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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Balance & Priorities

Over the years on this blog we have taken some time to reflect on different parts of the hobby of model railroading, learning about the prototype and balancing that with life in general: family, work, home maintenance, travel. 

With the world changing and reacting to so much these days - the COVID pandemic, racial justice, economic upheaval, and so on - it can feel like so much pressure to stay current, to stay relevant, that we can feel almost lost in the woods.  As part of the book writing process, Jack recently brought over a few prints that made me smile, looking back more than 20 years.

Here's a fantastic shot of Jack's: Conrail train ALSE, exiting Pattenburg Tunnel on Conrail's former Lehigh Valley main line across western New Jersey in October 1998.  This was a daily eastbound manifest freight from Allentown, PA to Selkirk, NY, via New Jersey.  The neat GRS searchlight signals on the original LV signal bridge frames things up.  The green signal on the left tells us that the Lehigh Line Dispatcher has pulled up a route for a westbound train at CP West Portal, some 2 miles west of us.  6497 is a classic Conrail SD40-2, in original factory paint, with new ditch lights.  Jack and I in the later 1990's would call these engines in original Conrail paint 'oldschool' and we each knew exactly what that meant. 

Change is afoot all the time, and it's evident here in the new switch being cut in:  NS was about to purchase more than 60% of Conrail, and wanted to be able to run double-stack and autorack trains here, and will accomplish that by single-tracking the tunnel and centering that main track to use the full height at the crown.  They would make up for the reduced siding length by adding another full siding to the west.  Pattenburg was about to change, forever, despite the oldschool SD40-2 leading ALSE. 

On a frosty morning in 1999, Jack was again trackside at first light, this time at one of his favorite locations in Neshanic, NJ.  Another classic GRS searchlight was there next to the appropriately-named Lehigh Road grade crossing.  Conrail ran MAIL-3, a daily high-priority piggyback train from South Kearny, NJ to St. Louis, MO, west, and after its passage the approach-lit automatic signal 451 shows its red aspect, protecting MAIL-3 from following moves until the train clears the next block.  This signal is gone now, with NS having added another siding west of this location too, which required moving the signals to accommodate the new interlockings. 

My memory of those days is warm and nostalgic.  It brings to mind time past when things seemed more simple.  Perspective is key, of course: they seemed more simple, but that doesn't mean they were.  I was excited but pretty frustrated in 1999: my optimism was still naive and I had trouble reconciling it with the real world.  Still, though, it's important to honor our memories as they are the foundation of who we are now, which is where we begin to be who we will be. 

Now, we look at today.  20 years ago Jack and I were in our early 20's and in many ways had everything in front of us.  Now, I am in my early 40's and have a wonderful wife and three beautiful happy kids.  And those kids regularly join me on the same pieces of railroad I used to visit and that Jack photographed above. 

Here's that siding I mentioned that spelled the end of the 451 signals.  NS 7596, a big GE ES44AC, leads two other GE's on international stack train 22V at CP51, Flemington Jct, NJ, June 20th 2020.  The kids are loving it.  How could I have imagined this in 1999?   It's a wonderful and bewildering reflection.  

Here's a grab of the kids at their favorite spot, Stanton Station, NJ, on June 28th 2020.  Susie is nearly 8, Teddy is 5 and Pete 3.  Excited, optimistic kids that enjoy each other and time together...watching trains with me, learning from their world and each other.  I have a great deal of respect for them and for my wife, who is an incredible mom.  I also am fully engaged in my role as their father, for creating an environment of security and stability, and of accountability, surrounded by love.  It's a ton of work and a heavy load - but a healthy one, and one I am thankful for.  

For this hobby of railroading and model railroading to lead to such powerful and tangible memories is remarkable and more than I'd hoped for in life.  Working for the railroad, writing articles and a book for the hobby press, owning and maintaining an operating layout while happily married and a dad of three is about the biggest blessing I could ask for.  I am so grateful for all if it!  I hope in some way that your hobbies can add to your experience in these ways as well.

So much to be glad for, and so much to look forward to.  We have to see these negative things through, and find a way to stay centered - a spot that is always moving.  

Best wishes for a happy & healthy independence day!


