A Visit to the Golden State Model Railroad Museum

My visit to San Francisco provided me with an unique opportunity to visit one of the oldest model railroad museums in the country. The Golden State Model Railroad Museum is operated by the East Bay Model Engineers Society since 1985. Founded in 1933, EBMES is one of the oldest Model Railroad clubs in the country. You can learn more about the history of the club here in GSMRM website.

Trolleytown – a part of Golden State Model Railroad Museum’s HO Scale Display

I visited the museum on Nov 5th 2017. It was a sunny warm afternoon in the Bay Area and I just completed my trip to the Muir Woods and Sausalito, and this was a perfect way to conclude the day. I took an Uber from Sausalito, so I wouldn’t necessarily know how easy or difficult it is to reach the place, but while coming back if you are depending on Uber, then you might have to wait for a bit – the signal is a little choppy and cabs are not easily available in the area. Once you purchase your day pass at the souvenir shop at the ground floor, you take a the stairs to enter the museum. The site is an old industrial building/warehouse beside an abandoned railroad spur, at the foothill of a small hill – no better place for a model railroad.

Once you enter the museum, you find the On3 display on your left. This display is mostly automated and unmanned. I spotted a small train and a single loco running around in separate tracks. Right opposite the entrance though you find the the N Scale display – Tahachapi Loop at upper level, and Bakersfield at lower. That’s where I started my nearly 4 hour journey. The video below shows how I ran behind trains throughout the afternoon.

The layout comprises of 3 large displays in most popular model railroad scales N, HO and O. All the layouts focus on major railroad attractions in California – some from the bygone era, some are still standing. The track designs are definitely top notch, so is the track work. For HO and N scale layouts the club uses Digitrax DCC systems. The switches are controlled from dispatcher control board at major junctions/stations and the cabs are controlled through mobile devices. The club uses LocoNet WiFi interface and Digitrax app to control the locomotives. All signals are automatically controlled through Digitrax LocoNet enabled signal systems and run automatically through JMRI.

N Scale Layout:

75 feet long and 21 feet wide, the N scale display is an impressive one for the scale. In fact I feel the relatively large real estate does justice to the scale which is intended to showcase long trains and big open landscapes. The layout displays all major railroad marvels of California: Beautifully landscaped mountain railroad attractions like Donner Pass and Tahachapi Loop, as well as and more gritty and condensed large yards at Roseville, Sacramento and Bakersfield. Here are some photos of the N Scale layout which complements the video above.

Golden State Model Railroad Museum: N Scale Layout

HO Scale Layout:

Built on 115 feet X 50 feet space, the HO layout shares some common elements from the N Scale layout, however, this layout shows the other parts of California railroad history that are equally fascinating. As you approach the layout you face two beautifully modelled areas – the Western Pacific and Southern Pacific lines running through the beautifully made Trolleytown to Newark and on the left you see elegantly built historic Oakland Mole. Both the areas boast of prototypically accurate and beautifully crafted models, including historic buildings and steam paddle passenger ferry boats. Frankly, trains become secondary in these areas and you spend a lot of time admiring the beauty of these beautiful miniatures.

The HO Layout is the most intricate, engaging and well crafted exhibit of the museum, and for me that’s the best section of the floor. I was graciously given the opportunity to walk along the operator’s aisle in the HO section and thus was able to record the hidden scenes that you do not see from the visitor’s aisle. And what a treat it was, too! The video shows the trains in the HO section that is not visible otherwise from the visitor’s aisle and believe me, those scenes are true hidden gems of the exhibit! Here are some photos of the HO Layout that complements the video tour above:

Golden State Model Railroad Museum: HO Scale Layout

I have to mention the HOn3 display near the exit. Though I have not made a model in  narrow gauge yet, narrow gauge trains always intrigue me. The California and Nevada railroad depicts the 1903 railroad of the same name, interchanging with the standard gauge line at Colfax and primarily serving the logging and mining industries.

O Scale Layout:

The largest exhibit of the museum is the O Scale display the basically extends the entire width of the floor, overlapping with the N Scale and HO scale displays on the other side. This is a prototypical 2 rail O Scale display, not the 3 rail Lionel type – and that was an instant win for me. A realism fanatic like me still finds it difficult to accept the near invisible middle spikes of the Marklin AC systems despite being fully aware of the benefits it presents, so irrespective of the respect I have for Lionel as novelties, in my mind a 3 rail model train never comes out of the genre of toys and graduate to a model train, no matter how detailed and well made the models and the layout is. I was apprehensive when I learned that the museum’s largest display in a O scale layout thinking that it will be the 3 rail type, but the moment I laid my eyes on those beautifully done absolute prototypical track work, it won my heart.

For a N and HO scale apartment model railroader, the enormity of a large O Scale display was somewhat overwhelming at times (in every positive sense). The mountains are over two man tall, the bridges are so big that you can spot the rivet details from 10 feet away, the buildings are big and very well detailed – the ease at which you can appreciate a large scale display is very heart warming for a small scale guy like me. This is the first time I witnessed a proper O scale layout, so it definitely drew me in. There was one advantage of the O scale personally for me – I know, in all probability that I will never venture into that scale, so I can simply enjoy a good train running past me and appreciate the details while not thinking about them critically. Here are the O scale photos:

Golden State Model Railroad Museum: O Scale Layout

There is one thing that did bother me about the O Scale display – the unrealistic elevation of tracks in very close proximity. In places the two tracks are so close to each other horizontally and so far apart vertically, that despite the layout being a 2 track display I could never shake the feeling that out of all the 3 displays, the O scale one was the most toy like. There were very nicely modelled scenes, prototypical buildings and highly detailed dioramas, and individually all of them were great – but together the layout suffered from the spaghetti bowl syndrome, in my opinion.

There was something else about the O Scale layout that bothered me – out of the 3 scales, this is the layout that suffered most accidental un-couplings and derailments and at least the day of my visit it was the most unreliable one. Now that I think of it, the most reliable one was actually the N Scale layout! Which is definitely a twist, because you would always expect a larger scale to be more reliable because of its size, but surprisingly with 3 of the most popular scales side by side, N Scale won that day in terms of reliability. I am sure the quality of locomotives, rolling stock, maintenance all play a role in reliable operation of a model train layout and both the HO and O scale trains must be operating much better the other days, but it was heart warming to see the little guys win it for once.

I wish I could share the experience with some of my friends who are critical of N Scale simply because physics does not favor that size and remind them about my argument that it’s a combination of planning, design, craftsmanship and maintenance that make a model railroad great – scale has nothing to do with it!

In the end, I would like to thank all the members and volunteers at the museum that day. I had some engaging conversation with many members and really had a very good time. A special thanks to Rich for providing me with a rare access to the operator’s aisle, and to John for dropping me at Richmond point so that I could find a way to get back to my hotel.

If you are curious about the last sentence, so this is what happened. When I entered the museum, I started taking photos and videos with my iPhone and soon I was mesmerised enough to have forgotten all about the fact that my phone just had 60% charge when I entered there. By the time I realised my mistake and switched to my camera (which I was carrying all along), the phone was dead. Unfortunately, I forgot to even carry the charger cable and no one at the museum that day was an iPhone user. The museum closed at 5 PM and I was stranded outside the gate for another 30 minutes because I couldn’t find a way to call for a ride. That’s when John offered me a ride till the Richmond Point. There I entered a nice Brazilian buffet bar (only after they confirmed that they had iPhone charger), had an early dinner and then called for my cab to get back to my hotel.

Moral of the story, if you are in trouble, call John. Now I know how Sherlock Holmes feels!

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