Thursday, December 15, 2022

Trains and Magic

The holidays are always a time of year when time warps and wraps itself around experience in a way that seems variable.  Nights are long but short, in a way; days are short but can seem quite long.  And by mid-December we are always wishing for an extra hour or two.  

This year Kristen and I are making a deliberate, persistent project out of making time to sit and enjoy.  And one of the things that is a joy to watch is the kids this year, who are as enthusiastic as ever and now are old enough to help with decorating and preparations!

 Teddy and Pete worked hard this year to get the Lionel O gauge trains around the tree, and have embraced it as theirs.  There is indeed a magic to this, and to trains in general.  I am proud of how they treat things gently and how engaged they are with a 'real' toy - when trains win out over screen time, something good is happening.  

They're doing a great job sharing throttle time, too.  What a pleasure!

I cannot help but be excited about what this is building for them for the future.  Lately I have seen them 'operating' on their setup in the attic, and even doing some recording with their tablet of the operations complete with commentary.  I think that might be a fun thing to dress up and put on YouTube to share some of the joy with the world, as we can all use a bit more of that!  

Make time to sit and ponder this season, and may you find some joy in front of you that you can appreciate too!

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Moments of Clarity

I was going through a pile of digital images on my phone and computer recently to decide on a few that should be printed, and came across this shot of Jack and I at the end of another session on the Onondaga Cutoff back in 2021.

This was a snapshot, likely by Rich W., and I think it is symbolic of quite a bit in life these days.  This is a really fun image, lighthearted and full of joy, and yet it was in a long line other images and had faded from memory.  Jack and I of course go way back, as is known by most readers of this blog and fans of the OC, but since I am the one taking most of the photos there are not many that include both of us having a great time together.  

Finding reminders of moments like this one bring clarity to the present moment, too, in a way that only reflection can.  Everything now is a sum of all that has been, but it's also greater than that, because it's real and full of promise.  

As this year draws to its close it is important that we dig around in our collective memory for images like this.  Whether photos or videos or moments in our minds take that spot for you matters less than the fact that they exist, for all of us.  What a blessing to have such moments!  And what a privilege to be able to remember them, reflect on them, smile with them.  Enjoy your moments, and may the best be yet to come!

Friday, November 18, 2022

Travels Near and Far

 October and November are some great months to be trackside, anywhere in the United States - perhaps anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere.  While model railroading is a year-round hobby, there is something about being outdoors in the fall that really calls me - colors and light change and the images we can make are otherworldly.  

Even out in my favorite desert, that is the case.

550 automatics, west of Solitude, UT - 2022

Thanks to a generous invite from Mark Hemphill, noted photographer and author, I was again able to make plans to fly to Salt Lake City and spend time with him in the deserts where he made the images that first inspired me to learn more of western railroads in the early 1980's.  

Woodside UT with Amtrak #6, November 2022

There's just no way to make images like this in most places of the world, and in nearly all cases you can't even make similar images anywhere else.  

Sunset at Solitude, UT, November 2022

BNSF Provo-Denver manifest along Grassy Trail Creek, November 2022

Making time for travels like these is difficult, and travel is never inexpensive, but the results are singularly possible only because the trip gets made.  Sometimes against considerable odds, too, but isn't that how we grow?  Nothing gets better or is made stronger through convenience or lack of effort.  Everything is possible if we take action, mindfully, methodically, steadily.  Time for reflection is needed too but make no mistake: action speaks louder than words or thoughts.  

What an amazing year 2022 is shaping up to be!

Monday, November 7, 2022

Guest Operators - Including a Special Guest

Guest operations are a great experience for both visitors and hosts alike.  The Onondaga Cutoff hosted a session as part of a group of sessions on five railroads in one weekend here in Northwestern New Jersey in October, and it was a great honor to be able to join the fun!  We worked hard to get the railroad ready - and it was worth it.  

We hosted along with Perry Squier, Ted Pamprin, Jerry Dziedzic, and Tony Koester - four legendary layouts, and the OC.  I am still amazed at the good fortune of living in this same area as these railroads!  

The first session Saturday was at Jerry's, and here Doug Tagsold and Dustin Jeffers work the big NJ Zinc Mill in Franklin, NJ on Jerry's NYS&W/L&HR.  

