Aboard the world's largest model train collection

Road Trip 2011: Every year more than a million people visit Miniatur Wunderland, featuring 900 trains, eight miles of track, an airport, and dioramas from several countries. CNET gets a backstage look.

A scene from Miniatur Wunderland, the largest model train collection in the world--and so much more. The attraction, in Hamburg, Germany, features eight miles of tracks, 900 trains, 5,000 vehicles, 250,000 miniature people, and eight themed geographic regions. CNET's Daniel Terdiman explored it as part of Road Trip 2011 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

HAMBURG, Germany--Sure, Miniatur Wunderland is the world's largest collection of model trains, but to describe it that way would do it a serious injustice. What it really is is a beyond-belief collection of fantastic dioramas depicting scenes from the Swiss and Austrian Alps, Germany, the United States, and Scandinavia throughout which run 900 trains on the more than eight miles of tracks.

I had planned to come here as part of Road Trip 2011, because I'd read that Miniatur Wunderland had recently added a giant scale model of a working airport. And when I looked into that, I discovered the bit about it being the world's-largest model train collection. That seemed like a no-brainer. But as I approached the building in Hamburg where it's located, I had a feeling that I would be disappointed.

I was deeply wrong. The minute I walked inside and saw the collection (see video below), I was blown away. If there was an entry in the dictionary for "detail-oriented," this would be the perfect example: this collection is built around incredibly well thought-out depictions of hundreds upon hundreds of little scenes, and meanwhile, all throughout the trains work their magic, weaving in and out of alpine mountains, into and out of myriad train stations, and through countless tunnels and over endless numbers of bridges.

Miniatur Wunderland was the brainchild of two German brothers who decided in the late 1990s to ditch their successful nightclub and record label business in order to build the world's largest model train collection, explained their younger brother, Sebastian Drechsler, who does communications for the collection.

The two older brothers got the reaction you might expect, Drechsler said, which was a lot of skepticism. But they did manage to convince a local bank to lend them 2 million German marks--this was before the advent of the Euro--and in 2000, they opened their doors. Initially, they had 20 employees and were hoping to get 100,000 visitors in their first year. Instead, 300,000 people showed up, and they were off and running. In 2010, he said, more than 1 million people showed up, making Miniatur Wunderland the second-most popular attraction in Hamburg--after the city's zoo--but the one that lures in by far the highest percentage of people from out of town.

Today, there are 210 employees who manage the 14,000-square-foot collection, which in addition to the 900 trains also includes 5,000 model cars, trucks, and other vehicles, and an astounding 250,000 miniature people, all of whom have been added to scenes by hand, and all in such a way as to further one story or another.

That, in fact, is one of the reasons the collection doesn't just attract men, who might seem the natural audience for a giant model train collection, Drechsler said. Women seem to enjoy the little stories that are depicted throughout the collection. But members of both gender frequently come and spend hours wandering around, trying to discover as many of the stories as they can, he said. Some are easy to spot--like a giant concert with 21,000 "people," and others are extremely subtle, often hidden below the main surface of the collection, or even in the floorboards or rafters.

For example, in the American section, there is a scene that is clearly supposed to be Roswell, N.M., where aliens supposedly landed. In the scene, a group of aliens are taking over a military plane. But it's below the surface where the truly delightful detail emerges: a hidden UFO and several levels of a secret military station geared around the aliens.

Still, despite countless numbers of these little scenes, it's the trains that are the true champions: and they do dominate. There's a single track climbing through the Swiss Alps. There's a giant representation of the Hamburg Central Train Station, complete with 14 platforms, and trains rushing in and out at all times. There are rail bridges, tunnels, cargo trains, express trains, and much, much more.

Airport
The biggest new attraction at Miniatur Wunderland is its airport. And for good reason. This 1:87 scale model of Hamburg's airport took the oldest brother six years to build, and cost 3.5 million euros and 150,000 working hours. According to Drechsler, it is an extremely realistic representation of the airport, as well it should be since it was built using the airport's actual construction plans.

The airport features 32 planes, each of which move around automatically, and autonomously. And here's where some of the true magic of the airport kicks in: The planes, as well as the many cars and trucks, buses, and support vehicles that move around on the tarmac, all do so independent of each other, yet almost never collide. That's because the oldest brother designed a system--using 80,000 lines of code--in which a tracking system automatically monitors the planes and vehicles and keeps track of their whereabouts at all times. Occasionally, there's a collision, but it's very infrequent.

These little vehicles are even smart enough to know when they need to have their batteries recharged, and when that happens, they drive themselves into a little garage and then go behind the walls to a charging area where they dock themselves at a little station and proceed to recharge. When they're done, they back out and return to wherever the program tells them they should be.

And being an airport, there should be takeoffs and landings, correct? I had assumed that this would be a missing element, much as is the case with the airport at the Legoland in Billund, Denmark, which I visited a few days earlier. But at Miniatur Wunderland, there's no such thing as such an important element not being there. Here, the planes do indeed take off and land (see video below), all because of an ingenious system in which the planes automatically taxi onto a runway, and while they roll towards getting airborne, little metal sticks pop up through slits in the surface and raise the planes up in the air. They gradually ascend until they disappear behind a flap in the wall. Landings work the same way, except in reverse.

Doubling in size
As if Miniatur Wunderland wasn't already big enough, Drechsler said the plan is to double the layout by the year 2020. To make that a reality, they've already rented another 10,700 square feet of space in which to expand. Among the geographies that will be added are an Italian section and more of the United States.

I wondered how it could all work since they don't own the building: after all, with such an amazing collection, if they lost their lease, the whole thing would come crashing down.

But he explained that Miniatur Wunderland has a 25-year lease. And anyway, he said, their landlord is the city of Hamburg. "And the city likes us," he said. It's the world's-largest model train collection and a million people come to see it each year. How could Hamburg not love it?

 

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