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Tunnel Visions

A festival of trains rolls into the Fullerton depot for a weekend of history and fun.

April 29, 1999|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was more a demonstration than an explanation of why so many men are so crazy about trains. There may be no explanation.

Three-year-old Gene Marinack, sitting in a patio chair on the Fullerton train-station platform, was there for his first close-up look at a real train.

He didn't need much patience. A freight soon came roaring through on the mainline less than 20 feet away. Gene covered his ears, beamed and shouted, "There it goes!"

That's all it takes. Another train fanatic.

This is his grandfather's fault. Jack Robinson, 56, of Whittier, who in his youth worked a few years as a railroad switchman, had picked up Gene that morning with a railroad baptism in mind.

"I thought he'd turn and run, but he didn't," Robinson said. "Now I'm going to have a time getting him away from here." Grandpa did it by promising a train ride next time.

The scene touched Gil Giglio, 57, of Bellflower, at a nearby table with his son David, 36 and a full-fledged fanatic. David was wearing a railroad jacket. He had his camera ready. He was listening to train dispatchers on his radio scanner. He had the day off from managing the train department of a hobby shop.

It's a guy thing, Gil explained. "We must have more than 500 books on railroads. My daughter's interested in basketball, but we don't have one basketball book."

Gil and a group of friends are at the Fullerton station every Thursday morning to spend half a day chatting, debating and watching the trains go by. Plenty of others drop by daily just to hang around.

"My grandfather used to do the same thing," Gil said. "He used to sit with guys in the park that was right over there [west of the depot], play checkers and watch the trains."

"That used to happen a lot in small towns," said the younger Giglio. "This is about the last place in Southern California where you can do it" without being shooed away as a loiterer, he said.

Among "railfans," as they like to be called, the Fullerton Santa Fe Depot has become a hot spot. The original Santa Fe mainline still runs through town, due largely to town founders who last century named the city after Santa Fe's land agent, George H. Fullerton. Scores of passenger and freight trains run by the depot in a day. Sometimes more than a hundred.

When the railroad sold the depot and surrounding land for private development in 1989, the city bought it for a transportation center. The depot has been restored with new track and parking areas added.

Now the Fullerton Railway Plaza Assn., a private, nonprofit group with ties to city government, is planning a 40,000-square-foot railroad museum next door, to be supported by revenues from 60,000 square feet of commercial annex. The building would look like an old locomotive roundhouse.

To build public relations and credibility, the group is throwing a free railroad festival, Fullerton Railroad Days, this weekend at the depot, an event it hopes to make annual, said association president Bob Root. Old and new rolling stock and railroad memorabilia will be on display.

Root is a former mayor of Fullerton, but his co-chairman's face may be even better known. George Barlow, 58, of Fullerton is a retired IBM engineer who has been seen by thousands waving from the cab of the Knott's Berry Farm train. Barlow is one of its engineers.

Barlow has built huge model train layouts "for the kids." He has helped restore a real steam locomotive, the 108-foot-long, 419-ton Santa Fe No. 3751, and drove it part of the way to Chicago and back. He commissioned a painting of the locomotive pausing in front of the Fullerton depot on its last day in service in 1953.

This is what happens when you hang around train stations, Barlow said. Your toy trains go from miniature to full size.

Example: The biggest toy train layout in Orange County is in Anaheim at Disneyland, where Walt Disney, nephew of a railroad engineer, built one around the park's perimeter. It was pretty much for his own amusement. The most telling evidence, said Disney archivist Dave Smith, is that as soon as the Disneyland train was built, Walt Disney removed the miniature train layout from his backyard.

Feeding passions like that is what Steve Grande and Ray Burns hope will make them a fortune, or at least a living. Upstairs at the Fullerton train station they run http://www.trainweb.com, a commercial World Wide Web site that, among other things, displays nearly live images of the station and its tracks from seven video cameras. The images are updated every 10 to 60 seconds.

This weekend some of the cameras will be trained on the rail festival. But, more often than not, there is nothing to see on the Web site but empty tracks and a dark platform. So what? Rail fanatics connect and look, some from as far away as Australia and the United Kingdom, Grande said.

Images recorded on videotape fill shelf upon shelf in the office because "we can't bear to record over them," Grande said.

Burns conceded that Grande is the real enthusiast, having last March completed his goal of riding every Amtrak train--a total of 133,000 miles of travel.

Why?

"I don't know, exactly," Grande said, which, he added, is about the only answer you'll get from a real railfan.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fullerton Railroad Days

Saturday and Sunday, May 1 and 2

9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Fullerton Santa Fe Depot

124 E. Santa Fe St.

Free parking and admission.

Sponsored by Fullerton Railway Plaza Assn.

Information: (714) 278-0648.

Tours of modern locomotive.

Tours of modern and vintage passenger cars.

Hand car from Knott's Berry Farm.

Harvey Girls memorabilia from Orange Empire Rail Museum.

Model trail layouts.

Live big band and marching band music.

Display, information, merchandise and food booths.

Live video via association's web site: http://www.trainweb.com/frpa

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