UNION, N.J. — It’s late on a Wednesday afternoon, and already a handful of members are milling about at the A. Paul Mallery Model Railroad Center behind The Home Depot.
One is painting scenery, another is cleaning track and another is working on a building for an ever-growing HO-scale, or 1:87, layout.
Of the 120 members, these guys are part of the club’s “hard core.”
“I’d say about 30 percent of the members are here eight hours a week,” Ray Russell said. “And then there’s guys like me. We’re here eight-plus.”
Wednesday night is when the members run the layout for themselves, when they maneuver the approximately 500 cars and 125 locomotives over nearly 15,000 linear feet of track. That equates to about 26 scale miles of track on what is believed to be one of the largest model railroad layouts in the country.
But lately, time is being spent preparing for the club’s prime spotlight. The club will put on its annual Light and Sound Train Show for three consecutive weekends: from Nov. 29 to Dec. 1, Dec. 6 to 8, and Dec. 13 to 15.
The show is a narrated production that tells the story of trains running from Hoboken to Pittsburgh during the 1950s, using about 4,500 linear feet of the layout spread over a 40-by-40-foot section of a platform that extends across the length of the building. Freight and passenger trains roll through towns and the countryside, over bridges and trestles, and in and out of tunnels; trolleys shuttle between stations and lighted towns, and engines with realistic sounds fill the room.
Visitors are encouraged to walk through the layout beforehand, see the trains, models and scenery up close, and then watch the show from the balcony.
It takes time and effort to prepare the show.
“It takes about three weeks to get ready,” Russell said. “We don’t make any electrical changes and, once the curtain goes up, it takes about a week to clean.” The curtain acts as a backdrop for the area that serves as the basis for the show, which is critically important to the club.
“If we didn’t have the show, we couldn’t keep it going,” Russell said.
The club operates on a budget of about $50,000 a year and, while the club is open to the public for an admission fee on Saturdays, most of its revenue comes from the holiday Light and Sound Train Show it has hosted since 1984.
The club, which doesn’t pay rent, erected its 11,000 square foot facility in 1971 in what is now considered Lenape Park, and gave the building to Union County, which allows it to operate free of charge. But the club must still maintain the building, and pay for heat and air conditioning, electricity and water. Additionally, there are material costs, such as track, scenery, wiring and switches for the new 55-by-90-foot section that is under construction.
“The county owns the land, the club owns the track and the members own the cars,” member Bill Jambor explained.
Club members are always adding to the layout; there are 10,000 linear feet of track on the drawing board, in addition to plans to expand the front of the building in order to add a complete Hoboken and more non-HO-scale trains to its display. This would complement the smaller N-gauge, the relatively large G-scale — or garden scale — and the O-gauge trains, also known as Lionel trains.
“The timeline is like building a cathedral. We’re all Egyptians,” Jambor said referring to the architectural and engineering aspect of the club.
The members come from as far away as Maryland and Delaware, but most live closer to Union. In addition to Jambor, who comes from New Brunswick, and Russell, who drives 60 miles from Toms River, other members come from Manhattan and Long Valley. Some are hyper-local — like Bill Marateo, of Union, but another member lives part of the year in Hawaii.
“We travel a while to have fun,” Russell said.
Many club members are in their 50s, but others are in their 80s and some are in their teens. The club accepts anyone 15 and older as a full-time member but allows children as young as age 10 to join, as long as they’re accompanied by a parent. And the membership varies, with doctors, lawyers and engineers involved, as well as an actual retired train dispatcher.
The club was founded in 1949 by Paul Mallery, after whom the facility was named when it opened in 1971. Mallery had the original layout in his basement, but it outgrew his house. Now the club and its members are transitioning from the familiar mechanical control to digital, which allows train lines to be run from a smartphone.
“Before it was a mechanical throttle,” Marateo, who works in information technology, said. “Now you have digital controls: lights, bells, whistles. You can have two trains running on the same track: one engine going one way, the other going another way. It’s more like a real dispatcher.”
For additional information about the club and tickets to the annual Light and Sound Show, visit https://www.themodelrailroadclub.org/.