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.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Time and a Sense of Place: Passing of the Torch

Moments come along in life that remind us of the journey we are on.  Some of those moments are full of bright memories, and others are in the shadows of darkness.  Regret, frustration, a sense of missed opportunity: these are real, honest feelings, and deserving of our time.  Darkness is part of life, after all.  However, the bright outshines the dark.  The bright spots are the most poignant of these moments and are nearly tangible in their nostalgia and in the good energy that we carry along in life.  

On Sunday, June 8 2021, one of the influencers of the Onondaga Cutoff passed away.  At first glace, the life of Barbara 'Babby' Siegelman would have little to do with a model railroad.  She loved gardening, family, horses, and her community.  Giving and thoughtful, she had more friends than days in the year and was a wonderful person to speak with.  She spent her senior years raising her granddaughters on a horse farm built by her late husband and laughing late into the night on the phone with lifetime friends around the world.

Photo by N. Garvey

And, she inadvertently offered one of the most direct influences of my vision for my model railroad: the vast layout built by her late husband in the basement of her country home in Bedminster, NJ.   

I literally stumbled into this one out of the blue.  The layout had been years in the making by 1995, but we wouldn't know Babby for years after that.  After my mother passed away in 1995, my dad poured time into his work as a teacher and into each of his three kids: me, my sister and my brother.  He saw each of us off to college as a widower, a show of strength I will remember for the rest of my time.  He'd regularly travel to Syracuse, Ithaca, and Millersville for sporting events in support of each of us, bringing friends along for the ride, creating community wherever he went.  He didn't date until about five years later, the summer of 2000.  A blind date was set up by his cousin, where he met Babby.  He called me on his flip-phone cell, after they had enjoyed supper and were walking the gardens at her home.  "Dee - you GOTTA come see this!  What are you doing right now?"  She had been talking of her late husband and how he wasn't the gardener - his hobby was in the basement.  Needless to say I didn't go down that night - never interrupt a first date! - but did shortly thereafter, and upon seeing the sprawling 3-rail O scale setup, I called Jack in the same manner Dad called me.  "DUDE - you GOTTA see this!"

This was a huge 30' X 70' basement, and the layout was two tables: one about 20' X 30'with an operator's pit, and other about 20' X 10' that was controlled from the same pit.  Large loops allowed a few trains to move at once.  But it hadn't turned a wheel in the several years since Babby's husband passed.  

At first we were a bit reticent about running the trains - after all, Babby's late husband had built it and we were guests - but after a few visits with Dad, Babby offered that I could call and we could come by ourselves.  Jack and I worked up a plan to make a few improvements and asked permission to do so.  Babby was thrilled, "I just love to see it running again, you boys are welcome anytime.  Give me a call and come down, and you can do as you please with it - it's wonderful to see it working again!"  

That was all the invite we needed.  Over the next few weeks we adopted the 'orphaned' layout.  We moved all of Jack's 3-rail stuff down there, and also boxes of all my HO stuff which at the time was in storage at my apartment in Westfield.  And from the fall of the year 2000 right through the start of the Onondaga Cutoff, Jack and I went to Babby's on hundreds of evenings, and put thousands of hours and dollars into the layout.  We were young, fully employed, and without many commitments, and the layout blossomed.  

Jack came up with a name:  Claremont & Saucon Valley.  It represented generic northeastern territory allowing us to run different sets of power on different nights with the same operating plan. Jack developed a system of train symbols and a car-forwarding plan to fit the infrastructure. And we got to work.

We rewired the whole thing to be run by three Lionel ZW transformers. We changed the routes, smoothed joints, added interlockings, added sidings.  I painted the walls, added backdrops, and added another interchange track to the two that were there already.  Jack slowly but steadily came up with a whole new design for the tracks and switches in the middle of the larger layout, and we separated wiring for the smaller layout where I would now be the operator.  

We developed a system to operate it by 'running time' instead of laps or distance.  This kept trains moving while we switched, classified or worked other trains.  Quickly the size disparity made operations tough, so with Babby's permission we reorganized the basement and added an extension to create an 80-car, stub-end classification yard.  


