The Underground Railroads

David Townsend points out a cop car, which he recently repainted and hid behind some bushes. “You couldn’t see him from the road,” he said, dragging his finger down the miniature road that wrapped around his model train layout.

“A standard rule is you have to be a little nuts to do this,” David Townsend, 86, said, laughing. “But there are a lot of misconceptions with this hobby.”

Down the unpaved – and admittedly fun to drive – Housatonic River Road just outside of Canaan, Connecticut, Townsend’s home sits on the crook of an intersection.

His house is old, but the best kind of old.

Books line shelves along walls in the living room and the cloth seats feel familiar – broken in, inviting. Part of the house is new though, an addition added some time in the 70s, Townsend’s wife, Helen, said.

“I was hoping to make it a rec room,” she said. “But when I gave up on that, David pounced.”

David Townsend, it turns out, filled the subterranean room with more than 40 model trains, tracks for them to run on, electricity to power them along and painstakingly detailed scenery that could attract even the snobbiest of landscape photographers.

“I told myself that one day, if I ever had a house, I’d do it right,” David Townsend said, recalling memories of his New York City childhood.

Leaving the Townsend house, if you follow the road back into Canaan and drive right down the center of town, you will come across Berkshire Hills Hobby Shop.

Standing behind the counter is Rolf Schneider.

Schneider plays with one of the trains he sells in his store. This specific model, he said, has built-in speakers that give operators a greater sense of realism.

Classic rock plays from speakers perched somewhere in the back of the store: “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air.”

Customers browse the aisles, some of which boast six different kinds of trees, while different sized train tracks lay in another. Schneider talks with customers and flips through glossy paged catalogs, pointing to some of his more popular models.

Robert Paaswell is one of Schneider’s customers. He walks into the store excitedly, with a distinctly hurried pace, a satisfied grin and wife in tow.

“I’m just a sucker for train stores,” he says, talking to Schneider while his wife stands behind him, taking in every inch of the store.

Wherever Paaswell travels, he said, he buys a train.

Because of a job that affords him the luxury of travel, he explained, Paaswell has a model train collection in his apartment, including trains that hail from France, Holland and England. He displays them on shelves in his apartment but does not run them on tracks.

Paaswell was in the Berkshires to meet friends and celebrate a birthday. A resident of New York City, coming to the Berkshires was technically travel. He did not buy a train, though. Instead, he came looking for track, which Schneider sold, neatly rubber banded and handed to Paaswell, wishing him and his wife a good day.

“People come in and buy one thing. People come in and leave with shopping bags full,” Schneider said, describing the flow of his business.

“I’m here seven hours a day. So when I go home, no trains.”

Pulling into a pebbled driveway in Sharon, Connecticut, a handful of scattered buildings come into view. The driveway is winding, to the right and to the left, down and then up and then back to the right once more, and ends at what Sam Posey – the homeowner – describes as a building “reminiscent of a train station.”

Inside the supposed train station is an art studio. Posey sits painting, hunched over, staring at the canvas and gently reapplying another coat of paint.

Posey is a retired racecar driver, namely Indy Car and Formula One. Posey, too, is a retired broadcast journalist who worked for ABC as an analyst and pit reporter for races. He also is a writer. In 2004 he authored Playing with Trains, a 217-page dive into he and his son’s expansive model train project.

The train layout in his basement covers an entire wall – and Posey has a rather massive basement. According to him, it took him and his son 16 years to complete, including some spotty time off.

Posey’s layout has won multiple awards and, he said, is recognized by many in the model train hobby. Posey and his son perform maintenance on the layout often.

“Everything for me is always merging together, painting, writing, trains,” Posey said, motioning towards the paintings that surrounded him. “Renaissance man, that’s what they call me.”

John Henry Low is a man with a wealth of knowledge. With the voice of a tenured professor and a memory that rivals Wikipedia, if you need to know something about model trains, ask him.

Low is a resident of Pine Plains, New York. And although it is a rural area, Low says the model railroading community is “vibrant.”

