How I became a Model Railroader

 Or how I learned to be a child again

Model railroads have captured the imagination for decades.
Model railroads have captured the imagination for decades.
Ken Skopp is the Grand Rapids Valley Railroad Club's train show coordinator.
Ken Skopp is the Grand Rapids Valley Railroad Club’s train show coordinator.

by Ken Skopp

I was five-years old when I visited my grandparents in Waterloo, WI. A train track ran next to their farm. One day while I was playing near the track, a steam engine was moving freight cars back and forth. After some time passed, the steam engine stopped. The engineer leaned out of the cab and asked me if I would like to take a quick ride in the engine. I screamed “Yes!”

I rode with the engineer five miles down the track and back. I didn’t realize it then but I was bitten by the “train bug” and there is no cure.

Now fast forward, 60 years. My wife bought me a HO scale train set made by the Bachmann Company for Christmas. It had a steam locomotive, three passenger cars, a small DC power pack and a loop of track. I had model train layouts in the past but it had been 20 years since I had built my last layout. Those layouts mainly consisted of a track with a few buildings laid on a sheet of plywood. I started buying “Model Railroader” magazines to learn more information about what was available in the hobby.

Ken's model railroad uses the latest technology for the hobby.
Ken’s model railroad uses the latest technology for the hobby.

After being an “armchair railroader” (thinking and dreaming about building a model railroad), I decided it was time to start working on a layout. I wanted it to be more than just track on a piece of plywood. I wanted realistic track work and realistic scenery. One day I visited Rider’s Hobby Shop and found a flyer promoting a local train show. So I started going to train shows to see what new products were available in locomotives and cars. I was amazed at how many shows there are in Michigan and Indiana.

Two years ago this past November, I attended a train show at the Home School Building in Wyoming. At the show I bought a HO scale diesel locomotive and wanted to see if it worked. The Grand River Valley Railroad Club (GRVRR Club) which was running the show had a test track there. The club member who tested the engine invited me to visit their club. I did and discovered that many improvements had been made in the hobby. I realized that the ideas I had for my railroad would require learning new techniques from others who had more experience in the hobby. I joined the club three years ago.

Photos courtesy of Ken Skopp
Photos courtesy of Ken Skopp

Over the past three years, I have started a model railroad layout in a 9′ x 10′ room in our condo basement. Roger Fenske former president of the GRVRR Club helped me build the bench work, lay the track, wire the layout and how to make realistic scenery. Most importantly, I learned about Digital Command Control (DCC).

Up to the advent of DCC control, trains ran on electrical current from a DC transformer that powered the electrical motor in the locomotive. You could only run one locomotive at a time on your layout. If you wanted to run more than one locomotive, you had to divide the layout into isolated electrical blocks or segments. The wiring and controls are somewhat complicated and not very flexible.

Because of the advance in computerization and miniaturization provided by DCC, each locomotive has a computer chip in it with an individual address. With a DCC control cab, you can send signals to each individual locomotive address. This allows you to control the direction of motion, speed and sound functions for that particular locomotive address. So now, you can have multiple locomotives running at the same time on your layout and each is under individual control.

The Grand Rapids Valley Railroad Train Shows offer fun for kids of any age.
The Grand Rapids Valley Railroad Train Shows offer fun for kids of any age.

But the biggest advancement in locomotives is the sound in them. It brings them to life! You hear the chuffing of your steam locomotive as it moves on the tracks. You can ring it’s bell and blow it’s whistle just like a real train! Now I can have my Pere Marquette Railroad Steam locomotive chugging around my train layout while my diesel switcher locomotive is switching cars in a train yard. All this action is complete with realistic locomotive sounds – engines, bells, and whistles!

Model railroading is a hobby that combines, motion, sound, 3D modeling, painting, sculpting, woodworking, electrical work, historical research and so much more! At the Grand River Valley RR Club’s Train show on Saturday, April 11th, you can see all the aspects of the hobby in action. You’ll see everything from a Garden Scale railroad that you can put in your backyard to a Z scale railroad that you can fit on the top of a small desk. Your children will love the large LEGO operating layout, playing with LEGOs in the play area, and seeing a “Thomas the Train” display. In addition, there will be two large HO scale operating layouts provided by The Holland Modular RR club and the Battle Creek Model RR Club. I invite you to come and enjoy it all! There will be food available, free parking, door prizes and 120 tables of model railroad items for purchase.