“What is ‘The Great Train Story’ at the Museum of Science & Industry?” by S.M. O’Connor

      The Great Train Story replaced the Museum & Santa Fe Miniature Railroad in the Transportation Zone, now called the Transportation Gallery, which occupies the East Court of the Museum of Science and Industry’s Central Pavilion.   It opened on November 22, 2002.[1] The 3,500 square-foot layout reproduces in miniature the 2,200-mile-long railroad journey between the seaport of Seattle and the inland metropolis of Chicago.  It includes 1,425 feet of track.

The Great Train Story demonstrates four railroad functions.  Firstly, the one with which Chicago’s many passengers of the Chicago Transit Authority’s “El” (elevated and subway) trains, Metra trains, and Amtrak trains are familiar: the transportation of passengers.  Secondly, intermodal transportation, which is how raw materials, component parts, and finished products transfer from ships to trains and from trains to trucks that carry them to factories, warehouses, and retail stores.  Thirdly, the one that concerns farmers throughout the Midwest and the Great Plains, the transportation of grain. Fourthly, the one that concerns manufacturing industries, the transportation of raw materials.

John C. Llewellyn, M.S.I. Exhibition Designer, was Chief Designer of The Great Train Story, and he had research support from former M.S.I. employee Jennifer Marjorie Johnston (Bosch).[2]  Sponsorship or material support came from the Mazza Foundation,[3] The Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Company (B.N.S.F.),[4] the GATX Corporation,[5] The Ferro Family, TranSystems Corporation,[6] TTX Company,[7] the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and The Duchossois Family Foundation. The Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust donated $45,000, which was applied toward designing, fabricating, installing, and evaluating prototypes.  Of the $3,000,000 total needed for the project, the Mazza Foundation donated $1,000,000 to the project, and BNSF and GATX each donated $500,000.  The donor plaque identifying the donors was made of polished bronze to the specifications of Mr. Llewellyn, and the last donor jumped into the project in 2003. [8]

Approximately forty people worked on the project. The designer had gone through twenty-five designs before hitting on the one ultimately used. It took twelve months to build the exhibit.  In The Great Train Story, thirty-four model trains may be moving simultaneously at any given time.  It took fifty-eight semi-trailer (or tractor-trailer) truckloads to bring the landscape to the Museum.  Fifty gallons of glue and four hundred fifty gallons of urethane were used to make the terrain.  Six hundred pounds of dirt were scattered over the terrain.

Five hundred structures were built, one hundred ninety-two of which were built from scratch rather than from model kits.  There are over 190 custom-made model buildings in the exhibit, including the Sears Tower[9] in Chicago and the Space Needle in Seattle.   The model of the Sears Tower is fourteen feet tall, whereas the real thing is 1,450 feet tall.  It took sixteen hours to cut the Sears Tower replica out of plastic.  The miniature rocky mountain trestle is fourteen feet long.  There are 1,291 miniature streetlights in the exhibit, and 80,000 windows that light up at night.

To accurately reflect Chicago architecture, the designers studied a Victorian-era cottage, Chicago bungalows, two-flats, and three-flats.  They even counted how many bricks were in one real building.

The model of the Red Line subway station that stands at the intersection of Chicago Street and State Street is a brick-for-brick recreation.  The miniature people even reflect the real individuals who stood there at 1:56 p.m. on April 3, 2002.

The material that gives the waterfalls their white color is the same stuff of which the fake spider webs in haunted house attractions are made.  Waterways depicted in The Great Train Story include Lake Michigan; the Chicago River; the Calumet River; the Platte River in Nebraska; mountainous streams and lakes in Montana, Idaho, and Colorado; and Seattle Harbor.

The water in Seattle Harbor was made in three stages.  Firstly, there’s the foundation.  Secondly, there’s a layer of papier-mâché, painted blue and green after it had dried, which creates the illusion of depth.  Thirdly, there’s a layer of resin out of which waves were hand-carved.

There are 1,485 miniature people in the exhibit.  Many of the miniature people throughout The Great Train Story are carrying out scenes reflecting an offbeat sense of humor.

SMARTT (Scale Models, Arts, & Technologies, Inc.) designed and fabricated forty-two modules of which the layout is comprised at its facility in Miami, Florida.[10]   The island is sixty-three feet by ninety-four feet.[11]  The Great Train Story features six animated displays that depict industries in operation.[12]  The firm used a computer-aided design (C.A.D.) system to design each module and cut every component with computer numerical control (C.N.C.) – the automated control of machining tools.[13]  Hundreds of components were cut on L.A.S.E.R. (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) machines.[14]  Once the firm had amassed all the modules and completed all the track, electrical, and model work, it dispatched everything to Chicago in batches over a period of ten months.[15]  SMARTT engineers and craftsmen assembled the layout with modular construction techniques on site at the M.S.I. over a period of weeks.[16]

Credit: TM Books & Video Caption: This short video is a preview of the forty-five-minute-long The Great Train Story documentary, which TM Books & Video produced on D.V.D. and V.H.S. tapes for the Museum of Science and Industry.  Please note that as far as I can tell, the Museum Store has sold out of this video and it may be out of print.

