MODEL MANIA: Scale replicas of the Rail Runner are flying off the shelves as enthusiasts scramble to drive their favorite train on their own tracks
Mar 29, 2009 (Albuquerque Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The New Mexico Rail Runner Express rounds a curve in the track. It passes the Santa Fe depot, winds its way through an apple orchard and then reverses up a gradual incline and into the rail yard.
It's a Wednesday night, and the tiny gray train is one of many model trains running through miniature mountains and deserts in this room full of railroad enthusiasts.
This one was a long time coming. For many model railroaders, it couldn't come fast enough.
The run on the Rail Runner model started in 2005 and shows no sign of stopping. This isn't the commuter train that now runs from Belen to Santa Fe, but a few slightly smaller versions -- model railroads known as N- and HO-scale trains -- 1/160th and 1/87th of the size of the real thing.
Spurred by growing interest in the Rail Runner, California model railroad company Athearn Trains has released a few small runs of HO-scale Rail Runner Bombardier cars and HO-scale engines.
Warren Hatch, owner of Trains West in Albuquerque, bought 125 of the cars and quickly sold out. In 2007, Athearn released more Rail Runner HO-scale trains and engines. This time, Hatch kept a waiting list.
Model railroaders, Rail Runner passengers and outof-town visitors snagged the models. Again, Hatch sold out.
For a few months, Hatch thought customers were out of luck -- Athearn didn't seem to be selling more Rail Runner locomotives. Hatch found a Canadian company, True Line Trains, that makes model engines even more similar to the real Rail Runner. Those will be available this month, Hatch says.
Athearn has since said it will sell more HO engines in September. When he found out, Hatch bought all he could -- he has 100 Rail Runner cars and is just waiting on the engines. The Rail Runner is a boon for business, he says.
"We haven't ever sold 400 of anything," he says. "Ever."
Search for the tiniest trains
If the HO-scale model trains were hard to get, smaller N-scale trains and engines were impossible to find, says Dave Turner, a member of the New Mexico RailRunners.
When the N-scale cars came out last year, more than half of the 30 members of the club, who create models and collect N-scale trains, purchased them. "Everyone was excited," Turner says.
There was only one problem -- there were no N-scale locomotives. John Engstrom, director of marketing for Athearn, says the company will sell engines but probably not until 2010. After months of waiting, Turner and others took matters into their own hands and hired local hobbyists to paint a Rail Runner replica by hand.
Albuquerque resident Blaine Bachman has added paint and decals to about three dozen Rail Runner engines already. It is a complex job. He strips off old paint, mixes up his unique batch of white and gray paint and uses an airbrush to coat them. Then the real work begins.
He draws the Rail Runner designs on his computer, then uses a specialized printer to print tiny decals with just the right layers of bright magenta, red and orange. Then, he carefully cuts the decals and pastes them to the engine. Each one can take most of the day to finish, he says.
For now, Chris Gutierrez, a member of the New Mexico Rail Runners, is holding out for an Athearn engine.
He isn't in much of a rush -- he just started an 8-foot-by-3 foot scale replica of the Los Lunas train depot, using actual blueprints of the building, which he will set alongside the city's water tower, high school and even a Blake's Lotaburger. Getting every detail right will take about three years, Gutierrez says.
Like many model railroad enthusiasts, making sure his model is accurate offers Gutierrez a sense of accomplishment. He points out that hobbyists often pore over historic photos and blueprints or load trains in the exact order that they would be in the real world. "It's the idea of getting as close as you can," he says.
A proud Los Lunas resident, Gutierrez, 29, was inspired by the Rail Runner's arrival in his hometown.
"I wanted to promote Los Lunas -- to show people, look we've got a transportation center here," he says.
In the rush for the Rail Runner model, Albuquerque model railroader Jack Hahn also got to work. Hahn, a member of the New Mexico Garden RailRoaders, owns about 200 pieces of gardenscale railroad equipment, along with an 800-foot track that winds through his backyard near the Sandia foothills.
When Hahn wanted a Rail Runner, there were no commercial versions for the larger-sized trains he collects, so he found a sleek passenger line similar to the Rail Runner. He removed existing decals and hired Stubblefield Screen Print Company in Albuquerque to create new decals based on the Rail Runner. Hahn found the right sound too -- the perfect combination of low whistles and beeps when he connects the train to his sound system.
Hahn's homemade model was a hit when he ran it at the Rio Grande Botanic Garden last summer.
"The kids recognize this right away," he says. "They go bonkers for it."
But why do people gravitate toward the Rail Runner model trains? Fred Morton, treasurer of the Albuquerque Society of HO Module Engineers, says he thinks the interest stems from a growing appreciation for mass transit in New Mexico, combined with enthusiasm for a local product.
"Very seldom is a New Mexico idea, product or icon produced in model railroading," he says. "It's a beautiful design. A lot of it is whimsy -- a desire to have something unique."
Rail Runner model trains aren't just a New Mexico phenomenon, Engstrom says. At a train show in Pittsburgh, people were "absolutely fascinated," he says. "This New Mexico paint scheme is so dramatic that it draws fans from all over the country."
When the real Rail Runner extended its route to Santa Fe, Hatch started selling more models to people across the country. He sold not only to hobbyists but also to people who rode the real thing and "thought it was neat," he says. Hatch is hoping the Rail Runner models may spark interest in a new generation of model railroaders.
"That's the hope," says Hatch. "It doesn't seem to be letting up, and that suits us just fine."
New Mexico model train clubs
New Mexico RailRunners. Visit nmrailrunners.org or e-mail info@nmrrntrack@ gmail.com.
Rio Grande Valley HO Model Railroad Club. Visit http:// home.comcast. net/~rgvmodelrrclub/ or call 504-1091.
Albuquerque Society of HO Module Engineers . Contact Fred Morton at 266-3880.
Santa Fe Model Railroad Club . Visit santafemodelrailroadclub. org.
New Mexico Garden RailRoaders. Visit nmgrr.com or call club president Paul Beck at 292-0253.
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