5 Model Train Sets That Won’t Fit Under the Christmas Tree

In this age of video game consoles and iPads, it’s easy to forget there was a time when miniature trains were at the top of every kid’s holiday wish list. While the hobby isn’t as popular as it once was, the kids who loved miniature trains haven’t gone away—they’ve just gotten older and more ambitious. No longer content with a train that runs in a circle on the living room floor, here are five really big examples of really tiny train sets.

1. Miniatur Wunderland

In the late 1990s, twin brothers Frederik and Gerrit Braun of Germany decided to sell their successful nightclub, unload their hit record label, and go into model trains. Everyone thought they were nuts—but the brothers were able to secure a loan for 2 million German marks, which they used to lease part of an empty, three-story warehouse in Hamburg, and start building their dream, called Miniatur Wunderland. Since opening in 2001, Wunderland has grown to become the largest model train collection in the world, with 930 trains consisting of over 14,450 wagons running on over eight miles of track.

Broken into eight sections inspired by real-world locations like Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and America, as well as a fictional town called Knuffingen, this “miniature wonderland” features over 215,000 model people engaged in every activity imaginable—from everyday jobs to picnicking in the park to committing crimes and, yes, even tiny little scale-model sexcapades. While many figures stand frozen in time, about 200 animated scenarios can be started at the push of a button by any of the one million annual visitors to this very popular tourist destination.

In addition to trains, there are 250 computer-controlled vehicles that scoot around the streets, including fire trucks dispatched on a regular basis to handle miniature emergencies. Visitors will also find ships floating in a model sea that contains nearly 8,000 gallons of water, and marvel as 40 airplanes take off and land while miniature ground crews scoot around the 1,600 square foot, €3.5 million Knuffingen International Airport. Thanks to a sophisticated light show, a day only lasts 15 minutes in Wunderland, so visitors won’t have to wait long before they get a chance to see some of the 335,000 LED lights that bring the world to life after dark.

The Brothers Braun have plans to add new areas of Wunderland through 2020, including new sections modeled after France, Italy, England, and parts of Africa. They also plan to add another four miles of track, about 400 more trains, 6000 more wagons, double the population of “people,” and wire up another 200,000 lights.

2. Grand Street & Three Rivers Railroad


Photo courtesy of Model Railroader magazine.

When enthusiasts set out to create a large model railway, they choose a theme or a specific time period they want to reflect in the model. One wealthy creator chose to create his Grand Street and Three Rivers Railroad in a fictional post-World War II city inspired by Manhattan and Chicago, which he calls Three Rivers City. The 23 by 124-foot model features multiple skyscrapers—some as high as 5 feet tall—towering over sprawling city streets, complete with hundreds of bustling pedestrians and cars populating multiple industrial districts throughout the tiny town. Creating such a massive and detailed model isn’t cheap, but luckily the man behind the Three Rivers Railroad is none other than rock star Rod Stewart.

Although he never had a model train as a kid, Stewart got the rail bug early in life after growing up close to a British Rail train yard. He began building models while on tour to help him relax (which he still does today), but he didn’t really take the hobby seriously until 1993. That was when he decided to set aside a room in his new Beverly Hills mansion specifically for a large model railroad. Since then, Stewart has made nearly every building in Three Rivers City by hand, often combining more than one model kit together—a practice called “kitbashing”—to achieve the results he has in mind.

Only a few people have actually seen Three Rivers City in person, though Stewart has welcomed Model Railroader magazine into his home for photos and interviews. Based on these glimpses, some in the model railroading community are placing his modeling skills as among the best in the history of the hobby.

3. Franklin & South Manchester


Photo courtesy of Thom's Custom Trains

Since 1967, Fine Scale Miniatures (FSM) in Peabody, Massachusetts has been known for its high-quality model railway structure kits, like train depots, coal companies, and a watchworks factory. As a way to showcase their products, owner George Sellios began construction of a massive 1600 square foot diorama in 1985 that has since become one of the most famous model railroads in the world.

