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.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Rapido Visits, Again!

A nice surprise on September 9 was another evening visit from Rapido Trains to the Onondaga Cutoff!   This time around, Josh and Jordan of Rapido reached out to see if they could visit as part of a larger trip doing some research on upcoming projects.

They were mum about most of those, of course, but I did get to hear about Jordan kissing a Rohr Turboliner later that same week.

If that Turbo comes to be, you can bet you'll see one on the Onondaga Cutoff - Amtrak used those regularly on the Chicago Line between New York City and Niagara Falls in the 1990's!

No matter who I've met from Rapido, they have all been fun, informed, and wacky in that happy model railroader / railfan kind of way, and it feels like I've known these guys forever.  The three of us share some modeling interests, especially Jordan and I who have a lot in common in Conrail and in SP interests.   After a tour of the 'OC' we took a few photos of the guys in the layout room.

Employees from Rapido all seem to love layout visits, and Jordan is a Conrail fan. Here's a group shot of all three of us next to CP282.  Rapido's presence on the layout is growing.  Later this year Rapido's much-anticipated B36-7 models are due, and several are headed to the Onondaga Cutoff to bolster the 4-axle fleet.

Speaking of 4-axle GE's, here's my custom-painted B23-7 #1931 working the Cazenovia Industrial Track a few months back.  I put a few photos into Helicon to stack them resulting in a nice depth-of-field, and I liked the result enough that I wanted to share with it you all here.

This caps off a busy summer on the Onondaga Cutoff and I'm excited for the fall.  Next targets include some work to finally finish up the Doelger Brewing complex - as always, plenty of things to come here soon!


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Maintenance Modeling

We've touched on this before here, but one of the interesting parts of railroading that many modelers could emphasize more is modeling the maintenance crews that keep the railroad in good repair.  Every era has them, and with the evolution of mechanized maintenance as well as 'personal protective equipment' (PPE) and safety rules, including some maintenance can help set your era as well.

On the Onondaga Cutoff, Conrail uses custom machinery to help crews maintain track, signals, structures, bridges, and the right-of-way.  Thanks to some custom resin-cast truck cabs and masterful build jobs by my buddy Mark, and to the modification of several of Bachmann's HO scale ballast tamper and hi-rail utility truck, we can model track outages during some operation sessions which adds tremendously to the variety in the operation.

Here Foreman Lee is starting up the tamper, which was left overnight on blue-flag protected track in Onondaga Yard.  The boom truck will drive over in support of the tamper operation.  Ballast tampers on the prototype are used to groom and adjust the ballast beneath and around ties, keeping track level and the ride smooth for passing trains. 

As the sun rises and the machine warms up, the crew gets set to head to the worksite.  This involves paperwork for permission to occupy track - a 'Form D' under the Conrail and 'NORAC' (Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee) rules, akin to a train order, since maintenance equipment cannot be relied upon to shunt signal systems.  These are normally given verbally via the radio, and it's fun to hear that conversation on the radio during a session - it adds nice variety and 'audible scenery' to the atmosphere.

Consider modeling some maintenance equipment for your railroad!


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Warm Nights on the Railroad

One of my primary goals in layout construction on the Onondaga Cutoff is to capture the atmosphere I remember from the 1990's on a healthy, busy Conrail. The second definition of the word is as follows:

Atmosphere noun: the pervading tone or mood of a place, situation, or work of art

Being a professional railroader, and just as significantly being a life-long fan of sitting trackside, has acquainted me with the atmosphere around the tracks. It's exciting anytime but the mystique builds into the night. Add in some warm air, sounds of summer or early fall, the expectation of things to can almost feel the emotion in it.

A few recent images, in my opinion, capture it pretty well. These are taken all in the same few minutes during a recent operation session, and all show train ELSE (Elkhart, IN to Selkirk, NY) waiting and then beginning to work at Onondaga Yard.

For just a moment you can feel like you're back in time, 25 years ago, trackside on Conrail's Chicago Line, while the cicadas and crickets and tree frogs make a racket. For me, I was in love with the railroad and with a wonderful girl; my brother and sister and parents were doing well. The band I was in was playing good music, friends were close and camaraderie all around.  The summer was full of excitement and promise, problems seemed far away and pale in the distance. All of those emotions are tangible again here. The sounds and the feel of locomotives, the smell of warm creosote ties and diesel exhaust, the weight and humidity in the air- these are things that we can almost sense just in allowing ourselves a few minutes to gaze at the images.

Enjoy the last days of the summer, and may your memories bring you back to the atmosphere of good times remembered!


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

On the Cover of Model Railroader!!!

Continuing with the theme of balance in the wake of a challenging few months, I am thrilled to announce that the Onondaga Cutoff has been featured in an article published in Model Railroader magazine! 

While I knew the article was coming, I had no idea that it was in consideration for a cover shot, and so that will live as one of the best surprises I've had, ever.  I am still in a state of shock weeks after the author copy arrived in the mail.  I'm so thankful to be able to contribute, and hopeful that perhaps somewhere a young person will see this and be inspired as I was so many times in my youth.  Coming from a non-model railroad family, this magazine was a wonderful source of excitement for me when I was able to get my hands on it. 

Regular readers will remember the article published in Model Railroad Planning ('MRP') 2017, which gave an overview of the layout and its origins.  That one got the train rolling, so to speak, and I was able to build on that momentum to develop several article concepts for the main magazine. 

This article is the first of those to be published.  It is part of the September 2019 issue of MR, on the shelves now, which has several articles coordinated around the idea of running model trains over '24 hours' including simulated dusk, darkness, and dawn, as well as with the lights on.  One of the early goals for operating trains on the 'OC' was to simulate a rolling schedule on the railroad, including round-the-clock operation and the challenges (and mystique) that changing light conditions bring to prototype railroad operations.  This has proved very popular with operators on the OC, so my writing is centered on getting your room and layout surfaces lit for operations, with photos and some ideas to help it come together.   

As a subscriber for some 35 years, it's one of the life goals I have had, and now it's on the books!  Thanks for your support.  This is a wonderful hobby to share.  More to come as always, but this highlight will remain for a long, long time!

Thursday, July 11, 2019


After a memorable and exciting month of June on the Onondaga Cutoff, with an operating session ahead of a visit from Rapido Trains and subsequent video, July appeared to be much more quiet.  Summer usually allows for less layout time in any case, but also evenings allow for some time to catch up on projects. 

Well, let's just say July found a way to balance out all the positive excitement that was around in June!

Following the fun, the layout was a bit of a mess, with trains and throttles out of position after setting things up for the video shoot.  I was flying high and excited about the upcoming video, looking forward to seeing how Rapido would present the OC.  I decided to do some video of my own to pass the time.  I didn't check the main lines first - while throttles and tools were out of place, I didn't recall any fouling the main.  I chose a big manifest train from staging and a 5-unit consist to lead it.  As it passed through the hidden trackage back behind Iroquois Paper, I heard the unmistakeable sound of something plastic hitting a concrete floor.

I went over to investigate and saw the missing throttle on the floor, and next to it something we all dread: a locomotive had hit the ground.  Trucks were off, parts all over.  As I got close to it, my stomach dropped and heart raced as I saw the cab crushed, and saw for the first time which engine it was.  This wasn't just another engine.  Nope: this was my 6577, my only proper C30-7A.

Conrail rostered 50 of these based in Selkirk, NY, and they were daily across my modeled territory.  Never available commercially except in brass, and in need of several of these, I proceeded to make my own.  Regular readers will remember that this is the one with its own blog post in December 2015.  The one I researched and kitbashed and painted and detailed over 60 hours a few years back.  Not an old blue box engine with details.  Not something used only now and again.  Now it was destroyed due to my own heady haste.  This was a huge loss for our operation and the theme of the railroad.

In checking the scene I discovered what happened: the locomotives on the train I was moving ran into the throttle, which had been left on the main track above locomotive storage tracks due to my rushing around during the Rapido video shoot .  The throttle slid off the main track, falling down and knocking 6577 -of all engines- off the railroad where it fell to the concrete floor.

As you can see, the damage was extensive.  The cab was destroyed.  Details were all over the place.  The body pieces, glued together in the kitbash, were now cracked apart once again.

