Sunday, October 15, 2017

Dairy Farmin' on the Onondaga Cutoff

Over the last few months, I have been working with a model railroad friend of mine to fill a long-vacant scene with a sight common in Central New York – a dairy farm operation.   The Onondaga Cutoff as you all know by now is a fictional bypass through Onondaga County around the City of Syracuse, NY, and woven throughout the actual Onondaga County are a number of large family dairy operations.  As some of the longest-standing commercial property in the area, I felt that a dairy farm would help tie the fictional route to the region.  Thanks to Jason's talent and time, the results are exciting:

While corn fields and a farm could be many locations, the New York Central standard signal bridge, GRS 'SA' signal heads, NYC 'tombstone' milepost, and the double track mainline on a right of way that used to accommodate more than that all say Upstate New York. 

Once Jason and I had started to talk about what scenes I was planning for different spots, he began to research scenes and I started to figure out the details of what would fall where. 

Jason and I measured and re-measured the areas, and he did the lion’s share of the work offsite at his workshop.  He returned with almost-finished scenes and we set them in place:

 ...and then I worked to attach them permanently and blend them into the surrounding layout.

While the farm is the focal point of the scene, an irregularly shaped area in front of the tracks was a perfect place to install a cornfield and the associated details.  Since it would also be in front of the tracks, we needed to double check the elevation and angle, so we did a test fit. 

Once we confirmed that, I wired the lighting in the barns, finished the ceiling, ballasted the main line track, and worked to ready the substructure for the new addition.  


Once Jason arrived with the field, we set it in place, and with just a bit of modification it was a perfect fit.  The difference in this scene is truly incredible now.

Once the scenes were both in their final spots, I worked to ballast both the main line and the Cazenovia Industrial Track in the foreground, and to add the farmer's private grade crossing between the farm buildings and the cornfield.  

The small crossing is a perfect compliment to the scene, and is shown here while drying:

It makes for a perfect foreground, and when combined with the NYC details and Conrail operations, it’s a very plausible representation of mainline railroading in Central New York.

This is another step in the enjoyable process of including the community in not only operation but also design and construction of the Onondaga Cutoff.  Each of the aspects of this model railroad has been improved by allowing others to be involved, leading to a layout far greater than what I would be able to have accomplished myself.  And then, each month, we all get to enjoy the fruits of the labor of everyone when the railroad comes alive for a 12-hour slice of 1994.

And, of course, we're headed into the winter 'modeling season' which means more progress still.  Also coming soon is an open house on November 4, in conjunction with the 2017 Garden State Division NMRA Railroad Prototype Meet in Clark, NJ.  Details are available at

Maybe we will see you during the open house!


Friday, September 22, 2017

Landforms and a Scene Break

Building on the recent progress with the new bridge, I proceeded to locate the structure and its abutments on the curve east of CP 280, which allowed me to install a modified piece of fascia to accommodate the embankment.  This in turn allowed me to finalize the edge of this part of the layout, and proceed with installation of the basic landform.  

 First the new fascia in place, with the rise cut in to cover the end of the embankment:

Here is the webbing after installation, using hot glue to tie it all together (notice that nice green paint on the new bridge, too!):

Now we see the webbing covered with plaster-infused gauze.

It is still amazing after the years of staring at this scene without the landform how quickly it changes, and how much better it looks!  Suddenly, it is much easier to see how the scene will come together.  With some Sculptamold and then a base coat of paint and static grass with some foliage, this area will suddenly come to life.

Little by little, and sometimes, more!


Friday, September 8, 2017

Quick Look Back

Over time I have come to realize how much this blog is a documentary of progress on the Onondaga Cutoff, and it is interesting to see on certain dates how much has changed, and what is still the same.

In that light, here's a photo seven years ago today of trackwork progress at CP 282:

Mainline track at that point was in place, but the yard track and turnouts were not yet finalized.  This seems a lifetime ago!  While this trackwork is still in place and obviously visible, the view is totally different with scenery, signals, and now with the M&E in the background which in September 2010 was not even yet constructed.