“Not a lot of modelers live near me,” Low said over the phone. “But we still have a lot of nice layouts in the area.”

Low, too, has a train layout, but he said it is currently out of commission – the tracks are damaged, he later added.

Although they live in different states and are all a different age, the thing these grown men – Townsend, Schneider, Paaswell, Posey and Low – have in common with each other is that they play with trains. Tiny, little trains.

“A lot of people think this hobby is about the train around the Christmas tree,” Low said, trying to put things into perspective. “It’s not.”

Model train culture is not easy to comprehend at first. It is a vast and stratified culture, a time consuming hobby that not only is shrouded in stigma and self-induced mystery, but is also subdivided into particular, separate interests.

Some hobbyists enjoy creating scenery and landscapes – Townsend and Posey.

Some hobbyists enjoy collecting and flaunting each train car they have – Paaswell.

Some hobbyists intimately model real life down to the millimeter and join others in operating sessions where some 15 people are each assigned a specific job or a train or building – Low.

And to some, as Townsend described it, the hobby “isn’t a hobby, it’s a past time.”

Low broke it down like this: “There is an extraordinary diversity in interests. Some people really enjoy perfect running and exact precision. Some people really love signaling. Some people like structures and villages and painting. Some people love the electronics. Some people enjoy the photography aspect. There are even armchair modelers, people who read the hobby magazines but never actually model… It leaves for no wanting for things to do.”

Posey’s layout stresses even the tiniest of details. In this scene, he explained, there is a story to be told: a family discusses the future while carpenters frame a house.

Take, for example, Sam Posey. For 16 years he and his son plugged away at their basement masterpiece with help from others like Schneider. The project, which he says afforded him and his son endless time to bond, is “modeled loosely after the 1911 Colorado Midland railway.”

The Colorado Midland, Posey explained, was decommissioned after World War I. The line had a “brief period of glory,” Posey said, but the railroad’s discontinuation allowed him to create a layout that looks into the future, an exploration into what it could have been.

The individual trains are not necessarily his focus, though. Posey is a scenery person and his passion is the big picture.

“I have an eye for scenery, it’s all about the details,” he said. “I’m tops of the scenery layout and the bottom of the operation layout. It looks like a painting. You take it in all at once.”

David Townsend feels the same. The Korean War veteran says scenery is what he loves about the model train culture.

“What I enjoy most is making it look so realistic,” Townsend said, talking about his chiseled plaster mountains and the fluffed, green trees that populate his layout.

Unlike Posey, though, Townsend’s train layout is not based on reality. In fact, he proudly proclaimed it as his own creation, but admitted to taking inspiration from old western scenes and ideals.

It is important to note, too, that Posey and Townsend model in what is called HO Scale. Posey said if a modeler is looking for realism, HO is the way to go. Townsend said that if you go any smaller, things start to get problematic.

According to the National Model Railroad Association – there is an association for everything, after all – HO scale is the most popular scale in the world. Low concurred.

“The most popular out there is HO,” he said. “HO is half of O, which was what the original Lionel trains were – 1:48. HO is approximately 1:87.”

In HO, one real life foot is scaled down to about .13 inches. Building in HO is described as a nice middle-of-the-road in terms of size and allows modelers a nice balance between detail and price.

At Berkshire Hills Hobby Supply, Schneider said HO is among the most popular. Schneider added that at least 50 percent of what he sells is HO. The second most popular scale sold in his hobby shop is N Scale. Low models in N scale.

The model train past time is not limited to two scales though. There are 14 commonly used scales, according to the NMRA website, including Z scale, the “smallest of its kind” as Low described it, at a ratio of 1:220.

Sitting in the window of Schneider’s hobby store is a fully functional Z Scale layout. The model, which even at such miniscule size has legible font and striking detail, is in a briefcase. The layout is fully functional and has a great deal of character, but is portable to the point where “you could be playing with trains on an airplane,” Schneider said.

This Z Scale layout, which sits in the window at Schneider’s shop, is fully functional and was created inside a briefcase.

