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Originally published February 17, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified February 18, 2011 at 4:31 PM

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Not your ordinary model-train set

Peter Hambling is building a model-train set in the basement of his Medina home that will use 4,000 feet of track and be one of the largest in the country.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Here are some numbers that help explain why jaws drop at the first sight of the model-train set that tech entrepreneur Peter Hambling is having built in the basement of his Medina family home:

• The train set uses 4,000 feet of track, 20 miles of wiring, 150 sheets of plywood, more than 50 pounds of wood screws, 15 gallons of Elmer's glue, 2,000 pounds of plaster, 120 train passenger cars, 350 freight cars, 80 locomotives and 40,000 miniature trees ranging from 1 to 20 inches tall.

• To accommodate the project, Hambling had a contractor dig out and build a 3,200-square-foot basement where there used to be a crawl space.

• The mammoth train set is in "the top 10 percent" in size in the country, says Neil Besougloff, editor of Model Railroader magazine. He says that guys (and it's almost always guys, who're "attracted to the construction, mechanical and technical aspects") who have the means might use "sprawling ranch houses with basements" for the large sets.

• With the project now in its third year, David Hikel, in charge of the model train-set construction, estimates some 20,000 man hours have gone into it.

• Hambling has 400 railroad books that together have a massive assortment of photographs. He used them to put together a collection of 3,000 pictures of places he wanted replicated — settling on a dozen scenic settings in the West. Hikel then drove everywhere from New Mexico to Banff in Alberta, Canada, to take photos and get soil samples used to match color for the model sets.

• To make things as authentic as possible, Todd Gamble, a Snoqualmie scenery artist, used plaster and polystyrene foam to recreate settings such as one of the two world-famous Kicking Horse Loop tunnels. They're in the Yoho National Park in the Rockies of British Columbia. Tunnels are usually straight, but this one curves around itself in 270 degrees at a 2 percent grade.

One obvious number is missing. Don't even ask about the cost.

Hambling keeps certain things private.

He doesn't even divulge the number of employees at DCI, the privately held Kent company he co-owns with John Mercer.

DCI stands for Digital Control Incorporated, and it was founded in 1991 with the kind of idea of trenchless technology.

The company is the world's leading manufacturer of high-tech devices that guide underground drills to install everything from fiber-optic cable to water lines.

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Hambling earned a bachelor's in aeronautical engineering from the University of Washington, studied the esoteric field of fluid dynamics at a NATO grad school in Brussels, then earned an MBA from the Yale School of Management.

Why build such a mammoth model-train set?

"I don't know what to tell you," says Hambling, 57. "Just because it's interesting. When you talk to people who're creative, how do you rationalize why people get into wine or ballroom dancing?"

Hambling does have a passion for, as he explains, "things that move."

The son of a Royal Air Force pilot, Hambling was born in England but the family moved to Seattle when he was 5 so his father could represent British Air at Boeing. The son would get his pilot's license at age 16.

Out of his zeal for planes, Hambling ended up buying a plane named "Sexy Sue." It was a Douglas A-26 Invader, a twin-engine bomber first built in World War II, and that would see action in American military engagements into the 1960s. The plane also was among the first converted for corporate executives to fly around in, before the advent of Lear jets.

He also has a passion for cars, owning a number of classics, including the Lotus Elan convertible like the Emma Peel character drove in the mid-1960s British TV spy series, "The Avengers."

As for trains, he says he became enchanted with them beginning at age 4, when he'd visit his grandparent's family farm in Yoxford, Suffolk.

A train would go by every hour.

"I'd find somebody to take me to the level crossing, where the road crossed the railroad line, and watched the trains go by," Hambling remembers. "It was an odd excitement, waiting for the train smoke coming out, and it getting closer and closer at 70 or 80 miles an hour."

He and his wife, Lorrie, have three sons, ages 13 to 19.

When the youngest, Mitchell, was 5, Hambling decided to buy him a train set for Christmas.

"I brought it back, and Santa put it on a 6-by-12 piece of plywood," Hambling says. "But it looked kind of stupid, this big train going around in circles. I said to myself, 'I have to find a way to make the track much bigger.'"

Much bigger.

As Model Railroader's Neil Besougloff explains, a typical train set is so compacted that the front of the train is in one miniature town, while the back still is in the previous town. The longer the track, the more space between towns.

As he began planning his giant model-train set, Hambling joined the company of a number of personalities with a passion for trains.

In his Beverly Hills mansion, Rod Stewart has a train set featuring "more than 100 structures, some more than five feet tall," that are a "Manhattan-like setting of model skyscrapers," says a 2007 article in Model Railroader. Stewart was proud that he built many of the models himself.

Neil Young loves the hobby so much that he's part owner of Lionel trains, which has been making model trains since 1900.

Turning Hambling's vision into reality — at least reality on a 1:48 scale — is Hikel, 34, of Lynnwood, who designs and builds model-train sets. He has a degree in automotive engineering from Western Washington University.

Hikel had grown up with train sets. It was a family tradition on Saturday nights to set up a Lionel set around the living-room coffee table. He could understand Hambling's fascination with them.

"You're building a miniature representation of the real world. We can't afford to own a real railroad locomotive, but we can get models," Hikel says.

Hikel knows how to work with the new kind of high-tech model trains that've been produced in the past decade. The toy locomotives now have processors to control speed; files can be downloaded with real engine sounds.

In a laptop, Hikel can program and control up to 99 locomotives, 250 track switches and 250 accessories like crossing gates or flashing signals.

The project is expected to be finished in March. It's been built so that it can be taken out of the basement in parts; Hambling thinks that eventually it might be donated to a museum.

But already, a number of railroad buffs have been invited to see the model-train set.

Hambling says he'd be glad to show the finished project to the public, such as student groups or for fundraisers.

By now, he knows what the inevitable reaction will be.

It'll often be the two word phrase, he says, that begins with, "Holy ... "

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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