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, November 24, 2020

How Model Railroads Allow Focus on Gratitude

Hello readers!  I am realizing as I write this that while the Onondaga Cutoff itself has been operating for 10 years, that this blog is suddenly more than 10 years old too - another verification of the lasting power that this hobby has.  I feel like we still have so much to do!  

Some recent photo work for Lionel Strang's  'A Modelerslife' Podcast has helped me to take a pause this week and reflect over all that time gone by.  The layout as regular readers know is based in 1994, a year full of wonder and yet at the same time full of pending darkness for me personally.  Regulars also know that sometimes I'm a rather reflective person, and try to sit with memories and the feelings they evoke, whatever those may be.  In 1994 I was 17 years of age and the world was all very much in front of me, but mom was very sick with cancer, and those two realities created a dichotomy for me and the whole family.  

My model of my 1989 Dodge Grand Caravan, the official railfanning vehicle of the Abeles, with a backdrop of the official local power for the Albany Division.

For me in those days, railfanning and the small 4'x8' layout I had at home were an escape for me, a different world I could go to where there was much to learn and so much potential to share.  For sure, many dark nights dreading mom's illness and the uncertainty were made easier by my love of trains and railroading.  I found some peace in its consistency. I passed my driver's test on January 3, 1994, with a family friend taking me to my road test because Dad was with mom in the hospital.  In March of 1994, my dad decided to upgrade to a new minivan with everything going on, and I offered to purchase the family van from him using my savings.  It was a wisely spent $1400!  My plates had the letters 'YIX' and so Yixter became my wheels.  Of course I modeled him for the OC complete with 'woody' siding and a scanner antenna.  

This back and forth of opposites is something I watch with curiosity.  So much heartache is still fresh for me, running in parallel with so much joy.  And I think that's the balance of it all:  being grateful for both the joy AND the heartache, practicing gratitude for the gift of being here and of having made it this far, and for having a wonderful thoughtful wife who is full of grace herself, and for our three healthy, rambunctious and thoughtful kids.  I think many can relate.  So there is heartache and darkness, yes - but I feel compelled to focus on the wonder, while still acknowledging that darkness.  Gratitude for joy and heartache - for being here, and alive, and able to see them both.

Pete & Teddy running their layout - November 2020

I modeled my first Conrail SD60 from a Rail Power Products plastic molded shell in 1993.  I did it up as 6860, and it still runs in regular service on the Onondaga Cutoff today.   Model technology has come a long way since 1993, and today Athearn makes a beautiful 'ready to roll' model of the SD60.  Just as modeling brought me peace in my teen years, so it brings me peace in my 40's despite the chaos of a pandemic, toxic politics, life challenges, and indeed - despite so many blessings - some lonely nights.  So, here's Conrail 6852 with last night's work completed, now awaiting several layers of weathering before entering service as part of the fleet on the Onondaga Cutoff.  

I love the length, sleek lines and the massive presence of an SD60.  At 71 feet long and 16 feet high, weighing nearly 200 tons, these are just incredible machines.  Delivered new to Conrail in 1989, this guy will be lightly weathered as he was only 5 years old by 1994.  

The model itself has a curious story too - designed in the US, this was made in China and shipped to the USA.  I bought it in a lot from a fellow in Australia who was modifying the frames for upgrade motors but then changed focus in the hobby.  So what came to me from Australia was what you see in several pieces with a modified frame and loose motor.  What you see here has made no less than three trips across the Pacific Ocean, only to land on the OC, where it was superdetailed, with new sound, new controls, and now weathering to join the fleet.  It's another little story that fills me with gratitude.  

And so looking back on those days, my mind revisits the hopes and dreams of a 17-year-old kid who loved trains and who was damned lucky to have parents and a brother and sister and a greater family of middle-class roots.  I was so lucky to be associated with all of that, to be taught to save money and work hard and appreciate and respect other people.  Mistakes were common but they were learning opportunities - they themselves were a gift in a way, allowing growth by sitting with the darkness of bad choices.  Gratitude for everything, including darkness, always ironically leads to peace.  

May you and yours have a healthy, happy Thanksgiving, and while this time of year makes our hearts ache for those who have gone before us or who cannot be present because of the pandemic or other reasons, maybe it would be valuable to focus on being grateful for what we do have.  

