Model trains aren't just child's play

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

Fall, 1968:

Heavily loaded with a hundred cars of fresh-picked apples, a Great Northern Railroad train begins to pull sluggishly away from the station in Wenatchee, Wash. On its long journey across the state, the train will wind through apple country, climb the Cascade Mountains and eventually come to rest on the West Coast. There, the apples will be unloaded for shipment to ports around the world.

It's a scene that Sean Harwager remembers well. As a boy growing up in Washington, he spent countless hours watching the trains of the Great Northern line chug up and down the tracks, bound for stations across the nation. And even though he's now a grown man living in Kenai, it's a scene Harwager still can watch a hundred times each day.

That's because Harwager has the ability to recreate scenes from the past through the magic of model railroading.

It's a hobby many people associate with toy trains running around a Christmas tree, and wide-eyed children watching as shiny cars circle by again and again and again. But ask anyone who's been caught up in the wonder of model railroading, and you'll find the hobby is much more than child's play.

"I pretty much eat, sleep and breathe model railroading," Harwager said while working on his current layout, located upstairs from his shop in North Kenai.


John Segesser positions train cars on an extensive track layout he has in the basement of his south Soldotna home.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Harwager is working on a project to bring the Great Northern line of his youth back to life. Eventually, he plans to have an 18- by 24-foot miniature world based on a line that ran through the rugged, evergreen-covered Cascades. It's a time-consuming project, one that requires him to spend countless hours studying pictures, old blueprints and track configurations from more than 30 years ago.

"It's based upon a line that went over the Cascade Mountains. I modeled the Great Northern Railroad in 1968, based on their line between Everett and Wenatchee," he said.

Harwager strives to create a layout that's as historically accurate layout as possible -- right down to the color of paint on the roof of the train station. He's even tracked down people who worked on the line to get inside information on things such as what kind of locomotives were used and how often trains ran between individual towns.

"I've talked to a retired Great Northern employee who has the plans for the yard in Skykomish. We've got the actual blueprints," he said. "For me, that's the fun."

Harwager said mod-el railroading is a way to connect with the past, while enjoying a hobby he's been interested in for more than 30 years.

He got his first train set when he was 6, and he's been hooked ever since. From that first, 4-foot oval layout, Har-wager's hobby has evolved into a full-blown obsession with trains. Even while he's on vacation, he said he's usually checking out trains and railroads wherever he goes.


Paul Winans cradles an N-scale caboose in his fingers. The cars may be small but they are packed with details that are closely modeled after real railroad equipment.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Its definitely a good way to pass the time," Harwager said, estimating he spends at least an hour or more each day working on his trains.

He's not the only person on the peninsula who's been caught up in the hobby. Sold-otna's Steve Booth said he's only been interested in model railroading since around 1994, but it has literally changed his life.

"I was just looking for a hobby, something to do in the winter," Booth recalled. "I ended up opening a hobby shop."

Booth owns Craftsman Hobbies in Soldotna. He said a desire to find parts not available locally drove him to open a shop of his own. Nine years later, he's a full-fledged train junkie. For him, the draw of the hobby is in the variety of skills required to put a layout together.

"There's no rules. It's just fun," Booth said. "Some guys like to get into running the trains on schedules, just like a real one. Some like to build the cars. Some people like the scenery. Carpentry, electrical, painting, history ... it's just a fun hobby."

Booth said the beauty of model railroading is that it appeals to so many various interests. And in contrast to traditional models, trains provide some interactive entertainment value.


Harwager and Winans are using copies of engineering documents, original photographs and historical accounts to recreate the Washington scene. Here, Winans holds a portion of a model bridge next to a photograph of the actual bridge.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I enjoy the modeling aspect, the buildings," he said. "(But) you can have more than one locomotive on one track, run them at different speeds. There's a lot you can do, really."

In his shop, Booth has a small, "N scale" (see related story this page) layout depicting an imaginary scene along the Alaska Railroad. In addition to the train, his layout features anglers standing knee-deep in a salmon stream, brown bears lurking in the bushes and the occasional lost tourist.

His layout is a complete miniature world, and only takes up around 8-square feet of his shop. Because model trains can come in many different sizes, Booth said people don't necessarily have to have a lot of space to get into the hobby.

"You can set up a small layout and have an operating layout. You can start out with a starter set and you can add on," he said.

A good starter set can be bought for around $100. From there, it's a matter of choice how much money they want to put into the hobby. For some people, simply watching a train run in circles is enough of a thrill. For others, like Kasilof's John Segesser, the hobby can take over entire rooms in a home.

