- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

“I was born with a train whistle in my mouth,” boasts widower Bill Koch, 73, a retired federal government employee and train buff extraordinaire.

Of course, the statement is a bit of an exaggeration on the part of the Springfield resident, but anyone visiting his back yard may find it hard to argue with his claim.

Along with a former office colleague, Mr. Koch spent nearly 13 years — from 1987 to 2000 — constructing a 1/8-size train and 1,400 feet of track that is threaded throughout his 1-acre property.

The 7-inch-gauge track bed begins in the back of his white Colonial, winds through trees, past a miniature water tower and just misses a tomato patch before disappearing into woods to emerge again on the far side of the house. It passes over a trestle and culvert before coming to rest near his shed. A warning signal — crossed blades, a siren and blinking red light — sits nearby.

This is the B&A; Railroad, after the first names of its creators. Had it had been practical, the train’s route would have extended onto the land of a neighbor across the street. The neighbor asked Mr. Koch to consider it, but a public road was too much of an obstacle.

The project was a private one, done strictly out of love of railroads and railroad lore for the benefit of friends and family members. Fully functioning during reunion time each summer, the B&A; can hold five adults or “maybe eight or nine kids” sitting behind the engineer, who controls the train with two levers.

There also was at least one office outing when thirsty guests were supplied beer from a quarter keg stored in the water tower.

On weekends and holidays, the men, who both were associated at the time with the Federal Aviation Administration, produced eight freight and three passenger cars in addition to a caboose, each piece one-eighth the size of a regular train. Mr. Koch, an electrical engineer who did research and development work on air-traffic-control systems, was the metalworker, teaching himself the necessary skills as he went. His project partner, Al Cocanower, now of Phoenix, was the master woodworker.

The red caboose, the last car on a train, was the first one to be completed. The engine, painted yellow after the real-life Virginian that once ran in the southern part of the state, is also known as a diesel switcher. The engine has a five-horsepower motor that runs on gasoline like a lawn mower. The engine was purchased in Oregon for $4,000 plus a $400 shipping charge; Mr. Koch estimates the same engine would cost $8,000 today.

For safety’s sake, the train’s ideal speed is a mere 5 mph because “it doesn’t take much — a little stick on the track — to derail the cars.”

The cars weigh about 150 pounds each, the engine 450 pounds, and they take 10 minutes to make a complete tour.

“The only thing I don’t like is it sounds just like a garden tractor, which is what it is,” Mr. Koch says, laughing, his countenance as jovial as that of any of the mythical train engineers to be found in children’s books.

(Children of all ages can see Mr. Koch in action on a slightly larger train model — a one-third scale — at Burke Lake Park when he drives the Ghost Train for special pre-Halloween stints the next two weekends. For information, call 703/323-6600.)

A project like the B&A; is costly in terms of both energy and resources, and the two men scrimped every way they could. Mr. Koch would drive around in his pickup looking for unused deck material that he could get for free. The deck pieces were made into railroad ties that rest on 50 tons of gravel.

The cars, built from scratch, cost $200 each, half what he estimates a kit car would cost if, indeed, a kit were available. The challenges Mr. Koch and Mr. Cocanower faced were immense, not the least of which was laying the tracks on land that has a 10-foot gradient from the lowest to the highest point and that required the removal of 20 trees.

When he and his wife bought the property, Mr. Koch says, he wasn’t so much interested in the house as the realization that he could make a railroad — albeit an outsize version of a normal model — fit in the yard. Why such a big train?

“I’d been thinking about it for a long time, and anyway, my eyesight was starting to fail a little bit,” he says.

Not only did he have to learn how to build a railroad, he also had to learn the machinist’s trade. He also taught himself welding to be able to finish the cars’ frames.

The basement workshop in his house holds a milling machine, lathe, drill press and metal-cutting band saw, useful for his next project: a replica of a coal-fired steam engine that will be scaled 1 inches to 1 foot of the real thing, which now is found in museums.

“We developed a heck of a lot of mutual respect for our talents,” Mr. Koch recalls of the partnership. “We were kind of fussy, but we had a 10-foot rule. If things looked good from 10 feet, it was good enough for us. Some fellows want museum-quality models so they can inspect matters with a magnifying glass.”

The value of their creation today he judges might come close to $50,000, but he waves away questions about insurance and other issues. The train parts are locked up under cover each winter and brought out in the spring.

Track maintenance is a major matter, helped along these days by Mr. Koch’s 16-year-old grandson, who has the train bug.

Mr. Koch thinks he got his train bug from his mother, who was employed in the office of the New Haven Railroad before her marriage. He can’t remember when he didn’t have a train set, starting at age 3.

“I can still remember it, an old Lionel, just a little thing under the tree,” he says.

Another train set is in place permanently these days under a crystal chandelier on the dining room table in his home. And each spring he takes a two-week trip to Europe on a Eurail pass.

“I’ve ridden almost every train in Austria, most of them in Switzerland, and only about one-third of German trains,” he says.

He still uses the tools fashioned by his grandfather in Stuttgart, Germany.

“One of these days, I will try to find his town, but it’s so small it isn’t even on a railroad,” he says.

Anyone wanting to tackle a similar project can find information on several Web sites suggested by Mr. Koch; among them is www.backyardrailroad.com. Suppliers of railroad products abound, as do handbooks about how to build models to scale.

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