Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Sometimes It's The Little Things

Layout building is an amalgamation of so many projects, large and small.  After about 10 full years of construction, associated design changes and then operations, I have reached a point where it's hard sometimes to appreciate the some of the smaller projects and details, since I spend so much time thinking and considering the whole thing.  

Thankfully, I'm not alone - this railroad and the operating atmosphere it supports is the product so far of many talented guys (and patient women).  One the regular yard engineers, Joe R., commented on how much he was enjoying operating Conrail GP38 #7714.  It's an Atlas mechanism, well-maintained but otherwise stock.  The decoder is a Soundtraxx Tsunami2, and to it I added the SoundTraxx Current-Keeper capacitor to bridge any dirty track.  

Seeing as though we are on the Albany Division here, while GP38's are great, it's the GE B23-7's that really hold the fort down at most yards.  So, learning from what I'd heard from Joe, I proceeded on a small project:  adding a capacitor to B23-7 #1931, an Atlas unit I'd detailed, renumbered and weathered.  These work alright, but on my isolated frogs with adjacent turnouts, we did have the occasional stall or hiccup, shutting the sound and lights down momentarily and detracting from realism.

1931 has an ESU-LocSound V4 decoder, so I used their 'Power Pack' capacitor board.  The installation is fairly simple and requires a little bit of soldering to the board, and then mounting the capacitor somewhere out of the way inside the shell.  

After the most recent session, the crew spoke highly of #1931 - no stalls, just nice smooth operations.  So, just the addition of a little capacitor circuit made a difference in one of the most critical jobs.  

When we can listen and make small changes to accommodate constructive criticism, I feel we make the hobby more fun for others.  That helps them want to come back.  Is there a greater service we can do for the hobby?  Maybe, but sometimes it's the little things that count.


Friday, November 30, 2018

And To Finish Up November...

Continuing some discussion from the previous posts this month, November started with a bang in the trip to the La Mesa club in San Diego, CA, and then continued with this year's hosting of the 'November Interchange' annual event back in Northern NJ.  This is a round-robin group of modelers and operators from Northern NJ, and from the greater Washington DC areas that operate in one region this year, and the other next year.  This was the second time the Onondaga Cutoff has hosted a session for this event and was a fun success.  Here NYS&W power lays over at Onondaga Yard, before the session began:

In hindsight I should have taken more photographs and especially of the operators doing their thing.  Something to keep in mind for next time!

Other recent projects include putting into service two of the new Scale Trains SD40-2's decorated for Conrail.  They turned out well, and with the Helicon software, even the photos look sharp:

Then, suddenly it was Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday and one that each year is a nice blend of family chaos and low-key community time.  It's hard to overstate just how much it means to be part of a tight community, and I feel a responsibility to help create an environment where good camaraderie and community will flourish.  The same energy carries over to the OC and its operations:  it's people that matter most, and by looking out for others, we create a community for ourselves.  

Over that weekend I was able to get out with the kids to spend some time trackside, something they all enjoy.  Watching them grow is fascinating. We got the last of the fall colors along the Lehigh Line, and even managed to see a few NS freights.

Here's NS train 20R in the S-curve eastbound at Stanton Station, NJ:

Now, on to December!  Lots of good things coming.  Thanks for your readership and time!


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

From West to East

Building upon the early November 2018 trip to San Diego, CA to operate the LaMesa Club's Tehachapi Pass layout, we took a scenic route back to the airport and made time to railfan Cajon Pass in the morning and Tehachapi Pass in the afternoon.  Our first stop was 'Hill 582', a well-known mecca for train watching in Southern California.  On the west side of Cajon Pass, BNSF and UP trains from the east descend steep winding grades into the LA basin, with a backdrop of deserts and mountains.


It's a great vista for trains in both directions from both railroads!  BNSF Eastbound stacks on the former ATSF/UP line, beneath the watch of 10,064 foot Mount Baldy and the San Gabriel Mountains to the north and west:

Then some UP westbounds, up on the former SP "Palmdale Cutoff":

More BNSF westbounds on the former Santa Fe:

It doesn't take long to see trains here, even on a Monday:  the pass can see more than 100 trains daily on three routes owned by UP and BNSF.  It's a great show.

