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The Empire Builders : To the Serious Model Railroader, It's Not Just Little Trains Running Around on Tracks, It's Creating a Town and Countryside in Which to Display Them


"I would never become a slave to this hobby," said Fred Schrock, sitting in the upstairs room he had specially built for the hobby he would not be a slave to. "I don't eat, sleep and drink this stuff."

So how does the longtime Santa Ana resident explain the 109 miniature locomotives and more than 300 railway cars he has accumulated during his 35 years as a model railroader deluxe?

"That is what's known as a hole in your head," he grinned.

There are about 275,000 people in this country with similarly punctured craniums who collect, build and run model trains as a hobby, according to Russ Larson, editor of Model Railroader magazine.

Still, it is not the model trains themselves that stun the casual observer, but the often elaborate track layouts designed to display them. The biggest and the best fill entire rooms with plaster and plastic landscapes whipped into a frenzy of mountains, rivers, towns and canyons.

It is detail work on a huge scale.

Schrock might disagree, but there is an element of empire building in the psychic makeup of the serious model railroader. The drive to build ever larger and grander layouts can be addicting. For those modelers teetering on the brink of fanaticism, it is a world where miniature is mighty and more is never enough.

It can also be a lot of fun.

"I wouldn't do it unless I enjoyed it," said Schrock, looking over the room-sized layout he has been working on for 25 years. "Any person should have an outside interest other than their work. Model railroading can be a very valuable thing as a release from the pressures of making a living."

Schrock says those pressures--along with a lifelong interest in railroading--helped lead him to the hobby when he was a public relations official for the electric company during the 1950s. He says he found himself coming home at night fed up with people and listening to complaints. Model building became an escape from his daily encounters with an aroused humanity.

Model railroading did not turn into the solitary pursuit he had envisioned, however. As his two sons reached junior high school age, they showed a youthful enthusiasm for their father's expanding hobby. Sensing this opportunity, Schrock told the boys they could help him build his railroad--providing they kept their grades up and did their homework.

"After that, I had no trouble with the boys as far as their schoolwork was concerned," he said.

Thus, for Schrock, model railroading was not only a salve for the pain of dealing with people, it proved an effective instrument of academic extortion. Multiple motivations are not uncommon in the world of model railroading.

It is a hobby that thrives on variety, according to John Wissinger, president of the local chapter of the National Model Railroaders Assn.

"The thing about model railroading is that you can get into it as deeply as you want," he said. "From a piece of plywood with some track nailed to it, to a basement which duplicates an actual railroad system, it can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be."

It is hardly surprising that the appeal of model railroading is usually rooted in a lifelong fascination with trains. But like a real railroad, the branch lines of the hobby can lead off in different directions.

Some enthusiasts who like to model and collect trains don't really care for layout work, while others devote hundreds of hours to building realistic layouts, yet have no real interest in running their trains.

Some modelers are caboose freaks. Some are "kitbashers," freethinkers who combine elements of two or more train kits into a hybrid original. Others are hooked on timetables and schedules that they use to route trains as if working a full-sized railroad.

Grime is golden to an avid modeler--fake grime, that is.

Weatherizing a layout with paint and colored chalk dust can enhance realism. Mud, rust, smoke and water effects can be duplicated in a variety of splatters, streaks, smudges and stains--all to scale, of course.

The quest for realism can be a painstaking lesson in the art of minutia. Railway ties are often individually cut and stained from balsa wood. Shreds of moss, lichens and ferns are carefully crafted into bushes and trees. Tiny decals are applied to railway cars.

It is a detail-driven hobby not likely to attract the nervous, the impatient or the clumsy.

Sometimes an ingenious slice of life is designed into a layout. One such innovation described in a hobby magazine was a drive-in movie that actually projected a film onto a miniature screen. (The trick was accomplished using a projector, a periscope and a system of mirrors mounted beneath the layout.)

Such realism has its price, however.

Vic Prior, co-owner of Discount Train Warehouse in Brea, says some people are reluctant to take up the hobby because of the monetary horror stories generated by the truly addicted.

"People do spend thousands of dollars on this hobby," he agreed. "But that's at the high end. It's very much geared to what an individual can afford."

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