Working on the Railroads, in Miniature

Most of us are not titans of industry. We cannot buy a railroad, or decide when the trains run.

In miniature, though, we can. We can move mountains — and build new mountains out of mesh and plaster, cut a tunnel, and lay the track for trains that carry raw materials destined for distant cities.

The hobby may be hidden in basements and little-known clubs, but hundreds of thousands of people across the country build and run model trains.

“It’s kind of a little fantasy of building your own empire in HO scale,” said train enthusiast Jack Foley, 57, of Scituate.  

The National Model Railroad Association has 20,000 members around the world, and those members represent a mere 10 percent, roughly, of the people who participate in model railroading, according to Diane Shaffner, an assistant at the association’s library in Chattanooga, Tenn. When the group started in 1935, it established the standard gauges we know today, so an N-scale train from Chattanooga can run on an N-scale track in Boston or anywhere else.

Foley is president of the South Shore Model Railway Club, tucked into a discreet but cavernous clubhouse in Hingham. He had trains as a child, but set the hobby aside until his wife gave him an HO train (the most popular size) for Christmas about 18 years ago.

He dove right in. “It meant so much to my quality of life,” he said.

The 65-member club, operating continuously since its founding in Quincy in 1938, boasts a train layout of 2,000 square feet and growing, with plenty of room to expand.

Another club south of Boston, the Old Colony Model Railroad Club in Raynham, started in 1997 and has 18 members, according to club treasurer Dennis Ingalls.

On a recent Wednesday evening at the Hingham club, members were doing what they do: building tracks and scenery.

The layout is extremely detailed. Step inside, and you fall under its spell. Trains emerge from tunnels cut through hills. They snake behind industrial buildings, negotiate curves, and pass a farm on their way to the next town. If they travel far enough, they’ll reach Richmond Station and G. McDuff’s Lumber Yard, or a big, multi-track freight yard.

In a wood shop off the main room, Doug Buchanan, 68, of Rockland, cut wooden track beds on a band saw. He made closely spaced notches on one side, allowing the wood to bend for curved tracks. Onto those tracks, members lay individual matchstick-like ties.

Chip Mullen of Abington wore a magnifier over his eyes as he pushed tiny, L-shaped spikes into the wood to create the look of real spikes holding down the ties. Not far away, William Garvey, a retired Marine, dropped fine stone from a plastic spoon between the ties.