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All Aboard! : Glendale Model-Railroad Buffs Try to Emulate Reality on 25-by-40-Foot Spread in Fremont Park

October 01, 1987|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

One night a month, on the first Monday, they run the trains for the public, giving visitors what they want--lots of motion and tonnage rolling down the track.

Two questions always come up: "Can they go fast?" and "Do they ever crash?"

The answer to both is yes. But you wouldn't know it.

This is Friday, the day members of the Glendale Model Railroad Club make the trains do what trains do in real life.

"What we do is go out and see what trains do out there in reality and then come in and try to emulate it as closely as we can," said Scott McKeown, 25, in real life a fiber-optic technician for General Telephone Co.

Tonight, they're running the trains at prototype speed. The idea is to make them pull away with almost imperceptible acceleration and then proceed at the laboring crawl that almost perfectly replicates, on HO scale, the time it takes a real train to pass a given railroad landmark such as the Mojave Loop.

And then there is the thrill of switching cars from track to track and getting two oncoming trains to pass on a long enough siding that they can both continue rolling.

Such small triumphs of logistics can cause an outburst of excitement.

"Rolling meet at Burbank Junction," a voice called out behind McKeown from a glass-enclosed loft where the dispatcher and five engineers controlled every train and every mile of track from Union Station in Los Angeles to the Bakersfield yards.

McKeown, and two others who were fussing with their trains at that moment, dropped their tasks to watch two freights roll side-to-side in opposite directions for almost half a minute.

"It takes some work to get a rolling meet going," McKeown said.

Coast Starlight Replica

It also takes about $1,000 to put together a fairly decent train, such as McKeown's 11-car replica of Amtrak's Coast Starlight, the daily train from Seattle to Los Angeles. The cars are of chrome-finished brass. Some of the club's roughly 30 members go all out with their trains, dressing each car with handmade-to-scale tables, chairs, berths and flower vases.

Although most members have layouts at home, they say that there is no substitute for the collective challenge of running five or six trains together on the layout they have all built together over 20 years.

It is a 25-by-40-foot spread, filling half of a small building next to the tennis courts in Fremont Park. It is not the largest amateur railroad layout around, but it has a distinction: symbolically, it encompasses all of Southern California's great railroad sights.

Every point in the scheme bears the name of--and, as much as possible, a likeness to--something real. At the front, near the narrow aisle where the public stands, is the Taylor Yards, an octopus of switches and side tracks with an engine repair shop and control tower resembling the real ones.

The main line runs past a replica of the Glendale Depot and a cluster of buildings representing Burbank in the Victorian splendor of an earlier era. From there, the track passes models of the San Fernando, Saugus and Lancaster depots. Then it climbs the Tehachapi Loop, a full circle of track derived from the real loop built by Southern Pacific to begin the ascent of the Tehachapi Mountains. Finally, it ends in a turnaround hidden in the Bakersfield yard underneath a simulated mountain where only the operators can go.

Constant Change

Like the geology of region it replicates, the layout is undergoing constant change, sometimes cataclysmic.

It was started in 1949, the year club members scrounged up an abandoned building and moved it, with the city's permission, to the park.

The original layout grew, and got national attention as the subject of a feature article in the December, 1960, issue of Model Railroader. Then, in 1963, a fire destroyed the building.

An insurance payoff financed the beginning of construction on a new, larger building. A contest was held in 1967 to select a layout. The next year, construction began. Three thousand feet of nickel-silver rail was laid.

A disarmingly honest account in the club's official history notes that electrical wiring, started in 1969, "was progressing, but not the way it should have."

The historian added that, "with most of the members doing the wiring, there developed a maze of various-sized wires crisscrossing the underside of the layout which would have made a mother spider proud. This has caused untold malfunctions for many years."

Narrow-Gauge Track

In 1973, a narrow-gauge track, like that used in the mining towns of the Rockies was added. Imaginary towns such as Owinyo, for Owens and Inyo, sprang up between Glendale and Mojave.

Semiarid scenery representing the mountains and deserts of Southern California is continually being torn out and rebuilt as new techniques are developed.

Today, lifelike rock formations are produced by casting plaster in soft forms made by painting a rubbery material over real rocks. Club members now go on expeditions searching for those special rocks that look like boulders in miniature.

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