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All Aboard

Realistic details and space-age computerized effects have created the golden age of model railroading
Marc Wortman
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

At age 49, Mandy Patinkin looks more like a very happy eight-year-old than a grown man as he lies sprawled on the floor underneath the platform that holds up his massive train set that is running overhead. The Emmy and Tony award-winning actor and singer is surrounded by piles of orange boxes with beige and blue trim, the classic Lionel packages that once held the locomotives, railcars, transformers, track, bridges, switches, signal lights and several hundred other accessories that are now operating on his layout. Lining the walls and beams are complex electronic circuitry boards and wiring that allow him to use a remote control unit to operate up to 20 trains at once over the nearly one thousand feet of track looping through the town, mountain and countryside landscapes he built for his trains.

"Watch this!" he exclaims, his face beaming as it must have when his father brought home his first train set 40 years ago. He squats so his face is next to tracks that appear through several cutouts in the layout -- the inside of the tunnels that run through the mountain. Suddenly a vintage orange electric trolley car enters the tunnel and zips past as it coils its way up the mountain. It makes its regular stop somewhere just overhead, and when it does, doors open and a conductor's voice encourages passengers to descend. The trolley hesitates for a few seconds, the conductor calls out the "All Aboard!" and then it's off again. Patinkin is almost beside himself with joy. "Isn't that great? I love it."

It is, and it is a love that thousands of collectors and operators of toy trains share. A once moribund hobby is now steaming down the track like, well, a speeding locomotive. Historians speak of the 1920s and 1930s as the golden age for real trains. No means of transportation has ever topped its combination of machine power, beauty and glamour. While the real trains of the golden age are gone, the golden age of model railroading is here today.

That golden age is a result of boomers like Patinkin who recall some of their most blissful childhood moments planning, laying out and running their trains. Neil Besougloff, the editor of Classic Toy Trains Magazine, the enthusiast's bible, says, "It pushes the right button for them with nostalgia for a simpler time." Adds New Haven, Connecticut, graphics designer Tom Strong about his swelling collection of European HO trains: "I can redress the injustice of my youth now that I have the money to get what I want."

Redressing a true injustice goes farther for Tony Lash, the owner of a Washington, D.C., waste removal and recycling company. In 1999, he and his team of train layout builders finished a bowling alley?size layout built to look like the West Virginia mountains of his childhood. The trees alone cost $60,000. As a young boy, he remembers riding with his grandfather, a fireman for the Norfolk and Western Railroad, and grew up dreaming of becoming a train engineer one day. It was not to be. "When I was coming along," he says, "they didn't have black engineers. I never lost my love for trains, though, and I can live my dream now."

Model railroading is also an unabashed way to shed years. "We go back to our childhood just handling these things," says Richard Maddox, the president of Lionel, hefting nearly 20 pounds worth of exquisitely detailed locomotive in his Chesterfield, Michigan, office. The train engine, the latest in the Joshua Lionel Cowen Series, the 4-6-6-4 Challenger, is nearly a yard long. The engine, which encompasses the coal tender car, contains 20 wheels, including two articulating driving wheel sets for negotiating sharp curves. Detailing reaches such a degree of realism that the interior of the boiler opens to reveal the piping within and the ashpan below the firebox glows brighter as demand on the engine increases when it accelerates or pulls a load uphill. Sounds include the bells and whistle, of course, but also crew chitchat, station announcements, squealing brakes, steam let-offs and chuffing sounds synchronized to speed, starting and stopping. And it belches thick smoke like the real thing. "If we put on any more detail," says Maddox, "you may as well go out and buy the real one." At $1,800, you almost could. Despite the price tag, every entry into the limited-edition series, which was launched to commemorate Lionel's centennial in 2000, has sold out. However, a new starter set runs less than $200 and the ever-popular Christmas train to set at the base of the tree costs about the same. Most serious hobbyists, nevertheless, spend an average of $4,000 annually.

Among the nearly half million model railroaders in the United States, many are collectors. "Collecting trains is like appreciating art," says David Dansky, a retired high school speech and debate coach, train collector and dealer in Ridgefield, Washington. "They have a kinetic look to them like a Calder mobile. All your senses are involved. The weight and feel. The sounds they make. There's a smell of ozone to them."

Collectors can also do much better with their investment than those who play the stock market. The Cowen Series entries and other new limited-edition trains increase in value immediately upon release. Rare older trains, especially pre?Second World War antiques, can easily fetch $10,000 and more. At the extreme end, a very rare Lionel set made for Sears, Roebuck and Co. in the early 1960s and never used sold at auction in 2000 for $64,000. Even vintage displays and signs have great value. A 1930s cardboard Lionel display sold for more than $35,000 two years ago.

Don't expect any old train set stored in the attic to command such prices. Rarity, condition and packaging determine value. Tom McComas, the owner of TM Books & Video, which publishes pricing guides and produces popular model railroading videos, cautions: "The vast majority of starter sets were made in huge numbers and are of little value, so don't quit your day job because you have a couple boxes of Lionel sets in your attic. The chances are they're worth a hundred bucks."

Most model railroading enthusiasts don't care. It's what the trains mean to them that matters. "The trains I care most about are worth the least. They're the ones my dad gave me," says Patinkin. Battered and dinged, those 40-year-old trains, with smoke puffing from the engine, still run around his layout. Although he owns many collector's items, he says, "I don't give a shit about collecting. There are guys who would have a heart attack to see what I have running. I play with it."

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