Enclosed in a glass-covered cabinet in his basement is one of Riley O’Connor’s first model train sets, wooden block figures on a small track circling a pair of scuffed baby shoes.
His love for trains — real and model — flourished over the years into O’Connor’s profession. Now, a massive, 28-foot-long model railroad, titled “Amstetten” after the station that is the centerpiece, is laid out on specialty cabinets above that tiny wooden set, a project O’Connor has worked on, and played with, since the mid-1990s.
“When I was two or three, I got my first wooden trains. And it stuck,” he said.
“There is this sense of capturing something,” O’Connor said while in the basement of his home on Oostanaula Drive, near Dresden Drive.
The walls were covered in shelves of model train cars, and the basement crowded with a well-used work station where he sits to complete details on the small train cars, railroad layouts still in the works, and some 800 books on all aspects of real and model trains he uses for research.
He pulls out the digital controls for the Gauge 1 model railroad designed after his former employer and a favorite model train maker, Märklin, and starts up a train. (Gauge 1 is manufactured to a proportion of 1:32, meaning 3/8 of an inch on the model equals one foot on the real train, as O’Connor explains on one of his websites.)
The train’s sounds are quite realistic, the engine chugging and air compression whooshing. Imagination still has to provide the shouting, the chatter and laughter of the tiny people — backpackers, business people, tourists — crowded in front of the Amstetten station waiting for their ride.
“The idea is to create a scene,” he said. This particular scene that takes up most of the basement is based on German Märklin model train design and conveys a compilation of European scenes that O’Connor has enjoyed in his travels.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., O’Connor moved to Georgia in 1965 and graduated from Lovett School in Buckhead in 1967. When it came time to choose a college, O’Connor packed his bags — and plenty of his model trains — to study psychology at Knox College, a liberal arts college in Galesburg, Ill.
“I’m not ashamed to admit my choice of college was based on there being a railroad right next to campus,” he said with a laugh.
Psychology wasn’t a fit for O’Connor, though, and he returned to Georgia where his passion for model trains got him a job at Lenox Toy & Hobby in Lenox Mall in the mid-1980s where he did model train construction for customers. He also worked at Toy Trains & Things on Buford Highway in the late 1980s to mid-1990s.
He also had his own model train shop on 8th Street near Georgia Tech, along with a friend whose business was building custom cabinets and other furniture.
He wasn’t making a lot of money, but he didn’t need to, he said. He had an apartment on Buford Highway for $200 a month and then later found a space on Dresden Drive for $85 a month. The rent money he saved by living on Dresden Drive would go toward fueling his love of model trains.
But the love and respect for trains wasn’t just about toys. O’Connor worked at an Atlanta switchyard the summer after high school and found an even greater respect for the mode of transportation. In 1990, his book “Greenberg’s Model Railroading with Märklin Z” was published and tells the stories about the smallest commercially produced electric trains introduced by the company in the early 1970s.
Then, in 1991, O’Connor landed his dream job, or as he likes to say, he “kind of drifted into the business.”
After talking and working with Märklin associates over the years as a hobbyist, the toy company hired him as an American consultant where he worked for more than 20 years. He would pull from his train book library to inform the manufacturer what colors should go on the various cars, what numbers were correct to use on those cars, and write up all kinds of information and details for the company websites for other model makers to follow.
“It’s been a very interesting business,” he said. “It’s a small, niche market and for so long it was mom-and-pop businesses with mom-and-pop values.”
He recalled going to trade shows years ago and speaking to other model train business owners and consultants. No way could he discuss what he was working on with Märklin lest a competitor steal the idea. After he married his wife, Meredith, he had to tell her also to not talk about what he was doing with anyone. The market may have been small, but competition was significant.
“Then we finally realized the competition was not each other, but rather Nintendo or the TV,” he said. “Of course, the biggest competition is that kids don’t like to collect or build anymore.”
But the model train industry and those who love it aren’t completely gone. The National Model Railroad Association’s annual “Piedmont Pilgrimage” gives enthusiasts a chance to tour massive train sets in people’s homes around metro Atlanta. The National Toy Train Museum estimates there are a half-million model railroaders and toy train hobbyists in the US and Canada with national and regional conventions taking place across world.
Check out O’Connor’s model train musings at guidetozscale.com.