Then, up to Tehachapi.  One of the most magical places to watch trains, and my favorite in the world, so far.  We narrowly missed an eastbound BNSF manifest at Caliente and Bealville, so rushed back uphill to see him cross over his tail headed up Tehachapi Loop:

He took the siding at Walong/Marcel to meet a westbound UP manifest that we chased until sundown.  First, afternoon light at Marcel:

Late afternoon at the Loop:

Downgrade at Allard in the horseshoe curve.  Check out the golden light on the golden wildgrass..."The Golden State" indeed!

One surprise was to see a handful of boxcars lying on their side in the tight curve west of Tunnel 2.  WOW - stuff like that makes you realize how dangerous trains still are.  Trespassing is illegal for a reason!   Sometimes the dramatic shots are trackside, and even when legal, if you'd happened to be there for this event...

I think one of the things that has captivated me about the American West since my youth has been the vastness of it all, and the perspective of loneliness and absolutism that it conveys. I have explored parts of every Western state with the exception of South Dakota (on my list), and I love parts of all of them.  Out here you really can be ALONE - as in hundreds of miles from anyone else - after just a short drive.  The vastness of the scenes and territory dwarfs human ambition more often than not.  If you are out there and you make a mistake, take a fall, run out of gas, etc, you are in real trouble.  Not 'first world trouble' but actual, real trouble.   I love that accountability.  Even railroads, larger than life in so many ways and especially so in the East, out here are just threads of transportation across an incredible landscape.  The men and women that work them need to be prepared for the territory.  

Our train curved out the mountains at Caliente and Ilmon, and headed west. One fascinating part of this is that each of the locations above is faithfully reproduced in HO scale at the LaMesa Club, to the point of being able to recognize specific bluffs and ditches along the scene.  It is spectacular modeling, and an equally spectacular operation.  

A favorite activity trackside has always been to pace trains, and the stretch of high-speed mainline between Bakersfield CA and the foot of the big grades is a perfect example.  Here our manifest is quickly up to 60 MPH, rolling into the setting sun towards a crew change at Bakersfield.  The foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, north of Tehachapi Pass, line the horizon some 10 miles distant.

The trip was coming to a close, and so was this amazing day of watching trains in Southern California.   The smokey and golden sunset backlights our manifest as a green block signal calls the crew home to Bakersfield.  

An amazing month of November continues in the next installment, which I need to squeeze in before December begins.  

More soon!

Monday, November 19, 2018

A Busy Autumn Season

These continue to be amazing times for model railroading, and I continue to be amazed and thankful for some of the new experiences I am continuing to have in the hobby.

First off, at the start of this month, thanks to the graciousness and tenacity of my wife and children, I was able to spend a few days operating on the famous Tehachapi Pass layout of the La Mesa Model Railroad Club, housed in the museum facilities of Balboa Park in San Diego, CA.  Words and photos cannot describe the experience - it's a must see for anyone who enjoys modeling that can get there.

Check out the details.  The tie fenceposts, the earthwork, ballast, and maintenance roadways.

A brief overview of the trip is in order:  we flew out Thursday 11/1 early in the morning so as to have a day to get to the club and assist in staging the railroad for operations on Friday 11/2, Saturday 11/3. and Sunday 11/4.  Thursday night allowed some time to 'get qualified' on the physical characteristics of the railroad - and to be amazed at the scope and scale.  WOW.  For instance, one of the club regulars was moving this 105-car train of refrigerated boxcars ('reefers' in railroad jargon) west to Bakersfield for the following day.   105 cars!  You don't see that every day, and certainly not on an operating mountain railroad.

The railroad climbs about 15 real feet in elevation, close to the correct scale for the actual line.  The scenic feature most recognizable from the pass and the layout is the Tehachapi Loop, a full helix-in-real-life on a 2.5% grade eastbound.  Here an SP manifest comes down the hill, crossing under its own tail as it moves west.

My first solo trip on the railroad on Friday morning was Santa Fe's #23 train, the westbound Grand Canyon, a first-class passenger move.  Since westbounds are superior to eastbounds by timetable direction, I had an easy run with no opposing moves to worry about - they all had to get out of my way!  But even with no waiting, and track speed the entire trip, my journey from Mojave at the east end of the railroad to Bakersfield at the west end took about 45 minutes.   Amazing.