Thursday, November 12, 2020

New Starts, and Old Friends

Life is sure a mix of a bunch of different things, isn't it?  

Amidst all the craziness that seems to be universal this year, there has been some opportunity for time spent on the hobby.  Sometimes that requires a conscious decision to stop watching the news or social media, and instead head down to the basement and make some progress.  Progress comes in different forms:  it can be physical progress on the layout, thinking about future projects or improvements, or it can be prepping for operating sessions.

Remote operations on the Onondaga Cutoff really seems to have taken off.  It is a way to keep the trains moving during the pandemic, and I am grateful for that at least.  Each session requires a 'set up night' where a few guys come over to reconsist power, clean wheels and track, and check paperwork.  It's a satisfying and fun way to get ready for a session.  Here's the lineup of power on the Island, cleaned and serviced, ready for the most recent session:

Speaking of the remote sessions, one of the fun parts about the Facebook Live events we have been hosting is that those videos are archived over on Facebook.  If you'd like to see one, take a look at - and note you don't need an account to watch the videos.  Just close out of the pop-up and you can scroll down to see the listings.

Thanks to some restrictions having been lifted, too, Teddy had his first opportunity to operate on another layout.  Here he is making a move through Sparta Junction on Jerry Dziedzic's New York, Susquehanna & Western layout:

This photo makes me smile.  We all wore masks, per protocol, and kept social distanced, but Teddy's sailing right through the challenges:  he's watching his train intently, making sure to follow speed limits and signal aspects while we made a pickup from the yard.  This bodes well for the hobby as time continues and sure makes for some fun time between Teddy and I.

And, of course, there is always physical work to be done:  here we see an upgrade in progress for Conrail SD50 6707, which wore a special paint job to support the troops as part of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  It held that paint through 1995 or so, and so wears it on my layout.  It is shopped now getting a sound decoder and new LED lighting including ditch lights, as well as new details including air lines and moving the grab irons to reflect Conrail practice.

As this wild year continues and begins to draw to a close, and as days grow shorter, my mind is always reflecting on the months passing.  I am more and more grateful for each moment - life has a way of improving if we are mindful, if we work hard, trust others, and open our minds up.  Doing those things and being grateful for what we have changes the color of the days to come.  

In mind of that, we have a new author who is going to begin contributions to these pages:  Jack T., who regular readers will know from his involvement in the Onondaga Cutoff from the inception 12 years ago.  I think it will add a great bit of variety and analysis that will make the blog a better resource for you all.  

And finally, book proofs are in and returned - the forthcoming signal book is going to be a really neat piece of work.  I am really excited at how it is coming out.  Two articles in Model Railroader, one each in the January and February issues, will prime the pump on the book.  The book is still on track for an April delivery, and that will build some anticipation through the winter:  Good stuff coming!


Sunday, October 25, 2020

10 Years Running on the Onondaga Cutoff

In a wild month of a wild year of a dynamic era, the Onondaga Cutoff has celebrated 10 years of operating sessions!    On October 25, 2011, we had our first 'official' session and somehow here we are having done so for a decade.  It is interesting to me that sometimes dates chosen for a first step become significant only due to the longevity of that which they began.   

So, here's a fun pair of photos:  the first session, and a screenshot thanks to Rich Wisneski of the online 'open house' we hosted on the anniversary date for many of the people that have operated on and contributed to the Onondaga Cutoff!

The 'virtual' crew, 10-25-2020

First operations, 10-25-2011

I am grateful for all the support and especially so this year with so much going on.  I hope this date finds you well and too that in 10 years, we can look back on 20 years of operations here!   


Monday, October 19, 2020

Using Resources - Sharing the Knowledge

There has never been better time to be a researcher of railroad history, whether recent or long ago.  Never before has so much information been available to us so simply and at such a low cost in dollars or time.  When we consider how things are developing and all the difficult energy in the greater world, it is sometimes easy to forget the bright sides of the internet and social media.

A longtime friend, Ian Clark, has begun to post some photos of his time trackside in the 1990's to the internet.  Ian was a quick friend of mine during my time at Syracuse University and he took time to show me the ropes on NYS&W and Conrail in the area.  He's a gifted photographer and in sharing some of his 'just another day trackside' images, I can draw great information for the Onondaga Cutoff.

