SANTA CLARA -- This is the supermodel of a train hobbyist's midnight dreams: curvaceous, creative and run by a digital command center, with microprocessors, modulated bipolar voltage and a sound card emitting a high, lonesome sound.
"It's better than a strip club," said Steve Williams of Sunnyvale, a Boeing software engineer who adopted the train hobby when his wife enrolled in law school.
Model trains have come a long way since the Lionel set that once circled your Christmas tree. At the Toy & Model Train Expo in Santa Clara this weekend, sponsored by the Northern California division of the Train Collectors Association, locomotives on tiny high-tech tracks meandered through precise replicas of Fremont, Sonoma, Turlock and the Sierra.
It's the kind of mass transit, if scaled up, that could finally get us out of our cars. There are no strikes, station shootings or suicides to interrupt transit. Trains always run on time.
Misrouting? Never happens.
The hobby -- a blend of Edward Hopper and Steve Jobs -- attracts many Bay Area tech engineers. Members of Bay Area clubs -- such as Silicon Valley Free-moN club, the Diablo Pacific Short Line and the Peninsula Ntrack -- brought their precisely crafted modules, then cheerfully connected tracks together.
Innovations such as a digital signaling system allows users to operate more than one train on a track. Trains can be managed by long-distance wireless control, via an iPhone or Android app. Locomotives come with CD-quality digital sound: authentic whistles and bells; steam puffing and smoke chuffing that is synchronized to the speed of the engine.
The intensity of hobbyists' passion is exceeded only by the scope of their collections. At the weekend event, hobbyists displayed their projects and swapped pieces, handling each piece like a precious gem.
Some models run on two tracks; others on three. Tracks come in different sizes, or gauges, which corresponded to the distance between the outer rails. There are the classic O-gauge tracks, familiar to anyone with a Lionel or American Flyer set. The HO-gauge, with tracks and trains half the size, were followed by N-gauge, so miniature that a layout can fit in a closet. There's even a something called G gauge, model trains large enough to chug through outdoor gardens.
A few are sold as "ready-to-roll products," with pre-built buildings, boxcars and landscapes. But most are exquisite hand-crafted collections.
To build historically accurate replicas of billiard halls, massage parlors and copper mines, M.C. Fujiwara of Walnut Creek visits the UC Berkeley library to find photographs of long-gone eras. In his tableau of a Sonoma vineyard, each of the 183 grapes vines was individually made.
Michele Whitten of Sunnyvale used tweezers to assemble a landscape of a soccer players, campsites, oak forests and a tiny barbecue. To create shingles on a mountain home, she cut tiny slivers of sandpaper.
The hobby has its origins in the wind-up European trains of the 1870s, according to hobby historians. In America, it was Lionel's simple battery-operated trolley cars that first captured the public imagination.
But the hobby's Golden Era was between 1995 and 2005, when nostalgic Baby Boomers would pay up to $30,000 for a mint condition Lionel 773 Hudson Passenger.
"It was a collector's market. People made them part of their investment portfolio," said Mark Boyd, editor of The Train Collectors Quarterly journal. "That doesn't happen any more. The market's softened."
Today's youngsters are more drawn to computer screens than the chug-chug-chug of locomotives, he said.
Could technology help save the pastime, sparing it the fate of badminton, whist, croquet and other pleasures of yesterday?
"It is so disciplinary, with many different elements," Fujiwara said. "There is electronics, physics, chemistry, artistic design and history. The railroad shaped America."
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.
Sunday March 2
9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Santa Clara Convention Center, 5001 Great America Parkway, Halls C & D, Santa Clara
Cost: Adults $10, children free. Cash only.
For more information: www.TrainExpo.org