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.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Thoughts on a New Decade

Welcome to a new decade - 2020 offers hope and a promise of tomorrow, as all new years do.  I am optimistic for this year and decade to come!  Still, though, sometimes a date alone is worth taking time to reflect.

I'll include few images of the recent operating session which upon processing and viewing have helped me think and ponder over the 'here &  now.'  

2019 was a year with new highs, balanced with several difficult lows.  I am realizing as time passes that some times of each year tend to be more prone to major shifts in energy, both on the layout but also in the larger context of life.  January has become such a time.  Early in life I'd be excited for snowstorms, for a cozy house on winter nights, for the chance at time off school, time trackside or working on models, and in later years time home from college.  Those memories are poignant and true, and remain where I somehow expect to be in January, even while life is so different from those days, all more than 25 years ago now.  

Today, firmly rooted in adult life, January carries more weight as well as expectation.  January now carries more awareness of darkness, and memory of things beyond my imagination 25 years ago.  My current sense remembers my father's death 4 years ago this month.  I'm more reminded of that this year than I expected.  These days in NJ there is less snow to be excited about, thought my excitement for a good storm remains.  I am aware of the weight of winter finances, family responsibility while recovering from holiday spending, making acute other financial considerations and that subsequent responsibility.  Work dominates the weeks and to a higher degree than I'd hoped it trails off but remains on nights and weekends. Official volunteer activity adds a layer of stress.  And it is my house that we work so hard to keep cozy, creating memories for my kids and my wife and I alike.  

Mixed in with all that is this wonderful hobby which is truly in a golden age.  My family is healthy, which makes all other issues pale in comparison.  I have my health, a true blessing in a world of uncertainty.  And so I offer this as food for thought:  it is the Great Balance that is so perplexing.  I think there is a lot to be said for 'sitting' with the energy of our times, of the seasons and weeks and days, and reflecting on our being present with that energy, whatever it is.

Worth noting is that our first ever operating session on the Onondaga Cutoff was in October 2011, and it is hard to believe that makes 2020 the TENTH year of operations on the layout.  More to come on this as we approach this important milestone!

For me, and for many of us that model, I feel the hobby has a role in keeping us centered.  Ours is a real, tangible hobby, and one you can't really fake.  Either you create models or you don't.  You either read a few books or references or you didn't.  You attended operating sessions, or you didn't.  You have to have jumped in somehow to be part of the hobby.  That clarity of purpose is important for people and it's something I am thankful for.  The Onondaga Cutoff was built with the hope of satisfying operations, and keeping alive memories from a younger, more innocent life that I had when I was 10, 12, 16 years old, even 20 and 24 years old.  It has exceeded expectations on both.  

I feel a great deal of gratitude this January.  Even though fighting a nasty cold and dealing with all there is to deal with, I am just so thankful for those that I join and that join me on this journey.  The amazing people in my world make this hobby and its operating sessions so worthwhile, and add to life in many ways beyond the hobby.  It is literally a hobby - and a life - of 'better together' and that is how I want to embrace it.  

Here's to the new year, and decade!


Friday, December 20, 2019

4-pack for the Holidays

4-Packs are standard fare for many items, and in the world of craft beer it usually means something worth trying.  Today, though, it's a 4-pack of locomotives - four of a kind all finally programmed and weathered up for service.

Rapido's B36-7 as you have seen before here and other places online is a real work of art, an incredible model in looks, sound, and operation.  The detail and paint are fine and as good as any paint on the market.  I took extra time with the programming and the weathering to make sure those lived up to the high bar established by Rapido, and so here we are:

TV14 at CP282, Onondaga NY, September 1995
I am really thankful for these long-awaited models, they fill a huge hole in the Onondaga Cutoff roster as well as the roster of any Conrail, Seaboard, or CSX intermodal modeler.  I followed my usual protocol with the weathering - masking windows and lights first, then a dark wash of thinned dark brownish-gray paint to highlight the doors and give some depth to seams.  That cures overnight, then a overspray of dullcoat, followed by airbrushed dust and mud on the underframe and an overspray of beige to fade some of the paint.  Once that cures, I finish with powdered pastel chalks and some dry brushing.

Finally having a small group of these means that we finally get the 'fleet' feel for these machines.  With 60 B36-7's on the roster, they were somewhat common on mainline trains.  However, add in that these were mostly focused on the routes that hosted intermodal trains and they suddenly seem very common for the Chicago Line.  Nearly every piggyback or intermodal train in the early 1990's had one or more of them in the consist.  

This was a pretty great way to spend some late nights finding some 'peace' after the craze of work during the holidays.  The kids are wired each night and it feels like we are always moving at 100 miles per hour - it's too fast, and it needs to be manually, mindfully slowed down sometimes.  Weathering is a time-consuming but satisfying process that slows down those moments we need to really appreciate things sometimes.  

