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.  

Thursday, November 12, 2020

New Starts, and Old Friends

Life is sure a mix of a bunch of different things, isn't it?  

Amidst all the craziness that seems to be universal this year, there has been some opportunity for time spent on the hobby.  Sometimes that requires a conscious decision to stop watching the news or social media, and instead head down to the basement and make some progress.  Progress comes in different forms:  it can be physical progress on the layout, thinking about future projects or improvements, or it can be prepping for operating sessions.

Remote operations on the Onondaga Cutoff really seems to have taken off.  It is a way to keep the trains moving during the pandemic, and I am grateful for that at least.  Each session requires a 'set up night' where a few guys come over to reconsist power, clean wheels and track, and check paperwork.  It's a satisfying and fun way to get ready for a session.  Here's the lineup of power on the Island, cleaned and serviced, ready for the most recent session:

Speaking of the remote sessions, one of the fun parts about the Facebook Live events we have been hosting is that those videos are archived over on Facebook.  If you'd like to see one, take a look at - and note you don't need an account to watch the videos.  Just close out of the pop-up and you can scroll down to see the listings.

Thanks to some restrictions having been lifted, too, Teddy had his first opportunity to operate on another layout.  Here he is making a move through Sparta Junction on Jerry Dziedzic's New York, Susquehanna & Western layout:

This photo makes me smile.  We all wore masks, per protocol, and kept social distanced, but Teddy's sailing right through the challenges:  he's watching his train intently, making sure to follow speed limits and signal aspects while we made a pickup from the yard.  This bodes well for the hobby as time continues and sure makes for some fun time between Teddy and I.

And, of course, there is always physical work to be done:  here we see an upgrade in progress for Conrail SD50 6707, which wore a special paint job to support the troops as part of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  It held that paint through 1995 or so, and so wears it on my layout.  It is shopped now getting a sound decoder and new LED lighting including ditch lights, as well as new details including air lines and moving the grab irons to reflect Conrail practice.

As this wild year continues and begins to draw to a close, and as days grow shorter, my mind is always reflecting on the months passing.  I am more and more grateful for each moment - life has a way of improving if we are mindful, if we work hard, trust others, and open our minds up.  Doing those things and being grateful for what we have changes the color of the days to come.  

In mind of that, we have a new author who is going to begin contributions to these pages:  Jack T., who regular readers will know from his involvement in the Onondaga Cutoff from the inception 12 years ago.  I think it will add a great bit of variety and analysis that will make the blog a better resource for you all.  

And finally, book proofs are in and returned - the forthcoming signal book is going to be a really neat piece of work.  I am really excited at how it is coming out.  Two articles in Model Railroader, one each in the January and February issues, will prime the pump on the book.  The book is still on track for an April delivery, and that will build some anticipation through the winter:  Good stuff coming!


Sunday, October 25, 2020

10 Years Running on the Onondaga Cutoff

In a wild month of a wild year of a dynamic era, the Onondaga Cutoff has celebrated 10 years of operating sessions!    On October 25, 2011, we had our first 'official' session and somehow here we are having done so for a decade.  It is interesting to me that sometimes dates chosen for a first step become significant only due to the longevity of that which they began.   

So, here's a fun pair of photos:  the first session, and a screenshot thanks to Rich Wisneski of the online 'open house' we hosted on the anniversary date for many of the people that have operated on and contributed to the Onondaga Cutoff!

The 'virtual' crew, 10-25-2020

First operations, 10-25-2011

I am grateful for all the support and especially so this year with so much going on.  I hope this date finds you well and too that in 10 years, we can look back on 20 years of operations here!   


Monday, October 19, 2020

Using Resources - Sharing the Knowledge

There has never been better time to be a researcher of railroad history, whether recent or long ago.  Never before has so much information been available to us so simply and at such a low cost in dollars or time.  When we consider how things are developing and all the difficult energy in the greater world, it is sometimes easy to forget the bright sides of the internet and social media.

