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My uncle Roy Pickard is a model railroader, and by models we're not talking the ones on tabletops but a working 1/8 scale system consisting of over two miles of track, switches, bridges, trestles, and signage. The tracks are 7 1/2 inches wide, and the gasoline powered trains (replicas of actual steam and diesel engines) move people and cargo. Twice a year railroad enthusiasts descend on his property, tucked away in the central Texas ranchland west of President Bush's photo-op farm, and conduct "meets." At these weeklong gatherings, a couple of dozen trains (as many as 28) operate on the track at once, in carefully timed simulations of a full-scale operating railroad. Engineers communicate by radio and dispatchers monitor the movements of all trains; the idea is to move cargo, avoid collisions, and keep trains evenly distributed around the track. Anyone who screws up is roasted in a mock trial at the end of day's operations.
I took the top four pictures while walking the entire line (the original "Comanche & Indian Gap" plus newer sections of track--see map below). Roy gave me the photo of the two men riding trains, attendees at a meet last year. Roy has been working on the railroad since 1973, and in its intriguing combination of scrupulous realism and fanatic worldbuilding, it makes me think of some enormous conceptual art project, along the lines of William Christenberry's facsimiles of Alabama architecture, Michael Ashkin's and Chris Burden's industrial miniatures, Duchamp's rustic diorama, Smithson's earthworks... I could make a philosophical comment about the shrinkage to Lilliputian scale of the domain of the great 19th Century robber barons, but the more interesting story is the preservationist instinct in the face of rail's increasing mechanization and depersonalization. Besides taking a back seat to less fuel efficient means of transportation (evil trucks, nasty jets), trains in the U.S. are suffering the ultimate indignity of losing their romance. (More pics still to come.)
(Scan of map from Model Railroader magazine, July 1997, pp. 76-77. Thanks to Roy and Marilyn Pickard for all the information and hospitality.)