Later that afternoon, the crowd came to the OC, and we got right into it.

Guest sessions work best with helpers on hand who know the railroad well, regulars that can be trusted as guides for the visiting operators.  Sometimes guests jump right in and this group not only jumped in but also caught on very quickly - it was a great session!

Mike Burgett, whose amazing C&O layout was a railroad on which I operated in the spring of 2022, sat in as the Conrail Mohawk Dispatcher on the OC.  He worked it well with guidance from Jack T, who as always puts a tremendous amount of effort into making sure the operating plan works and is robust enough to hold up through the typical ebbs and flows of a session.

An honored guest this time as well as Eric White, who attended with his wife and son.  Eric was recently promoted to be the Editor of Model Railroader magazine - a key role not just at Kalmbach but in the hobby in general - and he has now attended a session on the Onondaga Cutoff.  Awesome!

It has been a thrilling and fascinating start to the fall in 2022, and things are continuing on a rapid pace.  Maintaining balance is going to be a key not just this year but as life goes on and that is something I will explore more in future posts and creative works.  Balancing life, family, career, and an immersive hobby is a wonderful privilege and a huge responsibility at the same time.  

The best for all of these is yet to come!

Sunday, November 6, 2022

First Impressions Matter

All the new HVAC work in October created quite a mess in the layout entrance.  A whole new electrical service was needed, and the panel created an unsightly entrance to the layout.  Having seen a number of world-class railroads, I know the Onondaga Cutoff needs a nice initial impression to make visitors and regulars feel comfortable and to present a seamless introduction.  

So, I created a large new forest canopy for the cover to the new panel, which makes the view down the stairs seamless:

Once you come down off the steps to the landing, the view is just as smooth over the new panel.

All of this was hours of pondering and then hours of custom construction, with assistance from DemClams to make all the trees.  But in a push, we got there - and thankfully once again the railroad has a seamless entrance with which it has the best chance to make a great first impression.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Another Heritage Unit...NJ TRANSIT 41O1

Heritage has long since caught the imagination of railroad photographers, and thanks to a combination of good fortune, opportunity, timing and ambition I am pleased to report that we have completed another heritage unit - on the 1:1 railroad.   NJ Transit GP40PH-2 41O1 is now in service!  

The engine was in the shop for paint, and based on our success in 2019 I approached management with the idea to do another project for the fleet.  Many others jumped in and handled major parts of the project, notably Rich Wisneski and Russell Sullivan along with the NJT mechanical forces who performed the work and organized the activity.  The results are quite stunning.

The locomotive was cleaned and sandblasted, then received body work and primer.  Paint colors were painstakingly matched with extensive help from the United Railway Historical Society, and applied in-house by NJT crews.  All of this came together in a matter of weeks. 

 I helped locate the stripe, discussing details and measurements, and we got a great result.

This was when Russell Sullivan suddenly came upon an emergency.  Paint was finished on Wednesday September 28th ahead of Saturday October 1 unveiling.  The cab numbers and warning stencils were delivered as decals, but the 4101 (and any Conrail in-house paint job) didn't use a '0' - instead, Conrail's Futura Bold font used a capital O instead of the digit 0.  Our decals came as 4101, not 41O1, due to a typo at the factory.

36 hours to go and we had the wrong font.  !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Well, the factory is in central PA, and Reidler Decal answered our desperate call at 7 p.m.  Our rep talked to her boss and sure enough, they could help - as long as we could pick it up.   And so I volunteered to drive out to the factory Friday morning, pick up new decals, and drive them back to NJ to Rich, who would then take them down to the shop for a Friday night install ahead of the Saturday show.  WHEW!

Both photos above by Russell Sullivan.

We did it!

The next day, the annual NJT Rail Operations Family Day celebration, was the unveiling and despite the rain, it was a career highlight, much like 4109 was in 2019.

Me, Rich Wisneski, Russell Sullivan - the team that worked with mechanical to get this one over the hump.
Me again, this time with the Deputy GM-Mechanical Fred Chidester, President Kevin Corbitt, Rich Wisneski, and Kevin's wife who came to see the freshly-painted locomotive as well.

