GARDENING : Working on the Railroad : Back yard model trains have become a compelling hobby for hundreds in Southern California, including longtime model-train enthusiast Bill Bang.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times

At the touch of a switch, a Colorado and Southern freight train pulls away from a shoe-box size station in Bill Bang's Westlake back yard. Blowing its whis tle, belching smoke into the wide, blue sky, it eases past a miniature coal yard and into the cactus-spiked hardscrabble of a desert plain.

Gathering speed, the cars rattle over a bridge and skirt a hillside, some tiny straggling cows and a lot more prickly pears on their way to the dusty outpost of Timber City. There, the sheriff watches from his porch, a loafer pauses outside the Red Horse Saloon and the whole town seems to stop what it's doing as the train whips by.

This, says Bang, a longtime model train enthusiast, is the magic of a garden railroad, a "hands-and-knees world" that freezes time and borrows illusions from the larger landscape. Unlike the more common, and usually smaller-scale, indoor trains--which look model-like as they race around basement tables--the garden variety seem built for business.

Bang's G-scale, German-built Westlake Mountain Railroad speeds toward a horizon that's a mix of well-placed boulders and the rolling outlines of actual mountains--the Santa Monicas, the Tapas and the Calabasas hills. At night, the railroad's stations and switching yards, along with the windows of Timber City's stores and saloons--blaze in a twinkling contest with lights from nearby hillside homes.

"Watching trains relaxes me. In another life, I would have loved to have been a steam train engineer," said Bang, a publishing executive who took up garden railroading in 1980 when he moved to California from the East.

Since then, two local clubs have grown up around his hobby: the Los Angeles Garden Railway Society, headquartered in Downey, and the Gold Coast Garden Railway Society, in Ventura. Bang estimates that Southern California now has at least a thousand outdoor railroaders, many of whom gather regularly through the clubs to play with their trains together.

At the same time, the pint-sized worlds they're creating have been garnering attention, not just as staging grounds for the Iron Horse but as respectable gardens. For three years running, from 1989-90, train set-ups of Gold Coast club members won top horticultural prizes at the Ventura County Fair.

For Bang, who came to the hobby as a train-lover, the garden takes a back seat to the 60 or more finely detailed cars that edge his lawn and fill two walls of his office inside. Nevertheless, his miniature landscape is as meticulous and appropriate as everything else in his set-up. In addition to the graceful, sheared junipers and sculptural cacti (all drip-irrigated) that loom like trees over his towns and deserts, he has used stone for dramatic effect.

While he bought most of his plants locally, from Nordic Nursery in Newbury Park, he recommends Miniature Plant Kingdom in Sebastopol in Northern California as a mail-order source for train-size greenery. For the trains, he likes San-Val Trains in Van Nuys.

A l Kramer, who owns San-Val, said that the demands for G-scale trains has "grown incredibly" since he started selling them eight years ago. He said he began with a $2,000 inventory and now sells $2.5-million worth of trains annually.

To the uninitiated, prices on these models can be daunting. An engine may run from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Bang estimates his railroad investment as "pushing $20,000." But he emphasizes that garden railroaders aren't necessarily wealthy but tend to build their set-ups over time.

Why do they do it? "People like to play with toys," he suggests. "There's something about it. . . . When it gets dark, and my train's running, I start thinking back to when I was a kid and used to hear the steam train going through my town at night, its whistle blowing. There's just something about that sound. . . ."

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