Rail model group puts on a show

Published 10:39 am Monday, August 1, 2016

Come for the bells and whistles, keep clear of the tracks, look at the scenery in detail, and admire the trains as they pass. If someone yells, “All aboard!” however, just don’t hop on the trains. They’re no more than five inches tall.

The East Texas and Gulf Rail Modelers Association came to the Port Arthur Public Library on Friday and Saturday to display several of their model trains, dioramas, and scores of train tracks to the public. It was a resounding success in the eyes of some of their youngest enthusiasts.

“I love trains!” Ranger Higginbotham, 3, said, as he admired the miniature trains chugging past him.

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“My husband saw it being advertised and they love trains,” said Anita Thibodeaux, as she watched the trains.

“[Ranger’s] favorite movie is ‘Polar Express’. He watches it all the time. It’s a good thing I like it, too,” Thibodeaux laughed, indicating Ranger.

It would be the kind of enthusiasm that Les McMahan likes to encourage.

“I like to see wide eyes,” said longtime Association member McMahan. “A lot of people come in and ask questions. It’s an introduction to model railroads [for them].”

McMahan has been a member of the ET&G since its inception in 2001, but if you ask him, his real interest began over 50 years ago.

“I was in college in ’66 and a friend said, ‘Hey, if you’re interested, I have something you need to see’.”

What McMahan had to see was a Lionel train set being set up in an adjoining room; and, when he saw that model train running, he knew “that I had the [train] bug.”

In 1968, he bought his first HO scale model train set — which is the type of models that the ET&G uses for their shows — and, as McMahan would say, “I’ve been in it ever since.”

The Association has seen its membership grow over its 15-year history, with members coming from all across the Golden Triangle area to participate in the three to four shows that they put on a year. Some train enthusiasts even come from outside the area to join in the festivities.

“I came here because I wanted to run some trains,” Mark Couvillion said.

Couvillion is a member of the San Jacinto Model Rails club in Houston and is a self-described “quasi-member” of the ET&G, with which he has friends in. He has been a fan of trains for quite some time.

“My mom says from when I was one year old,” Couvillion said. “We used to live near an engine facility and I used to stand on my tippy toes looking at trains all day.”

According to Couvillion, the appeal of model trains is manifold.

“There are so many aspects to the hobby that everyone has their focus — electronics, set and design, operators, woodworking, research… There’s a lot of sophistication to it. It’s not just toys.”

Along with that sophistication, however, does come a price tag.

“For a beginner level, a good train set will run you around $200,” McMahan said. “An average four by eight layout [and everything on it] will run you around $600.”

The standard layout would include such items like the tracks, the plywood to build upon, the basic diorama, and the train itself.

“You can spend $100 on a cheap set, but for a good quality train, it can be several hundred dollars,” Couvillion said. “There are many aspects, so many different things to do — it’s not just running trains.”

But as McMahan would agree, you invest only as much as you’d like. There is no minimum or maximum spending cap on the hobby. You can build your own or just admire from afar. You can even share.

“I share one with a guy in Kingwood,” Couvillion said. “I just don’t have the room for it.”

Access to the Internet has also made the model train hobby as easy to get into as ever before. McMahan mentioned finding some good deals on sites like EBay, as well as in hobby stores like Papa Ben’s Train Place in Houston.

When it comes to trains, though, it would still seem to be about the innate joy that such a hobby brings out in its enthusiasts.

“Little kids look like they’re in a toy store when they come in here,” McMahan said. “It’s their introduction to railroads.

“You hope that a seed gets planted for later on down the line. [And] it’s an inspiration for adults to do better.”