Sara’s Town: Train Lover’s Special at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Sara’s Town

Episode 24

San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Train Lover’s Special

In this episode of Sara’s Town, our intrepid host Sara McMahon visits the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the largest and only accredited model railroad museum in North America.

In this episode, Sara visits the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.

Located in San Diego’s beautiful and historic Balboa Park, the museum features more than 27,000 square feet of trains, trestles, tracks and intricately detailed model railroad layouts.

“This is miniature railroading on a massive scale,” Sara’s Town producer/director and Sara’s father, Art McMahon said about the latest episode in Sara’s ongoing series.

While filming this episode, Sara met museum director Anthony Ridenhour, who showed Sara everything it takes to be a model railroader. From the highly accurate, tiny N and larger HO scale model trains to the even larger O scale, “Lionel Type” toy trains running on three-rail, O gauge track, Sara learned about them all.

With what Ridenhour described as “thousands of trains and thousands of feet of track” the museum proudly features both indoor and outdoor exhibits and displays for railroad enthusiasts and model train buffs of all ages.

During her visit, Sara learned that to the serious train enthusiasts and railroad modelers, accuracy in the historical and topographic detail of their layouts is absolutely essential. These modelers pride themselves on their abilities to recreate rail lines and displays that are as historically accurate as possible to the era their layout is representing.

The famous Tehachapi Pass and Loop is captured in 1/87th scale in this highly accurate layout, operated by the La Mesa Model Railroad Club.

One such display at the museum is the famous Tehachapi Pass and Loop, Southern California’s busiest single track mountain railroad.

Known best for its vertical helix design, where trains cross over themselves on a steep mountain grade designed in a spiraling loop, the display presents a huge layout captured in 1/87th detail. The massive display is more than 90 feet long.

Everything on the HO scale Southern Pacific-Santa Fe Tehachapi Pass’ highly accurate layout, which is operated by the La Mesa Model Railroad Club, operates to scale. From the types of trains that run on the track, to the trains’ schedules of operation to their scaled speeds, accuracy is the name of the game.

While visiting the museum, Sara learned all about the Toy Trains category after meeting Jon Sage in the museum’s Toy Train Gallery. The Toy Train Gallery is operated by the San Diego 3-Railers Club. Their exhibit was rated one of the top ten layouts by Classic Toy Trains magazine in 2012.

With less emphasis on accuracy and more emphasis on fun, “3-Railers” have no problem mixing styles and eras and their goal is to just have a great time while enjoying their hobby. The Toy Train Gallery features O Scale “Lionel Type” toy trains running on three-rail O gauge track.

Carloads of hungry patrons can be seen heading into the McDonald’s drive-through he Toy Train Gallery.

Many of the buildings and displays in the Toy Trains Gallery are not only animated, they can be interactive as well. Many of the specific sections can be operated by visitors at the push of a button.

Sara got to see a variety of fun and interactive sections up close, including a McDonald’s restaurant with carloads of hungry patrons that drive up to the business’ drive-through, a car wash with vehicles that go through the cleaning process and a gas station with cars and trucks that come and go as they ride along on their own electrified tracks.

Many young railroad enthusiast’s agree that one of their favorite trains at the exhibit is the interactive Thomas the Tank Engine, which tiny train conductors can operate with the push of a button.

Another highlight at the museum is the “Choo-Choo Cam.” A running train fitted with a camera, that provides visitors with a first-person virtual view as the train traverses the layout.

Sara also visited the museum’s outdoor Centennial Garden where modelers have recreated Balboa Park as it existed in 1915. The layout was built in 2015 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Balboa Park.

Using a combination of old-fashioned modeling skills and modern 3-D printing technology, the entire outdoor garden railroad is solar-powered and features living, drought-resistant plants, making this display one of the only green technology exhibits in Balboa Park.

The outdoor Centennial Garden features 1/24 scale versions of San Diego’s original trolleys, the Class 1 Street Car, that was created specifically for the 1915 Exposition.

With the push of a button, future conductors can operate 1/24 scale versions of one of San Diego’s original trolleys, the Class 1 Street Car that was created specifically for the 1915 Exposition.

The trolleys follow a recreation of an actual old trolley route past many of Balboa Park’s iconic structures, which modelers have reproduced in great detail in scale miniature.

All the buildings in the display were made using modern day laser-cutting and 3-D printing technology and operators can control lighting and sound on the buildings using interactive iPad and smart device elements created by the Balboa Park Online Collaborative.

During her visit to the museum, Sara also learned about the science behind the numerous different types and styles of traffic signals that railroad engineers developed as an ingenious way of communicating with each other while on the move.

In addition to all the interactive train displays and layouts, the museum houses the Erwin Welch Research Library. The library features a collection consisting of more than 10,000 books, drawings, serial publications, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings and computer files/databases.

The collection also features folders containing additional pieces of railroad ephemera – such as timetables, pocket maps, travel brochures, catalogs, dining car menus and newspaper clippings. The library also has over 15,000 photographs and slides available for viewing.

For more information including exhibit descriptions, directions and museum hours visit the museum’s website at San Diego Model Railroad Museum.

In this episode’s Sara’s Cam, Sara introduces her newest pet, an energetic and lovable chinchilla named Stefano.

Click any image to open full-size gallery.

This is the twenty-third episode of Sara’s Town: a YouTube series created, written and hosted by Sara McMahon.

In an interesting and family-friendly way, Sara’s video reports feature the people and businesses of Riverside County, California.

Sara’s vision is to be a positive role model for children. She wants to “Help kids be kids” by letting them enjoy the everyday blessings all around us – sometimes right in our own hometown.

You can see all of Sara’s other videos on YouTube.

DVD’s and Blu-rays can be ordered or Sara can be reached at


Contact the writer:

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Trevor Montgomery runs Riverside County News Source and Shasta County News Source. Additionally, he writes for Riverside County based newspapers, Valley News and Anza Valley Outlook and also writes for Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County.

Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg and breaking his back in an off-duty accident.

During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center and Lake Elsinore Station, along with other locations.

Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.

Trevor has been married for more than 26 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 12 – soon to be 13 – grandchildren.

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