A longtime friend, Ian Clark, has begun to post some photos of his time trackside in the 1990's to the internet.  Ian was a quick friend of mine during my time at Syracuse University and he took time to show me the ropes on NYS&W and Conrail in the area.  He's a gifted photographer and in sharing some of his 'just another day trackside' images, I can draw great information for the Onondaga Cutoff.

This is an Ian Clark image of NYS&W's SY-1, the Syracuse, NY based crew that handled interchange with Conrail and local road freight work in the area.   By 1995 they were doing their interchange at Dewitt Yard, using trackage rights over Conrail from their junction at CP 293 west of town to get on the main line.   

What a wealth of information here!  First, we have four units including a GP18, SD45, B40-8 and F45, all in the attractive 'yellowjacket' paint.  We have the train on the North Runner at Dewitt with the large engine service facility in the background, with various Conrail power being serviced as well as an entire 'camp train' for the track gang - the white trailers on flat cars.  

Later that morning, Ian captured SY-1 leaving Dewitt, this time at CP 286 on the Chicago Line in East Syracuse, NY.  They are coming west on the North Runner for their 6-mile run out to Solvay to regain their own track.  This shot reminds me that I need some code lines as seen on the left, and shows a nice mix of freight cars that confirms the current makeup of the train as modeled.

Both of these images, while familiar to me, were freshly reconsidered thanks to Ian's Facebook posts.  Having resources like this and reflecting on how to improve our models helps the cause.  

Likewise it's fun to share the hobby and layout with young people, including my sons Teddy & Pete, both shown having some fun while switching Euclid Yard.  I work to teach them to be careful with the delicate models and the throttles, but also to enjoy the trains and have fun working together moving cars.  

It remains a wonderful hobby, and a great way to share time together for friends and for family.  I am grateful for both!


Monday, September 28, 2020

The Basics Still Call

 I am grateful for all the support that has poured out in response to the Onondaga Cutoff being featured in Railroad Model Craftsman magazine!  All of the people involved with the layout are excited to see it in print and especially given how nicely the piece turned out.  Otto Vondrak is Editor of RMC and his team really put together a nice spread that evokes the feel of the OC! 

Last year, after the layout's first cover feature in Model Railroader magazine, Jack T. asked me 'Well, what do you do now?', in reference to coming off the creative high that is having a feature and cover shot on magazines of this caliber.  It was a good and thoughtful question that gave me some pause.  And the eventual reply was 'get back to operations!'   And so it was last fall, when we did just that.

This year that is more difficult and involves a different sort of lift, like so much else.  Remote operating sessions are fun but are a lot more work to set up and pull off.  They are worth it in these wild days but it's not the same as getting back to operations as we know them.   And so, keeping the fire lit, I am getting 'back to basics' and finally putting some time into some organizational items as well as layout room maintenance along with various projects with equipment.  

I dug right into the last of the two Dash-8 upgrades on the list, including my pair of Atlas C40-8's in Conrail livery.  These were nice models in the 1990's that by today's standards hold up provided we add a few new details and upgrades.  

The first upgrade is to include modern DCC.  I had several Soundtraxx Tsunami 2 decoders, along with iPhone speakers and LEDs in the supply cabinet, so I modified the weights to accommodate the new decoders.  Cosmetically, I wanted up add the Conrail-style grab irons and new RS-3L air horn castings, as well as new numberboards with correct font and coloring.  

 I used white styrene, painted white, and decaled with ShellScale decal set #106.  Once dried and dullcoated they were glued to their mounts with CA gel.   The result is a huge improvement on the old Atlas boards from 1990.  Best of all, since they are black on white, they light right up when installed over the stock atlas number board areas.  

I also took the long-due step of cleaning and repainting the access stairs for the layout space.  Atmosphere is important to me, and I think adds to the experience of being in the room.  This is an old, old house (built around 1840) and so the steps are old and worn, but a coat of paint and new tread grips with reflective stripes add a lot.  