It was 3-rail, yes - but with mostly scale equipment thanks to Jack, and I began to contribute too.  After all, I had no home layout at the time, and this was the bird in hand.  Jack and I would bring beers and a pizza to the layout, eat it down, and get to work.  We installed large amounts of new Atlas O track and switches for reliability and appearance. The operation grew.  Big-time, main line action, with yard and switching to support it.  

Babby began to have parties when we would operate so that others could come see the layout in action.  By 2003 friends started to bring their kids, and relatives made time to see it work.  We hung red curtains made from old tablecloths as layout skirting, and added scenery to improve the appearance.   

We turned the lights off and had 'nighttime' sessions too.

We continued with the layout through ups and downs in life. Jack traveled to Europe, and I traveled the American west with Heath. The night after 9/11, I was in the basement at Babby's painting the wall blue, follow of sorrow and despair in the state of the world.  A few nights after my sister died in 2003, dad was with his cousin, Ben with his friends, and so I was in the basement at Babby's drinking beers with Jack.  A day after each of us graduated with master's degrees, we were down at Babby's. As the decade passed we discussed our families, hopes and fears in that basement.  Babby was a confidant as we searched our lives for women to fall in love with, a friend and a wise mentor.  We'd visit with her for a while during our visits and share the goings on. 

The camaraderie grew to include regular attendees.  Scottie S. and Rick S. were both present quite a few times, sharing laughs, trains, and beers, and the fun continued.

Most of all, it was FUN.  Trains moved and we had FUN.  And so much of the lessons we learned at Babby's are part of the foundational fabric of the Onondaga Cutoff:  camaraderie, fun, multiple-track mainline action, interchange, a car-forwarding plan, night operations, open houses, regular sessions for both readying the layout for running and for operations themselves.  The Onondaga Cutoff has roots in the energy of the Claremont & Saucon Valley.  

And when Jack and I each got married, each of our wives met Babby and enjoyed the camaraderie, too.  Even as each family began to have children, we still made time for the layout and to keep Babby appraised of the journey.  And time goes on.  Shadows pass: Babby was in a terrible car accident around 2010, and was ill for months after.  We checked in, but visitors were restricted.  Once she felt better we returned, and the layout was off and running again.  By this time the vision that was so tangible to me was starting to be realized in the Onondaga Cutoff, construction of which began in 2008 and operations in 2011.  We split time between layouts but more children arrived in each family and time began to shrink.  We stayed in touch with occasional visits and calls, but time goes quickly, and for the first few months of 2021 I could tell things were different.  Reading of the news of her death was a breathtaking pause, a twinge in my mind and body in realizing in a moment the weight of the loss.  

And so, Godspeed Babby.  Thank you, for everything.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Correcting A Crossing Circuit - With Expert Help

As regular readers know, we have a fully automated grade crossing on the Onondaga Cutoff.  Just west of CP 277, Highbridge Road crosses the Chicago Line, and the grade crossing is protected by lights and gates mounted on posts.  These are automated through the use of sensors placed along the track - distant sensors, located so as to provide gates being down before a maximum-speed train's arrival, and 'island' sensors on each side of the crossing so that the gates rise immediately after a train passes.  

I used the Azatrax system for this as detailed in the March 8, 2019 post and have found it to be excellent.  

However, it was designed for a simple double track main line application - not one with a crossover between the distant sensors and the crossing.  Essentially, where the diagram above reads 'Track 1" there are switches that allow trains to cross over in each direction.  Therefore, depending on the sequence of traffic, the machine would be deceived by certain crossover moves, since the incorrect sensor would be triggered or missed, and that lead to unprototypical operations.  

After one of the Facebook Live video releases on the OC Facebook Page ( ) a viewer commented that he could help with this.  Matt Paquette, who is a professional signal maintainer for a major northeastern freight railroad, advised that we could use the internal contacts in the Tortoise Machine to re-wire the distant 'E' and 'W' detectors to provide proper detection for crossover moves.   Matt built a new diagram to follow.

Essentially, the Q1 output needed to be routed through the internal contacts in the Tortoise machines so that the grade crossing board would see the proper distant detection for the move.  It took some doing and soldering in tight clearances - not my best work - but it's functional, and seems to test out.  The true test will be an operating session!  

So, thanks to Matt, the Onondaga Cutoff just got more prototypical.   Matt's expertise helped where I had run out of choices, and this becomes another example of 'Let Experts Be Experts.'

