It's not every day that more than 800 model-train enthusiasts gather in one place to hook their trains together and create one gigantic layout. But that's what's happening Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 7-8, at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly.
"It's the largest model-train layout ever assembled," said Centreville's Brian Brendel, a Fairfax County fire captain and paramedic and a founding member of Northern Virginia NTRAK, whose members are hosting the event. "It'll be 40,000 square feet — half the size of the Expo Center and as big as a football field."
The hours of the convention for N-scale model railroaders are 10 a.m.-4 p.m., each day. Adult admission is $7; children under 11 are free, with an adult. See www.bigtrainlayout.org or call 703-866-4864 for more information.
Northern Virginia NTRAK is a nonprofit organization, and part of the proceeds from the convention goes to Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children for Operation Lifesaver — educating people about safety around real railroad tracks.
N-SCALE MODEL trains get their name from the rails they run on, which are spaced nine millimeters apart. An N-scale model of a 40-foot boxcar fits in the palm of a hand. These trains allow more scenery to be created for a true-to-life look, and the show's participants have painstakingly replicated a multitude of scenarios — such as mountains, bridges, valleys, rivers and cities — through which their trains travel.
"We build modular sections — containing train cars, tracks and scenery — and then put them all together," said Brendel, 44, of Manorgate. "We follow an international standard so people, the world over, can hook up their pieces to ours. We usually set up at the Alexandria Waterfront Festival and malls, but this will be like the Olympics of model railroading."
Brendel has built N-scale trains for 20 years, and in 1993 he joined five Herndon men who'd started a train club in 1991. Everyone built a part of a train and then connected it. In 1996, they organized a convention in Alexandria and, to their amazement, 15,000 people came.
Northern Virginia NTRAK had 25 members then but has grown to 100 from throughout the Washington Metropolitan area. They meet the third Sunday of the month, at 1 p.m., at the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum. (Call John Cook, 703-670-9700, or Dave Freshwater, 301-424-7438, or see www.nvntrak.org.)
The Expo Center show will feature 500 modular pieces, elevated about three feet off the ground, and 6,000 feet of track total — including more than 2,000 feet with trains running on it. Altogether, it'll equal about 70 scale miles of track.
"It's pretty spectacular," said Brendel. "Some of these guys have literally spent thousands of hours working on their trains. For example, one person re-created New York's Times Square as his scenery. It's exciting to see what everyone else has built."
N-TRACKING LETS people living in apartments and townhouses put together large trains in a big space. "That way, you can run really long trains with 80-100 cars," said Brendel. "It's hard to set up a 'basement empire' nowadays, but you can do this."
Because these trains are so popular worldwide, the upcoming show has attracted participants from 34 states, plus Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Germany and Switzerland.
The local group includes both men and women from a wide range of occupations and interests — united in a common love of trains and microcosms of the world around them. They learn from each other, conduct railroad-safety and model-building seminars, and proudly display their creations at workshops and exhibits.
Alexandria's Bernie Kempinski began building layouts in 1991 when his son was about 3 and fascinated with trains. So he built an N-track module — which led to 19 more — and he now has about 110 feet of module. "I'm bringing about 30 feet to the show — a section of the C&O Railroad and the New River in West Virginia," he said. "It's very curvy and has big mountains on it."
He's replicated the actual railroad and its surroundings as closely as possible. "What's cool is when someone sees it and says, 'Hey, that's my house,’" said Kempinski. "What's also neat is kids' reactions [to the trains] at the shows. They really get excited, and we hope to promote [N-tracking] among them."
The group often brings trains to a camp for burned children, in the Shenandoahs. "When they see these train layouts, they get involved in them and forget about their own problems for awhile," said Kempinski.
Since it's a diverse hobby with many facets, it holds his interest. "You're always working on something different — electronics, research, scenery, photographs," Kempinski said Monday. "Right now, I'm doing a computer-graphics logo for someone else's train."
Mark Franke of Chantilly's Poplar Tree Estates, has been an NTRAK member since 1996. He says the local organization is "a great group of people getting together to share a hobby — which is more fun than doing it by yourself. There's a lot of camaraderie."
A fan of the Pennsylvania Railroad of the 19th and 20th centuries, he has several hundred replicas of its cars and locomotives and especially likes steam engines.
"There were so many steam and diesel locomotives built between the 1850s and now that there's a huge number of variations of locomotives and freight and passenger cars," said Franke.
The train cars and paraphernalia are available at hobby stores; some are found on the Internet or e-Bay. Boxcars and cabooses can cost as little as $10-$20; engines can run as high as several hundred dollars. And the Northern Virginia NTRAKers do train setups nearly every weekend.
