Trains on the Brain

The holiday season brings back memories of toy trains running under the Christmas tree. My father built a six-foot-long platform for an American Flyer train set that was mine and went under the tree. My younger brother had a square platform for an HO-scale Lionel train and it sat off to the side. Each holiday season, we'd get these train-boards down and set up the track, fitting the sections together to create the oval. We'd unwrap the plastic pieces that made up the model village, and place the styrofoam train tunnel carefully around a bend. Finally, we'd wire the transformer to the track and get the train running along. Of course, we'd crank up the power and see how fast the train would go without it jumping off the tracks. It's a time when you're glad to have younger siblings distributed around the track ready to put the cars back on track. Trains were something to enjoy through the holidays and we'd complain not only that the holiday ended but that it was time to put these trains away.


when I was young growing up in LA, my favorite place to eat was a diner that had sawdust on the floor. What I remember most is that the diner had a train that ran along the u-shaped counter and made a loop back into the kitchen. Sitting at the counter, I wrote down my order and clipped the piece of paper to a boxcar and off it went to the kitchen. Soon, the train returned and stopped in front of me with my plate sitting on top of a flatbed car.

When my own son was young, we set up some trains at Christmas and enjoyed them. I don't know if they occupy the same place in his brain as they do in mine. Video games have meant more to him and honestly, race-car sets were much more fun. Nonetheless, coming upon Christmas again, I want to build a train board and get a train set. I've been looking at what's new in trains, and I see digital command systems. It's a little hard to figure it out. I'm curious how trains and computers (microcontrollers, even) might play together today.

Recently, I was re-reading Steven Levy's book, Hackers, and it begins by telling the story of the MIT Model Railroad Club. There were two groups in the student club -- one that worked on the detailed layouts and the other that worked on the switching. It was the latter that saw the possibilities for using computers to control the trains. It was this group that first defined the hacker ethic and what Levy called the "hands-on" imperative. If you couldn't get your hands on something and take it apart, you could not understand how it works and learn to use it. In those days, computer manufacturers wouldn't have thought that a model train set was an appropriate application for computers, nor could they have imagined that the future of technology would be influenced so much by hackers.


Over the weekend, I visited the Golden State Model Railway Museum in Point Richmond, California. The trains weren't running on the day I visited but I did get to see the different layouts, simulating different California scenes. The museum is a little sleepy, with old men working on the tracks. Frankly, what I imagine going on there is more interesting than what is actually going on. I want more interactivity than what's possible with the large-scale train layouts. I also recall over the years visiting men who had elaborate train yards in their garages. The layouts are meticulous and each one must have taken years to build. I don't necessarily want to the be that kind of person.

Afterwards my wife and I went on a beautiful walk in the Miller-Knox Regional Park across the street from the museum. It's the site of the Ferry Point Terminal, where, in the days before there were bridges over the Bay, trains arrived at this pier. Passengers and cargo were unloaded on to ferries and transported across the bay. Today, Ferry Point is a makeshift fishing pier but the shadowy hulk of train tracks and a rusty crane remain in place.



  1. If you’re talking about the museum inside the Caltrain station near Santa Clara… you’re at the b-list party, not the real party.
    There are privately owned full size rail cars (the old-timey luxury coaches) that these guys work on. They then stock up with Scotch, hook up to Amtrak, and go for private multi-day booze & poker trips.

  2. I do wonder if train sets will end up being a lost joy. They take up a lot of space, and they are not for the impatient. But like you, I recall my own childhood trainset with an unreplicated joy.

  3. My father was right into electric train sets, especially British ones. He used to be an electrician in the New Zealand navy, and as a carpenter after that, so he had alot of skills required to build and maintain his set. He built the terrain himself using chicken wire and paper mache, painted it, decorated it with hand made trees and other doodads, designed and built his own platform and buildings, and even modded his own trains. He liked the Lima trains the best, but any of the right scale would do usually.

    We moved around alot so he built his set into a special fold up box about the size of a queen sized bed. You broke the track in a couple of places, and then the whole thing just folded in half, protecting all the track and scenery in the middle.