People play with these trains, it’s important to remember that. Where people like Paaswell buy trains to collect and admire them, there is a whole sect of hobbyists that truly enjoy “operating” them.

An “operating session,” as Low summarized it, is when model train enthusiasts meet as a group. The people there are then assigned different tasks and jobs, different assignments and different responsibilities. One person can run a road crew while another mans a train. His friend will have to pick up goods and move them, while another handles switching puzzles. At the same time, someone else is dispatching other trains.

To Posey, “it is a little strange to see grown men clutching a receiver and barking out orders.”

“But at the same time, it really is wonderful. The guys that do operation, I have so much respect for them,” he said.

Low says operating sessions are the most fun: he attended one on Aug. 10.

Low said he has seen more than 30 people at once operating on the same layout. Train layouts and operating sessions, to Low, are what video games are to today’s younger generation.

“There is a huge parallel there,” he said, going on to accuse video games of being the “scourge of model railroading.”

Round Robins, which Low described as a group that rotates between people’s houses and helps with layout construction, among other things, is another way to socialize the hobby.

Model railroading hobby groups exist, as well. On the NMRA website alone, there are 27 groups listed in New York, 13 in Massachusetts and 11 in Connecticut. Posey said model railroading comes with a sense of community.

“A lot of the top guys know each other. House visits are often,” he said.

For Townsend, though, being social with his train set up is not in the picture. Over the course of his 30-year modeling project, Townsend said he has only let a few people come in and take a look.

“I’m not gregarious, but I’m not antisocial,” Townsend said. “I’m unsocial, that’s it.”

The ultimate question, though, is why? Why do these grown men, with successful careers and established lives, thrive on tiny plastic trains that loop around miniaturized houses and glide over shrunken bridges? Why do people lock themselves in their basement, hours on end, slaving over a plastic recreation of a boxcar? Even Posey’s “Playing with Trains” asks the question – why?

For all five men, their passion for trains was ignited during childhood. As Posey put it, “Everybody has a train layout somewhere in their history.”

For Townsend, whom Low acknowledges is his mentor, model trains bring him back 75 years to his childhood in New York City.

“In our building, there were rooms in the basement. We used one for a train layout,” he said. “It was a miracle if the train went around twice.”

Nowadays, Townsend’s trains loop and weave in and out of tunnels and mountains, down hills and along epoxy oceans and waterways. They certainly have the ability to go around more than twice.

Schneider is no different. At the age of six, Schneider said he was gifted a Lionel train set “just like everyone else.”

Paaswell said he “grew up a train lover.”

Low said that as a child, he got Lionels too. According to him, being gifted or handed down trains was something that was in fashion – “It was typical for that era,” Low explained.

Perhaps model railroading serves as a sort of time machine, a thrilling ride on a nostalgia-fueled rollercoaster. Perhaps it brings hobbyists back to a simpler time, to a time of childlike wonderment and gift giving.

The hobby, though, is not conducive to little kid allowances and piggy banks.

A quick Google search brings up pages of online model railroad stores, something Schneider said is hard on brick and mortar stores like his.

“More hobbyists are going online,” Schneider said. “For stores like this, it’s a struggle.”

Schneider and Paaswell discuss growing up and how, over time, model trains have changed. According to Schneider, contemporary model trains are much more detailed while remaining relatively cheap.

Schneider opened his shop, which specializes in detail parts, decals and building supplies, after a friend suggested it. According to Schneider, getting hobby supplies in the area forced you to either go New York City or Pittsfield. Berkshire Hills Hobby Supply aimed to end that.

But websites like Trainworld and Walthers have endless amounts of locomotives, books, layouts and scenery for sale, and only a click away.

Model freight cars can run for about $30 or they can run past $500. On the extreme side of the spectrum, “you can spend $3,000 to $4,000 for a damn nice locomotive,” Townsend said.

Items made of plastic are relatively cheaper in the hobby, whereas brass is more expensive. Plastic “is still beautiful,” though, Townsend said, and over the years they have only gotten better.

