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As sales build up steam, all aboard for Christmas

Charlie Verenna has a knack for making children miserable. "I see more kids crying as they're going out the door," Verenna says. "Their mothers and fathers are dragging them. They don't want to leave."

A model train layout can enchant and inspire visitors to the shop. Today's miniature trains contain microprocessors that reproduce with high clarity the sounds of yesteryear.
A model train layout can enchant and inspire visitors to the shop. Today's miniature trains contain microprocessors that reproduce with high clarity the sounds of yesteryear.Read more

Charlie Verenna has a knack for making children miserable.

"I see more kids crying as they're going out the door," Verenna says. "Their mothers and fathers are dragging them. They don't want to leave."

The problem is in the name of his model-train store - Trains R Fun.

Digital distractions may have proliferated and attention spans may have shrunk, but toy trains are still fun. Whether you're 7 or 70, they still exert their magic, especially at Christmastime. While the toy trains of today chug and clatter like yesteryear's, new gadgetry has made them even more realistic.

Verenna's shop, distinguished by a railroad-crossing sign in a small strip of stores on Lancaster Avenue in Frazer, Chester County, is open year-round, but from Thanksgiving through mid-January, customers arrive as regularly as the trains at 30th Street Station.

"It's going up," Verenna says of his holiday business. "This year I'm seeing more and more people I sold starter sets to last year. They're coming back and buying accessories, rail cars and houses. That's a good sign. It means the hobby is taking root."

The centerpiece of Verenna's store is an 8-by-12 platform with three loops of track. It's where boys and girls, bright-eyed and full of wonder, stop to nourish dreams, and men and women, lined and gray, pause to recall the trains of their youth, as well as sweet memories of Christmases past.

If your concept of toy trains begins and ends with the Lionels in your attic, Verenna's current stock may surprise and amaze. The hobby has changed vastly in recent years, becoming at once both more future-oriented and high-tech and more past-oriented and nostalgic.

Today's miniature trains are multi-sensory marvels. Besides delighting the eye - they are surpassingly authentic in scale and detail - they also delight the ear. Microprocessors in the locomotive tenders reproduce with astonishing fidelity the sounds of whistles and horns, clanking bells, huffing steam, the announcements of conductors, the station-platform chatter of porters and passengers.

Unhappy with the script pre-programmed into your train? No problem. Just download another series of sounds.

The new trains make smoke, of course, but now you can vary the amount, and the imitation smoke issues from the stack in sync with the huffing and puffing of the locomotive, trailing a visible plume of vapor just like the iron horses of yore.

While transformers remain the main mode of operating trains, model-railroad tycoons increasingly are managing their empires with digital control systems - handheld devices that resemble a television remote and can make trains do just about everything but serve meals in the dining car.

Verenna sells HO trains and some O-gauge Lionel rolling stock and accessories, but his specialty is reproduction tinplate trains (made of stamped or diecast metal) manufactured by relative upstart MTH Electric Trains (a.k.a. Mike's Train House). These standard-gauge trains are replicas of the hefty Lionel trains that circled the bases of Christmas trees from the mid-1920s to World War II. They are painted in bright, colorful enamels, in keeping with the original toy trains, and equipped with state-of-the-art electronics.

Verenna sells a tinplate starter set for $600, consisting of a steam locomotive, coal tender, two passenger cars, track and transformer. But prices for more elaborate sets can range as high as $2,300. The Stephen Girard set, named after the early Philadelphia banker, features local sounds and is a copy of a train made circa 1925. It retails for $1,400. That may seem pricey, but an original version of the same set, in good condition, might fetch as much as $15,000.

Verenna, 64, has been operating Trains R Fun at this location for eight years. The shop is homey, cozy and unslick. Signs are hand-lettered. The shelves and furnishings are the handiwork of a merchant more interested in function than finish. Propped in a corner is one of Verenna's many railroad relics: a coal shovel from a K4 steam locomotive.

"It's more of a mom and pop shop," he says proudly. His young customers call him "Uncle Charlie." Thursday evenings, older train buffs gather to reminisce, swap wisdom and stoke passions. Before every train set leaves, it's tested and lubricated. Notes Verenna: "You don't get that at Boscov's."

The model train hobby is at a crossroads, Verenna says. Older enthusiasts are boarding the Final Express. Membership in the National Model Railroad Association reports a drop, from a high of 28,850 members in 1978 to about 20,000 now.

Hobby shops and toy train dealers are also "a dying breed," Verenna says. While well-known train stores such as Nicholas Smith in Broomall and Joe's Train Station in Feasterville are thriving, smaller train shops in West Chester, Exton and Malvern have closed in recent years, Verenna says.

The hobby's stalwarts - and Verenna's most loyal customers - are men over 50. Some remember crack passenger trains such as the Broadway Limited hurtling along the tracks of the Main Line. Many inherited heirloom trains from their fathers or spent blissful hours as boys poring over train catalogs and designing elaborate layouts, if only in their heads.

"When they were kids, they couldn't afford much. Now they have money and can buy the toys of their dreams," Verenna says. "They're reliving their childhood - the same thing I'm doing."

The appeal of the hobby seems to have skipped a generation - men in their late 30s and early to mid-40s who, as boys, were more interested in slot-car racing and primitive video games, Verenna says. But he's heartened by rebounding interest among mothers and fathers in their 20s.

"The mothers especially don't want their kids sitting in front of a computer all the time," Verenna says. "They want them doing something creative and constructive."

That goes for little girls, too. The GG-1, the Pennsy's signature electric locomotive, now comes in a shade never seen on the rails of the Main Line - pink (courtesy of model-train manufacturer Williams Electric Trains, recently acquired by Philadelphia's Bachmann Industries). It echoes the pink steam engine once produced by Lionel in a similar bid to woo girls from tea sets and dollhouses.Verenna's infatuation with trains was foreordained. He grew up near Phillipsburg, N.J., on the Delaware River across from Easton, Pa., and crisscrossed by four railroads. His grandfather was a repairman at a locomotive roundhouse. His uncle was a brakeman. His father was a machinist who built locomotives for Ingersoll-Rand Corp.

As he grew older, Verenna used paper-route money to buy more trains. He enjoyed a special advantage. His father knew the manager of the Lionel plant in Hillside, N.J. Twice a year or so, he would take his son there to paw through the bin of rejects and discards and select a few treasures.

The magic endures and drives his business today. His greatest satisfaction?

"The kids. That's the real pleasure - seeing kids get involved. I feel like I'm passing something on."

The other day, waiting for the store to open was Rusty Procopio, 26, of Chester Springs.

"I got trains from my dad, and I figured I'd keep the tradition going for her," he said, referring to his 3-year-old daughter, Julia. She was so excited she was soon zooming around the store, moving her arms like locomotive drive rods, her ponytail flying.

To entertain his customers, Verenna switched on the standard-gauge tinplate train - a PRR locomotive with three passenger cars, done up in gleaming Tuscan red and black. The steam locomotive chugged, producing copious smoke. Father and daughter were enchanted.

"It's awesome," Procopio said. "She loves it. So do I."

Fifteen minutes later, father and daughter walked out the door. No tears accompanied this exit. Right behind them was Verenna, carrying a big box to their car. Inside: an MTH O-gauge starter set consisting of a steam locomotive and three freight cars.