A black locomotive with the white lettering “New York Central” hurtles around a bend of track. Passenger cars pursue their leader into a tunnel. Puffs of smoke spurt from the locomotive in time with the chugging engine. Both kids and adults are glued to the display at the Train Station store in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.
“Eighty percent of the male population has a fascination with trains,” says store owner Dave Shaw. “[They] bring back people’s childhood—everyone is chasing that lifelong memory.” It’s been that way since such firms as Lionel first powered model trains with electricity—as opposed to wind-up mechanisms—around the turn of the 20th century. Shaw says that collectors tend to concentrate on trains from their own locale, chosen from such memorable lines as the Union Pacific, the New Haven, and the most famous of all, the Santa Fe, with its warbonnet color scheme (red and silver with a yellow stipe). “I’m in the New York area, so I like New York Central.”
Shaw also custom builds layouts that begin at $5,000, fully furnished with trains, track and scenery. But some climb to $100,000 and require an addition to the owner’s house. If that sounds excessive, consider Dunham Studios. Clarke Dunham’s career segued from designing Tony Award-nominated stage sets into model trains after he was asked to install an 8,000-square-foot layout in the atrium of New York’s Citibank. When it was seen by 141,000 people, orders started to pour in from private citizens and museums. Now his opening price is $100,000 and can easily surpass a half million. The company’s staff includes an electrician, a light designer, a computer-graphic designer, model makers and carpenters. Its layouts, which represent 10 to 12 layers of complexity, can be built on multiple tiers with several themes. Artistic backdrops run from city skylines to panoramic landscapes. One customer ordered a layout to trace his career from railroad executive to oil tycoon to hotel owner.
While nostalgia is great inspiration, Dunham reports that one of the newest wrinkles in model railroading is controlling the trains by mobile phone apps—a development he’s not so sure about: “There’s still something special about having your hand on the knob of a transformer.”