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