Stairs in need of paint...

Stairs no longer in need of paint.

Step treads added.  Layout entrance, improved!

I am fortunate to have a hobby that allows this variety of satisfying activity, and more fortunate still that I am so driven to keep it moving.  Life is a balance, and a series of choices that we make, mixed with some luck and some chaos.  It is on us to ensure that we are putting some thought and critical reflection into those choices so that they are not just happenstance, but instead are mindful decisions that create opportunity for improvement.  

There are some exciting things coming soon for the Onondaga Cutoff, and we can look forward to this.  For now it's nice to settle back into making some of the changes that help make the experience better.  There is always the chance for improvement!  

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Onondaga Cutoff - On the Cover of Railroad Model Craftsman!

I'd always hoped to be able to contribute to the hobby press, ever since I was a young boy whose only tangible link to the hobby was those same pages of Model Railroader and occasionally Railroad Model Craftsman.  If anyone had told me a few years ago that by summer 2020 I'd be involved with the hobby press with articles, interviews and even a book, I'd have stared at them and blinked, then smiled and asked where I can sign up. 

I am excited to announce that the Onondaga Cutoff is featured on the cover of RMC's September 2020 issue, with a feature article inside to boot!

Those monthly magazines were highlights I looked forward to, especially with large color photos of cutting-edge layouts of the time:  Cat Mountain & Santa Fe, Utah Belt, Virginian & Ohio, La Mesa's Tehachapi Pass, Rand Hood's and David Bontranger's Rio Grande work, and many others.  Thanks to good fortune, mentorship and a lot of work learning to improve my writing and photography, several articles have come together and I am grateful to be able to continue that process, and hope maybe someday there's a few young people that in their minds will have added the Onondaga Cutoff to that list of iconic layouts for the hobby.

Pick up a copy at your local hobby shop or book store, or at

There is a great deal to be thankful for!

Friday, August 21, 2020

More Virtual Operations - On Facebook Live, with international participants tomorrow night!

It is always fun to push the limits in the hobby, and we hit a new milestone in the virtual operations world last night:  a successful test of operations with engineers using remote techniques from overseas to run trains on the Onondaga Cutoff!   

Gordy Robinson, about 3,250 miles away in Scotland, and Martyn Jenkins, about 9,600 miles away in Australia worked through the internet to hook their WiThrottle devices to the OC server.  Using Skype for a radio repeater, I spoke into my FRS radio in the layout room, and they heard me in real time in their homes, and replied accordingly.   Incredible!

Martyn, taking Conrail train TV-10 into CP 277...from Australia!

And so, given how well it went and the new level to which this brings the idea of remote operations, we will bring you a live Facebook feed of the first full operation with these two gents participating!

Tomorrow night, August 22 2020 at 9 p.m. eastern, tune into the Onondaga Cutoff Facebook Page at:

Note that you do NOT need a Facebook account to watch live with us.  An account would allow you to comment in real time but you can watch either way.  Just close out the login box and scroll down to see the video feed.

It will be just after noon on a September day in 1994, with many trains coming.  It is sure to please the trackside railfan.  Hope to 'see' you there tomorrow night!

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

There's Always the Little Things

The railroad hobby is one that allows a tremendous amount of latitude, an ebb and flow to the intensity with which we pursue it.   In a lot of ways it mirrors life.   In both life and the hobby, it's been a year of big things.  For all of us, which is saying quite a bit.   When there are so many big ideas about and on the forefront of so many conversations, the distractions only increase.  

But, the fire is still burning, and oftentimes among family activity, time and energy spent on home projects amidst a pandemic, work, kids, and play, there is time to fit in a few small layout projects that help keep the ball rolling.  The smaller projects can be satisfying, too!  One of those popped into my head this past weekend and last night I was able to bring it to fruition.  

