Ridin’ the [model] rails
Neal Schorr has been working on the railroad all the livelong day, and even some nights and weekends, for many years.
He is the builder, conductor and engineer of a model railroad based on the Middle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad; this layout is displayed in the basement of his North Hills home.
Schorr, a Wexford-based family physician and member of Temple Ohav Shalom, has been fascinated with trains ever since receiving a Lionel train starter set for Chanuka when he was 5. (Incidentally, the inventor of the Lionel train, Joshua Lionel Cowen, was the son of Jewish immigrants whose original surname was Cohen.)
The Lionel brand of model train reached the zenith of its popularity between the 1930s and 1960s. “It died out in the ’60s and then in the ’70s, slowly became more popular,” said the 54-year-old Schorr. “Those kids who played with these trains are now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, and the hobby is booming because these people have disposable income.”
The display cases of Lionel trains peppered throughout his custom-built home are the culmination of a lifetime of collecting.
“At age 16, I started building train layouts, and as the years went by, they got more sophisticated and more realistic,” Schorr recalled, basing the genesis of the Middle Pennsylvania model railroad on his love of the central Pennsylvania scenery.
Schorr explained that the Middle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad was chartered in 1846 to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The section he models was the first one actually built by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which is the segment between Harrisburg and Altoona. (The railroad is still in operation but is now owned by Norfolk Southern.)
“I couldn’t model everything, so I picked the most scenically interesting towns to me.” These include Port Royal and Mifflintown, the latter of which happens to be the home of the Empire Kosher Poultry processing plant.
He calls himself a frustrated civil engineer: “I love highways and bridges and transportation; this is an outlet for my engineering interest.”
In fact, Schorr, who co-authored a book with his best friend and fellow collector, Mitchell Dakelman, entitled “The Pennsylvania Turnpike,” employed some ideas in his design for easing the bottleneck at the Fort Pitt Tunnels, but don’t expect PennDOT to implement them any time soon.
It was his knowledge of highway construction that led Schorr, a Mt. Lebanon native, to open his medical practice in the North Hills, predicting a boom in the area with the building of I-279 in the 1980s. July will mark his 25th year of practice in the area, making him, to his knowledge, the longest-practicing physician in Wexford.
In 1990, Schorr purchased land on secluded acreage in the North Hills and built a house there in 1996. He designed the train layout along with the house.
“I designed the house with an attached garage so I would not have to use any of the basement for the garage,” he said. “I excavated out the area under part of the garage to provide a workshop, again so it did not have to take up any square footage intended for my train layout room. The house has two staircases, one in the middle and one at the end of the house. Only the one at the far end of the house extends into the basement.”
The room designated for the layout takes up 1,400 of his 2,000 square foot basement. In addition to a lot of extra electrical circuits, a special HVAC system was designed to ensure that the room heats up quickly, making it a comfortable space even during the cold winters.
The backdrop was painted by Schorr himself and was largely based on actual scenes in central Pennsylvania. He built all the model bridges from scratch, as well as the hills and mountains. “Every bridge I built on there so far is a scale model of the real thing,” he said. Many of the buildings were from kits, though he painted them to look as realistic as the buildings they represent.
The track itself runs approximately 300 feet and goes from east to west; the model gradually gets more modern the further west it goes around the circuit.
“People tend to think of a model railroad as multiple circles of track built on a table, but mine is one circuit built on a shelf around the walls of the train room,” he said. “One train follows another and the signals govern the operation of the trains — it looks and operates like a real railroad.”
Schorr and his wife, Kim, have two children. Steven, 11, and Caroline, 7, assist him in the adjoining basement workshop, painting and helping with other projects. “Fortunately, the kids go down there with me a lot and we hang out together. They love it, and that thrills me,” said Schorr.
He said his son is really into it. “Steven goes with me to model train conventions and even works on the layout when I’m not home. Caroline likes to run the trains.”
Schorr sees working on his model railroad as a 20-year project and already has put 13 years into it. “I try not to let it become a job. It’s more of a creative outlet. Every project has new challenges. I have to research things, to make things accurate. I have to be a historian, artist, electrician, engineer and carpenter. It takes a broad range of skills and a lot of energy,” he commented.
“It’s also social for me,” he added, “because I am active with the National Model Railroad Association and I’ve gone to national conventions almost every year for 20 years. I have friends all over the world; it’s very nice.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.)