TV24 at CP 277

TV24 at CP 277
Conrail TV-24 rolls east through rural Central New York in Onondaga County, September 1994.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Bangin' Around

Major construction is always a mixed word for modelers. It is usually done for the right reasons, and generally can be planned to minimize disruptions with the proper precautions.  We are making the move to split-unit 'ductless' HVAC in the house, which requires extensive electrical preparation in the basement - right over the railroad.  

 I had installed modular scenery here on the wall over the electrical cabinet and once again, that paid off in that when we needed access a few screws were removed and the whole wall of trees lifted off evenly.  But the breaker box is right adjacent to and above the Skaneateles Creek bridge on the M&E.  One slip of the box and the bridge could be crushed.  So, I constructed a special 'sarcophagus' around and through the bridge, designed to take the hit and protect the bridge.  

Also needed anytime construction comes along is dust protection for the layout.  The entire OC was covered in sheet plastic, with signal bridges and other fragile taller items bracketed by paint cans in an effort again to protect them in case of something falling nearby.  For good reason, I might add.

There is just no way around it - messes happen.  Here's a big one, right at CP280, and I am thankful I covered the layout but also horrified at the amount of debris and dust.  Yuck!   So, the last few weeks have been loaded with days and nights prepping and cleaning up like this, which makes for a long few weeks.  

Now that fall is coming there will be more opportunity to get down to the layout and continue progress, but for now it will be of the cleaning sort!

Thursday, August 25, 2022

A String of Reefers, on the OC? Yep!

Longtime readers and operators know the goal of the Onondaga Cutoff well:  capture the intensity and excitement, the optimism and progressive attitude of Conrail on the Albany Division over the Chicago Line as it appeared in 1994.  Modeling is always an approximation, and we always must compromise to reach the next level.  But now we will start to see a sight common on the prototype that until now was missing on the layout.

Here we see a 'reefer block' - a group of insulated, refrigerated boxcars, recently upgraded with metal couplers and wheels, then weathered and finished for service.  Jack and I decided it was time for another look at the operations on the OC.  Jack and I got to watching some videos of Chicago Line action in the mid 1990's over the last few years, and as that brewed in the background, I was getting more frustrated with some of the irregularity of manifest lengths on the OC.  I love long trains, of course, but a challenge was coming up where the first 5-6 cars in those eastbound trains were right at their limit coming up to CP282.  Any sudden throttle movement or momentary short pushed things right over the cliff and we'd have a stringline derailment. 

I wasn't happy with the performance and approached Jack about working the plan to try and get our train length to average a few less cars while keeping variety and not shortchanging NYSW interchange traffic.  Jack mentioned we should also be including some of the western traffic - a reefer block, longer autorack block, and that autoparts block - more consistently on certain through trains. 

Months passed.  Jack came over last week with a new plan in mind, and we got started reblocking both the big manifest trains to fit that new idea.  Everything came together and boy, both trains sure do look more like the videos now!   It's awesome to see (and hear a few of) the reefers come around the corner with some lumber loads and western connection cars enroute to Selkirk and points east. 

Another important goal in this exercise is to create some re-spots as part of switching: i.e., leaving some cars on spot for longer than just one cycle.  I see the longer-than-24-hour placements more as a way to take some cars off the railroad, creating more manageable mainline blocks, and to also create more prototypical switching at industries with some picks and placements but also more re-spots instead of crews cleaning out a whole spur and then placing all new inbounds per the ZTS map.  From a switching perspective it may end up being more work, reassembling cars on each spur between new placements and re-spots - but guys seem to like that.  I see it as likely that a plant like Iroquois Paper, while huge, would not use all the kaolin from all tank cars nor need every one of the 8 boxcars picked up each day on the prototype.  This system reflects that.  

Coming up this week will include a second meeting on site to rebuild the blocks on spot and in Onondaga Yard - along with ON10 and SY-1 - to accommodate the new plan. 

Stay tuned!  The Onondaga Cutoff will be a bit more prototypical as we head into the fall!

Monday, August 22, 2022

Guiding a Family Through the West

 This has been a summer of considerable adventure for our family.  Layout progress has necessarily slowed accordingly, and while it will start again soon for now we are enjoying memories made on the kid's first trip to the American West.  We decided to take Amtrak and use the Family Bedroom in their sleeper cars for our westward journey, and it was everything we hoped it would be.

And that was just the beginning.  I am still 'unpacking' in a sense the total emotional weight of this trip, what it meant to not only the family but to me as well, and figuring out what that means for us all.  The West is dear to me even if not near, and it has always been a longing in my heart, a calling of sorts.  To have the opportunity and ability to dream, plan, and execute this trip - in effect leading my family through a highlight reel of 'my' West - well, that's a privilege of the highest sort, one only possible because of the sum of so many other things that came together.  

More on that as time comes.  But for now, let's look at the highlights!

