Last Saturday I spent a few hours at a Greenberg Great Train & Toy Show, an annual event at the fairgrounds in Columbus, Ohio (and repeated throughout the year elsewhere in the country). I was reminded that, as in real life, trucks and trailers play an important transportation role in the fantasy worlds built by enthusiastic model railroaders.
Trouping through a large hall and past the displays were hundreds of people of all ages, from babies and toddlers to preteens, with moms, dads and grandparents showing their children and grandchildren this intriguing hobby. The older kids didn’t seem resentful at being pulled away from their computer games and cell phone texting. Many no doubt returned to those activities when they went home, but maybe a few will remember what they saw here and get into the hobby, now or later.
And there were older men like me, immersing themselves in nostalgia fed by memories of the boyhood hours they spent “playing with trains,” and for some, seriously modeling the real thing. I was one of those boys, and although long since pulled away by the frenetic pace of life, I still find trains of all sizes rather compelling.
There were extensive displays of model locomotives, freight and passenger cars, plus art work, all for sale at rather reasonable prices. Vendors from around the region were doing brisk business, presumably eking out a living after paying for travel from nearby states and the cost of motels and meals while on the road.
Several big layouts, assembled from small “modules” joined to form empires in several equipment scales, got well-deserved attention. My first stop was an S-gauge layout erected by a local club. There were two track networks, one for “high-rail” American Flyer trains (these are toy-like and easy for kids to handle, and are my sentimental favorite because my parents gave me a set for Christmas when I was 10). The second was S-scale, with more delicately sized track and rolling stock (built to proper proportions to closely resemble prototype track work, locomotives and cars, with dimensions measuring 1/64 of the real thing).
There and at on other layouts I zeroed in on intermodal equipment -- piggyback trailers on flatcars and containers aboard “well” cars, all destined for distant terminals where they’d be transferred to road-going mode and hauled to imaginary customers. The S-gauge layout included equipment and buildings seemingly set in the 1950s or ‘60s, with company names proper for the period. Other scenes included current intermodal-operator names like J.B. Hunt.
Then I noticed groups of trucks and tractor-trailers, positioned on miniature roads and at loading docks, suggesting they were picking up freight long-hauled in or leaving by rail – the shipping and distribution method still prevalent in those days. The speed, flexibility and security of trucking, together with the spread of the Interstate highway system, wrested away the majority of manufactured goods from the railroads. In recent years a growing amount of freight has returned to the rails via containers and “pig” trailers, though it’s still a minor fraction of total volume.
At the corner of one layout, a container train rolled past a small truck terminal. There I spotted a van trailer lettered for Pacific Fruit Express, once a big-time rail carrier of produce from the West Coast to markets in the Midwest and beyond. Always a critic, I frowned when I realized that the trailer should’ve been refrigerated, and when I identified the tractor pulling it, a Kenworth T600. I did a road test article on this pioneer aerodynamic model in 1985, when it came out, so I thought the T6 “anteater” was wrong for the earlier time period depicted in the layout.
Besides, was Pacific Fruit Express – PFE -- still in business in ‘85? Yes, said an entry on Wikipedia. Though joint ownership by the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads ended in ’79, SP retained the name. And PFE still exists as an entity after UP merged with SP in the ‘90s. But I haven’t noticed any PFE refrigerator railcars in passing trains in quite a while.
Next I paused at an O-27 (1/48-size) layout with toy-like Lionel trains circling tracks running around a town of snow-covered houses and shops made of enameled china, like you’d find around a Christmas tree. This attracted kids and their parents, who stood for unusually long periods just staring at the idealistic scene. No trucks were present, though.
Finally, I spent probably 45 minutes at an HO-scale (1/87) layout bolted together by a Dayton-area club. HO is the dominant model railroad size with virtually every type of rolling stock available, either already built (“ready to run”) or in kit form. This goes for motor vehicles (even though they don’t operate) and trackside structures, from farm houses to factories and feed mills. This layout formed a 50- or 60-foot square with probably four dozen modules, open in the center where club members chatted as they ran the electric trains.
Each module was built by an individual modeler on a 3 by 4-foot table. Thanks to international standards, each module’s tracks are positioned precisely so they link with adjacent modules. Trains can run among them, no matter how few or many modules are joined to form a layout. S-scale modeler Larry Robertson said that members of such clubs seldom have layouts at home; rather, they get together periodically to set up their modules as a layout, and run their trains that way.
One dedicated soul built several HO modules depicting a bustling 1970s town whose industries included a wood-floor mill and a paper mill. Positioned among the buildings were tractor-trailers of various vintages, most appearing correct for the time. At the flooring mill, an informational placard stated that lumber came in via flatcar, then went through several cutting, planing and sanding operations. Sawdust was conveyed to hopper cars that carry the ‘dust to other factories for other uses.
Finished products were loaded into boxcars for shipment to customers, the placard said. Yet there were three big rigs backed against a loading dock, telling me that they were the means by which most flooring really went to market. Near the rigs on the lot stood a trio of tiny drivers, shooting the bull while waiting their turns to load. That’s a timeless picture, don’t you think?
Down the line was a small filling station, with a car on an outside rack for servicing and a tanker truck whose driver was delivering gasoline to a below-ground storage tank. The truck chassis was a White 3000 cabover, something I always notice because I drove versions of that model while working my way through college in Milwaukee in the early 1960s. For a few moments I was transported to those times and the many satisfying hours I spent behind the wheel. I considered that job as important as my journalism classes at the university. And look where it took me.
Thanks for the memories, Great Train & Toy Show.
Former Senior Contributing Editor
Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978.View Bio
Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978.View Bio