No matter how old you are, you can never outgrow model trains.
I don’t care how educated or sophisticated you may be, the second you see a model train chugging through a miniature village or a diminutive mountain range you’ll freeze in your tracks and go roaring right back to your childhood.
I experienced this phenomenon during my recent trip to California. While walking through Balboa Park in San Diego with my uncle and his wife, we paid an impromptu visit to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
This’ll be pleasant, I thought, we’ll just take a quick look around and be on our way.
And then I heard that unmistakable sound of trains streaking around the bend and the years faded away like clouds of steam from an old locomotive.
For the record, the museum is the largest and only accredited scale model railroad museum in the U. S. with over 27,000 square feet of exhibiting layouts.
It also has collections of some of the first scale model trains ever made.
The layouts are huge and feature realistic reproductions of mountains, deserts, and train yards. The San Diego & Arizona Eastern exhibit boasts a 10-foot high model of the Carriso Gorge and the Goat Canyon trestle.
The actual trestle was the largest timber railroad trestle in the world at the time of its construction in 1932, which is something I didn’t know until I went to the museum. So in addition to being a lot of fun, model trains are also educational.
As I wandered from one stunning layout to the next, I remembered the train sets my siblings and I used to play with when we were kids.
I think we started off with the larger trains before working down to the HO scale models. I was particularly fond of an old time trolley that had a working headlight.
We had toy buildings and a mountain tunnel for the trains to ride through. You can create your own little world and, just like Mussolini, you, too, can make the trains run on time.
The set came with this big black transformer with red handles and it usually took some finagling to get the juice running. But once we got them rolling there was no stopping us.
Once Upon A Time There Was An Engineer...
The appeal of model trains went in cycles for us. We’d set them up in the basement, have a tremendous time playing with them, and then after a while, we’d pack them up in boxes and put them away.
But we were sure to resurrect them somewhere down the line. So many other toys lose their appeal and are forgotten forever, but we kept rediscovering the trains over and over.
I was glad to see so many families in the museum. It’s good for kids to experience something real, instead of the goddamn computer games. Model trains have been passed down through generations, which I think is something more than you can say for Grand Theft Auto.
Of course that’s not to say that the digital age has not reach model trains. I was amazed at the advances in technology that have taken place over the years.
First of all, the sound effects were incredible. In addition to the whistle, these trains actually made the great chugging noise like their real world counterparts.
It was so realistic I half-expected a massive diesel to come bursting through the wall.
At least one of the trains was equipped with a small camera—a choo-choo cam-- that flashed images onto to a large monitor so you could actually see what it was like to ride on one of these things.
While I was trying to take a photo of one of the trains, a gentleman came up next to me holding a remote control unit.
“Do you want me to back it up?”
I was confused at first but then I realized he worked at the museum and was controlling the train with this remote. I was stunned. No more big black transformers. Everything happens right in the palm of your hand.
I thanked him, but I declined his offer. It didn’t seem sporting to back up the whole operation for my benefit. I was like a hunter; I wanted to nail my prey in the wild.
We finally had to leave the museum, but I was so glad we found this place. What started off as a simple diversion turned into a first class ride down memory lane.