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, December 18, 2018

Sometimes It's The Little Things

Layout building is an amalgamation of so many projects, large and small.  After about 10 full years of construction, associated design changes and then operations, I have reached a point where it's hard sometimes to appreciate the some of the smaller projects and details, since I spend so much time thinking and considering the whole thing.  

Thankfully, I'm not alone - this railroad and the operating atmosphere it supports is the product so far of many talented guys (and patient women).  One the regular yard engineers, Joe R., commented on how much he was enjoying operating Conrail GP38 #7714.  It's an Atlas mechanism, well-maintained but otherwise stock.  The decoder is a Soundtraxx Tsunami2, and to it I added the SoundTraxx Current-Keeper capacitor to bridge any dirty track.  

Seeing as though we are on the Albany Division here, while GP38's are great, it's the GE B23-7's that really hold the fort down at most yards.  So, learning from what I'd heard from Joe, I proceeded on a small project:  adding a capacitor to B23-7 #1931, an Atlas unit I'd detailed, renumbered and weathered.  These work alright, but on my isolated frogs with adjacent turnouts, we did have the occasional stall or hiccup, shutting the sound and lights down momentarily and detracting from realism.

1931 has an ESU-LocSound V4 decoder, so I used their 'Power Pack' capacitor board.  The installation is fairly simple and requires a little bit of soldering to the board, and then mounting the capacitor somewhere out of the way inside the shell.  

After the most recent session, the crew spoke highly of #1931 - no stalls, just nice smooth operations.  So, just the addition of a little capacitor circuit made a difference in one of the most critical jobs.  

When we can listen and make small changes to accommodate constructive criticism, I feel we make the hobby more fun for others.  That helps them want to come back.  Is there a greater service we can do for the hobby?  Maybe, but sometimes it's the little things that count.


Friday, November 30, 2018

And To Finish Up November...

Continuing some discussion from the previous posts this month, November started with a bang in the trip to the La Mesa club in San Diego, CA, and then continued with this year's hosting of the 'November Interchange' annual event back in Northern NJ.  This is a round-robin group of modelers and operators from Northern NJ, and from the greater Washington DC areas that operate in one region this year, and the other next year.  This was the second time the Onondaga Cutoff has hosted a session for this event and was a fun success.  Here NYS&W power lays over at Onondaga Yard, before the session began:

In hindsight I should have taken more photographs and especially of the operators doing their thing.  Something to keep in mind for next time!

Other recent projects include putting into service two of the new Scale Trains SD40-2's decorated for Conrail.  They turned out well, and with the Helicon software, even the photos look sharp:

Then, suddenly it was Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday and one that each year is a nice blend of family chaos and low-key community time.  It's hard to overstate just how much it means to be part of a tight community, and I feel a responsibility to help create an environment where good camaraderie and community will flourish.  The same energy carries over to the OC and its operations:  it's people that matter most, and by looking out for others, we create a community for ourselves.  

Over that weekend I was able to get out with the kids to spend some time trackside, something they all enjoy.  Watching them grow is fascinating. We got the last of the fall colors along the Lehigh Line, and even managed to see a few NS freights.

Here's NS train 20R in the S-curve eastbound at Stanton Station, NJ:

Now, on to December!  Lots of good things coming.  Thanks for your readership and time!


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

From West to East

Building upon the early November 2018 trip to San Diego, CA to operate the LaMesa Club's Tehachapi Pass layout, we took a scenic route back to the airport and made time to railfan Cajon Pass in the morning and Tehachapi Pass in the afternoon.  Our first stop was 'Hill 582', a well-known mecca for train watching in Southern California.  On the west side of Cajon Pass, BNSF and UP trains from the east descend steep winding grades into the LA basin, with a backdrop of deserts and mountains.


It's a great vista for trains in both directions from both railroads!  BNSF Eastbound stacks on the former ATSF/UP line, beneath the watch of 10,064 foot Mount Baldy and the San Gabriel Mountains to the north and west:

Then some UP westbounds, up on the former SP "Palmdale Cutoff":

More BNSF westbounds on the former Santa Fe:

It doesn't take long to see trains here, even on a Monday:  the pass can see more than 100 trains daily on three routes owned by UP and BNSF.  It's a great show.

Then, up to Tehachapi.  One of the most magical places to watch trains, and my favorite in the world, so far.  We narrowly missed an eastbound BNSF manifest at Caliente and Bealville, so rushed back uphill to see him cross over his tail headed up Tehachapi Loop:

He took the siding at Walong/Marcel to meet a westbound UP manifest that we chased until sundown.  First, afternoon light at Marcel:

Late afternoon at the Loop:

Downgrade at Allard in the horseshoe curve.  Check out the golden light on the golden wildgrass..."The Golden State" indeed!

