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At this model train show, the visitors power the locomotives

After missing its annual open house last year because of the pandemic, the West Island Model Railroad Club, just in time for the holidays, is preparing to open its highly detailed miniature universe to the public for several days come Thanksgiving weekend. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

There are about nine model train clubs on Long Island, but apparently only the West Island Model Railroad Club in Hicksville allows visitors to run its trains at open houses. And at this year’s upcoming open-house weekends, those who visit will have a lot more track to do it on.

While some clubs have installed buttons that members of the public can press to operate accessories, visitors at West Island open houses — even young children accompanied by a parent and supervised by a club member — are given handheld remote controllers. They are allowed to run one of the up to 20 HO-scale trains around the huge layout, which has about 900 feet of track. (HO scale is 1/87 of the size of a real train and is smaller than the O-scale trains popularized by Lionel.) About a third of the track is on a new upper level completed for operation this year with newly created scenes in time for the three weekends beginning Thanksgiving weekend. (See box)

West Island, which turns 75 next year, allows visitors to see and run trains in the 5,600-square-foot basement of the Broadway Business Center only on those three weekends.

"The public has an opportunity to come down and run some of our trains," said club president Ben Lederer, 21, of Brentwood. "With some young people, they crank down on the throttle because they want to see them go fast. But we always have a club member with them.

"We’ve had no major issues," he said.

Lederer added that being allowed to run a train when he was 15 spurred him to join the club where his father, Rick, 67, also of Brentwood and a former club board member who serves as publicity chairman, had already signed up.

The club sees the open houses, canceled last year because of the pandemic, as its primary recruiting tool to attract new blood — like Ben Lederer — as well as income that’s put back into the layout.

"The members get a great kick out of interacting with the public. They are proud to show off what they’ve done and their trains," Rick Lederer said. "It’s a good way to interest the public in model railroading and get to them to join."

When West Island meets on the second Friday evening of the month, the two-room basement becomes a busy and noisy place. Members who aren’t running trains in one large cavernous room gather in an adjacent workroom to tinker or just to schmooze.

Attention to detail

The layout comprises multiple S-curved sections. Two walls are lined with containers stuffed with miniature landscaping material and multi-drawer rolling mechanics tool cabinets filled with members’ trains.

The layout depicts the fictional Allegheny & Western Railroad running from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to New York Harbor in the 1950s and ’60s. It is based on a combination of real but defunct railroads, including the Jersey Central and Lehigh Valley, that operated in the region, and the landscaping and buildings are modeled after real scenes. Photographs are tacked to the walls to help the craftsmen replicate the images. Much of the rolling stock has been custom-painted, some in the black-and-yellow color scheme of the Allegheny & Western.

The club has been building the layout in Hicksville since 2008, when it moved from Farmingdale because of building code issues in its former space.

New on the lower level this year are the station and surrounding buildings at Bayonne, New Jersey; a baseball field in Reading, Pennsylvania; and the Phillipsburg Mountain Tunnel in New Jersey.

Besides the new upper-level track, visitors can see whole new cities on that level such as Allentown and Lehighton, Pennsylvania, and new scenes such as a tunnel in Pattenburg, New Jersey.

The scenery still needs to be completed on areas of the original lower section of the layout, such as Hershey and Reading, Pennsylvania, and much of the new upper section, including Scranton, Pennsylvania, and upstate Warwick and Maybrook.

Ben Lederer, who is studying mechanical engineering at Farmingdale State College while working full time at a powder-coating shop, estimates the structures and landscaping are slightly more than half completed.

"For me, I don’t want it to be done," he said, explaining that building the layout is half the fun and he doesn’t want to get to a situation where he has to say, "Now what?"

The double-track lower-level mainline is about 600 feet long. The upper level of about 300 feet of track, which represents a north-south branch line off the main lower east-west line, was completed in July after the club resumed meeting following the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

The layout runs like a real railroad with "blocks," or separate track sections, controlled by working signals.

"When a train goes through a block, the signals will automatically change to red, causing the train behind it to stop," explained Rick Lederer, who works for a window manufacturer in Brentwood. The system, as in the real world, is designed to prevent collisions.

Though, Rick admitted, "We have collisions."

Mimicking real life

Pockets on the edge of the layout at every rail storage yard contain a "waybill" card for each of the approximately 500 freight cars pulled by more than 100 engines so that club members can assemble trains, sending each car to the proper destination determined in advance by a committee, mimicking the operation of a real freight railroad. It takes more than 20 members to run everything on the layout this way.

Most of the scenery is constructed from sheets of plastic foam that are cut and shaped, then covered with custom-mixed landscaping "goop," Rick explained. The "goop" is a mixture of white glue, potting soil, papier-mâché membrane and Lysol — to kill bacteria in the potting soil. It creates a "mud" that is slathered over the plastic foam to simulate dirt.

