Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Final Step: New Island Local Control Panel - Ready to Go!

 After a big push in the last few weeks, it's now time to report that the installation of 'deep' staging is complete on the Onondaga Cutoff!   Last time we finished up the trackwork installation, which has since been wired into the system.  The final step was to replace the Island local control panel (LCP) with a new one to reflect the changes.  

Thanks go to Nick Anshant on this step, as he is always willing to use his experience on the prototype to help make the Onondaga Cutoff better. We went back and forth to settle on the new layout of the lines and also the new names - these tracks will be named the 'Old Auburn Main' along with a pair of running tracks, reflecting Conrail practice in the Solvay, NY area on the prototype.

Nick had done standard artwork to reflect Conrail practice in the signal bungalows in the field and had the artwork from the previous panel that he was able to modify to reflect the new trackage and switches.  One the art was set, I sent it off to a local sign shop who printed it on 1/4" thick PVC.  I chose plastic here instead of aluminum because the mounting area on the masonite hardboard has a slight curve.  A side benefit of PVC is that it is easy to work with.  I used a 1/8" allen wrench screwdriver as a hole punch by setting the new panel on flat wood on the workbench, and tapping the back of the screwdriver with a small hammer.  This allows the holes to be drilled cleanly and helps prevent the drill bit from wandering.  Here's new panel ready for light installation.

It is nice to do this work at the workbench, too, before trying to mount the panel to the layout.  Now it is time to carry it to the location of the install - much of the work this time around is to simply move the controls from the old panel to the new one, before installing the remaining new hardware.  

Thankfully, the old panel was set with screws, and had enough extra length in the wiring to allow it to hang forward for the work.  I moved the pushbuttons and LEDs over in number order, pair by pair.  It was an arduous and slow task but that was to be expected for a project like this.  However, I did not like putting all the tension on those soldered joints.  So, it was time to build a temporary work shelf.

Using some of the leftover brackets from the benchwork construction for the deep staging and some C-clamps, I set two supports attached to the masonite and set some 1" foam insulation left over from a recent scenery effort across those to act as a work shelf.  This allowed the rest of the cutover to go smoothly, along with the install of the new double-pole, double-throw (DPDT) toggles for switch control and the new LED indicator lights for the new tracks.

By the end, I was more than ready to clean up the area, put the tools away, and turn on the final installation for testing.  I ran engines up and down each route, checking to make sure all was properly indicated and powered.  I tested the on-off toggle as well and sure enough, it checked out!  

In summary, this was a long-awaited project that in some ways I was dreading.  It was tight, and operationally more tight than anything so far on this layout.  But it came together thanks to working with the team - modifying the plan and the construction by discussing with others, having others help to set components in place, and finally making the decision to dive in and do it at the tail end of this pandemic before life gets hectic once again.  

Now comes the exciting part - assembling the unit trains to occupy the track, and adapting our operating plan to fit the new traffic!   Stay tuned as we head into an exciting spring on the Onondaga Cutoff.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Book Has Landed!!

It is with great pleasure that I can announce the release of my first book, Guide to Signals and Interlockings, which is in print and available for sale!   

In the largest news to date on the Onondaga Cutoff, the layout is the central feature of this new publication by the editors of Model Railroader magazine.  It is the culmination of the journey that the signals on the Onondaga Cutoff have been, and contains information on the process so that the reader can understand how that works.  

Many nights and weekends went into it, and now it's available from booksellers, hobby shops, online, and also directly from the publisher at

In the 'Is this really happening' department, a friend sent me a screen shot showing the book having reached '#1 Best Seller' status on Amazon.   Amazing!  

Thank you for all the support!  I hope readers enjoy it and learn more about railroads and signaling as a result.  In a hobby and in a world where there is always more to learn, it is a humbling and exciting process to go through the journey of creating something like this.  I am grateful for the opportunity and excited for the future!

Monday, March 22, 2021

Deep Staging - Completing the Trackwork

The construction of  your layout can tell you a lot about yourself.

Take this Onondaga Cutoff 'deep staging' project, for example.  The idea started organically, without a clear path forward at first, but always in line with the vision of an exceptional operating experience.  Once the idea started it was widely shared with others I trust to vet its weaknesses, and to ensure it was well thought out.  It's measured, constructed and installed to stand the test of time and to provide error-free operation.  And, once it started, the project hasn't stopped much for other modeling endeavors except for glue to cure or paint to dry.  The progress is really settling in, a nice smooth grade down from the right, around the curve towards the new lowest level.

Taking a step back I am quite sure that most things in my life that I can control follow all those same adages.  Most things I am involved in did not come from a pre-planned set of goals, but they almost all serve a central vision for life.  I have learned in my 44-1/3 years so far that most things in my world are better with the influence of others that are experts in their way, or that know me well enough to give me honest feedback on how I might improve things.  Once I decide to build something, I want to do it once, and do it right: taking hours and hours to create something that doesn't work well or to make a repair that can't hold does not suit me.   And once I decide to jump in, it's with both feet - unfinished projects cloud the mind and the schedule, and make the satisfaction of moving on nearly impossible.  

None of that, of course, is to say that it is easy, or even that I take my own advice all the time.  Nope, I am routinely surprised (and sometimes frustrated) by the things I do, but I do hope to learn from each experience and carry that going forward.  Life isn't lived on a shelf or on paper; it's lived by doing.  The key in my view is to spend enough time planning and considering and sharing any idea first so that the act of doing is more effective, more present, and less prone to the erosion that time will inevitably bring to us all.  

Some thoughts for you all on a Monday night as I reflect on progress so far on this deep staging installation.

In the past few nights, we cut in the switch to the existing track.

This process begins by selecting a location for the switch, and with an install like this that is not an easy question.  It was moved back and forth a variety of times to find a location with acceptable curves to connect the diverging route of this #6 switch to the new trackage on the ramp.  

And, of course, even once the location is determined, this is tough construction to do well.  Here you can see how it is:

We have a fixed layer above, with wiring and lighting already installed, and the existing Island track below.  It is amazing how many tools I used for this:  Dremel with both cut-off disc and wire brush, putty knife, screwdrivers, drill, utility knife, adhesive caulk, pliers of several types, nippers of several sizes, bright boy eraser, several jeweler's files, just to name a few.  It was a congested mess keeping things going!   And after a few cuts from dealing with the sharp metal edges, I was ready to move on.

Again, measuring three times and cutting once, we were able to get all things set so that the track dropped into place perfectly.  The flex track took some massaging but in the end the curves all measured out greater than 22" radius through this stretch which is enough to help things stay on the rail.  Of course we would like wider radius, but that is simply not an option here.  We will deal with sharp curves like the prototype does: by limiting speeds and which sorts of equipment are allowed down the hill.  I spread the adhesive, and laid the track in the same manner as with the last post, but of course this was harder where we were under that top layer.  Then all of the new install was weighted to allow it to cure and bond to the subroadbed.

You'll notice no cork or foam roadbed here: where clearances are critical, and where trackage is complicated, you need a minimal vertical cross section as well as a good firm bond.  We have both and the results maximize clearance and rigidity, which was the goal.  It comes at the expense of noise when trains roll through, but this is hidden trackage and noise is not a major concern.  

While it cured, I had time then to install the Tortoise (by Circuitron) switch machines.  

These went in better than expected given the location.  I was glad to have made the holes bigger than advised, settling on 1/2" holes for the wire instead of 1/4".  With no ballast going in down here, there is no concern about the hole being a bit larger and it will help guarantee mechanical reliability in a tight area.  

Finally, we see the new track in place, with switches lined normal for now pending the wiring of the new switch machines and the full new control panel, which is currently under development.   Once that is in place, I'll bring you up to date on the final pieces of getting this track in service!  

Monday, March 15, 2021

Continuing the Deep Staging Process

 It has been a month of expectation and waiting.  