Here that same ATSF train #23 comes down through the lower part of Caliente, CA, having traversed most of the railroad by now.  This scene is one of the most remarkable in all of model railroading, as it is nearly a dead ringer for the prototype.  Caliente in the foreground, the horseshoe curve up the hill, and then successive levels behind the operator in the distance up to Cliff siding, which is a mile away as the crow flies, but 7 miles away by railroad milepost.  Incredible - because that's what we see here, in HO scale!

A good portion of the scenery on the middle areas of the run are above the head of viewers, leading to angles like this one at "Cliff" siding - very appropriately named.

There is no way to really capture the vast expanse of modeling on the railroad, and the attention to detail throughout the finished portions with scenery.  But, here's a tailing off image of ATSF Train 23, with his markers passing the east switch of Ilmon siding.   Bena is ahead with double track from there to Bakersfield.  You get the sense that you are actually running trains on a railroad here, not a layout:  it's so grand in scale to be prototypically vast.

This post is long enough already, so I'll end with a quick reflection.  As time goes on, my definition for 'busy' seems to change.  In the past I used to think I was busy, with different activities demanding time and energy, and yet those times seem to pale in comparison to these days.  Still these things go on, and there's something reassuring about that.  Holidays like Thanksgiving really allow one an opportunity to sit and breathe and appreciate some of the good things that go unnoticed most days.  Walking without pain.  Food to eat.  The colors of nature, the smiles from happy people, the faith of friends and family, and loyalty of pets.

Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Bringing Empire Recycling to Life

There are few things in model railroading that force progress better than hosting operating sessions.  Particularly bigger events where other serious modelers will be seeing the railroad for the first time, or for the first time in several years.   I want to put the best foot forward, and make the railroad look and run as well as possible.

The last piece of the scene where the Cazenovia Industrial Track runs beneath the Onondaga Cutoff main line was the small spur leading to the Empire Recycling Company, a small scrap dealer served by Conrail.  With the 'Interchange' session coming in November, it was time to tidy this up.

A quick overlay of black cinders and asphalt paving dust from Arizona Rock & Mineral was put in place, up to the top of the rails on the spur.  I wanted to capture the look of a beat-up spur with buried track, so I used N-scale cinders to really get a muddy look to the area.

While that dried for two days, I assembled another of the Alkem Scale Models fence kits, and soldered .022" brass wire in place as posts.   Note that you don't need posts on every vertical support on the kit - two posts per piece is sufficient.  I staggered them to provide even support.

I also used this time to take the Woodland Scenics classic excavator model to the bench.  I clipped off the bucket and scratch built a new electromagnet to hang in is place, suggesting an old machine on its second or third owner, resurrected from dead and customized for scrap loading.  

With the fence painted gray and weathered with pastel chalk powders, I carried the pieces to the site and drilled #70 holes in the surface to the depth necessary to accept my posts.  This was a careful trial & error process, but it came together well.  

Some grassy tufts were added as well as a variety of scrap materials, shown here with fresh glue drying.  Some more scrap is needed, but we are just about there in capturing the latest 'finished but not complete' scene on the railroad.   

Now my guests at Interchange will see a finished scene here, instead of one that is nearly complete.  When there is one thing not done, it becomes the focus, almost like a missing tooth is the first thing people see in a smile.   A blank area in the middle of finished scenery distracts from the rest significantly.  With Empire Recycling completed, Interchange guests will see a finished scene, and the best part is that the regular operators will, too.


Friday, October 12, 2018

Learning About "Photo Stacking"

As time rolls long, change is inevitable.  Some things change for the worse, and many change for the better.  One of those things that is changing for the better is digital photography.

While in years past photographers made images and had to choose the best one for a given audience or taste, that is not the case today.  With the artistic control that photographers have in post-processing for digital images, including Photoshop or other photo editing software, there is a new and exciting ability to convey a final image assembled by using multiple originals. 

In the last few years I have become aware through the model railroading media and other blogs of "photo stacking," a newer technique that allows multiple images with the same framing but different focus points to be combined into one image with much greater depth of field.  Here's my first experience with using this technique on the Onondaga Cutoff:

Note how the track in the foreground, the signals and locomotives in the center, and the backdrop are all in reasonably sharp focus.  Amazing! 

