On the Right Track … with the Schuylkill Valley Model Railroad Club

If You Go

Schuylkill Valley Model Railroad Club is located at 400 S. Main St., Phoenixville, PA 19460.

Open houses: Jan. 11-12, 18-19 & 25-26.

A hiss of steam, then a loud whistle blast, shatters the calm as the locomotive prepares to depart from the station. A set of orders from the dispatcher is given to the engineer and the last of the passengers quickly get aboard.

Then responding to a set of signals, the engine comes to life and begins to move down the track, pulling along the cars from behind. After the train leaves the station to begin its westbound journey it starts to pick up speed as it chugs along on a path of shining rails.

Suddenly an eastbound train with a long assortment of freight cars appears from around a bend and soon swishes by to quickly disappear into the distance. As the train continues to travel along its course, it passes by many homes, businesses and industries until the urban scenery begins to fade into a more serene and rural landscape.

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Then twisting and turning as it snakes along the course of the valley, the train heads west into the mountains of Pennsylvania.

This could easily be a depiction of one of the great local railroads of yesterday like the Reading or Pennsylvania in action. In actuality it’s a scene from a miniature railroad empire in operation — the Schuylkill Valley Model Railroad Club; but both the thrill and suspense are still the same.

Just like the real thing, there is excitement for kids of all ages in watching a model railroad layout in operation. You become totally engrossed as you view the model trains speeding along the tracks, winding around curves and passing through tunnels on tree-lined mountains.

With realistic sound effects and plenty of buttons for visitors to push, it doesn’t take much of a stretch to be convinced that this miniature world is a real functioning railroad moving both freight and passengers between small towns and cities.

The Schuylkill Valley Model Railroad Club, located in the heart of Phoenixville Pa., like many similar clubs, strives to keep the classic hobby of model railroading alive in the 21st century. The club opens its doors once again to the general public for its annual open house. The open house ran from the last weekend of November 2013 to the first weekend in December. The club will be open again to the public the last three weekends in January 2014. All visitors are welcome — from the avid model railroad buff to the novice alike.

Although for the serious model railroader this is a year-round hobby, there is something special about model trains and the winter season that seem to go together especially well during the holidays. Many people seem to identify with this and many of the clubs are usually filled with crowds eager to see the various layouts at this time of the year.

The Schuylkill Valley layout is an impressive 1,000 square feet with 700 feet of track. The layout depicts both urban and rural scenery in explicit detail. The layout is a true feast for the eyes, with numerous features to observe that include hundreds of scale buildings, many built from scratch, as well as trees, mountains, bridges, people, vehicles, locomotives and freight and passenger cars. Like many other model railroad clubs, the Schuylkill Valley has its own theme, which replicates as much as possible the operations of the Reading and Pennsylvania railroads in and around the Schuylkill Valley in the steam-to-diesel transition era in the 1950s.

On the layout, the trains travel from the urban yards of Philadelphia to Reading and back. The club members run their layout virtually like a real railroad, with a yardmaster and various operators controlling the many trains and communicating with each other by radio headsets and by phone system.

The Schuylkill Valley Model Railroad Club was originally founded by Jerry Powell and Bill Civitello in 1968. The group at first met informally at each other’s homes with layouts galore to share and discussed their common interest in the hobby.

Then from 1969 through 1972 the founders, along with several new members, planned and constructed a layout in the basement of an insurance company. This location did not work out as expected and in 1972 the club moved to its current location at 400 S. Main St. in Phoenixville.

The club has successfully grown through the years from its modest beginnings to a membership that averages around 21 members a year. The members are from a wide range of professions and various walks of life.

Many of the club members have their own specialty or particular points of interest. Some specialize in the trains themselves while others focus on the scenery or the model building, and others enjoy working on the electrical aspects that make it all function. The organization has stated that it’s this diversity that has enabled it to create the layout with the modeling results that people observe when they come for a visit.

All the members very friendly and helpful and will answer any questions and discuss any aspect of the layout or the hobby in general. Meetings are usually held every Tuesday night and operations are conducted on Sundays. The club is always eager to welcome new members.

Many of the visitors, including me are regulars who attend the open house every year. There is so much incredible detail to look at that there is always something new to see that you might have missed on a previous visit.

It is important to remember that these are not toy trains by any means but highly detailed model trains that are in HO scale or 1:87 scale, meaning they are 1/87th times smaller than the real thing.

Model railroading comes in a variety of scales, including N, O, S and Z, to name but a few, with HO scale being the most popular. Some of these model trains, especially the locomotives from the better manufacturers, can be very expensive, often exceeding $100.

The concept of a model railroad is not to just run trains around in a circle but to try to accurately re-create in a specific scale a realistic replica of the real thing. Unlike a lot of today’s video and computer games, model railroading is a true hands-on hobby. The hobby involves not only the trains themselves but model building, arts and crafts, wood-working, using hand tools and power tools and an understanding of basic electrical work.

However, the most important aspect of this classic hobby is to have fun and let your imagination run wild!