    Instead of electrical switches, he used a mechanical lever/pulley system he built that ran underneath the board. It was really cool to crawl under there and see all the levers working.

  4. Digital Command Control (DCC for short) has changed model railroading immensely. Before, one could only run a single train on any piece of track unless some complex wiring was used. Now, a constant voltage is applied through the rails, and each locomotive has its own digital decoder that receives a signal through the rails to control speed and direction. This makes operating trains much more realistic. Two trains can travel independently on the same track (yes, sometimes with disastrous results) Complex sound systems are also added to the decoders, adding even more to the realism and fun.

    Model Railroading as an industry and a hobby has grown quite a bit on the last decades.

  5. The Santa Clara train club (whatever name it goes by) uses Digitrax. Great club layout in the old Santa Clara train warehouse, right where the Caltrain stops. Decent museum too, and it’s all free to enjoy.

    Basically, instead of altering the voltage between the rails, a constant voltage is applied. Each train engine is modified slightly to add a microcontroller that is uniquely addressable. You can control each engine independently using a specialized controller, although I’m guessing folks have developed computer interfaces as well. Only problem is you have to convert all of the engines over (or store non-converted engines and alternate between using Digitrax and not.)

    Now if I can just convince my wife to go on Amtrak’s new Coast Starlight up to Seattle and back in the new sleepers…

  6. If I had the space and the money, I’d build a train layout. I was into it quite a bit as a kid. Lots of “maker” skills involved.

  7. I don’t believe it’s correct that trains were unloaded onto ferries for the trip across the bay. I believe the railcars themselves were loaded onto the ferries, and reformed into trains on the other side of the bay. You can still see the complementary rail/ferry terminal in San Francisco.

  8. There is still a healthy population of people that like to make stuff, and model railroading seems to attract a lot of them. Building a layout taxes ones carpentry, electrical, research and artistic skills, and can be very rewarding.

    The layout I am working on has been a source of obsession for a few years now. Building it has been very rewarding and enjoyable. Plus it gives me good blog fodder…

    Is an accurately scaled down version of a terminal that once existed on the Harlem River in the Bronx. A fascinating operation that was isolated from any other railroad, all traffic to this terminal was via carfloats. Rail cars would be offloaded from the carfloats into the terminal, and spotted at a round freight house where they were unloaded. Once empty they were put back onto carfloats and returned upriver.

    As simple as that sounds, the ingenuity and effort to make that happen is staggering, and a good source for a model railroad project. Researching this lost terminal has also been a challenge as it was torn down in the late 1950’s.

    I have been documenting this project on my blog for a while now.

    Forgive the shameless plug, but sharing the process has been the biggest part of the fun!

  9. Perhaps the ultimate in train sets (are there records for this kind of thing?) is the Train Barn near Kalamazoo, MI.

    “The miniature railroad and its surrounding community has grown to more than 3,000 square feet, with approximately 2,500 feet of track — that’s almost half a mile. It has more than 250 train cars, 30 engines and more than 100 switches.

    The Portage & Southern Railroad System, which Seth Giem has built over the past 41 years.

    The mountains consist of 10,000 pounds of plaster, there are 40 tunnels, about 250 buildings and 75 bridges — including the 12-foot-high, 16-foot-long centerpiece of the railroad, a replica of the Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge near Colorado Springs, that took Seth Giem 350 hours to build.”

  10. Not quite model railroading under the xmas tree exactly, but, in the bay area there are some live steam scale models you can ride. Tilden Park has: which is a bay area classic, selling rides to the public for generations. Right next door is a club for hobbyists who make and run a variety of gauges of trains: Golden Gate Live Steamers that sometimes do rides for the public (check their site for schedule.)

  11. Followed a link from Twitter to this post. Glad I did.

    Brought me back to my Lionel train set that was only up and running this time of year as we lived in an apartment. Years later, my son had a set also.

    Where I live I can hear the Long Island Rail Road’s whistle, especially on a clear night. Love that sound.

    Maybe for some of us the worlds we created with toy trains, legos and blocks led to the worlds we create today in the new buildings of social media and through web sites.

    Question” if my keyboard is the train and the cars, could my mouse be the caboose?

