Summer Evening and the ML401

Summer Evening and the ML401
Conrail ML401 rolls west through Central New York farm country in Onondaga County, September 1994.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Developing Interest

Operations just isn't as much fun when you are by yourself.  While construction has a time for collaboration, it is a balance between working with others or working by yourself.  Operations, though, is just more prototypical and more fun when others are involved.  Lately, due to a variety of local layouts hosting sessions, and due to 3-4 guys from the regular pool of operators moving out of state, owners have been struggling to fill slots for their sessions.  In fact, several sessions have been cancelled account lack of crews.

Some locals have said "We're getting to a point where there are too many layouts!"   Well, I couldn't disagree more.  Having more quality layouts in the area is a great thing.  The issue isn't too many layouts, it is that we need to cultivate more operators. 

To me, it is clear that the operations aspect of model railroading is a rather unique niche and offers a different take than do other hobbies.  The camaraderie aspect is important, although I'd argue that the 'action' aspect is a driving force.  From an outside view, many people make models.  Some actually fly, sail, or roll.  But few hobbies involve groups of working, moving models coordinating their movement together to accomplish a goal.  Model railroad operations is all of this.

And so, I consider it a duty to share the layout through friends and operating sessions, reaching out to railfan photographers or train-watchers, and thorough occasional open houses.  Of course, we can start right at home, too.

I like to focus on younger folks, with children of family and friends, and with my own kids.  Their interest can be encouraged as a catalyst for future involvement.  In the shot above, Teddy is thrilled by the passage of a recent purchase - a NYC 4-8-2 Mohawk steam engine, one that certainly would have worked the Onondaga Cutoff in the 1930's and 1940's. 

A STEAM engine?  Regular readers will know that these are not my standard fare; by 1994 they were long gone and especially from any sort of regular revenue freight service.  But, my sons have fallen in love with steam engines through their toys and shows, as well as YouTube videos of big steam on the move.  When I came across a deal on ebay on this engine, I sprang on it, and the kids have been thrilled!  It lives on the layout between operating sessions at this point and the kids ask about it daily.  And, I'll admit a soft spot for this one myself!  For Teddy's interest it matters little that the cars behind it are 'too modern' - for him, excitement outweighs any questions.

Regular operating sessions too have a place in exposing younger or newer people to the hobby.  Seeing the railroad come alive is fun for me, of course, and the kids have enjoyed watching too, being too young yet to join in to the role playing effort.  A recent project was to add a phone line from the Mohawk DS to the Onondaga Yardmaster, allowing them to coordinate moves over the phone.  The kids noticed and after the past session, wanted to try the phone.

Here we have 2-1/2 year old Pete, and 4-1/2 year old Teddy, talking on the phone and having a ball. 

None of this guarantees anything, besides some quality time between my sons and I.  That alone is worth it.  But it provides an opportunity for the seed of interest to grow, which to me is a responsibility of every layout owner.   

More operators help everyone and help the hobby grow.  We can all work a little harder to get some new people involved.


Monday, April 29, 2019

A Collaborative Month

Long-time readers will recognize the title of this post, as we have discussed the importance of collaboration here before.  A railroad of the complexity of the Onondaga Cutoff would simply not be anywhere close to this operational, let alone with scenery, without help from trusted friends who are skilled modelers and technicians themselves.

As an illustration, this month I was fortunate to be part of several collaborations with the local group of layout owners.  First off was an evening weathering with David Olesen, whose 1986 CSX layout following the former C&O main line over Allegheny Summit is coming along.  He asked to see how I weather locomotives, and brought a few of his new purchases to be our subjects.


Alongside David, I weathered my recent purchase of a CN C40-8M, a fabulous model by Rapido Trains.  Rapido, in my view, is really coming on strong with excellent models of critical locomotives and cars that modelers have been asking about for many years.  