Several people have requested a comparison shot - here it is!  This is the same location today, from a slightly different angle since a big 4-track signal bridge stands exactly where the original image was taken from:

On occasion it is important to reflect on change, and in this case, on progress.  I hope that in the next seven years the layout can come as far as it did in the previous seven years!


Monday, August 21, 2017

On Overhead Bridges

The next major installation of scenery will be installed just east from CP 280, an area where the mainline curves around the big peninsula on the Onondaga Cutoff.  Seeing that there are no locations on the Chicago Line where the railroad does a 180-degree turn within one line of sight, it is visually important to break this scene up.

I began by assembling pieces of several kits and setting them in place to get a feel.

We have the Rix Products concrete viaduct piers in the foreground, and the Walthers Double Track through truss rough assembly behind.  This is a big visual change and so it's important to mock up the general idea before deciding on the exact approach and location.  I decided I'd like to handle this with an overhead highway bridge, evocative of the big through-truss spans that were common across Central New York through the 20th century  - including one that stood at the west end of Dewitt Yard in Syracuse, NY.

Such roadway bridges are not as common as I expected in HO scale, short of custom brass models - and I cannot justify spending hundreds and hundreds on a bridge that won't carry trains.  I decided to use a Walthers through-truss kit, and kitbash it to better resemble a highway bridge.  (The concrete bridge seen above will be located further east in the town of Fayetteville.)

The stock Walthers truss is a kit for a bridge to carry railroad tracks.  While similar, highway truss bridges tend to have bridge members that are somewhat smaller in size, since they carry less weight.  To capture that feel, I used the trusses and floor system from the Walthers kit but replaced most of the bracing with lighter-gauge lattice from Micro-Engineering city viaduct kits.  Some splicing was required.  Those pieces were allowed to cure overnight.

It's summertime, and that means lots of time with the kids.  I brought the kit and my tools up from the basement and worked on the kitbash while they played.  You can see the main kit on the right above, and the ME kit to the left, with a happy 6-month-old Pete behind in his bouncer (which he loves).

Later, as I enjoyed coffee and the kids ate breakfast, I brought the project to the kitchen table and continued my work.  I inserted the assembled lattice kitbashes, and glued the trusses to the floor system all at once while the kids asked questions.  Susie helped (under a watchful eye) with some of the assembly.

Here's the current status of the bridge, which will get Micro Engineering bearings and DOT green paint and weathering before a concrete-and-asphalt deck.   You can see the lacy horizontal webbing, which is much more evocative of a highway span than of a railroad span.  I also used the stock ME bracing lattice on several of the vertical members, helping too do differentiate this bridge from the stock kit.

Given its prominent location on the main line, this will be the centerpiece of the next scene.  It's fun to share some of the assembly process with the kids, and to see this scene get started.  We are setting up for a fun autumn and winter of progress on the Onondaga Cutoff!


P.S. - enjoy the rare total eclipse of the sun today, which will be going on when this blog entry is posted!

Monday, July 31, 2017

More Frickin' Weeds

On the Onondaga Cutoff, we strive to replicate real-world situations, and I am focused between operating sessions on adding scenery or elements that compliment that focus.  It's ironic that one of the great goals of prototype model railroading is to model those things that in 'real life' we try hard to minimize.  Weathering, industrial decay, litter, and, of course, weeds.

Now that some of the scenery behind CP 280 is set, it was finally time to scenic the narrow stretch of real estate adjacent to the interlocking.  Seen here to the left, maintenance crews have carved an access path through the vegetation but Mother Nature always finds a way.  Weeds crop up here, even some nice wildflowers, but weeds nonetheless.

In modeling and in life, sometimes the weeds are a welcome sign of reality.  Best wishes here at midsummer from the Onondaga Cutoff!


