C++ Objects for Layout Control, Part 2 — Turnouts

In C++ Objects for Layout Control, Part 1 I did an introduction to C++ objects, and demonstrated the basics of OOP with a simple “fire” object that I use to run an LED to simulate a fire in the turntable operator’s hut on the L&NC. In the demo sketch I did two instances of the fire object with two LED’s to demonstrate object independence and scalability.

In this post, we’ll take the basics of C++ objects for animation and extend them to the most common animated object on our layouts: turnouts.

L&NC Progress

Before I go hardcore programmer on you, I thought’ I’d share a few progress notes & pictures. Last weekend we rejoined the three lower level modules together for the first time in over a year.

All Three lower level sections reassembled.

Crossing from module 1 to module 2 for the first time.

Red Bluffs Yard

Another view of Modules ! & 2

I was especially pleased that the three sections came back together perfectly, even though they have been apart for over a year. I attribute the stability of the structures and the accuracy of the alignment to the style of framing, use of hardwoods and the McMaster-Carr alignment pins I use to assure the sections align correctly when put back to together. It all looked good on paper; but until proven you can’t be completely sure. Now I’m confident I can take the layout apart and put it back together again reliably.

I’m getting the basic wiring and interconnections with modules 2 & 3 completed, following the same basic methods as on module 1 (the main difference from where I began is I’ve moved to current transformers for occupancy detection). Once the basic wiring is in and the turnouts are mated with servos, I’ll start in with scenicking. I’ll cover and further shape the mountain with plaster cloth and sculptamold. Since I am doing more roads (using the Woodland Scenics road system which I think works pretty well; more about that at the end of this previous post) on both modules 2 & 3, I’ll pour those first. I find it best to get the roads in before applying any paint or other material. All that should keep me busy for a while.

Turnout Issues & Requirements

Like the fire object, the turnout object requires certain basic parameters to run, and has to be able to keep track of its own state. The turnout object has to respond to positioning commands and manage the turnouts’ motion to achieve a slow, scale appropriate movement from one alignment to the other.

The added complication is that the turnout class will need to deal with different hardware configurations and interfaces in different situations. For example, on the L&NC module I’ve been working on there are 9 turnouts and I’m using the Adafruit PWM Driver to run the servos and additional PWM devices, which I discussed in L&NC Update: Running Lots of Turnouts. The adjacent module has only two turnouts, so I’ll use the standard servo library and a couple of pins there. But regardless of the hardware interface, I want to use the same software objects in both places so they perform the same way.


The turnout class is a little more complicated than the fire class. Its basic properties include the pin (in the case of the Adafruit driver, the channel) the servo is attached to, the current alignment of the turnout, the default alignment and the servo settings for the main and divergent positions (pos_main and pos_divergent). Then, to facilitate motion, there are a variety of properties that work together: delay between moves, the increment (1 or more units) of each move, the current position, the target position and the target alignment.

class turnout
 // object properties
 int pin;
 int pos_main;
 int pos_div;
 int align_default;
 int alignment;
 // motion data
 bool is_moving;
 int move_delay;
 int increment;
 int pos_now;
 int target_pos;
 int target_alignment;
 unsigned long last_move;

I mentioned that I am using the turnout class in different situations where the hardware that runs the servos could be a standard pin, or an external driver board such as the Adafruit PWM Driver. To complicate matters, while the standard Servo Library positions by degrees, the Adafruit PWM Driver positions by the “tick” value of the desired PWM setting.  These are different units and different scales; but it doesn’t matter. So long the turnout class is initialized with a correct set of values (in the same units) for the hardware interface in question, it works consistently.


For the turnout class I have created an interface of public methods for interacting with the class. Additionally, the class has a private hardware interface for interacting with the hardware environment.

