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The Peoria Train Fair, derailed last year by COVID-19, is back on track

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Courtesy of River City Model Railroad Club
The Peoria Train Fair model railroading expo returns to Illinois Central College in East Peoria on Sunday. Rick Stephenson of the River City Model Railroad Club in Pekin says the event will include operating train layouts and an interactive exhibit for kids.

Rick Stephenson is able to pinpoint precisely when his fascination with model trains began.

“I just found a picture not too long ago of my second Christmas – it's in black and white because I'm that old,” said Stephenson, a member of the River City Model Railroad Club in Pekin.

“I was sitting at the bottom of the tree, and there's a train track. It's it looks to be like a Lionel or something like that, a larger train. I never knew that picture existed, and I thought that's where I got my interest in trains.”

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Joe Deacon
Rick Stephenson

Stephenson said he suspects most model railroad enthusiasts similarly can trace their interest in the hobby back to childhood.

“I just think it all goes back to your youth and at some point it kind of rekindled itself,” he said. “How many times you've been stuck at a light watching the train go by, and as much as you're in a hurry and want to get somewhere, you're kind of in awe watching this massive piece of machinery going by.

“It's almost about perspective, because Dad will pull up to a train crossing, going ‘dag gummit, now I’ve got a train,’ and the kid in the backseat is going, ‘Dad, look – a train!’ There’s just a mystique about them.”

Stephenson and other Peoria-area train buffs get an opportunity to indulge that interest Sunday when the Peoria Train Fair returns to Illinois Central College in East Peoria. The event, co-sponsored by the River City club and Peoria’s Illinois Valley Model Railroad Club, had to be canceled last year amid COVID-19.

“I'm not sure when it first started, but it has been going on for as long as I've been around here and I moved here in 2001,” he said. “It's an opportunity for people who are interested in model railroading to get supplies that you may need throughout the year and to see some of the new products around.

“You may be a ‘train-iac’ or a model railroad enthusiast, or you may just want something to do for a Sunday. A lot of people will bring their kids, because it is a family friendly event and of course the kids are the ones that draw the parents there.”

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Courtesy of River City Model Railroad Club
Rick Stephenson of the River City Model Railroad Club in Pekin says the Peoria Train Fair attracts a range of guests, from train buffs to budding hobbyists to holiday shoppers. The event returns to Illinois Central College in East Peoria on Sunday.

Along with operating layouts and a hands-on exhibit for kids, the fair will have kits, supplies, videos, books and memorabilia for sale. Stephenson said the upcoming holiday season is a natural fit for the fair’s timing.

“I can't tell you how many people have layouts they've made just strictly to go around the Christmas tree,” he said. “It's the one time they pull out their Lionel train and have it going in the morning.

“If you're looking for a Christmas gift and something unique or you have a child that wants to get into the hobby, it's a perfect opportunity to ask questions. There's plenty of train sets that will be available out there.”

Stephenson said the train fair is an ideal opportunity for beginners to learn more about model railroading, from the various sizes – ranging from the large G-scale tracks to the smaller HO, Z, and N-scale – to how much the hobby can cost.

“It's all what you want to do. Sometimes you're like me and you're just a big mouth bass who just gets hooked from the start,” said Stephenson, noting typical HO starter kits are generally in the $75-$130 range. “It really does get down what you want to spend and how deep you want to get into it.

“You can buy more track; you can buy bigger engines. You can get into what they call DCC, which is Digital Control Command (where computerized controls can operate multiple trains on one layout). When you get into that, then you're getting more pricey, and of course the locomotives cost more while the train cars behind them are usually more reasonable.”

Stephenson said the Peoria Train Fair offers a chance to build more interest in model railroading.

“We are happy to pass answers on because that’s the only way the hobby grows,” he said. “Some people have said hobbies are dying away with all the technology out there today, but there's plenty of technology. If you're a tech person, there's so much technology in this hobby now, it’s is unbelievable.”

The fair runs from 10 a.m.-3 p.m., and attendees are required to wear masks. Admission costs $3 for adults, and kids 12 and under are free when accompanied by an adult. All admission proceeds support the two model railroad clubs.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.