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Still Chugging

Model train enthusiasts keep history alive, one tiny track at a time.

Still Chugging
Shepherd mans the controls of his train layout, which measures 24 feet by 24 feet, at home in Mechanicsville.
By Peter Galuszka
Photos by Ash Daniel

Their engines sounding a throaty throb, the five diesel locomotives bedecked in the natty black and white “tuxedo” paint scheme of Southern Railway in the 1960s gather speed. They pull 63 cars of mixed freight past a highly detailed flour plant across a rusted trestle.

Holding a radio-controlled throttle device, Bill Shepherd, 72, a part-time security officer, watches closely for derailments. “They don’t happen often, but I have to have a wide radius for my curves to handle this,” says Shepherd, who wears a striped Southern Railway engineer’s cap.

Shepherd is one of more than 300 model train enthusiasts in the Richmond area. They meet monthly to talk over their HO scale or O scale (which refers to the railroad’s size compared to the real thing) Lionel or American Flyer trains they often first received as childhood gifts 50 or more years ago. They have been playing with them ever since.
“It’s a great hobby that combines history, electricity, woodworking, painting and landscaping,” says George Hoffer, a University of Richmond economics professor and transportation expert. He’s been an American Flyer fan since he was a boy but fears the hobby he deeply loves is dying. “Not many people see trains much anymore, and kids are busy with computers,” he says. Others say there’s still plenty of interest, but much of the trade involved has shifted to the Internet.

For some like Shepherd, the hook is forever in. He was introduced to model trains as a boy in Europe during the late 1940s when his father served in the U.S. military. He was given a set of smooth-running, exquisitely detailed Marklin trains made in Germany. He still has them, and they still run. Today he has scores of locomotives and hundreds of passenger and freight cars all in the HO scale (3.5 millimeters equals 1 foot), the most common model train size in the world.

His latest layout is the largest of several he has built. Stretching 24 feet by 24 feet, the impressive project occupies most of his stand-alone garage at his home outside of Mechanicsville. “When we bought this house 18 years ago, my wife said, ‘I like this place, and if we buy it, you can have the entire garage for your train set,’” he says.

A longtime local resident, Shepherd wanted to model all the lines that ran in Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s. They include the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac; the Atlantic Coast Line; Seaboard Air Line; the Chesapeake and Ohio; Virginian; Norfolk and Western and, of course, Southern, his favorite.

Virginian Model Train
A miniature version of a Virginian Railway engine, which was in operation through the late 1950s.

During the period, each line had distinctive paint schemes such as Coast Line’s purple and silver or Seaboard’s “citrus” yellow, green and cream white. Like many modelers, he is highly disciplined about sticking to a particular historic period. Even the buildings and model cars must fit the precise decade.

Planning the layout required all of his skills as a carpenter, electrician and set designer. Shepherd decided on a series of loops and built a massive plywood base. Roadbeds big enough to handle three tracks each had to be supported by small risers that he installed. The point was to change the layout’s elevation and give it a more realistic appearance.

Unlike older train sets where a transformer powered units running in one direction in an endless oval, Shepherd’s are digitally controlled. He has erected a complicated electronic and computer network that allows trains to run at any speed in any direction.

And he doesn’t have to stand by a transformer. He has radio-controlled, hand-held devices that allow him to change speeds and directions as he walks around his layout. Most of his engines are sound-equipped to portray horns, air brakes, engine noises and the shouts of crew members.

The icing on the cake is Shepherd’s ability to decorate his layout. He has streams, valleys, trees, stores, engine refueling stations and a sprawling passenger station based on a real one in Easton, Pennsylvania. “You pick this stuff up anywhere and always have to keep thinking of a place for it,” he says.

Getting details right is almost a fetish for Shepherd. One example is a Pillsbury flour storage facility. Its roof holds precise, tiny air conditioning equipment, safety rails and workmen. He’s found that spurting Elmer’s Glue on the roof of a building and then covering it with tiny stones resembles the real thing.

Shepherd has a side repair room, accessible by model tracks, where he refits and fixes his equipment. He’s been buying gear for years and has it displayed on walls or in special drawers. “The new stuff runs well and is highly detailed,” he says. “But I hate the couplers that come from China because they never hold. I have to replace them, first thing.”

Model train
A miniature rail yard at Bill Shepherd’s garage in Mechanicsville.

Serious modeling fans buy or trade much of their gear online or at regional model shows, including a yearly one at Richmond International Raceway that can draw 15,000 spectators.

Doing so lowers prices. A late-model diesel or steam locomotive with digital direction and sound can cost upward of $500 retail, but experts like Shepherd can find one for half as much online or at regional shows.

Super detail fanatics opt for brass locomotives that may not run as well as cheaper plastic ones but can be of almost museum-quality in their fittings.

One brass collector is Frank Deane, a 69-year-old retired electrical worker who lives in Mechanicsville. He has 70 brass locomotives, both steam and diesel. His favorite “Ironstone” steam locomotive of the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway line ran in the ore fields of northern Minnesota. Models like that can run up to $1,500, but “I found one on eBay for $300,” Deane says.

Brass model collecting took off in Asia after World War II.

“Back in the Korean War, American soldiers found that Koreans could make anything out of beer cans. They asked, ‘Why don’t you make models?’” Deane says. The Japanese had done the same after World War II, and later the Chinese and Indonesians did as well. The South Koreans are widely regarded as masters at brass modeling.

Hoffer is a proud member of the Virginia Train Collectors, which meets monthly in Chesterfield or Henrico counties along with other areas. The group records members’ projects and the histories of the lines they model. The next meeting was scheduled for the Knights of Columbus Council 6189’s Bishop Ireton Center in Chesterfield on March 1.

“Model trains really reached their peak just after World War II,” says Hoffer, especially in an area that ran from the Midwest to mid-Atlantic. Virginia is at the edge. “Back then, trains were a big part of people’s lives, but they were an expensive hobby.”

Hoffer fears interest in the hobby is dying off since trains are not as much a part of ordinary lives, and young people have more interest in computer-related activities. In the Richmond area, two prominent hobby shops have closed, including Chesterfield Hobbies. The Midlothian Turnpike shop offered high-end rail models, lichen for bushes, track, switches and a variety of other goods.

Not all agree that modeling is on the way out. Russell Youens, events coordinator for the Virginia Train Collectors, says “there’s still a big interest, especially on the East Coast.” He notes that shops still stay in business, including the one where he works part-time, Tiny Tim’s Toys, on South Railroad Street in Ashland. When Train Town Toy & Hobbies shut down last year, the new store quickly opened in the same space.

Data from the Hobby Manufacturers Association tend to show a steady and somewhat growing market for model trains. A recent survey showed that the market for them grew from $409 million in 2007 to $424 million in 2010.

Young people do not seem as interested in the hobby as their fathers, Youens admits. “That’s because they like electronic things, but the new locomotives have lots of new electronics in them,” he says. Hoffer agrees: “Lionel is making new hand controls that look more like computer controls. That may interest them.”