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Model Train Club's Mini-World Chugs Away in Field House

By Heather Cherone | November 29, 2012 12:01pm

EDISON PARK — Nestled above the story-time room and the workout equipment in the Chicago Park District’s Edison Park field house, a model train twists and turns along an elaborately designed track.

The silver and black train chugs along tracks precisely 1/87th the size of the real ones on the other side of Northwest Highway. It travels through a miniature city dotted with Christmas trees, past tiny figurines replaying a scene from the Blues Brothers movie and through the Allegheny Mountains to the Red Rocks of Sedona, Ariz.

The track is the work of the Northwestern Society of Model Railroads. The club, with about a dozen members, has called the field house home since the early 1980s.

“If this was in someone’s basement, you couldn’t see it. I love to see people’s reactions, especially from children,” said club member Bob Southworth, raising his voice to be heard over the distinctive click-clack of the trains and the whoosh of the engines.

Club members pay $12 a month dues, which covers the cost of maintaining the trains and the tracks. The club rents the room from the park district for $1,000 a year, which includes the cost of electricity, Southworth said.

Although the club has had teenage members in the past, current members are all middle-aged men with a lifelong love of trains, Southworth said.

There are dozens of small scenes along the tracks — a tiny man sits by the working signal lights flashing red and green, drinking an infinitesimally small beer, as the train speeds through  mountains and over a trestle bridge. Below, friends fish from a boat as a wall of sound washes over them every five to 10 minutes.

“There’s always something different and new to do,” Southworth said. “We love changing things. Once you get a layout pretty much set, there is no end to what you can do.”

For club member Robert Rustemeyer of Norwood Park, the thrill lies in operating the big electronic board that controls the pace and directions of the trains through the maze of the tracks.

“The thrill never gets old,” said Rustemeyer, wearing a black and white train conductor's cap while deftly turning the knobs on the board.

For James Poyner, another longtime member, sharing his love of trains keeps him coming back. The club has a smaller, portable track that it brings to schools and community centers throughout the Chicago area several times a year.

“I love taking the tracks and the trains to schools,” Poyner said. “It is like moving a small apartment, but it is totally worth it to see the reactions from young people.”

The club, which hosts open houses during the park district’s Christmas celebration and the annual summertime Edison Park festival, is always looking for new members, and welcomes questions and requests for help from other model train aficionados. New members pay an initiation fee of about $50, Southworth said.

“It can be intimidating to try to do this on your own,” Poyner said, gesturing to the colossal track. “At club meetings, there are always people to help you overcome obstacles.”