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, July 11, 2018

Long Skirt, Short Skirt!

On the layout, that is.  What did you expect?

As we continue with the 'atmosphere improvement' process on the Onondaga Cutoff, I am happy to say that all the custom skirting for the layout has been completed and delivered to the layout space.  When I have a few minutes, I am hanging the pipe system to support the skirting as we saw recently and then installing the fabric itself. 

...and after. 

 As expected, it's a major change in appearance!   With scenery more or less complete now over the M&E and over the main line from CP282 all the way to the 278 automatic signals near the dairy farm scene, my goal for this part of the effort is to have all the curtains hung over that area before the end of August.

In other news, several newly-weathered freight cars were delivered by Lenny last week, in exchange for a decoder and sound installation on one of his diesels. 

Also, I am making some upgrades to several switch control assemblies in the Island Yard, the locomotive facility that serves to turn power at the east and west end of the run.  This panel requires quite a bit of re-wiring as part of the move but will be a major upgrade in appearance and functionality.

It's hard to believe it is mid-July already.  I have been spending lots of time with the family:

Summer always seems to fly by.  There are plenty of jobs to keep me busy outdoors but the railroad is always calling in the evening, after kid bedtime!  Progress will continue and you'll see it here.


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Summer Projects

I have been working to address a few 'finishing touch' detail projects lately on the Onondaga Cutoff.

While not a big-splash sort of endevour like photo backdrops or layout skirting, I find these smaller scene-by-scene detail projects to be very satisfying.  Over the course of a few hours spread across several days, you can really add a lot of interest to a scene, and it will pop in a way that it did not before.

Take for example Niagara Propane.  This is a location at the west end of Onondaga Yard with a spur to a small, local propane distributor.  Being adjacent to railroad property, this would have been separated by a fence, but to date I hadn't taken the time to scratchbuild chain-link fence.

At ProRail 2018, Bernie Kapinski had opened his Port of Los Angeles layout for operations, and on it he used a product he made under the Alkem Models name - etched stainless steel HO scale chain-link fence.  It does a beautiful job of approximating the look and even includes gates.

I installed according to the instructions and left the gates as manually operated - one more thing for the conductor on the yard job to contend with.  Now this scene, one of the first that visitors see, has a nice finished touch to it.   More fence coming soon to the scrapyard on the Cazenovia Industrial!


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Dressing Up the Railroad: A Long Gray Skirt

With much of the messier scenery work on parts of the layout now complete, I have been focusing more on some of the overall layout atmosphere on the Onondaga Cutoff.  This has included repainting and redecorating the entrance stairway to the layout, finishing the scenery on the M&E as it comes through the entrance stairway, and adding daylight LED lighting to areas to balance out the light temperature. 

Layout skirting is something that does a wonderful job hiding the storage beneath a layout.  Rows of boxes and tools create an organized but chaotic and distracting appearance.  While flooring will be addressed someday as well, here's where we are headed:

There are a variety of options available, most of them stock order fabric for trade shows and display tables.   I considered these but have several issues.

First, they are only available in rectangles, and with a sloping floor in a 178-year old basement, that would lead to an obviously uneven appearance along the un-level floor.

Further, these will appear tall due to the high layout heights, and I did not like the look of creased and fluted fabric at 48" high.  For the Onondaga Cutoff I prefer a look of flatter fabric.

Finally, these are generally fastened to their tables with Velcro.  Velcro is an issue for me here since I need to regularly access the storage below the layout, and tearing velcro off each time would eventually damage the fascia.  I needed more of a 'shower curtain' setup, with fabric that can hang from a support rod or pipe mounted behind the lower fascia, and easily be slid sideways to allow access. 

Therefore, I considered another option: custom-created skirting.   A friend of the family loves to sew, and I approached her about the idea.  She advised that buying fabric in bulk would keep the cost down, and taking some careful measurements would allow her to quickly create custom-sewn curtains for each location around the layout, matching the changing elevations and special needs for some locations. 

I remembered an article in Model Railroader some years back about layout skirting, where the author used Pex plumbing pipe and brackets mounted up behind the fascia as a support.  Clasp-hooks can hang from the pipe, and the fabric from that.  I made the decision that this was the best way to proceed.