Monday, July 24, 2017

Ballasting the Engine Yard

As we have discussed over the years, I feel that scenery is best accomplished in layers.  While the Onondaga Cutoff operation continues, scenery can grow in organically, spreading across the layout in layers that allow your mind's eye to grow along with the scenery itself.   Industrial scenes, just like rural scenes, require some vision of where we want to get to, but that vision changes once the base layer is in.  

For Onondaga Engine Terminal (ONET), I began by adding a 'concrete' apron across the front of the engine house. The kit was built and installed early in the process since the rails run through the drop-floor casting, and so a hole was cut in the subroadbed to fit the enginehouse.  I refereed to prototype photos of Conrail engine houses at Dewitt and Selkirk for guidance on the dimensions of the concrete slabs and how the track was located through the troughs. Composite hardboard made a good choice for the appearance of weathered concrete.

Dark gray grout was then spread across the yard and engine house trackage, with a hefty addition of 'Black Cinders' from Arizona Rock & Mineral.  All of that was soaked with isopropl alcohol and diluted matte medium, and allowed to dry for 24 hours.

Weathering is a critical aspect of any prototype layout, and track is no exception.  Engine house tracks are gritty, greasy, oily, and grimy, with oil- and grease-soaked locomotive sand and ballast. Even when well-maintained, these tracks are filthy!  Arizona Rock & Mineral sells an 'Asphalt Paving Powder' that is a dead ringer for oil-soaked sand when piled about the center of the track, and the same firm's 'Gray Base Powder' is a nice stand-in for fresh locomotive sand that has been spilled here and there, adding nice highlights to the dark grit of the base.

After the engine yard was curing, it was time to tackle the maintenance yard, used to store maintenance equipment, snow-removal plows and spreaders, and the fuel delivery track.  Here, I again used dark gray grout and black cinders, and added some 'Yard Mix' from Arizona Rock & Mineral as well to suggest track less soaked with oil.  Some fresher gray ballast was added where the cabooses are stored as this would be a spot with more personnel about.

Once the area cured for 24 hours, I added some miscellaneous weeds for contrast, and then lined up all the MOW equipment once again.

What a difference some ballast and ground cover makes!  While more subtle than some other recent scenery additions, it's satisfying to get this scene to a more final look.   This sets up the stage for progress further east where some major scenery installations are coming soon.

As the hot, humid summer days pass once again, I am thankful for the time I can spend in the cool basement at the end of each day making some progress and sharing it with all of you.  Enjoy the summer and check back soon for more updates!


Friday, June 30, 2017

Old, and New (well...rebuilt, anyway)

In the late 1970's Conrail took delivery of a fleet of General Electric B23-7 locomotives. These dominated the Albany Division in yard and local service during the later 1980's and into the era set on the Onondaga Cutoff - the 1990's. By this time, the B23's were becoming a ratty bunch, and so Conrail started to rebuild and then repaint them at its massive Juniata Shops in Altoona, PA.

On the Onondaga Cutoff, I work to model locomotives at different stages of weathering, reflecting photos from the era. Here, Onondaga Yard on a warm fall evening in 1995 finds 1987 and 1989 working side by side, classifying cars for outbound blocks:

Below is a closer view of 1989, with the Conrail specific details like the cab signal box and Leslie RS-3L horn, deck-mounted ditch lights, and a lack of sunshades:

And finally an image to communicate some of the tiny work that goes into detailing an HO scale locomotive, showing the metal casting ditch lights that I drilled out using #70 drill bits to accept the LEDs and their wires.

Conrail in the 1990's was a proud company that had come through a tough 15 years of demoralizing rationalization. But, part of that tough period was rebuilding the physical plant, and refurbishing a fleet of equipment - which developed a generation of railroad managers that defined the next 20 years of railroading in the Northeast.

And so it follows that some of the most ratty of the B23-7s were working next to freshly rebuilt B23-7's, and I have modeled that with Conrail 1987 wearing its 1979 paint, and with Conrail 1989 wearing its new ditch lights and 1995 paint. I enjoy weathering rolling stock and infrastructure, but when your era allows contrast, sometimes it provides as much interest as the weathering does.

Best wishes as the summer arrives!