Toy Trains Don't Always Leave the Station

Playing make-believe doesn’t end just because childhood does. Sometimes, adults need to keep the imagination alive as well.

The burgundy engine hums to life with a subtle twist of the wrist, leaving behind fathers with suitcases and mothers clutching the hands of children. Frozen on the platform, the tiny figures wait for a train they’ll never board.

The ride is exceptionally smooth, over fields of green sandpaper and through snowy mountains with papier-mâché peaks. Emerging from the picturesque countryside, the train descends into the valley. Townsfolk mill about; boys deliver newspapers; carolers sing; families skate on a mirrored pond. Some brave the cold to catch It’s a Wonderful Life at the drive-in. A nearby baseball field sits empty.

The tiny engine pushes on, past water towers, quarries and factories; over trellis bridges and back to the station, where the dads with suitcases and moms with kids still wait patiently. A quick engine switch, and the journey begins anew.

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Women often question the allure of model trains for grown men. (If you’re a female reading this, I commend you for your patience.) But the attraction is quite simple. As boys, it was a hobby that allowed us to fashion an everyday environment free of the hustle, bustle and silliness we witnessed in the one ruled by adults. We lived in the moment, and hoped it would last forever.

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I’m convinced that it all goes back to the Book of Genesis, and our desire to escape God’s world and make our own. On the first day, boy created the platform and laid the grass. Day two brought the tracks; days three and four, the mountains, trees and ponds. The fifth was dedicated to villages and their frozen inhabitants.

But there was something missing. Boy was lonely. And so, on day six, he invented the model train. And we all know what the seventh day was for.

Years later, we’re still trying to recapture that feeling. Sadly, our fantasies are typically relegated to a basement or garage—and even then, it’s often just for the month of December.

Still, we’re happy to vanish to the place of our banishment, so long as we can turn that knob on the transformer, send power through those tracks, and bring an engine to life.

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Frequent MLT contributor Michael T. Dolan is a writer from West Chester. Read more of his work at

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