James Barnett’s model railroad is more a tiny town than a model train display.
To many, the delicately-fashioned scenes in his historic Gainesville home are as intriguing as the vignettes in the popular “I Spy” children’s series — the longer you look at them the more details you notice.
Barnett — who lives in Gainesville with his wife Barbara in a restored Queen Anne home — said his collection keeps him busy.
“I work in spurts,” Barnett said. “After Christmas, for about a month, I probably didn’t work 8-10 hours total. Then I got on a spurt and suddenly got the urge to start messing with it....Right now, I’ve probably been working 6-10 hours a day on it.”
His collecting and railway designing began when he lived in Virginia in the mid-1990s. He purchased a model train and a slot car set as Christmas gifts for his grandchildren.
“I got a starter set — a simple locomotive, caboose and box cars,” he said. “They played with the train and broke the slot cars.”
Barnett said he became a regular at a local hobby store.
“I kept going down to the hobby store and adding track,” he said. “I got intrigued by it and started buying more trains.”
He said he has approximately 40 mechanized units including engines and locomotives.
“Sometimes they’re sets,” he said. “There might be three locomotives tied together. I have probably 150 to 200 boxcars, freight cars and tank cars.”
He said his replica car and pickup collection — also a part of the layout — numbers about 125.
“I’ve almost gotten as much into the collecting of cars,” he said, adding his next hobby will likely be building slot car layouts.
Unlike many train hobbyists, Barnett said his love for replica railways isn’t born of nostalgia.
“It isn’t necessarily that I had a train set that I played with when I was young,” he said. “I did have a train set but it didn’t happen to be (an O-gauge.) “Reading train magazines where they had all these very unique layouts got me interested in creating my own."
Train hobbyists range from traditional to O-gauge collectors.
Traditional hobbyists begin their layouts with plywood.
"They paint it green and then paint on streets and buildings,” he said. "There's no striving for realism."
O-gauge builders "go for total realism," he said.
"They don't use the O-gauge (track,)" he said. "They make and assemble their own track and they build their buildings and weather them.”
Barnett said his layout borrows elements from both styles.
"I’m kind of in between (traditional and realistic styles)," he said.
His first layouts were fairly small. His current configuration includes tiny figurines, buildings and his growing collection of replica cars.
Barnett said he strives for an authentic look including the addition of mountains and vegetation. Miniature trees and scrubs can be purchased at hobby stores or online, he said.
Barnett said his layout is a work in progress.
“I expected it to take between two and three years but now I think the project will be finished by next Christmas,” he said.
Texas isn't a major hub for model train enthusiasts, he noted.
"There's no local train club," he said. "In Virginia there were clubs, hobby shops and lots of train shows where you could go to see what people have built. Model trains are common in the mid Atlantic and the Northeastern parts of the country. Places like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia are really the heart of the hobby."
Barnett said he occasionally visits a hobby shop in Forney for landscaping and other supplies but often purchases items from internet vendors.
"You can order from most hobby stores through the Internet," he said. "The other great resource I've found is Ebay."
Train hobbyists are also good at adaptation — furnishing their layouts with repurposed items including hand-painted collectibles.
"I've found Danbury Mint made some gas station stores as clocks," he said. "They're very detailed. I have three of their service stations, a diner and a McDonalds.”
His wife Barbara doesn’t share his hobby.
“She’ll come in and check on me to make sure I haven’t fallen off the ladder,” he said, laughing.
Barnett said he builds and displays his elaborate layout inside a 700 square foot building at the home he and Barbara purchased in 2004.
"The house had a detached garage with a screened in porch area," he said. "I've expanded the porch — it was in pretty bad shape — and took in part of the garage and made it bigger."
He fashioned his previous layouts in his 1,400 square foot basement in Virginia.
"I was going to do a big layout," he said.
Barnett's trains are digitally controlled.
"I can run between six and eight trains on the lower and mid layout," he said. "It's done from a hand control remote which makes it so much easier to do your wiring and control your trains."
He doesn’t open his garage for tours but said doesn’t mind an occasional visitor.
“Everybody likes to look at the buildings and the people and the way you set up the vignettes,” he said. “I like showing it off, but when someone looks at it I say 'I haven’t completed it yet.'"
Barnett said he'd like to meet other model train hobbyists and he has some advice for anyone thinking of buying a railway set for youngsters.
"Be careful what toys you buy for your grandkids because you might get into the hobby yourself," he said.
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