Conrail's Dash-8 locomotives in the late 1980's were delivered like many road's with standard, conventional cabs and a boxy nose on the short hood.  These noses came with a small grab iron in the middle of the nose.  Atlas Model Railroad Company, a manufacturer of model trains that did some very nice Conrail GE's in HO scale about 20 years ago delivered their models in that manner.  

Zooming in a bit, you can see it more clearly:

Around 1990, Conrail was changing.  The railroad had gone through more than a decade of cost-cutting, route abandonment, layoffs, and service failures.  The late 70's and early 80's were hard years for railroads and Conrail especially.  Great leadership and willingness to persevere won out, though, and government bail-out money helped to improve track, infrastructure and equipment.   But into the 1990's, Conrail was again an independent railroad company that was working to improve operations for shareholders and customers.  The company, sometime around 1992, made a move to modify each and every conventional cab Dash-8 on the roster to eliminate the small grab seen above and install longer 'pecos bill' grab irons for crews and mechanical personnel.   I am not sure if this was in response to injury or crew suggestion, but in either case the railroad followed through.  

Since I am modeling 1994 or so, I needed up the updated grabs.  The tiny wire hoops that came with the models are inserted into holes drilled in the shell.  A quick pry with a needle nose pliers and they slide right out.

Removal of the small wire grab left two holes perfect for mounting the new railings, and to hold the bottoms I drilled new #74 bit holes.   I then used 0.017" brass wire to model 1" metal railings.   

I bent them to fit, secured them with Loctite CA gel, and painted them to match prototype photos.  

It's a minor change but since it is on the front of the units, it makes a larger impact than I expected.  Just another neat little way to tie the Onondaga Cutoff to Conrail in the middle 1990's!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

A Three-Ring Circus

When things got hectic around our house when I was young, my mother always used to say "We're running a three-ring circus!"   I reflect back on that frequently these days. 

I'm normally someone that stays very busy with and enjoys people.  There's always plenty of projects and dates, but this pandemic, which is turning out to be difficult for the country to get past, has really caused a lot of change.  So many social gatherings and trips, both for the hobby and for the rest of life, are on hold indefinitely.  One of the areas I miss the most are operating sessions, of course. 

Making small layout progress helps and is part of the larger scheme to eventually detail most scenes.

Summer fills with family travel and we have done that much more limited than in past years, but still making great memories.

Waiting for the Neowise Comet 7-17-2020

So, with all that, while the rings may have changed there is still more than enough to stay busy.  I made time to write a book and a few new articles for the model railroad press.  Those continue to take time.  We also pushed on the remote operation and putting some of that over on the Onondaga Cutoff Facebook page (  And, with all that swirling I still have the family at home, and work on the 'real' railroad taking up most of every weekday. 

World's End State Park, PA, 7-2020

Tonight, we will have the first set-up night in months, for another remote op session this coming Saturday.   A little normal is better than none.   Summers are always a time for family and fun and even with the weight of this pandemic and the crushing health and economic issues it is causing, those things remain, if modified by necessity.  I hope your midsummer is healthy and as happy as is possible - hang in!

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Balance & Priorities

Over the years on this blog we have taken some time to reflect on different parts of the hobby of model railroading, learning about the prototype and balancing that with life in general: family, work, home maintenance, travel. 

With the world changing and reacting to so much these days - the COVID pandemic, racial justice, economic upheaval, and so on - it can feel like so much pressure to stay current, to stay relevant, that we can feel almost lost in the woods.  As part of the book writing process, Jack recently brought over a few prints that made me smile, looking back more than 20 years.

Here's a fantastic shot of Jack's: Conrail train ALSE, exiting Pattenburg Tunnel on Conrail's former Lehigh Valley main line across western New Jersey in October 1998.  This was a daily eastbound manifest freight from Allentown, PA to Selkirk, NY, via New Jersey.  The neat GRS searchlight signals on the original LV signal bridge frames things up.  The green signal on the left tells us that the Lehigh Line Dispatcher has pulled up a route for a westbound train at CP West Portal, some 2 miles west of us.  6497 is a classic Conrail SD40-2, in original factory paint, with new ditch lights.  Jack and I in the later 1990's would call these engines in original Conrail paint 'oldschool' and we each knew exactly what that meant. 

