All Aboard: Penn State Club Displays Model Railroad In The HUB

Visitors to the HUB were greeted by an unusual sight on Tuesday: a highly detailed and fully-functioning railroad created by Penn State’s Model Railroad Club.

The club has around 20 active members and meets two times per week in its home in a research lab off of Hastings Road. Its president, Max Harris, has been working at the Everett Railroad in Altoona since he was 16. According to Harris, the club’s displays are a lot more than “just playing with trains.”

“It combines aspects of using your hands to create something, researching history, and art design,” he said.

The Model Railroad Club was founded in 1955 and is one of the oldest registered clubs at the university. The club has built seven layouts in total — its newest creation has been a work in progress for the last five years. The full layout is enormous, measuring over 30 feet, but the club only got permission to display part of it in the HUB. 

This year’s layout tries to capture the charm of a central Pennsylvania town. The gas station, meant to resemble classic Pennsylvania chains like Wawa, Sheetz, and Rutter’s, is affectionately referred to as the “Schwatters.” 

Harris said that the viewer can decide which chain the building represents but offered his own opinion on the matter.

“As a Philadelphian, it’s a Wawa,” he said.

The layout was built from scratch using parts from manufacturers. The track is made by Atlas Model Railroad, the building pieces were made by Walthers, and the trains were made by Athearn and Rapido. 

One locomotive is Thomas the Tank Engine, a homage to the life sized-model at Strasburg Rail Road.

Adam Babetski | Onward State

Another carries the logo of Bellefonte Central Railroad, a line that transported coal to State College. While the railroad has been defunct since 1974, a piece remains: the Greyhound bus station on Atherton Street used to be its train station.

The trains themselves are hooked up to a DCC controller, a modern improvement over older versions. There is a computer inside every one of the trains called a decoder that picks up electric signals from the tracks and sends them into the controller. The controller then sends the train’s signals back, telling them to light up, make sounds, and move.

“These aren’t your grandfather’s model trains, they’re not just going in a circle,” said Harris.

At the far left end of the layout is a gravel mine, similar to the ones around Bellefonte. Next to it is a mountain, created using a foam insulation board covered with plaster and peppered with custom-built trees. 

There are various easter eggs scattered around the layout, including an Alien, Waldo, and the infamous CATA Bus Blue Loop.

Adam Babetski | Onward State

“You could stare at this for hours and still notice something new,” Harris said.

Past layouts were impossible to transport because they were attached to their surroundings and had to be demolished. The club’s last layout, in Pinchot Hall, was dismantled during recent renovations. This iteration addresses that with a modular system, allowing it to be transported in sections all over campus. 

The club intends to display part of its layout for at least one day every semester. Eventually, it hopes to be able to set up its entire layout in the HUB.

Harris’ ultimate goal is to run his own educational railroad for tourists. 

“Having fun with trains is what I’ve made my life about,” he said. 

To learn more about the Penn State Model Railroad Club, visit its Facebook page.

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About the Author

Adam Babetski

Adam Babetski is a senior double majoring in broadcast journalism and medieval history and is one of Onward State's associate editors. He's from the only part of Virginia without tractors and southern accents, except Richmond (reportedly). You can follow him on Twitter @AdamBabetski for hot takes about sports. For serious inquiries, email [email protected].

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