had dried, I tested all the LEDs and found that I'd broken the front-left lantern. This was 24hours after starting the project and frustrating. I quickly removed it from the temple and filed another LED down. I left it dry again, overnight, after testing, gluing and testing again.

Finally, yesterday, I was able to hook it up to my Arduino LED Controller. It worked perfectly and I took the opportunity to test my night-time photography skills.

Finished job View past the city And the Torii
A different view Night time Top Platform

Now to settle the landscape around it.