The train set at the Museum of Science and Industry -- like the rest of the museum -- is a delightfully noisy place.
But, in the quiet moments before the museum opens, the exhibit that they call "The Great Train Story" has a different kind of magic.
The trains are still, but within this miniature world moves the man who rules over it like a benevolent giant.
William Davidson is here most days at 6:00 am, and his morning check-list includes cleaning all 1,450 feet of track.
“Trains get their power through the rails, and if the rails are dirty they don't get solid electrical contact, which eventually just prematurely burns out the motor,” he said.
Davidson has been running the museum's train set since 2010. But he's loved trains all his life. He got his first Lionel model train set when he was 2. His father was a CTA motorman.
“I would usually sit in the first seat on the L while he was motoring the train,” said Davidson. “You know, hanging out with my father and enjoying the trains, the real ones, in addition to my model trains.”
Davidson still has model trains at home; in fact, his personal collection of train cars is larger than the museum's.
But the layout he has at home isn't quite as elaborate as the one he switches on every day just before the museum opens.
“Now, we do the most important thing. We listen. If there’s a derailment, I'll hear it,” he said. “If they're derailed, they will make a very unique sound and it will be quite loud.”
No derailment today, and so The Great Train Story is open for business.
There's been a model train exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry since 1941. The current exhibit was opened in 2002. It aims to tell the story of the movement of goods by rail.
There are 26 trains on the layout. CTA and Metra trains wind their way through the Loop, while freight and Amtrak lines make the journey from Seattle to Chicago. They pass through the Midwest, the Plains states and the Rocky Mountains, interacting with industries like lumber, tourism, farming and consumer goods.
You can learn a lot from the exhibit, or you can just marvel at the movement and detail.
William Davidson got this job by accident. He's a computer guy, and he was applying for an IT position at the museum, until the interviewer heard about his knowledge of model trains and gave him the job.
“When it came along, it was like, yes, you know,” he said.
Davidson may sound low-key when he talks about it, but he admits that landing this job was a dream come true.
“It was a nice moment because this is a $3 million layout, $3.5 million to be exact. It's not every day a model railroader gets access to a layout like this,” he said.
Davidson says it's not just the trains that he loves; it's also the importance of the tiniest details.
“When I first saw the layout long before I was an employee here, it was very impressive, but at the same time there were a few things that from a model-railroader perspective, I thought the museum didn't take advantage of,” he said. “So when I came here, I was given the opportunity to bring it up to speed.”
He added lights in many of the buildings, and even changed the color of the existing lights in some Chicago buildings to more accurately reflect reality.
While the museum is open, Davidson can sometimes be found out in the exhibit, but more often he's in the back, making repairs.
He says Ho Gauge Trains just weren't designed to run 8-10 hours a day.
“Our trains undergo a lot of extraordinary wear and tear that you would not find normally at a home layout,” he said. “The engines – it’s a constant battle to keep them running all day long. We keep plenty of spares on hand. So if an engine's down, it doesn't bring down the whole layout. We just pull that engine off, bring out one that's ready to go, and we're back in business in a matter of minutes.”
Why do people love model trains so much? Davidson says that, for him, and for many people, it's the miniaturization.
But as we stood and watched his miniature world, the son of a CTA motorman revealed what is certainly in the heart of many model railroaders: a passion for the real thing.
“You get around real trains, you can feel the vibration of the engine. It's almost like it's alive, you know this is a very powerful mechanism and what it’s about to do,” Davidson said. “Even riding on the L’s and the subway, I love the smell of that subway, just have that strange axel grease smell to it. It's something very primal about trains.”
To celebrate The Great Train Story's 10th birthday, folks at the Museum of Science and Industry put a small camera aboard one of the model trains to capture a track-level view of the towns, crossings and scenery recreated in the exhibit's Seattle-to-Chicago ride. Watch the video below: