Training for Christmas Fun

When someone finds out that I’m a model railroad aficionado, most of the time, it brings a sort of tolerant half-smile. That changes at Christmas. Tell someone you’re into model trains at this time of year, and their eyes will invariably light up, and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s so cool!” And you’ll hear a great story about a parent or some other loved one, a long-gone Lionel or other train set, and some wonderful memories. Even people who have no interest in trains the rest of the year, become nostalgic and even wistful thinking about trains around a Christmas tree.

So I am happy to tell you about a nearby model train club, the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders, and their annual Open House, coming up this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 11 & 12. The layout is at 598 Westwood Drive, at the intersection of North Sixth Street and Westwood, behind the McDonald’s on North First and across from Grandy’s, in Abilene. The Open House will be Saturday, 10 am – 5 pm, and on Sunday from 1 – 5 pm. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted, and all ages are welcome.

The club layout is in HO scale (the letters are pronounced separately – “aitch-oh”), which is based on a proportion of 1:87 – in other words, one foot on the layout represents 87 feet in real life. (Yes, that’s an odd number, and there’s a story behind how it developed that I won’t bore you with right now.) The club is seeking to represent the old Texas & Pacific Railway (now Union Pacific) from Ft. Worth through Abilene and on to Big Spring – although club members are allowed to “freelance” sections to reflect their personal interests.

Club members are happy to share their layout and passion for the hobby, and they invite everyone to come out this weekend and see the trains. Besides the main club layout, they will also have smaller displays of model trains in other scales, as well as a large collection of wooden Brio trains that the little ones can play with themselves. (Why should the big kids have all the fun?)

One reason that model railroading remains a popular hobby is that it incorporates many different interests in one. It can involve carpentry, architecture, engineering, electrical skills, computer programming, history, research, and many other sub-interests. You can express your artistic self with scenery for all types of terrain and landscapes; you can recreate a memory from the past or come up with an original expression of things the way you think they ought to be. You can create something out of pure whimsey – the Hogwarts Express visiting a train station on the planet Vulcan – or produce museum-quality reproductions that are accurate right down to the number of rivets.

A scene on the Abilene Society of Model Railroader’s club layout, with a Burlington diesel in front of a realistic model of the Abilene & Southern depot.

Some guys enjoy operating their model as a real railroad, complete with timetables and switching lists, making up trains, moving them over the road, picking up and dropping off cars along the way, and doing it all on time. Other guys just enjoy watching their train tick off the miles as it goes by, enjoying the smooth-running operation of the engines and cars. Some enjoy reproducing modern railroading, with its double-stack container trains and high-horsepower modern diesels, while others prefer the “old timey” tea kettle steam engines and short trains. It just depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC. In the old days, when you turned on the power to a particular stretch of track, every engine on it moved at the same time. This led to elaborate wiring schemes and dividing the track up into numerous “blocks,” each insulated from the others, so that you could turn on power to one little section of track at a time.

DCC has changed all that. Now, it’s possible to install a little computer circuit on the engine and give each engine a unique code number. With DCC on board, your controller sends out a coded signal that is read and understood ONLY by your engine. This allows you to run multiple trains on the same stretch of train, each independent of the others. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. As with any hobby – fishing, quilting, golfing – how much you spend is up to you.

If you’re interested in model trains, I know my friends in the Abilene club would be happy to welcome you to their layout and share a little bit of the fun of model railroading. All aboard!

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