The Original Whistle Stop in East Pasadena is getting a lot of business lately. It's close to Christmas, so plenty of kids — and grown-ups who still think they're kids — flood the shop to buy the ultimate tree accessory: a model train.
The Whistle Stop first opened its doors in 1951. Fred Hill started working at the Whistle Stop decades ago, and when the place went up for sale in the '70s, he knew he had to buy it.
These days, Hill's store on Colorado Boulevard is packed with antique railroad signs and lanterns, tiny trees and figures to make any miniature railroad come to life and illuminated glass cases that display model trains like prized trophies.
The store has so much stuff, the first timer might find it a bit overwhelming. But Hill says they sell to more than just the pro model railroader — they're there for anybody who likes model trains.
According to Hill, the model train business has changed over the years — and it's still changing. Modern trains sets can come with radio control technology, digital sounds and realistic moving parts.
As with any other hobby, model railroading can become a little bit of an obsession. Not all model trains are toys necessarily. Hill says modelers readily spend top dollar for detail and craftsmanship.
Hill even designs and manufacturers his own model trains. He calls it The Coach Yard line, but serious model railroaders have nicknamed trains like Hill's "Gucci trains" for their high prices and limited availability.
Hill can sell models for top dollar because he really knows his trains. Ready to jump into the model train world with style? How about a $15,000 model train? No joke, Hill says it's a 9-foot Union Pacific Big Boy, hand painted and assembled in Korea by a respected artisan train maker.
Hill's love of trains expands beyond just miniatures, too. He's even worked with a team to restore a real-life train, a 120-ton Santa Fe Northern locomotive that they've driven from L.A. to Chicago and back.
After decades in business, Hill says The Whistle Stop is still going strong. According to him, model trains are here to stay. "It has movement. It has sound. It has smoke. It has action. It also brings back memories of childhood to adults," Hill says. "It's just something that gives you a little smile on your face."
What does a serious model train problem look like? It probably looks like this: