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Build the Railroad and Run the Train Yourself!
Our free wheelchair-accessible program has been operating at the Columbia Mall on Interstate 80 in central Pennsylvania since May, 2009.* Hundreds of children and adults have run our model-railroad trains and operated our pushbutton accessories, including clients, in Pennsylvania, of the Selinsgrove Center, the Danville State Hospital, the Danville Child Development Center, county Mental Health and Mental Retardation agencies, and Life Skills classes. The Pennsylvania Health and Human Services Call Center and Helpline lists us in its statewide database for callers seeking information about recreational opportunities for dis-ABLED children and adults. The Ninth Annual Northeast U.S. Conference on dis-ABILITY on October 6, 2010, has invited us to present information about the opportunities that model railroading offers and to run model trains on a full-sized wheelchair-accessible model-railroad layout.
*We also have built our experience on another free public model-railroad program called Saturday Trains that we have operated since 2005.
We believe in the concept that the Northeast U.S. Conference expresses in its use of the word “dis-ABILITY”: that all people have abilities. Our experience has shown us that model railroading can benefit people who have disabilities and that Wheelchair Engineers©* can accomplish the goals that would help a variety of individuals and groups – people who have birth defects, wounded war veterans, stroke victims, accident victims, and others – get those benefits.
*The name Wheelchair Engineers© is copyrighted in all its forms.
Our free Wheelchair Engineers© program is seeking to help men, women and children with disabilities, and their families, by promoting individual growth, aspiration, self-determination, ego-support, independence, and full participation in community life through learning new mechanical skills, enjoying play, and focusing on model trains as an avocation and a venue in which an individual can develop expertise. Wheelchair Engineering© relies on and supports the capacity for the imagination and self-expression that help make human beings human.
Our Wheelchair Engineers© program is open all year long, on Mondays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and has an eight-by-ten-foot wheelchair-accessible model railroad layout for children and adults, a six-by-eight-foot double-decker layout, and a separate five-by-six-foot Thomas the Train layout for toddlers. The layouts run six electric trains altogether. Children and adults can make scenery, casting plaster rock formations in molds and painting them. Elsewhere on this website you can see photos and locator maps. NBC’s northeastern Pennsylvania affilitate WBRE-TV and public television’s WVIA-TV have featured our Wheelchair Engineers program this year.
The material you are reading is intended to create a rationale for using model electric trains to provide new kinds of recreation, learning, and expertise for people who don’t now have those opportunities.
The Joy and Satisfaction of Model Railroading
Model railroading is fun! Thousands of longtime practitioners – including our volunteer partners, who have been running model trains for decades – Meet our Train Crew – still derive great joy and satisfaction from model railroading. Magazines such as O Gauge Railroading, Classic Toy Trains, and S-Gaugian show men and women, even in their retirement years, who are building and evolving new model railroad layouts and enjoying every minute of the experience. The international Train Collectors Association has more than 29,000 members; that association’s semiannual meetings in York, Pennsylvania, 25 miles south of the state’s capital in Harrisburg, draw throngs of model railroaders from around the world. And of all the men and women who pass through the seven huge display buildings on the York County Fairgrounds – each building as large as an athletic field house at any major university – no two of them have built their model railroad layouts exactly alike. The association’s online magazine features colorful pages on the National Toy Train Museum and articles about model railroad topics, authored by experienced train collectors. (www.traincollectors.org). If you think you might want to develop your expertise in model railroading by becoming a member of the Train Collectors Association, you can get an application on the Train Collectors website. The application requires endorsements by two active members of the Train Collectors Association. Our train crew will be glad to provide those endorsements of your application; to contact us, use the email address on our website’s contacts page. Members get all of the Train Collectors Association publications, which include pages of model train sales and other features. At the huge York shows in April and October, the association rents small three-wheeled motor scooters to help people get around the grounds. Membership also includes free admission to the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Working and playing with model trains can put stars in people's eyes and smiles on their faces
In fact, anyone can create their own Wheelchair Engineers© expertise in whatever part of the country or the world they may live. In this WORKSHOP we have included complete "how to build" instructions, step-by-step diagrams and photographs, materials cost estimates, and – for public groups, educational or service institutions, and local, state or provincial governments – communications complete with announcement press releases.
You Can Build the Railroad
Dis-ABLED children and adults actively participated in building the Wheelchair Engineers© model railroad pictured here: Plywood boards ˝-inch thick, 18 inches wide, and eight feet long form the four flat sides of the layout, as you can see in the photo and diagram below, creating the surface on which the trains run. Eight wooden supports (one at each corner and one in the middle of each side) hold up the Wheelchair Engineers© layout so that the bottom surface of the long plywood boards is 31 inches above the floor – just the right height that the arms of a wheelchair can fit comfortably under the layout.
Plywood sheets measure four feet by eight feet. We had workers at a Home Depot store cut two sheets of ˝ inch plywood for us. * We’re using Home Depot here as a default example; you may want to buy your materials from a local lumberyard or hardware store. Home Depot and other large building materials chains generally do not charge for sawing straight cuts.) Their big electric saws zipped through the plywood sheets lengthwise. So from each of the two plywood sheets, we got two long plywood boards 18 inches wide and one plywood board a foot wide. We knew that we wanted the four eight-foot-long plywood boards to make the four sides of our layout. We then asked the Home Deport workers to cut square pieces out of the one-foot-wide plywood boards. So they cut across the one-foot-wide plywood boards at one-foot intervals, giving us 16 one-foot squares.
Then we bought three 10-foot-long two-by-fours at Home Depot and asked the workers to cut three 29˝ -inch lengths. Then, at the top and the bottom of each 29˝ -inch board that the Home Depot workers had cut from the two-by-fours, the dis-ABLED children and adults who were building our Wheelchair Engineers© model railroad screwed one square to the bottom end of the 29˝ -inch board and one to the top end using Black & Decker electric screwdrivers. (They had previously drilled two small holes in the middle of each square so the two-inch, coarse-thread drywall screws would go in easily). As you can see from our photos and diagrams, that created an I-shaped support with the bottom square resting on the carpet and the top square ready to support the eight-foot-long plywood boards on which our trains would run.
Next we arranged the I-shaped supports into an eight-by-ten-foot rectangle: Because we would butt the ends of the 18-inch plywood boards together, two sides would be longer than the other two sides – making two sides 10 feet long and other two sides eight feet long.
When we created the rectangle we made sure to have an overlap on the inside of each corner where the two long boards butted together. That is, at the corner, the end of the long plywood board on the side shared half of the square piece on the support; the end of the plywood board that joined the side at 90 degrees shared the other side of the square (See diagram above) This is much easier to do than to describe, but our diagrams and photos will show you how. The dis-ABLED children and adults who were building our Wheelchair Engineers© model railroad then screwed two-inch, coarse-thread drywall screws into the ends of the plywood boards butting together, being careful that the two screws in each end went into the support square and the I-leg underneath. Finally, we placed four I-shaped supports beneath the middle of the four long plywood boards that now made our eight-by-ten-foot model railroad layout. So, making our layout was that easy! (We had previously painted all of the wooden pieces white, using semi-gloss latex paint, because we wanted our display to be a snowy scene.)
Section 1 - Section 2 - Section 3 - Section 4
Built this way, the layout is very sturdy and very accessible to wheelchairs or even to straight chairs on which children or adults may want to sit as they work with their model trains. The 18-inch width of the long plywood boards that make the layout will let you screw down two loops of track and still have room for farms, houses and other structures. Our Wheelchair Engineers© layout runs two trains. Starting out, however, with your need to buy track, a locomotive, freight or passenger cars, and an electrical transformer, you might want to lay down one loop of track at first. We will show you below how to get what you need as cheaply as possible.
Laying down the track is easy! You can find plenty of O-Gauge, three-rail Lionel track in flea markets (see Expertise below). Or you can buy several kinds of new O-Gauge track (In the photo on the right are 3 types of O-gauge 3-Rail track - A: 0-27 Track, B: Lionel Fastrack, C: MTH Realtrax) from manufacturers including Lionel, MTH (which once stood for Mike’s Train House), Atlas O, and GarGraves. (See price tables below) The next step is to fit the interlocking sections of track together in a pattern that will stay comfortably within the boundaries of your eight-by-ten-foot layout. Then, when you’ve fit your track on your layout, take your electric screwdriver and carefully drive one-inch, coarse-thread drywall screws into the screw hole in the track – about one screw in each section of track. Be careful that you don’t crush the metal or plastic feet or supports into which you drive the screws; go slowly until the head of the screw just touches the track support (If you decide to use GarGraves track, which has wooden ties, you will need to pre-drill holes in the ties and use much smaller screws.) Model trains rumbling over a plywood layout can sound noisy. If you think the noise will bother you, at hobby shops you can buy pre-cut and inexpensive cork strips to lay under the track before you screw it down.
The last step is to connect electricity to the track, using a transformer. Electrical housepower in the U.S. is generally 110 volts. Most electric trains operate at 18 volts or less. A transformer is a rheostat that reduces the electrical voltage down to very low levels, generally no greater than 18 volts. By turning a dial on the transformer you feed low-voltage electricity to a model train, starting the train slowly and increasing the speed smoothly. You connect two wires from the transformer to the track – a red wire and a white wire, for example. On an MTH transformer, the red wire connects easily to a red twist-on wire nut on the back of the transformer; the white wire connects to a similar black twist-on wire nut next to the red wire nut on the back of the transformer. If you’re using MTH RealTrax or Lionel Fastrack, each section of track has its own wire connectors underneath. Choose one track section near your transformer, turn it over, and be sure that you slip the bare end of the red wire into the connector that is under the middle rail of the track. Next to it is the connector for the white wire; when you slip the bare end of the white wire into this connector be sure it’s under the outside rail. (To strip the plastic insulation off the wire ends, buy an inexpensive wire stripper at a hardware store. The wire stripper has holes labeled with the size or “gauge” of the wire; insert about 3/8-inch at the wire’s end into the 18-gauge hole, close the wire stripper handles – not too tightly! – and pull on the long end of the wire. That will strip 3/8-inch of insulation off of the wire. It’s easy, though you may need to practice doing it a few times.)
If you’re using tubular metal track, you’ll need an inexpensive Lionel connector that slips under the track: one contactor snaps onto the middle rail and the other to the outside rail; once it’s in place, attach the red wire from the transformer to the bright-metal hold-down on the clip-on next to the No. 1. The white wire goes to the other clip-on next to the No. 2.
That’s it!!! You’ve built you own model railroad layout, and now you can run your train as much as you want! (Before you plug into a receptacle be sure the speed dial on the transformer is turned to OFF.) Many transformers have a button marked DIRECTION next to the speed dial. If you press the button, you make the train stop and change direction. On older transformers you may need to turn the speed dial on, then off, then on again to change direction. It’s easy, as you’ll find out soon enough: after all, it’s your train!
At some point later, you may want to add a five-rail operating control track so that you can have a log-unloading car or some other operating freight car. A Lionel operating control track costs $30 new, but you can find one secondhand for between $5 and $15 (Be sure that the dual pushbuttons are attached). You take out a section of tubular metal track and replace it with the operating control track, which connects to the dual pushbutton controller: one button makes the log car dump its logs; the other lets you uncouple your freight cars, if you want. After all, you’re the engineer. You decide for yourself.