Change is afoot all the time, and it's evident here in the new switch being cut in:  NS was about to purchase more than 60% of Conrail, and wanted to be able to run double-stack and autorack trains here, and will accomplish that by single-tracking the tunnel and centering that main track to use the full height at the crown.  They would make up for the reduced siding length by adding another full siding to the west.  Pattenburg was about to change, forever, despite the oldschool SD40-2 leading ALSE. 

On a frosty morning in 1999, Jack was again trackside at first light, this time at one of his favorite locations in Neshanic, NJ.  Another classic GRS searchlight was there next to the appropriately-named Lehigh Road grade crossing.  Conrail ran MAIL-3, a daily high-priority piggyback train from South Kearny, NJ to St. Louis, MO, west, and after its passage the approach-lit automatic signal 451 shows its red aspect, protecting MAIL-3 from following moves until the train clears the next block.  This signal is gone now, with NS having added another siding west of this location too, which required moving the signals to accommodate the new interlockings. 

My memory of those days is warm and nostalgic.  It brings to mind time past when things seemed more simple.  Perspective is key, of course: they seemed more simple, but that doesn't mean they were.  I was excited but pretty frustrated in 1999: my optimism was still naive and I had trouble reconciling it with the real world.  Still, though, it's important to honor our memories as they are the foundation of who we are now, which is where we begin to be who we will be. 

Now, we look at today.  20 years ago Jack and I were in our early 20's and in many ways had everything in front of us.  Now, I am in my early 40's and have a wonderful wife and three beautiful happy kids.  And those kids regularly join me on the same pieces of railroad I used to visit and that Jack photographed above. 

Here's that siding I mentioned that spelled the end of the 451 signals.  NS 7596, a big GE ES44AC, leads two other GE's on international stack train 22V at CP51, Flemington Jct, NJ, June 20th 2020.  The kids are loving it.  How could I have imagined this in 1999?   It's a wonderful and bewildering reflection.  

Here's a grab of the kids at their favorite spot, Stanton Station, NJ, on June 28th 2020.  Susie is nearly 8, Teddy is 5 and Pete 3.  Excited, optimistic kids that enjoy each other and time together...watching trains with me, learning from their world and each other.  I have a great deal of respect for them and for my wife, who is an incredible mom.  I also am fully engaged in my role as their father, for creating an environment of security and stability, and of accountability, surrounded by love.  It's a ton of work and a heavy load - but a healthy one, and one I am thankful for.  

For this hobby of railroading and model railroading to lead to such powerful and tangible memories is remarkable and more than I'd hoped for in life.  Working for the railroad, writing articles and a book for the hobby press, owning and maintaining an operating layout while happily married and a dad of three is about the biggest blessing I could ask for.  I am so grateful for all if it!  I hope in some way that your hobbies can add to your experience in these ways as well.

So much to be glad for, and so much to look forward to.  We have to see these negative things through, and find a way to stay centered - a spot that is always moving.  

Best wishes for a happy & healthy independence day!


Friday, June 5, 2020

Remote Operations, Again: Trackside on the Onondaga Cutoff

This hobby is one that in some ways is made for these times:  quiet solace in the layout room is something we are all used to!  Still, with the difficult times for so many these days, it's time again for a Facebook Live video so we can take a break from it all.  Let's come together, travel back to 1994 and enjoy some time trackside on the Chicago Line.

Join me and the OC remote operations crew for an hour tomorrow night - Saturday June 6, 2020, at 9 p.m. eastern time.  We have a busy main line, some yard operations, and remote engineers along with two physically distanced assistants in the basement this time in compliance with CDC guidelines.

Here's the link!