"The layouts are on 4x2-foot sections of wood all connected together," explained Franke. "There are modules that are corners, straight [sections] or curves, but at the ends, they'll all fit together with each other.
Many people design their own modules, and various publications have patterns they can follow. However, said Franke, N-trackers make their trains as realistic as possible — painting, modifying and specially "weathering" them so they'll resemble actual working trains.
Scenery can range from a fanciful SpongeBob Squarepants environment to local landscapes to the Midwest to downtown Philadelphia. Franke favors rural Pennsylvania and Maryland scenes.
His son, 8, plays with toy trains now, but Franke plans to eventually bring him into his hobby. For Franke, the best part of the Dulles Expo show is "getting together with people who have a similar interest and sharing it with the public."
THE CONVENTION will showcase three different tracks, with some 50 different trains running at once. "This is going to be an amazing thing to see," said Franke. "There's 17,000 feet of wire connected to the electricity that makes the trains run. [And with such a gigantic layout], we figure it'll take two hours for a train to run around it."
Clint Hyde of Brookfield has worked with N-track trains since he was a kid in 1969-70. And he loves being part of the local group. "It's as much social as it is a building thing," he said.
During the show, he'll offer one- to three-hour clinics and seminars enabling people to sit with an expert and build particular things, such as a replica of the actual Fairfax Station Railroad Station. "A man from New Jersey created building kits especially for this show," he said.
Hyde says attendees will be awed and overwhelmed. "Half the expo center will be our model railroad stuff, and half will be tables where you can buy [items to make modules]," he said. "Most folks put in a lot of detail — buildings, trees, cars, roads, water — so you could spend the entire weekend looking at each one and still not see everything."
For example, said Hyde, "One [module] last time had a snow scene with a working ski lift going up the side. That was pretty nifty." He said NTRAK members often e-mail each other, asking if they've seen a particular train piece and what they think of it, and sometimes asking if they know how to put together some troublesome part.
At the show, Hyde said, "My goal is to meet a whole slew of people that I've only known via e-mail the past several years, and also introduce them to other people." He also wants to examine other people's modules and learn how their builders created them. "They're often happy to tell you about it," he said.
Actually, he's one of about 20 people on the committee that's been hard at work, the past few years, to make this show a reality. "We had to find where to do it, see how much it would cost, organize it and contact and invite people," Hyde said. But that's OK, he added: "It'll be fabulous."
For Philip and Janice Poole of Fairfax, N-tracking is something they do together. His interest began when, as a child in the 1950s, he played with Lionel trains. Then in the 1970s and '80s, he switched to HO-scale trains.
As a married couple, for their first Christmas away from home, Janice was shopping and bought a train she'd seen displayed around a Christmas tree. "Little did I know it would become a lifelong hobby," she said.
"I got interested in the smaller trains," she said. "I was into little ceramic villages at Christmastime, and his trains weren't compatible, so we decided to do N-scale trains together. Now we build them together, and it's a lot of fun. It's something we have in common."
Philip Poole even built an N-scale model of Union Station in Utica, N.Y. "Then we visited it and took lots of pictures of the area to get an idea of what's around it," said Janice Poole. "We also learned its history, which I enjoy."
In the Poole household, he constructs the tracks and purchases the trains, and she creates the little buildings, people and scenery. But it's a joint effort, with Philip Poole building landscapes, too. Actually, he said, "If you build a module from the ground up, it's a multi-skill kind of hobby involving carpentry, electricity and model-building."
"The Northern Virginia NTRAKers all have their own particular expertise," said Janice Poole. "If you don't know how to do something, they can advise you," added her husband.
When Janice Poole taught elementary school, she used their trains as a teaching tool. Philip Poole would set them up in her classroom, and she'd use them to teach her students electricity, literature and Virginia history. "It's a really fascinating hobby," she said.
The Pooles' module for the show has a station/city theme. "We started building it in early March, but you're always changing something," said Philip Poole. "It's a continuing learning process."
Brendel, who's one of the club's charter members, is bringing his Shenandoah Junction module, which has a West Virginia mountains look. He's also proud to belong to the local group because of its charitable work.
"Northern Virginia NTRAK is a frequent donor to Fairfax Hospital for Children, and we've done train layouts in their children's cancer area," he said. "One of our members even created a small N-scale layout that fits over one of the hospital's emergency 'crash carts' — which allows kids to play with a train while they're in bed. It's one of the things we do to give back to the community."