Sellios’ Franklin & South Manchester (F&SM) Railroad is set in a Depression-era New England town, where buildings are falling into disrepair, where the paint on signs has faded, and moss has slowly overtaken the bridges and byways. Sellios is known as one of the masters of model railroading, and it’s no surprise when you see the work done to bring the F&SM to life.

The layout of the F&SM is constantly changing—Sellios works on the model three months out of the year, and spends the rest of his time developing new kits. While there are photos online of the layout, they simply can’t do it justice; the best way to see Sellios’ incredible miniature work is to call ahead and schedule an appointment.

4. The Great Train Story

In 1941, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry unveiled a 2940 square-foot model train with over 1000 feet of track. The train featured the Santa Fe Railway, which financed the project, and showed how rail was being used across the country as freight and passenger trains traveled in a mock journey from Chicago to Los Angeles. As technologies changed, the railroad was often updated, but after 60 years, time had taken its toll. When the rail was closed in May 2002, only one of the 10 trains could run at a time.

Although the old model train had been shut down and dismantled, there was a new and improved line waiting at the station. In November 2002, after receiving $3.5 million in donations, and employing more than 40 artists and modelers for more than a year, The Great Train Story exhibit was opened to the public.

With 34 trains running simultaneously on 17 tracks, across a 3500 square foot diorama, there’s no shortage of railroading excitement for visitors. The main attraction, though, is three trains that run from Chicago to Seattle—a 2,206-mile journey covered in 1,425 feet of miniature tracks that feature plenty of twists, turns, and real-world iconic buildings and landscapes that a traveler would see along the way. There are 192 custom-built structures, including scale representations of the Space Needle and the Willis (Sears) Tower, as well as nearly 1500 miniature people, and over 1000 model vehicles.

5. The Diablo Valley Lines


Photo courtesy Captive Wild Woman.

A nondescript, two-story building at a public park in Walnut Creek, California, is the headquarters of the ominously named Diablo Valley Lines (DVL), one of the largest model railroads in the United States. Since 1974, the members of the Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society have been working countless hours on their impressive 1900 square foot layout, with about 4300 feet of track laid by hand using 175,000 toothpick-like ties and railroad spikes the size of staples. Not only is the DVL considered one of the longest continuous tracks in the country, but it’s believed to have the highest elevation of rail, with tracks about 7 feet above the rest of the layout on a mountain that peaks around 15 feet off the ground.

Because the line has been operating for so long, the controls are a bit archaic when compared to a modern, computer-controlled system. The DVL is operated by magnetic relay switches from the 1930s that were antiques when they were installed. The relays, originally used to route telephone calls, are hooked up to miles of electrical wires that snake under the layout, and are still capable of controlling up to 10 trains simultaneously, with the help of 25 Society members, during the club’s monthly public exhibitions.

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NASA Has a Plan to Stop the Next Asteroid That Threatens Life on Earth
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An asteroid colliding catastrophically with Earth within your lifetime is unlikely, but not out of the question. According to NASA, objects large enough to threaten civilization hit the planet once every few million years or so. Fortunately, NASA has a plan for dealing with the next big one when it does arrive, Forbes reports.

According to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] released by the White House on June 21, there are a few ways to handle an asteroid. The first is using a gravity tractor to pull it from its collision course. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a gravity tractor would simply be a large spacecraft flying beside the asteroid and using its gravitational pull to nudge it one way or the other.

Another option would be to fly the spacecraft straight into the asteroid: The impact would hopefully be enough to alter the object's speed and trajectory. And if the asteroid is too massive to be stopped by a spacecraft, the final option is to go nuclear. A vehicle carrying a nuclear device would be launched at the space rock with the goal of either sending it in a different direction or breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Around 2021, NASA will test its plan to deflect an asteroid using a spacecraft, but even the most foolproof defense strategy will be worthless if we don’t see the asteroid coming. For that reason, the U.S. government will also be working on improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, the technology NASA uses to track asteroids. About 1500 NEOs are already detected each year, and thankfully, most of them go completely unnoticed by the public.

[h/t Forbes]

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

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