Elwood Neff always liked trains, but the long-haul truck driver’s passion for them wasn’t kindled until he picked up a copy of Model Railroader magazine that he found at a truck stop in Tennessee. After that, he spent his free time playing around with small-scale model trains at his home in Indiana.
Over time, his interest in the hobby grew—literally. “My eyesight kind of forced me into large-scale,” he jokes. But of course large-scale model trains need large spaces to run in.
So when he retired, Elwood built a 24-by-48-foot train room that “looks pretty big empty, but filled up really, really fast.” His layout is fashioned after a logging and mining railroad, including a 12-stall roundhouse, which real railroads used when backing up a locomotive meant more than shifting to reverse.
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Not every railroading collector has the time or space for such layouts, but they all share a similar passion for miniature replicas of the big boys. According to estimates from hobbyist organizations like the National Model Railroad Association, there are as many as 100,000 model train enthusiasts, not including countless others who keep a cherished childhood set in the basement to bring out whenever the grandkids come over.
For model train hobbyists, there are two broad categories: collecting and building. Model railroaders are collectors, of course, often seeking a favorite childhood toy, a scale engine and cars that evoke other interests, or parts of a matched set that they’re on a hunt to complete. While a few collectors may only display their trains, most model railroaders operate their own miniature railroad empires, some letting their imaginations run wild with fantasy layouts; others recreating railroads they’ve read about or knew from childhood. These set-ups often run like the real thing, moving on meticulous timetables with scale goods being delivered logically to scale markets.
Model trains come in several sizes or scales, and many collectors start small and work their way up. Keith Lewis, for example, started with a train set his parents gave him one Christmas. He worked with HO scale (real size ratio, 1:87) for a while, but then saw a large G-scale set (real size ratio, 1:22) that made him sell all his other trains and start again. Keith also collects sets of Christmas-issue trains, and cars that are lettered for his home state of Delaware or that have his daughter Tiffany’s name on them. Like most hobbyists, Keith won’t buy an engine or car if he can’t display it as well as run it. But he keeps the original boxes, knowing that collectors value the packaging almost as much as the model itself.
If you set your mind to collecting or expanding on that old set in the basement, start by checking out local clubs and train shops or shows—you’ll find listings in your telephone directory, through ads in your local paper, or online at Web sites such as traincollectors.org or the National Model Railroad Association site, nmra.org.
But once you start down this track, it can become a lifelong pursuit, notes Elwood. “You never want to finish,” he says. “There’s always something you want to do next.”