Paul Yoos has been an MTD bus operator for 31 years, and a model railroad enthusiast for more than 50. In the last 15 years, those two aspects of his life have overlapped in the form of the Champaign-Urbana MTD Employees Model Railroad Club. It’s clear he’s passionate about both, as well as the history of transportation in Champaign-Urbana.
Yoos has railroading embedded in his family’s history. His grandfather was a railroader in Centralia, working for the Chicago-Burlington-Quincy line. At age six he had his first ride in the cab of a locomotive, and soon after he received his first Lionel model train layout for Christmas, which his dad mounted to a board that could lay across the top of his bed, then be folded back up against the wall when he was done for the day. By 10 he’d moved on to more realistic set ups, and by that point he was hooked. Model railroading magazines opened his eyes to a whole world of possibilities, and as a teenager he was bestowed the “model train expert” title by a hobby shop he worked for in Urbana. It was there, in the early 70s, that the first idea of a model train club lodged in his brain, through conversations with a regular customer and fellow train enthusiast.
The idea wouldn’t be realized until 2004, when the MTD administrative offices moved to their current location at 1101 E. University from 801 E. University. During a fortuitous conversation while looking out over the train tracks that run behind the building with the Managing Director at the time, Bill Volk, Yoos planted the seed: “You know, it would be cool to have a model railroad setup here.” Volk bit, and said to write up a proposal for it. So Yoos gathered up other employees that he knew would be interested and they came up with a proposal. After a couple of months they were given the go ahead, and work began in the old maintenance offices at 801. They operated out of that location until 2015, when that building was torn down to allow expansion of the MTD garage at 803 E. University. After a two year hiatus, the club was able to reestablish their setup on the second floor of the expanded building, where it resides currently.
The club is currently made up of about 10 MTD employees — and it should be noted that it is only MTD employees. Their layout is housed in building where training is happening, and due to insurance and safety concerns it’s just not feasible for the public to join. However, they have welcomed members of the Illini Railroad Club, who had to give up their space in Illinois Street Residence Halls, after 40 years of occupying the space, to make way for renovations.
I had the opportunity to check out the club’s layout with Yoos, and it’s pretty impressive — taking up the space of an entire room. It’s a work in progress, with fully developed elements as well as continuing construction, and it is ever evolving. Planning for such an endeavor, with several different people coming in at different times and adding different things is a bit mind-bending for me, but Yoos and his fellow railroaders are fairly relaxed about it. As members have interests, they explore them through the layout. Currently, a member is working on a dinosaur excavation site because he has a son that loves dinosaurs. That’s not to say that there isn’t an immense amount of time and thought that goes into the process, from the intricacy of the track connections and wiring to the more aesthetic aspects of scenery and train car design. It's a space for the members devote time to something they're passionate about, but more importantly, “It’s a way that we can relax. It’s something we enjoy doing. It helps us cope with life.”
As I mentioned before, Yoos is well-versed in the history of Champaign County as it relates to transportation, and though the current location of the model railroad layout came about out of circumstance, there’s a serendipitous aspect to it current home. Hanging on the wall in the room is aerial photograph of the MTD facilities, with the schematics of the former Peoria and Eastern (later part of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis or Big Four Railroad) yard and shops that formerly occupied that land. Fun side note: the "Big Four" depot that was built just south of University on Broadway became the Station Theatre.
As you look out of the window of the club’s space and into the garage, you are actually looking at the location of the old roundhouse and switching yard. Says Yoos, “this location has been a transportation location since 1870.”
The club is opening their doors to the public this weekend to give community members the opportunity to see what they’ve been working on, learn more about the model railroading world, and perhaps be inspired to take on a new hobby. Yoos says “We wanted to make the hobby accessible to the public. That’s been a long-term goal.” The open house is happening Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and it's family friendly and free. You'll find the club room on the 2nd floor of 803 E University in room 219, and it is ADA accessible.