All Aboard

The Oak Park Society of Model Engineers is on track with a new model train layout. Happily, building it will take years.

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It took a quarter of a century to build, but last year, the HO scale model trains that toot-tooted and clickedy-clacked across an ever-changing track configuration in the basement of Dole Center finally screeched to a halt. Luckily, there's light at the end of the tunnel.

After removing all the old track, and repairing and painting the 40-by-40 foot subterranean space at 255 Augusta St., the Oak Park Society of Model Engineers is moving full steam ahead. The engineers are once again all aboard with their new, three-level layout.

The Oak Park Society of Model Engineers was founded in 1963, in the basement of Carroll Center. It moved to its current address in 1979.

In addition to building and tweaking their HO model railroad, the club, originally founded through the Park District of Oak Park, brings in speakers, welcomes Cub Scouts, and ventures into the community. Outside of Dole, members are perhaps most visible when club member Bob Kwas and wife Jean bring the club to the Cheney Mansion during its annual "Breakfast With Santa." For about a decade, the couple has set up a large-scale model train that circles the Christmas tree as families dine, kids take photos with Santa, and gifts are donated to the underprivileged.

The club officially meets every Monday and Wednesday from 7:30 to 9 p.m. But sometimes railroaders get carried away and end up tinkering until 10 p.m. During those two or so hours, the experts assail the Lilliputian landscape. A cadre of carpenters, computer whizzes and electrical technicians attends to the complex track scheme like a crack surgical team. And while there's no apparent hierarchy, each member seems to be deeply engaged in his specific, assigned task, which creates a "meritocracy," as the club calls it.

The date of the new layout's completion is difficult to gauge. According to some of the club's 44 members, it will take four years to finish. Others suggest wryly that this setup will never really be finished, but will continue being tweaked for years, like the old configuration.

Their plans, some of which are stacked beneath an actual railroad spike used as a paperweight on top of a makeshift plywood table, include laying over 1,000 feet of track to guide both freight and passenger cars on an hour-long loop.

Club members supply their own trains and equipment. A locomotive can set you back $300. There is a variety of vintage and modern equipment on the tracks, as well as new trains that are stylistically vintage, like a retro mid-'50s era Burlington Zephyr, the Broadway Limited passenger locomotive. It's equipped with a bright headlight and computerized sound system.

Another eye-catcher is a 20-year-old, yellow Milwaukee Road train. Its engine pulls an RPO, or "railway post office," a baggage car, two passenger coaches, a diner, a sleeper, lounge, and finally, an observation deck. An array of freight trains and accessories wait their turn.

Planning the trip
According to club members, the new journey is based on a "real world" train operation involving two railroads from the 1950s, the Chicago Great Western and the Illinois Central. The Great Western ran many "F-units," a special type of freight train popular with hobbyists. The "IC" was known for its passenger cars.

The route starts at Chicago's historic Grand Central Station. Club members cringe when they speak of its demolition, in 1971, and they're excited by plans to build a station model. The route passes through Oak Park and continues westward, eventually snaking past Dubuque, Iowa, to Waterloo. On its return, it stops at Bridgeport just before chugging back into Grand Central.

The new three-level track design accommodates a lengthier run. The lowest level will be the "staging area." Hobbyists will couple their cars, make adjustments, and wait their turn to "cycle through." Sandwiched between the staging level and the upper, Iowa level will be the Illinois level, on which the trains will make their way through miniature facsimiles of quaint places, like Oak Park.

The trains will pass Norpaul yard, based on the actual train yard you see when driving on North Avenue, looking north on 25th Avenue. There will also be a facsimile of the Markham yard on the City's South Side.

They've been workin' on the railroad
The train crew is happy to share stories while working on the new set-up. During a recent meeting, Club President John Pisciotto, 37, who grew up in Oak Park, explains that, unlike a Hummer, a train, both real and model, must go uphill very gradually. "Two percent is a good grade," he says. "So for every 2-inch rise we need about 8 feet of track."

The staging level is 30 inches high, and the Iowa level will be 54 inches high.

To get the trains up those 2 feet the club is designing spiral helixes. "If you've been to the O'Hare parking lot, that spiral ramp that goes up to the different parking levels is the same type of ramp we're building," explains Pisciotto.

Still more math is needed to comprehend the "HO scale" designation. Pisciotto explains that in the 1930s, the predominant scale was O. The O scale means 1 foot of model train length equals 48 feet of real world train.

"HO was created to be half that size, so one foot would equal 96 feet," he says. "But it didn't work out that way, and it ended up being 1 foot equals 87 feet."

