COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — There’s a new engineer at the controls of the model railroad system at RailsWest Railroad Museum.

The sprawling layout behind glass doors on the railroad museum’s upper level has entertained visitors for decades and has been featured in model railroad magazines, according to volunteer Eric Gonzales.

The Carter Lake Model Railroad Youth Club, a nonprofit organization, took over the model train operation from the Greater Omaha Society of Model Engineers in December, said club president Theo Hudson, whose late father, Lee, also served as president.

The club assumed the society’s debts and took ownership of its assets — primarily the rolling stock and equipment at the museum, which is located at in Council Bluffs, The Daily Nonpareil (http://bit.ly/2pTWmKO ) reported.

“For me, it is a win-win situation for the club and for the kids,” Hudson said. “It shows the kids coming in that this is what is possible — and we can still update it, too.”

He hopes the opportunity will attract new members to the club. While the Greater Omaha Society of Model Engineers officially disbanded, many of its members continue to be involved in the operation, Hudson said.

“None of the members, when we took over, were asked to leave,” said John Heidenescher, one of the leaders of the Carter Lake club.

Hudson emphasized that the Carter Lake club would remain first and foremost a youth organization. The group has about eight active youth members, as well as at least as many supportive adults, and currently meets from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays at the museum.

Laura Ramirez — whose 15-year-old son, Max, likes working on scenery for the layout — believes the club is a positive activity for youth.

“It not only gives them a chance to be social, they get to learn about engineering,” she said.

The kids learn a little bit about wiring and planning, Ramirez said.

“The social aspect is important, too, because not only do they get to interact with each other, they get to interact with adults,” she said.

Max, who has been attending meetings since January, would like to create scenes with environments from other parts of the world, such as a desert or jungle, he said.

“It’s nice that they’re open to different things I want to do,” he said.

Said Hudson, “Whatever they’re interested in, we find something for them to do.”

Club leaders also try to teach members responsibility, Heidenescher said. If they get in trouble at school or at home, they aren’t allowed to come to the meeting that week.

Matthew Neal, 9, attended his second meeting on April 27 and is hoping to join.

“It’s fun,” he said.

Matthew used a remote control to operate a locomotive pulling one of the trains that night.

“These engines are controlled by a little computer chip inside,” Heidenescher said. “We no longer control the track, we control the engine.”

It’s similar to the way Union Pacific Railroad controls switch engines in its rail yards, he said.

Also like a real railroad, RailsWest engineers are directed by a dispatcher who cannot see the trains.

The dispatcher communicates with operators through walkie-talkies and pinpoints their location on a map based on how close they are to one of the numbered markers along the track, said Les Dome, one of the adult volunteers. That can make things exciting when there are several trains running on the track system.

“We can operate up to a dozen,” he said.

Interestingly, neither Hudson nor Heidenescher ever worked for a railroad. Though Hudson noted, “I grew up in a railroad family.”

Hudson’s grandfather was a yardmaster for the Milwaukee Road and his uncles were also “railroad guys,” he said. When times changed for the Milwaukee, his grandfather moved to western Nebraska to work for Burlington Northern.

“I grew up probably less than a mile from here,” Hudson said.

He moved to the Alliance, Nebraska, area but returned about 20 years ago.

“I never worked on the railroad in my life,” Heidenescher said. “Dad bought me a Lionel train when I was a kid.”

However, he grew up in another railroad town in Ohio.


Information from: The Daily Nonpareil, http://www.nonpareilonline.com

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TIM JOHNSON
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