Friday, May 28, 2021

Progress, Here & There

Progress on the layout varies a bit by season.  Looking over the 12 years or so of entries here, in most cases there is a load of progress on the Onondaga Cutoff in the winter and spring which tails off a bit once we get to the warmer months.  Part of this is more outdoor activities and household maintenance tasks, and more of it is using free time for trips or helping on other's layouts, too.  It's all a welcome part of the hobby. 

Some of those trips are just local jaunts with the kids.  Kristen and Susie had a weekend Girl Scout camporee last weekend, and so the boys and I had a weekend to spend time together.  Teddy calls that "boy time" and looks forward to it, which warms my heart!  Pete & Teddy wanted to watch trains, see some new things, and explore together, and so we did just that.

Along our local mainline, the NS Lehigh Line across central NJ, we did some hiking along the rivers and found a new-to-us through truss bridge.  Teddy still loves bridges of all types and especially railroad bridges.  They were amazed!  

During the evenings, I made time to finish a few projects that had been hanging around the workbench.  Months ago I finally purchased a vacuum car for the layout after finding a good deal on eBay for one.  It was the Lux model from Germany but works seamlessly with my DCC system.  But, I thought the bold German lettering was a bit much.  So it got a coat of paint, replacement couplers, and new lettering for a plausible piece of Conrail maintenance equipment.  Here it is, awaiting final weathering, after which it will join my CMX track cleaner car in the setup night maintenance train.

And, some of the long term collecting of Conrail covered hoppers is beginning to pay off.  Thanks to amazing weathering by Lenny Harlos, we soon will have a unit grain train for the Onondaga Cutoff, which fills yet another gap in our operating plan.  Here's a sneak peak of work so far.

As spring opens up in to summer, and as pandemic restrictions seem to finally be waning, it's exciting to look forward to so much that we used to take as guaranteed.  Operating sessions, family gatherings and road trips - all these things are coming back soon and it's an exciting time.  Best wishes to you on this Memorial Day weekend, may we keep in mind those that have given their life in service to our community and our nation.  

And may the best still be yet to come!

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Upgrading the Tower at CP 282

 A continuing vision for the Onondaga Cutoff is to 'Let Experts Be Experts.'   We've discussed that before, and it is manifested in different ways.  Skilled hands helped with benchwork.  Trusted advice from Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman guided track installation and wiring.  Computer and IT experts helped me with networking.  Signal professionals did the signal design and guided the installation.  Transportation Planning professionals designed the car-forwarding and locomotive distribution systems, and design each operating session.  The list goes on, but it is clear that the total is much greater than the sum of the parts.

Recently, I had been searching for a suitable permanent model at CP 282 to represent an old NYC tower, repurposed as an office.  My vision was to model the tower that once stood at SJ interlocking, which became CP 293 under Conrail's tenure.  Al Tillotson, a talented modeler and regular operator on the OC, had contributed a foam-core and photo-printed stand-in that was suitable for its purpose for the last several years.  However, my goal was to model the brick and mortar construction from the 1930's as NYC upgraded its route through Syracuse.  

SJ was a critical interlocking that included not just the Water Level Route mainline but also the old Auburn Main, the Freight Bypass to the north, and the Lackawanna Oswego main line and interchange - plenty to keep the operator busy.   By the late 1950's though, NYC was installing new Centralized Traffic Control on its main routes, which allowed interlockings to be remote controlled from many miles away.  This made the tower operator and manual interlocking redundant.  The machinery was removed in the late 50's but the maintenance crews continued to use the tower as an office for decades to follow.  By the mid-90's, though, the end came and the structure was demolished.  

I worked with Perry Squier, a local modeler and expert scratch builder, to move forward.  Perry offered to build the tower if I could find plans.  Through the internet I came in contact with a former Conrail employee that - believe it or not - rescued the actual blueprints for this tower from a dumpster.  Amazed, I reported back to Perry who was surprised and pleased that we'd located the actual plans.  I made copies and Perry got to work.  

Perry asked that I do any interior detailing, which I did during a test-fit of the structure.  I also added lighting before returning the project for completion.  Perry delivered the final structure after several months of work, and I installed it on the layout - what an improvement!  

