Penn State’s Model Railroad Club needs to find a new home on campus, even though members have spent the past 15 years designing and building its railroad layout tucked in a literal deep corner of campus — the basement of Pinchot Hall. Because of the ongoing renovations in East, the university has given the club until April 2018 to move out of its current space.
“All the members who have come through here have kind of put their mark on this layout,” Club President Michael Dempsey said.
Most members have worked on their own projects during their time in the club, transforming the railroad layout along the way. Some students focus on the electronics and command system side of the layout, but projects can be anything from painting the actual train engines and cars to designing and creating new buildings and aspects of the landscape. Many of the train cars and the towns around the layout are named after former members and advisors.
Unfortunately, many of these projects can’t be moved to a new location. The dozen-member club will instead have a sort of clean slate for designing a new layout.
“This organization is about a third as old as the university,” Dempsey said. “It’s kind of significant. You don’t want to see it go away.”
The Model Railroad Club was founded in the mid-1950s and is one of the oldest student organizations at Penn State; current advisor John Spychalski, now an emeritus faculty member in the Smeal College of Business, took over in 1969 after the original advisor retired. The railroad layout was housed in the HUB for a number of years until the club moved to Pinchot Hall 15 years ago.
The layout isn’t modeled after any specific location but is mostly set in the 1950s and 1960s. It also features some Penn State details like the Nittany Lion Shrine and a “Penn State Lives Here” sign.
Dempsey said the club maintains a number of drop-off and pick-up locations to use when members hold “operating sessions” to run trains on the layout as if it was a real railroad. Using a predetermined plan, each member will run a train around a layout to specific locations as if they were actually transporting products via railway.
The locomotives are ordered around the track using DCC, or digital command control. Basically, each engine has a number corresponding to commands on the master control panel. Members can use the panel to control what direction the trains run and how fast they move.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the layout is the landscaping. The rock walls and mountains you see were all hand-carved from plaster and hand-painted by members of the club. For the smaller foliage like grass and bushes, the club uses colored foam to create the right texture. The water, which looks incredibly realistic, is made of melted plastic beads and poured into place to harden.
“The layout itself can’t really be moved,” Dempsey said. “It just wasn’t designed to be.”
Club leaders are trying to work with student affairs and other administrators to find a new home for the University Park & East Line, although space is at a premium on campus. Until then, it’s business as usual in the basement of Pinchot Hall.
The club opens the layout to the community during open houses, when families will come see the trains. While learning how the layout works, many returning visitors look forward to a game of Where’s Waldo, which allows them to discover new details of the layout they may not have otherwise noticed while looking for Waldo.
The club’s next open houses will be held during THON weekend and Blue-White Weekend.