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.