al lowe model railroader
Image: Brandon Hill
THE ENGINEER Al Lowe, photographed at the Great Train Expo in Puyallup on November 16, 2013

As it does for everyone at some point, reality got between Al Lowe and one of his passions. His career as a video game designer just kept him too busy for model railroading, the hobby he’d loved as a kid. So when he retired 15 years ago he made up for lost time, building mountains out of plaster and houses out of plastic, and bringing those worlds to life with electrified engines and boxcars. And this January 18–20, along with the rest of the Fourth Division of the National Model Railroad Association’s Pacific Northwest Region, Lowe will share his miniature creations with Seattle at the 40th Annual Model Railroad Show at Pacific Science Center. He’ll be the one who looks like he knows the difference between reality and really living.

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I got a train when I was two years old that went around the Christmas tree. Like a kid, I ran it as fast as possible, until it ran off the tracks.

My parents were old when I was born. My mom was 44, and my dad was 45. Consequently, they weren’t really into going out and throwing the football with me. So I got into music and reading and that kind of stuff.

There were model railroading magazines in the school library. They had a subscription. I’d looked through all of the other magazines, and then I thought, Oh, this looks kind of cool. So I saved my money, and I bought a transformer and some locomotives and some track. Eventually my dad found a sheet of plywood, and I started building mountains. It was horribly crude stuff, but it was fun for me. And it was something I could pretty much do alone. He was working and didn’t really help much, but he gave me the space and the place to do it.

I was always a model builder. I built airplane kits. I built ship kits. I built all kinds of stuff like that. So it was kind of natural to go into model railroading, because it moved. They were like models, only they were moving. So I did that until I discovered music and girls. And then that kind of went away. Thirty years later, my son was 12 years old and I thought, Well, maybe this is something we could do together; he might like it. He didn’t like it all, but I did.

For years in my other career I would create these worlds, these environments where people would do things. In building a game, I would have to come up with the locations, and what happened there, and who was in this place and that place, and what you saw in that area when you went inside the building: What was in there? How many chairs were there? It’s the same thing I do now. I build these models, I build buildings, I put things inside the structure, I light it, I paint it, I weather it, I add details to it, and I put it all together. So I’m still designing; still building these little words.

I’m a jazz musician as well. I play alto saxophone and run a 17-piece big band. It’s amazing how many parallels there are to this hobby. In jazz, you have a particular structure that you follow, but within that you’re able to be creative and do whatever you want to. And look at me: I have a specific structure that I have to follow to build these modules, and yet within that structure, I can be creative. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

I’m not into it at all, but collecting is a huge aspect of model railroading. I’m a runner, as opposed to a collector. I buy cars, put them on the track, and run them. But the collecting guys see this as a way to make money. Because like stamps and anything else, there are certain products that are released that have mistakes or that are incredibly rare. I watched a guy last year buy a car for $1,400. One little car.

To me, model railroading is about producing an indistinguishable replica of reality. You can create something that, if you took a photograph or if you look closely, you could lose yourself in it because everything’s there and it feels real. So I’ll put scraps of paper, pieces of lumber, and old railroad ties along the tracks, junk on the roof of buildings—anything to make it look as realistic as possible.

My wife is happy to have me out of the house. She’s never expressed much interest in the hobby. But yeah, it’s a good way to keep me sane.

Fingernail gals have been a real boon to the model railroaders. It used to be that you had to pay $9 or $10 for a little brush that’s got the tiny hairs on it for doing really detailed work. And now Sally Beauty Supply sells them to manicurists everywhere, so they brought the price down.

There’s no bottom to the hobby. You can dig as deep as you want to go. There’s one guy that I know locally who is researching the Northern Pacific Railway and wants to build an exact replica of the area between Tacoma and Woodinville and run the trains exactly as they ran on a specific day in September of 1956. He’s got the locations figured out and the industries that were there. He has copies of the original records that the railroads used back then. And he’s built a 2,000-square-foot extension on his house to make room for it.

No, I wouldn’t corner you at a party and start talking about model railroading—unless you expressed an interest. And then we could talk forever. I mean, look at me now.