Neil Young and Lionel Trains


Classic Toy Trains

March 1993

Neil Young News

Neil Young's O gauge empire is more than just unique - it's a bond between father and son

by Jim Bunte

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Lionel trains meet the natural realm on the model railroad of Ben and Neil Young. Their empire is special for more than just its use of natural scenery materials - thanks to Neil's vision, Ben experiences the joys and challenges of running Lionel trains. A Lionel Trains Great Northern F3 A-B-A set moves slowly past towering redwood mountains. Neil gathers natural materials from the land surrounding his train building, including moss, ferns, redwood stumps, and rocks. Family members supply the detail.

THINK BACK to your childhood. You wanted electric trains so bad you could practically feel their heft in your hands. You stared at catalogs. You pressed your face up against the train store's glass window. You shamelessly begged your parents into near-insanity. Electric trains introduced you to the concept that drives modern society - desire.

And when you finally got those trains, you were happy. No - ecstatic. And right next to you was someone equally excited, your dad. That train set added a new dimension to the relation- ship. Perhaps for the first time, you and your dad were equals, partners in a shared goal: the building of a model railroad. And when you look back on it today, it was probably the first step you took into adulthood.

That same dynamic is still at work. I know - I've visited plenty of model rail- roads where today's parents, like those of a generation ago, use trains to help them get closer to their children. Their actions are symbols of today's society, a world where people rely on elements of the past to bring today's youth into the future. Isn't it interesting that after all this time and with all the playthings marketed today, no other toy product can lay claim to electric trains' heritage of bringing fathers and sons together?

But there is one toy train story that differs from all the others. It's not just the story of a beautiful empire inspired by one's heart and not mere magazine pictures. Neither is it different because the railroad is totally unique in terms of construction techniques, scenery mate- rials, and operational characteristics. It's far more than that.

It's the railroad's purpose - not its execution - that makes it so special. It's a railroad that brings a father and his son together, giving them a common goal and shared responsibilities. And it's all the more remarkable because the son is challenged by cerebral palsy. But spend a little time with this father and son and you'll know the challenge has been met through the chem- istry of 173s, freight and passenger cars, and lots of love. Share the experiences of Ben and Neil Young.


Neil got into trains like everybody else: a set at Christmas when he was 5. (That was some time ago.) "My dad built an L-shaped layout for me with a Marx Santa Fe diesel set. I dug that train like you wouldn't believe. We couldn't afford Lionel - I think I was 12 or 13 when I finally got my first Lionel locomotive, a no. 2035. Until then, it was those hook-and-loop cou- plers all the way."

Neil's dad wasn't much into trains, so Neil played with them solo most of the time. The layout was on the floor of the basement - a basement remembered for its tendency to flood - so Neil got used to regular AC voltage shock sessions whenever he ran trains. It may explain Neil's interest in electronics today!

Unlike many of us, Neil retained his interest in Lionel trains - however moderate - through his teens and into adulthood. He began collecting Lionel O gauge trains, both pre- and postwar, in the 1970s, well before the majority of today's enthusiasts had reen- tered the hobby.

But compared to the lives you or I led, the 1970s were quite different for Neil. He's a respected guitarist and songwriter - one of the few musicians to emerge from the 1960s rock move- ment who retains his commercial and artistic creativity in the 1990s. But I don't have to tell you that - take one look at Chris Becker's layout photos and you know this is one creative man.


By the early 1980s, Neil had amassed an incredible collec- tion of rare pre- and postwar Lionel variations. A good exam- ple is the prewar Lionel no. 763E Hudson decorated in blue that his collection once boasted. Traveling for rock tours meant Neil was able to acquire an excellent collection.

But shelves filled with lifeless, motionless trains didn't make any sense to the kid who once ran his Marx Santa Fe locomo- tive in a flooded basement. They have motors, don't they? Down came the shelves and up went a dedicated train building on his property. Oddly enough, he specified that skylights be installed. Skylights? Above a model railroad? What for?

Ah, but Neil had The Plan. His railroad would be like no other, devoid of plaster, benchwork, "naturally colored" foam rubber, and "sunlight" beating down from fluorescent tubes. There was a better way.

The results are true to the dream. Calling Neil and Ben's empire "different" is like calling a $5000 Lionel locomotive merely "expensive." It's inspired and totally unique. From the rough-hewn redwood to the living plants to the mist irrigation - system, you know this is no traditional model railroad.

The layout is low, perhaps 2 feet above the ground. But from Ben's perspective, it's the perfect height. And it's the proper level for Neil to crouch down, his hands cupped around his eyes like a movie director sizing up the next scene. He'll scan the topography like any model railroader, except that his is an empire created from the union of the natural and man- made realms.


One thing's for sure - when it comes to model railroad scenery, there is no substitute for the real thing. That was Neil's plan all along when he originally conceived the layout. But I wonder if Neil could have predicted the fantastic outcome.

The topography is totally natural. Neil builds hills, plateaus, and buttes using redwood stumps gathered from his property. Once a stump is chosen, Neil positions it on the layout, never bothering to fasten it into place. It gives the layout a feeling of constant change: move one mountain and the layout's entire feel is altered. It's excellent and most unconventional.

Take a moment to lose yourself in the photographs. Majes- tic mountains rise from lush, green valleys. Forests of moss and ferns grow slowly across the landscape. A misting irrigation sys- tem showers the living scenery with water in 45 seconds. Neil and Ben's is a dream world in balanced coexistence with noisy Lionel trains. Call it Paradise Mismatched.