Waiting for the vaccine to be available for COVID.  Waiting for the vaccines to catch hold nationally so life can start to return to normal.  Waiting for some HR changes at work to take effect.  Waiting for (hopefully good!) feedback on several model railroad media fronts.  Waiting for the book to arrive for sale.  All of these things should be great when they come to be, but as my favorite musical artist sings:  "The Waiting is the hardest part."  

And so, as a place to ground out the energy and the angst in the waiting, I have continued to pour efforts into completing the deep staging installation, with a goal of having it operational by April 1.   It has taken each minute I have given it, and asked for more: this is without question the most difficult construction I have tried on this layout.  

We left off last time laying track for the tangent.  That task was completed shortly after the last post while the tangent stretch was still on the floor of the space, allowing for track to be aligned where I could see it without having to guess. 

Once the track cured, I installed all feeder wires, also here on the ground.  You can see the gentle bend in the middle of the tangents, required to deal with the challenging clearances once installed.  I added re-railer sections, upper right above, just in case.  The black steel brackets you can see in the upper left will support this installation, which needs to be close to the aisle at the left side to avoid the diagonal supports ahead to the right.  But, immediately past that, the roadbed will need to curve towards the wall to the left and begin the climb up to the Island level.  

Many thanks to Tom S. and Ralph H. for coming over to lift, shift, and slide this assembly into place!  We made the big lift - and it went just about perfectly.  Thanks to measuring three times, cutting once, and the foresight to assemble this piece on the floor, we were in good shape.

The alignment was exactly what we needed.  Clearances all checked out.  I however left it loose on the brackets pending the installation of the curved section - since the curve will be the link to the existing layout, it must be finalized first.  Now it was time to tackle the curved section installation.  

I had been thinking the curve design and install over for months, debating the approach with myself and with Scott S., a fellow civil engineer.   Like the tangent section, there was no way to lay track once the roadbed was installed just 10" below the top section.  Worse, the tight curves required here (20" radius in places!) made precise installation critical.  The trackwork needs to be perfect at all joints and respecting all clearances for trains to handle this - there is no room for error.  

The new curved benchwork too would be too long and large to be slid in from the aisle or floor.  It didn't clear the adjacent parts of the layout.  

The only choice left was to paint the wood ahead of time, add the guardrails ahead of time, then assemble the curved plywood in two pieces, after which track could be laid - all while the assembly was temporarily supported out from under the top level.  But the only place to do that was on top of the uneven mainline ramps behind Iroquois: it is the only place I could fit the assembly where it could then be rotated into position.  Putting heavy plywood over HO scale mainline track is always tough to stomach.  And then, after all that, the whole thing would need to be rotated counter-clockwise over the Island tracks, along its permanent path slid between existing Island tracks and the layer above, before being set down onto the supports.  

Ugh.  Lots of room for mistakes and collateral damage.   BUT - a clear path forward, and frankly the only possible one.  

Even the clear path forward had its struggles.  Here I am in one of my 'layout yoga' positions, on a ladder on an angle bent over mainline with my head against the ceiling, laying track that had to be exact.  Not fun.  

As the track cured, I double checked clearances again, even taking several of my longest locomotives and pushing them around the curve to ensure they cleared the sides and each other while on adjacent tracks.  It was tight - but it worked!  I weighted the track as seen above, a view where you can see the test engines too.  

Once the track cured up, it was time to install 36 different feeders, ensuring that each piece of rail has its own hard-wire connection.

I continue to stand by my claim that resistance soldering, the technique shown above, is a clearly superior way to solder wires to rails.  I was done with all that in one evening with only one melted tie to speak of.  Not bad, and at least I could do it standing up!  

After 5 long nights of late and hard work on this, now we can see the results - and I think it paid off.  Here's the smooth curves of track using Atlas curved switches to save space.  With all that work done, I cleaned up my tools and equipment, thought through the issues one more time, and took the plunge!

With a few bumps and strains, and a sudden satisfying THUMP, the curve slid into its spot.  I had to carefully then adjust it so the extra track from the tangent piece ended up above the curved end.  I fastened the curve in place with risers as seen above, then made the adjustments to ensure the tangent piece lined up, which was then too fastened in place.  I had left 16" long tails of flex track in place on purpose on the tangent to smooth the joints, and those needed to be trimmed to fit exactly over the transition. 

