TAMPA — The sweat starts to appear quickly; in splotches on a gray T-shirt, dripping off the tip of a nose. It's an overcast Friday morning, but there's no air conditioning inside the special event hall. Members of the West Pasco Model Railroad Association move efficiently, arranging four corners and numerous straight pieces into position.
At least twice a year, the 45-member group takes their modular, computer-controlled train layout on the road. It takes about four hours to arrange the 24 modules, bolt them together and connect the tracks. The result is a 40-foot by 16-foot rectangle made out of as much as 400 feet of track.
"It's one of the most perplexing, annoying and rewarding hobbies you ever wanted to be in," said club member Tom Rimos II, 73.
The group has an expansive layout at their club in New Port Richey, but the modular and portable layout gets them out into the community. This trip took them to the Florida State Fairgrounds. Bill McMacken, 73, said that they pick up a lot of new members at the shows as they talk train lovers through the mechanics of building a modular layout. He said computer-controlled layouts are getting kids interested in the hobby.
"This isn't your dad's Lionel set," McMacken said. "It's grown with the time, it's grown with the computer age, and it's relevant to today's electronics."
Digital controllers can run multiple trains on the same track. Club members also have to stay in communication with each other so that the trains don't collide, similar to a real railroad. The engines even have the same sounds as their real life counterparts.
"Part of the game is — and it's kind of brutal — is how much detail you can cram in," said club president Gene Michaux, 71.
On the club's modular layout is a tiny couple sitting near a pond with a fishing rod, an extraterrestrial first encounter and railroad crossing signs that blink with LED lights as a train passes.
"You just don't learn to run trains, or to wire them," McMacken said. "You learn to make trees, you learn to build buildings, you learn to do so many different things that go along with the hobby, that you come out of this hobby knowing a hell of a lot more than you did when you walked in."