Years later, Llewellyn wrote about the Museum’s goals for the exhibition. “The Great Train Story shows visitors a slice of the modern-day railroad industry by illustrating the four main cargoes of contemporary trains: passengers, raw materials for manufacturing, farm commodities, and global intermodal trade. As the model trains wind their way between various destinations on the exhibit, scenic treatments, graphic panels, and interactive units highlight the inner workings and interrelationships between rail transportation and the visitor’s everyday life. By attracting visitors with the romance of the rails, The Great Train Story aspires to generate curiosity, conversation, and insight into a quotidian and essential aspect of modern industry.”[17]

When President George Walker Bush (George Bush the Younger) held a press conference at the M.S.I. on July 7, 2006, Kurt Haunfelner, M.S.I.’s Vice President of Exhibits & Collections, gave a tour of Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius and The Great Train Story to President Bush, Mayor Richard M. Daley (Richard Daley the Younger), and Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Credit: Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This video, posted on November 23, 2012, shows a model train ride through the landscape of The Great Train Story from the point-of-view of the locomotive.  It was achieved by installing a camera on one of the trains.


Figure 1 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is the 999 Empire Express Steam Locomotive, a 2008 Tesla Roadster, a 1923 Milburn Model 27L Light Electric, and The Great Train Story in the Museum of Science and Industry’s Transportation Gallery, as seen on Thursday, November 15, 2018.  The underside of the United Airlines Boeing 727 and other airplanes can be seen at the top of the picture.

Often stylized as the “Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago” or the “Museum of Science + Industry” the institution is located at the northern end of the Chicago Park District’s Jackson Park, on the south side of 57th Street, between Lake Shore Drive to the east and Cornell Drive to the west, in the East Hyde Park neighborhood of the Hyde Park Community Area (Community Area #41) on the South Side of Chicago.

Normally, the M.S.I. is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  However, it will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from Saturday, June 22, 2019 through Sunday, June 30, 2019.  The address is 5700 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60637.  The Website is https://www.msichicago.org/ and the phone number is (773) 684-1414.


[1] Internal Correspondence, E-mail dated January 9, 2007, from M.S.I. Exhibition Designer John Llewellyn to M.S.I. Archivist Lindsey MacAllister

[2] Internal Correspondence, E-mail dated January 9, 2007, from Llewellyn to MacAllister

[3] Headquartered in Chicago, the Mazza Foundation gives grants to fund education and healthcare efforts.

[4] Now simply called BNSF Railway, the company is the result of the merger or acquisition of over 400 railway lines over a period of 160 years.  The last such merger occurred in 1995 when Burlington Northern, Inc. and Santa Fe Pacific Company merged.

[5] Founded in 2008, the General American Transportation Corporation (GATX) owns railcar fleets in North America, Europe, and Asia.  It is the world’s largest lessor of railcars, operates the largest fleet of American-flagged vessels on the Great Lakes, and jointly owns a company that leases out spare airplane engines.  Rail North America has a fleet of 122,000 railcars.  They also manage over 300 railcars that are owned by third parties.  In addition, they own 644 four-axle locomotives and a network of maintenance facilities in the U.S.A. and Canada.  Rail International is the umbrella for GATX Europe, also known as G.R.E.; Rail India; and Rail Russia.  G.R.E. leases out a fleet of 26,000 railcars in Europe (outside Russia).  Rail India, founded in 2012, owned 2,053 railcars by December 31, 2018 and had a contract to receive 1,100 more railcars in 2019.  A wholly owned subsidiary, Rail Russia, founded in 2012, owned 354 railcars by December 31, 2018 and had made a commitment to acquire twenty-six more railcars in 2019.  The American Steamship Company owns a fleet of cargo ships that carry dry bulk commodities such as iron, coal, and limestone.  Portfolio Management is devoted primarily to joint ventures with Rolls Royce, P.L.C. that lease out spare aircraft engines and a fleet of five vessels that carry liquefied gas.

[6] TransSystems helps clients solve transportation problems with engineering, architectural, design, and construction solutions.

[7] TTX is a railcar pooling company.  Founded as Trailer Train in 1955, a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the company acquires flatcars that haul highway trailers for the use of multiple railroads.  TTX owns a fleet of over 165,000 railcars.

[8] E-mail dated January 9, 2007, from Llewellyn to MacAllister

[9] The current owners of the Sears Tower will have as much luck getting me to call it “Willis Tower” as the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority will have getting me to call the New Comiskey Park, which is where the Chicago White Sox play, “Guaranteed Rate Field.”

[10] SMARTT, “Chicago Museum of Science & Industry: The Great Train Story Layout – Description,” (http://www.smarttinc.com/post_layout_spec/chicago-museum-of-science-industry/) Accessed 06/27/19

[11] SMARTT, “Chicago Museum of Science & Industry: The Great Train Story Layout – Specifications,”

(http://www.smarttinc.com/post_layout_spec/chicago-museum-of-science-industry/) Accessed 06/28/19

[12] Ibid

[13] SMARTT, “Chicago Museum of Science & Industry: The Great Train Story Layout – Description,” (http://www.smarttinc.com/post_layout_spec/chicago-museum-of-science-industry/) Accessed 06/27/19

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Internal Correspondence, E-mail, dated June 18, 2007, from M.S.I. Exhibition Designer John Llewellyn to M.S.I. Archival Assistant Sean O’Connor

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