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Railroad Yards : The hobby may be scaled down, but enthusiasm runs big for model-train devotees who make tracks for the outdoors. Gardening with miniatures opens up a world of small wonders for adults and children alike.

April 03, 1993|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Garden railroading--where working model trains and tracks are set up outdoors--may seem the most obscure of diversions, but its enthusiasts predict it will become the "in" hobby of the 21st Century.

Before you scoff, consider:

The Los Angeles Garden Railway Society had a handful of members when it formed in 1988. Today it has more than 600, 132 of whom are from Orange County. San Diego County also has an active chapter. The Big Train Show, a consumer event for champions of the G-scale trains used in railroad gardening, attracted more than 5,000 visitors to the Queen Mary in Long Beach last year. This year's show at the Pasadena Convention Center in May is expected to draw an even larger crowd.

The hobby supports three magazines: Garden Railways, Outdoor Railroader, and the Yard Train. The last is published in Orange County. The pages of all three magazines are full of advertisements for miniature railroad signs, track cleaners, stock car kits and dozens of other products from companies catering to outdoor railroaders.

There are even nurseries, such as Miniature Plant Kingdom in Sebastopol, that specialize in dwarf plants for this market.

Garden railroading may be "hot," but it's not new, says Marc Horovitz, editor of Garden Railways. The British have been devotees of the hobby for more than a century, he says.

Model trains have been around nearly as long as there have been full-scale locomotives. The first models were far too large to run anywhere but outdoors. Smaller scale models didn't come about until later, says Horovitz, but, when they did, they surpassed their bigger brothers in popularity and moved the hobby indoors. By the end of World War II the larger-scale models, and garden railroading, had all but disappeared.

German toy maker Ernst Paul Lehmann began reversing this trend in 1969 with the introduction of a line of all-plastic model trains designed for use outdoors, Horovitz says. The LGB trains (for Lehmann Grossbahn or Big Train) were built in a new scale of 1:22.5, later tagged G-scale.

(Scale is the ratio of the model to the full-sized train. For comparative purposes, the more familiar HO-scale is 1:87. Another way to visualize the difference is an HO model engine is about 1 1/2 inches tall; a G-scale engine is about six inches tall.)

LGB trains were not instant successes, Horovitz says, but they gradually made inroads into the model market. Though Lionel and other companies have since begun producing competitive products, LGB still dominates the G-scale, he says.

Like most hobbies, any amount of money can and has been spent on railroad gardening. An LGB starter set--which includes an engine, a couple of cars, a circle of track and power pack--is about $250.

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Enthusiasts have different reasons for being attracted to garden railroading. In Jack Neelon's case it was simple. The Villa Park hobbyist had no more room for trains indoors.

Neelon got his first model train was he was 44. An accountant who worked for Neelon bought him a starter set as a joke when she found out he hadn't had a train as a boy. "That was 18 years and thousands of dollars ago," he says.

When his increasingly complex train layout had completely taken over his son's former bedroom and his wife's exercise room upstairs, Neelon made tracks outdoors.

His wife, Gwyn, advised him that their back yard was off limits. So Neelon squeezed in an elaborate triple-tiered, four-track system in a former dog run on the side of the house.

It would seem Neelon has finally reached the end of the line as far as track expansion goes, but his grandchildren don't call him "Grandpa Choo Choo" for nothing.

"Construction is where most of the fun comes in," says the retired landscape installer. "There's always something else you can squeeze in."

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Randy Gates of Orange didn't have a train set as a child either. He bought his first, an LGB, after seeing a model running on an elevated track at a swap meet and thinking the big trains would be a fun hobby to share with his children--especially his young sons, James, 5, and Aaron, 3.

His first project was suspending a track from the ceiling in his sons' room. "I turn it on every night and let it run, and it lulls the boys to sleep," Gates says.

He learned about garden railroading during trips to hobby shops while planning that project. Intrigued, Gates subscribed to some of the hobby's magazines, joined the Los Angeles Garden Railway Society and began visiting other members' homes and seeing their layouts.

Before long, Gates was planning a project much more ambitious than his first--a 500-square-foot replica in miniature of a Western mining town that wraps around three corners of his yard. Though the project involved 10 tons of gravel for the track bed and several tons of boulders to serve as mountains, Gates, a general contractor, was not intimidated. Like Neelon, design and construction is the aspect of the hobby he likes best.

And Gates' sense that the hobby would be something his children would enjoy was right.

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