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Fullerton Celebrates the Love of Trains on a Grand Scale

May 04, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Saturday morning, with a light drizzle threatening to spoil the fifth annual Fullerton Railroad Days, Phil Knudsen waited under a tent for a break in the weather and a chance to showcase his pride and joy.

"You'd better do it now," someone said as sunshine finally broke through the heavy clouds.

The 60-year-old Lakewood truck driver reached into the back of the tent. And there it was: a 1:29 scale model of the J1e Hudson steam locomotive in highly detailed die-cast metal, with working drop couplers, brass bells and whistles, and a built-in euphony of sounds from the rhythmic choo-choo to the cathartic "blow down" that, in the real thing, helped clean the flues.

The real thing, Knudsen pointed out from the manual he keeps in the wooden collector's box, ferried high-class passengers for the New York Central Railroad in the 1920s and reached speeds of up to 94 mph.

"This," Knudsen said proudly, "is the cream of the crop."

Saturday's unsettled weather seemed to have little effect on the crowd that turned out at the Fullerton train station for the event, organized by the Fullerton Railway Plaza Assn. The event continues today from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Families streamed through several model train exhibits, and a long line snaked from the engine of a real Burlington Northern Santa Fe locomotive parked at the station.

Yards away, Knudsen was setting his model train on wet tracks that formed a loop the size of a living room. The model train can run in the rain, but Knudsen was not about to take a chance with his $1,800 investment.

"Now, she's ready to go," Knudsen said after linking three cars to the black locomotive. The Hudson let out a "blow down" and off it went.

"It can be kind of expensive," said Knudsen, who owns seven other model trains. "What you do is you pay attention to all the hobby stores and look for the blowout sales."

Knudsen was not sure when his love for trains began. Knudsen said that when he was growing up in Iowa, his grandfather was a conductor for the Chicago and North Western Railway, But Knudsen was 9 when his grandfather passed away and not very close to him.

Maybe his father also worked in the railroads? "No," Knudsen said. "He was a plumber.

"But I can tell you what my favorite steam engine was," Knudsen said. "I never got to actually see it, except in videos. It was a cab-forward, AC12. The AC is for 'articulated consolidated.' " It had two engines that were linked, or articulated. The cabin was forward so the crew wouldn't choke on the smoke as the train passed through tunnels.

As Knudsen added more cars to his locomotive and answered questions from the curious, Nicolas Lazzari, 2, was exploring the belly of the BNSF engine.

His father, Steve Lazzari, 32, a Union Pacific engineer, was talking with other train buffs about the advantages of analog gauges over computer displays.

Lazzari, who lives in Reno and keeps a model train track in his backyard, couldn't explain his love of locomotives either.

"I don't know if it is the noise or the power," he said. "I really can't tell you why."

Lazzari's father, Edward Lazzari, said that ever since his son was small, "whenever the train would go by [their Cerritos home] he was over the wall looking at it.... When he was in high school he drove the locomotives at Knott's Berry Farm."

As the eldest Lazzari spoke, his grandson meandered from the giant BNSF engine over to a chain-link fence that separated the real train tracks from the exhibit area.

His fingers grasped the fence, his eyes fixed on Knudsen's J1e Hudson.

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