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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 couldn’t be found, because he was assembling an off-limits O-scale Lionel train set under the porch. “I’d sneak in through a little access port and run them, and put it back so nobody would know I’d touched it,” he related from his car phone en route to business. Curiosity may have killed the cat but Nicastro’s 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 Nicastro’s 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. “It’s kind of a folk art; that’s the best description I’ve 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 don’t 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 that.”

He’s not easy to pin down, but chances are he’ll 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 (

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