For decades the technique was to use a tripod and long exposure with your F-stop set to the highest available aperture to maximize depth of field.  And that worked, generally - but still kept most extremes in a softer or outright blurry focus.  Photoshop can fix many things but not that.  Enter photo stacking:  separate software that combines the sharpest parts of 5, 10, 20, or more images of the same scene, stacking them and showing just the sharpest parts of each.

I used the Helicon Focus software suite for this, and have lots to learn - but this image was made with 10 base images in about 15 minutes.

Stay tuned as I learn more about this, and share with you here.  This hobby is getting to be more and more fun as time goes on!


Friday, September 28, 2018

Expansive Scenes

In light of the invitation to present at the Mid Atlantic Railroad Prototype Meet (MARPM) earlier in September, Jack asked for a few images showing different blocks of trains on the Onondaga Cutoff.  I took an evening to arrange some shots and the results came back looking nice, so I thought I'd share a few here.

The RPM and our presentation went well - people were interested and it was well-received.  It is such a humbling thing to see our names next to those of so many guys who we looked up to for years.  I for one am glad to be able to give a little back to those that reached out to me!

The images....

First off, here is ML480, a big autorack and stack intermodal train that runs in the later evenings.

Next, here's the interchange run from NYS&W, the 'SY-1' job coming into Onondaga where the consist will terminate and return with outbound cars for Susquehanna.

A wide shot of NFSE (Niagara Falls, NY to Selkirk NY) coming through CP277.  He has autoracks up front and manifest behind.

And, playing with Photoshop a bit, here's a tighter crop of NFSE at CP277.  It is amazing how good these iPhones are now at shots like these.

It has been a busy time lately, with the RPM itself, work craziness, little kids at home, and all that goes with those things.  This is when the layout progress may slow but enjoyment can go up:  we can always run some trains, right?

Thanks for your reading this blog, and thanks for all the support!


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Night Light

Recently I have installed a variety of new lighting on the Onondaga Cutoff, and I am pleased with the results.

First up are Alkem Models yard light towers.  Here's YAON-20, the night yard switcher, resting at the Onondaga Yard Office between moves.  New towers were assembled from kits by Phil Monat, and boy, what an upgrade!

Over at the east end, here's outbound cars for ELSE ready for their shove over to the East Lead for pickup. I love the clarity of the LED light used on the towers.

Using better light towers here made several of the others surplus, so I reinstalled them around the shop building and facility to suggest it was on its own circuit.

To add to the scene above, I did some quick view blocks and weathering on the old B&B headquarters building, then added some light to it, as well.

While the kits were difficult to build, adding lighting is a relatively simple project and makes a world of difference for night operations and night photos.   Those long nights just got a little brighter!


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Different Flavors of Railroading

All of us like to run trains, simulating real-life train movements.  However, one of the major issues in moving real-life trains is dealing with maintenance and infrastructure that is being worked on, either during preventive maintenance or repair.  One aspect of railroading that can be emphasized more on most layouts is maintenance of the right of way and infrastructure that supports operations.  

Here’s a photo of an actual infrastructure issue that occurred, and the subsequent repair that we chose to model during operations.   One of the switches on the west end ladder tracks in Onondaga Yard experienced a rod failure during the most recent operating session.  Rather than make a quick repair during the session, we locked the switch in one direction, simulating a ‘spike and block’ situation where crews mechanically fix a switch to prevent derailments due to a broken component. 

Once the sun came up, I placed one of my block truck models at the location with some figures to simulate the repair process.  After the session I made the repair – a careful application of Walthers ‘GOO’ adhesive did the trick, reconnecting the throw bar with the ground throw.  For this session, we will have the switch out of service for the first hour or so, allowing the track crew to finish their work – and adding some variety to the yardmaster’s job.

Modeling maintenance is a fun part of operations, and helps challenge operators to think outside the usual box of the job.  Where will the next repair be needed?  We will know when it happens – and we will deal with it, like they do on the prototype.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

From White to...Dark Brown

Summer in full swing means limited layout time, but in the mantra of keeping things moving, here you go:  20 minutes painting up the bare white plaster makes a world of difference for visitors and operators until the scenery itself is installed.

A little bit of scenery installed before gluing in the foam shoulders for the canal scene makes life easier down the road, too - installing static grass beneath a low bridge is nearly impossible.

Here's a view looking west at the middle of the scene.  It is going to be something else when there's a wooded hillside here, but even now the long gentle curve is a cool place to watch trains.  Much more appealing than bare white plaster!

