November 26, 2013 Updated: November 26, 2013 at 8:10 am
About a decade ago, members of the Pikes Peak "N" Gineers received an email from an American soldier stationed in Iraq. The soldier had a favor to ask of the model railroad club.
"They were bored to tears with video games and needed other hobby material, specifically something they could work on with their hands," said Mike Peck, then superintendent of the club, founded in 1989 to bring together fans of the super-scaled-down models.
Peck and his fellow club members packed eight or nine boxes of flexible track and models and shipped them off. A few months later, an email arrived with photos showing what the soldiers had created.
"They were taking the old shipping containers and foam that was in them and were building the frames. They were using the foam packing from inside to do the modeling and the layout," Peck said. "We told them to let us know if there's anything else they needed."
Peck was 7 when his father introduced him to the hobby, helping him build his first model train car from a kit.
"The first thing we did was glue the weight in the bottom of the car. Then he said, 'OK, put it away and we'll get back to it tomorrow,'" said Peck, now 65. "In my mind, this could have been done in an hour, but he made me take five days to do it."
Peck's father wasn't trying to frustrate; he was trying to teach his son a lesson about patience and perfection.
"I learned. When you build fast, it's sloppy," Peck said.
A throwback to simpler toy times, perhaps, model training is a multimillion-dollar industry with an enthusiastic legion of fans. The National Model Railroad Association claims just less than 19,000 members; here in Colorado Springs, about a half-dozen homegrown and nationally-affiliated model railway clubs celebrate different aspects of the hobby, holding swap meets and shows. Each season, the clubs jointly produce Train Expo Colorado, or TECO, to share what they do with the public and, hopefully, hook new fans.
"It's not a boy's hobby anymore. We get a good number of girls," expo chairman Roy Thompson said. "It's a great thing too to see grandparents bringing their grandchildren. It's something they can do and enjoy together."
In the four-and-a-half years since its founding, the expo has grown from about 40 exhibit and vendor tables to more than double that amount, in an event space of 30,000 square feet where trains of various scale can be found traversing intricate miniature landscapes.
"When you see some of these layouts and the details that go into these miniature cities, it's unbelievable what can be done," Thompson said.
The hobby - and the expo - incorporates far more than model train car construction, said Peck, the expo's vice chairman.
"There are different aspects that people like. Some like the track and scenery, others like building wooden structures and bridges, other people like to scratch-build their own locomotives," Peck said.
Clinics at the upcoming TECO event will teach hobbyists how to build trees and other scaled-down structures for railroad dioramas. A booth will feature a model engine repair expert offering free diagnostics, suggestions and, if possible, fixes. Another train enthusiast - and expert at his particular art - will be on hand to teach hobbyists how to make a mess of their models.
"When you look at trains going down the track, none of them are clean, they're all dirty from the rain and the snow," Thompson said. "We can teach you how to make a train look old and dirty as they would normally be."
Speakers will discuss the railroad's early days, including the history of trains in Cripple Creek.
At the expo, members of TECO's youth railroad club will set up models completed during the group's monthly Saturday workshops, set up to get kids started in and inspired by the hobby. Model railroading can help improve a child's spacial understanding and problem solving, and, in a group setting, can build self-esteem and boost social skills, Thompson said.
Plus, it's addictive and fun. So consider yourself warned.
A little more than a year after the "N" Gineers shipped off their model train care packages to Iraq, Peck received another email from the soldiers, along with updated images.
"It was showing off all the other different models and hobby stuff the guys were getting into," Peck said. "They were doing train kits and car kits, plane kits and other hobby model stuff, too. I guess we inspired them."