You can see here how the Pex curves along with the fascia.  I used clamps to attach the pipe to the joists.   The elevation matters as you want the pipe high enough behind the fascia to hide the clasps once installed.  The clasps I used are about 2" total from top to bottom, so I hung the pipe approximately 2-1/2" up.   Some adjustments are needed here and there due to how the fascia is mounted, but with some creativity and patience it came together well so far.

Here is a quick before, during, and after series for you: 

What a change this is, and will especially be once the other side is completed.  Now that this part is installed, the rest will go more quickly, and I expect to have the rest of the layout skirting completed later this summer!

Monday, May 7, 2018

First Impressions

After a month-long push with some late nights, squeezing in progress when I can, we have arrived at that wonderful 'finished but not complete' state in one of the most important spots:  the first impression of a visit to the Onondaga Cutoff.

Here are few quick shots of the first scene viewers encounter on their way down the steps to the layout space.  This is milepost 265 on the old Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Syracuse Branch, up in the steeply-hilled country south of Syracuse NY.   On my layout, it's now run by the Minoa & Euclid on their daily trips serving customers along the route.

A tighter view shows one of the neat DL&W cast iron mile markers built by regular operator Al T., who you may remember years ago made me neat NYC mile markers and some other details including the Onondaga Yard Office.   Here's a tighter view of MP 265:

I am pleased with how the trackside bushes and weeds came out this time.  I believe it is because of a new and revolutionary way of installing the highlights - the best way I have found to avoid over-engineering the randomness of nature is to hand off the responsibility for it.....

Susie turns out to be PERFECT at randomly placing scenic highlights.  :-)

Finally the actual view down the steps, the real 'first impression' of the layout as of this weekend.  This is far more appealing than the random and scattered view that was here before the scenery was installed.  The next step this summer will be to mount and hang skirting below the fascia around the areas that are completed - and that will be a bigger change than any since the backdrop went in.

Lots of Onondaga Cutoff progress coming soon!


Monday, April 30, 2018

On Backdrop Trees

Like any layout set in the northeastern United States, we can't seem to build enough trees during the construction phase.  No matter what else I am working on, the need for more trees is always in the background.  

In visiting some recent layouts I have decided to focus on the first impressions on the Onondaga Cutoff.  You have seen recently that I have put effort into getting scenery accomplished on the M&E near Euclid Yard.   I also have been inspired to finish at least basic scenery on the first thing visitors see:  The M&E track alongside the staircase, as visitors descend into the basement.  

This is a tricky spot, one of the most difficult to scenic due to the fieldstone foundation and irregular placement of the staircase.  It's never going to be a focus of the railroad but I feel that since it is the first thing we see as we enter the room, it is critical to have it appear finished.  Given the shallow overall scene, and the high likelihood that visitors may brush against the scene, I put some thought into how to construct this spot.  

I used simple corrugated cardboard, cut to fit, and painted forest green as a base.  This was stapled to the stringers behind.  

This is spot where I still like the 'old school' method of tree canopy:  the so-called puff ball tree.  While I have found that the 'SuperTree' kits (available from Scenic Express) are a superior and cost-effective way to create trees, they are fragile, and when only installed in one layer on a shallow backdrop, they appear thin.  My goal here is a thick canopy that can be durable to passing elbows!

Trees are made using spray adhesive and fine turf, as well as Noch leaves as seen above.  Several different shades of green trees, mounted using hot glue in a random pattern, really help to add to the illusion of a forest with different species of trees.  Several rock outcroppings were mounted ahead of the trees as you can see here.

The long-term goal will be to add a layer of SuperTrees over the top of the backdrop canopy, lending some definition and detail to the scene. 

Spring is upon us here in New Jersey, and this greenery inside helps create a convincing effect and a great lead for visitors as they descend the staircase into the layout room!


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

'State of Good Repair'

On the Onondaga Cutoff, one of my most important jobs is to make repairs as needed to equipment and infrastructure that has issues.  Whether due to heavy use, accident, human error, or malfunction, issues crop up that either damage or highlight poor condition of various layout items.  