Hope to 'see' you there!

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Signals & Interlockings for your Model Railroad - a book for Kalmbach!

As the wild spring of 2020 continues into summer, with uncertainty still swirling but a growing sense of life going on, I hit a neat milestone for the Onondaga Cutoff that I wanted to share with you and commemorate here on the blog.

This week I finalized and submitted all required components of a new manuscript, my first ever, along with supporting photographs from contributing photographers.  All was loaded onto a flash drive and sent to my editor, Eric White at Kalmbach, who has been a patient and supportive teacher in this.  Thanks Eric, and thanks to all at Kalmbach for working with me to take on this project!

Dropping my first manuscript off at Somerville Post Office
In a world of back-and-forth energy, this is the culmination of 16 months of writing and photography and coordination.  It has been a truly unprecedented 16 months.  A majority of the work was done on my commute to and from work thanks to my Google Chromebook, with other work at night and on weekends to pull it all together.  

I'm excited for the next steps; if all goes well this will be in print in the early spring of 2021.  Good stuff to come!

Monday, May 11, 2020

First Fully Remote Operations - a Success!

Saturday May 9 was one for the history books on the Onondaga Cutoff - we had our first fully remote operation session, broadcast on Facebook Live!  

We operated 3 hours of the regular schedule with a few adjustments to fit in the allotted time, with a remote dispatcher, 4 remote operators, and a backup remote operator.  The session went amazingly well for the first such session with me in the basement and everyone else at home!  

Operators used WiThrottle, logged into the JMRI server on the railroad through the internet.  Simultaneously, they used VPN software to view the dispatcher's panel, and ran a Skype group call hooked to an FRS radio set to voice activation in the basement that was my radio repeater.  

They also ran a Zoom conference video chat so they could see Onondaga Yard, which we used afterwards for a virtual cheers that was graciously photographed by Rich W.

Seriously awesome for this to have gone well.  My thanks go this this crew, of course - Rich, Andrew, Jack, Al, Ralph and John - as well as to Nick who built the system, and Alex who figured out the networking part of it.  Without that crew, this doesn't happen. 

The video was recorded and is available for viewing here:

Thanks for the support!  I am hoping to write an article about this for publication in print, and will keep you posted on that.  Necessity is the genesis of invention sometimes, and this is a case in point.


Friday, May 8, 2020

Goin' Live, Again! Saturday May 9

As the long, cool spring continues here in New Jersey, the state, nation and world continue to fight the COVID-19 outbreak as well as the economic devastation it has wrought.  This is a difficult and dark time, and it seems people are either extremely frightened about the virus, or extremely angry and frightened about the economy.  One thing is for sure - just about everyone is upset about something. 

On the other hand, the Facebook Live videos on the Onondaga Cutoff over the last month or two have really been well-received even as we learn more about how to pull it off.   People from the model railroad community as well as professional railroaders have reached out with support and suggestions.  Amazingly, friends, neighbors and family with less of an interest in trains are also repeat viewers, which to me is wonderful.  Watching trains is giving everyone something fun to think about for a while.  

So, we are going to do it, again!

Saturday May 9th, at 9:00 Eastern time, come along and sit trackside with us.  Tomorrow night!  We will be watching trains come and go at CP 280, a busy interlocking on the Chicago Line at the east end of Onondaga Yard.  As usual it's a busy railroad.  We will see several trains work Onondaga Yard while through trains pass on the main line.  You will find the video on the official 'OC' Facebook page:

All new for this film will be the remote operations we will employ.  While remote dispatching has been possible for some time, the recent experience of physical distancing due to the epidemic caused us to push the envelope to the next step.  We will have 4 or 5 model train engineers moving trains on the Onondaga Cutoff from their own homes.  The experiment continues!  

Thanks for your support - hope to see you tomorrow night over on Facebook Live!


Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Bewildering Month

Readers, as I sit here writing another blog entry for the month of April, it's worth a moment to breathe and reflect on the wild month it has been.

NJ TRANSIT Somerville Station, Parking Lot at Rush Hour on a Tuesday. 
Where there's normally no available spaces, there are plenty today:  Quarantine 2020

As of today, it is clear that we as a nation, and as a civilization, are hammering through a paradigm shift.  Everything is changing at once, and while to a degree there is always change there is rarely change this universal or this significant.  The world continues to fight this nasty virus, and COVID-19 continues a sad and frightening run.  In the US alone more than 60,000 deaths - more than the horrible Vietnam War - have been attributed to COVID in the United States.   We are all exercising 'personal distancing' - keeping mandatory distance from others - until the danger passes.   This has a profound effect on everything, including model railroading, especially in operations.

And, while this chaos was going on at work, most everyone stayed at home, there were mass layoffs, lots of fear and lots of uncertainty.

Still - where there is a will, there is a way.  Rich W. is a big reason for the operational success of the Onondaga Cutoff, and he too was recently interviewed over on Lionel Strang's A ModelersLife podcast.  You can listen here:  Rich Wisneski on A ModelersLife

Lionel jokingly paraphrases Rich in the title.  I disagree - Rich had a novel idea:  recording some videos, perhaps via Facebook Live, on the Onondaga Cutoff to share the operation and railroad with viewers stuck at home during the quarantine.  What a great idea!  So, we went about doing just that.  All are available at the official Onondaga Cutoff Facebook Page:

The first one was watched by up to 145 viewers at times - I was amazed.  We had hundreds of comments, fun banter and a great time, albeit a bit too long.  It got 2000 views in just one week. Many offered support and suggestions, which we took into consideration for a second video.   That one got 2000 views - in 24 hours!   We did a third, this time we have 4000 views after 48 hours and today, we eclipsed 5000 views on the most recent video.  This is a bewildering number, and I am so grateful for the support and the enthusiasm people are showing.

As if that weren't enough, the most recent video was our first with operators socially distanced outside the walls - Rich and his son Andrew ran trains from the backyard, using FRS radios, WiThrottles on my WiFi network, and watching the dispatcher screen on the computer so as to monitor their progress across the railroad.  Jack dispatched from Morristown.  This allowed for more fluid operations and a more busy railroad, far more interesting to viewers.

Lionel Strang reached out again for an interview, which happened after the second video and premiered before the third video.  That interview is available here:  Dave Abeles and the Onondaga Cutoff - Goin' Live

THEN, and there is more - Alex Lang reached out with his computer networking experience, and offered to help set up a channel for WiThrottle to be truly remote - as in, sitting at home, and logging into the Onondaga Cutoff WiThrottle server to run trains on the layout.   Remarkable!  This was just last night and we have plenty to learn, but between our robust capability for remote dispatching, and this new possibility for remote operations - well, it's bewildering.

And so, reflecting back on this month is something else.  Family is healthy and I hope the same for you.  I'm thankful for the gift of health and reliable work, for community and this amazing hobby.  There is a lot of tragedy out there today, and each of these deaths is a tragedy for families worldwide.  In working to provide some positive distraction from that dark news, we've started something that seems to have a lot of traction in the model railroad community and indeed in the greater community as well.

My grateful thanks to you all - stay safe, and optimistic, in these trying times!


Saturday, April 18, 2020

Goin' Live! 9:30 PM Eastern Time, Saturday April 18, 2020

After the fun of last weekend's first-ever 'virtual operations' on the Onondaga Cutoff, we are going to do another, tonight!

With the continuing COVID-19 crisis, many of us are under new pressures and have a lot on our minds.  Life is hard.  Trains help.  

Let's wait for a few here...

So I've decided to do another 'virtual' operation session tonight, Saturday April 18 2020.  This one will be based at one or maybe two spots, where we will spend about 45 minutes just after dawn, awaiting the morning's trains.  The Chicago Line is busy at that time - there's bound to be some interesting stuff.