Teddy at 5, Pete nearly 3, Susie at 7-1/2. 
The Abeles, December 2019
As 2019 draws to its close, I have a lot to think about.  It has been a bewildering year.  We Abeles are finally coming out of some of the craziness of having an infant or baby in the house continuously for the last 7-1/2 years.  Raising kids is awesome, demanding, incredible, and it is hard work.  My wife amazing, smiling and happy and hard working on these kids so much of the time.  Each day, each of these little people develops, grows, and is becoming a person you can speak with, laugh with, and enjoy.  For sure, then, we also have hard days, dark days, sad days.  We all can do better.  And whether a good day or a hard one, it's a blessing and should be appreciated.  

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, best wishes from us to you all into 2020!


Friday, December 13, 2019

More B36-7 Goodness

Conrail modelers have had an amazing run of luck with manufacturers lately.  In the last few years, we have racked up beautiful, superdetailed models of H58 boxcars (Tangent), PS 4785 (ScaleTrains) and now PS 4750 (Tangent) covered hoppers, insulated 50' boxcars (Moloco), high-cube auto parts and appliance cars (Exactrail), coil cars (Exactrail, Tangent), all of which are incredible but are in some ways outdone by the locomotives - ScaleTrains C39-8's and SD40-2's, Athearn Genesis GP38-2's and GP40-2's, Atlas GP40-2's, GP40's and GP38's, and now the incredible Rapido B36-7. 

This is an embarrassment of riches compared to the 1990's and 2000's when we were kitbashing and hand-painting models!

As seen in the review from last month, the models themselves are amazing.  After all four were programmed, I speed matched them to a test engine (Kato 6345 seen 4th out above) and then added all four to a consist for some break-in runs.  

I did have some challenges programming these, with the new ESU Loksound 'V5' decoders.  My usual approach of JMRI (Java Model Railroad Interface) wasn't as useful as it had been.  In the end I had to make the investment in the proprietary 'LokProgrammer' which isn't cheap and is yet another thing to manage, but in the end, it did work, and is intuitive after a few hours of fiddling.  

Admittedly the sight and sound of these consisted makes up for most of that frustration.  

I can write the LokProgrammer experience in a future post, too, which may help keep that for posterity and maybe help someone else who was befuddled by the need for it.

Weathering is up next.  These are going to add a tremendous amount of variety to operations on the Onondaga Cutoff.  The layout has benefited from all this top-quality rolling stock.  The roster is nearing a state of completion, with the only major exception being modern-tooled and DCC-equipped six axle Dash-7's.  If a manufacturer announces C36-7's, C30-7A's and C30-7's, I'm going to need a loan to finish off the fleet!


Monday, December 9, 2019

Long Winter Evenings

As the Holidays come and go, we're reminded of good memories and challenging ones, of time with friends and family, and perhaps a nostalgia of times gone by.  Model Railroads can be great time machines and the Onondaga Cutoff is no exception.

Here's a view, courtesy of regular operator Doug Watts, showing Conrail B23-7 1987 idling on the fuel pad at the Onondaga Engine Terminal shortly after 5 a.m. at the most recent operating session. Doug's camera captured the background sky with the light of the coming dawn, and it's looking a lot like the 1990's in this image!

With that sleepy image, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, or best wishes for your holiday of choice.  It has been an up and down sort of year for me and my community but a decidedly 'up-year' for the Onondaga Cutoff.  Persistence pays off!


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Rapido B36-7: Looking Great

Just a few days ago, a nice box arrived in my mail with three beautiful Rapido boxes inside.  A fourth is coming soon:  the arrival of the long-awaited, much anticipated B36-7, a staple on any Conrail route with intermodal trains in the 1980's and 1990's, and one of the critical models for operations on the Onondaga Cutoff.

Before traveling for a few days, I had time to unbox one of them, Conrail #5054, one of the neat engines that remained in original paint until the end of the 1990's.  Here we go:

This is an absolutely incredible model to see firsthand.  The color is perfect to my eye.  The overall look captures that husky-yet-soft appearance, and the dimensions I could verify check out.  The Conrail-specific stuff is amazing - cab signal box, marker lights, ditch light placement, battery box doors, horn placement, all perfect.

The model was reported by Rapido to come with too many snubbers from the factory, and indeed that was the case with this one.   A gentle but firm twist with a hobby knife for a few seconds and they popped off.  Rapido on one of their recent videos also said they would offer replacements if you aren't satisfied.  The photo above is after their removal.

I programmed the address to 5054, and started to test the lights.  Ditch lights are installed on this one, and they and the headlight look great.  Nice and bright, LED but 'day glo' or whatever these are called these days.

Next, we turn on the marker lights, which glow beautifully red just like the prototype.  Conrail did not use marker lights like other railroads by this date, and so elected to use lights that could be off or lit red only.  Rapido captured the look perfectly!

Sounds are the best I've heard from the factory, crisp and chuggy like the real GE's.  Amazing.  Operation is smooth and steady.  

My only complaint besides the obvious issue of the extra snubbers would be the programming of the decoder; the lights should all be controlled independently of direction.  Instead, the markers are lit on the trailing end only, and the head and ditch lights on the leading end only.  But, I can change these with the right CV's and will do so once I hear back from Locsound.

