Model train enthusiasts are creators of worlds, not worlds to live in, but certainly places to get lost in. For some it’s the worlds of their past or worlds far away or maybe idyllic imagined ones with waterfalls and waving townspeople and where the trains always run on time.
For 32 years the Neuse River Valley Model Railroad Club has brought these worlds together for its annual show, the largest model train show in North Carolina. This is the club’s biggest show yet, filling the 96,000-square-foot Graham Building at the State Fairgrounds with more than 15,000 square feet of tracks weaving through invented small towns with classic cars and soda fountains or through real ones, like Apex and the N.C. State Campus.
“At the end of the day it comes down to we’re still playing with toy trains and there’s not a thing wrong with that,” show coordinator George Lasley said. “You get the people who are deadly serious about model railroading down to the circle track around the Christmas tree, with everything in between.”
A model train about two feet long can take 77-year-old Don Cariss through time and space, back to the East Orange, New Jersey, of his childhood. Growing up, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad lugged Pennsylvania coal by his house and the young Cariss would come running whenever he heard a whistle, standing on bridges and covering his clothes in black soot or collecting railroad stories from the crossing gatekeeper. For most of his life he’s watched a miniature version of that Lackawanna train or others chug along tracks in his home.
“This is what we did, guys my age,” said Cariss, a member of the North Raleigh Model Railroad Club. “We grew up with the trains, and the trains were very important. There were no cars on the road because you couldn’t get gasoline, it was World War II.”
For many, there’s a cycle of interest in model trains, one partially controlled by biology.
“I have some trains at home that my parents gave me when I was 2 years old,” George Cooper, a member of the Atlantic Coast S Gaugers said. “Like a lot of people, I got out of it when I found cars and girls and all that stuff. I got back into it about 15 years ago. I had saved all my trains from when I was a kid.”
Cooper said he saved his trains hoping to pass on the lessons he found in the hobby, mostly how to build things and how machines work. The industry term is “layout,” which means anything the trains travel on, from intricate true-to-life models of Southern California at a certain time of year in 1955 to a large track made out of Legos. Remotes can make horns blow and lights flash and some trains puff smoke as they move along.
Caring about model trains usually comes from caring about the real thing. Lasley said he slams on his brakes whenever he sees the crossing gate coming down, excited to see whatever train it is scream by. The next generation seems to feel the same.
I first got into model trains by watching the actual big things out there and then finding out you can run one yourself on a smaller scale, you just kind of jump onto it.
Devon Mosley, 17
“I first got into model trains by watching the actual big things out there and then finding out you can run one yourself on a smaller scale, you just kind of jump onto it,” Devon Mosley, 17, said.
Mosley controls his train with a smartphone, working a bell and whistle, speed and direction with an app, suggesting model trains can survive in the world of touch screens.
“Everything upgrades,” Mosley said. “Things like that will make sure model trains stay around for a long time.”
In the wide world of model trains there is but one celebrity, and his name is Thomas. The tank engine with a smiling face is the gateway for the youngest model train fans.
“Thomas the Tank Engine has created a huge interest in the last few years with younger kids,” Lasley said.
For other children, Thomas takes on a significance greater than model trains. Gary Wallace brought his son who has autism and said he can make a connection with the trains that is often more difficult with people.
“Trains are everything to him,” Wallace said. “They like the order of a train, it’s predictable. They like the Thomas trains because the facial features are predictable. It’s the same as the Disney world because they know all the characters. These kids with autism, socially they live in fear because they don’t know how to react to you talking to him or he doesn’t know how to react to others. The nature of the trains itself, it’s a matter of order.”
The model train show continues Sunday at the fairgrounds from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8.
Drew Jackson; 919-836-5758; @jdrewjackson