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Model Trains in the Digital Age

Off the Cuff with Trainfest’s Ken Jaglinski

Nov. 1, 2016
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The nation’s largest operating model train show will soon take over Wisconsin State Fair Park for Trainfest, which annually draws more than 22,000 model train fans from across the country. This year’s event will feature 120 vendors, 10 railroad historical groups and more than 70 fully operation model train displays. Ken Jaglinski has been the chairman of Trainfest since 2012 and has long been enamored with the hobby. Jaglinski recently sat down with Off the Cuff to talk about model railroading, keeping kids interested in the hobby and the role of local history in this year’s festival.

When did your interest in model trains begin?

I’d say when I was a youngster—9, 10, 11 years old. We would set up the train around the Christmas tree and that kind of stuff. At my Grandmother’s house I had a place where I had a set that she bought and a board set up. Getting back into modeling at a high level—that would have been in my early-20s.

Talk about the Milwaukee-specific displays that will be featured at this year’s event.

This is our second year of the Celebrate-a-Railroad theme. Last year, we did the Chicago and Northwestern, and this year is the Milwaukee Road. As part of the theme, we are producing a historical display in conjunction with the Railroad Historical Society, the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Grohman Museum and the Wisconsin Southeastern Division of the National Model Railroad Association. There will be 32 panels in this display and, once Trainfest is done, the historical displays are available for other museums. In addition to the display, we have commissioned an acrylic painting by a famous railroad artist. This year’s painting is going to be a shot from the 35th Street area—looking down into the Menomonee Valley onto the old roundhouse and the shops and the tracks there. We have the Hiawatha coming into Milwaukee and the old 1265 going out.

How does the hobby stay relevant to young people in the digital age?

This year’s show, we are going to have the winners of the Japanese high school railroad contest coming to the show. Working on the modules and creating the railroad is really a STEM project: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. All those things are involved as well as art and creativity. Since I’ve taken over, we’ve instituted a junior engineer program geared at kids age 5-13. They come to a show and get a series of tasks they have to do; if they complete them, they get a card that entitles them to discounts at local hobby shops. If they come back the second year, we have second level. This gets kids out there interacting with the current set of hobbyists. That didn’t happen for a long time; the show was “look, don’t touch.” Now, we’re taking a hands-on approach. We also have the “make and take” program. Last year, kids made over 1,000 kits that were donated by [model railroad manufacturer] Wm. K. Walthers. By getting together and doing these things, hopefully we are going to put that spark back into the younger generation.

What is it about model railroading that continues to inspire people?

It’s a hobby where if you have different interests, you can be served by it. There’s history, there’s creativity, there’s art, there’s electronics. Whatever floats your boat. I think it has a wide appeal that way. You’ll find that the hobbyists are very interactive with each other; they’ll help each other out. I belong to a little round-robin group; five of us. My layout is pretty much done, but the other four guys—we’ll go work on their layouts and do things together so you get the camaraderie as well. 

Trainfest runs 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Nov. 12-13 in the Wisconsin Exposition Center at Wisconsin State Fair Park, 8200 W. Greenfield Ave. For more information, visit trainfest.com.

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