Tag Archives: Models

Model Trains Showcase the Best of Texas

2018-01-06 Train cover artA 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.

2018-01-06 Train experience HLDSC_7163With 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. 2018-01-06 Train Pic 1

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.

2018-01-06 Train track HL

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.

DSC_7270The 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.”

2018-01-06 Train ticket HL

Photo Nov 17, 10 35 15 AM

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.



Filed under Hobbies, Media, Published

Running in the Family

When I was a child, I would occasionally spend the night with my Grandmother in Cabot, Arkansas and just after bed time, a large train would come rumbling by her house, as she lived less than 100 yards from a main line, and I would jump out of bed to watch the train go by. The night air was cool and the grass and pavement were lit by the moon and starlight and the one or two street lamps that ran along the road between the house and the train track. The lonesome whistle of the engine and the clickity clack of the train wheels on the steel tracks were the only sounds I heard as I watched the trains roll along. I wouldn’t budge from my perch until I saw the caboose roll along into the darkness. Some nights, I went to bed disappointed once the railroad companies stopped using cabooses.

Figure 1 My Granddad Standing next to a retired steam locomotive circa 1970.

My mother tells me that both of my Grandfathers worked for the Missouri Pacific railroad back in the forties, fifties and sixties; mom’s dad was an engineer and dad’s dad was a conductor, and both worked for the railroad until their respective deaths. Their company was eventually bought out by Union Pacific.

My father has always had an interest in model trains as long as I can remember. His preference was the large modern diesels that pulled America’s freight ( I surmise this was because of his career in transportation logistics) while I preferred the old steam locomotives of the 1800s.

My parents bought me a train when I was a child, one of those carpet trains with the oval shaped track that could be set up and taken down quickly. Of course, the problem with those train sets was that in designing them that way, the manufacturers guaranteed themselves repeat business as pieces would invariable get broken or lost in the process. Another problem with those sets was that running the train in a perpetual circle or oval got boring pretty quickly. The only way to alleviate that boredom was to actually build a model railroad with buildings and tunnels and bridges.

My father had a grand plan to set up a full scale model railroad on a large piece of plywood with miniature buildings, cars and trees; a small scale duplicate of a slice of America that we could control. Sadly, this model never reached fruition as we didn’t have room for it in the house and when we started it in the garage, it got pushed aside to make room for more practical matters. I hear from mom that he did eventually set it up after I moved out on my own.

Sometime around 1997 or 1998, my dad and I went to the Arkansas railroad museum in Pine Bluff. While we were there, I bought a small N-scale steam locomotive and a few cars and some track; enough pieces to build a small working electric train setup. I had no aspirations of building a large model train set, but I always like the wood-burning steam engine with its large bell-shaped smoke stack, and I wanted to have one that would run on my desk while I did my homework, since was attending college at UALR. I don’t remember ever getting it running, though, and that engine sat on a piece of track on my desk until I moved away. Then it sat in the hutch on my desk for another 16 years, doing nothing more than gathering dust.

In December, 2016, I took an assignment to write an article about a display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science called Trains over Texas. The museum had a large O-Scale model railroad built featuring natural and man-made landmarks of Texas. While researching the story, I watched the model trains run and talked to several museum docents, who were avid train modelers. This reignited my interest in model trains and I became interested in whether my old train would still run after all these years. Of course, this meant I would need track and transformer, which I did not have.

In trying to find one, I determined it would be cheaper to just buy a boxed railroad train set from Amazon, rather than piece the track together.

I got the train set, put it together and ran the n-scale coal-burning steam locomotive that came with the kit. It worked fine. I then put my old train on it. It sputtered and spun its tires and did its best to run, but it needed some TLC and maintenance before it was going to work. I knew nothing about maintaining a locomotive. I had to learn quick.

I quickly found out that model railroading is not a mainstream hobby, and the big box hobby stores are woefully inadequate to supply the model railroad hobbyist. Michael’s has absolutely nothing for trains and Hobby Lobby only stocks two or three boxed train sets, but no individual pieces or models. As a matter of fact, a Google search turned up only two hobby stores in the entire Houston metroplex that serves the train community.

G&G hobbies is a general purpose hobby shop in Rice Village that does have a few locomotives, track, models, and even some box sets. It even has parts to repair trains, so that’s good. It does have a very large selection of rolling stock (trainspeak for train cars). Sadly, the focus of the store is Remote Control (RC) toys and plastic models, and apparently only one employee knows anything about trains. As such, G&G was unable to help me service my little Jupiter.

Papa Ben’s is a train shop in the Montrose area which offers nothing but trains. Its entire focus is model railroading. They even have a “club room” with a huge N-scale layout setup where members of the local train club come and play. One employee, a tall man named Steve, not only was able to educate me on how to maintain my Jupiter, he even fixed the broken coupler on the tender for me. I was able to get several ideas for my train setup and all the part I need to complete it.

I also attended a train show in Stafford that had several stores from all over the country as well as many of the chapters of the model train club. I took my grandsons to this show and they had a ball controlling an HO switcher to put together all the cars needed to form a train.

An old high school friend of mine contacted me several months prior and offered me the chance to partner up with him in a hobby shop in New Hampshire. When he found out I like model railroading, he became very excited and declared I would be the train guy! Now, I am learning a lot about trains as a result of my efforts to fix my Jupiter, but I don’t know if I’m “the train guy.”

I learned about a new technology in model railroading that did not exist the last time I entertained the notion of trains. Digital Command Control equipped trains have a computer chip that allows the train master to run multiple trains on one track independently. With old DC technology, any train on the track would draw the current from the transformer and they would all run based on the amount of current. The train master couldn’t set independent speeds or stop a single train. It was all or nothing. Also, DCC allows the master to turn the train light on and off at will. Some trains even have a sound chip so it actually rings the bell, whistles and chugs along the track with realistic noises.

Now I have gotten the idea to retrofit my Jupiter with one of these DCC chips and an LED bulb to make it more realistic.

While I was in a train shop in New Hampshire, I found two flat bed cars with Army tanks on them. I thought they were clever so I bought them so I would have something more interesting than just plain old box cars or tanker cars. At a store in Austin, I found a surface to ground missile on a rail car. At a train show in New Braunfels, I found flat bed cars with other military vehicles and I got the idea of making an Army train. I bought two flat beds with a duce-n-half, two ¼ ton jeeps an M113 and an M577; all vehicles I drove in the my time in the Army. So now, I plan on having a Chessie System locomotive pull my Army train, my Union Pacific engine pull the box cars and I am thinking of getting some logging cars for my 0-6-0 steamer to pull. My Jupiter will pull my excursion train, which has a Pullman car and two open sided passenger cars.

All I had to do at this point was build a model train layout on which my trains could roll. I’m creating a new blog to document the development of my model. Have fun. I hope I will.

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Filed under Hobbies, Personal