Toy Train Tycoon Has Pooled His Resources

Times Staff Writer

At age 78, Roy Nimmo has taken the plunge into model railroading.

He is the self-appointed superintendent of the SP&R--as; in Swimming Pool & Roy--Railroad.

Daily, Nimmo walks out the back door of his home in northern San Diego County and climbs down into his swimming pool-sans-water, where he immerses himself in a world of HO-scale locomotives, freight and passenger cars, country towns, farms and a ski resort.


At his control console, he eases two long trains out of spur lines and into opposing directions along his main line, timing it so they meet at a siding where they pass one another. He nudges a rheostat switch and the enclosed patio is filled with the sounds of clanging crossing bells, train whistles, released steam and the clickety-clack of trains on tracks.

Sure, there are bigger railroad layouts.

But not many are inside swimming pools.

Nimmo was smitten by model railroading in 1975, after he retired as a heavy equipment operator for a pipeline contractor. He initially set up his little train layout in a 14-foot-square shed in the back yard of his home, where he and his wife, Phyllis, have lived for 30 years.

Nimmo soon began eyeing the weather-protected swimming and exercise pool, which the couple had been using less and less. It is 12-by-28 feet, and measures 3 feet deep at one end, 5 feet deep at the other.

“We were having lunch one day and he said, ‘You know, we’re not using that pool a whole lot. We can drain it and I can put in a beautiful sunken garden for you--or we could put the trains in there,’ ” Phyllis Nimmo said with a smile.

“So I said, ‘Go ahead, bring your trains in.’ He had the pool drained the next morning,” she said.

In fact, Phyllis Nimmo is hardly a railroad widow. She hand-painted each of the 640 tiny human figures that are stationed about the layout, helped shape the mountains and hillsides and even painted the backdrops to the layout--by leaning over the side of the swimming pool and painting upside down.

“When you get older you need an active interest,” she says. “That’s what’s wrong with so many older people--they don’t have a hobby. And I can think of a lot of worse things that Roy could be doing than this.”

Nimmo does not know how much track he’s laid, or how many locomotives, passenger cars and freight cars he has purchased or reconstructed over the years. There are maybe 120 passenger and freight cars and probably 30 or 40--maybe 50?--locomotives, representing the most contemporary Amtrak edition to the steam locomotives of the 1860s. More than a dozen complete trains are located on sidings around the layout.

There’s remarkable attention to detail: the coal bunker rigged by Nimmo with a chute to actually dump little black stuff into the coal tenders; the helicopter and single-engine airplane--HO scale, of course--with propellers that whirl on cue; the snow-removal locomotive with a blower fan that spins; and the movie theater complete with fiber-optic lighting for that special marquee twinkling effect.

“The ‘African Queen’ has been playing there for a long time,” Phyllis Nimmo quips.

The Nimmos love showing off the SP&R; Railroad to visitors. Their home is a tour stop for serious model railroaders who come to San Diego for conventions; tour buses have pulled into his driveway with loads of senior citizens on an outing, and local school children are frequent visitors.

The greatest advantage of a swimming pool layout, he says, is that it offers great, unobstructed viewing of the entire layout from above. The drawback, of course, is that it makes future expansion difficult.

Unless, maybe, the Nimmos decide to add a spa line.