More than 60 miniature dramas are being played out this Christmas at the Shoppes at Northway.
The shopping center is host to a free model train display built by the Pittsburgh Independent Hi-Railers. The eight members of the hobby club have set up dozens of their "modular layouts" on the upper level of the mall in Ross.
Visitors have to look carefully to follow the stories presented by 11/2-inch-tall characters in the railroad scenes: A policeman chases after a hobo; raccoons scavenge in a dumpster. Folks on a campout roast marshmallows over a faintly glowing wood fire, while, not too far away, prisoners on a chain gang do road repairs. They are not the only workers. Two lumberjacks are busily sawing a log.
"Our members like to model, they like to run trains and they are proud to show off their work," said Dan Glover, of Marshall. "I've loved trains since I was a boy. I'm 56 now and that feeling has never gone away."
He and his son, Jacob, 15, both are club members. One recent evening, they helped to control two of the O-gauge locomotives that were pulling long strings of freight or passenger cars through the elaborately landscaped scenes.
The layout is 18 feet by 60 feet and always has four trains running at one time. The trains are drawn from a collection of about 50 locomotives and abut 125 different passenger and freight cars owned by club members.
On their journey around the layout, the trains pass by a busy downtown where the 1950s-style illuminated movie marquee is advertising "Attack of the Sea Creature." Just before a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train heads into a tunnel, it travels through an oil field with a half dozen derricks.
Young visitors are encouraged to hold in a white doorbell that brings to life a tiny playground. Children there start riding on a merry-go-round, swinging, playing on a seesaw or flying a model airplane.
The layout includes details likely to appeal to Pittsburgh residents of all ages -- such as a Steelers locomotive pulling more than a dozen black-and-gold freight cars.
An illuminated Heinz sign is mounted on the side of one model building. Showing a traditional ketchup bottle being emptied, it re-creates a real sign that for many years was a landmark at the Heinz plant on Pittsburgh's North Side. The original now decorates one of the exterior walls at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
The Hi-Railers display uses Lionel O-gauge trains, which are built at one-forty-eighth scale, where 1 inch equals about 4 feet. "You can just see so much more detail on the larger locomotives," said Hi-Railer Jim Montgomery, of Turtle Creek.
That detail also is apparent on the lighted cars that are part of the Pennsylvania Railroad's "Congressional Limited." Passengers are dining, reading or relaxing as their train circles the layout.
Members of the Pittsburgh hobby club have taken their models to train shows as far away as Las Vegas. This year marks their fifth appearance at the Shoppes at Northway, which was long known as the Northway Mall.
Club members start and stop their trains via wireless devices that also control speed, direction and sound effects, including bells and steam whistles.
McCandless resident Matt Irvin said that sometimes, when things aren't too busy, he will hand one of the remote controls to a lucky young visitor and let her control one of the chugging locomotives.
"I'm in this for the smiles we get from the kids," Mr. Irvin said.
Admission to the layout is free. It will be at the mall through Jan. 9. Hours are 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
It will be closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
Len Barcousky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-0184.