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Model train buffs try to recruit a new generation

John McInerney, of West Islip, a member

John McInerney, of West Islip, a member of the Central Operating Lines Model Railroad, poses for a portrait with the model trains at the club's open house in Ronkonkoma. (Nov. 29, 2009) Credit: Charles Eckert

The stories are the same -- about a boy growing up in the 1950s in Brooklyn or Queens, and one memorable Christmas morning when the boy opens up his presents and finds a Lionel or HO model train set.

The boy's father (always a big part of the story) does most of the work, carefully assembling the little circular layout, which chugs around the tree or a table in the basement. Days . . . years . . . of wonder and pleasure follow. The story concludes with the boy, now a man, finding the old trains packed away in a closet, which rekindles his passions for his childhood hobby and . . . well, here we are.

Where we are, listening to these stories - told and retold with striking similarity by a host of different men, 50 and older - in a 23,000-square-foot warehouse near MacArthur Airport on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This is the site of one of the Island's largest and longest-running model train displays, the Central Operating Lines' "O" Gauge Holiday Open House. (See box for details.)

Here, seven scale-miles of track represent the culmination of a miniature railroad journey that has provided maximal enjoyment for decades to most of the club's 62 members. A dozen of these members are manning the layout for the Open House, hoping their handiwork will create new memories for the more than 400 people who would attend the show on the three-day Thanksgiving weekend.

 

Bringing the grandchildren
So far, it seems to be working: "I think it's so cool!" says 11-year-old Nicole Odierno of Miller Place, as she scans the layout. "I like how it's built . . . it's so realistic!"

Coming here with her equally enthralled 8-year-old sister, Gina, was - you guessed it - grandpa's idea. Grandpa Mike Pantozzi, 59, is one of those guys who can tell you the story about his lifelong love of trains. In his case, it was his basement in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, where his dad set up the layout back in the late 1950s. "He built a trestle and we had a couple little houses," recalls Pantozzi, who now lives in Mt. Sinai. He nods toward the Central Operating Lines layout. "My setup looked nothing like this," he says with a chuckle.

Few home layouts do. Clubs like this one (of which there are about 19 on Long Island) allow the grown-up boys (members are predominantly male) to pool the many skills and talents needed to assemble something like this. "It's not just the trains," says Central Operating Line vice president Scott Firestone, 54, of Melville. "It's the electronics, the scenery, the modeling."

Model railroads come in a number of sizes, one of the most popular being O gauge - in which one inch of model train is equal to 48 inches of real train. Gauges descend in size all the way down to Z-scale, in which entire layouts fit into a suitcase.

 

Finding a lost world
Regardless of size, what model railroaders really do is rebuild a vanished world. The Central Operating Lines layout is designed to look like the early 1950s, around the time the last steam trains were being phased out and replaced by diesels.

The level of detail is stunning: At one of the track-side villages, a corner newsstand displays tiny covers of magazines and comics that are reproductions of issues from the 1950s. There's an Esso station, a flashing Heinz Ketchup billboard, a Good Humor truck, not to mention an 8-foot-tall plaster mountain and, of course, the trains themselves, all meticulous re-creations of the engines, freight and passenger cars that traversed the country in the Golden Age of Rail.

The layout is powered by five Z-4000 transformers, each of which generates about 300 watts. The trains are guided by computerized remote controls that help keep them on their tracks, preventing collisions, which could be as damaging to the members' pocketbooks as it would be to their trains - the engines are valued from $400 to $2,500 each.

The members of the Central Operating Line have been working on this layout, in one form or another, since 1975. Such dedication is not atypical. Another local group, the West Island Model Railroad Club (wimrrc.com, 516-433-6600), moved in June from its space in Farmingdale to a converted parking garage in Hicksville, where members are now constructing a new 4,500-square-foot, HO-scale layout. "It's keeping the majority of our 65 members quite busy," says Vic Grappone, the club's president. He also notes that 49 of those members are 50 or older.

The demographics of model railroaders nationwide are similar, raising questions about the future of this pastime. "We recognize the fact that there is a need to engage younger hobbyists, to bring more people into the fold," says Brent Lambert of the National Model Railroad Association, a hobbyist group based in Chattanooga, Tenn. "But a lot of times it comes down to members sharing their hobby with others."

That's exactly what's going on at the Open House: Throughout the day, the door would open, and curious young faces, prompted by parents or grandparents, peered into this miniature world. Jaws drop at the first sight of Thomas the Tank Engine or Polar Express trains (run on the holiday specifically to please the kids). Fingers are pointing in all directions. Soon the kids - girls as well as boys - are scurrying about, craning their necks to see a shiny, black Union Pacific engine or a vintage Long Island Rail Road passenger train come zooming around the bend.

These kids might not be growing up in Brooklyn; they probably won't find a train among all their toys under the tree on Friday; and it is definitely not 1955 anymore. But in a way, when it comes to the allure and sheer fun of model trains, especially during the holidays, it's the same old story.

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