Model Trains: A Television Alternative

Model train goods at the train show in Saline, Mich.

Sophia Werthmann

Don Neifer, a retired structural engineer, despises the thought of lounging around and watching television all day. “I’ll be 75 here in a few days, and I’m not ready to hang up my boots,” he said. As an alternative to becoming a T.V. vegetable, he devotes his time to model railroading.

Three years ago, Neifer became part of a model railroad group. All of the members are older men, and most are from northwest Ohio. When they are at a train show, the crew sports red polo shirts and baseball caps that say “Hobo Crew” in fancy black cursive writing. “A hobo doesn’t have a home, he just travels around and has fun, and that’s what we do. So we’re the ‘Hobo Crew,’” Neifer explained.

In February, the group participated in a train show at the Saline Middle School gym in Michigan. Bright lights in the ceiling illuminated the scene, and a big crowd meandered through the large room. The gym teemed with tables, most loaded with colorful model train cars, books, or intricate pieces of model railroad track. Speckled across the area, vendors sat awaiting their next customer. But the Hobo Crew didn’t attend with an intent to sell goods. “We just come here to run trains and be a feature for the train show,” said Neifer. Past many of the merchants, the troop stood inside of an enclosed circular 16 by 48 foot layout. The five members worked together, managing the whizzing trains’ speed and ensuring that they wouldn’t crash into one another. People crowded around, mesmerized as they watched the tiny trains blow their whistles and chug along the decorated track.

It took a year for the Hobo Crew of five to build their entire model railroad layout. Each person constructed a different section of the track, and eventually they attached it all together, trying to create a somewhat smooth transition. The squad has built a single train set together, and it might be the only one. “We’ve maxed out,” Neifer said. “We’ll run this one till it runs out, and then I suppose we’ll have to decide what we wanna do.”

Model railroading has been Neifer’s hobby for quite a while. He got his first set when he was eight years old. His first train car was an American Flyer’s steam engine. But like many model railroad enthusiasts, he didn’t carry the hobby consistently throughout his life. “It’s not unusual for, for somebody to be interested in trains, and then something else comes along, school maybe, or dating, or something like that, and you run out of time. So you just, you get away from it, and then when the opportunity presents itself, come back, and get into the hobby again,” Neifer explained.

Building a layout is a tedious and time consuming activity. Model railroad enthusiasts use materials like styrofoam and plastic trees to create magical scenery. Each decoration must be carefully glued in the right place, and miniature track must be laid down perfectly. As for Neifer’s group, “We want workers, not just people who are loafing,” he stated. When creating a layout, a variety of abilities are needed. Carpentry skills are used to make the base of the layout; geometry is used to calculate where track will meet up; wiring knowledge is needed to make the trains move; and creativity is essential for a project to be unique and presentable.

While some partake in the hobby for the carpentry, Neifer’s passion for model railroading comes from the imaginative aspect of it. He explained, “You build your own world, around your trains … and it’s up to you as to what to do.” According to Neifer, his work as an engineer didn’t influence his train layouts. “It’s just a figment of my imagination,” he said.