Daniel Rappoport, when asked for a fun fact, will tell you that modern locomotives can carry one ton of freight 460 miles on only one gallon of fuel. I asked expecting some cute train name or an eccentric conductor, but when you’re the founder of the Illinois Tech Railroad Club, I guess you’ve got that on standby. Rappoport is a second-year civil engineering student originally from Mountain View, California who came to college in Chicago for its railroad industry. When asked about his summer, he describes his few months plugging away at his passion project, a model railway system in a Tech Central room that’s split with some mechanics club. Trains get described as the world’s most “bada** land vehicle.” Any criticism, misconception, or making the mistake of confusing city transit for rail is fairly instantly shot down with a pre-readied list of facts. Is Daniel Rappoport a dork for trains? Possibly. Is he also starting up one of Illinois Tech’s most exciting clubs with an almost unheard of passion? Definitely.
Rappoport’s first action on campus was to recharter the Illinois Tech Model Railroad club, which closed with the shutdown of the Main Building. He assembled a small coterie of faculty advisers and professors to help out, even back when the railroading club could only meet in a fraternity basement. When the moving parts (the big loud choo-choo parts of the model railroad) run up to $300 an engine, Rappoport reached out and found alumni who were able to donate already-built tables and locomotives to keep the club afloat. The sets are now complete with models of industry buildings and grass planted and straightened using magnets. Despite all odds, and under the noses of many, the model railroad community is absolutely thriving at Illinois Tech.
Student interest in the club is also skyrocketing. The club is branching out enough to have separate sections and meetings for the electrical engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, the computer scientists who work on coding the tracks, and the architects who model the buildings and beef up the industrial aesthetics. Rappoport is also far from some despot of the rail depot; the club includes the robust delegation (as seen above) and a strong executive board. Furthermore, Rappoport made a note to tell me that model railroading is one of the best places to test out new and emerging technology - or for "hacker and maker" culture, in the words of the founder. The guidelines for the tracks are laid out using 3D printing, and the CS majors who built the rail control spend only $40 on something that usually runs over $100. The club is also heavily tied in with the professional American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association. Early involvement has already netted some members internships, summer positions, and strong professional connections in a field they’re passionate about.
It may be unorthodox, but model railroading is turning into a significant creative outlet for many engineers at Illinois Tech. Having agency over your own model and being able to connect it with the models of others, is always rewarding. Despite some initial misgivings, at the end of the interview I totally agreed with the founder when he described model railroads as: “just cool.”