Most Sundays, the tracks also buzz with trains. Some puff real smoke from their stacks. Some toot electronic horns. Some are as big as the standard, Christmas-day train sets you see in toy store windows. Others are smaller and thinner than garden snakes. Silver-bullet Amtraks and dusty old boxcars run their circuits. And for every train running at Train Town on a Sunday, about two curious visitors pay their respects.
"We've had around three dozen people here today. I'm surprised," says David Sutherland, Train Town builder and Weekend 'N' Gineers Club president, between bites of a Kit Kat. A symbiotic relationship has formed between Train Town's owners and the Blue Ridge Mall manager, a Lionel train fan himself. "The other mall people like us because we get guys and their kids in," he says. "Being a draw for the mall pays our rent." But it doesn't pay their heat, which is why most of the guys moseying around with train controllers in their hands have kept their jackets on. Members from each train club pay $5 in monthly dues. That's just enough to keep the lights on.
Thomas the Tank Engine this is not. These trains chug over deep canyons and miniature waterfalls, all of them frozen in time and plastic. Striated Styrofoam painted in tans and browns and sprinkled with textured green fuzz makes for believable mountain terrain. Trains thread through the requisite tunnels like scenes from movies.
Ask these club members the model and series numbers of a train engine and they'll rattle off stats like baseball fans listing batting averages. But it's not all rivet counting. The Kansas City Model Railroad Club's detailed setup has many rewards for the sharp eye, such as the tiny cow standing on the third floor of a building that's being demolished by a wrecking ball. In the urban part of the train's course, there's a movie theater called the Palace, the marquee of which blinks in neon announcing The War of the Worlds as its feature presentation. Look closer, and at street level you'll see people no bigger than your fingernail running in fear from little green aliens. And a few feet down the track, there's evidence that shit happens, even in miniature: Skid marks and a broken fence precede a tiny red truck floating in a plastic, green lake. (The water's surface is cracked, a nod to the cold Train Town climate.)
"It's creatively prototypical," surmises 12-year-old Devin Connelly, who helped build a section of this track, proving that train fanatics spring eternal.