Riding the 15-Gauge Rails

Reading Time: 2 minutes

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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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