The whirring of tiny wheels and the muted sound of trains can be heard before entering the room where the River City Modelers train club is building its new layout, or landscape as the uninitiated are likely to call it.
When finished, the impressive two-level display will have 19 scale miles of main line track, running through mountains, deserts and urban scenery.
“In the old location, we had what I call a ‘around the Christmas tree’ layout,” said president John Langlot. “Here, when you run your train, you actually meet other trains and you have to pull out on a sidetrack to not get in trouble.”
This Sunday, River City Modelers is hosting a train show and swap meet at Spokane Community College, as well as an open house at its club house Saturday and Sunday.
The new layout is about 30 percent finished, but building it to scale and completing intricate engineering projects is part of the fun of belonging to a model train club. All members participate in finishing the layout and the group decides by majority vote which landscape or rail yard is going where.
“Members make a plan showing what they’d like to build and how,” Langlot said. “Then there’s a 30-day input period where we can all make suggestions and then we have a vote.” When the layout is complete, members can run their trains by steel mills and grain elevators, an orchard and a mountain village.
“It takes about an hour and a half to run your train through the whole display,” Langlot said.
There are about 50 members in the club, yet it seems like they handle growth management issues smoothly. Members have invested more than $20,000 in computer equipment and wiring for the layout. The system is run from a computer in the corner of the room.
“How many trains we can run at the same time depends on the person in that chair,” Langlot said. “He can get kind of sweaty. We joke we should have a bucket of ice and some Maalox next to the computer.”
Just like in real life, every train running on the display has a destination and route to travel.
Langlot said the orchard, which looks a lot like a farm on Green Bluff, was built from scratch.
“Every tree was assembled and the apples were put on the trees, one at a time,” said Langlot. “There is a vineyard behind the barn and it actually has grape clusters on the vines.”
The group has hosted the train show and swap meet at SCC for years. Langlot said there will be working layouts there, too, alongside 170 vendor tables featuring model railroad equipment in all scales. There will also be railroad memorabilia and collectibles.
Like many of the club’s members, Langlot got his first train when he was a young boy. Over the years, he’s put together quite a collection of engines and carts, at one time back in the ’50s putting down $5 at a time on a special brass locomotive he just had to have.
“It took more than two years before I finally got it,” he said. “There’s a lot like that going on with train collecting – you order something and then you wait and wait and wait until you get it.”
Members bring their own trains to run on the club’s display.
So, after a lifelong habit of collecting, how many trains does Langlot own?
“I don’t know, I’m not sure,” he said, laughing sheepishly, “but I do come across a train once in a while and then I can’t remember when was the last time I ran it. Then I bring it in and run it.”
Mike Tietz is the incoming president. He moved to Spokane a couple of years ago, to retire.
“I just got back into it, it’s nice to have a hobby when you suddenly have time on your hands,” Tietz said. He said the obvious benefit of belonging to a model train club is that the display is so much bigger than most anything built in a private home.
“We get a lot of donations of track and models that have been sitting in people’s basements,” said Tietz, showing off the club’s model room, where little houses, churches, silos and track sit on shelves waiting for a permanent home. “We are very grateful for that.”