Winterfest 2020

Published: 2020-02-13 - By: Derk
Last updated on: 2020-03-02
visibility: Public - Headline
Winterfest 2020, a Con within a Con

Winterfest 2020 at ARS's Railroad Hobby Show: My First Train Convention

Recently I returned from my first ever model train convention. Lemme tell you, I'm looking forward to returning next year, which is perhaps the kindest thing you can say about a con experience, in my humble opinion. First off, I should mention I'm not new to non-train conventions. I have been attending conventions (invite and public both) for decades, first as attendee, then as media/marketing guy, and finally as con runner for a 1000 person four-day bash. I even attended the Nuremberg Toy Fair once...

Anyway, The Amherst Railway Society, a group of train enthusiasts from Amherst, Massachusetts throws an annual show, Railroad Hobby Show, in West Springfield Massachusetts' Eastern States Expo. Started in the early 1960s, this year's attendance was more than 20,000 train enthusiasts, young and old. The show's format is a typical trade-show approach, with the four large exhibit spaces filled with train-themed vendors of all sorts. But the primary draw for the show is the train layouts from groups and clubs from around the northeast states. These exhibitor clubs don't sell anything (refreshing in itself) and their unbridled passion for all things model trains is very apparent in the final product. More on this later...

Everyone loves trains!

Now I actually attended the "con in a con", Northeast N-Trak's Winterfest, a group of N-scale modelers. I would subsequently learn that N-scale (theoretically) refers to train models with a ratio of 1 to 160, which means most of the cars and engines easily fit in the palm of your hand (this ratio varies in other countries, and there's a ton of other geeky details about the "N-scale" term, but I leave such wonky matters to others). Northeast N-Trak is a swell group of guys from various states in the northeast interested in N-scale modeling. Collectively they plan and build a massive layout in the Expo, creating hundreds of feet of track in three parallel loops by connecting dozens of modules, all using the common N-Trak format. And Winterfest is where they come to relax and recharge.

The format of the large ARS Event has thousands of people sightseeing and shopping from 9 to 5 on Saturday and Sunday, with Saturday being much more crowded. As most of the attendees move through the crowded aisles, the exhibitors (like the Winterfest folks) move around and behind their layouts, running trains or explaining various aspects of their collective layout, specific module, or even the train that's currently making it's way around one of the loops. Simply put, the ARS Expo can be a bit of a beat down, and I mean that in the best possible way. But that's where Winterfest shines!

This is what that little fella was looking at...

Before Winterfest proper started, many of the would-be attendees went to Uno's Chicago-style pizzeria for dinner. The food was quite tasty, and I got a chance to talk to several people. One of my favorites was Jim Nolan, a firefighter with a Boston accent and a self-proclaimed gift of gab. He'd ordered an appetizer for the table, a small pizza-like convection with cheese melted on top of bacon bits and what I assumed was a egg-based quiche-y thing. As I bit into it, I was surprised to find the crust filled with mashed potatoes: it was Uno's version of potato skins. And then Jim tells the story of how he had invented it years prior! I also chatted with another Jim (name?), a member of the Amherst Railroad Society, and a floor manager for the building we'd be spending most of our time. He also gave me a glimpse into the workings of the non-profit ARS, as well as what types of railroading endeavors/museums they support with the proceeds of the show. We finished up and tromped over to the hotel via the connecting hallway...

Details, details, details...

Winterfest registration started that Friday night, with each attendee receiving a free t-shirt and an N-scale train car provided by and then an N-scale train car from a selection of MicroTrains, one of the con's generous sponsors. Next on the roster was the mini-show, which I'm told was very interesting; a few choice vendors showed off their latest products and folks got to see the new products up close and personal. Meanwhile, I got a chance to hang with Bob Pawlak, Treasurer for Northeast N-Trak. He taught me some basic train mechanics and some rail line lore, and we chatted about the history of Winterfest (Bob's been an attendee for many a decade). Tired and yet oddly refreshed, we all headed up to our rooms in the Hilton to get some pre-emptive rest...

Saturday morning after a quick breakfast, we hopped into the car for a short five-minute drive to the Expo Halls. Since all Winterfest attendees receive Exhibitor passes, we all got decent parking spots to facilitate loading and unloading. While most of the layouts had been roughly setup on Friday evening, that Saturday morning was a chaotic beehive of activity as everyone scrambled to get the collective layout working. But then the trains began to running, and the doors opened.

Let the Trains commence...

And the doors kept opening, over and over. And over. All day long. I was amazed at the size of the crowds. Most of that Saturday morning, I was processing entries for the model/photo contests. But I really enjoyed what I was seeing. The crowds where people of all ages, with lots of families. And everyone was very... pleasant to one another. I realize that may sound like I'm damning by feint praise, but honestly I appreciated the civility everyone demonstrated. But my favorite (by far) was the kids: I lost track of how many little people I saw grinning ear to ear, as they pointed to some particular aspect of a layout or pushed the button to dump the tiny dump truck again and again.