Friday, June 5, 2020

Remote Operations, Again: Trackside on the Onondaga Cutoff

This hobby is one that in some ways is made for these times:  quiet solace in the layout room is something we are all used to!  Still, with the difficult times for so many these days, it's time again for a Facebook Live video so we can take a break from it all.  Let's come together, travel back to 1994 and enjoy some time trackside on the Chicago Line.

Join me and the OC remote operations crew for an hour tomorrow night - Saturday June 6, 2020, at 9 p.m. eastern time.  We have a busy main line, some yard operations, and remote engineers along with two physically distanced assistants in the basement this time in compliance with CDC guidelines.

Here's the link!

Hope to 'see' you there!

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Signals & Interlockings for your Model Railroad - a book for Kalmbach!

As the wild spring of 2020 continues into summer, with uncertainty still swirling but a growing sense of life going on, I hit a neat milestone for the Onondaga Cutoff that I wanted to share with you and commemorate here on the blog.

This week I finalized and submitted all required components of a new manuscript, my first ever, along with supporting photographs from contributing photographers.  All was loaded onto a flash drive and sent to my editor, Eric White at Kalmbach, who has been a patient and supportive teacher in this.  Thanks Eric, and thanks to all at Kalmbach for working with me to take on this project!

Dropping my first manuscript off at Somerville Post Office
In a world of back-and-forth energy, this is the culmination of 16 months of writing and photography and coordination.  It has been a truly unprecedented 16 months.  A majority of the work was done on my commute to and from work thanks to my Google Chromebook, with other work at night and on weekends to pull it all together.  

I'm excited for the next steps; if all goes well this will be in print in the early spring of 2021.  Good stuff to come!

Monday, May 11, 2020

First Fully Remote Operations - a Success!

Saturday May 9 was one for the history books on the Onondaga Cutoff - we had our first fully remote operation session, broadcast on Facebook Live!  

We operated 3 hours of the regular schedule with a few adjustments to fit in the allotted time, with a remote dispatcher, 4 remote operators, and a backup remote operator.  The session went amazingly well for the first such session with me in the basement and everyone else at home!  

Operators used WiThrottle, logged into the JMRI server on the railroad through the internet.  Simultaneously, they used VPN software to view the dispatcher's panel, and ran a Skype group call hooked to an FRS radio set to voice activation in the basement that was my radio repeater.  

They also ran a Zoom conference video chat so they could see Onondaga Yard, which we used afterwards for a virtual cheers that was graciously photographed by Rich W.

Seriously awesome for this to have gone well.  My thanks go this this crew, of course - Rich, Andrew, Jack, Al, Ralph and John - as well as to Nick who built the system, and Alex who figured out the networking part of it.  Without that crew, this doesn't happen. 

The video was recorded and is available for viewing here:

Thanks for the support!  I am hoping to write an article about this for publication in print, and will keep you posted on that.  Necessity is the genesis of invention sometimes, and this is a case in point.


Friday, May 8, 2020

Goin' Live, Again! Saturday May 9

As the long, cool spring continues here in New Jersey, the state, nation and world continue to fight the COVID-19 outbreak as well as the economic devastation it has wrought.  This is a difficult and dark time, and it seems people are either extremely frightened about the virus, or extremely angry and frightened about the economy.  One thing is for sure - just about everyone is upset about something. 

On the other hand, the Facebook Live videos on the Onondaga Cutoff over the last month or two have really been well-received even as we learn more about how to pull it off.   People from the model railroad community as well as professional railroaders have reached out with support and suggestions.  Amazingly, friends, neighbors and family with less of an interest in trains are also repeat viewers, which to me is wonderful.  Watching trains is giving everyone something fun to think about for a while.  

So, we are going to do it, again!

Saturday May 9th, at 9:00 Eastern time, come along and sit trackside with us.  Tomorrow night!  We will be watching trains come and go at CP 280, a busy interlocking on the Chicago Line at the east end of Onondaga Yard.  As usual it's a busy railroad.  We will see several trains work Onondaga Yard while through trains pass on the main line.  You will find the video on the official 'OC' Facebook page:

All new for this film will be the remote operations we will employ.  While remote dispatching has been possible for some time, the recent experience of physical distancing due to the epidemic caused us to push the envelope to the next step.  We will have 4 or 5 model train engineers moving trains on the Onondaga Cutoff from their own homes.  The experiment continues!  

Thanks for your support - hope to see you tomorrow night over on Facebook Live!


Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Bewildering Month

Readers, as I sit here writing another blog entry for the month of April, it's worth a moment to breathe and reflect on the wild month it has been.

NJ TRANSIT Somerville Station, Parking Lot at Rush Hour on a Tuesday. 
Where there's normally no available spaces, there are plenty today:  Quarantine 2020

As of today, it is clear that we as a nation, and as a civilization, are hammering through a paradigm shift.  Everything is changing at once, and while to a degree there is always change there is rarely change this universal or this significant.  The world continues to fight this nasty virus, and COVID-19 continues a sad and frightening run.  In the US alone more than 60,000 deaths - more than the horrible Vietnam War - have been attributed to COVID in the United States.   We are all exercising 'personal distancing' - keeping mandatory distance from others - until the danger passes.   This has a profound effect on everything, including model railroading, especially in operations.

And, while this chaos was going on at work, most everyone stayed at home, there were mass layoffs, lots of fear and lots of uncertainty.

Still - where there is a will, there is a way.  Rich W. is a big reason for the operational success of the Onondaga Cutoff, and he too was recently interviewed over on Lionel Strang's A ModelersLife podcast.  You can listen here:  Rich Wisneski on A ModelersLife

Lionel jokingly paraphrases Rich in the title.  I disagree - Rich had a novel idea:  recording some videos, perhaps via Facebook Live, on the Onondaga Cutoff to share the operation and railroad with viewers stuck at home during the quarantine.  What a great idea!  So, we went about doing just that.  All are available at the official Onondaga Cutoff Facebook Page:

The first one was watched by up to 145 viewers at times - I was amazed.  We had hundreds of comments, fun banter and a great time, albeit a bit too long.  It got 2000 views in just one week. Many offered support and suggestions, which we took into consideration for a second video.   That one got 2000 views - in 24 hours!   We did a third, this time we have 4000 views after 48 hours and today, we eclipsed 5000 views on the most recent video.  This is a bewildering number, and I am so grateful for the support and the enthusiasm people are showing.

As if that weren't enough, the most recent video was our first with operators socially distanced outside the walls - Rich and his son Andrew ran trains from the backyard, using FRS radios, WiThrottles on my WiFi network, and watching the dispatcher screen on the computer so as to monitor their progress across the railroad.  Jack dispatched from Morristown.  This allowed for more fluid operations and a more busy railroad, far more interesting to viewers.

Lionel Strang reached out again for an interview, which happened after the second video and premiered before the third video.  That interview is available here:  Dave Abeles and the Onondaga Cutoff - Goin' Live

THEN, and there is more - Alex Lang reached out with his computer networking experience, and offered to help set up a channel for WiThrottle to be truly remote - as in, sitting at home, and logging into the Onondaga Cutoff WiThrottle server to run trains on the layout.   Remarkable!  This was just last night and we have plenty to learn, but between our robust capability for remote dispatching, and this new possibility for remote operations - well, it's bewildering.

And so, reflecting back on this month is something else.  Family is healthy and I hope the same for you.  I'm thankful for the gift of health and reliable work, for community and this amazing hobby.  There is a lot of tragedy out there today, and each of these deaths is a tragedy for families worldwide.  In working to provide some positive distraction from that dark news, we've started something that seems to have a lot of traction in the model railroad community and indeed in the greater community as well.

My grateful thanks to you all - stay safe, and optimistic, in these trying times!


Saturday, April 18, 2020

Goin' Live! 9:30 PM Eastern Time, Saturday April 18, 2020

After the fun of last weekend's first-ever 'virtual operations' on the Onondaga Cutoff, we are going to do another, tonight!

With the continuing COVID-19 crisis, many of us are under new pressures and have a lot on our minds.  Life is hard.  Trains help.  

Let's wait for a few here...

So I've decided to do another 'virtual' operation session tonight, Saturday April 18 2020.  This one will be based at one or maybe two spots, where we will spend about 45 minutes just after dawn, awaiting the morning's trains.  The Chicago Line is busy at that time - there's bound to be some interesting stuff.

So, join me on the Conrail Onondaga Cutoff facebook page - - we will be 'going live' with video, tomorrow night.  

The feed will be live at 9:30 and we will get trains running quickly thereafter.   Thanks to Lionel Strang and the A ModelersLife nation, we have a podcast introduction, too:

Join me trackside, let's focus on some trains instead of the news for a little while.