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Meet the Union Station volunteers who keep these tiny trains on track during the holidays

Two men wearing bright red shirts and train conductor caps work amidst a larger display of model trains, tracks and city depictions inside a room decorated for Christmas.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Volunteers Dick Cooper, left, and Karl Bitter work to fix a derailment inside Union Station's model train gallery.

Model trains run year-round at Union Station. But during the holiday season, the exhibit expands from 8,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet.

Union Station has one of the largest model rail exhibits in the United States, with more than 80 trains of all sizes. When decorating for the holidays starts in October, the display gets even bigger.

Oversized wreaths can be viewed from outside, hanging in the Grand Hall’s massive windows, and inside are dozens of decorated Christmas trees, including one that’s about 40 feet tall.

“This is considered Kansas City's lobby — its front door. More importantly, it is our home,” says president and CEO George Guastello. “So, when you have to decorate and welcome people to your home for the holidays, ours just takes a little bit longer.”

The expanded model train exhibit features snow-covered villages complete with tiny, plastic ice skaters on a pond, dramatic terrain and thousands of sparkling lights.

“All the layouts have multiple levels,” says Guastello, “so little kids can get down, up close and personal, a little bit larger kids can experience, and then the parents can live through the experience and just feel (a) part of it.”

A large, snowy display features several model railroad tracks with small trees, buildings, bridges and other miniature features. People walk nearby looking at the display.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Visitors at Union Station tour through the holiday model train display inside the Grand Hall.

About 50 volunteers design, maintain and build the model train exhibit year-round. During the holiday season, 8,000 square feet of model trains expand to 10,000 square feet, and more than 100 trains.

“I try to come in once a week or every other week,” says Bob Crown. “During the holidays, it’s pretty much every day.”

Crown has volunteered at the model train display since 2005 and drives in from Lawrence. He says some volunteers repair engines and others paint snowy mountain scenes, but his main job is to make sure the trains are running.

Using an app on his iPad, Crown starts a train and blows the horn. “That's a horn sounding to go across the crossing, warn the cars.”

When he was 7 or 8 years old, Crown got an American Flyer model train for Christmas. Trains still bring him a lot of joy.

“It's a coming together, and when you see the children that come through,” he says, “and if you're here running your trains and letting them run your trains with you — just the joy and their smile and the happiness and the parents and the whole holiday tradition.”

“That’s our pat on the back, and that's our ‘thank you,’” Crown says.

Sandra Clayman stands next to a village scene where she’s been placing small houses. Clayman’s dad, Richard Mettle, collected trains. Every year for Christmas, he and her mom, Frances, would bring them up from the basement.

“And it was a three, three-and-a-half-week process,” she says. “He constructed a platform. The Christmas tree went on it, and it had tunnels.”

Mettle grew up in Kansas City and left by train to serve in the Army during World War II. He died in April, and Clayman’s mom, who lives in Longview, Texas, decided to donate his train set to Union Station.

Clayman says it’s her turn to set up the trains this year.

“I'm learning a little more about setting up the track and, you know, how to change stuff on the trains,” she says. “So it's fun to do it.”

A black model steam engine grain rolls past a miniature, snowy village in part of a larger model train disply.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A miniature version of the Polar Express rumbles through the Christmas model train exhibit at Union Station.

Inside a workshop space just off the Great Hall, Ted Tschirhart wears a blue and white striped engineer’s cap. He’s surrounded by boxes of Lionel trains, wires and tools.

Tschirhart was a tool designer and an engineer. He's volunteered for Union Station for more than 20 years, and since 2005, he's headed up the model train display. In those early years, volunteers were learning from trial and error, taking things apart and putting them back together.

“We would start Labor Day weekend, and we would build and get it ready by Thanksgiving — it would take us that long,” he says. “And then all this had to have wires — everything had to be wired, and transformers, and we had all this stuff.”

These days, the installation process goes a little bit faster. This year, Tschirhart started working with other volunteers on Oct. 21 to get the holiday display ready to open before Thanksgiving.

“I've got plenty of space for them to work,” he says with a laugh. “So we just need the volunteers to agree to come, and we'll keep you busy.”

With an influx of donations, and volunteers with lots of their own ideas, Tschirhart says every year brings something new to see.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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