Hackaday Prize Entry: A Broke Hackers’ Model Train

Model railroads are the wellspring of hacker culture; the word itself comes from the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club sometime in the early 60s. These old timers at MIT had incredible resources available to them – multimillion dollar computers, vast amounts of plywood, and real metal tracks to run their trains on. [Szabolcs] doesn’t have any of this, so for his Hackaday Prize entry he’s building the Broke Hackers’ Model Train layout.

Nothing except for the most basic components in this train layout is pre-bought. The tracks are 3D printed, motor control is done through homebrew electronics, and the locomotives will be controlled through a custom protocol. It’s the apex of a hacker’s model train layout, and when you consider how much effort goes into building a normal train layout, [Szabolcs] is looking at a lot of work.

With all the work ahead of him, things haven’t exactly gone smoothly for [Szabolcs]. To print off all the parts for this project, he bought a Makibox, one of the biggest failures in the world of crowdfunded 3D printers ever. The company doesn’t exist anymore, so [Szabolcs] shelled out the cash for an i3 clone. The new printer works great and plastic parts are coming out. A little hiccup, but a great example of what it takes to put a project together for The Hackaday Prize.


The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

24 thoughts on “Hackaday Prize Entry: A Broke Hackers’ Model Train

  1. This Hackaday prize supposed to bring out revolutionary ideas that would change the world into something better. I have a great respect for Szabolcs who is working on this project, but I really don’t see how this cheap/ accessible model trains could do it. Hmmm… My world would turn better if I’d build a scale model train to myself. Now this question is going to confuse me all day long. I may start printing it: Ahh!…

    1. Yeah, I’m kind of mind blown how anyone can be “broke” in this instance. he can buy a complete N scale setup for less than what he spent on a single spool of filament.

      1. I don’t know how it is in his country, but I’ve seen a lot of model train go cheaply in a garage sale.

        There’s also the Open Railway project where people are designing some very nice scale models to 3D print. I wouldn’t do plastic rails though. Even welding wire is better than laying solder on top plastic rails.

        1. Also, I forgot to mention that model railroad hobbyists also have been known to scratch build from brass, wood & plastic stock. Fused filament generally won’t stack up well in comparison.

          Some people buy bare scale metal rail stock and stake it to wood ties by hand. So there’s a lot that can be done on a budget that’s much lower than a 3D printer.

          1. Yeah; If I was him, wishing to use a 3d printer, I’d use a combined arrangement; Etched brass for some parts, like the main shell of the loco, and 3d printed for others, say small moderate-detail parts, or maybe the chassis. Bit like modelers do already by mixing etched brass with resin casting. You could through other materials in there, too. For example, on the rails, I’d use some sort of flatish wire for the rail, and either wooden strip for the sleeper and 3d-print the clamp, or 3d-print the whole sleeper assembly.

    2. Even if he got the printers for free this can’t be the cheapest way to make a model train set. It’s probably also more difficult that hacking something together out of things you pull out of the dumpster (which would probably be close to the cheapest).

  2. If I understand the pictures correctly, there is lumping of solder onto the tracks to make them conductive. It really doesn’t look smooth enough to provide a reasonable “train” experience.

    I would design a hole in the track, push a piece of wire through, run the wire along on top of the track and put it back through a little hole near the end. Make an indentation on the track to partly lower the wire and it will stay put. (If necessary to stay put, the wire dives down and back up more often than once on each segment).

    1. I would have considered making the train battery powered and use wireless control. I remember from my days in my childhood with the Lego train that electric rails are hopelessly unreliable.

  3. Remind me how this HaD Prize entry solves “a problem that matters”. The way the project description reads, it sounds like the problem that this solves is “I want a model train”. If that sort of thing is HaD Prize material, what isn’t?

  4. I didn’t see any mention of the gage of the tracks…
    I personally wouldn’t start from scratch in that regard, it would be so much easier/quicker to work with pre-made track sections, such as the boxful of sections I bought at a garage sale for $2.

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