Sure, model railroading is a fun pastime for many, but it’s also a way for kids and adults alike to explore math, science, engineering, history and art. One Rockford group’s latest show puts it all on display in grand style.
Most of us don’t give much thought to the story of railroads and how they transformed our world in the 19th century, or the important role they still play in our economy. But there’s a group of people keeping that story alive, and they’re having a lot of fun doing it.
“Model railroading enthusiasts are more than just a bunch of people who play with trains,” says Ken Mosny, assistant superintendent of the Rock River Valley Division, National Model Railroad Association (RRVD-NMRA). “A lot of people take it very seriously and do a great deal of research to accurately model routes from various time periods and geographic locations.”
The association’s biggest show of the year will be March 26 & 27 at Harlem High School, 9229 N. Alpine Road, in Machesney Park, Ill., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It will feature more than 42,000 square feet of space filled with a dozen operating model train displays and hundreds of vendor tables with new and used items for sale. Find updates about the show at RRVD-NMRA.com.
Mosny knows people who’ve traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to research train routes and others who’ve traveled to various locations to photograph the terrain so they can make their model train layouts as accurate as possible.
As an active local chapter, the RRVD organizes model train shows each spring and fall. About 30 of the 75 to 100 members meet monthly to share information. Members often tour each other’s layouts.
Although the pandemic put a damper on in-person gatherings for a time, it also opened opportunities to exchange knowledge with train enthusiasts across the nation via Zoom sessions, says Mosny. As a retired mechanical engineer, he enjoys the technical side of the hobby and shares his knowledge with a national audience. The NMRA also sees growing interest from hobbyists in places like Europe, Russia and China.
“It’s such a multi-faceted hobby because you have people like me who enjoy the technical and mechanical side of it, but you also have artistic people who enjoy the creative work of making the scenery for a layout and also people who really love the historical research aspect,” Mosny says. “If you don’t have the whole skillset yourself, there are always people willing to jump in and help you.”
The work of improving a train layout never ends, and that’s part of the fascination.
“When people see my layout, they almost always ask, ‘So, when will it be done?’ My answer is ‘Never!’ I’m always planning the next thing for it.”
Mosny says the hobby today is largely geared to people like him. He grew up in the 1950s enjoying the world of Lionel model trains and now has the time and money to revisit it. But he also sees multi-generational interest and says it’s an affordable hobby for parents and grandparents to enjoy with children, who can learn about history, math, art and evolving technologies along the way. Today’s kids can even download apps to control computer-enabled trains with their smartphones.
“Some of the more sophisticated prototype train modeling not only replicates the train equipment itself, but also the operating sessions – the points of origin, the timed schedules, dispatches, the timing of when trains meet and pass each other,” says Mosny.
Train layouts may be based on real or fictional places; many compress distances to scale, just as the model trains themselves are scaled to the size of real trains.
There are 23 model train sizes, all set by the NMRA. The five most common are O, HO, S, N and G. About 65 percent of model railroaders use HO, with models scaled to 1/87th the size of a real train. The G, or Garden size, is largest, at a scale of 1/22.5. It’s often used in outdoor settings.
“This is the train you see running around at Nicholas Conservatory,” says Mosny.
The S group includes American Flyer trains scaled at 1/64th and the O group is scaled at 1/48th.
By far the smallest scale of trains of the group is N, scaled at 1/160th the size of a real train, “which means you can fit a lot more of them into a layout” but they can be harder to handle for children or adults with arthritic hands.
At least two local hobby stores in Rockford cater to model railroaders – Hobby Town at 3782 N. Alpine Road (near the Loves Park, Ill., Walmart) and Midwest Rail Junction at Highcrest Centre. Hobbyists often save money by picking up pieces they need at model train shows.
“A brand-new, modern locomotive with a sound system and digital controller may cost you $400,” says Mosny. “Or, at a train show, you can pay $30 for an older locomotive that runs fine and you can also pick up a lot of freight cars for $5 each. Prices are all over the map. A teen can get started in the hobby for a few hundred dollars and an adult can set up nicely for $1,000.”
Novices can buy everything ready-made or learn how to build their own trains like Mosny does. His personal layout, which he calls Sugar River and Ridgefield, focuses on the 1900 era in our region.
Mosny explains that, like many hobbies, model railroading became popular during the Great Depression “when men had a lot of time on their hands but not much money. They made their own trains but when they wanted to take them over to each other’s houses, the sizes had no uniformity. So the NMRA formed in 1935 to set up scale-of-size standards, which made it a more sociable hobby and also encouraged manufacturers to start producing model trains because they had a larger group of consumers using uniform standards.”
The train scale shouldn’t be confused with the term “gauge,” which refers to the distance between rails.
Train hobbyists gain an appreciation for the way railroads shaped our nation in the 19th century. Towns rose up near train depots all across the country and opened endless opportunities for new markets.
“Just think about this,” says Mosny. “Travel from the Midwest to San Francisco once took about 6 months by animal power or on foot and you had to time it to avoid winter weather on the Great Plains. Sailing around Panama could save some time, but you exposed yourself to tropical diseases. If you were very wealthy, you could hire a fast stagecoach and get there in four weeks, but it cost you a few hundred dollars, which was half a year’s salary for most people then.
“Then, in 1869, Pacific Railroad service opened (now we call it the Transcontinental Railroad) and the trip took you 10 days instead of 6 months. It was truly like light speed to people then.”
The Rock River Valley Division group welcomes visitors at its monthly meetings, typically held on the first Sunday of the month, September to May, at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, 1829 N. Rockton Ave., in Rockford, across from West Middle School.
The local division, chartered in 1967, includes Boone, Jo Daviess, Ogle, DeKalb, Stephenson, Lee, Whiteside and Winnebago counties in Illinois and Green and Rock counties in southern Wisconsin.
Learn more at RRVD-NMRA.com.