Inside NJ’s Impressive Hi-Railers Train Club

November 15, 2019 Jennifer Finn

Ben Fioriello likes to play with trains. He had always wanted to build an elaborate layout in his home, but when that didn’t work out, he joined the New Jersey Hi-Railers Train Club instead. 

Fioriello is now president of the Hi-Railers and plays with his trains whenever he wants on the mind-boggling, 185-foot-long layout the members have built over years of collecting and construction. They claim it’s the world’s largest layout of its kind—and they proudly show it off several times each year.

On one show day last winter, nine O-scale trains were running on the interweaving tracks of the layout, a small miracle of engineering and design prowess on the third floor of an old silk mill in Paterson. The trains ran through tunnels, over rivers and along imaginary downtowns. They passed train yards, coal mines, an amusement park and a nostalgic P. Ballantine & Sons brewery. At the northern end of the layout, the tracks carved an arc around Gotham City, complete with a Batmobile (press a button and it careens through the streets) and Batman himself, clinging to the Wayne Industries skyscraper.

In the control tower—a raised deck along one wall of the high-ceilinged space—Fioriello and fellow club members attended to the seven control panels, watching for the inevitable derailments or other mishaps. “You can run it with one person,” said Fioriello, “if you’re really good.”

A train speeds past a section of the intricately detailed oil refinery, part of an architect’s model for a Standard Oil of California construction project. Photo by Erik Rank

But that wouldn’t be as much fun as playing trains with your buddies. The club’s 56 members range in age from 15–84 and come from as far as Texas and Vermont to run their trains on the Hi-Railers layout. They meet every Wednesday evening, but club members have 24/7 access to the layout. Essentially, it’s their clubhouse. 

Each fall and winter, the club opens to the public for a series of six shows, starting this year with a Halloween show on October 27 and including a Santa show on December 15. 

At last season’s final show in February, parents (mostly dads) and their kids (mostly boys) swarmed around the layout and followed the mesmerizing movement of the train cars—or rolling stock, as they are called in the trade. Thomas Scheiwiller of Glen Rock brought his son, Coen, who was not yet two. “He’s obsessed with trains,” said Scheiwiller, who takes Coen and his older brother, Kilian, to three or four train shows each year. “This one,” said Scheiwiller, “is the biggest and nicest.”

Karley Kurz and her dad, Joe, get a close look at the passing trains and abundant scenery. They are looking for inspiration for a layout they hope to build at their home in Oakland. Photo by Erik Rank

It’s no surprise that the history of Hi-Railers starts with a small New Jersey boy. Mathew Horning was six when his father, Marty, took him to his first train show. “A lot of kids are into video games,” said Mat, now 28. “I was, too, but I loved trains. They’re greasy, they’re loud, and you have to fix them.”

Just as Mat was becoming infatuated with trains, Marty Horning and his brother-in-law and business partner, Bernie Callen, purchased the old silk mill. They planned to convert the top floor into office space. At Mat’s suggestion, it became the temporary home for a small train layout belonging to an existing train club. In time, Marty and Bernie purchased and installed a larger layout from a private home in Franklin Lakes. Eventually, the old club disbanded and the New Jersey Hi-Railers were born. (Callen, who lives in West Orange, still owns the building; Marty Horning died in 2013.)

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Over the years, the club has built up the layout with more sections and features—some purchased, some donated, some fabricated by club members. The scale model of the New York Susquehanna and Western diesel-servicing facility cost the club $20,000. Callen purchased the intricately detailed oil refinery—part of an architect’s model for a Standard Oil of California project—at a train show for about $5,000.

While the layout represents a significant investment of time and money, the club members don’t take themselves too seriously. The names on some of the storefronts—Cook, Books & Hyde Tax Accountants; Boxwell Funeral Home; Morrison’s Doors; Knight & Gale Brewery—are clearly the products of playful minds. The Genco Olive Oil billboard is an aficionado’s reference to The Godfather. Neil’s New & Used Guitars is a nod to rock star Neil Young, who at one time was a part owner of model-train manufacturer Lionel Trains. Young visited the Hi-Railers’ layout in 2008. Steven Spielberg and TV weatherman Frank Field are among the other celebrities who have stopped by.

