Vallejo Street Railways

The golden age of rail is pretty much gone from the USA. If you visit Monterey it will be for the aquarium, not for historic rail trips. In fact, the rather sad 25' stretch of track being surveyed by Andrew and Deborah in this picture is all that has survived of what must have once been a rather lovely rail route. It could be worse, I suppose, for the corridor once traversed by locomotives is now a bicycle path, and various bits of rolling stock are now jacked up and converted into T-shirt shops or similar.

The glorious atmosphere of the rail barons is now found mostly in sessions playing board games... or is it?

The romance of the rails has not been entirely lost, even here on the West coast where the automobile is king.

But let me start from an earlier place. I have always had a certain love of trains, almost a thrill. It is one of those things I wanted to transfer to my children.

Here you see an early picture of Merinda with a train made of stuffed felt. If you have good eyes you might discern the word "Amelia" on the side of the maroon carriage. This train was made at my mother's request by the lady in the toy shop that once was found (and perhaps still is) in Wentworth Falls, and was given as a present to Amelia. (That sort of thing---toys being made on request---does not seem to happen here, but that is another story.) Amelia never acquired an enthusiasm for the thing, but it was passed on.

A little later, Kay found this wonderful electric train, and we made sure that Merinda got used to riding it.

With hindsight, she never got excited about it. She got excited, but chiefly in the fact that we watched and applauded when she pressed the buttons to make it go or blow its whistle. Subsequently we saw the same disinterest in an electric car, but that is another story. (Teddy, on the other hand, loves the car and will likely be delighted with the train.)

The train excited me. Merinda liked to ride it around in the garden, as you can see here.

I figured that I deserved a bit of train action too... if Meri was in possession of her own train, I was entitled to something.

You see here a steam locomotive in front of the railway station in Railway Square, here in Santa Rosa. Now the tracks of some West Coast rail company still run through Santa Rosa, and indeed they were in occasional use in 1998 when we first came here and lived in earshot of the line. The scale of this event---a steam loco in Railway Square---will become clear shortly.

This is a view of the said train departing into the tunnel out of the square. To the right you can see the tree in blossom, casting its shadow onto the Jacobs building (and its fine Italian Restaurant).

Panning further back, you see here a (rather European) goods train using the same line.

The scale of the event is `N', in fact. Here is a picture of your humble author painting the said square. The Jacobs building and the train station both really exist, as you can see, as does Railway Square, but my Railway Square has more train in it than the real one.

Merinda quite likes the train set, which packs conveniently into a 2'x3'x6" case. Max the cat likes it too, but he probably thinks that these sub-mouse-sized things are edible. The layout is a small Santa Rosa in many ways, and is decorated by means of pictures of the real place.

It has a range of cute views.

One thing Merinda did seem to like was the annual display put on by the Redwood Empire Garden Railway Society.

Here you see a view of one of their layouts, set up in a basketball court.

She was rapt with the long, large, G-scale trains that chugged in a stately fashion past her. I was impressed too.

We thus joined the G-scale enthusiasts. Actually we started quite early in Merinda's life---before she was one, and grew the set gradually.

As you can see, adult enthusiasm has not been lacking. The set's track lives in an old trunk of my mothers, and the rolling stock in old suitcases. When deployed it can run from the fireplace at one end of the house to the fireplace at the other, or in Summer from the back door to the pond, with a generous amount of shunting yard at either end.

Here you can see an aerial view of the track snaking out into the garden, forming a couple of loops around Meri's castle, then returning.

Danny and Tinky-Winky can be seen helping Merinda with the shunting yard near the BBQ. A favourite pasttime is mounting the video camera onto a goods carriage. We understand that Denis quite enjoyed getting a video of that.

Here, in front of a shunting circuit, Teddy can be seen desperately trying to blow the train whistle. Teddy was at once enthusiastic about trains, more so than Merinda has ever been. Next Summer he will have a decent chance of catching the train as it moves about the garden, and may prove to be quite a terror.

In the mean time, we visited Traintown in Sonoma. Here Teddy is standing on Kay's lap, riding a diesel train to the petting zoo. Note the Engineer's Cap. Teddy thought that day was wonderful. So did Merinda, but she went for the attention and the animals, but Teddy and I liked the bridges and tunnels.

We had also bought one of the Brio-like wooden train sets from CostCo, to see how well it went down. Badly, was the result. We could not quite figure out if the idea just did not appeal, or if it was a crummy set. In spite of the dismal lack of interest at home, we noticed that Teddy would happily play with the sets on display in the serious toy shops for longer than we cared to have to be there (45 minutes).
I guessed that the answer was the presentation: The sets were glued in place on tables in the shops, but wobbled on carpet or slid on lino at home. So one Saturday I set to work with Merinda's help to whip together a small table---Teddy height---and to glue the train track down. Here we are working in the garage, while Teddy had a nap.

Here we are putting on the finishing touches.

For a terribly modest investment, something like $30 for the set, and another $20 in wood, and a day's very pleasant and satisfying labour, we have a toy that occupies and fascinates Teddy for hours. In addition, it is built so that the table top inverts, and Meri has a table upon which to paint. (Some very good Jackson-Pollock T-shirts have come from her hand, but that is another story.)

Here you see us sticking down some trees and shops. Teddy cannot wait to play.

The first night Teddy was so engrossed he would not go to bed. Here you can see Kay and Teddy. There were rings under both pairs of eyes that night.

Along the way I wrote a program to check and document layouts; for instance you see here one of the garden layouts that encircled the castle at one end and provided a station and city layout at the other.

I have two things more that I would like to get around to trying.
I would like to try a Z-scale railway, the smallest scale of all. This offers a U-turn of two concentric lines in 14", or the possibility of a layout in a briefcase.
I would also like to try one of the O-scale American trains. Lionel is the classic (there is a brief scene in the lovely Cary Grant movie "People Will Talk" that is a wonderful train enthusiast's scene) but it is a bit tinny. Atlas may be nicer. Either way these are tri-rail systems just a bit smaller than G-scale. The tri-rail systems have one advantage, namely that tracks can loop back on themselves, and trains traverse one section of track in both directions without sophisticated computer control or complicated isolators and switches. (This makes crashes and collision-games easy---you have seen a lot of O-scale work in The Adams Family and perhaps in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." two trains loose on a track and loaded with poison gas or real explosives....)

Note that reality is often bent in some systems... "scale" does not exaclty fix, say, the crucial radius of turn. G at 22.5:1 has a 24-inch (~600mm) minimum turn radius, and Z at 220:1 6-inch (~150mm).