FAIRBANKS — Richard Oehrig spends his lunch hours laying railroad track and carefully gluing pieces of scale-size gravel along the tracks. Sometime he’s so busy with his project that he doesn’t eat.
“When you’re modeling there’s always something you can improve on or make better,” he said during a tour of his new O-scale model railway. “The thrill for me is you have to know something about everything from carpentry ... to mechanics.”
Oehrig, 59, is a retired Air Force electrical technician who now works in heating and plumbing. He has collected model trains for almost 50 years and describes himself as one of about a dozen serious model train enthusiasts in the Interior.
In the past year, he’s been working on an especially ambitious project. In a friend’s warehouse space, he’s building a layout for large “O-scale” trains. It’s probably the largest O-scale layout in the Interior, he said.
O-scale is one of the largest scales for model trains. With a 1:48 scale, each inch in the model world scales to four feet in the real world.
Oehrig’s setup centers around a crowded railyard. Oehrig owns more than 40 O-scale engines and more than 100 cars, although they don’t all fit on the layout. Around the yard are tracks with bridges, a passenger station, a house with a barbecue scene and an airport. When activated, automated steel loading cranes transfer small metal cylinders off or onto rail cars using magnets.
Oehrig likes the entire modeling process from finding deals on eBay to setting up the model building facades. But he’s most at home with electronics. His setup has analog controls, digital controls and block lights that trigger when trains approach and leave a switch. The trains have speakers on their front grills that broadcast the sounds of roaring engines, squealing brakes or the chatter of conductors talking on radios.
Oehrig grew up with a military family in Iowa and Texas. Originally, he favored models of the red and silver Santa Fe trains he’d see Outside, although he’d always been interested in the Alaska Railroad.
“Alaska Railroad is fairly unique, it’s one of the last remaining class one (large) U.S. railroads that still has passenger service,” he said.
But early Alaska Railroad model trains were crude, childish things not geared to the serious model crowd, he said. Almost all the model cars had a silhouette of a waving Eskimo that was used on some real trains but was relatively rare.
An explosion of better Alaska Railroad products followed an Alaska vacation a group of model manufacturer owners took in the 1980s, he said. Today Oehrig’s favorite O-scale train is a contemporary a Alaska Railroad passenger train although he’s also fond of some novelty Alaska cars like a flatbed carrying a pair of Zambonis and another with a load of planes.
Oehrig’s model layout completely fills the 15-by-20 foot room he started in. If he expands he’d like to make a real-life Alaska Railroad scene. In particular, he’s thinking the steel bridge over Hurricane Gulch or the area around Nenana Canyon.