I was heartbroken.  What to do?  Well, the frame wasn't bent.  Mechanism went back together without too much hassle.  There's that.   And, after I had done this job, CMR Products developed and now offers a C30-7A shell in HO as a polyurethane casting.  While not up to modern injection-molding standard, with proper prep and painting, it would work for me.  Still though...all that time and effort...

After consulting with the guys closest to me on the OC, I started to think about rebuilding using the existing shell.  I had a spare cab for another project that would fit the bill.  Parts could be reused.  The shell could be carefully re-glued.  Inspired by what Conrail's Juniata shops had done, including rebuilds of several C30-7A's that were accident damaged, I decided to do the same.  


This would take some doing.  I cleaned up the replacement cab, modified the headlight and number board housings based on the old cab, and removed the details from the crushed cab for installation on the new cab.  I scrachbuilt flag holders and rain gutters from styrene and glued them in place.

It still is upsetting to see that perfect decal work on the old cab here, but now there is some hope at least!  Number board holes were filled with white styrene and the cab was washed.

I had a can of the same ScaleCoat CR Blue I had used to paint the original model, which was fortunate.  A coat of paint now and we are getting closer....

While that cured I refitted the loose details including steps and handrails, and I took the opportunity to install an iPhone speaker in place of the 'sugar cube' speaker I had used originally.  It makes a huge difference in sound.  I also carved a new headlight lens assembly and light tube.

In the time since I'd done this model the first time, I discovered ShellScale Decals, who do perfect Conrail GE number board decals.  These are much closer to the actual font GE used on these than what comes with the Microscale set.  

Once the decals cured, it was time to move the wipers from the old cab to the new one, and give the dullcoat treatment before window glass installation.

A bit of pastel chalk weathering helped blend the fresh cab into the weathered body.  After installing the new light package, I installed the new cab and attached the handrails.  Well, the brighter headlight and proper number board font are both big improvements.

Now completed and back ready for service, the wreck-repaired 6577 poses for a broadside at Onondaga Yard:

I'll admit that this came out better than expected.  As time goes on I'll add a little more blend to the weathering, but for now this turned out to be a successful rebuild in a situation that looked hopeless to start.  Like the real railroad, sometimes the mechanical shop guys can 'pull a rabbit out of a hat' and get something that looked pretty bad up and running again, adding to the bottom line.  

So, next time you see 6577, you'll know the full story.  

Oh - and I added a guardrail along that storage track, too.  

Enjoy your summer months!


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Rapido's Fun Video at the Onondaga Cutoff

A rumor no more - here's the video that resulted from the June 4 Rapido Trains Inc. visit to the Onondaga Cutoff!

This sure was fun to make, and it's an honor to have had Jason, Dan, and Janet spend an afternoon with me at the layout.  Thanks, guys!


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Rapido Trains Inc. Visits the Onondaga Cutoff!

On Tuesday June 4, we were honored to host a visit from Rapido Trains Inc., one of the top manufacturers of model railroad equipment!

When Rapido had announced their production runs of the GE B36-7, a locomotive that Conrail employed extensively across the Chicago Line, I had reached out to Bill Schneider while attending the Mid-Atlantic RPM meet outside Baltimore, MD last year and offered the OC as a layout on which to film their new models.   Rapido has a series of good (and funny) videos for most of their new product releases and the Conrail B36-7's would look quite at home!

One of their project managers reached out, and after some discussion it worked out that they were able to make the trip in conjunction with another trip.

What a hoot to see Jason, Dan and Janet from Rapido Trains at the Onondaga Cutoff!  These are good and friendly people that are moving the hobby forward, and it's exciting to spend time with them.  We ran a few trains and may have done some video shooting, too - perhaps there will be a Rapido video sometime in the future featuring the Onondaga Cutoff....

Dan looks great in his new shirt, don't you think?   After the visit wrapped up, we took the drive north through the hills of New Jersey so that Jason and Dan could see Tony Koester's Nickel Plate Road layout for the first time.

Jason had met Tony years ago but this was a fun chance to spend time together, and operating or spending time looking at Tony's layout is always a treat.  Tony graciously hosted us for a tour of his railroad, and we may also have done a video shot or two there....

It was a late night early in the week, so this post is getting updated later than usual - but the late night was worth every minute to be with some of the leaders of the hobby, and people I've looked up to for some time.   I'm thankful it came together!