Rock River Valley Train Show: Model Train Enthusiasts Gather in Rockford

For more than three decades, children and the young at heart have been gathering to see detailed train layouts and all variety of gear. Here’s a sneak peak at what’s to come.

The annual Rock River Valley Train Show in Machesney Park draws together a dozen train clubs and numerous vendors who together show off impressive model railroad layouts and tons of related merchandise.

Model train enthusiasts of all ages converge on Machesney Park later this month for the 31st annual spring show of the Rock River Valley Division of the National Model Railroad Association (RRVD-NMRA).

This year’s event takes place March 25-26 at Harlem High School, 9229 N. Alpine Road, in Machesney Park. Harlem High School students oversee concessions as they sell hot dogs, pizza, nachos and drinks.

A dozen train clubs within a 100-mile radius will fill more than 42,000 square feet of space to participate in model train demonstrations, and dozens of vendors are selling everything and anything that has to do with trains, including new and used rails and cars, supplies, signs, lanterns, T-shirts, hats and fine china used to serve food on popular passenger trains from the past. Those wanting to become members of the local division will have an opportunity to sign up at the event.

The largest layout on display is 24 feet wide and 50 feet long, with 15-20 people operating the train.

“Model trains have been called the world’s greatest hobby because the hobby encompasses so many different facets – electronics, model building, carpentry and history,” says Marty Hendrickx, superintendent of the local division. “People can build and operate model railroads and cars or just collect them. People love to watch trains move. It’s not a static hobby, and the operator has up-close control over the train. It’s an easy hobby to immerse yourself in.”

Ken Mosny, assistant superintendent of RRVD, says people are attracted to the hobby for a variety of reasons, including enjoying the mechanical and technical side of how trains are built and operated. Artistic people enjoy the creative work of making the scenery for a layout or putting details on cars, and others love the historical aspects and research that goes into it.

Train collectors and hobbyists will sometimes focus on re-creating a particular railroad and cars that exist or did exist, sometimes focusing on a particular time period. Some of the layouts are realistic, but others are “whimsical” and as unique as the people creating the display, Mosny says.

“The newer model trains are like works of art, with intricate details that are shockingly realistic,” Hendrickx adds. “The only thing constant about trains, in any time period, is they all have wheels and travel by rail. Railroads are like any other industry, driven by costs of materials, manufacturing and labor. Even the rails have changed through the years from wood and iron to steel.”

The two men know people who have traveled to Washington, D.C., to research train routes and others who have traveled to various locations to photograph the terrain so they can make their model train layouts as accurate as possible.

Whether based on real or fictional places, many compress distances to scale, just as the model trains themselves are scaled to the size of real trains.

The Rock River Valley Division group welcomes visitors at its monthly meetings, typically held on the first Sunday of the month, September to May, at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, in Rockford. Check the latest dates and location online at

The local division, chartered in 1967, includes Boone, Jo Daviess, Ogle, DeKalb, Stephenson, Lee, Whiteside and Winnebago counties in Illinois and Green and Rock counties in Southern Wisconsin.

Admission to the event is $5 per adult at the door. Children under age 12 are admitted free. Door prizes are given out to one child and one adult every hour.

“People attending the show will have a wide variety of experiences and a lot of entertainment for a low cost,” Hendrickx says.