Ian Pugliese's thumb moved up and down his iPod as he watched a train move around the tracks at the Historic Train Depot in Hendersonville. The depot's intricate displays were abuzz with activity during the Apple Valley Model Railroad Club's post-Christmas Open House Wednesday.
The 16-year-old wasn't texting or surfing the Internet, however. He was using the app Wi Throttle to control the train.
The phone app is just one of many ways technology is changing the hobby of building and running model railroads. The Apple Valley Model Railroad Club, which has been in existence for more than two decades, has seen a shift from analog to radio control, and now to digital.
The model trains of old were entirely analog. The user controlled the track, not the train. Analog, while still popular among the purists, didn't allow for as much functionality. Only one train could run on the tracks at a time and there weren't as many functional bells and whistles.
After a brief move to radio control technology, digital technology began popping up in the late 1990s. There was resistance at first, club member John Van Valen said, because it was expensive. But times have changed and digital technology prices have dropped.
Now model train hobbyists are turning to Digital Command Control boards, which are computer-based and reliant on digital technology. Instead of analog controls, model railroad enthusiasts have controls that operate on a wireless signal. They can follow their train as it winds and weaves its way through intricate layout designs.
At the Hendersonville depot, the tracks and displays are replicas of tracks across Western North Carolina, including Asheville and Saluda. The Asheville Division, the newest division at the depot, is entirely computer-based. Not far away, the Thomas the Train track for kids is still analog.
Digital provides capabilities that weren't affordable 10 years ago. Multiple trains can be on one set of tracks at any given time. Train operators can blow a horn, sound a whistle or screech brakes with a digital device.
“This is not simple like it used to be,” Van Valen said.
For his personal sets, the 84-year-old still runs analog. With the club's move to digital, however, Van Valen has had to start using engines that can run on both types of tracks. The primary benefits, he said, are the ability to run more trains on one set of tracks, smoother speed control, and better overall control.
The shift from analog to digital has been slow, club member Bob Barnes said. In fact, some in the modeling community haven't made the switch at all.
“Many of them are tending to stick to the analog,” he said.
That doesn't mean they are anti-technology.
“It's all they know,” Van Valen said about analog.
For club Vice President Ken O'Brien, the best part of the technology reaches well beyond the tracks themselves.
“It's an outstanding modification to the hobby,” he said. “The tech side of it is a big deal. The youngsters need to keep seeing that.”
He said model trains haven't been as popular with younger generations, but the new technology could lead a resurgence in the club and other clubs' ability to reach children and keep the hobby thriving.
Those sentiments are shared by Pugliese. The Hendersonville High student is one five teenage members of the club, and technology plays a big part in the hobby he's loved for the last four years.
“I'm just interested in technology,” he said, adding that it opened some club members' eyes when he showed how he could control the tracks with his iPod.
It's not just club members who have noticed the technology, Pugliese said.
“People are amazed to see technology so advanced in here,” he said about visitors to the depot.
Club member Al Smith agreed that technology is what's going to introduce the love of model railroads to future generations.
“For those over 50, it's a nostalgic attraction,” he said. “For the crowd that's 20 years and older, they're attracted to the model. It's about the creation. For those 20 years and younger, it's a combination of those things, but the catalyst of it all is technology.”