    Judy Rey Wasserman

  12. We actually have a train table for a wooden train and farm set. It is very low so kids can toddle around it putting together wooden tracks and traincars and building barns out of blocks.

    We’re going to put the christmas tree on the table, and who knows… maybe we will put together an electric train for around the tree.

    At some point its easier to just submit to the goddamned christmas spirit than continue fighting it in vain.

  13. Golden Gate Rail Museum is great, especially when the trains are running. If you are ready to go a bit further afield, the Walnut Creek Model Railroad is also worth a visit, although their hours are odd. ( I think they’ve got one more evening this year.

  14. There used to be a toy museum in Washington, DC. In one of their rooms, they had an electric mock train from the 30’s. The thing would sometimes sputter while starting, which scared everyone in the room. I remember thinking it was so cool. The museum’s not there anymore; it was a private collection, and the curator wanted to retire. That same museum had the most awesome doll house as well. It had working lights, 14 rooms, and cost $5,000. I wanted it so badly, I tried to bargain with my parents that it was better than a new computer (they didn’t buy that).

    I had one when I was little. I wound up breaking it because I kept on wanting to use it to roll over my Barbies. Good times.

    There’s something romantic about trains, so I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of them completely. If nothing else, they’ll remain as a cultural icon.

  15. I’m an American Flyer guy too (born in New Haven). Nothing beats the smell of a warmed-up AF transformer…

  16. @#8 JWB – Agree – this is (IMHO) a car ferry dock. I looked through my copy of Where Rails Meet the Sea: America’s Connections Between Ships & Trains and found this picture of a Bay area dock in use. That gantry-ish structure is a counterweight – it moves the ramp up and down to adjust for the change in height of the car float as it is loaded/unloaded. I believe the practice was to use a couple idler cars (empty flats) to keep the engine (WAY too heavy) away from the ramp. Model Railroader did a project layout based on Great Lakes car ferries a number of years ago (the Kinnikinnick Dock and Terminal Rwy?) and I’ve been fascinated ever since.

  17. shout out to the Cherry Hill railroad club layout housed under the Episcopal church in Merchantville, NJ. Incredible layout crammed into a low ceiling space among the piers holding up the church floor!

  18. We had a wonderful Lionel train set around the xmas tree that had a double loop with an overpass trestle. Great memories.

    These days, I have no room for one in my house, but I have spent many hundreds of hours playing with Auran’s Trainz on my computer. You can build huge virtual layouts from scratch and add all sorts of detail. And of course it is great fun to build a huge ramp and run a 50-car train off a cliff and watch it crash into the valley below.

    The software is stupid cheap, like $25, but you can get free train simulators too. And I still have the Train Set HyperCard stack! :)

  19. My family also had a Lionel train set. We’d take it out once per year and set it up under the Christmas tree, with an expansive light up village in the center of its circular track.

    My favorite part was adding a drop or two of the official Lionel petroleum liquid to the train’s smoke stack. After a few seconds large, satisfying puffs of smoke would start billowing out.

    They only lasted for a minute or so, but I can still smell the smoke like it was yesterday. Definitely one of my favorite things about the holidays.

  20. Thanks for clarifying how the Ferry Terminal was used — to load the train cars on to the ferry. None of the signs on site were clear about that kind of use. I wondered why the tracks ran up on to the pier.

  21. The Tech Model Railroad Club was awesome. They had a relay based control system that let you plug in your train controller from various places around the incredible layout. You’d set up your train and the system would track your train, relay controlled block by block, so as it traveled around the tracks you would retain control of it. This meant that you could share tracks on a moderately fine scale. In fact, this was a lot like cellular telephony, an idea everyone was talking about in the late 60s and early 70s. Imagine a telephone which can be tracked through a series of small radio contact areas (now called cells), just the way the TMRC railroad system tracked your train.

    Some of the train controllers were pretty impressive too. One popular variation limited acceleration and deccelaration so the model train behaved more like a real, heavy weight train. The general layout tried to capture the early 20th century, a lot like Disneyland, but at least one guy I knew captured a bit of the 1970s with a replica of the Coca Cola sign with its programmed lights across the Charles River.

