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, August 26, 2020

The Onondaga Cutoff - On the Cover of Railroad Model Craftsman!

I'd always hoped to be able to contribute to the hobby press, ever since I was a young boy whose only tangible link to the hobby was those same pages of Model Railroader and occasionally Railroad Model Craftsman.  If anyone had told me a few years ago that by summer 2020 I'd be involved with the hobby press with articles, interviews and even a book, I'd have stared at them and blinked, then smiled and asked where I can sign up. 

I am excited to announce that the Onondaga Cutoff is featured on the cover of RMC's September 2020 issue, with a feature article inside to boot!

Those monthly magazines were highlights I looked forward to, especially with large color photos of cutting-edge layouts of the time:  Cat Mountain & Santa Fe, Utah Belt, Virginian & Ohio, La Mesa's Tehachapi Pass, Rand Hood's and David Bontranger's Rio Grande work, and many others.  Thanks to good fortune, mentorship and a lot of work learning to improve my writing and photography, several articles have come together and I am grateful to be able to continue that process, and hope maybe someday there's a few young people that in their minds will have added the Onondaga Cutoff to that list of iconic layouts for the hobby.

Pick up a copy at your local hobby shop or book store, or at

There is a great deal to be thankful for!

Friday, August 21, 2020

More Virtual Operations - On Facebook Live, with international participants tomorrow night!

It is always fun to push the limits in the hobby, and we hit a new milestone in the virtual operations world last night:  a successful test of operations with engineers using remote techniques from overseas to run trains on the Onondaga Cutoff!   

Gordy Robinson, about 3,250 miles away in Scotland, and Martyn Jenkins, about 9,600 miles away in Australia worked through the internet to hook their WiThrottle devices to the OC server.  Using Skype for a radio repeater, I spoke into my FRS radio in the layout room, and they heard me in real time in their homes, and replied accordingly.   Incredible!

Martyn, taking Conrail train TV-10 into CP 277...from Australia!

And so, given how well it went and the new level to which this brings the idea of remote operations, we will bring you a live Facebook feed of the first full operation with these two gents participating!

Tomorrow night, August 22 2020 at 9 p.m. eastern, tune into the Onondaga Cutoff Facebook Page at:

Note that you do NOT need a Facebook account to watch live with us.  An account would allow you to comment in real time but you can watch either way.  Just close out the login box and scroll down to see the video feed.

It will be just after noon on a September day in 1994, with many trains coming.  It is sure to please the trackside railfan.  Hope to 'see' you there tomorrow night!

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

There's Always the Little Things

The railroad hobby is one that allows a tremendous amount of latitude, an ebb and flow to the intensity with which we pursue it.   In a lot of ways it mirrors life.   In both life and the hobby, it's been a year of big things.  For all of us, which is saying quite a bit.   When there are so many big ideas about and on the forefront of so many conversations, the distractions only increase.  

But, the fire is still burning, and oftentimes among family activity, time and energy spent on home projects amidst a pandemic, work, kids, and play, there is time to fit in a few small layout projects that help keep the ball rolling.  The smaller projects can be satisfying, too!  One of those popped into my head this past weekend and last night I was able to bring it to fruition.  

Conrail's Dash-8 locomotives in the late 1980's were delivered like many road's with standard, conventional cabs and a boxy nose on the short hood.  These noses came with a small grab iron in the middle of the nose.  Atlas Model Railroad Company, a manufacturer of model trains that did some very nice Conrail GE's in HO scale about 20 years ago delivered their models in that manner.  

Zooming in a bit, you can see it more clearly:

Around 1990, Conrail was changing.  The railroad had gone through more than a decade of cost-cutting, route abandonment, layoffs, and service failures.  The late 70's and early 80's were hard years for railroads and Conrail especially.  Great leadership and willingness to persevere won out, though, and government bail-out money helped to improve track, infrastructure and equipment.   But into the 1990's, Conrail was again an independent railroad company that was working to improve operations for shareholders and customers.  The company, sometime around 1992, made a move to modify each and every conventional cab Dash-8 on the roster to eliminate the small grab seen above and install longer 'pecos bill' grab irons for crews and mechanical personnel.   I am not sure if this was in response to injury or crew suggestion, but in either case the railroad followed through.  

Since I am modeling 1994 or so, I needed up the updated grabs.  The tiny wire hoops that came with the models are inserted into holes drilled in the shell.  A quick pry with a needle nose pliers and they slide right out.

Removal of the small wire grab left two holes perfect for mounting the new railings, and to hold the bottoms I drilled new #74 bit holes.   I then used 0.017" brass wire to model 1" metal railings.   

I bent them to fit, secured them with Loctite CA gel, and painted them to match prototype photos.  

It's a minor change but since it is on the front of the units, it makes a larger impact than I expected.  Just another neat little way to tie the Onondaga Cutoff to Conrail in the middle 1990's!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

A Three-Ring Circus

When things got hectic around our house when I was young, my mother always used to say "We're running a three-ring circus!"   I reflect back on that frequently these days. 

I'm normally someone that stays very busy with and enjoys people.  There's always plenty of projects and dates, but this pandemic, which is turning out to be difficult for the country to get past, has really caused a lot of change.  So many social gatherings and trips, both for the hobby and for the rest of life, are on hold indefinitely.  One of the areas I miss the most are operating sessions, of course. 

Making small layout progress helps and is part of the larger scheme to eventually detail most scenes.

Summer fills with family travel and we have done that much more limited than in past years, but still making great memories.

Waiting for the Neowise Comet 7-17-2020

So, with all that, while the rings may have changed there is still more than enough to stay busy.  I made time to write a book and a few new articles for the model railroad press.  Those continue to take time.  We also pushed on the remote operation and putting some of that over on the Onondaga Cutoff Facebook page (  And, with all that swirling I still have the family at home, and work on the 'real' railroad taking up most of every weekday. 

World's End State Park, PA, 7-2020

Tonight, we will have the first set-up night in months, for another remote op session this coming Saturday.   A little normal is better than none.   Summers are always a time for family and fun and even with the weight of this pandemic and the crushing health and economic issues it is causing, those things remain, if modified by necessity.  I hope your midsummer is healthy and as happy as is possible - hang in!

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!