Tales from the Pandemic

It’s been quite ride for almost 3 years now.  For the model railroading hobby, the good news is that a lot of people had time on their hands to be creative, and some results of that creativity are becoming evident in the model railroading universe.

Yours truly is no exception; I’m unleashing a whole new way to control your layout using microcontrollers and digital technologies designed for everyone so no programming is required.  More on that in future posts.

In this post I’ll highlight a few bright spots in the hobby that everyone should be aware of.


Many years ago, a programmer created a DCC command station using an Arduino and a motor driver and called it DCC++.  That programmer moved on, but his legacy remained and new group of talented programmers have taken up the cause of creating a do-it-yourself command station. They’ve turned DCC++ into a living project under continuous development with good support. Pretty amazing for an open source project.

They call it DCC-EX now because they’ve added an additional component for automating trains, called EX-RAIL.  In its current form, EX-RAIL is a tool set that allows you to define, compile and run an automation program that runs a train on your layout.

The price of commercial command stations has gone up during the pandemic, along with everything else dependent on electronic components, creating incentives to find another solution. DCC-EX is a viable alternative for any reader who is comfortable compiling and uploading Arduino code. Since readers of this blog do a lot of that, I suspect many of you would enjoy exploring and trying DCC-EX.

To find out more, go to their website: https://dcc-ex.com/

Hobby Merchant Hall of Fame

The pandemic certainly tested everyone trying run a business. For a while, merchandise availability was poor which, coupled with staffing issues created by the pandemic, resulted in a lot of poor service.  I can’t really criticize any failure during that period since its entirely understandable.

I can, however, shine the spotlight on a couple of businesses that met or exceeded their own standards during the worst of it.

Fifer Hobby Supply

If you work in N scale, you should know about and try Fifer Hobby Supply at https://www.fiferhobby.com.

Owned by Mike & Robin Fifer of Las Cruces, NM, this store became my go-to source for nearly anything N scale.  The range and depth of their inventory is impressive for a small business, and their specialization in N scale means I’m only looking at stuff in my scale. I frequently found items in their inventory that I could not find elsewhere. Their pricing is always fair and in some cases really good deals. 

Somehow they got through the pandemic without skipping a beat. Shipments were reliably timely. The loco I bought from them was tested and truly ready run out of the box.

Kudos for showing how small business can rise above the rest!

Woodland Scenics

To stand out during a period when everyone was suffering, the true test was how you responded to a customer problem.

Woodland Scenics has been growing its portfolio of products in multiple scales. Their “Just Plug” system of decorated and prelit buildings and vehicles make it easy to add high detail, lit scenic elements to your layout.

HO modelers may be familiar with Roomettes, a system of printed card stock and LED lights that add interior details to buildings. They can be used anywhere, but were originally designed for use in DPM models.

I was browsing the Woodland Scenics site and discovered a stealth product — Roomettes in N scale.  I say stealth because I had never seen the product on a hobby shop site or elsewhere.  Well, heck, I was starting a new high detail project and this was exactly what I needed. Today you’ll find the roomettes on their own dedicated web site: https://roometteslighting.com/.

Printed card from the N Scale Roomettes kit. Just cut, fold and glue as indicated to create an interior room.

A folded Roomette.

It arrived in a few days.  When I opened the package and inspected the product, I was completely delighted with the interior details, I didn’t notice until I started assembling the first rooms that something important was missing: the LEDS! Mentally preparing myself for a long process to fix this, I contacted Woodland Scenics via their contact form, then went on with my evening.

Nobody was more surprised than me to receive an email the next morning containing tracking for a replacement kit they had shipped.  Wow. I was getting used to waiting up to a week for a response to a customer inquiry with other companies, so this was truly outstanding. Of course the replacement was perfect.

Kudos for quick and effective customer service at a time when doing so required real effort.


A DPM kit plus a roomette combined to create Mongillo Jewelers.

A closer view.


The L&NC project is in hiatus at the moment.  I’ve recently been able to recover basement space that had been used for storage so I’m no longer confined to the space you’ve seen in the blog. I’m working on a plan that would allow me to re-use some or all of the modules built to date in a larger, peninsula style layout. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on a new modeling project …

The ATSF Gallup Subdivision

I’m building a small, 4′ x 8′ layout as a demonstration platform for layout control products.

The layout is set in and around Gallup, New Mexico circa 1959-61, the end of the “Streamliner Age” and the era of great, long distance passenger trains like the Santa Fe Super Chief.  Gallup was a crossroads of the West then, a place where the legendary Route 66 and the ATSF mainline converged. Surrounded by a mountainous, desert landscape, Gallup was and is an oasis that beckons visitors to stop for a while.


The 4′ x 8′ Track Plan

A prominent local geological feature, Pyramid Rock, is a featured element of the layout.

Pyramid Rock

Construction Photos


Layout Frame
Foam Base
Foam Buildup
Removable Sections that cover the tunnel.

With the terrain roughed out by the foam buildup, I carved foam and overlaid it with plaster cloth, molded rocks and sculptamold to create the final terrain.

Plaster buildup with molded rocks.
Town Side
Pyramid Rock

My rendition of Pyramid Rock is pretty good … but wait till you see it painted!

But you’ll just have to wait for the next blog post for that.

In the meantime. Happy Model Railroading!

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