Comparables 2

I’m convinced that the model railroad museum that Thomas Krens plans for Heritage Park in North Adams, Massachusetts, will have only one rival in the world — Minatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany — and has a good chance to be even more impressive, given the scale and finish that the exhibit foresees.

I recently came across another list of the most incredible model trains in the world” headed by the Hamburg attraction, and I’m just back from visiting another set-up  (after Northlandz) on most such lists, namely  “The Great Train Story” in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Rather than include a lot of pictures in my text, I refer you for visual orientation to a portfolio of photos at Amusing Planet, or even better to two videos:  MSI offers a locomotive’s eye view as the Empire Builder traverses the simulated 2200 miles from Seattle to Chicago in 90 seconds.  Much longer and more detailed is this professionally-produced 45-minute show & tell about every aspect of “The Great Train Story,” presented with impressive verisimilitude and loads of information.


Here I’ll simply list some comparisons and contrasts amongst The Great Train Story, Northlandz, and the prospective North Adams project (EMRCA), observations made and lessons to be learned.

The story is the story at The Great Train Story.  Its narrative quality is its strongest feature, along with the fine finish of its cityscapes and landscapes.  This is a museum-level presentation in every respect, though its presence in a larger museum is both advantage and limitation.  The Museum of Science & Industry is a highly-popular and highly-interactive attraction for all ages and interests, generating huge numbers of visitors, especially among schoolchildren.  It has featured a model train set-up since 1941, the latest iteration dating from 2002.

But the model trains, impressive as they are, are a bit of a sideshow, overhung by various vintage aircraft in the Transportation Gallery, which also includes the Empire State Express 999 locomotive, the first vehicle ever to reach 100 MPH.  (Elsewhere in the museum is another train attraction, the Pioneer Zephyr.)  The Great Train Story layout zigzags artfully around large pillars and viewing inserts (as in the photo above), to represent the linear route of the Empire Builder passenger train, from downtown Chicago through outlying areas, across the Great Plains, through the Rocky Mountains, to Seattle on the West Coast.

Many stories are told, old and new, about the efficacy and romance of rail, both passenger and freight.  From containers off-loaded from ships to trains in Seattle’s harbor, through mining and logging operations in the Mountains, and farming on the Plains, to commuter rail funneling into Chicago’s Loop, this display fulfills its mission as both deep educational experience and successful self-promotion of the railroad industry, highlighting its continuing importance to our economy.

Both the architecture and the landscapes at MSI are marvelously varied and rendered with artistry and realism.  The HO gauge limits detail but enables great diversity of recreated scenes in a limited space.  EMRCA is planned to be four times as big in square feet, but since O-gauge is at least four times as large (and correspondingly more detailed), there is likely be a similar dimension of simulated track length and storytelling range.  I expect the finish to be as fine, if not better, given evolving techniques and larger scale.

Besides the greater technical artistry and realism, one further huge advantage of MSI over Northlandz is the number and variety of full-length trains, 35 in all, in addition to other types of moving transportation.  It makes a striking and hypnotic difference to see long strings of cars — passenger lines and many different sorts of freight transport — winding through though various landscapes and snaking past each other.  When it comes to locomotives and railcars, more is definitely better.

MSI shares some of Northlandz’ whimsy in miniature, but the latter retains the title for best bridges – of all sorts of materials, construction, and geometry – though The Great Train Story does have 28, most impressively in the Rocky Mountain section.  Given the terrain represented, I don’t expect EMRCA to snatch that accolade, but I hope it will model some spectacular bridges, as well as the Hoosac Tunnel of North Adams, among its engineering miracles.

And I trust EMRCA will match the educational range and storytelling verve, as well as the artistry, of the Chicago museum attraction.  Standing alone in a building designed specifically to offer a seamless and obstructionless re-creation of a self-enclosed miniature world, EMRCA should certainly generate greater focus of attention and staying power, though with collateral attractions to sustain further visitor interest.

There’s little doubt that EMRCA would soon secure a place on any list of the world’s best model train layouts, and become a favorite destination for everyone from toddler to elder – from hobbyists and railroad obsessives, to students of history and technology, to cultural tourists and fun-loving families – in a grand nexus of art and play.


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