Now comes one of the most enjoyable parts: decorating or landscaping your evolving model railroad layout! First, using a pencil (not a pen, because you can’t remove pen lines), you can draw in roads and highways. Be sure to make some of your roads cross the railroad tracks so you can eventually install railroad crossing gates. You can make your roads asphalt, gravel or dirt. Paint asphalt roads flat black; paint dirt brown; you can buy crushed gravel for the roads in a hobby shop. You also can use flat blue latex paint to color in streams and ponds. Before making your roads and other painted features permanent, though, put some structures next to them and see how your layout will look. Flea markets have tons of plastic structures – colorful stations, houses, barns, grocery stores, churches, firehouses, post offices, and anything else you might like. You can have electric lights in your houses and other structures simply by using clear miniature holiday lights, as we do; a 25-bulb string of lights costs only $1 at Walmart. To install them, drill a hole through the platform under each structure, using a drill bit that is only slightly larger than the light sockets. Start at the top end of the string of lights and work toward the end that has the plug, and let the plug dangle under the layout until you’re ready to connect it to the housepower. Be careful not to bend the socket or the bulb as you slip it through the platform plywood, because one impaired socket or bulb will knock out all the lights. The bulbs stick up out of the platform; they may be tight or you may need to put a dab of Duco cement around the socket. One of the most common brands of model railroad structures is called Plasticville. When you go out to look for structures, by the way, be sure the ones you buy are comparable to “O Gauge” if you’ve decided to run O Gauge trains on your layout, as we have. In fact, the vast majority of secondhand structures are the O Gauge size. The question of size (which model railroaders call “scale”) also applies to everything else you put on your layout – you don’t want cars and trucks to look larger than your trains. Actually, if you want big things on your layout, and you enjoy the look of it, it’s entirely up to you. After all, it’s your layout! That can be part of the fun. Manufacturers of O Gauge cars and trucks (also “O Scale”) often label their model sedans, vans and fire trucks “1/48” or “1/50.” Diecast Direct in New Bedford, Massachusetts, is a dependable source, with prices as low as $6.95 for 1/43 cars and trucks, a still-acceptable size for O Gauge layouts. You can buy appropriately-sized trees in hobby shops, though they are expensive – or look for them at flea markets (see below) . Right-sized telephone poles and road signs are easy to find. Not so easy – and expensive! – are miniature figures of people. But that’s one of the joys of the hunt. Or you can buy them new ($$$). Many, many books with colorful photographs, and monthly magazines such as O Gauge Railroading, O Scale Trains, and Classic Toy Trains, and their online features, have wonderful ideas, plans, and tips for creating scenery. You can spend hours putting in scenic touches, as we do, or you can run your trains without any scenery at all. Whatever you want!
Do you want mountains and small hills on your layout? Building them is easy and fun. We do it all the time at Wheelchair Engineers©. Hobby stores sell rubber molds into which you pour liquid plaster of paris to make various rock formations. The molds cost about $6 apiece and they last forever. If you buy several variations, you can create wonderfully realistic rock walls and cliffs. Set the filled molds aside for a few days, then paint them with water-mixed acrylic washes: the rock formations you see in photos of our Wheelchair Engineers© layout are painted with burnt umber coloring (also raw sienna), and they give our mountains very realistic color. Another virtue of creating plaster of paris mountains is that, over the years, the plaster’s whiteness slowly leeches into the painted color, making the rocks look even more realistic. HOW TO MIX THE PLASTER AND PAINT: You don’t have to measure the plaster of paris: just pour about two cups of water into a disposable container; then pour a cup of plaster into the water and mix it with a disposable paint stirrer. When you’ve stirred it thoroughly, pour in another cup of plaster and stir again – you will see the plaster begin to thicken. You may need a third cup of plaster: you want the plaster to have the consistency of homogenized milk. Now comes the fun! Pour the mixed plaster slowly into the molds. In the photo (at left below) we’ve fastened the molds into a wooden frame so the mold won’t tip when it’s full of plaster. (Don’t wash any plaster into the drain; it will accumulate and dry there, causing drain problems.) We cut the tops off two-liter plastic soda bottles: they stand up nicely, hold water, and you can simply dispose of them in the trash or recycling container. Empty tin cans work fine too. Again, don’t rinse them out, because the plaster will accumulate in the drain. Dispose of the paint stirrer after you’ve finished mixing all the plaster for your molds.
