“Thomas the Tank Engine,” about talking train cars in the English countryside, was Ryan MacCabe’s favorite childhood television show.
His mom says that at 2 years old, he seemed to enjoy the trains that ran past a Sonic restaurant in Knoxville, Tenn., where the family lived, more than the food.
The burly 18-year-old Sabino High School senior concedes that the path to his passion is lined with railroad tracks.
He is the youngest member of the Tucson Garden Railway Society — he joined when he was 11 — and at 16 was the youngest member ever to display his lay-out when he participated in the 2012 Rails in the Garden Tour.
Backyard railroads tend to be a couples hobby. One partner likes to concentrate on laying track and operating trains, while the other focuses on the landscape that often includes scenic towns and vignettes.
MacCabe does it all, from digging trenches for the 125 feet of track and raking the landscape gravel to trimming the boxwood shrubs into miniature trees and assembling kits for houses around which the battery-operated trains run. Everything in the layout, including the barn surrounded by farm animals and the graveyard with zombie figurines, is his idea.
He gets some help from his mom, Melissa Halpern, who laid rock for a tunnel and a fountain, and his grandmother, who hand-built replicas of a Sonic drive-in, the family house and a school.
MacCabe’s Union Pacific Garden Railroad is smaller than all of the other eight stops on this year’s March tour. One has 10 times more track than his. But he knows his layout plays an important role on the tour.
“Some people have really small backyards,” he says. “I’m showing people what you can do. Also, this is a good example for a starter’s layout.”
Such a layout starts at around $200, he says. He saves by scrounging the desert for rocks. Because he has a small space, he can have a full landscape without spending a lot on kits and plants.
MacCabe had indoor HO scale and Lionel train sets. Then he attended his first Rails in the Garden Tour when he was in elementary school and realized he could expand his layout by going outdoors. “I thought this would be real cool,” he says.
The family’s Sabino Creek-area home already had a fairly empty patch of land anchored by a mature silk oak. Halpern agreed to move her tomato garden to another part of the backyard. When MacCabe asked to cut the tree, she gave an emphatic, “Yeah, well, no.”
He started with 50 feet of track and electric-powered trains. He found he liked the bigger scale because the trains had more realistic detail. One of his engines even has an engineer figure inside.
Over the years MacCabe has reconfigured the line several times and learned how to anchor tracks correctly, one of the many tips he got from the club.
While many of the Tucson Garden Railway Society members are retired, they welcome the younger generation that MacCabe represents. Longtime members fear that model railroading could otherwise die out, says tour organizer Chuck Cook.
Most members had an interest as youngsters, then got into it full bore after raising families and having careers, he points out.
“What will kids raised on video games return to later in life?” he says. “Having younger members, we feel, is necessary to the longevity of the club and to the hobby itself.”
MacCabe expects to remain a member after he graduates in May and begin business management studies at Pima Community College. His goal is to open a hobby shop where fellow model-train fans can get stuff while marveling at the extensive one he plans to build out back.