Installing an automated level crossing with lights, sound and moving bars or gates
It was a throwaway remark. A friend, observing my layout and noting a level crossing, suggesting how much better it would be if the crossing actually worked e.g. had flashing warning lights and gates that opened and closed. My mind, more focused upon keeping what was operational still working, parked it. However, it must have been upon yellow lines because ever since, whenever I’ve considered positioning a level crossing upon a layout, that idea has resurfaced. But how would you actually set about doing it?
There are a number of level crossing kits available from companies such as Peco and Bachmann but none unfortunately come with any form of automation. Scratch building one was out of the question. Well at least for me; someone who has the technical finesses of a seal wearing gloves! So, options being few and far apart, I sought advice via the web.
Helpful answers I got back a plenty; many pointing me towards a product offered by TrainTech (Product code LC10P) which featured not only a crossing and flashing lights but sound too. Available in OO and N scales, it was both DC and DCC compatible and could be operating in a number of different ways.
I was also advised to consider a module marketed by BLOCKsignalling (Product Code LCS6-CA) which, in addition to having sound and lighting effects, provided servo’s that could be employed to open and close any gates / bars. However, no level crossing formed part of their package or indeed any lights. So, obviously these would need to be purchased separately.
It all rather appeared then that a combination of both products would be the way to go if I wanted a full solution. Accordingly, orders were placed and a few days later the post arrived and included in it were two rather interesting packages. Deciding to go with the TrainTech solution first, I constructed a section of test track and set about installing it.
As mentioned, the lights and sound can be triggered in a number of different ways, and initially I was interested in investigating the method by which everything could be fully automated e.g. a train’s approach detected, and the lights/sound triggered. But as this would require additional purchases in the form of Track or Sensor signals, I instead opted for the DCC approach.
It all proved to be rather straightforward. First, two 10mm holes, one each side of the crossing, needing to be drilled in order to accommodate the lights. Then the wires that had been supplied were attached to the DCC bus and each lights controller. Fixing the wire to the lights cards didn’t even require a screwdriver. Instead the wires (One positive, the other negative) just needed to be pushed firmly into their positions.
With the lights now installed upon the baseboard, the next job was to set up communications between them and my DCC Controller. This was achieved by employing the accessory set up option upon my controller in order to provide BOTH lights with the same address. Then, to complete the job, I simply had to hold down the button that was upon each light’s card, to indicate how long the siren was to persist each time they were activated.
Both lights then operating perfectly with a warning siren sounding for several seconds before ceasing; allowing the lights to continue on flashing until stopped via another command from the DCC controller.
Now, with the level crossing provided with warning lights and a siren, attention could turn towards the BLOCKsignalling product which consisted of an interface card, an infrared device, and two servos. In contrast to the TrainTech product, only very basic instructions accompanied the package. However, much more detailed assistance was available via the company’s web site in the form of a downloadable pdf file.
This directed me towards making a hole, 8mm in size, below the track to accommodate the infrared device. This would detect a train moving above it and so activate the card controlling the gates/bars. Again, this proved to be a relatively straightforward operation. The only proviso being just how far away from the crossing I wanted the train to be detected. Although the infrared device comes fitted with the required wiring, it is only of a certain length. Accordingly, I found it necessary to extend the wiring considerably. Not a difficult task though as I cheated by using connector blocks in place of any soldering.
Connecting the card to a power supply then followed and, just as in the case of lights, all the electrics performed smoothly. The train engine being accurately detected with the interface card responding by sounding its siren. By attaching the two servos, just a matter of pushing their connectors into the board, this activity was extended with both of them eagerly waving their arms about.
Actually, that last part is not quite true. For whilst the servos did indeed each respond, unfortunately no arms accompanied them inside the package. So, although the motors were indeed activated, other than making a slight noise, that was pretty much the full extent of their participation. Not sure whether by some mishap the arms went missing but, as no wire to connect the arms to the gates/bars was supplied either, I can only assume that it is expected that these are to be purchased separately.
Fortunately, I had some piano wire to hand, but I did not alas have any spare servo arms. Accordingly, a delay occurred in proceedings whilst these were procured. The only source appearing to be Australia, so, with shipping likely to take some time, I ordered some additional servos (Part SG90) from a UK source and then used the arms that came with them. When the shipment from down under eventually arrived, all could be put back in balance.
Whilst it is very tempting, ego and all that, to now suggest that connecting the servos, via the piano wire, to the level crossing bars (My test board did not have enough width to accommodate gates) was as straightforward as the electrical wiring, that would be to be telling fibs. Big Time! Sadly, it has to be reported that this step in making the crossing operational was very fiddley and extremely wearing on the nerves.
Indeed, upon many occasions I felt like giving up. As I have already confessed, my technical skills rating is pretty much zilch. However, since completing this herculean task, I have discovered that others, far more skilled than myself, have also encountered problems in this area. So be warned.
The challenge presented to you is not only in cutting the wire to the correct length, but also bending it into the correct shape and then positioning it, along with the servo, at just the right angle such that the stresses of the arms pushing the wires don’t cause the plastic bars to warp or snap. Then, having achieved that, you next have to ensure that the arms get raised and lowered the appropriate distance. Fun, it was not! Installing the electrics taking around an afternoon, fitting the servos … closer to eight weeks!
Quite a bit of experimentation was required in order to discover just how the wires needed to be bent in order for them to fit onto, both the servo’s arm, and then the additional servo arm that had had to have been stuck onto the level crossing bar itself. Whilst the documentation does indeed reveal this additional requirement, no other advice at all is unfortunately provided.
Eventually I found that by bending the top of the wire to an angle of 45 degrees and then the foot at a 45 degree angle to that bend, things fell into place. Determining the length of the wire was then simply a matter of experimentation. Random science that was accompanied by more than a fair degree of colourful language as it was only then that I discovered that the angle of the wire between the bar and servo was so critical. The fact that the wire continually fell out whilst this angle was being determined did not help matters along at all!
But finally, after many struggles, everything was in place. A train could run along the line and be detected by the infrared device, thus activating the lifting of the level crossing arms. Whilst, via my DCC controller, I could make the lights flash and have an alarm sound. Success !!
However, whilst the final result was well worth all the pain and effort, it does rather leave the question … which of the two packages would I recommend?
Well it’s all conditional upon your requirements. If you want to set up something fairly quickly and flashing lights and sound effects are all that are required, then TrainTechs offering ticks all the boxes. It was simple to install and worked straight away. The only downside being the requirement to buy extra components if any sort of automatic operation is needed.
BLOCKsignalling’s product however provides automation out of the box, plus it has more sound effects. It was also straightforward to install. However, the need to purchase of the crossing gates and lights did add to the cost.
Accordingly, matching both product’s together against a requirement for just lights and sound, I would give TrainTech the edge. Add in the requirement for automation of the lights and sounds though and then BLOCKsignalling becomes the lead horse.
Which leaves us considering what product is most suitable when the gates/bars are required to operate as well. Which product is the winner here?
As you’ve read, getting this part of a requirement to work is a painstaking and patience stretching endeavour. Consideration also needs to be given to how such actions are to triggered, DCC? , Infrared? or any other such sensor devices? , or even indeed manually?. Each response swerving the answer in a different direction. So, given that many layouts have an extended life beyond their actual creation, always being tweaked and improved, I’m going to opt for the safety of the middle ground and say both!
Through combining the two products, as I did for this experimental layout, you get the best of both worlds. Furthermore, it provides an option for extending a visual and sound experience to one that also encompasses movement at a later date. However, it is also the most an expensive route. But then again, sometimes our hobby is just like that!