Feature story: How to run a railroad

Menlo Park model railroaders are putting their new layout on the map

There was a time when observing a passing freight train did not require the imagination to see normal signs of use and weathering on boxcars and tank cars rolling by. In the 1940s and 1950s, graffiti was not as ubiquitous as it is today. The workhorses of commercial rail traffic were allowed to age gracefully.

You can visit (or revisit) those days, on a small scale, and lose yourself in mid-20th century charms by checking out a new layout, three years in the making with more to come, at the West Bay Model Railroad Association's home in Menlo Park.

The model railroad is inside the wood-frame building at 1090 Merrill St., next to the Caltrain tracks and a few hundred feet southeast of the Menlo Park Caltrain station.

The layout is not officially open until sometime in 2017, Mark Drury, the association's vice president says, but you can try the door most Wednesday evenings or Saturday afternoons and chances are good you'll be welcomed inside.

The layout of trains, tracks and scenery includes finely detailed industrial facilities, a train yard full of cars, a roundhouse that locomotives use to turn around, clouds that will challenge your suspension of disbelief, a precipitous trestle, and a theater marquee featuring "Gone With the Wind" in make-believe neon.

It is a land of make believe. The association is planning "operation sessions" when members of the public can spend two or three hours in an accelerated 24-hour day working on the railroad, including operating a train loaded with raw materials and headed to a distant plant to process those materials into finished goods.

The day may include checking a list of cars in the train, Mr. Drury says. There may be waybills instructions related to the shipment of a consignment of goods.

On the way, there may be delays. Perhaps a dispatcher assigns a priority to another train. Maybe you'll have to drop off cars and pick up others. Where in the train will those new cars go and what maneuvers will you have to undertake to get them properly placed?

"It's exactly how a railroad operates, except in miniature," Mr. Drury says. "It's a really interesting facet of the hobby."

Easier for kids

If looked at from above, the new layout resembles a capital letter E with the edges rounded off. Each "leg" of the letter is a peninsula with tracks winding around the edges. Looking at it from the ground, at any point in the layout, "you see only what's in front of you," says club President Clyde King, "which forces you to walk around."

Unlike the previous layout, where kids had to be held by their parents to see most of the trains, the new layout includes an entire set of tracks and sights to see at a height convenient for an 8-year-old.

The trains travel seamlessly between the two levels via a helix a set of circles arranged like the coils of a spring that allows trains to go from one level to another without human intervention.

The helix is also a terminus. The tracks at the upper and lower ends of the helix lead through tunnels to a hidden staging area. When trains emerge from the staging area or disappear into it, the trains are (in your imagination) coming to the layout from anywhere in the country and leaving for anywhere in the country, Mr. Drury says.

Representing an era when passenger train travel was common and freight trains were ubiquitous, this layout embodies a gap in the everyday experiences of observers today, particularly children. Asked about how the layout might impress or not impress the children of today, Mr. King noted that "the toughest thing for kids these days is that you don't see trains the way I did."

Mr. King, a resident and native of Menlo Park, says he remembers when the tracks that now run Caltrain commuter trains were far more busy carrying freight.

Freight still passes by. At about 9 p.m. on most weeknights, a freight train will rumble through Menlo Park, usually empty if it's headed south and usually carrying raw materials for regional industrial destinations if going north.

On a Wednesday night, when the freight train's mournful horn breaks the ambient silence, it's a signal to the model railroaders at their Merrill Street sanctuary. By the time the train arrives, the entire club is usually outside to watch it go by, to count the cars and see what the train is carrying, Mr. Drury says. "For whatever reason, it's a big part of the club's thing," he says.

Laying it out

The new layout represents about three years of work, Mr. Drury says. While tracks can be bought off the shelf, the switches and there are hundreds of them are made by hand.

"A switch has to be very, very finely tuned to get the wheels through there consistently," Mr. Drury says. "Switches can ruin a layout pretty quickly if they're not very carefully built."

Each train car or locomotive has to meet standards and includes tiny adjustments that can raise or lower the coupling devices and adjust the wheels for width. Each car is weighed. Cars that are too light will wobble or tip over; too heavy and they will demand too much from the locomotive. Each car must also pass a test rolling down an inclined plane.

The layout's backdrops are mostly based on lithographs available for model trains. The original paintings are by Jessica King. She is self taught, her father Clyde King says. "She just likes to draw and paint."

Club member Jeff Savitz recalls the circumstances around one painting. "We got a Midwest scene. What do we need?" he says. "We need a tornado." Ms. King painted them one.

The prominent trestle bridges over a river and crossing a canyon are by Mr. King. The bridge over the canyon, with trains emerging from a tunnel, took about four and half months to build, he says.

To join the club, would-be members attend three meetings, pick a project to work on, and the members vote you in, Mr. Savitz says. "We've never voted anybody out," he adds. Dues are $200 a year.

"We're always looking for new members," Mr. Drury says. Members' ages range from the 20s to the 70s. "It's fun," he says. "A really fun group of people."


To visit the layout, try the door at 1090 Merrill St. in Menlo Park most Wednesday evenings or Saturday afternoons.


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