Life in miniature: Model Railroad Club uses IT to create miniature world

As a train screeches to a halt at the Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, station, William Chittester’s eyes widen as he looks up at his grandfather beside him. In an instant, the once-quiet station comes to life as arriving passengers shuffle onto the platform and those departing hurriedly take their places aboard the locomotive.

The conductor emerges, bellows out a final call and gives the engineer a wave of approval before returning to his place aboard the train. With the shriek of a whistle, the engines gradually start to roll the train ahead until it’s eventually barreling toward its next destination.

For Chittester, a senior majoring in geography at Penn State, these moments from his childhood aren’t just fond memories spent with his grandfather, they’re also a precursor to his current role as president of the Penn State Model Railroad Club at University Park. 

Operating since 1955, the club meets twice a week in the basement of Pinchot Hall (a residence hall on the northeastern side of campus) to maintain a layout of tracks taking up nearly an entire 1,200-square-foot room with well over 50 locomotives and approximately 1,000 train cars.

The expansive setup features several built-to-scale scenes, including a miniaturized rock quarry, Hershey’s chocolate factory, a bus depot and even a 3-D-printed Nittany Lion Shrine. But maintaining these lifelike miniatures isn’t an easy task — it requires finesse, ingenuity and the help of technology.

Using the systems Digital Command Control (DCC) and Java Model Railroad Interface (JMRI), club members have nearly unlimited control over every aspect of each locomotive, trackwork and signal.
   
DCC works by sending packets of information from wired and wireless handheld devices to a centralized command station that communicates through the track to each train.
    
“With our handheld controllers, we’ll send information to the command station, which then sends it over the tracks,” Chittester said. “Each locomotive on the layout has its own microprocessor that receives the information, and based on what the command station tells it to do, the train will perform that task.”

For example, as an engine picks up speed down a long stretch of track, Chittester wirelessly conducts the locomotive with a few button presses and knob turns on the handheld controller. While the train approaches a tunnel, Chittester turns on the lights, sounds the whistle and activates the familiar chugga-chugga noise of an accelerating train.

In addition to using DCC, club members can also control the layout with their smartphones thanks to the JMRI software. JMRI, which Chittester helped modify to fit the track layout, allows the entire track system to be viewed on a PC in the club’s workshop or through an application on club members’ smartphones, an advancement that greatly reduces equipment costs.

“Now, we don’t have to buy these $200 handheld devices,” said John Balogh, an adviser for the club and a senior systems engineer with Telecommunications and Networking Services in Penn State’s Information Technology Services. “Every member has their own handheld controller in their pocket, assuming they have a smartphone, and all they have to do is download a free app.”

Aside from being able to control the layout, technology also helps members create the most realistic scenes possible. To make the conveyor belt in the rock quarry scene mimic what would be found in real life, a former club member painted and wired a series of small, surface mount LED lights along the length of the conveyor.

And the club is always pushing the boundaries of their imagination and technology. To create a more realistic signaling system on the tracks, club members used a 3-D printer to create a dwarf signal (a smaller version of the overhead railroad signals) that’s currently not commercially available from model railroad companies.

But not all miniaturized objects can be created through technology — members also put their artistic skills to the test. To create wood panelling in the background of a scene, Chittester and his fellow club members cut coffee stirrers, stained them to look like aged wood and glued them into horizontal rows. And for the piles of scrap metal being transported down the tracks, members soaked steel wool in water to give the cargo a rusted look.

All this work is in preparation for the club’s three open houses throughout the year: one at the end of fall and spring semesters and a third during the weekend of Penn State’s Dance Marathon.

“During open houses, we’ll let the kids run some of the trains,” Chittester said. “We’ll turn on some of the large steam engines or run the Thomas the Tank Engine trains. The kids love running the stuff around, and the adults always have so many questions about what goes into the club.”

According to Balogh, aside from delighting those who come to visit the railroad, the model also holds many learning opportunities for students from diverse academic backgrounds.

“We’ve had business logistics classes in here to talk about the scheduling of freights and what happens when you go through a classification yard,” Balogh said. (A classification yard is a section of track where train cars are divided up and routed based on the cargo they’re carrying.) “Students got to see what different locomotives were required to do when they got to the yard, so it was an eye-opener for the class to see what was actually involved in these operations.”

For Balogh, working on the railroad is a job that’s constantly striving for improvement while offering a wealth of possibilities on and off the tracks.

“It’s a hobby, but it’s also a learning experience, and every four years we get a new set of young adults in here,” Balogh said. “We give them the opportunities to make mistakes that they couldn’t afford to make in the real world. Here, we can say, ‘Hey, that didn’t work, let’s try it again.’ It’s a great learning opportunity.”

The club’s next open house is set for Blue-White Weekend, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 16 and 17, on both days. For more information, visit the club’s website.

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu

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Last Updated March 29, 2016