This is an Ian Clark image of NYS&W's SY-1, the Syracuse, NY based crew that handled interchange with Conrail and local road freight work in the area.   By 1995 they were doing their interchange at Dewitt Yard, using trackage rights over Conrail from their junction at CP 293 west of town to get on the main line.   

What a wealth of information here!  First, we have four units including a GP18, SD45, B40-8 and F45, all in the attractive 'yellowjacket' paint.  We have the train on the North Runner at Dewitt with the large engine service facility in the background, with various Conrail power being serviced as well as an entire 'camp train' for the track gang - the white trailers on flat cars.  

Later that morning, Ian captured SY-1 leaving Dewitt, this time at CP 286 on the Chicago Line in East Syracuse, NY.  They are coming west on the North Runner for their 6-mile run out to Solvay to regain their own track.  This shot reminds me that I need some code lines as seen on the left, and shows a nice mix of freight cars that confirms the current makeup of the train as modeled.

Both of these images, while familiar to me, were freshly reconsidered thanks to Ian's Facebook posts.  Having resources like this and reflecting on how to improve our models helps the cause.  

Likewise it's fun to share the hobby and layout with young people, including my sons Teddy & Pete, both shown having some fun while switching Euclid Yard.  I work to teach them to be careful with the delicate models and the throttles, but also to enjoy the trains and have fun working together moving cars.  

It remains a wonderful hobby, and a great way to share time together for friends and for family.  I am grateful for both!


Monday, September 28, 2020

The Basics Still Call

 I am grateful for all the support that has poured out in response to the Onondaga Cutoff being featured in Railroad Model Craftsman magazine!  All of the people involved with the layout are excited to see it in print and especially given how nicely the piece turned out.  Otto Vondrak is Editor of RMC and his team really put together a nice spread that evokes the feel of the OC! 

Last year, after the layout's first cover feature in Model Railroader magazine, Jack T. asked me 'Well, what do you do now?', in reference to coming off the creative high that is having a feature and cover shot on magazines of this caliber.  It was a good and thoughtful question that gave me some pause.  And the eventual reply was 'get back to operations!'   And so it was last fall, when we did just that.

This year that is more difficult and involves a different sort of lift, like so much else.  Remote operating sessions are fun but are a lot more work to set up and pull off.  They are worth it in these wild days but it's not the same as getting back to operations as we know them.   And so, keeping the fire lit, I am getting 'back to basics' and finally putting some time into some organizational items as well as layout room maintenance along with various projects with equipment.  

I dug right into the last of the two Dash-8 upgrades on the list, including my pair of Atlas C40-8's in Conrail livery.  These were nice models in the 1990's that by today's standards hold up provided we add a few new details and upgrades.  

The first upgrade is to include modern DCC.  I had several Soundtraxx Tsunami 2 decoders, along with iPhone speakers and LEDs in the supply cabinet, so I modified the weights to accommodate the new decoders.  Cosmetically, I wanted up add the Conrail-style grab irons and new RS-3L air horn castings, as well as new numberboards with correct font and coloring.  

 I used white styrene, painted white, and decaled with ShellScale decal set #106.  Once dried and dullcoated they were glued to their mounts with CA gel.   The result is a huge improvement on the old Atlas boards from 1990.  Best of all, since they are black on white, they light right up when installed over the stock atlas number board areas.  

I also took the long-due step of cleaning and repainting the access stairs for the layout space.  Atmosphere is important to me, and I think adds to the experience of being in the room.  This is an old, old house (built around 1840) and so the steps are old and worn, but a coat of paint and new tread grips with reflective stripes add a lot.  

Stairs in need of paint...

Stairs no longer in need of paint.

Step treads added.  Layout entrance, improved!

I am fortunate to have a hobby that allows this variety of satisfying activity, and more fortunate still that I am so driven to keep it moving.  Life is a balance, and a series of choices that we make, mixed with some luck and some chaos.  It is on us to ensure that we are putting some thought and critical reflection into those choices so that they are not just happenstance, but instead are mindful decisions that create opportunity for improvement.  

There are some exciting things coming soon for the Onondaga Cutoff, and we can look forward to this.  For now it's nice to settle back into making some of the changes that help make the experience better.  There is always the chance for improvement!  

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!