King-size Model Railroading

A Chester County man’s hobby earns global recognition.

When Ken McCorry cashed out of his family’s oil business, he poured a sizable chunk of the earnings into his hobby. Now housed in a custom-built barn on McCorry’s 11-acre farm in Chester County, his multilevel, HO-scale (where 3.5 mm equals 1 foot) model railroad has been called the world’s largest home layout.

“I guess you could call it a small business,” says McCorry with a laugh. “It’s a small business that doesn’t make money.”

As a young boy, McCorry recalls gazing out his bedroom window at the Pennsylvania Railroad as it clickety-clacked along the track. The apartment where he lived back then was just 150 feet from Berwyn Station.

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“The trains were mesmerizing,” he remembers. “The engine’s physical size, the noise, so much moving mass—and it was all so close to your day-to-day life.”

McCorry now relives those experiences daily as he tinkers with the massive model railroad inside the barn he constructed on his family’s former dairy farm in Eagle. It sits next to his circa-1850 farmhouse.

Modeled after the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Buffalo Line from Harrisburg to Buffalo, N.Y., McCorry’s is a miniature world in which beefy locomotives from a bygone era pull vintage railcars laden with natural and man-made resources through wide valleys and broad mountains. Four years ago, he expanded the layout to 3,120 square feet. There are 175 locomotives and 2,200 freight cars. All said and done, his Buffalo Line is over a quarter-mile long. “It’s never been about the square footage,” McCorry insists. “It’s what you put in the square footage.”

His layout is so big that operating sessions require 20 operators and five dispatchers to keep things moving. It takes a train 45 minutes to run its full length. Featured on the cover of model railroading magazines and in a PBS television show, McCorry’s investment is worth more than $100,000.

Dressed in a checkered shirt, jeans and blue suspenders, McCorry walks down the twisting aisles of a layout that mimics the path of the Susquehanna River. A minimum of 4 feet wide, they enable McCorry and his committed group of volunteers to be more comfortable and work with greater efficiency.

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“As you get older, you appreciate things like wider aisles, carpeted floors and shelves to put things on,” says McCorry with a grin.

Back in the late 1800s, train whistles echoed across the land, swaying railcars rumbled along the tracks, and mighty “iron horses” belched billowing puffs of steam. The first miniature trains appeared shortly after the full-size ones started thundering down the rails. Much of the popularity of model railroads can be attributed to the hands-on aspect kids and their grown-up counterparts enjoy.

“You always picture a model railroad around the Christmas tree. It’s an enduring picture,” says Mary Sudasassi, spokesperson for the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA).

In July 2006, the National Model Railroad Show rolled into Philadelphia. It’s a national convention sponsored by the NMRA each year in a different U.S. city, with multiple activities for members to learn and participate in all aspects of the hobby. The convention offers upward of 100 different clinics and symposiums during the weeklong event. Last year’s show hosted nearly 200 exhibitors, featuring endless displays of scale-model trains, toy trains, tracks, scenery, building kits, scale collectors’ models, tools, books, videos, software, sound systems, electronics and train-related memorabilia.

“We take the childhood fascination and show how the hobby has evolved,” says Chris O’Brien, the modular exhibits coordinator for the show. “Many of the layouts are like a time capsule, where the scenes reflect those long-ago lives and times.”

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The bulky transformers that powered the model trains of yesterday are gone. Over the past decade, digital command controls (DCC) were introduced that allow the operation of multiple independent locomotives at the same time with varying speeds and directions on the same electrically controlled section of track.

“You can match the speeds of locomotives from different manufacturers,” says Ken Varall, of the Vermont-based Tony’s Train Exchange, the world’s largest DCC dealer. “You can program realistic acceleration and deceleration rates, and limit the top speed of a locomotive.”

Sound modulars are another breakthrough. They supply digital recordings of specific locomotive engines. A computer-assisted signaling system works 150 signals that are wired into McCorry’s central traffic control boards. “Signals ease the load on dispatchers,” McCorry explains. “There’s something about working signals that really makes them a signature of a model railroad.”

McCorry’s first job at Mack Oil was delivering the stuff. Later he teamed up with his cousins to run the business. Eventually, he became an executive vice president, managing the maintenance of the truck fleet and the Berwyn physical plant.

But when his cousins decided to expand the business in the mid-’90s, McCorry decided to call it quits. “Honestly, after 25 years, I was burned out with the day-to-day operations,” he admits. “The family members offered me a buyout, and I took it. After taking some time off, I rekindled my childhood love of trains and building intriguing railroad layouts.”

McCorry’s railways snake around timbered mountains and cross giant trestles spanning swift rivers. His trains pass through bucolic fields and bustling towns in the shadow of massive coal plants and steel mills that once fueled the local economy. Most of the structures in his layout are “scratch-built.”

While McCorry’s layout never changes, the era has shifted several times. Initially it was modeled after the Pennsylvania operations in the mid-1960s. Later it was transformed into the Penn Central. A few years ago, he switched it to Conrail. In fact, a number of McCorry’s current operators were Conrail railroaders.

“I learned more about Conrail operations from those guys than I ever knew about PRR operations,” he notes.

When McCorry opened up his layout to the public last fall as a part of Chester County Days, more than 1,200 people turned up to check it out. And while he swears off any future expansion, he’ll never stop puttering.

“If you read about or see something new, you want to replace the older piece,” he says. “You’re never finished. You’re always in a state of flux.”

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