Meet the electrical engineer who powers his passion in South Elgin
Jim Pechous has a passion for electronics and trains, and the two sometimes intersect near a South Elgin cornfield.
That's where Pechous, the electrical genius behind the Valley Model Railroad Club, fuels his passion by designing and maintaining a complex power system for the club's HO-gauge model train layouts.
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It seems something the Lombard resident was born to do. Pechous tells of watching home movies of himself as a 3-year-old, using wooden blocks and Fisher-Price children's flashlights to build signal bridges for his toy trains.
"I don't even remember it," he says. "But I was using preschool change-color flashlights. I can't believe I was doing something like that as a kid."
Later, in elementary school, Pechous would use obsolete electrical devices brought home by his electrician father to add handmade signals to his wooden train set and power his Lionel train switches and signals.
Now 31, Pechous has an electrical engineering degree and uses it to modernize the power system that drives as many as 15 trains at a time on almost a mile of model train track at the club's headquarters in the historic Clintonville Station in South Elgin.
"This is the first layout where I got all of the switches to operate from a computer," he says from behind dual flat-screen monitors with images of the track.
His elevated dispatcher's desk overlooks the huge layout.
"It is quite a complex system," he says.
The three-level layout has an all-digital command from which Pechous controls dozens of switches with a click of his mouse so trains will not collide.
Electricity crackles through his veins, and he admits he likes to manipulate the wiring more than drive the trains.
"(Other club members) joke with me saying the only reason I like trains is because the signals light up," he says with a laugh.
"He's given a tremendous effort to get it in the condition it is," club President Jeff Obarek says of Pechous' work on the digital command. "That's why I trusted him. I knew he would do it right."
All the wiring is hidden underneath the 40-by-12-foot train layout. Pechous currently is working to simplify the electronics even more by replacing some of the wiring with handmade circuit boards.
The 30-plus member Valley Model Railroad Club meets weekly and holds a monthly operating session, at which Pechous likes to roam around the layout and operate the switches with wireless cellphone software while members drive the trains with handheld digital control units.
The club takes its portable layout to the monthly Great Midwest Train Show at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton, where children are encouraged to take control of the model trains in hopes that a passion will be born in the next generation.
"I just happen to like the electronics," says Pechous.
"The joke is, 'Where do they find me?' Usually I hang out more underneath the layout than above the layout. There's a lot of wiring underneath the layout to work with."