For an infrastructure guy like me to have career highlights in mechanical with heritage units is a dream come true.  41O1 will join the fleet and bring smiles where it goes, honoring men and women who made the company work from the start against all odds.  

And my family was there to see this again - the home where my life starts and is sustained with Kristen and DemClams was able to be here for this too.  And Russell got a great photo of us with the 4109 on October 1, still looking great after 3 years:  4109 was my original goal with the program, image thanks again to Russell.

Stuff like this is a firm reminder of how things can still get better, and how we can come together if we choose to focus on things that bring us together!

Monday, October 10, 2022

New HVAC for the OC

Multiple projects ongoing, and plenty of work leads to a variety of improvements.    

First, a major systems upgrade is complete in working ductless HVAC on the house, including the layout space. The Onondaga Cutoff will finally be more comfortable mid summer! And in addition, the ductless AC also works as a heat pump meaning that we will not be as chilly mid-winter. Major thanks to go Tom Schmieder for all his generous help during such a busy time.

Tom is skilled with all things mechanical, also carpentry, electrical, plumbing...all the sorts of things I can slide by with Tom does better, with patience and confidence.  First we built a frame to block the window, and support the new HVAC unit over the layout.  The poor Island Yard has been under a lot of construction!

Careful measurement and Tom's talents gave us a near perfect fit.  We put it up, I gave it a coat of paint, and we were set for installation.

Major change!  And now time for the contractors to do their thing:

Just like that, the OC is now permanently climate controlled.  No more space heaters, or window units.  We did the whole house - what a major, monumental upgrade.  And, this was one of four or five huge activities in the last few weeks!

More to come!

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Major Upgrades - Long Time Planned

 It's been a busy start the autumn season in life and on the layout.  But the Onondaga Cutoff is better for the effort, in two major ways.  

First, with the help of friend Paul T., I finally made the plunge and updated the layout PC from Windows 8.1, which has been less stable than I liked for years, to Windows 10.  This involved a whole evening of downloading and uploading, installing and failing, then using Google to find solutions to the issues and work through them.  In the end, the computer is working as intended and all applications were seamlessly transferred.  A real test will be the next operating session!

The other major project came about with a design question from Jack on the Island, and our reevaluation pointed us in the direction of some major changes to the back three tracks, to better accommodate locomotive manipulations.  The major goal was to make room to store Amtrak consists at the back end of the yard, and allow new crossover capability so they could leave the yard with equipment ahead on the same track.  

It is always best to test fit components and get a good feel for major changes like this.  We want to envision it, check that twice, then lay it out and measure 4 times.  No kidding!  Re-doing work because of an incorrectly remembered measurement is frustrating and time consuming.  So, I purchased the components first (two #6 turnouts, a #6 double-slip switch, and switch machines) which allowed me to mock up the whole area.  As it turned out the new bumper tracks were too close, so we moved the whole assembly away from the bumpers to ensure proper fit for Amtrak.  

The hardest part of these projects is the demo.  To my frustration I realized I would need to remove about 2 feet of ballasted track, and while that is far less than it could have been, it was still a lot.  Thankfully by moving slowly and steadily with the putty knife, I was able to save all the track that was glued down, even that part that was ballasted.  

After cleaning up it was time to script out the new track design and make it fit.  Working from the mandatory length of the back tracks I spaced out the new switches to fit and laid that route first, allowing it to cure overnight before starting the next ones.  The next night, I was able to lay the remainder of the yard and weight it for curing.  I installed new feeders and made all the soldier joints with the resistance soldering machine, still one of the best investments for anything larger than a small layout!

After weathering, we have a great-looking area, and this opens the door finally to making the final scenery here a reality.  This will model a locomotive servicing area including service platforms as per prototype engine yards.  

Given the lack of roadbed, I decided to use leftover Masonite hardboard cut into thin strips and scored to suggest concrete.  The height is nearly perfect for a rail-height platform.  I am curious to see how it will handle ballast installation with so much moisture during curing - we will see.

A quick test fit shows the stunning visual change that platforms will have for the Island.  

Satisfied with the fit, I found some old house paint that worked perfectly for worn concrete, which will need some weathering to blend in.  I made the rest of them and dropped them into place.

