A Local Company Creates Model Train Layouts for Grownups
“We-elll . . . ” hedges Jeff Springer, the 39-year-old founder of Custom Model Railroads and professional builder of high-end train layouts. “Model railroading is actually an incredibly large hobby. If you look at magazines like Model Railroader, they have subscriptions in the hundreds of thousands. But then I am always the youngest person at the conventions, so the hobby might be starting to age out.”
Not, however, if Springer has anything to do with it. From his simple shop in an industrial back corner of Hampden, Springer envisions and then with his staff of six painstakingly creates minutely detailed train installations that are to the average Christmas garden as a deluxe, sleekly designed Corvette is to your elderly aunt’s clunky Chevette.
To describe Custom Model Railroads’ products as “high end” is an understatement; Springer’s clients can spend tens of thousands of dollars to have him render their nostalgic fantasies in, say, 1:87 H.O. scale (as opposed to one of the other model railroad standard gauges N, O, Z, or G). As Springer notes drily, “most of my clients either build an addition on their home or erect a freestanding building to house the train sets they hire me to build. . . . Model railroad enthusiasts are total fanatics—they’re like drug addicts, they’ll spend thousands of dollars to get their fix.”
When Springer is hired to build a train layout he spends a great deal of time interviewing the client to determine exactly what they want him to create, or re-create, and then more time on research that includes studying vintage photographs and actual field visits. “It’s definitely nostalgia driven,” he says, gesturing to the nearly complete model of Chicago’s long-ago demolished LaSalle Street Train Station he and his staff were commissioned to build. “For one client from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, we rendered the town as it was in 1880 at the height of the logging boom. Every job is different and takes a lot of research for the time and place specific to the client’s desire to re-create what is usually a childhood memory or fantasy.” Another setup for a client in Mississippi, an O-gauge rendition of the Norfolk and Western Railroad, required six months of construction in Springer’s studio and an 18-wheeler to haul it to the client’s home, where it took a week to install.
One of Springer’s few Baltimore-area commissions is also one of his favorites, as well as his most creative. “This guy wanted to combine trains with slot cars,” he says. “Because of the difference in scale there was no way we could do past or then-current  Baltimore, so we had to be creative and imagine the city’s future. We built some current landmark buildings, but we also got to visualize fun new ones. Plus we took pieces of all these Star Wars toys and stuck pieces to the side of trains and other stuff to make it look all futuristic.”
The owner, who asked to remain anonymous, is delighted with Springer’s design and execution of his model railroad fantasy-come-true: “He did more than he said he would, and has always followed through.”
If the client seems to be beaming, he has good reason. The once and future Baltimore setup really is something to see (though it’s in a private home and not available for public viewing). Train tracks loop around marvelous versions of the Domino Sugar plant and the Bromo-Seltzer Tower, and past a port that looks like a marriage between the set of Blade Runner and the Inner Harbor. A monorail loops around rowhouses and futuristic skyscrapers that owe a visual debt to Seattle’s Space Needle. The workmanship is flawless, but the fun is in the details. The slot car (toy race cars on an electrified track) rocket across a replica of the Bay Bridge, where realistic highway signs point left to atlantic terminal/iceland/polaris east and right to ocean city/keep right/pay toll/wait in line (apparently, even in the future, Marylanders will face summer Saturday congestion). Since the roads and rail tracks must cross, the occasional collision sends cars flying across the room. The action is captured on a tiny camera mounted to the front of the train and shown on a six-inch LCD screen mounted into one of the futurama buildings.
Unlike other projects driven by client-specific nostalgia, this particular job also allowed Springer to express some sly humor. Utterly realistic-looking graffiti in the grittier sections of tomorrow’s Baltimore give shout-outs to local e-mail group Artmobile as well as Custom Model Railroads itself. Outside a miniature Double T Diner there are Hasidic picketers bearing signs that read just say no to pork and ban spam. And over there by the (working, of course) double railroad bridge—is that really a group of skinny-dipping swimmers, complete with one teeny-tiny guy running off waving a teeny-tiny stolen bikini top? Who even makes that kind of thing?
“Um, everybody,” a somewhat sheepish Springer admits. “You can purchase that from any model railroading store. There is more prostitution in model railroading than anywhere else in the world—the Number 1 selling figures are the naked people.” Springer reports that teeny-weeny fornicating livestock are another popular staple of homemade train layouts. Like, in his? “Let’s just say that things happen.”
