Not My Day Job: Model Behavior

Photo of Dr. Frank SprengDr. Frank Spreng loses track of time working on his model railroad, which takes up nearly half of his home’s finished basement.

“There are times I come down here at 8 o’clock at night and before I know it, it’s 1 a.m.,” said the economics professor and director of McKendree’s MBA program. He operates 10 trains, including two standard gauge and six O gauge models of his youth, on a 17 x 16-foot platform with a 6 x 12-foot extension. As a model railroad hobbyist Frank is part historian, engineer, city planner, mechanic, electrician, landscaper and miniature props master.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Penn. his first train was a pre-owned standard gauge electric steam engine model manufactured in the 1930s. “My uncle bought it from a guy who worked for him,” he said.

His sentimental favorites are the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific trains received as gifts in the fourth or fifth grade. “They were bought for me, pure and simple,” he said, showing the original five railcars. “This is how they would have come out of the box.”

Frank eventually put aside the trains of his childhood to join the high school debate team. Many years later in mid-career, married with a family and teaching in Kentucky, he unpacked them to enjoy once more. When the Sprengs moved from Belleville, Ill. to their new home in Shiloh, Ill., a few years ago, everything old became new again. At last Frank had plenty of space and the chance to design a permanent layout from the ground up, large enough to accommodate his collection.


model trains“It was like an empty shell. Two guys built the platform over three days. It’s built like a foundation for a house. Its original purpose was to display the older trains, most of what I had as a child. My first effort was to get the trains running and the tracks laid. My goal was to get the longest run for the five trains on the outer track.

“It’s a work in progress. I have a plan and it’s not completely haphazard,” he said, referring to a schematic diagram on the wall.

Each train has a story. Frank pointed to a replica of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Congressional Limited passenger train in the staging yard. “That was an elegant train that ran commuters from Washington, D.C. to New York City. It ran on an overhead catenary system of electrified lines after the demise of steam engines due to pollution.”

A Lionel streamliner from the 1954 catalog features a “vista dome” car with a skylight that offered passengers on the real thing a panoramic overhead view. “That would have been a fancy train trip in the 40s or 50s.”

A freight train reflects his western Pennsylvania roots. Boxcars bear the logos of Heinz Pickles, Danceland, Isaly’s Coffee, Foodland, the Steelers football team and famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil. A flatcar carries miniature Pittsburgh Steel girders.

A more recent addition, the Polar Express, is a favorite of the Sprengs’ three young grandchildren, who play with their own toy trains on a lower 3 x 12-foot platform they can easily reach.

A train whistle interrupts the rumbling sound of wheels in motion as Frank operates the low voltage transformers that power each locomotive. The switches are the most challenging to keep working and derailments do happen, he admits, even on the FasTrack system he bought four years ago. “I was told, ‘Don’t even try to use old track.’ It gets rusty,” he said.

He will be able to devote more time to his hobby when he retires from his full-time position this spring. He plans to add an industrial area, farm, river, gully, cabin and an elevated track to connect a western frontier scene to another platform. An English village of cottages and castles, a reminder of the Sprengs’ years in London, awaits completion.


Frank is not McKendree’s only model railroader. Dr. Joe Cipfl, dean of the graduate program, keeps a train set at his Ozarks lake home. Victoria Dowling, senior vice president and her son Daniel, have a room in their basement dedicated to an HO scale train layout. Dr. Timothy Richards, associate professor of education, tells a story similar to Frank’s.

“When I was eight years old, my father bought me an S scale American Flyer freight set which was put under the Christmas tree each year. I still have the set and it still runs. I currently only run the O scale trains, but I hope to add another layout dedicated to the two G-scale trains I have. G scale requires much space.”

An 8 x 24-foot layout in his basement features a residential street, a downtown and a countryside. “I keep the layout up all year long so that I can add or make changes,” said Tim. “You are never finished building a train layout because you are always getting new ideas from train magazines and train shows.”