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!  


Friday, April 10, 2020

Final Detailing at CP 277

As these wild times continue, with the State, region and nation fighting the now-infamous corona virus and COVID-19, my days have been very interesting and unpredictable.  The maintenance and custodial crews I manage as part of my 1:1 railroad career have never been so important, nor fought a foe this invisible and difficult to stay safe from. 

While I still am 'on the property' in charge of the department that handles those things, I have a lot more time at home lately since each night and weekend, we have no plans.  So, I am making time to plow into the layout and finishing some long-standing projects.

One of those was to finally assemble and install the switch machines at CP 277.  This was one of the first interlockings I had installed.  The first few were installed on the basic foam roadbed I used across the railroad.  While very effective on normal track, the foam is too soft for turnouts:  the extra stress of moving points and avoiding those areas with glue means the spots that are glued tend to be less fixed than is optimal.

Ballast helped that tremendously, so I didn't need to redo it to support operations.  But, with the adjustments I had made, there were inconsistencies that required extra effort to overcome in finishing up the details. 

I started by adding extra ballast and installing the tie extensions to support the switch machines.  I used stained Micro-Engineering ties for this, cut to fit.  They were nestled into the new ballast and leveled carefully with a pair of tweezers before I soaked the whole new area of ballast and timbers with isopropyl alcohol and diluted white glue.   This was allowed to cure for 48 hours.

While I waited there, I moved ahead with cleaning up the Details West switch machine castings, and assembling the detail parts with the kit.

These parts are delicate but are beautiful models, very representative of what Conrail used on the Chicago Line in the 1990's.  I glued on the manual-throw arms and allowed them to cure overnight, and then used a spray of Rust-oleum charcoal gray primer as a paint coat.  This gives the look of the weathered black enamel used on the prototype. 

Upon trying the first location, the timbers still weren't quite stiff enough for my liking.  So, I added a bit more ballast and white glue as seen here.  The ballast is what I use for my Conrail mix - AR&M #1352, UP/SILVERTON/WP BOLD GRAY.  It's a dead ringer for ballast from the quarry that Conrail used on the Chicago Line and other lines in the northeast.  

The other locations set up nicely, and so I proceeded with adding those machines accordingly.  Once I finished those, I was able to add this last one.  

Now, with the final ballast profile and the machines in place, adjacent to Snooks Pond and the Highbridge Road grade crossing, this whole scene is really coming together nicely.  In fact, these last few projects have me ready to call this area complete.  I will add some details here and there but it is now time to move on to other areas.  The next major project is already nearly complete - check back soon for another big update and visual improvement!

Most importantly, though, stay safe and keep your mind set on keeping your family safe too.  The basics matter - on the railroad we are watching out for each other by wearing masks of any sort in public, which keeps others safe should we have the virus.  We are washing and cleaning constantly.  We are all in this together, and together we will stand to see it through.  Best wishes for Passover, Easter, or your choice of holiday!  May Peace be with all of us in this unprecedented experience.  


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Checking in with Lionel Strang

As this wild time continues with the COVID-19 virus and response, my work on the 'real' railroad continues and is more important than ever in some ways.  After the previous podcast interviews, Lionel Strang on his 'A ModelersLife' podcast reached out to discuss how we were doing.

You can listen to the whole thing for free over on their website:

A ModelersLife

As always it's a lively conversation with a thoughtful and witty host - a lot of fun as a diversion in these times of stay-at-home solidarity.  Hang in there!