A state the size of Texas is not only full of a rich history and a diverse culture, but it is also home to some of the most awe inspiring and picturesque natural landmarks in the country. Presenting all these features to the viewing public is one of the primary missions for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, a mandate the museum takes seriously, but one that David Temple, Associate Curator for Paleontology, believes can be fun as well. The museum, which tries to design exhibits with a Texas theme, debuted a new feature last November for the holiday season called Trains over Texas, showcasing the best the state has to offer in 1/48th scale perspective using a traditional Christmas toy to do it.
With landmarks such as Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, and Big Bend National Park highlighted alongside man-made features like the Alamo, the Tower of the Americas and the Houston Ship Channel, the state is well represented in the tennis-court-sized display nestled in the main hall in the museum’s exhibition center, right next to the video monitor where guests can see themselves walking among computer-generated dinosaurs before visiting the trains. Kids are the main draw for the exhibit, which Temple says is as it should be. “We have an educational mandate,” he said. “We look for things that promote learning and hands-on activities.” Carrying that mandate forward, Temple says the museum plans on expanding the display to include trains that guests can actually control. The current setup is not designed with that level of interaction, but according to docent Carl Olsen, President of the Gulf Coast chapter of the Train Collectors Association, the kids have come in droves just the same. Many local schools bring several classes of children to the museum on field trips throughout the week. “We had roughly 2500 kids at one time,” he said of opening day.
The exhibit is segmented into three primary sections with anywhere from five to six trains running in each section. There are places where guests can crawl under the track and observe the train from inside the loop. Two-year-old Conrad Kuhn was running around the display, the track at a perfect eye-level for the tow-headed youngster, as his mom, Amanda Kuhn of Pearland, watched. “They love trains,” she said of her two sons. The Kuhns have attended the exhibit four times since its November opening. In fact, the family became members of the museum because they love the trains so much. “They have a couple at home with wooden tracks they love to play with,” she added. Conrad echoed his mom’s statement, saying that he loves choo choo trains, but adding that “Thomas is sick.” The display has a hidden track that runs under the main display where Thomas, the Tank Engine, runs in a circle. The area has a viewing window that kids can crawl under the display to see. On this day, Conrad was distressed to find that Thomas was out for maintenance and a street car had taken his place on the track.
The trains at HMNS are powered by six transformers to drive the eighteen trains running at any given time. Keeping the system up requires regular maintenance. Olsen and his crew of volunteers are members of fourteen train collecting clubs in the Houston Area. They volunteer their time by attending to the display, answering questions from the guests, maintaining and repairing the trains and tracks to ensure the exhibit remains fully operational.
The Train Collectors Association members trained museum staffer David Herrada in the care and maintenance of the trains, a job Herrada takes very seriously. Working in a cramped compartment behind the west Texas part of the diorama, Herrada meticulously cleans the wheels of the cars and replaces worn out components as they break. “Lionel trains are durable, but where the average train set might run sixteen hours in a year, these trains run eight hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. In order to prevent breakdowns, the trains run for three minutes and then stopped in place to cool down for a minute. Herrada and the association volunteers do work hard to complete any needed repairs, but sometimes, as with poor Thomas, the damage may be too great. “If we can’t repair it, we have to send it back,” Herrada said. The Trains are sent to Lionel or TX Trainworx for warranty work or replacement. Fortunately, despite the amount of wear and tear, the trains keep running and they have only had to send about eight trains back over the course of the exhibit. The entire display is O-scale, which is 1:48 size and according to Olsen, “…is a reliable scale that you have minimal problems with.”
Deciding on which of the several model scales to use was part of the development process that occurred over a two-year period. The museum’s board of directors, responding to a request from a prominent museum patron—an avid train enthusiast named Glen Rosenbaum,—reached out to Dallas-based TW Trainworx, for help. Rosenbaum had TW Trainworx build a large train display of his own at his home, but no where near the size of the Museum’s. The Houston-based attorney describes himself as a bona-fide train nut who has enjoyed a lifelong passion for trains. “It’s very relaxing to watch these things lumber around the room. I’m also fascinated by the power, the size, and the history.”
TW Trainworx owner Roger Farkash says his company caters to the train enthusiast from the individual hobbyist to large corporate clients like the Ronald McDonald house to build large scale models. Displays like Trains Over Texas are a good way for people to enjoy model railroading, a hobby that is becoming expensive to enjoy at home. Farkash said that the cost of train sets have risen dramatically since the hobby’s heyday in the sixties and seventies, when it was common to have a train set at home especially at Christmas. Part of the rise in cost is because of new technologies that improve the user experience with sounds and smoke and digital controllers. To have a layout with the level of detail that Trains over Texas features is not an inexpensive option. Farkash said that the cost ranges from $250 to $300 per square foot and can go up into the thousands per square foot depending on the level of detail and technology of the models. For those who do decide to have a display built, the main consideration is size. “What they typically want to do is find the largest room that they can spare and fill the room. There really isn’t an average size. People want to fill the largest room they can afford.”
The Selection of the models and landmarks used in the museum’s exhibit was made by the board of directors. The theme is based on Texas’ history with trains and how important they were in the expansion and development of the state over the years. The sites selected for the display include any city that features a rail museum or historic train depot. The Pecos River bridge features prominently in the display, spanning from one display to another over the entry into the museum’s giant Foucault pendulum, so visitors can walk under the bridge. The Houston ship channel is up front and is one of the first aspects seen by visitors. Interspersed between the town models are representations of natural features including the Chisos mountains of Big Bend, the Rio Grande and Enchanted Rock. “The funny thing about models is you have to compress space,” Temple said. “You almost have to present small little vignettes. Capture the high points…or the flat points depending on the geography,” he added with a smile. TW Trainworx built the exhibit using urethane foam and latex paint to form the mountains, and other synthetic materials for the grass, trees and gravel. Farkash and his team worked hard to make the setup modular, so it could be taken apart and moved, but still look seamless.
The modular design will be useful when the exhibit reopens in November, as the museum intends on expanding the feature for a larger display area. The exhibit initially featured several large Christmas trees, in keeping with the tradition of trains at Christmas, but after the holidays, the trees were replaced with representations of Atlanta and Boston as well as Reliant stadium to commemorate Houston’s hosting Superbowl fifty-one. Temple says that this year’s exhibit will still have a Christmas theme, but probably without the large trees. “They took up a lot of space that we can use for more models,” he said. The exhibit will run every year from November to January, then it will be stored and redesigned for the next year. Admission to Trains over Texas is included in the price of the general admission to the museum.
This article appears in the December, 2017 issue of TexasLiving Magazine.