||There Is Something About a Train
by Clare Coppa
Most days, structural engineer David Nicastro can be found doctoring
skyscrapers. As a boy he often couldnt be found, because he was
assembling an off-limits O-scale Lionel train set under the porch.
Id sneak in through a little access port and run them, and put
it back so nobody would know Id touched it, he related from
his car phone en route to business. Curiosity may have killed
the cat but Nicastros chicanery at the age of five spawned a
lifelong crafting of railroad diplays for fun and profit.
Visitors to his present home in Austin might expect Old Ironhorse
to barrel through the living room upon hearing the sound of an
approaching locomotive from the direction of a spare bedroom.
The room holds a layout of HO-scale Southern Pacific and Union
Pacific trains that passed through Los Angeles in Nicastros formative
years. Digitally-integrated sounds of chugging engines, whistles,
air brakes, etc., match the trains proportionate speed as they
snake through his hand-crafted scenes. Among this techno-wizardry
moves his oldest hand-built model, a 1986 SW-1500 Switcher. Some
of his newest trains are brass steam locomotives from Asia, a
gift from his wife Dr. Susan Baer, a pathologist.
Miniature workers pull levers and operate equipment on the 300
sq. ft. [28 m2] display. There are cold-storage warehouses from
Milwaukee, grain-elevators from Galveston, a ferry boat from Detroit,
and intricately-designed shops on an imaginary Main Street. Its
kind of a folk art; thats the best description Ive heard of
it, he said, describing how some scenes were copied from photos
taken on business travel and others improvised.
Nicastro is CEO of Engineering Diagnostics, Austin, a building-failure
analysis firm with branches in four cities. His early inclination
for architecture and railroads was encouraged by his father, a
Hollywood post-production film specialist, and his mother, a writer:
I dont know how many parents would allow their kids to pour
concrete out in the front yard, but mine did. I had real concrete
roads for my toy cars and trucks. At the same time I had indoor
layouts that had lots of buildings in them. They always gave me
a place to build.
As chairman of ASTM Committee C24 on Building Seals and Sealants,
he contributes to standards development with insight gained by
analyzing building failures. No other products are so consistently
used wrong, he stated. The amount of sealant failure in this
country is staggering. Products are good, but most designers and
contractors do not understand proper use. C24 is trying to change
Hes not easy to pin down, but chances are hell have a modeling
knife in hand in his spare time. Three dollars of balsa wood
will last me for weeks, he said. I put in over 1,000 man hours
building one warehouse. His involvement with trains led to his
opening The Train Store, Houston, in 1994, purveyor of toy and
model trains (www.etrainsale.com).
Any Pugsley Addams-style train wrecks? Two locomotives carrying
eight feet [2.4 m] of trains can run simultaneously on his home
display, but he strenuously avoids collisions. You could do thousands
of dollars of damage if you crash them like that, he averred.
Copyright 2000, ASTM