The Constructor

The constructor is straight forward with one twist. Because a lot of arguments are required to set up the object, I’m using a data structure to pass most of the arguments.

typedef struct TURNOUT_PARAMS {
 int pin;
 int pos_main;
 int pos_div;
 int align_default;
 int move_delay;

On the L&NC Module1, Lower Level the array of turnout parameters looks like this (STANDARD_DELAY is 20):

 {2, 330, 370, ALIGN_MAIN, 30},

The constructor takes a pointer to a TURNOUT_PARAMS variable, plus an optional movement_increment argument. I added the movement increment parameter (and the corresponding class property) as an additional factor in turnout motion after encountering problems integrating multiple processes on the Uno on Module 1. Manipulating both delay and increment values improves control over the movement of servos in different situations. On the L&NC Module 1, Lower Level there are both a lot of turnouts and a lot of block detectors. I’ll discuss the issues more in an upcoming post, but the resources required for block detection make it difficult to move the servos fast enough without adjusting the movement increment.

// Constructor
 turnout(TURNOUT_PARAMS *parameters, int movement_increment = 1){
   pin = parameters->pin;
   pos_main = parameters->pos_main;
   pos_div = parameters->pos_div;
   align_default = parameters->align_default;
   move_delay = parameters->move_delay;
   is_moving = false;
   increment = movement_increment;

After capturing the parameter values, the constructor invokes the private init_servo() method which I will talk about below in the hardware interface section.

Using the array of parameters above, the turnout objects are instantiated with this bit of code in setup, taking the default value for movement_increment (turnouts is global, declared before setup):

 turnout *turnouts[NUM_TURNOUTS];
 for(int i = 0; i < NUM_TURNOUTS; i++){
   turnouts[i] = new turnout(&tdef[i]);

What’s all this Pointer Stuff?

If you’ve been working with Arduino for a while you’ve likely dealt with pointers before. For those who are unfamiliar with the term (and it is a complex subject, worth learning), pointers are the memory address of a variable. Pointers are another way to access variables unique to the C/C++ languages. In the case of the Constructor, passing a pointer to the parameters array grants access to a complex data structure without having to copy it first. The Reference (&) operator returns a pointer to an variable (&tdef[i]); the dereference (*) operator declares a pointer variable used to access a pointer’s value — such as TURNOUT_PARAMS *parameters in the Constructor. With pointers to data structures or objects, use “->” to access members instead of “.”; eg: params->data instead of params.data or object->method() instead of object.method().

The Public Interface

The public interface is comprised for four methods. The getAlignment() method is a good example of the correct way to share the value of an internal property with an external process. Its correct because it outputs the value of the alignment property without breaking its protection as a private property (and thus exposing it to being changed externally).

 int getAlignment(){
   return alignment;

Another simple method provides a way to toggle the position of the turnout back and forth.

void toggle(){
   if(alignment == ALIGN_MAIN){
   } else {

The alignment can be one of three values at any given time.

#define ALIGN_NONE 0
#define ALIGN_MAIN 1

As you’ll see, ALIGN_NONE indicates that the turnout is in motion.

The heart of the logic for moving the turnout is in the set() and update() methods.

void set(int align){
 if(align != alignment){
   is_moving = true;
   last_move = 0;
   target_alignment = align;
   alignment = ALIGN_NONE;
     case ALIGN_MAIN:
       target_pos = pos_main;
       target_pos = pos_div;

 void update(unsigned long curMillis) {
     if((curMillis - last_move) >= move_delay){
       last_move = curMillis;
       if (pos_now < target_pos) { // if the new position is higher
         pos_now = min(pos_now + increment, target_pos);
       } else { // otherwise the new position is equal or lower
         if (pos_now != target_pos) { // not already at destination
           pos_now = max(pos_now - increment, target_pos);
       if (pos_now == target_pos) {
          is_moving = false;
          last_move = 0;
          alignment = target_alignment;

Motion works by setting motion variables in the set() method then calling update() repeatedly to execute the motion. Update() is intended to be called continually as part of the main loop() while the sketch is running—my multitasking model is to get the current time (millis()) at the start of every iteration of the main loop(), then pass that value to every object that uses time to manage its own state. It is very important that the very first logic test within the update() method is whether or not the turnout is in motion; if not in motion the method exits immediately. With nine turnouts on the lower lever of module 1, efficiency is necessary or the sketch bogs down.

