Tri-City Model Railroaders seek permanent site so they can expand display

Geoff Folsom, Herald staff writerFebruary 9, 2014 

— The model railroad in John Decker’s converted garage rumbles from Westport to Chehalis, tunnels into a mountain and even passes through a tiny hole in the wall from one room to another.

He has about 150 cars to go with the 600-square-foot model, which he has been tinkering with for 40 years. He’s still not finished.

Decker, 69, began building model trains in sixth grade.

“I’ve never stopped,” he said. “I even built the models when I was in college in the dorms.”

Decker’s dream is to build a much larger model with his fellow Tri-City Model Railroaders.

The nonprofit group has been without a permanent site to display its trains since 2004, when the city of Richland demolished its clubhouse at the intersection of Columbia Park Trail and Columbia Center Boulevard to build a Lewis and Clark overlook.

The 30-member group meets monthly and gives clinics on the building and upkeep of model railroads. It sets up temporary displays at events like the Family Expo in Pasco and the Christmas lighted boat parade in Richland.

They’ve approached the cities of Kennewick and Richland, as well as the Port of Kennewick, about a building where the public could see an extensive model train set. They hope an entity could donate land or an existing facility.

“Everyone’s shown an interest in the idea, the problem is everyone says you’re not in our 20-year plan,” Decker said. Club president Bob Jekel said they talked with developers of the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center about setting up a model train in the basement, but the group was left out in the cold when the decision was made to downsize the project.

“We were one of the very first things eliminated,” Jekel said.

They also talked with the city of Richland about moving into the Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology after the museum closes, but officials told Jekel they plan to demolish the building, he said.

The club has set up temporary displays at CREHST, helping increase attendance at the museum by 30 percent on those days, Jekel said.

They want to build a 3,000-square-foot train set, with more than 400 feet of track. It would take people on a virtual journey from Pasco to Ellensburg, with stops along the way in Kennewick, Sunnyside and Yakima. The club has already built models of the Columbia River railroad bridge between Pasco and Kennewick, the Yakima rail depot and a Columbia River barge.

The railroad would cost about $30,000 and a building another $100,000, Decker said. The club has saved between $60,000 and $70,000, and is seeking donations for the remainder.

The model could take three to five years to assemble, Jekel said. But he hopes to open it to the public after one year so people can see the progress.

The club is seeking a lease of between 25 and 40 years for a facility, Jekel said. They would like to see the building go in a public park. They are also willing to partner with a private business.

Decker sees the Carousel of Dreams project in Southridge as an example of the kind of partnership they’d like to have with a city.

The model railroaders are not the only train-related club looking for a permanent place to set up shop. The Washington State Railroads Historical Society, which wants to display actual train cars, has been without a home since the city of Pasco forced it out of its downtown building to make way for a proposed Lewis Street overpass last spring.

“Gosh, neither one of us has a home,” Decker said. “They’re hunting for a permanent place and so are we.”

The two groups have worked together at times, with discussions about the model railroaders taking half of a building and the railroad historical society taking the other, said historical society member Mike Huntington. But they have so far been unable to come up with a building.

“It seems like everything we start gets shot down,” Huntington said. Decker started working on his personal train set when he lived in Pasco and took it with him when he moved to Kennewick.

He is still building and painting the miniature buildings that run along the track. He even keeps schedules of when the trains run, just like on a real railroad.

Most of the members of the model railroad group are around Decker’s age, he said. He would like for the planned display to pass his love of the hobby to younger generations.

Decker’s enjoyment of model trains helped lead him to a career as an electrical engineer with Battelle, he said. With a need for young people to become engineers, he sees it as a great way to get them interested.

The trains that run along his tracks are controlled by radio, but he said an iPhone app can also be used.

“It teaches a lot of things — group cooperation, how to build things with your hands, how to think,” he said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie in the club.”

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