Last Stop for Historic Model Railroad at SF's Randall Museum?

Golden Gate Model Railroad Club Secretary-Treasurer Jim Wilcox running a train on the Golden Gate Model Railroad layout. (Cyrus Musiker/KQED)
Golden Gate Model Railroad Club Secretary-Treasurer Jim Wilcox runs a train on the Golden Gate Model Railroad layout. (Cyrus Musiker/KQED)

There's a long ramp leading down to the basement of the Randall Museum in San Francisco. Down there is a world in miniature — a model-train layout 40 feet wide by 70 feet long, about two-thirds the size of a basketball court.

The layout is a miniature engineering marvel — hundreds of yards of track, mountains and tunnels, switching yards and towns. Small model trains weave their way slowly through the setup, hauling boxcars of coal and featuring the iconic logos of the Northern and Southern Pacific and Pennsylvania railroads.

The trains and the layout belong to the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club, a group that has called the Randall basement home since 1950.

The club has just a few dozen members, but the layout entertains hundreds of parents and kids who visit the trains on “Junior Engineer” days six times a year and on evenings when a member is present.

“People tell us they come here just for the trains," says Jim Wilcox, the club’s secretary treasurer. “They want to keep the trains the way they are.”

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Well, not everyone.

The Randall, located in the city's Corona Heights neighborhood, is operated by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, which is planning a $5.4 million upgrade to improve the museum’s seismic safety and to provide more access for the disabled.

Nicholas Wright and the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club layout. (Cyrus Musiker/KQED)
Nicholas Wright and the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club layout. (Cyrus Musiker/KQED)

That plan would dramatically shrink the space available for the trains, says member George Wright, who recently volunteered dozens of hours digitizing the train controllers and tracks.

“They’re going to take about 75 percent of our space away," Wright says. "That means we’d have to tear out this layout that’s been here for 53 years, and build a very small layout.”

One too small, Wright says, to be worth it for club members.

And rebuilding would cost money the club doesn’t have — up to $350,000 for even a small layout of similar quality.

Club members are hoping public support will convince the city to leave their space alone.

Sarah Ballard, director of policy and public affairs for the Recreation and Parks Department, says, “The department is absolutely committed to having a publicly accessible railroad exhibit at the museum.”

The Golden Gate Model Railroad Club’s relationship with the Department of Recreation and Parks is complicated. Club members say they can’t find a written lease. And Ballard says the deal might always have been a handshake arrangement. The club has been paying a nominal fee for rent but the Recreation and Parks Department refused the last payment, Ballard says, in anticipation of redefining “the legal relationship in a new space. And this is just an administrative way of insuring that that’s going to happen.”

But Ballard says the department and the architect in charge are still refining the plans, and it may yet be possible to get an exemption to building codes for the basement, leaving the current train layout intact.

Club members say they have yet to hear such reassurances.

But maintaining the staus quo would definitely suit Nick Wright. He’s an 18-year-old club member who got his first train set when he was 3 hours old.

Wright worries that model trains will wither as a hobby if layouts like this disappear. “I think so, yeah. Because of there’s no children seeing them, there will be no future for it.”

There’s no date yet for a meeting between club members and city officials.