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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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