Check out my article on Virtual Signals
in the online magazine Model Railroad
Hobbyist. It was published in the June 2015 issue and includes
links to two videos. The first includes my rotary dumper in
operation. The second shows the Quaker Valley CTC panels and
tablet panels and how they are used in an operating session.
Rotary Dumper video Virtual Panels video
In December 2012, I received an Agptek 7 inch Android tablet from Santa. I had wanted to explore the use of the JMRI web server in order to provide signal indications along the mainline of the Quaker Valley Railroad.
I was shocked how easy it was to setup the tablet with JMRI. Once I started the JMRI web server, I was able to start the Withrottle and download Engine Driver for the Android tablet. I was up and running trains, although I thought the 7 inch tablet is really a bit too big to be a handy throttle.
Next I tackled the local tablet panel labeled QUAKER_JUNCTION as shown below left. This panel can be seen by any PC or tablet using my wifi network by simply entering the appropriate URL. And the JMRI developers have included a home page which includes all of the open panels so you can simply click on it and then save it as a favorite.
While running Android version 4.0.3, I have tried the supplied Google browser (Blue earth icon), Chrome and Firefox for Android. The latter had an annoying refresh that blinked every 5 seconds, at least on my first tablet. That has now been fixed with an update in JMRI. I was also able to open the panels on the PC using both IE9 and Chrome. The most surprising thing was that the panels on the browsers are interactive. That is I can pull up my full CTC panel on the tablet and control turnouts and signals. WOW! So remote dispatching with a PC on the other end of the internet is very doable. I just had to figure how to permit my long distance dispatcher how to get through the firewall.
The Remote CTC Dispatcher happened in 2014.
The tablet panel for Quaker Junction
shown at left has indications
for 14 signals and only one exists physically on the model
railroad. This $100 tablet (now about $60) can be viewed by the train operators
to see if
they have signal indication to proceed. At $25 to $50 per signal,
that is a big savings. But I didn't stop there as I had some
other thoughts for tablet displays. I took some digital pictures
of the actual layout and used them as a background to see the signals at many of these same locations. So the panel above
left shows the view looking east at Quaker Junction. I super imposed a
set of PRR style position signal icons that I created to include the
lower head for a restricting signal. I later changed the
signal on the far left to be a 3 color 3 light display, but that is the
nice thing about developing in software. It just takes a little
time and development of Logix to get the correct display.
The tablet panel for Quaker Junction shown at left <NEW > is looking west and has new icons and text added to navigate between panels on the tablet. Clicking the icon or text in the upper corners take you to the next signal indications at Portage or Twin Rocks. This is a feature added to JMRI in February 2013. Always something new from the developers. Thanks to Bob Jacobsen, Steve Todd and Pete Cressman for this fine work.
I have added these navigation arrows and text to each of the engineers view. In this way you can follow your train around the layout and always look ahead for the next signal. Most recently I added the location label at the bottom of each engineers display. I noticed my operators were having an issue identifying the signal where there train was physically located. So this gives a navigational aid and the arrow and text at the top will lead you to the next signal in your direction.
In order to navigate to the various panels on the tablet, I have modified the JMRI generated "home page" as shown at the left. Operators can either select a starting point to watch signals or can select one of the local panels. Once selected, you can navigate between them.
This feature was added to JMRI in February 2013 and worked well in my testing and during several operating sessions in 2013. I had an operating session in mid March 2031 and had two Quaker Valley operators with tablets and smart phones giving the JMRI web server a workout.
Since then, I have learned how to have the engineer signal view appear below the throttle using Engine Driver. This can be true one handed operation. And late in 2013, the Engine Driver developers Steve Todd and Robin Becker added a feature I suggested. The "auto web" view now appears when you rotate the device to landscape view, while the Engine Driver throttle shows in Portrait view. This really makes it easy to operate using the virtual signals. And the landscape view on a smart phone is big enough to see the signals.
Christmas 2014 brought two new Android
smart phones. These were acquired on sale at KMart for $20 and no
phone plan is required. They simply hook up to wifi, download
Engine Driver, set the preferences and I have two new electronic
throttles with engineer view signals. I am hoping my article on
the new panels appears in the Model Railroad Hobbyist online magazine
later in 2015.
When the tablet local panel first starts in JMRI, it looks like this one shown at left. All of the icons are in their unknown state. But an auto start route in JMRI soon updates this. I created a set of left hand and right hand transparent mask turnout icons for the panel. They are the red "X" icons more clearly seen in the turnouts at position 15 and17. I used red for the inconsistent icon to make it easier to place on the black background. Once the panel is reset at startup, the turnout masks show closed or thrown in black.
If you look carefully at the image of the panel in use above, you will notice that the crossover 17 is set to the thrown position. Crossover 5 and 13 are also thrown, while 7 and 9 are closed. So the tablet panel shows block occupancy, turnout position and signal indication. The restricting signal at 6E would be a blinking icon on the tablet panel, but could show a PRR restricting in the engineers view at the top of this page.
More views from the track level follow.
Here is the view at Lynnsburg looking west toward the station platform. One day, physical signals will be mounted on the highway bridge at this spot.
And here is a look at the next control point to the west of Quaker Junction at Portage.
This is the one that will pop up when touching the Portage Icon on the QJ_WEST panel.
Coming the other way, there is a dwarf signal for the track out of the wye track from Enola staging.
I did plan to put signals on the fascia panel at this location, but now the operators can see them from the track perspective.
The last display at Laurel West is adjacent to the aisle gate described in my article in the February 2013 issue of Model Railroad Hobbyist. I have the hardware to install on this signal bridge, but have not gotten it built yet. This one is showing a PRR style restricting aspect as the plant is aligned to crossover to the opposing main and then enter the Lynnsburg yard. The east ward signal shown at the other end of the plant here is a single mast and is physically installed and fully functional with lit LEDs. I have Dick Bronson's RR-Cirkits signal driver hardware and just need to find the time to build and wire the physical signals for some of these locations. However it is nice to know that the signal logic is all in place and tested.
These background pictures of the different control points has given me a whole new visual perspective on the Quaker Valley Railroad. I have already taken quick shots of each control point and developed engineer tablet views for every control point on the Quaker Valley. I'll probably add another tablet on the fascia to cover another part of the Quaker Valley layout in the future. I'm thinking that the guys with the iphone and smart phone throttles will be able to browse each of these panel displays and greatly reduce the need for permissive radio traffic with the Dispatcher. This has already happened as the Dispatcher would clear a train from staging and just say "Follow your signals."
Steve Todd, the developer of Engine Driver has already made a number of changes to make it easier to navigate between these screens without using the browser tabs feature. It is really great to display a local panel and then be able to bring up the model engineer's view with just a touch. Bob Jacobsen suggested that a progression of eastward looking views could be linked in order so the operator could follow his signals. And the JMRI developers have made this happen. I hope this has inspired you to try and jump into the deeper end of the JMRI pool.
And all this in JMRI is still free. But donations to JMRI are always welcome. Thanks again to the developers.
See the JMRI US&S CTC panel in use on the Quaker Valley.
Web page updated February 17, 2016
Quaker Valley Home Page