Peter Saraniecki is the club's chair of track planning operations. "I don't care what they say. No freight train is complete without a caboose," he says with a rebellious tone as he fastens one to the rear of a metal strand of freight cars for a test run.

The caboose, that charming exclamation point ubiquitous to model railroaders, is less necessary in the real world. "The function of the caboose was to carry an additional conductor and brake-man, so that there'd be two in the cab in front of the train, two in the rear," explains Henry Kranz, 56, an Oak Park resident and long-time club member. "Now most freight trains have a 'FRED,' or flashing rear end devise. It provides electronic feedback to the engineer, and sends signals to the dispatcher not on the train.

"It just isn't as much fun to look at as a caboose," he adds, noting that when we see a caboose at a train crossing, it might be there to accommodate a repair crew riding on board.

Ken Brooks, who joined the club last year, is managing the new layout. He's being tapped for his carpentry and detailing skills because of his experience building model cars and designing stained glass. Like Saraniecki and Kranz, he also pines for the bygone era of trains with charm.

"The '50s freight cars had character," Brooks enthuses. "There were brightly painted advertisements on refrigeration cars. Now you just have standard, dull unit trains, painted with graffiti. I live on Stanley Avenue in Berwyn. I see the coal trains come through. The only pretty thing about them is the locomotive, which can be colorful."

"We're a '50s-oriented railroad club," notes Frank Vozak, 52, of Oak Park, a clinical social worker for Hines VA Hospital. He was club president from 1991-1995, and is now the club's librarian and secretary. Vozak, who's asking for help in locating old plans and photos of the now-demolished Chicago Grand Central Station, agrees with Brooks.

"The '50s were such a rich time in terms of everything about railroads," he says. "In Chicago we had Pullman Standard that made arguably the finest passenger equipment in the world. There were still many first class passenger trains. There was the 20th Century Limited, the El Capitan. My favorite was the Abraham Lincoln that ran between Chicago and St. Louis. It was top drawer. White tablecloths in the dining car, food better than any restaurant in Chicago, sleeping cars. You left at 10 p.m. from either city and arrived at 9 a.m., so businessmen wouldn't bother with a hotel.

Gary Rhebergen, 48, who grew up in Oak Park, is a real live train conductor for Metra. He became a member of the club in 1971. His father, Donald, joined in 1964, "just after it was founded," Gary says.

Donald, a technical engineer in radio and then TV, has since died, but Gary has fond memories of his dad at the club overseeing the track wiring "when it was heavy mechanical switches and throttles. He'd have loved all this digital stuff," Gary says.

Mark Goedert, 33, a University of Illinois computer network manager, is adapting computer technology to run the model trains. "We have a regular home computer running Windows 2000," he says. "We use it to set the configuration of the locomotives and can click in values to change characteristics of the models. Over the last five years, we've really seen an explosion in terms of capabilities for models, like computerized sound tuned into the model train's speed. It's really been an exciting time for model railroaders."

Oak Parker Tim Elvery, 18, a student at Triton College who works at Oberweis Dairy, sets his tiny handcar onto a problematic stretch of track. The size of a matchbox, the handcar races along, then suddenly stops mid-track.

"Dead spot in the power," he says. "I'm searching for electrical drop-outs."

Elvery and Goedert investigate the problem. Goedert mans the throttle, which looks like a TV channel changer with dials. "It's digital, and precise," he explains. To operate the train, the throttle's cord plugs into one of several telephone plugs located just under the track.

"You can unplug and go with radio waves," he says. "Then you're cordless, and free to move around the room."

With the diversity of skills that the club members bring to the table, and their common goal to stay on track, they boast that there is seldom friction among them. One mellowing influence was Father Ron Ferguson, a Jesuit priest at Loyola and former club member. Sadly, he passed away two years ago.

"Father Ron was in a sense the spiritual center of our club," says Kranz. "He was a terrific railroader, and officiated at the marriage of three of our club members."

The club has adopted a strategy for effective teamwork. "We never discuss politics," notes Kranz. "This is a haven from all those things that really annoy us. We have our own world in here."

"This hobby is more than just playing with toy trains," comments Pisciotto. "It represents a very important role of industry to this country. A lot of its historical impact is lost on the general public. They see a 'stupid train' when stuck at a crossing, and don't realize that it can represent 200 trucks moving across country. The railroads, not airplanes, built this country. Trains are the workings of America that nobody sees."

To become a member or contact the club, e-mail Kranz at or check out their website at

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