The amount of money a modeler has spent on his or her hobby comes off as a closely guarded secret, but one played off nonchalantly.

When asked how much he thinks he has spent over the years, Townsend said he did not really know.

In a sense, the hobby is an investment. Low said collectors and resellers are abundant among those involved in model railroading, but that he has “very little interest” in such matters. For collectors, Low continued, trains make money and gain value with time – think baseball cards or Pokémon or even Jordans, if that’s something you are into.

Townsend also made it clear he was not in the hobby to collect and resell. Paaswell is a collector, but not a reseller.

The costs associated with the hobby are also not all upfront – total cost is also dependent on the modeler and what he or she is trying to achieve, according to Low. A smaller layout with cheaper parts built over 10 years will always seem cheaper than a larger layout created in six months. Echoing this point, Schneider said, “this hobby does not discriminate.”

Townsend’s favorite piece in his collection, though, was free. A gift from his wife on his 33rd birthday, the gift was a sign “she was accepting of all this madness,” Townsend said.

Townsend’s trains run on electrified tracks. Townsend was not afraid to admit he had no electrician skills – his friend set up a majority of his wiring.

Posey does not know his total expenditures, either.

“I have no clue how much I’ve spent. I’ve told my accountant not to tell me,” Posey said, laughing.

Low said he probably knew how much he has spent but preferred not to say.

Paaswell was the only one with who provided some sort of figure, although vague. After spending 40 years in the hobby, he said, he has “spent thousands of dollars on the whole thing.”

Paaswell’s favorite piece is decently expensive, as well: a Lionel Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1. On eBay, depending on size, color and features, the model is auctioned from $115 to $465.

But sorting through and appreciating catalogs, photographs and magazines has helped Paaswell keep his cost down.

“You read through catalogs and start drooling,” he said. “It’s so great.”

Along a back wall in Schneider’s Berkshire Hills Hobby Supply is a collection of model train magazines. There are more than 12 print publications relating to the hobby, according to Low, and each has a rather large readership.

“The Model Railroader,” a publication that has run monthly since 1933 and is a leader in the field, has a monthly circulation of 160,000, according to the publisher’s website. “Trains,” a magazine that gets its namesake from its content, has a total circulation of 93,235, according to the Alliance of Audited Media. “Model Railroad Hobbyist” has a circulation of 89,660, according to their website.

Smaller magazines can cater to more specific interests too, like those listed by Low. “The Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette,” a bimonthly publication, specializes in short-line railroads, or those that travel smaller distances. Certain magazines are dedicated to the photography of models, while other magazines like “Ztrack” – a reference to Z Scale – only contains scale-specific information.

Arguably the most commendable part of the hobby, though, was each hobbyist’s humility and agreeability. It seemed that everyone was equal on the model train playing field. No hobbyist deemed himself better than another.

“Layouts, they’re all different,” Townsend said. “Everything can be different – conceptually or the whole thing – and no one says theirs is better.”

Low, though, has seen a bit of decline in the hobby as of recent. Having said that most of the “truly accomplished” railroaders are older, he sort of worries about the future of the hobby.

In 2004, Lionel LLC filed for bankruptcy. In 2009, Marklin Trains filed as well. A February 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal is headlined “End of the Line for Model Trains? Aging Hobbyists Trundle On.”

But to an outsider, the death of this hobby seems ridiculous.

Businesses and conventions span international borders and are major draws for regional hobbyists. Collectors stockpile rare engines and locomotives while eager eBay bidders sit poised with a finger on their browser’s refresh. Handy builders craft their own trees out of wooden dowels and their own mountains out of stacked styrofoam.

“People go into their basements and their wives don’t see them for days,” Townsend cracked, motioning to his wife.

“I’ve spent days in a row wearing the same Giants jersey working on the layout,” Posey said.

It is evident that the passion model railroaders have, alone, could keep the hobby afloat long past anyone’s concerns. And who knows, maybe your neighbor is one of them.

This story first ran in the Berkshire View.


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