Riding the 15-Gauge Rails

Geek Culture

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There’s a certain kind of person — Neil Young, for instance — who has a mania for model trains. I’m not one of those people. But since our 18-month-old daughter has started to obsess over “choo-choos,” we’ve been taking her to about the coolest model train imaginable: the Redwood Valley Railway.

The fully-functional steam train line was built in Berkeley’s Tilden Park in the 1950s by a band of railroad enthusiasts lead by Erich Thomsen. They settled on the 15-inch track gauge by estimating the “width of the average adult fanny multiplied by two,” arriving at a scale that allows for a real railroad experience without feeling dinky.

All of the engines have been built on site in the Berkeley hills, and run on diesel fuel. A fully loaded train weighs 20 tons, according to the engineer I talked to yesterday. He also told me something I didn’t know about steam trains: the faster they go, the more power they develop, unlike a standard diesel locomotive, which has maximum torque at startup.

It’s a Victorian-looking marvel, this miniature steam engine, and as we chatted, it belched steam and fire. Well worth a visit if you’re into trains, or even if you’re not, because for $2, it’s a very cheap trip back in time.

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1 thought on “Riding the 15-Gauge Rails

  1. The Golden Gate Live Steamers is a a hobbyist group that operates a second narrow gauge railroad at the same location. Well worth investigating if you are into steam powered modeling, or just making in general. They let the public ride their trains on Sunday afternoons.


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