With all platforms temporarily installed we have a really snappy-looking area.  They're not perfect, of course, and look a bit clunky without ballast.  But that will happen in a few days.  Soon we will add a few details - and be ready for service.  The Island is coming to life!

Friday, September 16, 2022

Bangin' Around

Major construction is always a mixed word for modelers. It is usually done for the right reasons, and generally can be planned to minimize disruptions with the proper precautions.  We are making the move to split-unit 'ductless' HVAC in the house, which requires extensive electrical preparation in the basement - right over the railroad.  

 I had installed modular scenery here on the wall over the electrical cabinet and once again, that paid off in that when we needed access a few screws were removed and the whole wall of trees lifted off evenly.  But the breaker box is right adjacent to and above the Skaneateles Creek bridge on the M&E.  One slip of the box and the bridge could be crushed.  So, I constructed a special 'sarcophagus' around and through the bridge, designed to take the hit and protect the bridge.  

Also needed anytime construction comes along is dust protection for the layout.  The entire OC was covered in sheet plastic, with signal bridges and other fragile taller items bracketed by paint cans in an effort again to protect them in case of something falling nearby.  For good reason, I might add.

There is just no way around it - messes happen.  Here's a big one, right at CP280, and I am thankful I covered the layout but also horrified at the amount of debris and dust.  Yuck!   So, the last few weeks have been loaded with days and nights prepping and cleaning up like this, which makes for a long few weeks.  

Now that fall is coming there will be more opportunity to get down to the layout and continue progress, but for now it will be of the cleaning sort!

Thursday, August 25, 2022

A String of Reefers, on the OC? Yep!

Longtime readers and operators know the goal of the Onondaga Cutoff well:  capture the intensity and excitement, the optimism and progressive attitude of Conrail on the Albany Division over the Chicago Line as it appeared in 1994.  Modeling is always an approximation, and we always must compromise to reach the next level.  But now we will start to see a sight common on the prototype that until now was missing on the layout.

Here we see a 'reefer block' - a group of insulated, refrigerated boxcars, recently upgraded with metal couplers and wheels, then weathered and finished for service.  Jack and I decided it was time for another look at the operations on the OC.  Jack and I got to watching some videos of Chicago Line action in the mid 1990's over the last few years, and as that brewed in the background, I was getting more frustrated with some of the irregularity of manifest lengths on the OC.  I love long trains, of course, but a challenge was coming up where the first 5-6 cars in those eastbound trains were right at their limit coming up to CP282.  Any sudden throttle movement or momentary short pushed things right over the cliff and we'd have a stringline derailment. 

I wasn't happy with the performance and approached Jack about working the plan to try and get our train length to average a few less cars while keeping variety and not shortchanging NYSW interchange traffic.  Jack mentioned we should also be including some of the western traffic - a reefer block, longer autorack block, and that autoparts block - more consistently on certain through trains. 

Months passed.  Jack came over last week with a new plan in mind, and we got started reblocking both the big manifest trains to fit that new idea.  Everything came together and boy, both trains sure do look more like the videos now!   It's awesome to see (and hear a few of) the reefers come around the corner with some lumber loads and western connection cars enroute to Selkirk and points east. 

Another important goal in this exercise is to create some re-spots as part of switching: i.e., leaving some cars on spot for longer than just one cycle.  I see the longer-than-24-hour placements more as a way to take some cars off the railroad, creating more manageable mainline blocks, and to also create more prototypical switching at industries with some picks and placements but also more re-spots instead of crews cleaning out a whole spur and then placing all new inbounds per the ZTS map.  From a switching perspective it may end up being more work, reassembling cars on each spur between new placements and re-spots - but guys seem to like that.  I see it as likely that a plant like Iroquois Paper, while huge, would not use all the kaolin from all tank cars nor need every one of the 8 boxcars picked up each day on the prototype.  This system reflects that.  

Coming up this week will include a second meeting on site to rebuild the blocks on spot and in Onondaga Yard - along with ON10 and SY-1 - to accommodate the new plan. 

Stay tuned!  The Onondaga Cutoff will be a bit more prototypical as we head into the fall!

Monday, August 22, 2022

Guiding a Family Through the West

 This has been a summer of considerable adventure for our family.  Layout progress has necessarily slowed accordingly, and while it will start again soon for now we are enjoying memories made on the kid's first trip to the American West.  We decided to take Amtrak and use the Family Bedroom in their sleeper cars for our westward journey, and it was everything we hoped it would be.