With some careful measuring and lots of time, I trimmed the track using a Dremel tool since the big code 100 rail had destroyed my rail nippers.  The backup plan worked great, though.  The track slid into place.  I spread adhesive below the loose area, then slid joiners into place and laid the track.  The result was better than I had expected, shown above.  Yes the track is old used Atlas Code 100 flex - ugly stuff by today's fine standards - but robust and cheap and therefore perfect for hidden staging areas!

The final step was the final joint between the curve and the Island staging subroadbed, which I did with steel strips for extra rigidity at this odd joint.  With both routes descending, there is a lot of torsion on these bars, but they are more than up to the task.  

So while the waiting takes so long and so much energy, it is being great to have this project to plow along through.  Next time we will look at final cut-in of the yard to the existing track, and the installation of Tortoise machines and controls.   Never a dull moment on the Onondaga Cutoff!

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

New Traffic: The Case for Deep Staging

One of the best things about watching trains on an important main line is that you never really can know what is coming next.  On the Onondaga Cutoff, one of the challenges for the operation is to build in enough variability that we capture some of that anticipation.  While the existing traffic base covers most of what would be seen daily along the Conrail Chicago Line in 1994, some of the less-regular traffic - namely, coal and grain unit trains, are not yet represented.  

Since the 5-track, 70-foot-long, double-ended staging yard was designed with Tony Koester's '2n+1' idea, we have filled up the capacity with movements typical of trains that ran across the Chicago Line in that era.  Even though we have installed crossovers at the middle of the staging yard, and that we turn the consists to represent different trains, we are still out of room for new consists and especially those that would not run each day - unit coal trains to northeastern power plants, and unit grain trains to and from the Port of Albany, NY.  

Enter the idea of 'deep' staging. By designing a new storage area, stub-ended and below the existing level, we can open up a new level of variety.  This new area will be constructed to house unit grain and unit coal train consists and introduce those movements to less-than-daily operations on the Onondaga Cutoff.  Operationally, we need this to be located in a place where trains can run out from the storage in either direction, adding to the complications.  

The hard part?  Building it!

Testing Subroadbed

The only place where new storage can be added that has direct access to both directions would be via the Island, which currently serves as a locomotive servicing and storage yard.  It is tight, but so is any expansion:  we have to make due with what we have.  The operational benefit here will outweigh the difficulty in installation.   In the photo above, I am test fitting the new subroadbed.  See that small gray tunnel ahead to the left?  

One of the major difficulties in doing construction beneath existing layout, especially when clearances are tight like this, is tracklaying and wiring.  Alex Lang had a good idea - do as much as possible before mounting on the layout.  So, assembly of this will be done on the floor in three sections: the straight area, and two separate corner pieces, so as to allow less tracklaying and wiring while under the layout.  

Projects like this are a great way to use some of the materials I have stored over the years from other home projects or earlier layout projects.  I had a few strips of leftover plywood stored in the garage that I used for the subroadbed and for the splice plates to join them together end to end.  

Once the sections were assembled, including checking the joints that needed shimming to match the heights, I moved on to adding guardrails.  Since much of this will be out of sight, guardrails of leftover masonite will prevent any derailed cars from hitting the floor.  

Once all guardrails were installed it was time to seal the wood ahead of tracklaying.  Using some old latex housepaint, I painted the whole assembly gray.  

The paint was allowed to cure overnight and now it is easier to see the gentle turn built into the middle of the assembly, so as to get the tracks closer to the aisle from the tight path they need to follow to reach the Island.  Now, it's time for tracklaying, for the first time in several years.  It takes a little getting used to!

This process will continue until all three assemblies are put together.  I will also wire this track while it's on the ground so that once installed, we just need to connect the joints and go.  This track was weighted and is curing overnight before the next 6 feet is laid.  

Plenty more to come as we wrap this up!  Enjoy the last few days of winter and I will be posting more back here soon.