BR-01 - MINITRIX 12411

Minitrix BR 01

03/17/14, 10/09/15- I've run this one more than any other and it's probably my favorite, despite having problems from day 1. It's been the source of great disappointment, frustration, and gratification and I've regularly wanted to give up on it and get another BR 01. Since the last round of tinkering, it seems to have finally settled down as a stable, good performer (even if it looks like a mongrel!).

It started as an Epoch III version and originally came with small Witte smoke deflectors that I replaced with large Wagner deflectors. I chose this version back when I believed that factory-installed decoder locos were the way to go. I like the look of the BR 01-- the long boiler and tubular look in a 4-6-2 package. I also liked the fact that it wasn't streamlined like the BR 01.10, because the wheels, rods and cranks are an interesting bit of moving detail. By my uncritical reckoning, it looked similar enough to the Epoch II DRG version, which didn't come with a decoder. (After I changed my opinion about factory-installed decoders, I regretted not getting the Epoch II version instead.)

An Inauspicious Beginning... It had been an expensive purchase, which made it all the more disappointing when it arrived with the drive linkage partially detached and slightly bent. Although it was tender-driven, it wasn't going anywhere looking like that. I thought I could repair it so I didn't send it back. Indeed, I put it back together and it seemed to drive well, with excellent pulling power. Over time, that changed.

Circuitry Problems? Mechanical Problems? One of the unusual things about it was that it seemed to make the sound of clicking relays whenever it powered up. I had no idea why (maybe an accommodation for changing light directions when run on a DC track?). Then I began to have problems with stalling in certain areas of the track. By then I'd learned about adjusting the wheel spacing so I began mucking with that. That started me down the long road of endless tweaking, disassembly to muck with the power pickups, rod linkages locking up, decreased pulling power, and generally poor and quirky driving behavior. I finally swapped out the factory-installed TRIX decoder and replaced it with a Lokpilot. It worked pretty well for a while until it started stalling. I could coax the motor to wind up to about 60% throttle, but after that, the motor shut down. Again, very weird.

Once more, I took everything apart. Both loco and tender are a bear to disassemble and reassemble, but the drill gets easier after doing it bunches of times. You know what to expect, what to watch out for, how to hold it, etc. For example, during the last step of loco reassembly, position the rods, turn it on its side and then screw on the bottom plate. If you hold it upside down when screwing on the bottom, the rods may move into a position that will lock the linkage. Similarly, wires in the tender have to be positioned precisely in the channels (and not move) or they'll get pinched. I replaced two wires that looked like they'd been pinched through the insulation to bare conductor.

This time, I took the lesson of simplicity to heart. The circuit board in the tender contained several surface mount components whose purpose I couldn't identify. The decoder socket was "wired" to the circuitboard with a mylar printed connector. Was all that stuff necessary? I wired the decoder directly to the motor and to the track power, bypassing the circuitboard. It worked perfectly. The circuitboard and decoder platform were useful as they covered the motor and gears, protecting them from dust. The circuitboard positioned the rear light where it needed to be. I saw that the circuitboard could be useful as providing attachment points for soldering several wires together. Everything else was expendible, so I snipped off the components and the socket and ground off the circuitboard traces to make a clean slate. I left a few traces so I could put blobs of solder on them for wiring points (easier than wire-to-wire connections with heat-shrink tubing).

I speculate that some of the circuitry was to limit power to the motor for a prototypical top speed, and to shape the throttle curve for slow accelleration. With DCC, you can program that stuff on the decoder, so it wasn't needed.

This stuff is tiny and finicky. To be honest, most of the time I can't see the cause of problems, and my theories and supposed solutions are just wild-assed guesses.

Drive Linkage Problems: At some point after one of the early disassembly sessions, the locomotive's cosmetic drive linkage started acting up, not moving at slow speeds. This didn't affect anything since the actual drive wheels were in the tender, but it sure looked wrong. I couldn't feel the cause-- no binding or resistance, and the wheels turned normally at mid to high speeds. Something very subtle had gone out of adjustment and somehow I'd fixed it once, but after a day, the problem returned. It seemed nearly impossible to blunder into that sweet spot a second time. Possible solutions: More weight on the engine? Moving fake drive wheels just a little bit lower and closer to the track? Those weren't easy fixes, and shouldn't have been necessary since it had worked before. I was convinced that it was an adjustment problem.

After I made a sound car, I was sure I could sacrifice the electrical contact of a pair of wheels and turn them into "traction wheels" with Bullfrog Snot. In this case, the traction wasn't to move the loco, but only to turn the dummy drive wheels. After I did this, the wheels turned even at slow speeds. This was much easier and faster than endlessly searching for that adjustment sweet spot.

The Sound Car: This time, I took a different approach with the sound car. The first question was what to use? This loco was going to be hauling a bunch of flat cars with tanks, so a passenger car wouldn't be appropriate. A boxcar would have worked, but would have looked weird if I later decided to use it to haul passenger cars. I wanted something more universal, like a tender.

The loco's tender would been a good candidate if it had more interior space and supplied power more reliably, but it didn't. (Maybe because I'd taken the engine apart so many times?) A second tender would elongate the pickup zone and increase the number of track contacts. It might look weird, but I knew of a precedent from a Bachmann locomotive I once owned.

I put an old Minitrix AT&SF tender shell on a Kato powered chassis (basically, a short 4-wheeled chassis with a motor drive) that was a good fit for the tender shell. Katos usually have great power pickup, and extra motor drive would help with the loco's pulling power. As a bonus, it had European-style buffers to maybe help blur the mismatch of US and German styles...? (Maybe that's irrelevant, since it's such a mongrelized beast!)


Well, it worked. It was fairly easy to add the LokSound decoder and match the speed of the loco closely. The Kato motor is noisier than the loco's, but it's not too bad at low speeds. As it turns out, once I gutted the loco's circuit board, the loco performed much better so the extra pulling power wasn't needed, but it didn't hurt either. The powered chassis has good electrical pickup, so they work together to improve performance. The sound has been almost completely glitch-free.

The Loco From Hell? It may sound like I've had a horrible time with this and should hate the train! The truth is that I feel more personally connected to it because I've nursed it back to health so many times.

10/09/15- Reanimated from deep storage: It took a while to completely wake up. At first it wouldn't budge, but after a wheel cleaning (and removing the Bullfrog Snot), with some coaxing, it eventually made it completely around the track, though fitfully at first. The motorized sound car had the same problem. Joined together and sharing power, the improved contact gave the motors enough sustained "ooompf" to gradually power through and polish the contacts. Once it was running at full speed, all the glitches were gone and miraculously, the loco wheels were turning without any Bullfrog Snot.


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