Back-Yard Scale Model : A Little Train That Could Initiate Lifelong Hobby

Times Staff Writer

An adventuresome mouse would have the trip of a lifetime if it hopped aboard one of Monte Chambers’ trains. The tracks run alongside Chambers’s back-yard swimming pool in Glendora through an Austrian village, over a bridge, under a cable car, in and out of a tunnel, past a waterfall.

Everything to do with the railroad and its adjacent buildings, all from Germany, is done to scale.

Every little window, light and rivet on the engine (where the wheel assembly is articulated to handle tight corners) is exactly the right size. The Sagewerk sign on the sawmill is in proportion to the building; at the Lowenbrau Zue Post, a little terrace features a tiny barbecue. The tiny porter outside the hotel pushes a baggage cart bearing tiny suitcases and an even tinier hatbox.

Poinsettias and mammoth yellow pansies loom over the tracks, out of scale with the miniature railroad.


Although some nurseries specialize in miniature plants for model train buffs, Chambers doesn’t take his hobby to that extreme.

Mellow, Not Obsessed

If there are two broad categories of model train buffs--the obsessed and the mellow--Chambers is the latter. Describing the first category, Chambers’ wife, Marilou, observes with a chuckle, “Some people even have the trains bring in their drinks at night.”

But Chambers’ hobby is less all-encompassing. “I go in spurts. . . . Sometimes I don’t run it for weeks at a time.”

And, Chambers admits, “I like to build ‘em; I don’t particularly like to play with ‘em.”

Being laid back about it all seems to run in the family. The Chamberses have four grandchildren by their two daughters. Are the youngsters fascinated with the train? Not really, his expression indicates. “But they see it all the time. They like to show their friends, though,” Chambers says.

He is tall, lanky and laconic at 57, and a retired superintendent of heavy transmission lines for Southern California Edison Co. “You know, building those big steel towers across the desert,” he says, describing his former job. He came a long way by staying put, and was able to retire early because he started early, he explains.

He is a second-generation Californian; his father was born in Redlands in 1895. “And my mother lived here on this property. It was a big orange ranch,” he says. He met his wife at Covina High School, and joined Edison after serving in the Korean War.

“Like most kids, I had a small electric train,” he says. As an adult he progressed to the HO model around the Christmas tree and eventually to the L.G.B. model in the back yard that he started assembling four years ago.

L.G.B., which stands for Lehmann Gross-Bahn, (Lehmann Big Train in English) are sometimes called garden railways. L.G.B. is the last word in this hobbyist’s train of thought. And he is not alone. The Los Angeles Garden Railway Society, where Chambers says “you can pick up some good ideas,” has about 70 members, who write to the Ernst Paul Lehmann Patentwerk in Nuremberg for their equipment.

Demonstrating the railroad’s layout and explaining its features make its creator’s face light up.

Chambers uses seven engines and 30 cars in his pool-side railway. Four trains can run on the tracks simultaneously. The system is fully automated so that collisions are impossible. When one engine passes over a magnetized tie, it trips a switch that causes the arm of a signal to drop, and the next train to stop.

“If you give it 20 volts, it’ll really move,” Chambers said, “probably in excess of 100 m.p.h., in scale speed. The normal operating speed is 14 volts.”

The trains will run in rain or snow. At night, the headlights on the engines throw their beams. The windows of the hotel, the stations, the church and the farmhouses glow.

Buildings From Kits

Chambers assembles the buildings from kits made by Pola, another German company.

“Normally, most people will lay out all their track first, then start adding buildings,” Chambers says. He says he started with the hotel. “Then you start putting a farmhouse here, a church there, a this and a that.” He ended up with 14 buildings.

L.G.B. engines can cost “from $160 to $600 apiece, and the cars from $30 to $200,” he said. The building kits are usually a couple of hundred dollars each.

“I’m better off than a lot of people just getting into it,” he says, because “the dollar against the mark is so bad now.”

He learned some hydraulic engineering by installing the waterfall. And next year he wants to put a cog railway running up a slope.

The rails--solid brass, a good conductor of electricity--feel warm in the sunlight. And in fact, the train “runs over a lizard now and then” that comes to bask, Chambers says.

A more common hazard is corrosion. “You can develop bad joints, shorts,” he said. But he added happily, “I enjoy fiddling with it.”