"We make all of our own trees," he added.

"A lot of the structures are scratch-built," or fully handmade, "and a lot of it is kit-bashing" — combining pieces from various kits into a custom structure — Rick explained.

Pausing by the area where downtown Allentown, Pennsylvania, is being re-created, Rick said, "This is going to be a showpiece. The buildings are very true to the era.

"Take a good close look inside the station," he urged, to see where a train announcement board in miniature lists departures and arrivals.

The highly detailed station building was started by a former member and completed by Alan Alcabes, 80, a retired auto salesman from Port Washington who is the club's structures and scenery expert. Because he did not want to ruin the preliminary work, he added details to the interior through the bottom "so it was like building a ship in a bottle." He built modular vignettes (such as the waiting-room seating area) and installed them individually.

The rest of downtown Allentown was scratch-built or kit-bashed by Alcabes and other members. Alcabes spent more than six months kit-bashing the impressive five-story Hess department store to the left of the station. Al Winter, the club’s scenery chairman, made the streets and bridges; lighting was done by Rich Valente; and Frank Dellamura 3D-printed the city’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.

There are details throughout the layout that reward the careful observer. For example, one scene along the canal in Allentown depicts thugs removing a body from a trunk for underwater disposal.

Most cars, buses and trucks on the roads have working LED headlights, while buildings and cabooses have LED illumination installed by club lighting expert Valente of Locust Valley, 79, a retired LIU Post psychology professor who has been a club member for 35 years.

"It was something I liked to do on my own HO layout — when I had one until I moved," Valente said. "This is all I need. It keeps me quite busy."

'It's an art form'

The club has more than 65 members and welcomes new ones. Like Valente, most had model trains as a child and got back into the hobby again later; some are retired Long Island Rail Road employees. The club had several female members before the coronavirus pandemic, but they have not returned.

"I was introduced to trains by my father, who had a Lionel set in the basement," Rick Lederer said. He got his own HO set when he was about 7. Then when the smaller N-scale emerged in the late 1960s, "that caught my eye." When his oldest son was born, he switched back to HO because the N trains were too small for the child to run. He still has an HO layout at home.

What attracts members to the club?

"For me, it’s decompressing," Lederer said. "You come down here and enter your own world, working on things by hand and figuring out how to do something. I enjoy doing the wiring. And I just find running the trains very relaxing."

For his son Ben, the primary attraction is being part of a group.

"It’s nice to know that you’re part of something, an organization where you’re all working towards a similar goal," he said. "It’s not just running trains. It’s carpentry, wiring, electronics, coding. It’s an art form."

Alcabes said his father bought him a postwar S-scale (bigger than HO and smaller than O-scale) American Flyer set for the holidays when he was 5.

"And I still have the set," Alcabes said.

He grew up near the LIRR tracks in Forest Hills, Queens, "and that was my show every day, including the end of steam." He drifted away from the trains because of the demands of career and family, but then got into serious modeling in the early 1990s.

Al Kaiser, 78, of Wantagh, a former club president and LIRR conductor, said "When I retired in 1993, my wife said, ‘Find something to do.’ I joined two years later.

"I really have a lot of fun down here," said Kaiser.

His specialty is making buildings and creating scenery. "I’m not crazy on running trains," Kaiser said.

Joe Lynch, 74, of East Meadow, a retired LIRR locomotive engineer, has been a club member for about a dozen years after having been recruited by Alcabes.

"I said ‘I worked for the railroad for 33 years and I’m going to join a model railroad club?’ But one day I came down and got hooked," he said.

Lynch never had trains at home but now he has about 85 engines and cars. "I don’t have the patience to do scenery," he said.

At the club, "I just like to run my trains and get yelled at for going too fast and not abiding by the rules. You really can’t do that on the real deal [LIRR]."

Mark Sullivan, 65, of West Hempstead, a retired transportation consultant and former chief mechanical officer for the LIRR, joined about 15 years ago when he was recruited by longtime friend Victor Grappone, 65, the club’s signals and control-panel expert. Sullivan grew up with Lionel and then HO trains and still has a collection of the smaller-scale trains but no layout at home.

"I don’t do much here except run trains," he said.

Sullivan volunteered that he owns "a lot" of trains.

Asked how many, he replied that "I want to stay married so I’m not going to tell you."

WHAT West Island Model Railroad Club Open House

WHEN Nov. 26-28 and Dec. 3-5 and 10-12; 7-9:30 p.m. Friday and 1-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, except Nov. 26, when hours are 2-9:30 p.m.

WHERE Basement of 485 S. Broadway, Unit 22A, Hicksville

INFO Suggested donation, $5 per person, $12 per family; club membership is $40 a month; westislandmodelrailroadclub.com, 516-433-6600

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the dues for club membership; dues are $40 per month.

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