The Triumph Fire Works store. Photo by Erik Rank

The layout also tips its cap to New Jersey. One section, inspired by Newark, includes a replica of the Broad Street rail station and a bridge modeled after a Passaic River crossing. A row of landmark structures, including a wooden Pan Am building handmade by a club member, represent Manhattan. New York subway trains run below the perimeter of much of the layout; look closely and you’ll spot tiny, molded-plastic rats in the stations.

Unlike many such layouts, the Hi-Railers’ creation encourages interaction. Visitors can walk around and press buttons to trigger action on the layout. Press the button at the fire station and sirens sound, a fireman slides down a pole, doors open and a fire truck emerges. Another button triggers the lights and rotor on a police helicopter. At the amusement park, a button operates a Ferris wheel and roller coaster.

It’s a lot to take in for anyone who visits. Hoboken father and son Nick and Adrian Matterson came to the show for the second time in February—this time with a stepladder so Adrian, now 4, could get a better view of the passing trains and all of the scenery. 

Adrian Matterson gets a pointer from his dad, Nick, as a train passes by. The Hoboken train fans came to the show with a stepladder so Adrian could get the best view. Photo by Erik Rank

For the members of the club, trains are a hobby bordering on obsession. Club president Fioriello, who lives in Staten Island, retired in 2003 from his career as an IT specialist at IBM. The father of two and grandfather of six is now a New York subway motorman. “They pay me to play with trains,” he says.

Mat Horning, who lives in Hackensack, is a product manager for Sharp Electronics. He also volunteers as a ticket taker and conductor on the Delaware River Railroad, an excursion train in Phillipsburg—known for its fall-foliage and Polar Express holiday train rides. Horning hopes to get an engineer’s license at some point.

But mostly, Fioriello, Horning and their fellow Hi-Railers enjoy spending time at the clubhouse. Their trains are neatly displayed in cases surrounding the layout. On the walls, they’ve hung a collection of railroad artifacts, including a crossing sign rescued from Fifth Avenue in Paterson and doors from an old subway car. On one wall, they’ve mounted a 108-foot-long, 7-foot-tall situation board the club rescued from New York’s Grand Central Station. When it was functioning, LEDs on the board indicated the position of every Metro North train. Grand Central was ready to trash the board in 2009. Instead, eight club members dismantled it and hauled it to Paterson. It took eight months to reassemble.

Hi-Railers president Ben Fioriello, seated, takes a break from the controls along with club members, from left, Jim DiMeo, Eric Wenslau, Kevin Martin, Jeffrey Potischman and club VP Chris Lord. Photo by Erik Rank

The club houses other smaller but significant layouts. A standard-gauge layout once owned by the late TV personality Tom Snyder (and donated by his wife) is on display opposite the south end of the main layout. In a separate room across the hall, visitors crowd around three more layouts, two of which were featured in TV’s Sopranos. You might remember the scene in the show’s final season when the fictional Bobby Baccalieri (aka Bobby Baccala) gets whacked and collapses over a train layout. That layout is on display here. The club members discovered it in an HBO warehouse on Long Island.

The action at Hi-Railers shows is decidedly more family friendly. Club member Sy Mendel of Wayne, a retired IBM consultant, performs “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” on an organ on loan from the Garden State Theater Organ Society. Other members serve pizza and franks at the snack bar. For the Halloween show, 200 monsters are added to the layout. For the Christmas show, the layout is decorated with 12,000 lights, and club member Vinny Riccio of Wayne dresses up as Santa to dispense gifts to young visitors.

After show season ends, things get back to normal for the Hi-Railers and their Wednesday-night gatherings. Said Fioriello, “It’s just a bunch of club members here, playing with trains and fixing stuff.”  


UPCOMING SHOWS

The New Jersey Hi-Railers Train Club is located at 185 Sixth Avenue, Paterson. Here are this season’s show dates:

  • October 27 (Halloween show)
  • November 17
  • December 1
  • December 15 (Santa show)
  • January 12
  • February 9

All shows are Sunday, 10 am-4 pm. Admission is $2 for children 5-12 and $7 for adults. For more information, visit njhirailers.com.

The post Inside NJ’s Impressive Hi-Railers Train Club appeared first on New Jersey Monthly.

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