This adds a tremendous amount of NYC heritage and flavor to a scene that was already nearly complete.  The old tower was removed, and will be headed for my boy's layout in the attic, thanks to Al's generosity.  The new tower does an amazing job at night!

Another example of collaboration that turns out for the best: asking experts to help has made this layout greater than it could be if I were doing it myself. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

A Walking Tour of the Onondaga Cutoff

With recent requests for a video overview of the Onondaga Cutoff, I am excited to present a new YouTube channel and a few videos for your enjoyment!

I recorded a walking tour for viewers and have posted it on YouTube at  

The railroad is always a work in progress, of course, but this is a good snapshot as of Spring of 2021.  Enjoy!

Monday, April 19, 2021

Sweeping Vistas

 Now and again, it's nice to make a few images of the layout and of some of the longer and more sweeping views that are possible with a basement-sized layout and photo backdrops.  Views are even more satisfying when you consider how much time and effort has been spend behind the scenes in the last few months with major construction projects!  Here's a few recent efforts:

Amtrak 276 meeting SEIN at CP 280, Onondaga NY

BRSE at CP 282, Onondaga NY

By combining high F-stops for depth of field with Helicon photo-stacking software, you can really create some memorable images around the layout.  Looking at photos like these takes me back in time to warm days along the tracks on the prototype, waiting to see what the railroad would run past me.  It's a soothing experience to let the mind wander using the layout as the medium!

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Final Step: New Island Local Control Panel - Ready to Go!

 After a big push in the last few weeks, it's now time to report that the installation of 'deep' staging is complete on the Onondaga Cutoff!   Last time we finished up the trackwork installation, which has since been wired into the system.  The final step was to replace the Island local control panel (LCP) with a new one to reflect the changes.  

Thanks go to Nick Anshant on this step, as he is always willing to use his experience on the prototype to help make the Onondaga Cutoff better. We went back and forth to settle on the new layout of the lines and also the new names - these tracks will be named the 'Old Auburn Main' along with a pair of running tracks, reflecting Conrail practice in the Solvay, NY area on the prototype.

Nick had done standard artwork to reflect Conrail practice in the signal bungalows in the field and had the artwork from the previous panel that he was able to modify to reflect the new trackage and switches.  One the art was set, I sent it off to a local sign shop who printed it on 1/4" thick PVC.  I chose plastic here instead of aluminum because the mounting area on the masonite hardboard has a slight curve.  A side benefit of PVC is that it is easy to work with.  I used a 1/8" allen wrench screwdriver as a hole punch by setting the new panel on flat wood on the workbench, and tapping the back of the screwdriver with a small hammer.  This allows the holes to be drilled cleanly and helps prevent the drill bit from wandering.  Here's new panel ready for light installation.

It is nice to do this work at the workbench, too, before trying to mount the panel to the layout.  Now it is time to carry it to the location of the install - much of the work this time around is to simply move the controls from the old panel to the new one, before installing the remaining new hardware.  

Thankfully, the old panel was set with screws, and had enough extra length in the wiring to allow it to hang forward for the work.  I moved the pushbuttons and LEDs over in number order, pair by pair.  It was an arduous and slow task but that was to be expected for a project like this.  However, I did not like putting all the tension on those soldered joints.  So, it was time to build a temporary work shelf.

Using some of the leftover brackets from the benchwork construction for the deep staging and some C-clamps, I set two supports attached to the masonite and set some 1" foam insulation left over from a recent scenery effort across those to act as a work shelf.  This allowed the rest of the cutover to go smoothly, along with the install of the new double-pole, double-throw (DPDT) toggles for switch control and the new LED indicator lights for the new tracks.

By the end, I was more than ready to clean up the area, put the tools away, and turn on the final installation for testing.  I ran engines up and down each route, checking to make sure all was properly indicated and powered.  I tested the on-off toggle as well and sure enough, it checked out!  

In summary, this was a long-awaited project that in some ways I was dreading.  It was tight, and operationally more tight than anything so far on this layout.  But it came together thanks to working with the team - modifying the plan and the construction by discussing with others, having others help to set components in place, and finally making the decision to dive in and do it at the tail end of this pandemic before life gets hectic once again.  

Now comes the exciting part - assembling the unit trains to occupy the track, and adapting our operating plan to fit the new traffic!   Stay tuned as we head into an exciting spring on the Onondaga Cutoff.