Ever wonder how much fun an operating session can be on a model train layout? Climb aboard a train on Burr Stewart’s basement HO model railroad layout and enjoy the scenery and passing trains, while listening to the sound track of mayhem as up to 7 operators and a dispatcher try to keep out of each others’ way, mostly with success. This event, held on Zoom, replaced the annual October in-person meeting of the “North End Clinic” of the 4th Division (Seattle area and Alaska) of the Pacific Northwest Region (4DPNR.com) of the National Model Railroad Association (nmra.org), which is usually a “beginners operating session” held at Burr’s house instead of at their normal meeting room.
A model railroad operating session (Burr likes to call them “play dates”) is an event where a number of train buffs gather for several hours and try to run model trains in a similar way to real railroads. There is a variety of styles, degrees of difficulty and seriousness that these sessions can take, but the one captured in this video is clearly on the “just for fun” side of the spectrum. Burr arranged the layout for a continuous loop about 500 (actual) feet long, and all of the trains ran in the same direction around the loop, so the main goal of the session was simply to keep the trains from running into each other. This would have been simple if the operators had been physically able to walk around the room with their trains, but since the session was held remotely using Zoom, the operators had to keep watch on one of 5 live video cameras that were connected into the Zoom meeting.
Technically speaking, this meeting was made possible because the Digital Command Control (DCC) system on Burr’s layout was connected (via USB cable) to his laptop, running a free, open-source, model railroad management system called the Java Model Railroad Interface (jmri.org). Among its many useful features, JMRI’s “web server” publishes a live website for the layout which includes a web-based locomotive throttle that can select and run locomotives on the host layout. Burr provided his operators with the IP address of this web server and they were able to operate his trains from their own homes without any additional software other than their web browser.
The five live camera feeds were provided by a set of old iPhones new enough to join a Zoom meeting over wifi (iPhone 5s and higher). Since the typical Zoom meeting takes about 1mbps of upload bandwidth, and Burr’s home router provides about 5mbps (on a good day), there were some issues with continuity of some of the cameras, which you will hear being discussed in the audio chatter on the video. There are other, clever, ways to encode multiple video streams to a Zoom meeting (OBS, for example) the method used here was “quick and dirty”, and you can judge whether it was “good enough”. The operators were able to “spotlight” or “pin” particular cameras to their Zoom screens to maintain visual contact with their trains, but unfortunately we did not record these live streams. You will hear various camera views referred to in the video, but all we can show in the video is what we did record, which was mainly footage from an AKASO portable video camera riding on a flatcar, and some shots taken by Burr on his own iPhone that was not connected to Zoom at the time.
At the beginning of the video, Burr provides a brief explanation of the exhibits that were provided to operators, including a map showing the track plan and the location of the five cameras in the basement. The rest of the video contains the soundtrack from the Zoom meeting and a variety of rail fan shots of train action during the session, sometimes synchronous to the soundtrack and sometimes not. We hope you enjoy it.
If you are interested in learning more about the National Model Railroad Association and its events and resources, please visit the national site www.nmra.org as well as our local site www.4dpnr.com.