No. 125: Al Buchan

On June 5th I received word that one of my longtime friends in the hobby, and in life, has passed on.  That friend was Al Buchan, who was one of my first model railroad mentors.  I first read the news on the IO Groups PRR Modeling site.  Al’s son Bob was kind enough to follow up with a personal message the following day:

This is Al’s son, Bob Buchan.  Just writing to inform you of my dad’s passing.  He had been struggling with health issues the past couple years and now his suffering is over.  He is now with his savior.  Here is the service information. Thanks for being his friend. 

<><  Bob Buchan

What a kind message. 


Photo provided courtesy the Bradley & Stowe Memorial website.

I met Al in 1995.  I was in the active duty Air Force at the time and got a new assignment to a schoolhouse at Fort Dix, New Jersey, which is right next to McGuire AFB.  I arrived at Fort Dix in January and hooked up with a local model railroad club, the Porta Rail Group in Mt. Laurel, later in the year.

Porta Rail was a very mature group at the time—they had a beautiful modular HO layout that was 95% complete, membership of about 20-25 guys, and a basement clubhouse where the layout was set-up full time for work and running.  The layout was very prototypical and highly detailed, and could be disassembled in a couple of hours and loaded into our own trailer for set up at shows.  Al was a member of Porta Rail and that’s where we met.

The Porta Rail crew grew up together and knew each other well.  I was the outsider.  I was allowed to run trains and help set up and tear down the layout, but one member told me “don’t touch anything on the layout”…so I never did.  I went to meetings and paid my dues, but never worked on the layout.

Al was sort of an outsider at Porta Rail too.  By the time I joined Al was attending few weekly meetings.  The weekly meetings usually devolved into BS sessions where little work was being done.  Al once told me he didn’t attend because the meetings were a waste of time.

Eventually, I lost interest too.  But that’s another story.  I’m grateful for my experience with Porta Rail and through the club I made a few friendships that have lasted a lifetime.


This local newspaper article, above, shows the layout set up and running at a local library.  The photo at the bottom right shows Al at far right with another member, Rich Wojzak, applying the 0-5-0.  Rick was a great guy and an excellent modeler and was very, very friendly and helpful.

Al was one of the first guys that truly mentored me in the hobby.  At one of our weekly club meetings, I brought a few Sunshine Models SAL B-6 box cars to the club to run around the layout.  I was very proud of them.

Al looked them over and then politely took me aside, away from the rest of the boys, and explained to me that I had the paint and lettering all wrong.  He told me this in a very respectful way.  He told me that if I was going to all the trouble to buy the right model, and build it well, then I needed to paint and letter it correctly.


Above.  Here’s another example of the kind of modeling I was doing when I met Al.  The model looks good, but when you drill down to the details…this is the wrong car, with wrong decals for the era, with incorrect shop and repack dates, and other incorrect details.   

Al was right.  He criticised my work in a way that made me inspired, not insulted.  It was a great life lesson.

Over the next few years I visited Al’s house several times to see and run his basement-filling layout of the PRR line to Buffalo.   Al knew that line well and had included a lot of interesting scenes, all based on the real thing of course.  I helped him host an NMRA event there and met a lot of influential leaders in the hobby—names like Andy Sperandeo, David Barrow, Paul Dolkos and others.

One scene impressed me on Al’s layout—I’ve never seen it replicated in scale before or since.  Al’s third career as a landscape architect prepared him well to create this scene.  Along one wall, Al had a long section of tangent, mainline track, about 30 feet long, that featured a slight downgrade to a river crossing, followed by a slight upgrade to a curve and the next town.  On the real railroads we might call that a dip or a swale.  It looked exactly a real line that followed the lay of the land across a river.

Below.  I never took a photo of that scene on Al’s layout, but this prototype view on the old Seaboard Air Line Montgomery line shows something like what Al had created in miniature.


Once in 2007, long after I moved away from New Jersey, I was doing some teaching at Fort Dix and had the opportunity to meet Al for dinner.  We were there well into the night.  We talked about military stuff (1950s Al was an Army officer in an armored cavalry regiment in Germany and he liked telling me stories about those days) and railroad stuff (when Al left the Army he went to work for the PRR, and his knowledge of railroading was infinite), and we shared similar political views, so there was a lot to talk about.  We often talked about all those things online too.

Anyway, that night I explained to Al that I was interested in starting and editing an online modeling magazine for the ACL & SAL Historical Society, similar to The Keystone Modeler (also known as TKM).  I told Al I thought it would be best for the greater modeling community if the SCL Modeler Magazine used a similar format as TKM so they could be “part of a family of online modeling magazines”.  Al was all for it.  He told me all the inside details about TKM the PRRT&HS, and made some suggestions about how to set up our magazine.  The SCL Modeler was a success–and is still “in print” so to speak.  Much of that success is thanks to Al.

Al was a giant in the PRRT&HS, and he was well known in the hobby’s inner circles.  I recall a conversation I had with Tony Koester once—you may have heard of Tony—where I mentioned something about Al.  Tony’s response was epic.  He said something like “Al Buchan is one of very the few people who, when he’s talking, I stop and listen to.”  I couldn’t have agreed more.

The last photo I have of Al, below, dates to around 2014.  Al was involved with a group trying to found a military museum at Fort Dix.  I was working at the Air Mobility Command headquarters in Illinois and was able to facilitate some meetings and provide information about future plans regarding the McGuire-Fort Dix complex.  Al and I were in touch daily.  Al is pictured at right; the officer at center is Major General Rick Martin–a devout Christian and a good man and leader.

2012-10-29 MG Martin

More information about Al’s life and memorial service can be found online at

In lieu of other expressions of sympathy the family requests donation to the Fellowship Community Church, 1520 Hainesport Road, Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, 08054.  I’ll be sending this week’s tithe to them.   

I’ll miss you, good friend.

John 6:40: For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.


3 thoughts on “No. 125: Al Buchan

  1. Excellent tribute, John. Al seems like a sweet soul. For those of us who trust in Christ there is a peace that transcends everything and I’m sure that’s how Al’s family feels right now.


  2. John,
    I never met Al, though I followed a similar path as you in developing the B&O Modeler. I saw Al’s work with the Keystone Modeler, approached him online, and from that point forward I had a friend I could always count on for support. he not only shared material things like files, but also insights into how to get things accomplished in a group setting such as RR historical society. My thoughts and prayers for his family, you, and his other close friends.


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