Segesser's layout takes up most of the space in his basement. And he's not done yet. Eventually, he said, he'd like to add on to the basement -- mainly to have more room for his trains.

"I might have to build a tunnel under the stairs," he said. "It'll never be finished."

Segesser said he's spent countless amounts of time and money on the hobby. One locomotive alone cost him a $1,000. He spends an hour or more each day working on a layout that he says will never really be completed. Segesser doesn't strive for historical accuracy in his design. Instead, he likes to "free-lance," putting in unique features that seem to go with the overall scheme of his 14-by-24-foot HO (see related story) scale layout.


Sean Harwager and Paul Winans pull a layout support through an open window at their workplace. When they are done, the room will house a replica of a central Washington railway.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I just kind of model the ones I've seen. I just tried to do something that was interesting to look at and had a lot of room to run," he said.

In contrast to Harwager's design, which features details right down to having the right kind of trees alongside the track, Segesser said he's more interested in making sure his trains stay on the track. That's not always easy when you've got a basement full of tracks. The same pitfalls that occur with real-life trains can happen to a miniature railroad.

"You sometimes run into small bugs in the track, sometimes just enough to derail a couple of cars," he said.

Additionally, a model railroader must keep an eye on things like how steep of a grade the track runs on or how tight a curve the track follows. To counter those natural forces, Segesser said an additional locomotive might have to be added to a train in order to get it moving up a steep hill. Just like with real trains, it takes more power to haul a larger load.

"You end up getting the same forces you have on real trains," he said.


Lights glow on HO-scale locomotives at rest in a switch yard on John Segesser's layout.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Segesser said the maintenance alone on his set can take up a large part of his time. However, working on the mechanical aspect of the hobby can be a powerful draw. Basically, the entire spectrum of model trains appeals to him, from track design to working out the bugs in the track.

Because it appeals to a wide variety of interests, model railroading is a hobby virtually anyone can get involved with. It only takes a few bucks and a little bit of space to get started, and the various sizes and configurations of trains available is nearly endless.

The only problem people new to the hobby may find is that it can become almost an all-consuming passion.

Many people find that once they're hooked on trains, it is hard to stop laying new track, seeking out new cars and dreaming up new layouts.

Model railroading can be enjoyed by people of all ages and economic levels for a lifetime. And once the train gets rolling, it's likely to keep running for a lifetime. Just ask Segesser. He said he'll likely be tinkering with toy trains for as long as he's able.

"I can't imagine not," he said, watching a long train roll through his basement station. "At the very least, I'd be sitting somewhere track side, watching the trains go by.

Workin' on the railroad

Getting started in model railroading requires a small investment of time and money. Experts recommend determining how much space you have available to set up a layout, then find the size train that fits your needs. A starter layout kit can usually be purchased for around $100.

Model trains come in a variety of sizes and styles. Trains are built to a particular scale, upon which the overall layout design can be based. Smaller train sizes are good for building more elaborate scenery, while larger trains might appeal to someone with a large amount of space who just enjoys watching the train circle its track.

Here are some of the most common scales model trains are built to:

Z scale: This is the smallest scale available. Z scale trains are built to a ratio of 1 to 220. This means a 75-foot long locomotive in real life would measure just four inches in Z scale. The rails of a Z scale track are just 6.5 millimeters apart. A Z scale layout can often fit into a regular sized briefcase.

N scale: Built to a ratio of 1:160, a 75-foot locomotive would measure 5 and a half inches in N scale. A typical layout might measure 4 by 4 feet.

HO scale: The most popular scale, HO trains are built on a ratio of 1:87. A 75-foot locomotive would be 10.5 inches long in HO scale. The tracks are 16.5 millimeters apart.

S scale: Built to a ratio of 1:64, a 75-foot locomotive would measure 14 inches in S scale.

O scale: Built to a 1:48 ratio, these trains run on rails that are 1 and a quarter inches apart. A 75-foot locomotive would measure just over 18 inches in O scale.

G scale: The largest traditional model trains, G scale models are built to a 1:22.5 ratio. A 75-foot locomotive would measure 40 inches long in G scale. These are large trains which run on a track that's 45 millimeters wide.

Beyond the scales listed above, there are numerous other trains available, including steam-driven models which are large enough to actually ride on and models designed to run outdoors in a garden environment. Check with a hobby shop or at the library to determine which scale is right for you.

All aboard!

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