Hardware Interface

Up to this point there has been no direct interaction with hardware. Instead there have been calls to two private methods: init_servo() and setServo(). These two private methods interact directly with the servo hardware.

I should emphasize that any motor type can be used with appropriate connections, even 12 volt stall motors. I like servos because they are cheap and easily supported in the Arduino world. But don’t feel that just because you have a different motor type you can’t run them with an Arduino. The point of creating a private, protected hardware interface is to isolate all the hardware specific stuff in one place while presenting a more general public interface. That makes it much easier to drive a wide variety of hardware while behaving consistently.

 void init_servo(){
   int data;
     case ALIGN_MAIN:
     data = pos_main;
     data = pos_div;
   is_moving = false;
   pos_now = data;
   alignment = align_default;
 // hardware interface 
 void setServo(int data){
   // use compiler directives to determine which
   // method is used to drive the actual hardware
   #ifdef ADAF_DRIVER
   extern Adafruit_PWMServoDriver pwm;
   pwm.setPWM(pin, 0, data);
   #ifdef SERVO_LIB
   extern servo servos;

Init_servo() is for doing whatever your motor needs to set up. Here the method sets the default alignment and commands the servo to move to that position immediately. This is private so that it can never be called from outside a turnout object.

setServo() moves the servo to a specific position. I use a compiler directive — by defining either ADAF_DRIVER or SERVO_LIB (but not both)— to determine which hardware system is in use. In some cases I’ll be using the Adafruit 16 Channel PWM Driver and its library; in other cases regular pins with the native servo library.

The Whole Enchilada

I’m posting the turnout class on the github site.

This time I’m posting it in the form of a header — *.h — file. To use it, copy it into your sketch directory. The Arduino IDE will recognize and allow you to edit the “h” file, but it won’t automatically include it in your build.  To in include it in the build you must explicitly include it near the top of your main sketch this way:

#include "turnout.h"

Why do it this way? Because the class definition has to be seen by the compiler before it can be used to create run-time objects. Therefore, in a single file sketch you’d have to put the class definition at the top of the sketch. If you have a lot of header material of that sort (class definitions, typdefs, etc.), the top of your sketch can get long and the whole thing harder to maintain.  By putting the class definition in a header file you can segregate different elements of your sketch, control exactly when the compiler sees it during the build process, ensure all dependencies are satisfied and keep your main sketch file clean and uncluttered. The bigger your sketch gets the more important this becomes.

Coming Soon

Back to block occupancy detection with 24 blocks and one Arduino to rule them all! To say scale started to be a problem would be an understatement. More about that in the next post.

Until then, Happy Railroading!



Wiring the L&NC — Adding Servos

This it the second installment in a series (Part 1) about the build out of Module 1, lower level of the L&NC. This series covers all the basic steps I’m following to install all wiring, electronics and mechanical objects throughout the layout, so in subsequent phases of this project I can focus on the unique aspects of other modules. Step 1 was to install the basic wiring trunks and connection points, create track power distribution nodes then connect track feeders to the nodes.

Step 2

I tested the track with one of my most challenging locomotives—a Broadway Limited EMD E8A DCC with Sound. I say “challenging” because it has two 3-axle trucks, a long wheelbase and no big capacitors to buffer track power, making it susceptible to derailment or operational problems with faulty track.  If this loco can run a stretch of track problem-free, it’s good track!  Naturally I found and fixed a few (cough …. ) places where there were problems.

Correcting track problems for flawless running.

Correcting track problems for flawless running.

After tinkering with the problem zones, I realized that the “course of least resistance” was to rip out and re-lay a few short strips of track. The caulk adhesive track laying method makes this a piece of cake: after cutting the rails, run a long bladed knife under the track section you want to remove and its free in seconds. The ease of fixes really adds incentive to be fussy at this stage and get it right. I had everything in good order in a couple of hours including drying time for fresh caulk adhesive.

Step 3

The next step is to mount the servos running the 9 turnouts on this level. Installing them now is the best way to ensure they have the space they need for normal operation and maintenance.

test loop servo 1 in place

Servo mount on the Test Loop.