Buttons to mash, Trains to oggle

Finally about noon, I was asked to head over to the T-Trak layout for some reason or another. Until then, I'd been spending most of my time around the N-Trak layout. N-Trak and T-Trak both use N-scale trains and cars, but the T-Trak modules are smaller and designed to be set up on standard 8-foot tables, whereas the N-Trak modules are larger and have collapsible legs. N-Trak modules are fully customized, and that additional space and flexibility allows the modeler to build truly wondrous scenes. T-Trak modules are easier to transport and being smaller makes it easier for amateurs to complete (there are even starter kits). N-Trak is like going to the art museum, where you appreciate it visually. T-Trak is like going to the science museum, where you randomly push buttons. The conversations around each layout was very different as well. "You know, if we finish ours (referring to the T-Trak layout), we can bring it here next year," one parent remarked. "So tell me about the circus..." a viewer remarked. "Well, that's not a circus, it's a carnival. And most this was built from scratch, painted in exacting detail, arranged with excruciating care, and those decals are the actual historical logos..."


Lunch was essentially a no-go, with the lines at concessions long and mostly immobile (and the food predictably wretched). But whatever, there was a show to see! At this point, I'd spent most of the day doing random tasks for Winterfest folks, but also processing the entries for best models and pictures. I was very impressed with the submissions. So much attention to detail in such a small space! We broke the entries into categories, photographed them, and then positioned them for viewing. I went around to each of two dozen-ish modules, photographing each. Next was the T-Trak layout and we processed those modules for prizes. A few Japanese fellas from Kato were there as well, awarding modules with prizes. George Michaels, Winterfest Chairman, and I selected the T-Trak module with Best Electronics or Animation. George and I each independently made a list, one two three, from the dozens of T-Trak modules. Interestingly, our lists matched perfectly, one two three! That lucky person got a full set of Kato engines from

Winner of Best Electronics/Animation

With the first day of the Expo drawing to a close, you could feel the energy draining from the massive rooms, as the crowds receded. All the exhibitors let out a collective sigh, and then started to prep for tomorrow. The Winterfest folks packed up their belongings and chatted about what had transpired. Back into the car for the quick jaunt to the hotel. We had a few minutes to decompress before the dinner and the main presentations started.

After the hotel staff had transformed the event room and set up the AV, we stared to seat Winterfest folks for dinner. While I wasn't there for last year's dinner, everyone had been talking about it. This year it was a buffet: chicken parmesan, salmon or prime rib, with salads, sides, and bread to accompany. While I didn't think the food was all that bad, I think there was ample room for improvement. The staff was quite helpful, but the food could have been served with more chaffing dishes to ensure the food was hot and fresh for everyone. Afterwards there were three kinds of desert and coffee, of course. I needed the coffee at this point.

New uses for optical cable

Once dinner had finished, the main program began with a few guest speakers. First was George Michaels, Winterfest Chairman, as emcee he made a few brief announcements and introduced the speakers. Lowell Smith of Railsmith fame (and a very good speaker, I might add) gave everyone a view of the future of N-scale modeling focused on on-demand manufacturing. Then Bruce Alcock, former Chairman of Winterfest and all-around great guy, spoke of the many innovations in N-scale modelling since its 1960s inception. This was particularly interesting to me, as I didn't (read: don't) know much of the history of N-scale. Next George announced the winners for the many contests we'd processed that day. Jim Pyle had put in a ton of work into the visual presentation, an effort all the more spectacular given he'd started and finished just that afternoon (you can't create a presentation without pics and winners).

I think my favorite part of the awards was the Special Award given to Bob Pawlak. When everyone was setting up the big ol' N-Trak layout (and we'd already collectively re-positioned the main rail yard section a few times), I asked someone, "So what's level?" He pointed to the bridge made entirely of shiny brushed aluminum, "That's level." I (and my $#%@ bad knees) certainly appreciated Bob's contribution greatly, as it made getting into and out of the middle of the layout much more pleasant (and painless). He later told me that he'd made it with a table saw with special blade and few custom jigs. I was astonished.

Everyone loves Bob!

The Canadian attendees did very well with the awards, and it made me wonder why there weren't more submissions. The prizes were quite good, even from my uneducated eye. Finally we made it to the much-anticipated raffle (we'd sold out of tickets the previous evening). With all the food eaten, the prizes awarded, old friendships renewed, and new friendships forged, we all gladly adjourned to our rooms for a bit of sleep before Sunday.

