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Model train hobbyists never stop working on the railroad

Tex Copsetta and his model train set

Tex Copsetta’s Mt. Shasta railroad features hundreds upon hundreds of made-from-scratch trees and brush, all working as a backdrop to his 1950s-era trains. Staff photo by Alex Copeland

Crews of up to seven people are needed to operate the individual train sets of two local railroad hobbyists. Perfectionist modelers and train enthusiasts Tex Copsetta of Burnet and Jack Merkel of Whitewater Springs near Marble Falls have each dedicated years to building scale representations of their favorite rail lines that take up entire rooms in their homes. 

At 82, Merkel plans to continue building onto his 25-foot-by-26-foot trainscape until he can no longer “drop ‘er in the corner.*” 

“I work on it maybe three hours a day, six days a week,” Merkel said.

Copsetta, a retired peace officer, said his son and grandchildren plan to carry on his passion. 

“It’s a family hobby,” he said. 

Attracted to model trainssince youth, Merkel fast-tracked his hobby in retirement. He and and wife Carol chose their home based on space for his trainscape, which was built to resemble the 1961 Santa Fe track from Galveston to Temple. It includes a stop in Marble Falls with a replica of the local station.

Like a lot of modelers, Merkel has taken a few nostalgia-influenced liberties with his version of the route. In place of the Houston station, he built a model based on the Cincinnati Union Terminal.

It takes seven people to properly operate Merkel’s Santa Fe track, which he runs like a lifesize version, complete with dispatcher, freight, and passengers, all on a working schedule. Each of the stations features a telephone and waybills, which are paper receipts that include the origin and destination of the train and the weight and type of freight on each car. A group of friends reports to duty on the first Saturday of the month to run the route.

“Every car on the railroad has a waybill, a car card,Merkel said. We don’t move things willy-nilly; we move them by waybill. There are about 200 freight cars on the railroad, so there are about 200 waybills. We run specific cars at specific times.”

In addition to his hobby, he and Carol spend a great deal of time on real roads, traveling by RV across the United States taking photos at museums and train stations to inspire his modeling. 

“It takes a lot of research, but there’s a lot of information out there,” he said.

Jack Merkel and his model train set
Jack Merkel’s model train set is 20 years in the making and, by his reckoning, could continue to grow for another 20 years. Staff photo by Alex Copeland

Copsetta also uses reference photos to build his trains, which are modeled after Southern Pacific’s rails through northern California. The tracks on that line cut through rugged terrain through the Cascade Range into Oregon.

“That’s the most rugged part of the entire trip,” the 70-year-old said. “It’s got the most serious grades and tunnels and hard curves.”

Copsetta and his dad built railroads together when he was a kid. He now shares his hobby with his son, grandson, and two granddaughters.

“It’s not a one-man, all-alone, playing-with-trains idea,” Copsetta said. “It’s not like golfing, where the only person included is the golfer. It’s a family hobby.”

His model railroad includes a staging yard and handmade trees. A huge bridge had to be constructed from scratch because no models were big enough to fit his scale. He made hundreds of trees from dowel rods, toothpicks, and lichen. The terrain is made of plaster-soaked paper towels on metal screening. 

“It’s 96 feet long, and it’s all hand-painted backdrop from the railroad up to the ceiling,” he said. “Three of the mountains are painted from photographs because they are signature mountains on the route.” 

The mountains dominate three walls of the room, which is bisected by a curvilinear stretch of track and terrain.  

In 2016, Copsetta’s impressive train set was featured in the national Model Railroader magazine’s special issue on great model railroads. He wrote an accompanying article for the magazine. 

“So, it’s a pretty decent railroad,” Copsetta said. “I wouldn’t say it’s the best, but it’s pretty good.”

In the years since the article was written, he’s added to the details around the track. 

Merkel also constantly adds to his model trainscape. Included in his newest additions are dimmable lights he plans to adjust to simulate nighttime runs with lighted building interiors.

“If I make it to 100, and I plan to, there will still be work to do,” Merkel said. “I won’t be done. There’s always something to add.”

alex@thepicayune.com

*make fast time, from the Glossary of Railroad Lingo, “Railroad Avenue,” by Freeman H. Hubbard 1945.

1 thought on “Model train hobbyists never stop working on the railroad

  1. I don’t know anything about running model trains, but I’d love to see these layouts. Is there room for spectators?

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