Three hours away from Cebu City, Alcoy is a coastal town in the southern part of the island and hosts a community of retired expatriates. It is also where one can find the largest model train collections in the country, maintained by Frank Hohmann.
On a late Saturday morning, the transplanted German comes out to greet us. He lives in a two-storey home but his prized possession is sprawled in his backyard. In the middle of a wide steel-and-tarp tent fenced with wire, he returns to his workstation—a long wooden table with monitors, switches, and control boards. Around him are boxes of plastic trees, a tray stacked with small tools of every kind, and a black laptop configured for the German language. Overhead, a light drizzle pelts the tent, but Hohmann tinkers away at his computer, and the miniature train tracks that surround us come alive in a chorus of bells, whistles, chugging noises, and hissing sounds.
"Raining is not a problem," he tells us. "These are garden trains, all made for the outdoors. It is the sun that is making everything kaput."
Since the 1950s, Hohmann has been collecting model trains from Germany, gathering famous locomotives from around the world and running them through electric tracks laid across scenery that he designed himself. Starting with the smaller HO scale (1:87) models as a teenager, he moved on to collect larger trains in G scale (1:20.3 to 1:32) by 1984, and has not changed his preference since. Each model is an accurate likeness of an actual train that ran along the rails in the years past. Most of these trains have been decommissioned and can now be seen only in museums; some, though, are still in operation. Under Hohmann's tent, there are more than 10 trains, including a Swiss passenger locomotive, a German steam engine, and an American lumber carrier—all running across a fantasy landscape.
Manufactured by a German company called LGB & Lehmann Toytrains, the miniature locomotives are made of metal, plastic, and electronic parts, all of which can be controlled manually by a switchboard or through Hohmann's computer, which runs a program called Railware. This software allows him to set the direction of the trains' movement, manage the tracks, switch power lines on or off, and control the entire network from his workstation.
But the work of a railroad modeler goes far beyond these operations. The trains themselves are only half of the equation, and it is the scenery that brings the spirit of the tracks to life. Having moved to the Philippines from Germany in 2008, Hohmann decided to continue his lifelong hobby in Alcoy and, with some help from a local landscaper, he designs, builds, and sculpts his entire setup. Under his tent are a farm in the country, a mountainside in Germany, a model of the Reichenbach train station, a miniature gravel mill, a scene from Munich, and tunnels built out of sculpted cement. Anything he can think of—places he's visited, scenes from his childhood, the streets of his hometown—are recreated in wood, plastic, and concrete. Along the railings of his tent hang metal signs from postal trains, a gas lamp from the steam era, and many other mementos from the railroad culture. Thus far, it has taken him three years to build his little fantasyland, and the work, even now, is far from complete.
"I must do everything," Hohmann insists, "from electronics to landscaping to painting. It is a fantasy for me and this is fascinating. I have a small world for me alone."
An engineer by trade, Hohmann used to work in the automotive industry in Germany, as part of a company named Hella which supplies lights and electronics. Having grasped the intricacies of electronic systems from his time in the field, he was primed to set up the miniature network, which requires transmitters, switchboards, and power converters to run properly.
Though not common in the Philippines, the hobby is popular in Europe and the US, where railways connect coasts and countries. The history (and romance) of railways yielded many types of locomotives, now immortalized in miniature form. With train culture still existing in these places, hobbyists remain an enthusiastic bunch, often meeting in large events such as the Great Train Show and the National Model Railroad Association's National Convention in the US.
Often called "the world's greatest hobby," collecting model trains is neither easy nor inexpensive, with each locomotive costing hundreds or thousands of euros. It also requires more than a little patience, as both the scenery and the train system take time to fully set up. Hohmann, who can import the models and construct the scenery for local hobbyists, has estimated that a 40-square-meter setup would take anywhere from six months to a few years of construction, depending on the owner's preference, and would cost roughly one million pesos.
There are quite a few reasons for getting into the hobby. Those who can remember the days when locomotives were the main means of long-distance transport might enjoy recreating part of history, and people intrigued by mechanics might find the complexity of the hobby intriguing. But, for Hohmann, whose fascination with trains can be traced back to his childhood, building an entire world from scratch is a challenge he finds appealing. While the culture might not be as prominent in the Philippines, Hohmann's collection is a testament to the spirit of the railways that endures to this day, and will continue to do so for generations to come.
Click on the image below for slideshow
A steam locomotive passes through a tunnel sculpted and painted out of cement.
A model of the Reichenbach Station, one of the largest pieces of ready-made scenery available to modelers.
Hohmann's fantasy world is built from scenes both real and imagined, and has been brought to life through years of planning, building, and sculpting.
The Reichenbach station sits in the middle of two tracks and is the centerpiece of a small scene that Hohmann created.
A Deutsche Reichsbahn locomotive runs along the tracks.
The famed "crocodile" train from Switzerland, so named for its long nose.
A countryside in Germany, recreated from Hohmann's imagination.
A small camera attached to the locomotive relays its movement to the monitors in Hohmann's workstation.
Model trains come in many sizes, from tiny locomotives to larger steam engines. The first step in building a collection lies in determining which scale you want to collect. Scale is directly related to the size of the rolling stock (the vehicle itself) and is measured in ratios. Gauge, on the other hand, is determined by the size of the track; specifically, it's the distance between the two tracks. Though these are technically different terms, they are often interchanged when referring to the train's size. O Gauge rails, for example, are spaced 32 mm apart and the models meant to run on them are scaled to 1:48 of the actual trains they are based on. This means, of course, that the real train is 48 times larger than the model. Choosing scale is a matter of preference, but available space is naturally one of the main considerations. Larger models also tend to display a higher level of detail, which is not possible on smaller ones. Over the side bar are some commonly used gauges and scales.
• G Gauge - Also known as garden trains, this is the largest commonly available size. The tracks are 45 mm apart, and the models are usually scaled 1:22.5.
• 0 Gauge - With tracks at 30-33 mm apart, the 0 gauge was popular in the 1530s and continues to maintain a following. Models are normally scaled at 1:48.
• S Gauge - Built for 1:64 scale models, the S Gauge has tracks that are spaced at 22.43 mm apart.
• HO Gauge - At roughly half the size of the 0 Gauge, the HO Gauge has a distance of 16.5 mm between the tracks, with the models commonly being 1:87 scale.
• N Gauge tracks are 9 mm apart, and the scale of the models can be anywhere from 1:148 to 1:16o. A popular choice where space is limited.
• Z Gauge - Trains made for the Z Gauge rails are barely two inches long at 1:220 scale, with the tracks being spaced 6.5 mm apart.
Where to buy train models online
MODEL TRAIN PHILIPPINES
Frank Hohmann's personal site, Model Train Philippines, offers planning and construction of scenery as well as help in purchasing model trains. With decades of experience in the hobby, Hohmann is a good resource to consult before starting your collection.
With a large inventory of models, tools, scenery pieces, videos, and literature, Walthers is one of the most comprehensive sites to buy model trains from. It also produces its own line of trains and has a good deal of information for beginners.
LGB AND LEHMANN TOYTRAINS
The most popular brand of garden trains in Europe, this German company created the original G Scale models. Though the brand has changed owners throughout the years, it remains a primary source for scale locomotives.
Photographs by Paul del Rosario
This story first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 18 2014.