That next morning, we arrived at the Expo, and my first destination was coffee. It being Massachusetts, it was Dunkin' (again). As I moseyed back to the Northeast N-Trak layout, a group of modelers was sitting in the middle nursing hot drinks and sleepily gazing into the distance. There were very few trains on the tracks, so Alex Daggett gave me a lesson on how to run trains, and I ran one of his engines (with a few cars) around the entire layout. While I certainly enjoyed it, I'm not sure how much more I enjoyed it because I held the controller. All in all, seeing the tiny train realistically bumping along the miniature landscapes, this is what model trains are about to me. I very much appreciate being part of the awe-struck audience.

Long train

Sunday at the Expo was definitely slower, with the crowds greatly thinned out. Mind you, it was still quite busy, and the concessions were completely hammered for a second day. Having learned from yesterday, we bought a bit of food at a grocery store prior. You could see more purchases, as attendees furtively carried away their new toys. I was doing something or another at the show office, when I had a funny little encounter. I was chatting with a big fella in bib-overalls, and he was pleased as punch to be there in train fun land. He spied a handsome gentleman sauntering down the aisle and his face changed to Christmas morning glee! "Is that who I think it is...?" I remarked I had no idea who it was, but Bibs had already closed the distance to the gentleman and was shaking his hand. "This is (name forgotten) from (local Springfield news station). My wife and I loved your report about (x)," he gushed. I took a picture with Bibs' flip phone, shook everyone's hand (including the mini-gentleman hiding behind his celebrity dad), and parted company smiling. Later that day, Bibs found me again and pointlessly worried if the gentleman had been annoyed.

For me, the highlight of the whole show was later that afternoon. I was instructed to head to the T-Trak layout to take some pictures of a raffle. As the rather sizeable crowd gathered, I climbed a chair to watch. Now the thing about raffles is you have to be there and everyone can win (theoretically). However as a person who has run a number of raffles in the past, just because someone buys a raffle ticket doesn't mean the eventual winner will be all super-duper triple-dog thrilled to win. Such was not the case here. The prize was grand, a whole set of trains/cars from Kato. Everyone waited and it was almost quiet. The winning ticket was read out, and a young man raised his quivering hand. He was about twelve and his whole family had come to the show, they all were very very excited (and photogenic too). You could clearly see how happy he was (and yet you could see him secretly eying the exits, as if he could be home right now to play with his shiny new trains).

Oh yea, new Amtrak set!

As Sunday wound down and I didn't have much to do until tear-down, I toured the halls. I was very impressed with all the laser cut wood models, I didn't realize how much detail they could have. I also looked at a few very impressive 3D printers that modelers could use to create customized miniature items. I particularly enjoyed the Fostoria Railpark booth, where they told me about a triangular park the city had built, at a confluence of mainlines right in that area. I will definitely stop, when next I'm in central Ohio. I also rather enjoyed this booth full of wall art: engine fronts made from several layers of MDF, brightly painted, embellished with logos, and lit with tiny LEDs. There was an actual 20-ton steam engine hissing and sputtering and whisting in the parking lot. And just to ensure a fully-immersed train show experience: management used train whistles to announce the open and close of the show each day.

Hard at work

I really can't say enough great things about the layouts that were there. So many different railroads, so many different scenes. There was a giant HO-scale draw bridge made entirely of brass, built by a retired machinist shortly after WWII; it had hundreds of miniature functioning rivets, and itty-bitty hand-machined gears that mechanically lifted the bridge. And the modules! Oh so many different and wonderful modules. One had a cute little hamlet lit by street lamps with its own independent trolley track visiting neighborhoods. A highly-realistic German rail station that was constructed entirely from paper. A parking ramp filled with parked cars lit with tiny lights. A castle complete with towers, turrets, and tunnels and even its own connected village. An autumnal forest with a river and crowd of people clustered around a campfire. There was a massive port, a military base, a demolition derby... Gosh, the list goes on and on. I can't really do any of it justice with words or pictures, but the layouts are the main attraction for a reason. You need to be there personally, to see it personally; to pick out a small section or even one single detail to focus on and let your eyes explore. The extreme level of love and care put into the modules was very apparent. And the exhibitors clearly enjoyed sharing their toys and their knowledge. It made for a very fulfilling experience, a wholesome break from the tumult of normal daily stresses.

Deliver the package THERE!

Amherst Railway Society should be very proud of their Railroad Hobby Show. It was well organized and very effective. And frankly Winterfest is the perfect compliment to make the entire train-infused weekend a better experience. The ARS Expo was huge, overwhelming and completely enthralling. Winterfest was a warm, personalized convention that allows attendees a chance to slow down, exchange some tidbits about modeling, and even get a few gifts. As I stated at the outset, I am definitely looking forward to next year!