TV24 at CP 277

TV24 at CP 277
Conrail TV-24 rolls east through rural Central New York in Onondaga County, September 1994.

Friday, December 31, 2021

As the Year Draws to its Close

 Good evening!  Once again we're coming to a new year, and after the last few years we all know that we have a tremendous amount to be grateful for.  While loss and darkness always exist, light and hope balance these things, and keep us driving forward, whether we think we can, or not.

And so on this New Years Eve 2021, let's look mindfully at an image I made more than a decade ago.  

The story for you:  A perfect storm came together atop the Allegheny Mountains in 2010, and the resulting blizzard slammed operations on the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline.  Snow was piling up amidst howling winds and by good fortune, we had been holed up ahead of the storm at The Station Inn in Cresson, PA, a few hundred feet from the main line.  Traffic died down even on this critical piece of railroad as the storm grew in intensity.

Hours later the scanner suddenly came alive over the din of late-light beverages and the clanking of steam-heat radiators in the 150-year-old building, and a few of us scrambled to suit up and grab our rigs, rushing out to the fury of a mountaintop storm.  We waded through snow to reach the embankment to record NS 6317 cutting west through the height of the blizzard after midnight on February 7, 2010. I decided on the old school pan shot - Hand-Held, F5.6, ISO 1000, 1/10th of a second...

And for us here on the eve of 2022, I will argue there is a lot to see.  Darkness and uncertainty ahead, but deliberate progress in a forward direction.  Light from its own source, not depending on outside help.  Movement, dynamic change guided by steel rails that are hidden from plain sight.  I find this hopeful, and I hope that you too will find a way forward into the new year, and that the best may still be yet to come.  

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 17, 2021

An Operating Session Visit - With Retired Conrail Dispatcher Bill Moll

Imagine playing a game of backyard football and the quarterback from your favorite pro team stops by to play the position.   Or, maybe you're in a cover band at a local tavern, and your favorite pro musician comes by to sit in.  

Well, when you hold operating sessions - really, a railroad role-playing game - on your prototype-based model railroad, and a retired dispatcher that worked that territory is willing to sit in and enjoy the session, it's about the same feeling!   

Bill Moll is a railroad name around Central New York.  He was an intern at NJ DOT in the early 1980's, and eventually worked for the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railway (NYS&W) at their dispatcher's offices in Cooperstown, NY, in the later 1980's.  By 1992 he was at Conrail, based in the Selkirk NY offices to dispatch Conrail's Albany Division including the Chicago Line, the most important main line in New York and one of the most important in the United States.  He worked through the change to CSX, and retired several years ago but has stayed active volunteering at local tourist railroads as well as historical societies.  After the Covid pandemic hit, Bill ended up finding the Onondaga Cutoff on Facebook - but knew the railroad culturally and operationally from his experience on the prototype! 

The Onondaga Cutoff has been grateful for the visits of a variety of people both in the industry of railroading and that of modeling railroading, and having a retired Mohawk Dispatcher visit is right there as a highlight in the top of the list.  

After a run around the railroad, Bill was ready to give it a spin.  Under the steady guide of Chris Lee, one of the regular dispatchers on the OC, Bill was quickly qualified on the territory and proceeded to dispatch the rest of the session.  It was a natural seat for him and a real pleasure to watch the railroad perform in top form, under the hand and direction of a professional.

As railroading has grown more automated, with more and more track controlled by dispatchers and centralized or computer traffic control, the role of the dispatcher has grown in importance.  As a kid trackside through the 80's and '90's, the voice of the dispatcher on the radio was almost like a 'god' in the sky: someone that saw the whole picture and reached out to guide movement across the system.  

The session was great, and we will be excited to host Bill and his friend Brett again soon.  After the session was an even better surprise when Bill showed us an actual dispatcher's sheet from the Mohawk Desk from 1996, as well as something I'd hoped to add to my collection of railroad items for my whole life:  an actual 'station sign' from an interlocking on the Chicago Line in the Syracuse area, where I grew up watching trains.  

This was a total surprise, and a generous gift from a retired railroader to a current railroader and model layout owner like me.  I am deeply grateful for the visit and it is commemorated by the generous gift of the nameplate from CP 278, in Kirkville, NY, which was removed during the upgrades in about 2014.  

This is an evening I won't forget for many years to come.  Thanks, Bill, and Brett!  

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

A Return to November Interchange

Among the most disappointing losses of organized activities in the COVID era was to learn that the DC-NJ 'November Interchange' in 2020 had been postponed indefinitely.  That weekend, which has been around for more than 7 years now, became a focus of every fall for me and for the 'wisdom keepers' on the Onondaga Cutoff.  

After that hiatus, it is exciting to report that Interchange returned in 2021, arriving in New Jersey to make up for the lost year.  About 22 'boomers' made the trip to operate on any three of 7 available layouts of which the Onondaga Cutoff was one.  The OC hosted 11 guests, who were shown the ropes by 6 of the regulars. 

Here we have noted model railroad author and operator Steve King, one of the founders of the 'ProRail' organization in the 1980's, on a visit to the Onondaga Cutoff once again.  He's the hogger on today's NYS&W interchange move SY-1, a Syracuse-based job that will take freight from Conrail interchnage down to Binghamton, NY.

Meanwhile, one of the most enthusiastic and consistent supporters of the 'OC' is Wayland Moore, a kindred soul from Virginia who has made fast friends with all of us on the OC.  Rich Wisneski as always is a great mentor and guide for the guys as they get their feet on the ground, and wheels rolling.

One of the great parts of Interchange is that a group of guys that haven't seen the railroad much get to work it, and there is a learning curve. But. with operators of this caliber, they come on quickly - and by the halfway point the session is rolling.  Here's Bob Rodriguez of The Nickel City Line hamming it up while Jack and Don work with Jerry Dziedzic to move trains across the main line.  

Another thing about Interchange is the support of all the families to allow it to happen, especially a lot to ask in a COVID recovery year.  Kristen and the kids all dressed the part and were wonderful hosts and helpers, and the session really went off without a major hitch.  

Thanksgiving is here, and I am especially grateful for you as a reader of the blog and for the hobby, for my family and career and good fortune.  I wish you and your family a healthy and happy thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Value of Visits: Inspiration & Community

 I was honored in the Autumn of 2021 to have invitations to two trips that I'd hoped for years to be able to do:  the deserts of Utah with Mark Hemphill and the operating model railroads of southern Michigan with the local modelers long part of the 'Great Lakes Getaway' invitational meet.  Thanks to the grace and patience of my family, both were able to happen.  We looked at some of the images from the desert last time, so today we will focus on the layouts.

To say that Mike Burgett's fabulous C&O layout is an inspiration to me would be an understatement.  His work is second to none, and the atmosphere is top-grade:

Meeting Mike was a pleasure - his centralized traffic control (CTC) has always set a high bar for layouts.  And seeing my friend David Patch, Mike's Chief Dispatcher, was an added bonus!  Here's a photo of the three of us in Mike's incredible dispatching office.

Sitting with David Patch to learn the CTC machine and help dispatch the railroad was incredible.  Here's David at the controls:

In the afternoon after lunch, I elected to join the fray in the field and run a few trains.  I ended up with time freight #95 going west across the subdivision.  

It is rare to see a layout with scenery this good that is fully operational and this near full completion.  Wow!

Check out the code lines on the telegraph poles in the photo above. Incredible detail on an incredible layout.

For me, there was another much-anticipated layout: Doug Tagsold's fabulous Colorado & Southern, including the narrow gauge railroad's run from Denver west up to the Georgetown Loop and beyond to the mines in the Front Range.  Here my mine run steps across the Georgetown Loop.

Doug Tagsold has long been an inspiration to me through the pages of Model Railroader with his Denver, Front Range & Western layout in the 1980's as well as his Toledo Terminal layout in the later 1990's.  As my two favorite prototypes, they were well represented in Doug's modeling, and helped add to the aura of fascination I had with modeling in my youth.  These layouts were exciting!  They jumped off the pages and cover of Model Railroader to me.

I met Doug for the first time in 2018 at the Rio Grande Convention in Denver, CO, and was able to speak with him and offer my appreciation for his efforts.  Then for this trip to be able to visit his layout and operate - well, that was just incredible!  

November in the Rockies is much like winter in most other places and Doug has a beautiful snow scene along a rushing mountain stream.  My ore turn is making time on its trip with loaded ore gondolas enroute to Denver to the Arco Smelter.

The town scenes are fantastic too, custom buildings and roads with photo backdrops yield a seamless experience for operations.  I also enjoyed the sight lines around the open running, as seen below here.

Visiting layouts of this caliber shows what the hobby can do, and how much we can learn from people that are truly masters of the art of model railroading.  Someday I'd love to host both of these owners on the Onondaga Cutoff, too, and complete the circle.  I have a long way to go with scenery to match their work!  Still, that is how we build the community of modelers: sharing our work and operations with others, and appreciating the inspiration provided by the masters.  

Thanks to Doug for organizing the meet and to Mike and all the hosts for a job well done!

Friday, October 29, 2021

Reconnecting with The Desert

On a whim, this past summer I was discussing with my wife how much I missed traveling the west after seeing the recent photography of Mark W. Hemphill, former editor of Trains Magazine and a longtime western railroad author and photographer.  Mark and I have become friends over the last few years, which is a privilege for me since I look up to his writing and photography so much.  Kristen surprised me by giving me the early Christmas present of making the trip to Utah to spend time with Mark in our favorite desert - a gift of experience, while she held down the home front with the kids.  Leaving the family for days at a time to pursue photography projects is a hard decision for me, and Kristen's support makes it possible.  

The results were spectacular.  

In just a few days we had dozens of near-perfect opportunities.  Mark guided us to some locations with just the right timing and light; situations where we were able to take advantage of incredible scenes and the trains that ran.  

The experience as a whole was transcendental for me, given that it was Mark's writing and photography in the 1980's that originally inspired my awe of the American West, and that took trains and made them more than just fascinating.  Railroading became magical, magnificent, inspiring - the magic of railroad crystalized for me thanks to his vision.  So, to spend time with him in the 'desert that did it' for me was a full-circle, religious experience.  

I will be adding photos with captions to the Flickr page, over at

Dreams are out there, and with some effort and sacrifice providing necessary balance, dreams are attainable.  Keep pushing!  

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Pushing through the Fall

October was a month on paper that I knew would push the limits.  

As the world reopens from this pandemic, more opportunities to interact are available, and with the kids getting older there are more than we've handled in the past. All of these take time. So far we've been able to schedule most of it without conflict, but in doing so each weekend and most nights are occupied with some sort of planned activity.  

And the best-laid plans will change with the passing of a mentor.  Tom Davis, Proprietor and Innkeeper of The Station Inn Bed & Breakfast in Cresson, PA, passed away on October 5, 2021 at the age of 90.  His life was a full one: full of experience, of pushing limits while maintaining civility, of quiet reflection while welcoming guests.  Tom was a character - warm but wise, fun-loving yet refined, a man of intelligence with a dry, quick wit.  

In 1994, a handful of teenagers made a reservation to stay at this former railroad hotel next to the Conrail main line across Pennsylvania.  I was 17, and my brother just 15; our parents let us and three of our close friends make a 250-mile drive from New Jersey to stay at this inn and watch trains for the weekend.  Different times!  But my dad had his hands full with my sick mother and disabled sister, and in the chaos we were allowed a few days adventure.  

Well, ten years later, we were still at it, with Tom as a guide and authority figure we all respected.  

'Original Five' at the 10-year anniversary

Each year was a similar pattern.  We'd reserve 3 nights, round up a bunch of train friends, drive to Cresson and spend the whole weekend watching trains at areas near the Inn or from the porch, eat too much pizza and wings, drink too much beer, and go home mentally refreshed and physically exhausted. 

Over the years, the Inn was a constant when so much else changed.  Conrail was merged into NS and CSX, with NS taking over the operations past the Inn.  Shortline RJ Corman reopened coal branches while we watched and rode along, a handshake arrangement thanks to Tom.  Some of us went to college, all got jobs, some changed jobs.  Most are married, some with kids.  And many of us dealt with the death of parents.  Many moved, some far away.  But we all made time each year for this trip, and it had become a bit of a retreat.  

Tom's health in recent years had some slips and setbacks, but most years he would find a way to spend time with us, sharing stories and wisdom, giving us laughs.  We all knew he was strong but still, the sense of change was close.  This year, though, he was looking forward to our visit and indeed was more himself than any time in the last 4 years.  

This year, he was out with us on the porch for hours.  He ate meals with us, and talked almost like the 'same old Tom' which was a joy.  Incredibly, too, he asked to come down to the old tavern in the basement of his Inn each night with us, where we had a private party set up like usual.  For the first time in years we looked at photos and he drank beer with us late into the night.  Note the time - that's 12:21 AM, by the way!  

And on Friday night, word spread amongst the 28 attendees that Tom would be down the bar again with us and sure enough we got a photo or two with most of the crowd in the middle of the party.  

This is how I will remember Tom Davis:  with a beer in hand, smiling, enjoying life despite all the usual trials and tribulations he'd survived.  Known and respected by guests like us, as well as peers from around the world, Tom led a life full of railroading, travel, and learning.  Tom was a man of many backgrounds: an intellectual, a steam locomotive engineer and fireman, and innkeeper, and he shared all of those with whomever showed interest.  

Godspeed Tom!  Thank you, for everything.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Building Momentum

This the time of the year that the days get a bit shorter, and a familiar and welcome chill is present in the air overnight.  I have always found autumn full of promise and splendor, a recalibration from summertime and it's interesting to see how that changes as a parent and manager at work. In the wake of the pandemic most activities have resumed and the schedule is full, very full, of nearly all good things.  Momentum is building for the month of October which is one of the busiest on the calendar in years. 

I used some of that energy to focus on smaller, achievable projects on the layout, squeezed into a few hours here and there leading up to a guest operating session back on September 17.  In contrast to the bridge deck earlier this month, these were smaller scenes but added a lot of visual improvement.  

The first one was one the kids wanted to help with over at Island Yard - just some ballast and some foreground static grass, but a huge change to the brown paint that was there for the last few years.  

One of the best parts of this one is it's a small area, but a neat new place to take photos.

Another quick hit was needed up on the M&E at the Crucible Chemical switch.  That siding was in place for years with just a few tacks holding it down while I waited to decide how it should look.  With the deadline approaching for the session, I made a few decisions, and to my eye it came out nicely.

I even added a working derail to the siding from the Alexander Models kit, which worked better than I thought it would and adds a neat aspect to switching for the M&E jobs.  Ballast and weeds finished the job.

Also, given the remnants of Hurricane Ida as well as three other storms that in total dumped nearly a foot of rain in August and early September, I have been dealing with more water in the basement than usual.  It is designed to drain out and we had no floods per se, but three separate times I had to pull up the floor tiles and set up fans to dry things out.  

All in all, though, we are in great shape.  The layout is poised for some serious improvement over the next few months - lots as always to look forward to and be excited about.  And so the other thing that is building momentum is my gratitude for my wife and kids, whose patience allows so much of this to become reality and whose support makes it all fun!