Photo Shoot at SVL

Dan Munson at work

In preparation for the NMRA convention next year, well-known railroad photographer Dan Munson visited several Bay Area layouts this weekend, including Silicon Valley Lines. Dan, with help from Doug Good, spent several hours with us this morning photographing the layout.

Even with COVID-19 raging in the Bay Area, over the last few months several club members had worked socially distanced on expanding and finishing scenes to put our best foot forward. The layout looked great and the effort was well worth it.

We’re very much looking forward to the results from today’s photo shoot.

Socially Distanced Ops, June 2020

Screenshot from the camera control computer

Tonight was the ops session we have been planning for the last few weeks. Since we are in the middle of a global pandemic, we decided to severely limit on-site attendance, institute social distancing, wearing masks, and try out remote participation.

Instead of the usual 10 – 15 session participants in the layout room, we had only four: A yardmaster for Nowheres, and three engineers. Plus one member for taking care of cameras, Internet, and streaming stuff. We also had three club members joining us remotely as engineers, and a remote dispatcher.

Remote control of our web-based layout panels and locomotives on the layout is easily accomplished using a VPN application that connects remote devices to the club network. EngineDriver’s automatic discovery of JMRI’s Withrottle Server doesn’t work over the VPN connection. Instead, remote participants need to enter IP and port number of the computer running JMRI manually. In our case 192.168.8.10, port 12090. The control and dispatcher web panels are available at http://192.168.8.10:3000 over the VPN connection as well.

Upacking technology

Over the course of the afternoon we installed cameras in the layout room. We used Foscam X1 security cameras, as well as old Android phones with the IP Webcam app. All four cameras were streaming video into OBS.

The four cameras were set up to cover as much of the layout room as we could pull off. The intent was to give remote operators maximum visibility of the main line, so that they get to see the trains they are running.

We also streamed from OBS to Youtube Live for some time during the session. Using the Present from window Google Meet feature worked for the video stream, but resulted in unacceptable latency for remote participants. We will need to try this again with the OBS VirtualCam plugin.

The control stand

On the left is the FRS Radio / Meet gateway. This old Dell laptop runs Linux and has separate microphone and head set plugs, with microphones taped to computer and headset speakers. The laptop in the middle runs OBS and acts as the hub for all the video streams, including broadcasting to Meet and Youtube Live. The laptop on the right was the control for the Youtube Live stream.

This was another step towards restarting operations at Silicon Valley Lines. Operations sessions as we know them will not be possible for a while. Some remote participation component will be needed for the time being.

The club Internet connection has 24 MBit/s downlink and 5 MBit/s uplink. We found that throughput on the uplink was very variable, and stopped the Youtube Live stream halfway through the session after downgrading quality multiple times to free up more bandwidth for Google Meet. That definitely resulted in improved video and audio quality with less artifacts.

IP Webcam did not work reliably on some phones, while it worked just fine on another phone.

Finally, we need to build a more compelling remote engineer experience. While the camera setup we used allows for an ok overview of the layout room, it very much has a security camera feel to it. We will try to make it more reliable, but even then it’s at best nice as a novelty.

What we really want to do is to put the remote engineer in the middle of the action. If you can’t be there, maybe with technology we can provide an experience that is not possible when standing in the layout room.

Stay tuned.

Preparing for Socially Distanced Ops

Virtually bringing the membership to the club

Due to social distancing guidelines still in effect, Silicon Valley Lines canceled the May ops session originally scheduled for tonight. We discussed doing another remote ops session instead, and decided that this time we’d try to do a session from the club. Only two members went to the club. Everybody else joined over video conference from home.

This was to test both our ability to implement social distancing, as well as whether and how to incorporate remote operators into an operations scheme. Another goal tonight was to stress-test the club’s Internet connection with multiple video streams in a multi-user setting.

We set up various cameras to record the action from different angles. We also moved the cameras around to capture trains as they moved from yards over the layout to their destinations for switching.

We used Web cams connected to laptops, as well as Android phones to provide views of the layout for the stay-at-home audience

The verdict:
Over the course of the evening we ran only four trains, instead of the 25 trains we normally run.

We can support a remote dispatcher and give remote operators control of a train. We have the technology to do that.

However, our Internet uplink does not support multiple HD streams in parallel. The double-deck arrangement makes visual train control via cameras challenging for a remote operator. While detected sections on the layout work well, and are needed for signaling, not all blocks have detection for various reasons.

Keeping distance between operators in the layout room will be a requirement for a while

Even when the county’s strict shelter-in-place orders are lifted, we will need to continue some form of social distancing measures for the time being, including wearing masks. A well-attended ops session is a lot of fun with a lot of energy in the room. However, the health of club members and visitors is paramount. More discussions are needed to find a way to run an ops session at the club that is fun, but avoids crowding in the aisles, and minimizes health risks. Very likely this will include a remote engineer component, and we need to figure out how to make that fun and satisfying for everyone involved.

Model Railroading 101: DTC

A great introduction to operations with DTC featuring Silicon Valley Lines. John from TSG Multimedia attended one of our sessions last year and put together this great episode of Model Railroading 101. Enjoy!

If you enjoy operating a railroad in a relaxed club atmosphere, come and join us at one of our future operating sessions.