One surprise was to see a handful of boxcars lying on their side in the tight curve west of Tunnel 2.  WOW - stuff like that makes you realize how dangerous trains still are.  Trespassing is illegal for a reason!   Sometimes the dramatic shots are trackside, and even when legal, if you'd happened to be there for this event...

I think one of the things that has captivated me about the American West since my youth has been the vastness of it all, and the perspective of loneliness and absolutism that it conveys. I have explored parts of every Western state with the exception of South Dakota (on my list), and I love parts of all of them.  Out here you really can be ALONE - as in hundreds of miles from anyone else - after just a short drive.  The vastness of the scenes and territory dwarfs human ambition more often than not.  If you are out there and you make a mistake, take a fall, run out of gas, etc, you are in real trouble.  Not 'first world trouble' but actual, real trouble.   I love that accountability.  Even railroads, larger than life in so many ways and especially so in the East, out here are just threads of transportation across an incredible landscape.  The men and women that work them need to be prepared for the territory.  

Our train curved out the mountains at Caliente and Ilmon, and headed west. One fascinating part of this is that each of the locations above is faithfully reproduced in HO scale at the LaMesa Club, to the point of being able to recognize specific bluffs and ditches along the scene.  It is spectacular modeling, and an equally spectacular operation.  

A favorite activity trackside has always been to pace trains, and the stretch of high-speed mainline between Bakersfield CA and the foot of the big grades is a perfect example.  Here our manifest is quickly up to 60 MPH, rolling into the setting sun towards a crew change at Bakersfield.  The foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, north of Tehachapi Pass, line the horizon some 10 miles distant.

The trip was coming to a close, and so was this amazing day of watching trains in Southern California.   The smokey and golden sunset backlights our manifest as a green block signal calls the crew home to Bakersfield.  

An amazing month of November continues in the next installment, which I need to squeeze in before December begins.  

More soon!

Monday, November 19, 2018

A Busy Autumn Season

These continue to be amazing times for model railroading, and I continue to be amazed and thankful for some of the new experiences I am continuing to have in the hobby. 

First off, at the start of this month, thanks to the graciousness and tenacity of my wife and children, I was able to spend a few days operating on the famous Tehachapi Pass layout of the La Mesa Model Railroad Club, housed in the museum facilities of Balboa Park in San Diego, CA.  Words and photos cannot describe the experience - it's a must see for anyone who enjoys modeling that can get there. 

Check out the details.  The tie fenceposts, the earthwork, ballast, and maintenance roadways. 

A brief overview of the trip is in order:  we flew out Thursday 11/1 early in the morning so as to have a day to get to the club and assist in staging the railroad for operations on Friday 11/2, Saturday 11/3. and Sunday 11/4.  Thursday night allowed some time to 'get qualified' on the physical characteristics of the railroad - and to be amazed at the scope and scale.  WOW.  For instance, one of the club regulars was moving this 105-car train of refrigerated boxcars ('reefers' in railroad jargon) west to Bakersfield for the following day.   105 cars!  You don't see that every day, and certainly not on an operating mountain railroad.

The railroad climbs about 15 real feet in elevation, close to the correct scale for the actual line.  The scenic feature most recognizable from the pass and the layout is the Tehachapi Loop, a full helix-in-real-life on a 2.5% grade eastbound.  Here an SP manifest comes down the hill, crossing under its own tail as it moves west. 

My first solo trip on the railroad on Friday morning was Santa Fe's #23 train, the westbound Grand Canyon, a first-class passenger move.  Since westbounds are superior to eastbounds by timetable direction, I had an easy run with no opposing moves to worry about - they all had to get out of my way!  But even with no waiting, and track speed the entire trip, my journey from Mojave at the east end of the railroad to Bakersfield at the west end took about 45 minutes.   Amazing.

Here that same ATSF train #23 comes down through the lower part of Caliente, CA, having traversed most of the railroad by now.  This scene is one of the most remarkable in all of model railroading, as it is nearly a dead ringer for the prototype.  Caliente in the foreground, the horseshoe curve up the hill, and then successive levels behind the operator in the distance up to Cliff siding, which is a mile away as the crow flies, but 7 miles away by railroad milepost.  Incredible - because that's what we see here, in HO scale!

A good portion of the scenery on the middle areas of the run are above the head of viewers, leading to angles like this one at "Cliff" siding - very appropriately named.

There is no way to really capture the vast expanse of modeling on the railroad, and the attention to detail throughout the finished portions with scenery.  But, here's a tailing off image of ATSF Train 23, with his markers passing the east switch of Ilmon siding.   Bena is ahead with double track from there to Bakersfield.  You get the sense that you are actually running trains on a railroad here, not a layout:  it's so grand in scale to be prototypically vast. 

This post is long enough already, so I'll end with a quick reflection.  As time goes on, my definition for 'busy' seems to change.  In the past I used to think I was busy, with different activities demanding time and energy, and yet those times seem to pale in comparison to these days.  Still these things go on, and there's something reassuring about that.  Holidays like Thanksgiving really allow one an opportunity to sit and breathe and appreciate some of the good things that go unnoticed most days.  Walking without pain.  Food to eat.  The colors of nature, the smiles from happy people, the faith of friends and family, and loyalty of pets. 

Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Bringing Empire Recycling to Life

There are few things in model railroading that force progress better than hosting operating sessions.  Particularly bigger events where other serious modelers will be seeing the railroad for the first time, or for the first time in several years.   I want to put the best foot forward, and make the railroad look and run as well as possible.

The last piece of the scene where the Cazenovia Industrial Track runs beneath the Onondaga Cutoff main line was the small spur leading to the Empire Recycling Company, a small scrap dealer served by Conrail.  With the 'Interchange' session coming in November, it was time to tidy this up.

A quick overlay of black cinders and asphalt paving dust from Arizona Rock & Mineral was put in place, up to the top of the rails on the spur.  I wanted to capture the look of a beat-up spur with buried track, so I used N-scale cinders to really get a muddy look to the area.

While that dried for two days, I assembled another of the Alkem Scale Models fence kits, and soldered .022" brass wire in place as posts.   Note that you don't need posts on every vertical support on the kit - two posts per piece is sufficient.  I staggered them to provide even support.

I also used this time to take the Woodland Scenics classic excavator model to the bench.  I clipped off the bucket and scratch built a new electromagnet to hang in is place, suggesting an old machine on its second or third owner, resurrected from dead and customized for scrap loading.  

With the fence painted gray and weathered with pastel chalk powders, I carried the pieces to the site and drilled #70 holes in the surface to the depth necessary to accept my posts.  This was a careful trial & error process, but it came together well.  

Some grassy tufts were added as well as a variety of scrap materials, shown here with fresh glue drying.  Some more scrap is needed, but we are just about there in capturing the latest 'finished but not complete' scene on the railroad.   

Now my guests at Interchange will see a finished scene here, instead of one that is nearly complete.  When there is one thing not done, it becomes the focus, almost like a missing tooth is the first thing people see in a smile.   A blank area in the middle of finished scenery distracts from the rest significantly.  With Empire Recycling completed, Interchange guests will see a finished scene, and the best part is that the regular operators will, too.


Friday, October 12, 2018

Learning About "Photo Stacking"

As time rolls long, change is inevitable.  Some things change for the worse, and many change for the better.  One of those things that is changing for the better is digital photography.

While in years past photographers made images and had to choose the best one for a given audience or taste, that is not the case today.  With the artistic control that photographers have in post-processing for digital images, including Photoshop or other photo editing software, there is a new and exciting ability to convey a final image assembled by using multiple originals. 

In the last few years I have become aware through the model railroading media and other blogs of "photo stacking," a newer technique that allows multiple images with the same framing but different focus points to be combined into one image with much greater depth of field.  Here's my first experience with using this technique on the Onondaga Cutoff:

Note how the track in the foreground, the signals and locomotives in the center, and the backdrop are all in reasonably sharp focus.  Amazing! 

For decades the technique was to use a tripod and long exposure with your F-stop set to the highest available aperture to maximize depth of field.  And that worked, generally - but still kept most extremes in a softer or outright blurry focus.  Photoshop can fix many things but not that.  Enter photo stacking:  separate software that combines the sharpest parts of 5, 10, 20, or more images of the same scene, stacking them and showing just the sharpest parts of each.

I used the Helicon Focus software suite for this, and have lots to learn - but this image was made with 10 base images in about 15 minutes.

Stay tuned as I learn more about this, and share with you here.  This hobby is getting to be more and more fun as time goes on!


Friday, September 28, 2018

Expansive Scenes

In light of the invitation to present at the Mid Atlantic Railroad Prototype Meet (MARPM) earlier in September, Jack asked for a few images showing different blocks of trains on the Onondaga Cutoff.  I took an evening to arrange some shots and the results came back looking nice, so I thought I'd share a few here.

The RPM and our presentation went well - people were interested and it was well-received.  It is such a humbling thing to see our names next to those of so many guys who we looked up to for years.  I for one am glad to be able to give a little back to those that reached out to me!

The images....

First off, here is ML480, a big autorack and stack intermodal train that runs in the later evenings.

Next, here's the interchange run from NYS&W, the 'SY-1' job coming into Onondaga where the consist will terminate and return with outbound cars for Susquehanna.

A wide shot of NFSE (Niagara Falls, NY to Selkirk NY) coming through CP277.  He has autoracks up front and manifest behind.

And, playing with Photoshop a bit, here's a tighter crop of NFSE at CP277.  It is amazing how good these iPhones are now at shots like these.

It has been a busy time lately, with the RPM itself, work craziness, little kids at home, and all that goes with those things.  This is when the layout progress may slow but enjoyment can go up:  we can always run some trains, right?

Thanks for your reading this blog, and thanks for all the support!