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

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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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December 18, 2012 - 7:00am
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