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.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Going Back, For the Future

Winter has arrived here in New Jersey, and with it more time for modeling and for working towards getting several projects moving forward on the Onondaga Cutoff.  

First among those is a new tower for CP 282, which has long been a goal of mine.  The stand-in, generously constructed by Al Tillotson from foam-core and prototype photos has worked well well for several years but a permanent replacement is needed.  Thanks to the internet I was able to track down the actual original New York Central (NYC) blueprints for the tower that stood at 'SJ' interlocking, on the boarder of Syracuse and Solvay, NY, until 1994.  In discussing the project with Perry Squier, a gifted modeler who also lives in northwestern NJ, I mentioned how it would be years before I could have time to do it.  Perry volunteered to help and build the tower so long as I did the interior detailing and lighting.  I am always up for collaboration, especially from experts!

Once Perry had the building constructed, I picked up the project to test fit it on the layout.  Since the prototype has a basement, installation required - gulp - cutting into finished scenery and subroadbed with a jigsaw.  Yikes!  

This is never a fun feeling.  I used some scraps of plywood to ensure I didn't destroy the track and signals in the area, and also made sure to tie the wires underneath this spot out of the way so that the saw didn't cut those, too.  

Cuts made, I could test fit the tower:

You can see the older stand-in in the back, which actually represents an abandoned version of a Hudson Division NYC tower in the 1980's.  The permanent structure will be built following Conrail practice to repurpose old towers in the 70's and 80's into field offices for maintenance of way personnel - so we're installing an older structure, but one that was still used in 1994.  With that in mind, the second floor office and workshop would be visible and especially at night.  Therefore interior detailing was in order.

It is time-consuming work, but a printed patterned floor to represent linoleum or asphalt tiles from the early 1960's along with a variety of industrial furniture, purchased from as 3-D printed items, allowed me to represent a railroad office setting.  I painted and weathered all the details based on my own experience in such converted towers, and added LED lighting which will augment night operations.  Now the towers go back to Perry for roof and soffit installation before final install on the Onondaga Cutoff.  

As February 2021 has set in, we have a refreshing change of pace here in northwestern New Jersey in a stretch of good cold weather and regular snowfall.  The kids are amazed and enjoying it, and I am too.

It's been about 5 years since we have had more than a few inches at a time down here on the piedmont, and while the mountains and hills to the north and west have fared better for snow lovers it has been quite a while for even those spots to have weeks of accumulating snowfall.  This winter we have had snow on the ground now for close to three full weeks, which is a true winter feel and a pleasure to share with the kids.  

Finally, we have another Facebook Live event this coming weekend, Saturday February 20 at 9 p.m. Eastern.  Just head on over to the OC Facebook page to watch live with us, or to see it at a later time:

Enjoy the winter weather, and I will be back soon with more progress on the Onondaga Cutoff!

Friday, January 29, 2021

Some Press for the 1:1 Scale Railroad

In a diversion from our regularly scheduled program, I was interviewed at work by Jim O'Grady from WNYC and The Gothamist, one of the papers in New York City.  The topic was Newark Penn Station, one of my professional concerns, and it was fun to bring some good press to the railroad for which I work.  

Take a read and enjoy!  


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Book! Guide to Signals & Interlockings - now available for presale!

 I am excited to announce the presale for my new book - Guide to Signals & Interlockings , now listed at Kalmbach Media:

This book is the culmination of 2 years of effort from a variety of contributors and reviewers, as well as the art and editorial team at Kalmbach.  Writing the text and assembling the photos was a major part of evenings and weekends for me through much of the chaos of 2020 and in many ways was a bright silver lining to a difficult year.  Special thanks are due to many:  Eric White, Lisa Schroeder, Hal Miller and Carl Swanson at Kalmbach, Tony Koester, Jerry Dziedzic, Mark Hemphill, Dave Barraza, Joe Relation, Rich Wisneski, Jack Trabachino, Bill Darnaby, Nick Anshant, J. Alex Lang, to name a few.  The greatest thanks are due to my wife Kristen and my kids Susie, Teddy, Pete, who had to deal with a lot of nights of me being distracted and preoccupied!  I am grateful for all the support of each of these people.  

In a small reminder of life going on, it is listed with a shipping date of March 8, 2021.  March 8 is the birthday of my late sister who would have turned 43 this year, and who without question would have been thrilled with this.  She wasn't a train person, by any means, but she was a family person that would have been very excited for her big brother.  It's something worth reflecting on.

It is still surreal to see the cover for sale online, at a site I have admired for years.  I am really pleased at how nicely the Kalmbach team made this look, and am very excited to see it in print!  I am hopeful it will help readers understand railroad signaling more, and that it will inspire beginners and advanced modelers alike to work and include signals where prototypical on their railroads.  It is an exciting time in the hobby and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute at this level.


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

More Live Remote Operations - This Time, Night!

