Trains are often overlooked as a means of long-distance travel. It’s understandable—it takes 10 hours to get to Oakland from Agoura Hills traveling by train. It’s cost-effective, sure, but driving or flying doesn’t take nearly as long.
But trains hold a special place in the heart of those who remember traveling before planes were the preferred means of getting from A to B. Agoura Hills resident Ken Rossi is one of these people. Rossi, 75, has been collecting toy trains for over 60 years. He and his wife, Sue, 76, dedicated a room in their house solely to his train collection, which started when he was a child.
“As a kid you could play with this thing all day long. It was a lot of fun,” Rossi said. “Even as an adult I can spend tons of time enjoying myself in here. You come in here and you forget about everything. This is the therapy room, so to speak, and a lot cheaper than a psychiatrist for clearing the mind. I can step back in time 65 years when I walk into the room.”
Rossi and his wife bought their home in 1978 and added a room to it in 1983. Rossi said he built the board that would support his trains a year later. He planned to get to it in his spare time, but “35 years went by, I had no spare time.”
After he retired in 2017 he decided it was time to get his train room on track. He found a company in North Hollywood that wires toy train boards, and that May he got everything set up.
He said it took six six-hour days to get the 70-square-foot board wired. Now he can send two trains running backward and forward along an oval track, announce arrivals and departures through a public address system and activate a variety of plastic factories, including a lumber mill that takes in plastic logs and spits out plastic boards; a corral that herds plastic sheep onto a train; and two oil derricks that bob up and down while passenger trains run by. House and street lights blink on at the flip of a switch, and inside one of the buildings is a tiny train running on a track.
The walls of the room are lined with shelves that display pieces of his collection, and more are hidden in drawers and underneath the tiny town encircled by miniature train tracks.
His collection isn’t just a tie to his childhood playing with the toys—it takes him back to a period when life was a little more spread out and things took a little more time.
“Toy trains peaked around 1953, then it started to slowly drop off,” he said.” Airplanes came into play, put the passenger trains out of business. Urban sprawl came along, so you didn’t live near the train tracks. Everything changed. Kids couldn’t relate to them. I can relate to taking the train up to San Francisco to visit my grandparents, with the Santa Fe engine and the silver cars, but after the early to mid- ’60s everybody flew when they brought jets in.”
Rossi’s wife said he bought a lot of pieces without her knowing.
When they built the train room, Rossi suggested putting a hole in the wall leading to the kitchen so he could run the trains into the rest of the house. She put her foot down and said no.
She’s okay with the collection though—it’s actually because of her that Rossi started collecting. She got him a train set for Christmas nearly 50 years ago, and it was downhill from there.
“I went to my parents’ house in San Francisco—they had kept all my trains—and got all my stuff and brought it down here,” Rossi said. “I started buying then, like a midlife crisis. Every year new stuff would come out, and I’d buy something and not even open it, just stick it under the board for the future.”
Some of the pieces in his collection have gained value since he bought them, but for the most part Rossi isn’t a collector. He never sought out the limited-run pieces or the collectibles; he just loves toy trains.
As for what’s going to happen to his collection when he dies, Rossi said, he’s not sure, but it likely won’t become a family heirloom.
“In an innocent conversation with my daughter six or seven years ago, she said they’ll throw it all away,” Rossi said. “She said it so innocently, but it was a dagger in my heart. As that time approaches . . . I have a list of people who sell collections on consignment. There’s not that much demand though. . . . I could donate it to charity.”
Follow Ian Bradley on Twitter @Ian_ reports.