News & Reviews News Meet Dave Abeles

Meet Dave Abeles

By Nastassia Putz | July 6, 2022

Meet The Modeler: He was born to play with trains

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What was your first train set (or locomotive)?

Meet Dave Abeles: My first train set was the Tyco ‘Silver Streak’ set in HO scale (1984). I had loved trains since before I could walk or talk. In the late 1970s, my parents told stories of me always asking for trains and standing for hours anywhere we found them. My younger brother and I ran the wheels off the first train set we had. We were excited enough to overlook the clumsy controls, X2F ‘horn-hook’ couplers, fantasy paint jobs, etc. We loaded the BN hopper car with dry cereal and thought the piggyback flatcar with Union Pacific trailers was the greatest! At first it ran on the floor.

Seeing the interest continue, my dad commissioned a few of his students – he was a high school social studies teacher – to build us a small layout in the basement. With no guidance, they built a wood frame to sit on sawhorses. It had two loops, a curved siding on each end and was laid on an unpainted 1/2″ Homasote particle-board surface that after a few months sagged badly in the middle.

All of this was in a poorly-lit basement – I grew up on an 1830’s farmhouse in western New Jersey, with a low-ceiling and hand-hewn beams. The oil burner in the corner would cycle on and off while the layout sat next to the coal bin. The house had a coal stove my father used for extra heat all winter long. Coal dust was everywhere!

We added a few second-hand steam engine switchers and cars to the collection – playing for hours – even though the trains would stall regularly on dirty, tarnished brass snap track.  My brother and I also loved farm equipment and included our cast-metal Ertl toy tractors and farm implements on subsequent versions of the layout. Ben would play with the tractors and plow the fields on the layout surface while I ran the trains. It was a gritty little set up, but we found a way to have fun with it!

picture of a model blue locomotive and model minivan
Dave’s railroad is an amalgamation of childhood and teenage memories, including the family minivan pictured here next to Conrail B23-7 1931.


picture of prototype of blue locomotive
Trackside time in the 1990’s was inspiring as Conrail grew into a world-class transportation company. Dave works to capture that aura on the Onondaga Cutoff.

Describe your model railroading philosophy in 6 words.

The best is yet to come.

What has been your biggest modeling success?

The greatest success is the community of people that come together around my layout, the Onondaga Cutoff. I am filled with gratitude toward others for so much of my modeling journey.  The hobby helped me persevere through some challenging times in grade school, high school, and beyond by providing a place to invest creative energy in positive ways. Discovering Model Railroader on the drug store counter was an important step. Meeting Jack Trabachino in fifth grade was another pivotal moment – finally, someone my age that shared the same passion for trains! Jack and I spent years railfanning near and far and modeling our trackside excitement.  Jack helped me imagine, design, and build the Onondaga Cutoff, which is built and operated in line with our railfanning memories.

As the OC developed, people noticed and joined our community and then in turn reached out to others, introducing others to what we were doing. Operating the OC with this group helped provide the push to sustain the energy for modeling, writing, and photographing as my young kids have grown. Of course, authoring Signals and Interlockings (the first Kalmbach book dedicated to signals on model railroads) was also a big success as well as developing remote operations concepts and sharing them through the ‘virtual’ operations shows we host on Facebook. But these only came because of having a community. As with my career in railroading, I am fortunate to have had good mentors and insightful teachers. This kind of camaraderie is wonderful – and for me an essential part of the hobby.

picture of two guys running operation
A team of people is necessary for real railroads to run, and the Onondaga Cutoff is no different. Rich Wisneski and Chris Lee handle the management jobs here during a modeled 1994 sunrise.

What was your biggest modeling mistake?

The biggest mistake I made in modeling was not reaching out to other modelers sooner.  Growing up in the countryside of northwestern New Jersey, it was difficult to find kindred souls in the pre-internet era of the early 1980s. And yet, through the pages of the hobby press I knew that some famous model railroads were relatively close by. Still, as a child pre-internet and without family members familiar with construction or wiring, I learned my lessons largely on my own by making mistakes!

If I had a chance to start again, I would write letters to magazines in hopes their staff would pass them along to the authors of articles.

What’s your least favorite modeling task?

Under-layout wiring installation and maintenance. Necessary, but a chore.

What project(s) have you been working on recently?

Recent projects include several article ideas for the new MR Editor Eric White to consider, as well as working on the manuscript and photography for my second book with Kalmbach: tentatively titled Yard Design and Operations on your Model Railroad (due for release in 2024).  On the Onondaga Cutoff, in addition to the usual maintenance and repair, I am working on some improvements to the operating scheme to more closely model Conrail in the mid-’90s and to streamline some of our train movements. I also have a few scenery “fill in” projects in the works as well. Having a variety of projects helps to keep progress moving.

picture of a part of the Onondaga Cutoff
Heavy-duty mainline railroading is the name of the game on the Onondaga Cutoff.

What advice would you give to a new hobbyist?

Reach out early and often – this hobby is bigger than most of us realize, and the power of the internet and social media help you connect to others. Proceed with confidence and have fun.  Anything worth doing is worth doing well, so invest in the nicest track and models you can and enjoy the quality and details available today. Don’t be afraid to preorder. If the hobby ebbs and flows for you, that is fine – you’re still a model railroader. The hobby takes many forms, and there are a variety of experts for us to learn from. Let those experts be experts. The hobby can be made better with advice and feedback from others!

A key idea is that the whole experience is greater than the sum of its parts. And when in doubt, run a train – you’ll be glad you did.

A picture of Dave Abeles' sons
Sharing the Onondaga Cutoff with others is paramount for Dave. His sons, Teddy and Pete, are regular helpers and are learning to operate.


photo of Dave Abeles
Dave Abeles standing next to his Onondaga Cutoff HO scale layout.


Also, check out Dave’s  Meet The Modeler video.

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