Railroad Club promotes a ‘lifetime hobby’

The club's multiyear project is a scale railroad model that could cost $10,000.

Hayley Odom

Deep in a converted basement kitchen at 1701 University Ave. S.E., among scraps of wood, cardboard and smatterings of paint, a few University students, staff, faculty and alumni are chugging away at a hobby they are passionate about: railroading.

The Railroad Club at the University of Minnesota, a student group, dedicates its time to building model railroads, taking tours of local railroad shops and museums, and touring local model railroads.

“There’s a lot of colleges out East that have model-railroad clubs, and I thought there’s got to be people here who like trains,” said junior Andy Inserra, the club’s president.

The group, which started with four members, now boasts approximately 18 railroad enthusiasts. The club gained official status in May 2002.

Most of the members are engineering students, but other members come from a variety of majors.

“It doesn’t matter what your major is,” Inserra said. “As long as you have an interest in trains and are creative and imaginative, there’s something here for everyone.”

He said the hobby covers a multitude of facets including architecture, electrical, mechanical and civil engineering, design and historical detailing.

Bob Sterner, the club’s adviser and an ecology, evolution and behavior professor, said railroading is something he enjoys doing because it differs from biology.

“It’s a chance to build things and an entirely refreshing experience,” he said. “It’s a dimension of campus life for a student who is probably not finding recreational opportunities on campus already.”

The club is in the process of building a fictitious HO scale model they named the

Upper Midwest Transportation Corporation Railroad, whose acronym, UMTC, stands for University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. It is the biggest project for the club.

Construction of this line began in June and will continue for several years, Inserra said.

When completed, the model will be 13 feet by 13 feet, 62 inches high and will feature three levels. It will also include a major and minor peninsula.

Inserra said the project is in the first phase of completion because the group finished construction of the first level. It will start working on scenery for that level.

This week, members began construction of a helix that will allow the train to travel between all three levels.

The model’s cost is already into the thousands, and when completed, it could cost up to $10,000, Inserra said.

Because of hobby’s high costs, the club has actively pursued grants and donations, and has scavenged for materials in trash bins and other places.

“We got some of the material from Dumpster-diving (expeditions) and scrounging around,” senior Jacob Gilpin said.

The club received a $1,300 control-system donation from Digitrax, a company that sells equipment for building model railroads.

“We sent them a letter asking for a basic system and they sent us a top-of-the-line system. There was no letter, just a box. It’s pretty wild,” Inserra said.

Members spend from a couple hours a month to three or four hours a week working on the model, depending on their schedules.

“It’s really a lifetime hobby,” said Gilpin, who started his first model railroad at age 5 and is still perfecting that same model.

There is a $10 membership fee for students, $15 for faculty and staff and $20 for alumni. Overseas alumni do not pay a fee.