For operation sessions to be satisfying, the layout and equipment need to work reliably, with as few mechanical and electrical issues as possible.  Track must be clean and well-aligned.  Switches must throw completely, and consistently.  Equipment must have clean wheels and be tuned for operation on grades with heavy trains.  

Prototype railroads use a term used to plan for and fund maintenance items.  'State of Good Repair' (SOGR) applies to assets that are able to be maintained in a usable condition in perpetuity, throughout the useful life of the asset.   This is a living, breathing idea - many variables need to be considered, and the capital dollars needed to upgrade an asset to reach a state of good repair need to be balanced against what the company can afford.  

We need a 'SOGR' for our layouts, too.   Here we have SD60I 5626, an Athearn Genesis model that has performed for years on the layout.  As happens occasionally, the sound decoder in this one suddenly stopped working.  The unit would make noise but not move.  After troubleshooting, I found its address in an old consist.  A quick deletion of the old consist fixed that.  I went further and added a 'keep alive' capacitor system to the sound decoder to help smooth operations.  Now, the 5626 is resting outside Onondaga Engine Terminal, suggesting recent repairs, and in reality it is ready to rejoin the fleet!

The right-of-way too needs occasional adjustment to be in a state of good repair.  Here, Foreman Homoki waits for an addition to his NORAC Form D before proceeding past CP277 during the last operating session.   During operating sessions, we can model the maintenance process used on the prototype with hi-rail inspections, work trains, and the like.   While most of the SOGR maintenance happens between sessions, it is fun to include a model of the work so that operators get a taste of what the prototype does.

I consistently measure and check switch points for proper alignment and motion, as well as monitoring light from signals and structures to ensure what is supposed to be lit actually is lit.  

Even with maintenance operations, we can suggest a prototypical experience.  Operations doesn't have to be all moving trains - a State of Good Repair takes time and effort on the prototype, and we can effectively share that experience and the challenges it creates with others at our sessions.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

From Stand-In to Actual

Since the Onondaga Cutoff was designed for operations, it was critical to the construction effort to have operating sessions sooner than later.  In addition to having fun, the sessions can teach us about what needs to be improved about the track and capacity of the railroad.  Changes and upgrades can be made to the track and infrastructure much more easily before scenery is completed.

Therefore, I used a variety of temporary structures early on.  These were important to give operators a feel for what would be there eventually, and provided cues for fun operations at the same time.  One of those was the enginehouse on the M&E.  This was a structure I'd had since about 1985 on my first layout, and it served its time well as a stand-in on the OC.  Now it was time to upgrade.

I choose one of the 'Kitbasher Series' kids from Rix Products/Plastruct, which fit my vision for the modern enginehouse that would represent the shops and the sign-up office for crews on the M&E.  It includes doors and window frames, which I cut in as I saw fit for the entrance and yard office.   I also framed out a small office in the corner of the interior. 

While the structure progressed, I graded the foundation area with sculptamold, filling in any gaps between the yard surfaces and the fascia.   Styrene strips were used to frame out the edges of the pour I would make for the concrete floor of the shops.

Smaller strips were tucked in along the gauge side (inside) of each rail for the pour.  I mixed a batch of hydrocal plaster to the consistency of loose sour cream - thick, but pourable.  It was poured along a guide dowel into the corners first, and then tamped down to minimize air bubbles.  After about 15 minutes it was hard enough to gently pull away the forms, and shape the edges accordingly. 

After it cured overnight, I stained the new foundation with a variety of burnt Sienna and gray colors to achieve a look of well-worn concrete.   Once the paint dried I weathered the surface with chalks and black stains.  As this is a light repair facility, I did not include any inspection pit or drop tables - this tiny facility for a short line wouldn't have that sort of investment. 

I added interior lighting and some interior details, enough to suggest a well-equipped facility for inspections and repairs.  The structure was weathered with dull coat, then just a light application of pastels and oil washes to replicate a well-used but newer and well-maintained structure. 

A wheelset storage track was added before a layer of black cinder and yard ballast, which is shown above curing with some sand piles and grit along the rails. 

Next steps here are ballast highlights, vegetation, and some more detail to complete the scene.  M&E crews will now have a much more prototypical scene from which to start and end their runs!