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Miniature Technology

Managing a city, in HO scale
June 19, 2012

With a streetcar, a vegetable stand, and a boy hawking newspapers, Gifford City looks like a bustling miniature community—a throwback to simpler times. Yet it’s both old and new. Gifford City—and its multitrain Nickel Plate Railroad—is the creation of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC), one of MIT’s oldest student groups. About 20 locomotives, 200 train cars, and several scale miles of track fill a first-floor room in Building N52, all in so-called HO (1:87.1) scale. TMRC includes a dozen current and former students, who meet a few times per month, and counts 750 former members

While railroad technology may no longer represent the forefront of engineering, the club still attracts students. “My research interests focus on virtual worlds, and Gifford City is definitely a virtual world,” says Rebecca Perry, a doctoral student in the department of Science, Technology, and Society who joined TMRC in early 2012. “It’s a great way of thinking about physical model systems.”

Member-operated trains are electronically powered and move at scale speeds of 100 miles per hour (about 1.15 miles per hour in real time). The track is modeled on the Boston and Albany Railroad, and Gifford City is loosely based on Boston and Cambridge.

“It’s more than just engineering technique,” says TMRC electronics consultant John Purbrick ’73. “It’s part engineering, part art.”

Members create buildings and most scenery from scratch, and they repaint locomotives in MIT’s cardinal and gray. Many buildings pay homage to MIT, including a miniaturized Green Building, whose façade doubles as a game screen to play Tetris.

The group has also built a niche campus community. “As a grad student, you’re always rushed. There aren’t many chances to talk to people outside your department,” says Perry. “The people here have such a rich history.”

Past TMRC members have had careers with real railroads. J. Reilly ­McCarren ’77, for example, is chairman of the board of the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad, and Joshua Coran ’68 is the former chief mechanical engineer for the Alaska Railroad Corporation.

Founded in 1946, the club has declined in membership since its 1960s peak, when it was a 24-hour operation. But there are no plans to close shop.

“The new fashion in model railroading is multiple, connected decks. We’d like to add an upper level, a small mountain town named Sawyer, above our current track,” says John McNamara ’64, who builds scenery. “That’s our next goal. We’ve already got the layout planned.”

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