When Ben was just a baby, Neil spent many sleepless nights helping alleviate his infant and wide-awake son's cerebral palsy- specific conditions. As he paced the floor patting Ben's back, Neil visualized the layout's track plan. He saw long, flowing curves through the hillsides, powerful mainline straights, and plenty of yards for rolling stock storage.

When Neil began to build the layout a few years later, those sleepless nights rushed back, but this time as a benefit. The track plan went from imagination to paper in short order.

Neil's track plan seems byzantine - perhaps it was the lack of sleep - but when all the switches are set, it's really one long loop. In fact, it takes about 10 minutes for a single train oper- ating at a good clip to traverse the entire affair. Throw in auto- matic block control to avoid rear-end collisions and you have the makings of a dynamite operating layout. And that's just what The Plan called for.


As you scan the layout, you'll notice countless miniature nov- elties Neil, his wife Pegi, and their daughter Amber have placed throughout the terrain. Collectible tin cars, lead figures, vintage structures, and diminutive animals dot the landscape. When the Young's travel, they look for the "right" item to add to the lay- out's individualism. During our visit

Pegi had added a small incense-burning teepee into a southwestern setting. Not all the details are "friendly." An ancient Filtex vacuum cleaner has been converted into the ominous Filtex Plant; a malevolent industry with ill-defined purpose, it looms over the horizon and is surrounded by postwar Lionel atomic- era rolling stock and a melted no. 3530 GM generator car. To Neil, Filtex repre- sents the invasion of urban reality into an otherwise pastoral environment. Or so it would seem.

Friends from the music industry con- tributed handmade trestles and bridges. Neil added prewar items like a Lionel Hell Gate Bridge and the occasional Lionel villa to the lush landscape. Imag- ine yourself in a tropical setting that also includes Montana-like buttes, flowing streams, towering redwood mountains, and speeding toy trains, and you have Neil and Ben's railroad. It redefines the term "one of a kind."


Neil grew up with trains, and naturally, he wanted his kids to be into trains too. But cerebral palsy presents a whole set of requirements that the people at Lionel never imagined when designing their product line. To have Ben's level of CP is to lack the ability to grasp objects like transformer controls, to push accessory buttons, even to rerail rolling stock that's gone awry.

But there's a dauntless streak in Neil's character; trust me - don't tell this guy you "can't do it." He accepted the challenges presented by Ben's condition and responded by developing a completely new method of toy train control, giving his son the chance to experience the joys of toy train operation.

Neil went to work on a special control device - a paddle, if you will - which could be used to run the trains. Ben leans his head into the paddle and power is applied to the track. He leans into it again and power is cut. It's as if you or I were hold- ing the handles of a Lionel transformer; the effect is the same.

Best of all, the controller is wireless. Ben can sit (or better yet, stand, using a specially designed support structure) any- where in the train room and sequence the trains. Neil selects the paddle's function, and Ben triggers the locomotive's whistle or horn sounds as he sees fit.

There's a lot of joy seeing Ben at the helm. It's a physical task he can accomplish with total control, by himself, and with great accuracy. When Ben is in the train building, he's in con- trol of his environment, in command, in charge of the train. And when you consider Ben's level of motor control, that's a quantum leap in dexterity, thanks to his dad.

But there's also teamwork involved. Ben starts and stops the trains while Neil tends to the routines of typical operation: switch selection, accessory activiation, and the like. Neil shouts the railroad's status across the cavernous room to Ben, who responds by adjusting control of the operating train.

During our visit with Ben and Neil, a number of guests stopped by to visit. That usually means Neil has to tend to busi- ness of some sort, diverting his attention away from the trains. As Neil recalled one recent experience, a smile spread across his face. Once, while dealing with visitors, Neil stepped outside and left Ben and the trains in full-tilt operation. Thanks to his dad's technology and his own self-confidence, Ben kept right on with his operating schedule, blowing the horn and sequencing the train at will, always maintaining full control of the train and the operating environment.

And at its most basic level, that's what Neil wanted to achieve with his model railroad: providing Ben with the ability to do things on his own that CP would normally preclude. The rest of us can take Lionel trains for granted, but to Ben, they're his way to be an active participant in the physically able world. And thanks to his father's love, it's a way for him to do things with his dad that might not otherwise be possible. From Neil's perspective, that's what their rail- road is all about. CTT

NOTE: Photo captions follow:

The evil Filtex plant. What it once did for dirty carpets, the vac- uum cleaner-turned-ominous monolith now does for toy trains. It's the perfect spot for the Lionel Corp.'s atomic-themed trains.

Lionel's new GG1 rockets in reverse as Ben sends it through a preset switching maneuver. With another hit of the switch, the locomotive will stop in perfect position, ready for another run.

A vintage prewar Lionel no. 752W Union Pacific City of Saline streamliner snakes through rugged redwood country. The moss and ferns create a stunning setting in which to run toy trains.

A Lionel no. 2349 Northern Pacific GP9 from 1959 streaks through the Land of Giant Pine Cones. Ben will pull the fast (and collectible) freight into the classification yard just beyond the sweeping curve, cut power, and select another train.

More on the Neil Young and the Greendale Lionel train set controversy on the O-Guage Railroad discussion list.

Also see more on Lionel trains and Neil Young in book excerpts from Legendary Lionel Trains by John A. Grams, Terry D. Thompson

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