    There was one big noisy relay called the multi-shlunker. It did some kind of garbage collection of the track segments or perhaps the train controllers. Every minute or so it would set off and a whole bunch of relays would fire with a loud “shlunk”.

    A lot of the guys who worked on the trains at TMRC were also the founders of modern computing technology. They’d develop virtual memory systems, machine vision or intelligent disk controllers by day and a wonderfully sophisticated model train system by night.

  22. @ #5 posted by Tim

    WOW! I took a quick look at your blog and saw how complex that switch track thing-a-ma-bob is. I bookmarked your site for future visits. Nice site design too.

  23. @#23:

    What do you mean “was”? The Tech Model Railroad Club is still around. We just celebrated our 60th anniversary last year. We most recently had an open house last weekend; our spring open house will be on April 25, 2009.

    Anyone is welcome to stop by at other times, too – just call ahead to make sure someone is going to be around.

    Also, we’ve completely replaced the control system since you last visited. We’re currently on System 3, which is a control system based on PIC microcontrollers.

    Governor, Tech Model Railroad Club

  24. How odd. We were just at the railway museum, and when I get home, I’m reading about it in Boing Boing. Will this happen with every place I visit now?

  25. just a quick note to remind bay-area folk that the Sacramento train museum (a short walk from the amtrak station) is teh awesome. sooooo coool with minty fresh 1929 pullman sleepers and 1948 stainless dining cars (with every type of dining ware represented.)

    upstairs, a kickass lionel set runs constantly with external buttons you can push.

  26. had HO as a kid, then found N scale. a 4×4 goes much farther in N scale, and is simple to suspend from the garage rafters on pulleys.

    Trains are a lot of fun

  27. I ate at the Van Nuys Choo Choo three or four times when I was a kid. I thought it was the best restaurant in the world! There is a tiny blurb about it towards the end of the article here:
    Partially due to it’s influence, a few years back I spent a couple of months building a 4’x8′ HO-scale dual track winter layout that went around and under my Christmas tree with two trains, a passenger streamliner and a freight train, running at the same time. It had automatic switches that let you turn the trains around and switch the tracks that they ran on. It was one of things that I had always dreamed of as a kid and I finally realized it! Of course after Christmas reality set in and the apartment we were living in was not nearly big enough for a 4’x8′ layout and it had to go. Next time it’s N-scale for me. I still get a little misty when I look at the pics………

  28. We didn’t have a ton of space growing up so my Mom bought me N scale trains. Having a love for miniatures in general, this was a natural fit. I still have them in storage…perhaps they will make an appearance this Christmas…..

  29. Hackers is quite a book. I knew most of the west coast names. Everyone came through Mike Quinn’s store near the Oakland Airport. That’s where I met George Morrow, Bill Godbout, etc.. Everyone doing a prototype bought their chips at Mike’s. His counterman “Vinnie the Bear” got his own page. Before there were chips there was “pinball logic” which meant anything using relays. That would be what the model RR crowd was doing. Going from pinball logic to latches and gates was easy.
    Godbout rented the building that was behind Mike’s. He had a monster cobweb above his desk. I never saw the spider that made it. When you ran into someone who’d been out to see Bill you always asked if the web was still there. It was. Web on the wall and stacks of chip books on the floor plus coffee and free form sessions over things that should be built.

  30. I have video of the last open house of the MIT Model Railroad Club in their old home, the basement of one of the WWII era wooden barracks buildings where they did most of their important work. Never did anything with it but it remains on S-VHS tape in my archive.

    Now the Club has been moved to the MIT Museum. Haven’t seen the layout there but I’m sure it’s impressive.

  31. I had my Dad’s old “O” scale Lionel set setup on a table in the basement when I was a kid. Going to the hobby shop was a weekly ritual to grab trees and buildings and whatnot. My only problem was that the O scale is so friggin’ huge it really limited the size of my little table world.

    @#1 dbarak: There is a Lego Train show happening in Wheaton, IL at Cantigny Park this weekend (Dec 6-7)! I’m going to go, mostly because my girlfriend works at the park. (Bonus: They also have army tanks outside for which to climb on.)

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