A few weeks later, I accepted an invite from Tom Schmieder, who is working to construct a large and intricate operational layout based on the DL&W's New Jersey lines west of Port Morris in the early 1950's.  He had a group of accomplished modelers there, including Perry Squier, Jerry Dziedzic, and Tony Koester and it was a pleasure to work alongside them.  Bob Bahrs, an expert on DL&W operations in NJ, was there to lend a hand as well.  We had some discussions about decisions Tom was facing, and I think the consensus as usual led to the best construction going forward. 

While just at the benchwork stage, this railroad is going to be something else once it is working.  Our region has needed a Lackawanna operation for some time and this will be it!

Finally, just a few days after that session I was able to spend some time on Jerry Dziedzic's NYS&W layout, where we modified the approaches to a bridge on his railroad to more accurately reflect the prototype. 

Pardon the grab shot, but it illustrates the point I am making: collaboration is possible in many ways, and all of them can be fun as well as productive.  It may sound intimidating, but I would argue the benefits outweigh the costs by quite a margin.  There are a lot of subject experts in the hobby:  why not let experts be experts, and trust them to assist in your vision? 

I have a feeling you won't be disappointed!


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Glimpses of the Operation

Once again we have a fun trackside glimpse of operations on the Onondaga Cutoff, thanks to regular operator Alexander B. whose style you will recognize from some other recent posts.  Using a small camera, we get to see trains passing from unique angles along the route.  This one focuses on the new grade crossing, which is impressive when your view is from about 6 scale feet above the pavement!

Thanks Alexander!  And for the rest of us, enjoy the show!


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Lights, Sound, and Action!

After some adjustments and tweaks, and a test run at a full operating session, I have made the final changes to the lighting setup on the new grade crossing at Highbridge Road.   With that working, I was able to make time to kitbash a bell for the setup, following suggestions from John at Azatrax and using the board to trigger the sound.

For posterity, I shot video of one of the first trains through the completed installation - TVLA, the most important westbound train on the schedule.  It's a good fit!  Turn your speakers on and have a look:

Like the prototype, the bell starts upon activation, and runs until the gates are closed (down).  Then the bell shuts off.  Some units trigger the bell again as the gates reopen, but others do not; I modeled the latter with bells only upon activation and closing.

What a hoot!  Thanks for watching!


Friday, March 8, 2019

Protecting the Grade Crossing

After a push of late nights and dedicating a few larger blocks of time this month, the grade crossing at Highbridge Road is finally working, now protected with all lights and gates functioning as intended.  In all it was more than 30 hours of work time on the layout to get to this point - and the sounds have yet to be added!  That said I'd do it all again, because it adds so much to the scene.

This installation used the Azatrax kit, which I selected from several choices.  It is available from their web site - my application required the add-on pair of detection circuits due to the double-track.  It's a great kit with very good instructions and all parts needed, including the assembled NJ International crossing gates. 

From a planning standpoint, it was tough to visualize the details of how I could mount the boards and locate the infrared detection LED's.  Further, this was my first foray into infrared detection, and so there was a learning curve with those.  Approach circuits for grade crossings need to be located according to the fastest trains, so that the gates are down before the train comes across the road.  So, mine are located about 7 feet from the pavement allowing even 79-mph Amtrak to pass safely.  Lots to consider ahead of, and during, construction.

Major projects are a balancing act, and projects that require the track to be out of service during construction are even more of a challenge.   This project was a mix of planning, track work, electrical work, and all of it had to be done within the 10" of height between levels of the layout.  Given existing wiring for block detection, signals, and track power, and it is a tight fit.

Even with planning, there is just no way to avoid the 'rat's nest' of wiring as you get started with this unless you're doing it below the bottom level of the layout and you can get away with short detection circuits.  With 8 infrared detection pairs installed, each two with LED-style units with two wires each, that is 32 wires for detection alone - before even touching the lights!  