We took NJ TRANSIT down to Newark, NJ, and boarded Amtrak #141 to Washington, DC. there.  It set the tone for the trip right away: full of anticipation, but larger-and-life present moment experiences, too.  

A day in Washington, DC awaited us during our 4-hour layover in the Capital.  Just a 1/3-mile walk from Washington Union Station is the US Capital Building itself, which was hosting sessions of Congress as we walked the grounds.   Tangibility: that is an aspect of our government that is overlooked.  You can almost always make a trip and experience some of it firsthand.

Chicago Union Station: always impressive, and wonderfully so after its restoration.  Current maintenance practices are working, too; I was here five or six times now since 1989 and the station still looks great!  Excellent job by Metra, Amtrak, and the City.  

Boarding a westbound Amtrak train at Chicago Union Station is akin to boarding a Boeing 747 bound for another continent.  There is an incredible present-moment excitement and anticipation of things to come, and DemClams - the three happy and zany kids - caught all of it!  Here they are just after dawn nearing Fort Morgan, CO, on a day they'd looked forward to for years.  Today is the first day they will see the Rocky Mountains.

One of my favorite parts of the West is that the anticipation doesn't disappoint: in fact, it just grows and grows, with new natural wonders and vistas around every corner.  Here we descend along the Eagle River west of the Continental Divide in Byers Canyon.  

The West: a place where sun-bleached two lane roads, straight as an arrow, eventually disappear over distant hills that are dwarfed by the mountains on the horizon, which in turn are dwarfed by the magnificence of the blue sky dome above, a sky bounded only by the infinity of space beyond.  

Some American deserts are flatter than others, but all are inhospitable; punctuated by chasms and cliffs, by impassible features.  Here's the open desert near Canyon Diablo, Arizona, with the Arizona Divide and San Francisco Peaks some 40 miles distant, sun setting behind hot clouds to the west.  

A highlight for all of us in different ways this year was Flagstaff, Arizona, a city near 7000' of elevation on the edge of incredible Ponderosa Pine forests and the Arizona Divide.  It's a town along one of the busiest mainline railroads in the world, the famed BNSF Railway's 'Transcon' - the route of the former Santa Fe Railway's main line between Chicago, IL and Los Angeles, CA.  BNSF still maintains the old freight station as a division office in this photo by Teddy Abeles.

Flagstaff is also a gateway to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, and this was a highlight of the trip for all of us, as well.  This is my 7th visit to this incredible area and each time, it's like the first time all over again: totally and incredibly beautiful, overwhelmingly huge, a billion-year exploration and visual treat.

Heading north from Flagstaff we encounter an amazing array of deserts and dry wash canyons, passing near multiple arches near Moab and through Arches National Park, and land after a long day at Green River, UT, home to Rays Tavern:  'The Place for Everyone.'   In this part of Utah, a long history of immigrants has created a really universal atmosphere in the people that remain.  As the fortunes of coal and the railroad come and go people move on, but Ray's remains, and is my favorite tavern in all of Utah.  

I must include a photo with an old friend - Denver & Rio Grande Western SD40T-2 locomotive 5371.  One of 73, the 5371 was the last guy standing on former home rails after the Rio Grande purchased the SP, and was swallowed later by Union Pacific Railroad.  Thankfully good former DRGW heads at UP were able to preserve 5371 which is now at the Ogden Transportation Museum, and surrounded in good company by locomotives that once led trains through town from UP, SP, and Utah Railway.

We are home safe, but this was a trip for the ages, a journey for each of us across this nation but also  into the next era for the family.  

So much more to come!

Friday, August 5, 2022

Fitting it all in

It is a summer of good stuff here on the Onondaga Cutoff, and we are busy with family, travel, and future plans while doing our best to stay present. 

One of the projects recently finished to completion is Woodchuck Hill Road and its overhead bridge over the Chicago Line at MP 279.69.  As part of the photo shoot for an article in this month's Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, I took a few extra frames playing with backlight and some new angles.

Here we have ML-401 pausing at CP280 on its westbound trip to wait for an eastbound to cross over in front of him, as the sun begins to set in the west.  YAON-20, the evening yard job, is also working on the East Lead and in the far distance the M&E is tying down for the night too.  You can also see the labels for the road, which I use to help crews know where they are during operating sessions.    

I also played with a few vertical angles of the new bridge, of which this one is a favorite.   This is UBO-44A, a coal load for the Bow, NH power plant.  

Still, nothing worth doing is ever that easy.  For this shot above I created a sheet of sky backdrop with spray paint, representing a humid summer sky, and hung it from the ceiling to block the view of the wall of the layout room.  This brightened the photo and allows your eye to go right to the train without distraction.  The downside is this shot took more than an hour to set up!  But I think it was worth it.  We have to fit in opportunities for creativity when we can.

A few images from a recent family trip across the country are coming soon too.  Summer is rarely a quiet time in the Abeles family!  I hope you are enjoying yours as much as we are enjoying ours.

