Working on the Railroad

Chi-Town Union Station’s world record-holding model trains open to public viewing

A look inside Chi-Town Union Station. Photos by Jessica VanFleteren

Located behind a nondescript storefront in Commerce Township, the Chi-Town Union Station is home to a secret world of railroad wonders.

Not only does it house the world’s largest O scale model railroad, but it also has the world’s longest model train.

Chi-Town Union Station is now open for its 15th season every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through March 8, with extended hours at the holidays. Filling an approximately 10,000-square-foot space previously occupied by a grocery store, Chi-Town Union Station has more than 12,000 feet of track, 1,000 cars and 160 engines. 

‘Carried Away’

It’s an entirely volunteer-run operation led by owner Paul Gribbell. All of the model trains are from his private collection.

“I just got carried away!” he laughs. “When I was a kid, I had a Lionel layout in my bedroom. I was a member of the Detroit Model Railroad Club in Holly for 30 years, and I always wanted to build my own railroads. Well, it worked out and I got one here.”

The models are all O scale, meaning they are 1:48 scale replicas of the iconic railroad trains of the 1950s and ’60s, the time period that Chi-Town Union Station recreates.

“All of our models are precisely detailed, accurate models,” Gribbell says.

There are a number of different urban and pastoral scenes for the trains to travel through, from Main Street America to the Rocky Mountains, Appalachia and the American Southwest. There’s also a 65-foot-long mural of Chicago in the 1960s, paying homage to the time period the trains depict. The focal point of the entire sprawling network of railroads depicting portions of the continental U.S. is, of course, Chicago’s Union Station.

Famous trains re-created here include the El Capitan, the City of Los Angeles and the Empire Builder. They also include both steam and coal engines, although these particular trains are all operated by computer. Visitors can watch 20 trains running at a time in the massive space, where trains tend to disappear into tunnels only to reappear on another side of the room.

“You can’t imagine how much material it takes to build these railroads,” Gribbell says. “I’ve got enough lumber in here to build a couple of houses.”

A Group Effort

Despite the monumental undertaking, Gribbell did it all mostly by himself for the first three years. Now he has eight to 10 volunteers helping him out on a regular basis, including Larry Greene, who has been helping out since 2005.

“I had almost started building a layout in my basement, but I could never replicate something like this,” Greene says. “I saw an article about this opening and I came over that day. I’ve been coming back ever since.”

Greene had just recently retired, and Chi-Town is located just a mile from his house.

“I always loved working with trains as a kid, but in my adult life I never had a chance to get back to trains,” Greene says. “Once I retired, I thought this was a good opportunity.”

He says that when people walk in and see the place for the first time, they are “awestruck.”

“I like to say it’s wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling trains,” he says.

Chi-Town Union StationAmanda Koch Gregory, a Dearborn resident who has been visiting Chi-Town Union Station for years with her children, husband and parents, loves how family-oriented the whole experience is — and that there is always something new to see.

“Our two young boys love checking out all of the different trains and cityscapes with their grandparents,” she says. “Every year new features are added. The cityscapes and scenery are always getting new details, which make our annual trips more enjoyable.

“The attention to cute details, like a tuber floating down the river or a cute couple from the ’50s at a diner, help make the outing not just focused on locomotives.”

She adds that it also helps that the track layout is so spread out that there’s no congestion, with areas for people to sit and just enjoy watching the trains go by. And since her boys are still quite little, she also appreciates that there are glass barriers preventing anyone from getting too close to the equipment.

“We don’t have to worry about them breaking anything or reminding them countless times, ‘Look with your eyes, not with your hands,’” she says.

Gregory also enjoys the friendly atmosphere created by the group of volunteers who run the place.

“It’s run by a group of senior men that are enjoying their passion,” she says. “They enjoy sharing their stories with young and old, and there seems to always be something that needs tinkering with.”

Indeed, there is. Regular repairs help keep the trains running five to six hours a day. And with two miles of track that needs to be wired up and everything operated by computer, there is plenty to keep electronics experts like Greene busy. During the offseason, they do much more extensive work: re-laying track, tearing off panels, reworking the lighting and all the carpentry and sculpting that goes into creating the various landscapes.

The cost to view this elaborate layout is minimal — $5 for adults, $3 for kids ages 5-17 and free for children under 5. Parking is also free and convenient.

Chi-Town Station is located at 8275 Cooley Lake Rd. For more information, call 248-613-9471.