Wednesday, December 9, 2020
Join Us Live - Virtual Operations!
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 https://www.facebook.com/onondagacutoff/ - 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
|The 'virtual' crew, 10-25-2020|
|First operations, 10-25-2011|
Monday, October 19, 2020
Using Resources - Sharing the Knowledge
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.
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.
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.
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!|
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 https://shop.whiteriverproductions.com/products/rmc-202009
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.
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
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 (https://www.facebook.com/onondagacutoff/). 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|
Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Balance & Priorities
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.
Friday, June 5, 2020
Remote Operations, Again: Trackside on the Onondaga Cutoff
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!
|Dropping my first manuscript off at Somerville Post Office|
Monday, May 11, 2020
First Fully Remote Operations - a Success!
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.
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
Thursday, April 30, 2020
A Bewildering Month
|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
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!