San Diego's Model Railroad Museum is packed with nostalgic displays of turn-of-the-century locomotives, hand-soldered copper ties and roadside scenes of timbered trestles, vintage Coca-Cola billboards and corner cafes with interiors so detailed they have tables with placemats and thimble-sized napkin dispensers.

But in 2015, when the museum began to build a garden railway to mark the centennial of Balboa Park, it turned to an unconventional source to help recreate the park's famously intricate Spanish architecture and palm trees: the city's “MakerPlace" community, young DIYers who design and make all kinds of products out of a shared warehouse space. While many of the group's members do not fit the typical profile of a model railroading enthusiast, they share similar skills, such as sculpting, painting and electronics wiring, says Anthony Ridenour, executive director of the San Diego museum.

Coca-Cola train

Coca-Cola trains are a hit with guests at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.

“We embraced the maker community to help us create an exact replica of Balboa Park as it was in 1915," Ridenour said. The model was largely built using laser technology, computer-aided routing, virtual design and 3D printing, and iPads allow visitors to control key features like the bell chimes in the California Tower and fountains in the botanical garden. One participant posted a step-by-step guide to the 3D printing process he used to replicate the park's carved buttresses on Instructables, a DIY website popular with Millennials.

Often viewed as a fading hobby favored by collectors and retirees, the model railroading industry is finding new ways to attract younger, tech-savvy generations while still nurturing the nostalgic feelings miniature trains have long inspired.

Trolly station

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum's Centennial Railway Garden recreates Balboa Park as it was in 1915.


Longtime toy train manufacturer Lionel, for instance, introduced a new product this year called Mega Tracks, which resembles a remote-controlled roller coaster more than a traditional landscaped model-train layout. It is showcased on Lionel's website alongside such time-tested products as Southern Pacific whistle-steam locomotives and a series of Coca-Cola heritage military boxcars displaying World War II-era advertisements. Last year, Lionel launched a wesite, Tracks, a sleek one-stop multimedia hub that bills itself as "a site for people who love trains. Even if they don't know it yet."

The winter holiday season is a good time to expand toy train awareness by tapping into the nostalgia the season brings out in people of all ages, hobbyists say. Even today, a miniature train circling the Christmas tree is as important to many families as having a star or angel on the top, notes Paul Race, a writer and train enthusiast in Springfield, Ohio.

For the past eight years, Race has created a Christmas village of sorts with his backyard garden railroad, stringing lights around miniature conifers and placing Santa figures in the driver seats, then inviting friends and family members over to view it. “It's a good way to jump-start the season," he says. 

The pause that refreshes

One of the first Coca-Cola model trains appeared in 1928 as part of a promotional bottling company offer, says Coca-Cola Archivist Ted Ryan. Red with olive green trim and a wind-up engine, the cars were made by American Flyer and had a silkscreen imprint of "Pure As Sunlight," Coke's 1927 advertising slogan. Complete train sets with accessories followed in the 1950s and 1960s, along with the indelible image of Haddon Sundblom's red-suited Santa playing with a model train set by a Christmas tree.

In 1974, the company teamed with Lionel to produce a full set that included a locomotive, caboose and box cars advertising Sprite, Fanta and Tab in their signature colors of apple green, orange, and purple. Production was limited to 25,000 sets, making the item highly sought after, even today, by both Coca-Cola and model train collectors, Ryan said.

"Whenever you get people with a passion for collecting, there's always a greater interest in things that are cross-over collectibles—in this case Coca-Cola and trains," Ryan says. "It increases the demand and, in many cases, the value."

Indeed, the 1928 Coca-Cola train collectible is a treasured part of Peter Vasconi's vast Coca-Cola collection and on permanent display in his Concord, Calif., home. Vasconi, who still owns the Lionel trains he played with as a child in the late 1940s and 1950s, also has a newer O-27-gauge Coca-Cola model train set that includes accessories such as a bottling plant and country store emblazoned with Coke's insignia.

Coca-Cola train items from Peter Vasconi's private collection. 

Vasconi's children and grandchildren have shown some interest in running the trains over the years, but their interest waned as they grew older, he says. Yet many members of the model railroading community remain optimistic about the staying power of their beloved hobby.

This month, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum will throw its second-annual "Ales n' Rails" fundraiser: a music-filled party with local craft beer tastings and a tongue-in-cheek ugly-sweater contest. Last year, the event attracted a mix of collectors and craft beer connoisseurs in their twenties and thirties, Ridenour said, and he expects it to sell out this year.

Then there are traditionalists like Paul Race, who finds a Christmas without trains unthinkable.

"You can have your 'Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire'," he says. "Give me the cheery thunder and repetitive motion of a big Christmas train with a circle of track sitting right on a hardwood floor."