PLAYING WITH TRAINS

A Passion Beyond Scale

By Sam Posey

Random House. 214 pp. $22.95

If you're of a certain age (fiftyish or older) and a certain gender (male), and if you have fond memories of certain phenomena of another day (trains), chances are you'll respond with considerable enthusiasm to the subject of Sam Posey's book: his own lifelong fixation on model railroading, and the similar fixations of others among his contemporaries. As one who meets all of the above criteria, I qualify. But if you are, say, 28 years old, whether male or female, will you be similarly interested? That's what used to be called -- back when Posey and I were young, and people still traveled from New York to Florida on a train called the Silver Meteor -- the $64 question, and "Playing With Trains," a book of modest charms, doesn't really answer it.

Model railroading, Posey reports, is a "$400 million business," much of it generated by W.K. Walthers Co. of Milwaukee, "the country's largest wholesale distributor of model railroad products." Four hundred million dollars is a bunch of money, but truth to tell, in a nation of 290 million people it's peanuts; by comparison even the book business looks huge. "Trains are a guy thing," and an old guy thing as well. Walthers is doing a nice business selling railroading supplies to men 50 or older, mostly in the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, where guys remember trains and may even have worked on them. When they die off, what will happen to model railroading, and to Walthers, and the magazine Model Railroader? It's not hard to guess.

Posey would like to believe otherwise. Grasping at straws, he reports with evident approval the comment of a former editor of another modeling magazine: "The most popular and collectible military figures . . . weren't the contemporary soldiers, they were the soldiers of the Napoleonic wars. There was no firsthand connection -- the collectors only knew about them through books. But they went for that era anyway, because of its timeless glamour." Now, Posey surmises, "enough time has gone by for . . . people to see railroading the way [the editor's] readers appreciated Napoleonic soldiers."

The only thing is, it's not going to happen. There always will be people who are drawn to hobbies and to miniatures, and model railroading obviously satisfies both inclinations, but there's an important ingredient missing in the optimistic forecast cited above. Soldiers and the military are still very much with us -- the "connection" still exists -- so it's natural that people would be interested in those of an earlier era. The connection with trains, by contrast, is almost completely lost. Apart from commuter trains in a handful of cities and Amtrak, which is a joke, the only trains most Americans know are freight trains, and the modern freight train is utterly devoid of glamour or sentimental appeal.

So "Playing With Trains" should be read not as a guide to "a hobby with proven staying power," as Posey insists it is, but as an intimate look at a dying pastime, one that is going the way of whist and quoits and flagpole-sitting and all the other pleasures of yesterday that are museum pieces today. It can also be read, with no small measure of bafflement, as the testimony of a man who for most of his 60 years has been in thrall to a genuinely peculiar passion.

Obsession, actually. Posey is a train nut. He has done various real-world things in his life (Grand Prix auto racing, sports broadcasting, architectural design) and grown-up things as well (he's married and has two children), but what he really blisses out on is model railroading. He was introduced to it in 1948 by his mother, whose husband was killed in a kamikaze attack on his ship in the Pacific in 1944. A remarkable woman who "genuinely liked trains -- and other things that were unusual for a woman at that time," she wired his first Lionel layout herself and turned over an entire room to it.

What is obvious from the tale that follows, but what Posey declines to acknowledge, is that the little Posey household had a lot more money than most others. Posey comes across as a nice guy whose enthusiasm for his hobby is entirely genuine, but his book would be more honest if he acknowledged at the outset that he has had both the wherewithal and the leisure to turn a boyhood pleasure into a lifetime obsession and to go first class all the way. It may be true, as he insists, that model railroading "is an egalitarian hobby in which skill and patience count far more than money does," but his elaborate layout in the basement of his house in northwestern Connecticut surely ran into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.

He didn't just buy model trains and the miniature appurtenances to accompany them -- people and trees and buildings and all that -- but he hired a carpenter to do major reconfigurations, and when he decided that a support post diminished the looks of the layout, he brought in two more carpenters to help move it: "If anyone questioned the value of having three first-class carpenters spend two hours moving a post less than a foot so that a foam cliff could look a little more realistic on an unfinished model train layout, he kept it to himself." The reader is unlikely to react quite so politely, but then the reader isn't getting paid to do the work.

Posey also hired an expert modeler named Rolf Schneider to help him build the layout. He doesn't tell us how much he paid Schneider, but he had the modeler's services for years, both full and part time. His gratitude to Schneider is obvious -- the book is dedicated to him along with Posey's son, John -- but what is less obvious is how much of the layout is Schneider's work and how much is Posey's own.

It is spectacular, as is made abundantly plain by a color photograph on the book's endpapers. It is based on an obscure railroad called the Colorado Midland, "built in the 1880s during what railroad historian Lucius Beebe called Colorado's 'golden noontide of wealth and promise,' " and features stunning vistas "across an inspiring landscape that could have been painted by Thomas Moran or [Frederic] Church." The layout is not absolutely faithful to the original, but a "hybrid that combined the historical prototype with a landscape I was free to invent." Of it he says:

"In the four years since [it] was essentially finished, I have wondered: Is it a toy? Not exactly. A piece of furniture? No. A work of art? Not in the way I think of art. It is probably most accurately described as a representation, or manifestation, of a certain amount of work. The question I am most often asked is, How long did it take to build? The answer -- six thousand hours -- seems to satisfy some but mystify others. I see it as a finite portion of my life, measuring sixteen years from start to finish, and if I'm in a gloomy mood it worries me that the time passed so quickly. Add sixteen years to my current age, and I'm an old man!"

Actually, an old boy.