Parallel Universe

If God is in the details, the Pasadena Model Railroad Club is doing the Lord's work. At this moment, in a former rubber stamp factory near Alhambra, a bear is chasing a Boy Scout up a tree, bungee jumpers are risking their lives, and emergency personnel are gathered at a toxic-waste spill. And that's not to mention the mining and logging operations, the international seaport and the ski resorts. Something about 30,000 feet of track, dozens of electric trains and hundreds of tiny plastic people seems to stir the Cecil B. DeMille in a train lover.

Emerging from an operator opening in the layout (one of the world's largest, at 5,000 square feet), Joe Behan towers like Godzilla over his dominion of shoulder-level mountains and valleys. "Somewhere on the layout," he confides, "you may even find a nudist camp." The 53-year-old Long Beach resident directs e-commerce development for a health-care company, but here he's the superintendent of the fictional Sierra Pacific Lines, which runs from Alhambra to Zion, with three switchyards and a stop for every letter of the alphabet. They can all be viewed (binoculars are recommended) at the club's spring and fall open houses. The walk-through events feature dawn-to-dusk lighting effects and humming railways manned by intercom-linked club members.

When not putting on shows, the mostly male club members conduct business meetings (all improvements are subject to vote) and workshops devoted to maintenance, landscaping, rerouting and municipal upgrades (the town of Echo, for example, is undergoing urban renewal). The trains replicate prototypes from all locomotive eras and at least a dozen railroads; most are exactingly hand-detailed by members, down to litter left by hobos in the boxcars. Founded in 1940, the club numbers about 50 and maintains a reference library and a tool-cluttered workroom lined with bins of tiny street lamps and other municipal fixtures, along with pillboxes filled with inch-tall human figures.

Behan notes disapprovingly that some visitors hope to see trains careening around at unrealistic speeds or spectacularly staged accidents (the demolition of a model in the 1995 film "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" still rankles him). His own locomotive love affair dates to his toddler days, when his grandfather traveled by steam engine. "All the hisses and groans and creaks--the fire in the fire box--to me this was a living, breathing being."


Pasadena Model Railroad Club, 5458 Alhambra Ave., Los Angeles; (877) 484-4664. Spring open house schedule: Sunday, April 29, 1 to 5 p.m.; Tuesday, May 1, 7:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, May 5, 1 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, May 6, 1 to 5 p.m. Donations: Adults, $3, children, under 18, $1 (under 6 free).

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