The Rail Thing

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005

A freight train sweeps around snow-covered mountains and past a picturesque village, around snow-covered mountains and past a picturesque village, around snow-covered mountains and . . . oh, you get the picture.

On one of its endless circlings -- in the First Street-side foyer of Union Station -- the little electric locomotive, which drags eight boxcars, moves along the shores of a miniature lake and past a small, crowded skating rink. When it emerges from a long tunnel, 3-year-old Jacob, in blue sweat shirt and pants, stands waiting like a giant in a sci-fi movie. He laughs, claps and points at the petite Norwegian Christmas tableau.

His mother, Nancy Kwon of Takoma Park, sighs at the thought that Jacob could stand here for hours delighting in the model train going round and round and round and round. Ad nauseam.

Electric trains are everywhere -- under the National Christmas Tree at the White House, in the U.S. Botanic Garden near the Capitol, at shopping malls, in restaurants and surely looping around lots of living-room Christmas trees this year. For decades, the toy train has been a symbol of the season.

But what do we really know about this holiday icon? It's a traditional gift for wide-eyed children to play with, right? It's a fading American artifact, fast falling into obsolescence and obscurity, right? It's a reliable relic that stays the same, despite the ever-changing world all around, right?

Wrong. The more we learn about model trains today, the more we discover that our preconceptions are wrong wrong wrong. To get on the right track, here are some myth-busting facts about model trains:

They're for the children. Not! "The dirty little secret," says Jerry Calabrese, CEO of Lionel, "is that most fathers play with trains more than their kids do." Lionel, based in Michigan, is the largest maker of model trains in this country.

"Our average customer is a 52-year-old man," says Mike Wolf, founder of MTH Electric Trains. A multimillion-dollar enterprise in Columbia, MTH is the second-largest model train company in the United States. Wolf says model trains have always been bought by older guys, mostly for themselves.

Men might say they are buying the trains for their children or their grandchildren, but they're not. "Kids are an excuse," Wolf says. Hobbyists, mostly male, spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on model trains and model railroad paraphernalia.

Observe a well-designed train panorama and you will understand the attraction. You are in control of your world. The train runs in an oval or a figure eight, but it always ends up where it began. There is completion, order. The track threads together cities and farms -- blessed be the ties that bind urban and rural in our fractured culture. Men love the same things about model trains that their forebears did about real trains more than a century ago.

Though the idea of model trains harks back to a simpler time, in many ways today's hobby is much simpler. In the old days, electric trains were heavy, bulky things. Track pieces were often bent or broken. You had to build a table and secure the tracks to plywood. The transformer was a quirky thing. Nowadays, track pieces are more stable and snap together and pull apart easily. Transformers are more reliable. Trains are ready to roll right out of the box.

Wolf, who has trafficked in the business for more than 25 years, says the folks who buy his products are the same ones who buy Harley-Davidson motorcycles: middle-aged doctors and lawyers "who are reliving their childhoods."


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