I’ve previously done a basic demo of the mounting method I used on the Test Loop. I chose that particular mounting method because it simplified the connection between the servo and the rod connected to the turnout; the rod fits easily but snugly through the hole in the horn. In this mounting method the base plate of the mount provides the fulcrum or pivot point for the rod.

Turnout operation on the Test Loop continues to be 100% reliable. The only issue with that mounting method is that noise is transmitted to the layout through the mount, so servo operation is noisier than it should be.

A New Low Noise, Low Profile Servo Mount

In addition to noise control, the equipment space beneath the layout level is about 1 3/4 deep, the width of a 1″ x 2″ frame member. For both protection and aesthetics, I need all equipment to fit inside that space. The old servo mounting method requires more space than that, and would stick out below the edge of the frame.

The solution is to mount the servo on its side, allowing the horn to rock a rod back and forth setting the turnout points. Several obvious ways to do that came to mind.  But I also wanted to make sure that alignment of the servo is easy and foolproof.

Layout Prep

I drilled holes for the turnout rods when I laid the track. To make installation and alignment of the servo easy, I  drilled the holes so that the rod would be in the 90 degree position (perpendicular to the plywood base) with the points aligned one direction or the other. I tried to keep the holes through the plywood small to serve as fulcrums  (mostly succeeded), then widened the holes in the foam and roadbed beneath the track so the rod can swing between the two positions of the points.

I inserted a 3″ rod cut from 1/16″ music wire (you need a hard wire cutter for this stuff) and made sure the positioning of the rod was correct. The advantage of the music wire is that it can flex without deforming, allowing you to apply pressure to the points.

Fulcrum pad for turnout 5

Fulcrum pad for turnout 5

That said, 1/16″ music wire I’m using is fairly stiff in the short lengths needed here. It is stiffer than the wire typically use with stall motor turnouts, stiff enough that it easily overcomes resistance from the built in springs in the Peco turnouts I’m using on this layout. Many people recommend removing the positioning springs in Peco and similar turnouts, since they can cause turnout movement to pause while overcoming resistance of the spring. Using 1/16″ music wire the servo is able to move a sprung turnout smoothly. I took a few springs out before I realized it was completely unnecessary.


At this point I made sure the rods could move the points properly.  In a few cases, the fulcrum hole was a little too large because of sloppy drilling; the easy solution is to fit a plywood plate with a fulcrum hole in the right diameter over the old one.

Servo Prep

Preparing the servo requires testing and setting it to the 90 degree position. Then with the case on its side, orient the output shaft to either the right or left (which ever you need for a given situation) and install a standard single arm horn pointing up, perpendicular to the case.

The offset shaft allows you to select the right orientation. In either case, 0 degrees is 1/4 turn to the right of center, 180 degrees is 1/4 turn left of center.

The offset shaft allows you to select the right orientation. In either case, 0 degrees is 1/4 turn to the right of center, 180 degrees is 1/4 turn left of center.

Here’s a sketch to test the servo by running it from 0 to 180 degrees (the travel of a typical micro servo), then to the required mid-point position:

#include <Servo.h> 
Servo myservo;  // global servo object
int midpoint = 90;  // in degrees
int pin = 6; // control pin

void setup() 
  int i;
  for(i = 1; i <= 180; i++){
  for(i = 180; i > midpoint; i--){
void loop() 

Mr. Hot Glue Strikes Again

If only micro servos came with side mounting tabs instead of just the ones on top. They do not. To do a side mount like I’m doing you need only fabricate two parts: 1) a strip of .080″ styrene, cut to about 2″ x .5″ and predrilled with holes at each end to accommodate mounting screws; and 2) a piece of 1/32″ brass wire with a loop (a little over 1/16″ inside diameter), a short straight section (about equal to the thickness of a servo horn) leading to a 90 degree bend and a longer straight section.

These two parts allow you to side mount a micro servo, and connect its horn to a rod.

