UNION COUNTY, NJ — A train dispatcher yelled out to Rich Laube that he could depart from the Pullman terminal.
“East track or west?” Laube asked as he held a remote to direct his train.
“East, please,” the dispatcher yelled back.
The two weren’t directing actual trains. They were operating model trains along a scale rail system inside the A. Paul Mallery Model Railroad Center in Union recently.
The Model Railroad Club is nestled behind the The Home Depot on U.S. Route 22, and members meet there every Tuesday night for operating sessions; it is open to the public every Saturday. The inside of the railroad center is a whole different world: handmade trees line elaborate plaster hills, and about 20 miles of metal tracks wind through re-creations of notable stations in the region.
“We’re building a world,” Laube said as he pulled up a huge poster board of a master plan for the 11,000 square-foot facility. “Our own world.”
Soon, the scenery in the railroad center will be transformed for the club’s annual Holiday Sound and Light Show, which has been an area holiday tradition since the 1980s. It kicks off Friday, Nov. 24, and will run for three successive weekends on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 10, featuring a tree, lighting effects and narration. The railroad center, one of the largest in North America, is considered part of the Union County’s Lenape Park. The county owns the building but the club is responsible for maintaining, designing and operating the space and pays for its operations through member dues, shows, donations and sales from the gift shop.
The club was founded in 1949 by Paul Mallery, after whom the facility was named when it opened in 1971.
“He was really one of the pioneers of the hobby and he founded the club in his basement,” Railroad Club President Tim McCollum said of Mallery.
For McCollum, who has been a member for three years, working with trains is more than just a hobby.
“To me it’s really one of the passions in my life,” McCollum said. “People like baseball, I like trains. There’s an art to it and there’s also a science to it.”
Members do a lot more than operate the trains during their gatherings. They learn and utilize engineering, carpentry, architecture and even storytelling skills.
The club expanded the building in the early 2000s, and it is now being used to design and construct another elaborate layout that will essentially double the size of the exhibit. It gives members more to do for years, considering the first half of the facility took about 30 years to design and create.
Laube, a club member since the 1960s, was painstakingly laying down wood work, ties, rails and miniscule spikes for the rail bed during his during an early part of the recent meeting. For him, it’s simply “challenging.”
The rail system is modelled after railroads in the 1950s. The members used original blueprints of some stations to construct their HO — or 1:87 scale — models. Models of stations in Bernardsville; Kenilworth; Trenton; Jim Thorpe, Pa., and Gilberton, Pa., are among those they’ve recreated. The lower level of the facility, hidden by the massive platform, is an intricate layout of wires and and control panels. Just as much work goes into the underside infrastructure as on the scenic landscape above it.
The club has about 100 members, McCollum said, ranging from young to old. Carlin Greenfield, 17, said he’s been interested in trains since he was about 12 years old, after his dad got his hands on a model train set.
“I love having people who I talk to,” Greenfield said as he sat at the underground control panel. “I love that I come in and it’s as much a community as it is an operations thing. I’m friends with the guys I work with, which is something not a lot of people get to say.”
The club has been around for 68 years, and in the era of cellphones and video games, members say it’s still a relevant hobby, even for young people.
“It may not be to the level that it used to be in the ‘50s or ‘60s,” said Bob Nalbone, a former president of the club who’s been a member for 21 years. “But I like to tell everybody, ‘you’re looking at the original virtual reality game. It’s three-dimensional and you’re in the middle of it.’”
Tickets may be purchased on the club’s website at www.themodelrailroadclub.org/advance-show-tickets/.