For the love of the train

Curtis Chan
April 16, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The path to the Penn State Model Railroad Club’s home in the basement of Pinchot Hall may be a labyrinth to navigate, but the route is nowhere as complex as the group’s gigantic HO-scale layout.

Encompassing more than 1,100 square feet beneath the East Halls dormitory, the Model Railroad Club’s massive layout employs more than 2,200 linear feet of track — approximately four-tenths of a mile — and 400 square feet of benchwork.

The public will get an opportunity to view the giant train set at the club’s open house from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 18 and 19 in Pinchot Hall.

It’s that timeless interest in trains that not only draws people to the group’s open houses but also to join.

That’s how the club’s current president, William Chittester, got involved. “It’s always been an interest of mine since I was young. I remember visiting with my parents before a Blue-White Game before I applied to Penn State,” the geography junior said.

Chittester said the club meets about three times a week, using the time to discuss proposed changes or upgrades to the main layout, to maintain and repair sections of the giant model, to craft new pieces or to simply talk about their shared love of trains.

But the group’s activities aren’t restricted to the indoors. Eric Garis, a mechanical engineering sophomore, said the club will often take field trips throughout the region. “We’ll take tours and chase real trains,” he said.

According to the club’s website, the group was founded in 1955 and was originally headquartered in Room 19 of the then newly constructed Hetzel Union Building. During the HUB’s 1997 renovation, the club moved out of the student union, eventually finding a larger home in the basement of Pinchot Hall.

Since the current layout’s initial completion in 2004, club members — who include faculty, staff, students, alumni and locals from the community — have tweaked and fine-tuned the setup to incorporate individual passions and tastes.

Bridges, miniature mountains, a quarry, villages, trees and a giant railroad yard for sorting trains and servicing locomotives are among the scenes in the layout.

John Balogh, one of the two club co-advisers and a senior systems engineer with Information Technology Services, said the group allows members to channel their interests and expertise into the train’s layout.

Balogh pointed out the tiny streetlights adorning one scene along the tracks. “Those LED lights were built by a member who’s an electrical engineering student. He does a lot of the wiring and electronic features because that’s what he’s really interested in.”

And though some of the layout features off-the-shelf parts, Balogh said many of the most unique pieces are crafted by members — often with a sense of humor.

He pointed to a steel mill that featured a slab of steel that glowed burnt orange. “That’s something that you simply can’t buy in a store anywhere.”

Members have added a farm, whistle stop community, lumbering town, brewery and even Washington, D.C.’s Union Station over the years.

Along the 2,200 feet of track, visitors will find a replica of the Hershey’s chocolate factory — complete with the facility’s signature smokestacks, “Hershey Cocoa” shrubbery and even a chocolate spill out the window. “That one was built by someone who had worked at Hershey’s for a number of years, so he knew that factory pretty well.”

Discerning visitors will also find a miniature Nittany Lion Shrine, two police officers arguing over an automobile accident and aliens integrated into the scenes.

“We tell children that there’s even a Waldo in there somewhere, and that he can see you,” Balogh said. “But they need to find Waldo themselves.”

For people interested in attending the club's free open house, club members will escort visitors from the main outside door to the basement club area. For escort, visitors can call 7-1361 from the phone by the primary outside door of Pinchot Hall or use a cellphone at the door to call 814-867-1361.

For more information, contact, co-adviser Balogh at or visit

Last Updated April 16, 2015