These two parts allow you to side mount a micro servo, and connect its horn to a rod.

First I remove any labels on the side of the servo that attaches to the mount, then I put a dab of hot glue on the servo and press the styrene strip against it, centering and aligning the strip with the built in fins. Then I put a bead of hot glue down each side of the servo where it joins the mounting strip. Its probably overkill, but I want the servos mounted solidly and resistant to torsional stress.

Micro servo glued to a side mounting strip.

Micro servo glued to a side mounting strip.

The brass wire is threaded through the top hole of the horn, with the long leg aligned along the length of the back side of the horn and the loop parallel to the base. Apply dabs of hot glue to adhere the wire to the horn.

Here you can see how the brass wire is glued to the horn, and the turnout rod is threaded through the loop.

Here you can see how the brass wire is threaded through the top hole glued to the horn, and the turnout rod is threaded through the loop. Note the clearance between the rod and the horn.


Here a servo has been aligned to the motion of the rod, marked on the plywood.

Here a servo has been aligned to the motion of the rod, marked on the plywood.

First it is necessary to determine the plane along which each rod moves; that will depend on the angle of the turnout relative to the rest of the layout.

With the plane of motion marked and the rod set to its 90 degree position, I slip the rod through the loop glued to the horn and place the servo next to the rod, parallel to the plane of the rod. Placing just a little tension on the rod and maintaining even clearance between the horn and rod, I mark and drill mounting holes for the servo. Sometimes its easiest to do one mounting hole, attach the servo at that hole then—after adjusting positioning—drilling the second hole and completing the mount.

After a test fitting, I remove the servo and apply a strip of 3/4″ Rubber Splicing Electrical Tape (Scotch #2242) to the bottom of the mount to inhibit noise transmission. I remount the servo in its final position.

Servos 1, 2 and 9 mount in their final positions.

Servos 1, 2 and 9 in their final positions.

Problems at Turnout 4

The location for turnout 4's servo.

The location for turnout 4’s servo.

Turnout 4’s rod comes down at an awkward spot, close to a frame cross member, the edge of the layout, the main wiring bundle and three feeder sets. The feeders are the main problem; I should have located them further from the turnout. While moving the feeders is an option, I also realized that the fulcrum hole was too large so I was going to have to put in a new fulcrum plate anyway.

The solution I came up with was to fabricate a mounting plate from a couple of pieces of scrap plywood, that would provide a new fulcrum and cantilever over the feeders. Everything screws down so that it is removable and repairable.

Mounting solution for Turnout 4.

Mounting solution for Turnout 4.


Turnout 4 Servo Mounted. The horn swings UP in this photo, so the wire bundle below the servo does not interfere.

Turnout 4 Servo Mounted. The horn swings UP to change the position of the points (as oriented in this photo), so the wire bundle below the servo does not interfere. Its snug but effective.

Gathering Servo Positioning Data

At this point it makes sense to test each servo and determine the positions for each point setting.  Each servo installation is different so each one will have unique settings for turnout positions. The size or “looseness” of the fulcrum hole and the length of the rod are the main factors affect servo positioning

On this module and level it takes approximately 20 – 30 degrees movement of the servo to change the points. Once I determined that, it was easy to calculate initial positions that could then be fine tuned for individual installations.

I'm using CadRail's layers to record information. Here I've recorded feeder positions (in red) and turnout servo positioning data.

I’m using CadRail’s layers to record information. Here I’ve recorded feeder positions (in red; turntable area not yet built) and turnout servo positioning data (green). The two positions are “S”, straight or Mainline; and “D”, divergent.

The goal is to have the points firmly pressed against the rails at each end of their travel, without making the servo work so hard it gets noisy. A light hum while the servo is holding a position is OK; but it should not become a loud buzz and the servo should not feel “buzzy” to the touch. Try moving the turnout manually – you should get resistance to moving the points against the servo, but the flex of the music wire should still be evident. Tinker with this for a while and you’ll start to get a feel for it.

Next step is a big one: install the turntable mechanism, install the Roundhouse base, lay track, and so on. Until then, happy railroading!