 This coming Saturday, January 16, we will again be doing live operations with remote operators on the Onondaga Cutoff.  Just click on on Saturday night at 9.

This time, we will follow a popular request to film with the lights down to simulate night time.  While that reduces visibility, it does add a different mystique to the sessions, and so we will take a chance and see how it goes!   I think we can all use a break from the political frustrations and selfish chaos we see too often in the news.  There is no better way to do that than to spend time trackside with friends.  

If you miss the live event, the video will still be stored and available for you going forward on the OC Facebook Page.

Hope to 'see' you there!

Friday, January 8, 2021

2021 - May it Exceed Expectations

Happy New Year to you, and to your family and your community.  While it is just another turn of the calendar, this one has a larger feel to it, or at least it seems to be so.  I am excited to share that there are a variety of exciting projects that will be coming to light this year, which we will discuss a bit further down.

Today I think it's important to remember that small steps are the beginning to all of those projects, no matter how much work we have to do to finish them.  Let's take a look at layout photography.  Some of my best shots these days begin with curiosity - just experimenting with a smart phone.

Recently, in developing some ideas for images for a coming submission, I took this shot of TV10X rounding the big curve west of MP 277.  It's a neat wide angle shot, but let's look harder.  The hue (color cast) is too red, too warm.  The 5088 is sharp on front but the depth of field - how much of the different parts of the image are in focus - leaves a lot to be desired.  The foreground and background are out of focus.  The back left is also too dark - underexposed.  

So, there is a lot of room for improvement.  And those improvements are not difficult. But make no mistake - this simple snapshot proves to my eye that the concept of this shot works, and that is a great place to start.

How about this one?

Here we have the daylight yard job, YAON-14, spotting a car.  I added a figure to include a 'human' element, got out the old smartphone and snapped another shot.  Again we see some issues with depth of field, but overall this shot too works nicely.  

Both images were subsequently re-shot, with better additional lighting in place, with my DSLR.  The camera is placed on a tripod and manually focused and adjusted for exposure using a high 'F-stop.'  The higher the F-stop, the better the depth of field.  Then, each of the shots are loaded into Helicon Focus, which takes the sharpest parts of each photo and combines them into one photo with a superior depth of field.  This takes quite a bit of work, but since I had experimental shots, I knew the results would be worth it.  Successes like this help to bolster our spirits against some of the tough energy we see in the rest of the world.

Let's be clear - besides the hobby of model railroading, 2020 had been a challenging year in a challenging era.  Chaos in the news - a continuing pandemic, the continuing restrictions that cause economic hardship, and worst of all now, the descent from peaceful protest to treason in the US capitol on January 6...this is disturbing for all Americans and for many around the world.  There is no question that all of these things take up an increasing amount of our consciousness.  These things tend to divide, and so it is no surprise that the more the negative news, the more the divide.  It's a direct relationship.

So, what is there to do to improve things?  Well, look - it is up to each, and every, one of us to focus on something positive.  What do we have in common with others?  Yes, we must sit with the darkness, and yes appreciate it for what it is, but make a decision to focus instead as your day continues on something that brings people together more than it pushes us apart.  Protests are part of democracy.  We cannot however allow, encourage or tolerate violence in protests.  We also cannot allow ourselves to universally condemn or dehumanize those we don't agree with.  In a nation of laws, we must follow the laws and hold ourselves accountable to perseverance, to working to create community instead of focusing on divide.

Model railroading is a big part of that for those of us in the hobby.  Use it for what it is: creative, thoughtful, mindful, and able to build communities.  It must start with you, and me, and each of us.

In that light I have been pushing myself lately, and have some fun things to announce.  First, I had articles in both the December Model Railroader magazine and January Model Railroader as well, this most recent one on Remote Operations.  I have several new pieces for MR under development and also now have a sample cover for the book which is due in April.  Here's a tiny sneak peak of the cover!

Best wishes to you and to your family for a happy and healthy new year - may 2021 become a year that exceeds expectation!

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Join Us Live - Virtual Operations!

As the pandemic caused by COVID continues worldwide, more and more of us are trying to find ways to deal with the challenge of staying safe while still having interaction with others. Earlier this year, Rich W., one of the founding members of the OC thought that one way we can participate in this is by 'virtual' remote operating sessions. 

Therefore, the next in the series of 'Trackside on the Onondaga Cutoff' will air on Facebook Live Friday night, December 11, at 9 p.m. eastern time over at - we hope you can join us!  Note that you don't need a Facebook account to watch - just close out of the box asking for you to sign in or sign up, and scroll down to see the event link.  

If you look around the page, you will also find an archive of other such videos available for viewing at any time.  Feel free to check those out as well, or to catch up on the most recent if you aren't available tomorrow night at 9 p.m.

It's a small effort in the larger push to outlast this virus, and still be able to find some community and have some fun!


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.