A Model Subway, but the Announcements Are Clear
New York Times 11/23/2008
By James Barron
Subway car No. 8026 stopped, and the public-address system announced, a little too clearly: “Sheepshead Bay. This is a northbound Brighton local. Next stop, Kings Highway.”
“This was my line,” said Thomas C. Nuzzo, who was driving the train. “I can name all the stops.”
But No. 8026 was nowhere near where he grew up in Brooklyn. It had been circling a track inside Grand Central Terminal — a model railroad track, that is. No. 8026 and the three drab-green cars it was pulling are the first New York City subway cars ever built by Lionel, which has made model electric railroad trains for more than 100 years.
Of course, in the 21st century, electric trains have wireless controls. Mr. Nuzzo, Lionel’s events manager, pushed a button on the device in his hand. The doors snapped shut, and the train sped off.
Mr. Nuzzo said the four cars look like the R-27 cars that went into service in 1960, down to the checkered floors inside. Outside, they match the original color — ”kale green,” he said. (Most R-27 cars were painted red in the late 1970s and early ’80s; they were retired from the fleet in the 1990s.)
The signs identify the train as a QB. Mr. Nuzzo said the QB went over the Manhattan Bridge; the QT was routed through a tunnel under the East River. Mr. Nuzzo, 57, remembers it well. “It was the line my mom used to take me to Macy’s on,” he said.
Lionel announced more than two years ago that it was venturing into official New York replicas under a licensing agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Lionel’s president, Jerry Calabrese, said the project fell behind schedule after Lionel decided to copy the QB cars. (They stopped close to where Lionel’s showroom was, on East 26th Street, until the company moved to Michigan in 1969.)
“I felt it was important to go back to our roots on the East Coast, the city in particular,” said Mr. Calabrese, who moved Lionel’s executive offices to Manhattan two years ago. During its years in Michigan, he said, Lionel had “redirected its vision of trains in a broader national sense instead of a more local metro sense.”
He said the move “re-established our geographic interest, and that’s why we did the subway.”
But he also said that he was emotionally involved in the subway car project, and that figured in the delay: “The more we decided to make it better and better, the longer it took.”
No. 8026 works with Lionel’s latest operating system, which is more elaborate than the one that powers another new Lionel model, a replica of a Metro-North commuter rail car. The system on No. 8026 is so authentic that it mimics the noises that subway trains make. Lionel sent a sound engineer to record noise in Brooklyn subway tunnels and on modern subways. That noise is played back as the four-car train makes its rounds.
So how real is the little QB? Mr. Calabrese answered by telling a story: On Lionel’s version of Amtrak’s Acela, the doors, brakes and pantographs — which connect the train to electrical wires overhead — break down at about the same rate as on the real thing.
He said that not long ago, he was a passenger on an Acela train that had to pull over because a pantograph had broken. “I offered to send in some of our people to help,” he said. The Amtrak crew members, however, “weren’t in a joking mood.”
He said the real R-27 cars had long and largely trouble-free lives. Lionel is selling the four-car set for $699.99 at stores like the Transit Museum’s Gallery Annex in Grand Central, where the annual Grand Central holiday train show opens on Monday. It will run through Jan. 19.
“To me, it’s a masterpiece,” Mr. Nuzzo said. “I took it to Milwaukee, and a guy says, ‘It’s cute.’ I says, ‘That’s all you can say about it, cute?’ The doors open, and we got a New York person announcing the stops. Maybe I’m biased, but that’s an achievement.”