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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

(continued from page 1)

Dansky shares the same perspective. "If you told me tomorrow my collection was worthless," he insists, "I wouldn't care. I'll keep my trains until I die." He has never done an estimate of the market value of his collection of about 1,500 historic trains and accessories, although it undoubtedly would easily top $1 million. "You'll have to ask my heirs what they're worth," he says. "The train I prize above all others is the first one I got as a kid. It was a Lionel Berkshire number 726 set, an engine, tender and five wonderful freight cars my father gave me in 1946. I have the original one. A lot of my trains have stories. One was a set I bought from a woman whose son went off to World War II and never came back. She'd kept it for decades and only late in life was she ready to part with it. You get an emotional attachment to them. If Bill Gates came to my train room and offered to write a check for $5 million, the answer would be, 'No.'"

That emotional attachment can get further expressed in highly personal, custom train layouts. Richard Roman, who runs a custom train layout building shop, East Coast Enterprises, in Dover, New Jersey, spent nearly six months and some 3,000 hours working with Patinkin and his family to design and custom-build their train layout. The firm has at least a dozen layouts in the works at any time and a one-year waiting list for its services from clients around the country. "People accumulate trains," he says, "and then they have guys like us come in and take care of it. Everything we do is very personal. I have to get to know the person." Train buffs love the chance to express themselves. "There's been a huge surge in our customer base. Our business is out of control."

While demand for trains and layouts, both antique collectibles and new versions, has soared, at the same time, model train companies have proliferated to compete against Lionel. Competition has resulted in an increase in quality and scale-replica authenticity. "We're not sending trains to the moon," says Maddox, "but making them ever more realistic." Part of that realism has been made possible by the incorporation of microchip-based, high technology features, including sound and light effects, along with the remote control capabilities that allow the operator to walk around the table and operate multiple trains independently. "You don't have to be technologically savvy to enjoy yourself," says Besougloff, "although some trains can be as technically sophisticated as any cell phone." Some layouts -- such as the one at Lionel headquarters that draws more than 21,000 visitors annually -- even include track-level video cameras with monitors.

A number of the technical advances came from an unlikely source: rock music great Neil Young, who is part-owner of Lionel. He frequently wears train engineer hats and Lionel-insignia shirts during his concerts and, on one concert tour, even had his band's bus painted to look like a streamlined locomotive. He takes his role in the direction of Lionel very seriously. "I speak with Neil almost every day," says Maddox. "Much of our electronics development is a result of his interest and efforts. He is so creative. He loves to test new products." Young can usually be found walking around at the fall and spring train shows in York, Pennsylvania, the hobby's largest gatherings that bring together thousands of train enthusiasts from across the country. "When people see him at train shows," says Besougloff, "they are in awe of him, but he talks trains as if he were just one of the guys."

Patinkin has spent hours playing with Young's trains at his California ranch. "Neil is a maniac," he recalls of Young's train fanaticism. Young operates his setup in a separate, open building on his property nestled into a redwood grove. The trains run through a Western-theme landscape that integrates into the outdoors.

Patinkin's passion goes back to his childhood. "My father bought himself a Lionel train set," Patinkin says of a childhood scenario that explains his current Lionel preferences, too. "He claimed it was for me. Before I knew it, we had this little world going and the set kept growing. I lived under that train table. That was my tree house." He packed away his trains while he went to college, launched his career in movies such as The Princess Bride and Yentl, went on to star in Broadway musicals and television, including an Emmy Award-winning role in the long-running CBS medical drama "Chicago Hope," and started a family. Still, he never lost nostalgia for his trains. Then his youngest son turned 10 years old, and Patinkin had the means to think about putting together a train set he could claim, this time around, was for his son. He went to one of the York train shows. "You're walking around," he says. "There's a trillion trains. It's really like you've died and gone to heaven. All I know is I spent $10,000."

Soon he began to put together a layout in his country house outside New York City. He hired East Coast Enterprises to help him out. Working with Roman, Patinkin, his wife, Kathryn Grody, and their two sons designed the layout to reflect their personal interests and life stories. They created a mountain with a cliff face because of one son's interest in rock climbing, a replica of an old mining town that the family visits regularly in Colorado, and an amusement park because of his other son's fascination with them. Patinkin's own father and uncles had been in the scrap metal business and so he re-created their trackside junkyard down to the names on the street signs. The model builders personalized structures for the Patinkin family, emblazoning their and relatives' names on them. For instance, an old diner with smoke rising from the chimney is named Grandma Doralee's for Patinkin's mother, with whom he wrote a cookbook. He hired the sound and light technicians from his own stage shows to create different time-of-day effects, while a friend painted a wall mural recalling the sweeping countryside vista near the house. On the village square, a speaker holds forth on a stage. The layout has an electronic storehouse of famous speeches, from Babe Ruth's farewell to baseball to Nixon's Checkers speech, which can be played -- along with music -- over a high-quality sound system.

All that train layout, gear and electronics are not cheap. Roman's firm charges a base price of $100 a square foot for the most basic layout -- with no limit to how high a complex layout such as Patinkin's can run. The actor would not give a cost, but it certainly ran well over $100,000. "I had to pay for it," says Patinkin, "so I had to go on the road to sing for my supper. Any time a movie would go into overtime I'd think, ÎIt's free money,' and then I'd spend it on trains." Patinkin is currently on a national concert tour in part to keep paying for his train dreams. "You make the world the way you wish it could be. It's a perfect little world. You control it and you can fix it and nobody dies."

Train lovers are by no means limited to Lionel any longer. Many collectors choose rival MTH, which builds to the same O gauge, three-rail standard. One of MTH's biggest fans, Tony Lash, built his huge layout entirely out of MTH components. He says, "I'd never seen an engine smoke like an MTH. Things you always dreamed about having as a little boy, they do. It's the little things that sold me on MTH." Others opt for smaller makers such as Atlas O, Weaver, Williams, K-Line and other less well-known firms. They compete by offering special trains, such as replicas of antique trains and previously unavailable models, lower prices, and extra features, including increasingly realistic special effects and exceptional detail.

Europe boasts both a much larger rail system and many more model railroading hobbyists than America. The world's largest model railroad maker is Germany's Marklin. Although some European train manufacturers are entering the O gauge market, most tend to produce the smaller HO gauge, which is more suitable to constricted European living spaces. The quality and price, however, are not reduced. Roman Plaszewski is the co-owner of Reynauld's Euro-Imports, a model railroading mecca in Geneva, Illinois, outside Chicago, that specializes in European brands. He is the sole importer of the brass scale model trains from MicroMetakit, which he calls "the créme de la créme." A single locomotive, which he says is "like you've shrunk down a real locomotive," starts at $2,000. "We have the toys for the big boys," he proclaims.

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