So, join me on the Conrail Onondaga Cutoff facebook page - - we will be 'going live' with video, tomorrow night.  

The feed will be live at 9:30 and we will get trains running quickly thereafter.   Thanks to Lionel Strang and the A ModelersLife nation, we have a podcast introduction, too:

Join me trackside, let's focus on some trains instead of the news for a little while.  

Monday, April 13, 2020

Rewiring the Island Control Panel

We all continue to hold the line with COVID response.  Railroaders are still working, myself included, which I am thankful for.  Many are staying home to combat the spread.  Almost all of us, however, have more time than we used to at home.  Nights or weekends, or all days combined, those of us that are modelers have more time to pour into things while we wait for the virus to pass.

After finishing up the details last time at CP 277, it was time for me to 'bite the bullet' and tackle a job I'd been dreading for nearly 3 years:  relocating the Island Control Panel, the toggle switch board that controls the turnouts leading to the Island engine storage tracks.  This would require cutting in new panel, using terminal blocks to connect 14 pairs of wire with the switch machines.  

Thanks to Nick A's artwork, I had the panels printed up about two years ago.  They sat in the project box since then.  Since it was time to get started, I began to think critically about the details, and while my brain worked on the vision I went ahead and marked the new panel up for drill locations.  I drilled 5mm holes for the 5mm LED bulbs, and 1/4" holes for the push-button and the toggle switches for control of the Tortoise machines.

This created plenty of flash which I cleaned up with a #17 x-acto blade. 

 This particular panel was printed on PVC plastic, since it was going to be installed in an area of the fascia with some bend to it.

At last it was time to take the big step of cutting the new location into the fascia.  I measured twice, drilled out the corners, and used a jigsaw to connect the dots.

While several locations had been debated, this one was selected for the ease of use by the Trainmaster, and subsequent improvement in yard efficiency.  Still, always hard to make that first cut!

The new hole meant it was time to forge ahead.  No going back now!  

I added lights to the new panel one by one, and once the first batch were installed it was time to move the push-buttons that control the turnout hooked up to the PSX-AR board.  

The PSX-AR can be thrown by a momentary-on push button, so it was essentially a short that would throw the turnout.  I'd purchased a 25' length of 14-pair, 24-gauge conductor cable.  I used the first few for these push buttons and gave it a try - and no luck.  The message wasn't getting to the PSX-AR before it shorted out the Island.  No good!  I'd hoped I wasn't in over my head with this.  

What to do?    I remembered from school at Syracuse that the longer you run a cable, the higher the resistance for the power.  When you're talking tiny cables, that is even more of a concern.  Could that be the issue here?  I ran a 25' pair of 20 gauge copper wire, made the connections...and it worked.  Relief!  

For the rest of the toggles, however, the tiny conductor cables worked fine.  So it was time to get rolling with disassembly of the old board, and moving things circuit-by-circuit to the new one.  The old board held up pretty well for a temporary fixture.

I removed the mounting screws and took the wires off the back of the panel one by one.

These were then adjusted to run to a new trio of terminal strips, from which I could connect them to the 25' cable to run to the new panel.  

Numbering these allowed me to match each end with the correct colors and function, so that I could attach the far end to the appropriate terminal on the new panel.

Slow steady progress is key here, and testing as we go keeps us sane.  I caught a few small mistakes immediately.  The idea here, like on the staging panels, is to 'follow the yellow brick road' on the panel:  that's the route that is lined up.  Since polarity matters with the Tortoise machines, it took some trial end error to keep it logical.  

After several nights and a whole weekend of this work, though, it was coming together.  I estimate it required 36 hours of work to get this right, but in the end, I am very pleased.  It works perfectly.  Further, finishing construction here now allows me to hang skirting and clean up the area with some new foam-rubber tiles.  

Here's a view of that area of the layout now - what a difference!

Another big project brought to completion by COVID-19.  I'm making lemonade out of those lemons this spring!