A tale of two pastimes: LEGO® model train layout takes center stage
Growing up, Matt Welch loved trains. He had an HO-scale model train layout in his basement and enjoyed tinkering with it as much as possible.
“When I was in preschool there were two kinds of kids: train kids or dinosaur kids,” he joked. “I was definitely a train kid.”
When Welch was six years old, his dad brought home a LEGO train set from a work trip to Germany. At the time, LEGO® train sets were difficult to find in North America. Welch realized he could combine his two favorite hobbies, trains and LEGO, into one, and it wasn’t long before he replaced his model railroad with a LEGO one.
He spent a lot of time throughout high school and college getting distracted by girls, cars, and video games, but jumped back into the hobby as an adult when he found he had the income to take it to the next level.
And he absolutely did take it to the next level.
In June 2022, Welch and a group of 10 other young men from an online club called EmpireLUG (LEGO Users Group) displayed a 640 square-foot LEGO model train layout, compatible with the L-Gauge Modular System standard (LGMS), at Brickworld Chicago. The project took the group less than six months to build, an astonishing feat. The group consisted of members from Mexico, Canada and the United States, all under the age of 26, who each built their own module for the layout and then either shipped it or drove it to the convention.
Welch got the inspiration for his portion of the layout from a model at the Colorado Model Railroad Museum in Greeley, Colorado. He was inspired by the enormous mountains and early fall colors when he stumbled across the layout on YouTube, and used that model as creative fuel for his contribution.
“Most of the members of the group actually specialize in Star Wars themed builds, but I was able to persuade them to give building a train layout a try instead,” Welch said. “Since I had a background in LEGO train models, it just worked out.”
With his background, Welch took on a leadership role by pitching ideas to sponsors, shipping supplies to participants, and encouraging everyone in the group to get in touch with their creative side.
“We actually got to partner with the LEGO company on this one and order parts in bulk directly from them. A few of our members stayed the weekend at my place and we sorted out all the LEGO and mailed everyone the pieces they needed for their respective modules,” he said. “It was no small feat, but it was worth it.”
When the layout finally came together in Chicago, it sat on the largest island of tables at the convention. Welch estimates that his section of the model contains approximately 300,000 Lego elements, but believes the larger layout contained well over a million pieces. The team even won the convention’s Best Train Layout prize.
“The layout was displayed at the convention that whole weekend and it was pretty cool to see it all put together,” he said. “Everyone worked hard to make their module look great, and I couldn’t be prouder of the team we put together to make it happen!”
After the convention, because the layout was built out of separate individual modules, each participant took theirs home with them. While Welch is not certain of the fate of other sections, his ‘River Canyon’ module remains intact for use at future shows.
Welch has built and displayed LEGO train models for various clubs and organizations since returning to the hobby a few years ago. Prior to the completion of his river canyon module, he created a large reverse loop module and has an extensive collection of 1:48 scale LEGO trains consisting mostly of prototypes used by BNSF and our predecessors.
Moving forward, he plans to continue building LGMS-compliant layout modules and eventually wants to buy a property where he can build a facility to store a large permanent layout.
“My build list is a mile long, but near the top are a steel mill complex and a 1:48 scale recreation of one of the suburban downtown areas I grew up around along BNSF’s Chicago Subdivision,” he said. “Eventually I’d love to buy a property where I could build a pole barn to store a layout large enough for operations with a few friends!”