Using the painted rock formations, we’ve built mountains and railroad tunnels on our Wheelchair Engineers© layout. This is easy too, and you don’t have to do it all at one time; after all, the real mountains of our world weren’t made in a day! The mountains you see in our photos have taken us 11 months to build: we worked on them slowly, about two hours a week. After we decided how tall we wanted our mountain, we built a framework using half-inch-thick pieces of light wood. We screwed the pieces together using our electric screwdriver and one-inch, coarse-thread drywall screws. It’s easier to put in the screws if you drill small holes in each piece of wood to start the screws. If you’re having a tunnel, you’ll need to leave room inside the mountain for the train to pass through, so measure the locomotive on the track and leave two inches of space all around it in the tunnel. Make your long pieces of half-inch-thick wood various lengths so the top of your mountain will have jagged peaks. When you’ve arranged these long pieces the way you want them on each side of the railroad track, connect them with shorter pieces of half-inch-thick wood, drilling starter holes for the screws, as before. Be sure to leave openings around the track for your train to enter and leave the mountain. These are called tunnel portals. Now your framework should look good and be sturdy. You can be proud of yourself!
The next step is to cover the framework with mesh wire – called gutter mesh (At right in the photo above). Home Depot and other stores sell metal gutter mesh in 24-inch pieces. Some hardware stores now sell plastic gutter mesh, but it isn’t good for mountain-building. Gutter mesh is the protection that can be put over household exterior rain gutters to keep out small twigs and leaves. You can bend it wonderfully into the shape of mountain peaks, and it holds its shape afterward. Screen wire isn’t as good. Working slowly, bend the gutter mesh over the framework and fasten it with ˝-inch, coarse-thread drywall screws. Work carefully until you’ve covered the whole framework, and be sure to leave space at both ends of your mountain for the tunnel portals.
Now comes one of the best parts – covering your mountain with plaster cloth. Anyone who’s ever had a broken arm – we hope not! – knows about plaster cloth. The doctor wraps the broken arm with moistened plaster cloth that forms a rigid cast. Model railroaders buy their plaster cloth at hobby shops (about $7 a roll), and it goes a long way. Now you need the tray you use when you paint with a roller. Pour some warm water into the tray – not too much! Then cut a foot-long piece of plaster cloth from the roll, and, holding two corners with the tips of your fingers, drag it slowly through the warm water so that it is thoroughly wet. Then, still holding the two corners with the tips of your fingers and stretching the plaster cloth tightly between them, lay the plaster cloth over part of the framework (It’s usually best to begin at the top.) From there, it’s repeat and repeat, until the whole framework is covered. The top surface of the plaster cloth is nubbly. As you lay down each piece, rub your fingers around and around over it; that spreads the plaster and smoothes it. It will dry in less than half an hour, and you’ll have a snowy mountain like ours!
You also can make very realistic evergreen trees for your mountain and elsewhere on your layout. Home Depot sells round green scrubber disks for professional floor scrubbers. They cost about $6 and make great evergreen trees. We’ve made more than 400 for our layout. You can sit and cut small circles out of the disks with scissors. To make an evergreen tree, cut one two-inch circle and a second smaller 1 ˝ -inch circle from the green floor-scrubber disk. (Of course, you can cut two or three more circles from the disk if you want taller trees, just make sure that each succeeding disk is smaller than the one before.) You need a small triangle of green to form the top of the tree, and we generally get ours from the debris left as we cut the circles. Finally, arrange what you’ve cut, putting the largest circle at the bottom and piling smaller and smaller circles as you go up, with the triangle at the top. Then, using a hot glue gun, carefully glue the circles together to form your tree. Be careful! Hot glue burns like fire. Wear work gloves. All of this evolves. It’s taken us more than four years to makes our 400 evergreen trees. Of course, you don’t need evergreen trees to run trains. But this recipe makes very realistic ones, and cheaply.
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