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.

asmr_logoSo I am happy to tell you about our model train club, the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders, and our annual Open House, coming up this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 13 & 14. Our layout is at 2043 N. 2nd, behind Global Samaritan Ministries, here in Abilene, and the times 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. (For more about the hobby, see my previous post “The World’s Greatest Hobby.”)

The club layout is in HO scale (pronounced “aitch-oh”), which is based on a proportion of 1:87 – in other words, 1 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.

CutI have been adding to the scenery on a 20 ft. section of track, representing a rural area somewhere in Callahan County; other club members are doing sections that represent Abilene, Baird, and elsewhere. The scenery is finished in some areas, partially done in other areas, and not even started in some portions.

There are many different techniques for creating realistic scenery. In my case, I used blue Styrofoam insulation board, stacked up and carved to represent ridges and hills, then covered with a thin layer of lightweight plaster. I painted it and sprinkled a product that represents grass, then placed lichen in various shades of green to represent trees. I am pleased with the final results.FW&D_depot

Other scenes: A Burlington engine passes in front of the old Ft. Worth & Denver depot on Locust Street in Abilene –>

theater_corner<– A downtown city scene. Do you suppose patrons at the movie theater complain about the noise when a train goes by?

oil_field1A tank farm, complete with pump jack. –>

T&P_station<– The T&P station in downtown Abilene.

underpassNear the Swift Meat Packing Plant. –>

Mel<– Member Mel Herwick adds details to a section of scenery.

engine_facilityLocomotive shop facility, still under construction –>

Club members are happy to share our layout and our passion for the hobby, and we invite everyone to come out this weekend and see the trains, and also see our progress on the layout. Besides the main club layout, we will also have smaller displays of model trains in other scales, as well as an operating Thomas the Tank Engine that little ones can run themselves. (Why should the big kids have all the fun?)

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

1. When did the Abilene club begin? Our club started in 1991, partly in connection with the Abilene Railroad Festival which also began that year. The railroad festival is no longer being held, but our club continues to go well.

2. How long did it take to build the layout? The current layout was started a little over two years ago, and is a little over half completed. At some future point we plan to expand our area. Once that’s done, it will be a matter of adding more scenery, and improving what has already been done – there’s a sense in which a model railroad is never finished.

3. Isn’t model railroading expensive? Well, it can be – you can spend hundreds of dollars on one engine if you want – but it doesn’t have to be. Speaking for myself, I certainly don’t have the funds to build a large layout, or the time, space or expertise, for that matter. But by being a member of the ASMR, I can have access to a great layout that I would never be able to afford to duplicate at home. I have also made some great friendships and my fellow members are happy to share their time and experience with me. As with any hobby – fishing, quilting, golfing – how much you spend is up to you.

4. What about other sizes of model trains? One of the first things that newcomers to the hobby must decide is what SCALE they want to model. As mentioned, the club models HO scale, which is the most common, and has the widest selection of engines, cars and model buildings available. A good beginner’s layout fits well on a 4×8 sheet of plywood, which is another reason it’s so popular. Other popular scales include N scale, which is smaller – a 3×5 size beginner’s layout works great – and also O scale, which is derived from the traditional Lionel trains that so many older folks grew up with. And there are others.

5. How can I get started? Many people begin by buying a train set at Christmas; that may or may NOT be the best thing, depending on the age and interests of the person you’re buying it for. For younger children, a wooden “Brio” style may be a better choice; for older children (or grown-ups), a set that includes an engine, some cars, track and a transformer, often for around $100, might be a good choice. Most sets will be either HO or N scale; it’s your choice which one you get. HO sets take up more room but are easier to put together and often easier to operate; N scale sets are more compact, but are less forgiving of bumps in the track and other beginner mistakes.

If you decide to buy a set from a “big box” retailer or craft stores, don’t expect much help. Traditional model train stores can be more helpful for beginners, but also more expensive and sometimes hard to find. But there are PLENTY of online resources, and several good hobby magazines that can be very helpful. There are also lots of “how to” videos you can access for free on YouTube.

We hope to see you this weekend!

The World’s Greatest Hobby

Like many little boys who grew up in the 50s and 60s, one of the earliest toys I can remember playing with was an electric train.  Unlike many others, I never outgrew the fascination.

marx-logoOther kids might have received a train by Lionel or American Flyer; in my case, it was made by Marx.  I don’t remember much about the actual train, other than playing with it until it absolutely fell apart.  Marx Toys was the same company who would later make the “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots” and the “Big Wheel” tricycles, but to me, they will always be a maker of trains.

tim_and_his_train_coverWhen I wasn’t playing with trains, I was reading about playing with trains.  My favorite book as a kid was Tim and His Train.  It told the story of a boy who loved trains (I could relate!), and whose dad took him to visit a rail yard.  When Tim’s birthday came around, he found a complete train set waiting for him.

I thought he was just about the luckiest boy in the world.

Like many hobbies, model trains have their own jargon.  One of the first things you learn is about scale – how large or how small are the models?  The classic Lionel trains are known as “O” scale – pronounced, “oh scale.”  O scale operates on the ratio of 1 to 48; that is, one inch on a model equals 48 inches in real life.  A man 6 ft. tall in the real world would be a model an inch and a half tall.  O scale models are big and impressive to watch as they go by, but they can also be expensive, and they can take up a LOT of room for a layout.

scale_comparisonThe most popular size are known as HO models – you pronounce the letters separately, as in “aitch – oh” scale.  The name came from the fact that it is roughly half of the size of O scale models, or H-O.  These models have a proportion of 1:87 – one foot of track equals 87 feet in real life.  You can build a decent layout on a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, which is how a lot of hobbyists start out.

There are many other scales, each with their own devotees and specialties – Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29).  Each has different advantages – you can built a nice Z scale layout in a suitcase, whereas G scale is often the choice for running outdoors on garden railroads.  It all depends on what you like.  I’ve played around with different scales over the years, but I’ve recently come back to modeling in HO scale.  Here’s my model of the 1950s vintage “Texas Eagle” as it pulls past the Abilene station.

eagle04aOne reason that model railroading is such a popular hobby is that it incorporates many different hobbies in one.  The hobby 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 any and 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 Vulcan – or produce museum-quality reproductions that are accurate right down to the number of rivets.

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.  Obviously, not a realistic approach to running trains!

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.  In my case, I don’t have the space – or the budget – to have a big layout, but I’m a member of the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders.  The ASMR has a nice layout that the members are continuing to build.  As a member, I can run my trains on the club layout, AND even better, I can tap into the knowledge and experience of guys who are much better modelers than I.

wgh_logoIn recent years, several manufacturers of model trains and other interested businesses have formed a trade group devoted to promoting the industry.  It’s called “The World’s Greatest Hobby.”  That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but then again, maybe not.

After all, what other hobby allows you to build and operate your own rail empire, create cities to suit your taste, travel over vast distances, and even go back in time?