And that was just the beginning.  I am still 'unpacking' in a sense the total emotional weight of this trip, what it meant to not only the family but to me as well, and figuring out what that means for us all.  The West is dear to me even if not near, and it has always been a longing in my heart, a calling of sorts.  To have the opportunity and ability to dream, plan, and execute this trip - in effect leading my family through a highlight reel of 'my' West - well, that's a privilege of the highest sort, one only possible because of the sum of so many other things that came together.  

More on that as time comes.  But for now, let's look at the highlights!

We took NJ TRANSIT down to Newark, NJ, and boarded Amtrak #141 to Washington, DC. there.  It set the tone for the trip right away: full of anticipation, but larger-and-life present moment experiences, too.  

A day in Washington, DC awaited us during our 4-hour layover in the Capital.  Just a 1/3-mile walk from Washington Union Station is the US Capital Building itself, which was hosting sessions of Congress as we walked the grounds.   Tangibility: that is an aspect of our government that is overlooked.  You can almost always make a trip and experience some of it firsthand.

Chicago Union Station: always impressive, and wonderfully so after its restoration.  Current maintenance practices are working, too; I was here five or six times now since 1989 and the station still looks great!  Excellent job by Metra, Amtrak, and the City.  

Boarding a westbound Amtrak train at Chicago Union Station is akin to boarding a Boeing 747 bound for another continent.  There is an incredible present-moment excitement and anticipation of things to come, and DemClams - the three happy and zany kids - caught all of it!  Here they are just after dawn nearing Fort Morgan, CO, on a day they'd looked forward to for years.  Today is the first day they will see the Rocky Mountains.

One of my favorite parts of the West is that the anticipation doesn't disappoint: in fact, it just grows and grows, with new natural wonders and vistas around every corner.  Here we descend along the Eagle River west of the Continental Divide in Byers Canyon.  

The West: a place where sun-bleached two lane roads, straight as an arrow, eventually disappear over distant hills that are dwarfed by the mountains on the horizon, which in turn are dwarfed by the magnificence of the blue sky dome above, a sky bounded only by the infinity of space beyond.  

Some American deserts are flatter than others, but all are inhospitable; punctuated by chasms and cliffs, by impassible features.  Here's the open desert near Canyon Diablo, Arizona, with the Arizona Divide and San Francisco Peaks some 40 miles distant, sun setting behind hot clouds to the west.  

A highlight for all of us in different ways this year was Flagstaff, Arizona, a city near 7000' of elevation on the edge of incredible Ponderosa Pine forests and the Arizona Divide.  It's a town along one of the busiest mainline railroads in the world, the famed BNSF Railway's 'Transcon' - the route of the former Santa Fe Railway's main line between Chicago, IL and Los Angeles, CA.  BNSF still maintains the old freight station as a division office in this photo by Teddy Abeles.

Flagstaff is also a gateway to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, and this was a highlight of the trip for all of us, as well.  This is my 7th visit to this incredible area and each time, it's like the first time all over again: totally and incredibly beautiful, overwhelmingly huge, a billion-year exploration and visual treat.

Heading north from Flagstaff we encounter an amazing array of deserts and dry wash canyons, passing near multiple arches near Moab and through Arches National Park, and land after a long day at Green River, UT, home to Rays Tavern:  'The Place for Everyone.'   In this part of Utah, a long history of immigrants has created a really universal atmosphere in the people that remain.  As the fortunes of coal and the railroad come and go people move on, but Ray's remains, and is my favorite tavern in all of Utah.  

I must include a photo with an old friend - Denver & Rio Grande Western SD40T-2 locomotive 5371.  One of 73, the 5371 was the last guy standing on former home rails after the Rio Grande purchased the SP, and was swallowed later by Union Pacific Railroad.  Thankfully good former DRGW heads at UP were able to preserve 5371 which is now at the Ogden Transportation Museum, and surrounded in good company by locomotives that once led trains through town from UP, SP, and Utah Railway.

We are home safe, but this was a trip for the ages, a journey for each of us across this nation but also  into the next era for the family.  

So much more to come!