Finally here's a view of the whole scene from where the new grade crossing will be installed.  This is one of the more sweeping scenes on the railroad and I aim to keep that aspect, adding lots of trees behind and some smaller ones and scrubby brush in the foreground.  This is an exciting addition, one of the typical Central New York scenes that is just starting to take shape.  I am set here for a major push into the fall!


Monday, July 30, 2018

Making Decisions

There is no way around it - with layout construction, sometimes you just need to make a decision, and move on.  It's a leap of faith to jump in and move ahead with certain scenic elements.  While some scenes make sense conceptually, others have taken longer to come to vision.  One of those is the long embankment west of CP 277.

After installing the fascia here last year, the vision started to present itself, but still - how should this look?  Should it slope down to a river?  Should the whole thing be a river, with a retaining wall protecting the tracks?  Should it slope up and be in a long cut?

Sometimes, the best answer is to start putting in the bones of the scenery to see where it takes you.

Scenery in this tough curved area begins with cardboard strips cut to about 1" width and long enough to fit with some arc.  These are hot-glued into place.

After those ribs cure, it is time for webbing to be pulled through and hot-glued into place.

The nice part about hot glue is that it cools quickly, and that means that we are ready for plaster gauze landform to be installed almost immediately following the ribs.

I started out at the west end of the fill, leaving the detail at the bridge itself for later but getting started on the easier part to visualize.  With plaster gauze, so long as you wet down the first layer, you can always add more.  Once it was in place, the vision for the bridge area came to focus.  This would be a great spot not for an overgrown former canal, but for a groomed and well-managed NY State Park System canal park.  These are all over the place up in Central New York and it's another element that helps set the time and place.  A tow path, a few benches, mowed grass, and a historical marker on a sign post will help this feel right.

With that now started, it was time to plaster the area behind the tracks as you can see above, allowing smoother surfaces that can be painted and fully covered with scenery.  This will be a forest area with some swampy grass in the lower spots in front of the tracks.

With the operation of the Onondaga Cutoff fairly well-established and with several open-house events this fall, I am making a push to get more scenery done, and this was a big step in that direction.  Now I need to make time to create a few hundred SuperTrees!


Friday, July 27, 2018

Setting a Time and Place

In many ways, model railroading has a storytelling role.  Our models are set in a time, and are made to reflect reality of that time.  Further, and arguably unique in model railroading, is the concept of operations and sessions dedicated to operations.  Even moreso there than in other aspects of the hobby, the layout owner and the 'managers' that help with the execution of the session are storytellers.

Take for instance this image:

This car has a story.  Built in the early 1970's, covered hoppers like this carried all sorts of bulk materials that needed protection from moisture.  Wheat, rice, oats, flour, malted barley, sugar - these cars could be used for any of these.   This one was purchased by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad - known as the Milwaukee Road by most.  The railroad was a transcontinental, one of the mighty western railroads that spanned the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and crossed the Continental Divide.  Dubbed "America's Resourceful Railroad" as a nickname, this one crossed other ranges too and came down to tidewater at the Pacific Ocean.

Yet, trouble brewed.  One of the most difficult transcontinental routes to maintain and operate, the Milwaukee Road was less profitable than it had been by the end of the 1970's.  Early in the 1980's, the railroad abandoned its westernmost operations.  Soon the whole company was bankrupt and sold to competitors.  It was a sad end of a fascinating railroad.  Cars and locomotives were auctioned off.  Some workers went on to other jobs but many retired.

This car, though, still having some useful life, was purchased and put into service by a new owner without a full paint job.  Thanks to the artistry of Lenny Harlos, it has been faithfully recreated for the Onondaga Cutoff, patched for its current owner - East Erie Commerical, better known as General Electric Corporation.

The Milwaukee was long gone by 1994 but its ghost lived on in cars like this.  This was no longer the glory age of railroads in the early 20th century.  No way.  Dirty, rusted, but with a bright patch of reporting marks and lube stencils, this car looks like a car from the 1970's did in 1994 - part of a rebirth that was just getting some traction.  This car helps set a date and place, and lends a gritty, well-used appearance to the Onondaga Cutoff.  As more cars are weathered for the period, the more it looks like it should - like the real thing.


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.