Quarantine gets hobbyists ‘workin’ on the railroad’

in Community

By Christopher J. Palermo

As a few weeks spent working at home have stretched into months, many have turned their attention to home improvement, gardening, cooking, and crafts. One community of hobbyists has turned the drudgery of quarantine into busy, happy time at the workbench. Throughout the Bay Area, scores of model train enthusiasts have found new time to construct intricately detailed trains, cars, track, and buildings. Some work alone at home, others in small groups. Many exploit multiple talents to construct fully operational, artistically finished, moving replicas of real railroads, called layouts.

These are not the toy trains of the 1950s; the goal of model railroaders is a realistic but scaled-down depiction of real locomotives and cars of the past, usually in a lifelike landscape and often controlled using sophisticated computer-based systems. A majority of modelers work in HO scale, or 1/87 proportion, but enthusiastic groups also pursue the smaller N scale (1/160) or larger O scale (1/48). Some modelers like replicating struggling, Depression-era logging railroads, others model today’s mainline railroading, and many more are in between. Some purchase ready-made models to set on track and run; others build virtually everything from scratch.

Frank Markovich, a long-time Belmont resident, models the West Side Lumber Company of the Sierra Nevada in the 1930s. Tucked in a utility room off his garage, Frank’s O-scale layout includes meandering track, weathered buildings, tall trees, and short trains hauling logs. A local leader in the National Model Railroad Association, he’s pursued the hobby for 50 years and is a frequent model contest winner.

“What I enjoy most about the hobby is that it provides a period of escape,” Frank observes. “When I’m at the workbench, any daily troubles you have just fade away. I relax, create something tangible, and gradually improve and complete my miniature world.”

Running a Railroad

Seth Neumann models Bay Area railroads of 1999 on an extensive layout in Mountain View that can be operated just like the prototype. “We can form trains in the yard, dispatch them, run them over the line, switch cars into industry, deal with conflicts with other trains along the way, and bring the train into a destination yard,” Neumann says. “It’s a terrific form of intellectual puzzle that requires you to think on your feet while the trains are moving, but it’s never stressful, just fun.” He regularly hosts groups of operators to run multiple trains over a period of several hours.

In the past most modelers have been men over 40, but that’s changing. Lisa Gorrell models the Sacramento Northern, a line that once had extensive interurban electric lines. “The SN had a remarkable diversity of equipment, interesting customers, and a short but colorful life,” Gorrell says. “Not many people model it, so it’s a challenge to find models and I end up building many of them myself, which I love.”

Kiran Kaja is sight-impaired but has benefited from the wide availability of ready-to-use products that can be quickly set up to run, yet still offer operational enjoyment. A Sunnyvale software engineer, Kaja’s love of trains developed from his use of rail systems in Europe during work assignments. “My focus is on collecting trains that I like or rode, and running them in miniature on my home layout,” he notes. “I’ve also enjoyed using today’s command control systems to activate effects like sound.”

Even retired people — ordinarily with plenty of time on their hands — have found that reduced outside social activities have created even more time for the hobby. In San Carlos, Charlie Getz, a retired lawyer and former president of a national hobby organization, used newly freed time to tackle building the “Queen City Coal Company,” an incredibly intricate commercial kit. He eventually devoted 65 hours to creating a stunning diorama featuring the building.

“The Covid-19 flu pandemic stay-at-home order earlier this year provided the opportunity, and excuse, to spend the considerable time needed for the project,” Getz says. “And as a result, I have an eye-popping showpiece to enjoy for many years.”

More Time for Trains

Two retired doctors in the Santa Rosa area also have increased their hobby time in quarantine. Giuseppe Aymar, a successful dentist before his retirement two years ago, used to participate in a Wednesday night “round-robin” social group of friends who rotated time working on each other’s layouts near Rohnert Park. “With quarantine, we no longer do that, and I’ve probably spent 30 percent more time working on my own models as a result,” Aymar says.

Ed Merrin, a longtime Santa Rosa resident now retired from a career in psychology, says “I’ve just completed one project after another lately—it’s been great.” Merrin models the Northwestern Pacific Railroad as it appeared in Sonoma County in the 1950s. Among his accomplishments: learning new skills for painting brass passenger cars, and scratch-building a replica of the railroad’s “Haystack Landing” drawbridge across the Petaluma River.

Historical accuracy can be pursued with stunning results. One of the Bay Area’s best-known HO-scale layouts faithfully reproduces the Yosemite Valley Railroad as it existed in a single month, August 1939. Jack Burgess, the layout’s builder, has constructed examples of nearly every engine and car that the YV owned in that month, as well as replicas of every significant building on the 80-mile line, which closed in 1945. Operations follow real 1939 timetables and involve the same kinds of trains running on a historically accurate schedule.

Not Just About the Trains

In many ways, model railroading is among the world’s first “maker” hobbies. A key attraction is its multidisciplinary nature. Feel like working with wood today? Practice carpentry while building “benchwork,” a specialized table on which trains run. In the artistic mood? Paint a backdrop, construct a hillside, farm, or river.

Techies can work on digital electronics, connecting or tuning up specialized power routing systems, signals, animated lighting systems, sound systems, circuit breakers, and other devices. In fact, well suited to Silicon Valley’s tech crowd, today’s train control systems use sophisticated digital signaling to enable multiple engines to run on the same track. Trains “listen” for their digital address and respond accordingly. This technology has led to complex and realistic engine sounds, lighting, and other effects. Key developers live in Berkeley and Mountain View and have contributed tech improvements for two decades.

Models, complete trains, and building supplies are available locally at The Train Shop in Santa Clara, J&M Hobby House in San Carlos, Just Trains in Concord and Hobbies Unlimited in San Leandro. Specialty magazines like Model Railroad Hobbyist and Railroad Model Craftsman cover product developments and showcase the work of builders around the world.

Tracking Together

There’s also a strong social aspect. Clubs, each with dozens of members, are found around the Bay Area, hosting their meetings at finished layouts in San Mateo, Menlo Park, Santa Clara, San Jose, Walnut Creek, Richmond and elsewhere. Groups like the National Model Railroad Association offer quarterly meetings, contests, educational clinics, swap meets, tours of local layouts, and periodic conventions. These activities are online now and have attracted big audiences. One recent all-day virtual convention, packed with clinics, brought several hundred people “together” at once. NMRA’s next national convention is set for Santa Clara in July 2021, and when in-person events return, they’re expected to yield a rush of model contest entries as quarantined enthusiasts bring all the work they’ve completed at home over past months.

For these modelers, home confinement has been a gift. With the passion of “makers,” a dizzying array of new products available every year, multiple skills to learn and perfect, ample social opportunities, and a large cooperative community worldwide, model railroading is steaming ahead on clear track into the 21st century.

Christopher J. Palermo is a Bay Area native who lives in San Carlos and has been involved in the model railroading hobby for 40 years. He has contributed numerous articles to the hobby press. When he’s not running trains, he works as a partner in the Palo Alto office of Baker Botts, L.L.P., a large international law firm, specializing in patents and trademarks.