More to come as the others get unboxed and weathered up; what a great step forward for Conrail modelers!

Finally for tonight - my best wishes to you all for a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.  I believe we have a lot to be thankful for here and am looking forward to the future!


Thursday, November 21, 2019


After a few late nights and some help from my son Teddy, we have reached the wonderful 'finished but not complete' stage of things at Doelger Brewery!   The last few episodes discuss the process so I won't dwell long on it here.  With the glue cured and the scenery in place I added a few more tufts of weeds as well as some extra grit and the place is off and running.

Here's a view of the Barley Track, where inbound dried grains arrive in covered hoppers and are unloaded into the grain silos before roasting into malt.  Once malted they are stored until needed for the brewing process.

The metal 'sarcophagus' protects workers and the product from harsh Central New York winters.  Next is the brew house, which boils water and cascades it over the malted barley and oats to extract the flavors and sugars from the grain, which are in turn cooled and put in fermentation tanks with yeast.  Yeast eats the sugar and creates alcohol and carbon dioxide.

I added more lighting and a detailed interior to the structures so at night they would appear to be maintained and in use.

Finalizing the brewery trackwork allowed me after 8 years (!) to finish the scenery around Euclid Yard, and detail out the track and roads.  The scene came together well!

The timing worked well too to now give me a week or two to make some running repairs on cars that have been waiting for time, just ahead of the arrival of the magnificent Rapido B36-7's later this month.  One of the great pleasures of this hobby is that we can swing from the open, creative process of scenery to the linear, mechanical process of rolling stock maintenance.  

I will get some early photos of the B36-7's up here.  2019 is really turning into quite a year and we have a lot to be thankful for heading into the holidays!


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Moving Forward - Doelger Brewing Co. Scenery

Scenery is one of those things that really comes in streaks on a layout.  There are a lot of moving parts that need to be organized in a way that we don't end up having to re-do work, and more than that, there is the constant fact that what you are installing is what people will see.   In  many cases, their first impression of the whole layout is based on scenery.  So - I want it to be as effective as possible.

Now that the Doelger buildings are placed, I feel the urge to finish up the scenery here and move on.  It will feel great to have this scene completed.   So, with the structure finalized, and the concrete slabs cut from styrene sheet, it was time to paint them, weather them and install them.  I scribed lines in all of them by dragging an old, worn out x-acto #11 blade across using a straight edge.  I positioned the blade upside-down so as to get a wider crack, suggesting construction joints in the slab.

I sprayed the styrene black first, then after a few minutes over-sprayed that with beige paint, and finished it up with 'pebble texture' overspray from Rust-Oleum, available at big-box stores.  I sealed the whole thing with Testors Dullcoat.  This gives an even, but random, pattern of tiny beige bits that appear to my eye to do a nice job simulating worn concrete.

Nothing in Central New York lasts forever with their bitter winters, so concrete pours of different ages will appear different colors to the eye.  I used more, and less, of each of the sprays on different slabs so as to suggest concrete pours of different ages.

Each slab was lined up using some scrap styrene below on the ties to adjust the final height, ensuring the modeled concrete was below the top of the rail but high enough to appear flush to the eye.  This helps with rail cleaning and operations - we want the wheels on the cars to hit the rail, not the concrete.  Special care was taken to ensure the flangeways on the inside of each rail had sufficient concrete.  

With the slabs glued in place, I test ran a few cars again with no issues.  So it was time now for some ballasting along the track and edges, and installing cinders and weedy grass around the track areas.  As usual, I sprayed the area with isopropyl alcohol and spread diluted white glue in the areas where I wanted the grass and cinders to stick.  I added static grass first with several different colors and lengths mixed together, and went back to add an overcasting of the cinders.   Weeds were glued in separately afterwards, and the whole thing left to dry overnight before I use a small vaccuum with thin fabric over the nozzle to pick up all the product that didn't stick.  This way, you have patches of attached static grass, and can reuse the fibers that didn't stick.  

Another challenge when doing modern buildings (and yes, I still count the 1990's as modern, compared to most other model railroads around!) is that so many industrial buildings have been modified over time.  The majority of those did not use the same architecture as the original structure - modern industrial structures make extensive use of sheet metal and corrugated siding, as opposed to brick and mortar.  So, for the grain unloading area at the brewery, I selected a more modern structure to be built around the malt house where inbound dried grains are roasted to become malt.  

Yup, that looks rather out of place, doesn't it?  Well, lots of things in life look out of place.  The nature of things is to change.  So, capturing that notion in model form is part of the goal!  Many modern industries in the Northeast are an incongruous mix of old and new: old buildings exist of course, but if all your old buildings look perfect and unmodified, you have a rather unconvincing industry.  A modern, successful business would add to their facility in the most cost-effective manner possible and Doelger is no exception.

A few more lights are in place, and with some final placement of static grass and clean-up, I will have the 'final' views of Doelger coming soon.  Stay tuned!