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admin 13.08.2014

Though it’s located just a short drive from the company that launched SimCity and Spore, the Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society has stuck by these venerable techniques and still makes believe the old-fashioned way. The society’s control systems are a steampunk fantasy: a roomful of vintage 1930s magnetic relays once used to route phone calls, clacking like mechanical dominoes with every move the amateur engineers make. The layout for the Diablo Valley Lines — the members’ imaginary railroad company — is 54 feet by 32 feet. The society’s headquarters sits in a public park about a mile from the nearest full-sized train in the area — a drab regional people-mover that looks like it was created specifically to purge all romance from rail travel.
Resembling the backdrop for an Office Space sequel, the location might make a casual visitor wonder if he were in the right place, until he sees the yellow sandwich board emblazoned with the Monopoly-esque silhouette of a steam engine. Society member Ken Bechtle traces his affinity for the railroad to a childhood fascination. Nearly a mile of track winds through the layout’s miniature landscapes and tiny towns, featuring replicas of a wide variety of structures and scenery. Because they were in a hurry to get the setup presentable to the public, a lot of the scenery that was put out in the early days of the club is still on the Diablo Valley Line. The layout dominates the main room of the two-story clubhouse that society members purpose-built back in 1972. With its high ceilings, windowless walls and spot lighting, the inside of the building feels a bit like a truncated sports arena. One side is overlooked by a utilitarian press box filled with engineers, each controlling a single locomotive, while on the opposite wall a giant schematic of the rail lines, complete with a scoreboard-style lighting system, indicates the location and direction of each active train.

From a darkened dugout on the main floor, a dispatcher routes the traffic through the 400-plus switches and turnouts of the Diablo Valley Lines.
Bechtle (not pictured) worked for the phone company back when magnetic relays were still used to route phone calls, and he rigged the relays for model trains and bundled masses of wire complicated enough to induce a headache on sight. A less detail-oriented type would probably go mad keeping track of thickets of wire so tangled they look almost comical, but Bechtle clearly relishes his role as the man behind the scenes of a complex project.
All members of the crew communicate via headsets of the kind favored by NFL coaches, and most are clad in denim work shirts embroidered with a logo for the Diablo Valley Lines.
The gray-haired hobbyists focus on the tasks at hand, immersing themselves in their railroad roles and tuning out the parents and kids looking on.
The result is a giant, live-action role-playing game where the players invent passenger routes with elaborate timetables and plot delivery schedules for imaginary freight cargoes. Trying to coax a train operator into conversation as he runs his route evokes the disdain you’d get for asking a Dungeon Master about his day job: a wince, a wave of the hand, then a look of concentration as he forces his way back into the realm of imagination. To fully staff the Diablo Valley Lines and keep things running smoothly, the club needs 25 members.
The club has designed a lighting and sound system that cycles through all hours of the day, including a lightning storm that strikes in the middle of the night. The trains, buildings and scenery on the layout are all in HO scale, with a ratio of 1:87 to  their real-world counterparts. It is no surprise that Spacewar, often described as the world’s first computer game, was the handiwork of members of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club who were devotees of the most elaborate fantasy world available in the analog era.

In the analog world, such parallel realities were built with tweezers, glue and a spouse’s permission to cover the basement with papier-mache massifs and plywood plains. Members operate one of the largest, exclusively HO scale train lines in the United States and have conducted at their current location since 1974. A full complement of 30 members can run 10 individual trains simultaneously on the layout, though only a dozen or so are required for basic operation.
The highest point is equivalent to a 1,350-foot mountain, bolstering the society’s claim that its layout has the greatest elevation of any in the country. In some ways the rise of computer games, which allow users to instantly enter an alternate reality, has challenged the relevance of model railroading. If you count all the engines the club owns and all the ones owned by members, they could pull 1,000 separate trains. No one is sure how long it took to put together the landscape and the models that populate it, though society members playfully suggest a figure of about a million hours. Yet for the members of the Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society, escapism is best when built by hand.

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