Springer wasn’t always interested in
making miniature worlds. A Maryland Institute College of Art graduate, he worked as a graphic designer until a friend took him to his first model train show in 1991 and encouraged him to start building custom train layouts. Now, he is so well regarded in the field that the B&O Museum asked him to rebuild its model train layout after it was destroyed when the roundhouse roof collapsed in 2003.
“This is a case of you run around the world to find the guy next door,” says Ed Williams, deputy director and chief curator of the B&O Museum. Williams conducted an online search for potential builders but then located Springer on a tip from a museum volunteer. Williams calls Custom Model Railroads “a little Baltimore gem, a local business that is world class.” And building a model railroad for the museum was no easy task.
“This toy train really had a lot of work to do, everything from entertaining to educating,” Williams says. “It has to communicate the simple, explaining the history of the B&O, but also the complex, bridge building, topography, civil engineering.” And all confined in a vintage railroad car that the museum might otherwise have abandoned. Springer proved up to the task. “It’s one of the finest layouts I have ever seen, and it achieved everything the museum had hoped,” Williams says.
There’s no monorail or space station, but the B&O’s model train setup is a very satisfying sight for fans of vintage Baltimore architecture. The Bromo-Seltzer Tower appears once again (Springer sells kits for making the building through his web site), as well as Camden Station and the Locust Point grain elevator—familiar landmarks rendered in jaw-dropping, perfectly-to-scale detail. As many as 12 separate trains chug through an eerily familiar miniaturized, 1:87 downtown area, and then swing through a bustling port (complete with operating cranes) and a steel mill before heading out to the country, where one tiny cornfield features more than 1,000 handmade cornstalks painstakingly planted one at a time. A few fun, Springer-esque touches to look for: the restaurant on top of the Holiday Inn that actually rotates; the dead person coming out of the grave in the downtown churchyard; and behind Camden Yards rail station (though there is no ballpark), miniature sculptures reflect retired Orioles uniform numbers.
“The B&O layout took us over a year,” Springer says. “It’s one of the best we’ve done, though two-thirds of the way through I wanted to scratch everything and start over again. . . . You learn so much as you go, there is always a point in each project where you look back and realize that you could do so much better. But that’s one of the great things about doing this—you can always apply those lessons to the next one.”
Right now Springer’s “next one” is actually a train layout he is building for himself. That’s right: In a classic case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes, Mr. Model Railroad Man has no trains of his own. “I decided that after 14 years in the business it was time,” Springer says. His own nostalgic trip down miniaturized memory lane? “Switzerland. Where I grew up. It’s also specifically a place my wife and I have gone hiking, they have trails along the rails there. Good memories,” he says, pointing toward a graceful, curving bridge that is under construction as part of the set. “That viaduct is really special to us,” he adds, choking up a little bit.
Despite his vast expertise in the esoteric field of model railroading, Springer admits that he is hardly an expert on Christmas train gardens. Though he once did build a layout based on the children’s book The Polar Express that was used by the Pavilion at Chevy Chase shopping mall for its holiday display. (In another possible sign of the decline of Christmas train gardens, the Montgomery County mall no longer uses the trains and has gone to, as Springer says, “the usual animatronic reindeer stuff.”)
“I have clients who set up Christmas gardens under the tree, but it is strictly separate from their permanent train layouts,” he says. “It’s all hokey Lionel stuff, cotton-batting snow and bare wires under the baseboard. Definitely kitschy.” But Springer enjoys visiting local holiday train gardens, one favorite being the one at Engine Company 45’s fire hall in Mount Washington (see sidebar for more Baltimore train gardens). He admires the train garden’s commitment to changing the scenery every year since it was first built in 1956, and also seems to envy a little bit that they don’t have to worry about scale. “They get to throw all kinds of crazy, fun things — toys, McDonald’s Happy Meal figures—into their layout,” Springer says.
When asked what he thinks of the train garden tradition, he says: “I’m not from here, so it’s not my tradition. But anything that gets kids and even adults interested in model trains would be a good thing.” When pressed to predict the custom’s future, Springer sighs. “I really don’t know. It’s outside of what I do. All I know is that [the] model railroading [world] is a lot like Baltimore—you either know everybody or know somebody else who does. So you can’t screw anybody or it’ll get back to you pretty quick.”
Now that is the holiday spirit.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Nice Tea (7/28/2010)
A foolproof guide to a summer staple
Welcome Home, Big Beef (4/28/2010)
Taking the grass-fed beef by the horns and cooking it
Let It Snow (2/24/2010)
Making sweet treats out of the fluffy white stuff
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201