Running O-Gauge Trains

Last year, I set up my old Lionel train set on the dining room table. I had the locomotive cleaned and oiled and the transformer checked out. I ran a smaller version of the layout I used to set up in my bedroom in Queens. The kids liked it, Soren got really enthusiastic, and I fell in love again with the detail and modeling. So around my birthday in February, I bought a set of modern RailKing trains, O gauge like my Lionel, and started planning a better layout than the dining room. O-gauge means I can mix my old Lionel trains with the CSX diesel I bought last month.

Now that my trains are up and running, I’ve been thinking about the layout. I’ve got buildings for a town, a yard, and a farm from my old set. I’ve got some new buildings Soren and I bought. I’ve been reading some magazines and took Soren to the train show at the Big E to see what the hobbyists do. Their attention to detail is spectacular—fully realized towns, canyons, industrial sidings. Many of them construct stories for their layouts. Some pick a time and place. Others, freelancers, simply go for a look. To me, it’s like writing a novel, a chance to invent a familiar world.

I’m thinking you’ve got to have vignettes on a small layout like mine, shade one scene into another, even if the farm is 20 miles out of town. It’s like one of the Japanese paintings where the edges of one scene blur into white and blur back into another scene. I’m just starting out. I’m laying out the pieces, not gluing anything down or caring much about scale and verisimilitude until I work out what I want. Building scale mountains, with realistic stone outcroppings and meandering streams is somewhat in the future. For now, I’m using cardboard to lay out the streets and sidewalks of “town.”

The town is called Kimball. Kimball, North America, the kind of place you could ride through in a ’47 Hudson or stumble on in a late 60’s road trip or even on modern trip with your family. There’s a school, Valentin Hall, like P.S. 82 in Jamaica, and an apartment building. There’s going to be a diner behind the town, tying the railroad yard to the town. It’ll be a 24-hour diner, the kind of place where the railroad guys eat, where kids buy a bag of potato chips and a coke and eat their bag lunch at the counter, slipping half the chips into the moist tuna fish sandwich for crunch and gourmandaise, where couples go for dinner after work or a movie, and single guys go late at night for a cup of coffee to listen to conversations. I’d love to add a small industrial building, like the laboratory on 90th Avenue around the corner from my apartment building, a low two story brick building with black marble blocks and glass brick front windows, making something like dental molds, taking in and sending out work in small packages.

There’s a rail yard, with a switch tower I built 50 years ago and an overhead trestle from the same era. “We like to build yards,” Dennis, the owner of Hobby World, told me. I figure it’s because it’s interesting to switch cars, it’s a lot of train in a relatively small space, and it’s a place to show your collection. So I’ve got a small yard in the works. I’ve got the switch tower and the crosswalk and the new set comes with some shipping containers that will stack nicely off to one side.

And then there’s the country. The barn is from my old set, with the farm animals, a farm girl, a farm hand, and two tractors. Like Kimball, it could be anywhere—upstate New York, the mythic Midwest, the Berkshires. Ultimately, that’s where the tunnel or the plateau goes, but for now, I’m adding some graduated trestles that drop off coming into the yard.

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