Monday, July 11, 2022

"Meet the Modeler"

Our friends and creators over at and Kalmbach Media have put together the next in their series of 'Meet the Modeler' articles online, and this month it's a fun question & answer about my modeling journey and the Onondaga Cutoff!

I will let the article do the speaking, but it's got a few tidbits that nearly everyone will learn for the first time.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

How We Grow the Hobby

We hear and read a lot of concern about the state of the hobby, and there are loud opinions that it is shrinking.  'As people grow old and pass on, the hobby will disappear.'  'There's no youth in the hobby.'  

Well, I disagree.  I think the hobby has always been one that fits a retired lifestyle well, and so has drawn more older people than young for generations, but I also think there is a growing youth population that is interested, too.  The key?  Ask them to come along.  

We are fortunate in New Jersey to have a robust group of guys willing to host operating sessions, and several are open to new members on occasion.  Recently my sons approached Jerry Dziedzic and he graciously invited them to join in a regular session.   We began with supper, after which Rich Wisneski suggested we take a group photo.

It's such an awesome feeling to see the boys here: this is a group of good men, people I trust and admire, and that they were invited and that they fit in is simply a wonderful thing.  They were excited!

After supper we traveled to Jerry's where the session was ready to start.  Jerry assigned the boys with different operators to allow them the full experience and I am grateful for the patience and hospitality everyone displayed.  Does a new rookie slow things down?  Yes.  But when young people are willing and excited to learn and participate, we have a responsibility to work with them, and coach them along.  

Teddy was assigned to work the Maybrook turn, an L&HR wayfreight.  Here he is working the locomotive in the large zinc mine at Franklin, NJ, under guidance of Jerry as well as Tom Schmieder and Ralph Heiss.  

Meanwhile, Pete was working with Al Tillotson and Joe Relation on the NYS&W Hainsburg job, and having a blast:

Pete even got a chance to spend some time at Sparta Junction with the tower operator, Jim Schweitzer, and it's easy for Pete - he didn't even need to duck.

It is people that make the hobby great, and each of us as layout owners can do our part to include young people.  When their excitement grows, they can jump in - and all of this can build a foundation for the future of the hobby.  Thanks to everyone there, and especially Jerry for his hospitality.  The boys are going to remember this one for a long, long time!

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

"Yep, it really was this cool..."

One of the tricky parts of the illusion of modeling railroading is the need to model mostly plain, common equipment.  Exceptions should be just that: not all the time.  Many modelers will tell you that you need more plain freight cars than brightly colored ones, and that most of your locomotives should be run-of-the-mill daily workhorses.


Well, right - except in some cases, the prototype had an incredible variety, and there really was an amazing diversity you could see in the operations.  The case in point here is the Chicago Line, the prototype for the Onondaga Cutoff.  In the Conrail era and especially into the 1990's, it was a busy railroad with much of the traffic coming from interchange in the Chicago or St. Louis areas and headed to Selkirk for forwarding to the New York metro area, or to New England.  A quick internet search at gives us a number of examples that appear rather incredible.

In this Tom Beckett photo, Conrail train TV200X rolls east through New York State behind three Santa Fe locomotives: two C30-7's bracketing an SD45.  Solid lashups from foreign railroads were rare in most places in North America, but on the Chicago Line, you could see anything.

Rich Carl captured this power from train CNSE at Selkirk, NY, with a Grand Trunk Western SD40 leading a Conrail, former Erie Lackawanna SD45-2.

On a different day Rich saw this coal train on Conrail at Selkirk with a Santa Fe GP39-2 and a Union Pacific SD40-2.

In February of 1998, former Denver & Rio Grande Western SD40T-2 leads a 'ballast express' C32-8 into the engine servicing at Selkirk, coming off inbound train COSE in this photo by Ed Lewis.  Rio Grande, leading across central New York!   They're passing a brand-new CSX General Electric AC6000CW locomotive, likely being delivered to CSX via train SECS later this evening.  

Collinwood Yard in Cleveland, OH hosted an amazing variety of power in this 1993 photo by Alan Gaines.  The Santa Fe C30-7's and P&LE GP38 are awesome, but so is the shop switcher in the background - a Conrail GP30, moving a brand new SD60M around the shops.  Wow!

And we have two more Tom Beckett images to finish it off, both from 'Bens Bridge' in Selkirk in January 1994, showing locomotives from no less than 6 railroads in one view above and a closer zoom below.  The variety is almost absurd and would be criticized on a model railroad as a fantasy.  

Well, nope.  Not a fantasy.  Just another day at Selkirk, actually.  

This was railroading in the 1990's on the Chicago Line.  Leaders from nearly any big railroad in North America were possible, and some even near-daily common.  They mixed freely with locomotives from Conrail, who owned the route and ran the trains, but the variety really was special.  This is part of the magic of the Chicago Line, and what we work to capture on the Onondaga Cutoff.

Yep, it really was that cool!