Virtual Open House: Remote Operator Tips and Tricks

SVL Track Plan – Lower Level with Open House Loop

Join us for our second Virtual Open House on April 17th, 2021 from 10am – 3pm Pacific Time. Learn more here.

On Saturday, November 14th 2020 we had our first Virtual Open House from 10am – 3pm Pacific Time. You can sign up here.

We will break the day into sessions that should last about 20 minutes each, including 5 minute arrival and orientation, and about 15 minutes run time. Please join the Google Meet 5 minutes before your scheduled departure time, so that we can confirm session participants and start orientation on time.

Remotely controlled trains will run on a loop on the lower level of the layout. See the track plan above for the route trains will take. There are location signs mounted around the layout so that operators know where they are. Most of the signs are mounted under the upper level and are usually clearly visible in the upper half of the camera screen. Some location signs are located near the tracks.

We will have up to four remote controlled trains active on the layout at the same time. Every remote controlled train has a cab-view camera, so operators can see the track in front of the train.

Operators can control speed of their train using a web-based throttle with integrated cab view video window. Touch or click in the vertical box next to the video window to control the speed of your train. Watch the video above for a demonstration.

Some trains will have opposing traffic. There are several locations on the layout where meets might happen, so pay attention to signals and dispatcher instructions.

Watch your speed! Running a train purely on video feedback takes some getting used to. You don’t want to go too fast and cause a derailment, and you don’t want to go too slow and block everyone behind you.

When your run is complete, please make sure to stop your train, and close the browser window with the web-based throttle to disconnect from the layout.

Of course, above all: We hope you enjoy your virtual visit to Silicon Valley Lines and have fun!

Presentations on Remote Operations

Silicon Valley Lines was featured in two presentations on Remote Operations.

Saturday, September 26th at 9:00am PDT, John Abatecola from TSG multimedia released a new segment in his Model Railroading 101 series covering remote operations at Silicon Valley Lines. This video gives you some insight into how we adjusted our operations scheme to accommodate remote operators while maintaining social distancing rules at the club. We show and explain the technology we’re using to pull this all together, as well as give a glimpse into what a remote ops session looks like.

The same day (September 26th), at 3:00pm PDT, Bernhard and Dave gave a NMRAx presentation about”Remote Operations at Silicon Valley Lines”. This presentation goes deeper into the background and the technology of remote operations. We explain hardware and software setup in detail, and talk about our experience in fine-tuning operations with remote operators.

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, port 12090. The control and dispatcher web panels are available at 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.