The little student organization that could

The Railroad Club gives members a chance to explore childhood hobbies in grown-up ways.

When trains and railroads come to mind, one might remember a Christmas morning train set or reminisce about episodes of the animated PBS show, “Thomas & Friends.”

For some students at the University, that childhood passion never went away.

The Railroad Club is dedicated to building a large model railroad layout, re-created based on an actual route built in the 1950s.

The layout is modeled after the Upper Midwest Transportation Corporation route, which runs through Chicago, Wisconsin, the Twin Cities and into Canada.

The students, along with faculty advisers and alumni, have been working together on the project since 2003.

The group was originally started in 2001 when engineering students collaborated with faculty adviser and biology professor Bob Sterner to help formulate plans for the layout.

When they got a room in the basement of 1701 University, the structure started coming together – it now stands about 5 feet tall and takes up half the room’s area.

Club president Ron Miller, a marketing senior, said the group hosts shows and tours of the models, but also builds it to run like a prototype of a real railroad.

He said people don’t always realize how much work goes into building the layout – from design and painting, to the electrical wiring and computer chips embedded in the models.

“Some people think it’s all engineering students watching a train going around in a circle,” he said.

David Bayer, a computer engineering senior, said it’s more than “sitting around playing with trains all the time like little kids.” He said there is new technology used all the time.

“It’s the kind of thing I get into a lot,” Bayer said. “It actually evolved from when I was a kid. It’s all computers now.”

Another stereotype that vice president Davidson Ward has noticed is people thinking they’re all “socially inept dorks.”

“We’re not standing around looking at trains, talking about trains,” Ward said. “We’re usually standing around looking at trains talking about current events or politics.”

Bayer, who transferred here from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse a couple years ago, said he got interesting responses from friends when he told them he was involved in the club.

“They just give you a lot of junk about it,” he said.

Most members’ interest in trains goes back to a childhood memory.

Miller said he initially gained an interest in railroads from his family.

“My grandpa was a railroad detective in Milwaukee, so we always heard interesting stories,” Miller said. “Building model trains was a good way to connect with the family.”

Ward remembers vividly the first time his grandparents took him to see a steam locomotive at a transportation museum in Tennessee.

“I was 2, just about to turn 3, and I still remember it today,” Ward said. “There’s something about seeing that living machine that really captivated me and ever since then I’ve loved trains.”

Ward said he grew up watching “Thomas & Friends,” with Thomas the Tank Engine, and got more involved as he got older.

Now, he volunteers locally on a real steam locomotive.

“I really like doing that even more than model trains,” he said.

Ward said he sometimes forgets how large and powerful the real trains are.

“They’re some of the most powerful things that move around the land in the world,” he said. “When they go by, the ground shakes and the noise sort of stops your heart for a second if you’re standing right there.”

Miller said the variety of students, faculty and alumni provides a relaxed atmosphere and a well-rounded learning environment.

“It’s a stress reliever,” he said. “You just come down, we turn on some music, have a pop, shoot the breeze. We’re all working on different projects, but we’re not thinking about the test the next day, or the paper we just wrote.”

Ward, an architecture sophomore, said even though he builds models all day for school, being able to put something together that moves and powers itself is gratifying.

“You can sort of lose yourself in what you do,” he said.

Bayer said he’d like to stay involved with the club, even when he graduates in May.

“There’s still a lot of work to do and it’s hard to walk away without having it done,” he said.