Running With Loose Ties

Bob is a member of the Loose Ties Model Railroad Club of the Susquehanna Valley in central Pennsylvania, and, in fact, he first broached the idea of a wheelchair-accessible model train layout in 2006 when he was invited to speak at the club’s annual meeting, even before he became a member. His dream became the Wheelchair Engineers program.

The more than 65 members of Loose Ties run and maintain central Pennsylvania’s largest modular model-train layout. Modular in this case means that the members periodically disassemble their 28-by-12-foot layout (purposely made in more than 40 modular sections) and reassemble it in shopping malls, business establishments, churches, historic railroad locations, and at the Central Susquehanna River Valley Visitors’ Bureau in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, so they can share their love of model trains with hundreds of children and adults.

The Loose Ties exhibit features six common sizes of colorful model railroad trains, from the smallest – a Z Gauge so tiny it fits in the palm of your hand, to four G Gauge or impressive outdoor garden-size railroad trains. Three others more common under Christmas trees are the O Gauge and S Gauge that your grandfather may have run, and the HO, which is half the size of O Gauge.

Many people refer to O Gauge trains as “Lionel,” one of the largest manufacturers, but Loose Ties members also operate trains made by the other major manufacturers, such as Weaver’s Quality Craft of Northumberland, Pennsylvania, MTH, and Williams. On the Loose Ties layout, these trains run in and out of a four-track staging freight yard that adds four feet to the width and eight feet to the length of the layout.

Anyone gazing upward at the Loose Ties layout recognizes that the next level is for S-Gauge, more commonly known as American Flyer trains. The S-Gauge level highlights club members’ landscaping and design work: A refreshingly blue stream, beginning with a waterfall, and other details, makes this appear to be a real train running in a real setting. There are even billboards, which Loose Ties uses to thank businesses and other supporters.

The next level upward on the exhibit, the extensive HO layout, segues into model railroading’s smaller world. Several tracks loop in and out as HO trains move around the platform, going through tunnels and over bridges, past a village and a local freight yard.

Even smaller are the exhibit’s N-gauge trains. This size is smaller than the HO trains, making it possible for a model railroader to have a layout in less space.

Each year Loose Ties donates a number of complete model train sets to children under 14 years of age who come to specific exhibits accompanied by adults; the club chooses the winners in anonymous raffles.

In 2009 Loose Ties began opening its huge exhibit once a month at the Columbia Mall next to the Wheelchair Engineers program at Exit 232 of Interstate 80 near Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Wheelchair Engineers is open every Monday afternoon from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. When the two free model train layouts open together on weekends, they offer truly eye-opening possibilities for the imaginations of young and old.

Jeffrey Johnstonbaugh, who runs garden-size trains, is Loose Ties’ hardworking president. “Our sole purpose in creating our exhibits is to encourage a family hobby that can create good times with friends,” he points out. “Just so adults don’t feel left out, we encourage visitors to take their trains out of the closet and bring them to run on our layout at the mall. You’ll get a chance to see that train you had as a child actually make a trip around the layout. You’ll be surprised at how well it will run.”

Loose Ties also invites anyone interested in pursuing the hobby of model trains to get information from the club’s website at

Copyright 2011 Wheelchair Engineers, all rights reserved.