Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Why Are Toy Trains More Fun Than Real Ones?

As Christmas approaches, I was thinking recently of some of the great gifts that I received over the years, and of course the most memorable of my youth were toys. None of these has left a more lasting impression than the Lionel trains that my brother and I received.

My father took the time to build a table for operating them that could be set up in the garage, and we spent hours on end setting up track and running them around it. We marveled at tiny steam locomotives that made smoke and whose lights shone brightly, even during the day. Tiny diesel locomotive replicas towing miniature passenger or freight cars provided hours of fascination. We reveled in being able to control their movement forward and backward, switching tracks along the way as they made their way round our private little world.

We later added to the reality of that world (with my father's help of course), acquiring, painting, and assembling various accessories for these trains. Trees, grass, buildings, crossing gates, and even tiny people soon became part of the bit of miniature reality that we tried to create.

Later on after moving once, we had an adult neighbor even more obsessed than we were, who had turned the entire basement of his house over to a small world of tiny trains. Mountains and lakes, tunnels and bridges, and even small towns and cities were a special part of this world in which he spent endless hours and which we were privileged to visit from time to time.

These days trains have a far different meaning for me. Government subsidies of Amtrak, the cries for additional funding for light rail and commuter rail in cities, and the need for railroads to run commercials to prove the worth of their existence seem to have dimmed my fervor.

Instead of getting eye level with miniature crossing gates, my mind is filled with thoughts of the needless accidents at unsafe railroad crossings. Instead of hours of the fascination of watching these tiny trains follow their fixed paths, I remember the wasted hours over the years that I have spent waiting for one to parade in front of me. Instead of seeing myself in those tiny Pullman car replicas (built not many miles north from where I lived near Chicago), I now mourn that there is no longer any such thing.

Perhaps it is simply that I have lost the ability to experience the simple joys of youth. Perhaps it's that the fantasy of trains (and most of life) fascinates far more than their reality. Perhaps reaching a level of understanding in the reality of such things as an adult (OK, in my case kind of an adult) ruins the fantasy forever.

I still dream of one day taking a long train trip across the country, and maybe even up the west coast of the US and Canada to Alaska. I dream of the endless scenery passing by the window to the repetitive sounds of the joints in the tracks. I dream of the hypnotic effect of such leisurely travel in a way that I have never experienced.

I fear however, that it will never be. The reality would (and could) never live up to such a dream. Travel is no longer the romantic experience that it once was, as anyone who has flown recently knows far too well. And even if it were, passenger trains themselves are no longer what they used to be. Besides, my understanding is that with the current level of repair of both tracks and passenger cars, such travel (and such fantasies) can be downright dangerous.


Roland Hansen said...

I have often thought of taking a passenger train trip.
My biggest problem lies in the fact that in Toledo Amtrak (the only kid in town) has only east toward Washington or west toward Chicago service with the Toledo stop at an ungodly hour and is far more expensive than is air travel or automobile.
The Amtrak website is a nightmare for routing purposes. Try going from Toledo, Ohio to Phoenix, Arizona; the website says no routing available. However, there are two ways, both involving going to Chicago. From Chicago, take the train to Flagstaff, AZ and then hop a bus to Phoenix. Or, from Chicago, take the train to New Orleans, then westward to Maricopa, AZ and then hop a bus to Phoenix. No problem, only 4 days and about $500.00 later and you're there.

Tim Higgins said...


I often wonder at the peace, romantic nature, and the amusement of train travel (especially after watching "Silver Streak").

I fear however, that those days are best left to the movies.

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