Cigar Aficionado

Realistic details and space-age computerized effects have created the golden age of model railroading

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."

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.

Reflecting another side of the boomer lifestyle, an entirely separate category has emerged in recent years: garden railways. At 1:22.5 scale, the G gauge trains are almost double the size of the O gauge. They are designed to operate outdoors and can add an additional visual dimension to a backyard.

The range and variety of current model railroading possibilities are all the more remarkable because less than 20 years ago, the entire American industry, including the Lionel flagship, was in trouble. Quality had fallen and the range of offerings had been limited, with few technical innovations. A lifelong toy train buff and Lionel enthusiast, Richard Kughn took over the nearly struggling company in 1986. "I bought it despite my accountant's advice, but if I didn't do something, there'd be no more Lionel," recalls Kughn, the former vice chairman and president of real estate developer The Taubman Co. and owner of what is perhaps the world's largest private toy train collection. For the next decade, until he sold most of the company in 1995, Kughn revamped operations, expanded offerings, improved quality and, working with Young, added features. Soon, Lionel was back on track. The year 2000 was the most financially successful in the company's history.

Restoring Lionel, says Kughn, "was a labor of love." Now in his early 70s, he still recalls the first Lionel train set he got at age seven. Learning about layouts and trains and designing and constructing his setups and models fed into his successful career in the construction and real estate development industry. "They're great educators," he says. "You have to find solutions to problems. You learn to communicate with other people working on them. With computers and video games, you don't have that at all. You lose touch with other people."

Some people in the model railroading world fear that with today's children hooked on video games and television, toy trains will one day only be museum pieces. Mike Wolf, owner of MTH, however, has found that the average age of those buying his trains has been falling, to about 42 today. He thinks every train he sells will help build a new generation of toy train lovers. "Our train sets are our calling card. When you see a toy train run, it becomes addictive."

For Patinkin, it is an addiction he hopes will live long after he is gone and that his layout will serve as a legacy for generations to come. "I made it permanent because I want it to last forever," he says. "I want my boys to pass them on from generation to generation." He gestures at his train layout, which expresses so much of his life. "I want this to be the family heirloom." v

A Golfer and His Trains

"I don't even think about it," says Senior PGA Tour golfer Ed Dougherty. "You could offer me a $1 million and I wouldn't sell them. I have no idea what they're worth." What is he talking about? His putter? His driver? His swing? Uh-uh. He's speaking about his collection of Lionel model trains, a collecting passion that he has pursued for nearly as long as he has been a professional golfer.

"I started back at Christmas in 1976 when my sister said, ÎWouldn't it be nice to have a train running under the Christmas tree like we used to at home?'" recalls the 54-year-old Dougherty, who entered the 2002 season with two Senior Tour titles under his belt. "It was after my first full season on the PGA Tour, and I didn't want to think about golf. So I went up in the attic and found my old train set, and took it in to a shop to get it fixed. The guy offered to buy it, for more money than I would have guessed. But I said, ÎNo, I'd rather keep it.' And I've been collecting ever since."

This is not some little tabletop train set that Dougherty keeps in his basement. He tore down his garage at his home in Pennsylvania and built a two-story, 20-by-30-foot building that "has nothing but trains, floor to ceiling." And he's still in the market, buying and selling, and looking for missing pieces.

There aren't many gaps in Dougherty's collection. "I wanted to build a complete collection of post-war Lionel production from 1946 to 1969. As far as I know, and there are always people trying to second-guess me, I am only missing four or five pieces," Dougherty says while driving along a road in Pennsylvania, talking on his cell phone. Without missing a beat, he rattles off the coveted pieces: "The 3562-1 Gray barrel car with red lettering. A 3454 Silver Merchandise car, from 1947 with red lettering. A No. 68 inspection car, in blue and cream; there are only eight of them known to be in existence, so it may have been a salesman's promotional item. A 6827 or 6828 flat car, and I'm looking for the red one." He finally pauses. "I know there's one more piece, but I can't think of it right now."

Dougherty's collection includes much more than just the rolling stock produced by Lionel. He also has one floor of the building dedicated to Lionel in-store displays and promotional material from that post-war era. It's a more difficult collection to assess in term of its completeness, because many of those items were not saved year to year, or old ones were simply discarded when new product lines came out. But he has several of the old 5x9-foot layouts used in stores where Lionel trains whizzed around, with all the accessories operating simultaneously.

He's not just looking for missing pieces to his collection, either. "I'm buying trains all the time. If anybody has any trains they want to get rid of, I'll buy them. I'm trying to get a box collection of Lionel, so sometimes, I'll just buy to get the box.

"It's all about remembering good times. That's all," says Dougherty. He's also started a pinball machine collection for the same reason -- memories of his childhood.

In case you're wondering what happened to his first train set -- the one Dougherty had repaired to put under the Christmas tree in 1976 -- he's still got it, displayed prominently among his vast collection.