Different methods of detection exist. The Azatrax kit can use current-sensing block detectors, like my NCE BD20's - but only for the single-track installation.    For my set up the best choice was infrared, and using it as a 'reflective' setup allowed the sensors to be hidden in the roadbed. It is very important to include and wire only the sensors needed for your application - the instructions are key here.  The board is programmed for certain combinations of sensors for certain applications.  Here's how a final installation of reflecting infrared sensors appears from the top, looking down from about 7 feet:

And, here is how it looks from a standing position next to the layout:

Having this level of the layout built at 58" from the floor is an advantage here.  The installation is basically invisible from the eyes of most operators.  

Below, we can see more of how the sensors are aligned.  Here is a typical installation of the sensors, as seen from below the top level of the railroad:

Each of the white angled tubes contains one of the infrared LEDs or receivers, set up in a 'reflecting' mode so infrared light generated by the LED bounces off equipment once it passes overhead, and is seen by the receiver.  These holes were drilled through the track and finished ballast - not for the faint of heart!  Sharp drill bits helped as did a steady hand.

I tested the installations one by one with different equipment, moving rolling stock by hand over the sensors.  In several cases, my first installation was not reliable as I had set the pair too far apart.  The reflection did not work.  So, I had to re-set several of these, but was able to fill the non-used holes with ballast which made them disappear.  

The lighting was the most difficult part of the project.  The NJI crossing posts come with the primary LED lights wired, but no lights on the gates.  I elected to add three micro red LEDs to each gate, wired so that the last light is constant, but the two interior lights flash with the main LEDs.  The Azatrax board has terminals for each.  I drilled yet another hole for those wires (up to a total of 4 now, for each post) and ran them to terminal strips, which in turn were wired to the terminals on the board.  This was A LOT of work, all of it between the two levels of the layout in a tight spot.  

And, then two of the LEDs ended up not working on the rear gate - the wires had evidently moved too much and the connection broke.  So, I had to wire up two additional gate LEDs on the layout.  In frustration I took a photo from my awkward location with the tiny wires.  Not fun.

The final step was the gate motion.  The Azatrax board is wired to control Tortoise or similar switch machines and includes adjustments for speed control.  I drilled holes at a 30-degree angle per the instructions through the layout for the motion wire. The hard part is to locate the Tortoise below so as to reliably move the steel wire for the gates.  This took quite a bit of wrangling and adjustment, using all of my patience.  Again, though, it came together effectively.

Suddenly, then, I realized that I was finished - all that remained was to bundle the wires as best I could, and to clean up.  

Next time I'll post a video for you all of the actual action.  It's worth waiting for!


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Railfanning on the Onondaga Cutoff

This weekend we have a treat for you all, thanks to TJ compiling some video clips of action along the Onondaga Cutoff.  These are 'revenue moves' during operating sessions that TJ, one of the regular operators, recorded and edited into this clip.  What makes TJ's films even more fun is his use of prototype sounds added to the mix, with locomotives and cars all adding to the experience.  Turn up your speakers!

Trackside on the Onondaga Cutoff

Take a look at TJ's other YouTube videos, posted under 'Belt Line Productions' and worth your time.  Thanks for sharing this unique view of the OC, TJ! 


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Ghosts: Echos of the Past

Do you believe in ghosts? 

If you're familiar with Conrail, you need to believe at least in 'ghost-ing' as so much of Conrail's fleet was owned by predecessor railroads.  One of the common points of excitement for us as we watched Conrail trains roll past in the 1990's was to watch for cars lettered for the old railroads, or ones painted for Conrail where you could see the "ghost" - signs of the car's former owner.

Lenny Harlos, a prolific and professional weathering master, prepared this car for the Onondaga Cutoff and it has now joined the fleet with resistive wheelsets and 1994-era weathering.  Here's a car delivered new to the Erie Lackawanna, and hastily repainted into Conrail's late 1970's-era boxcar red colors with minimal preparation.  As the brown fades, the old gray starts to come through, and the lettering of the fallen flag with it.  It's a Conrail car on the register - but much more than that to those of us that love history.

Consider a few ghost cars like this on your railroad.  They add interest, and historical context!

Oh, and 'Happy Valentine's Day' to you all.  :-)