Reality and the third rail

The Reading Terminal Holiday Railroad Photos by G. Widman for GPTMC

When I was last in Philadelphia I walked through the Reading Terminal Holiday Railroad and Train Display.

This is a giant model railroad layout (1/3 mile of tracks) at the Reading Terminal Market. There’s a detailed, interactive display featuring historic scenes of Philadelphia and rural Pennsylvania. Trolleys and Reading Railroad trains pass through City Hall and travel over the Schuylkill River.

I couldn’t help noticing that these were Lionel trains, the sign being the characteristic third rail. I remember as a boy having mixed feelings about that third rail.

On the one hand, it was a reminder that my model train layout wasn’t reality. Of course, a cynic might have pointed out that my mountain was a clearer giveaway, since it scaled to 25 feet high, not to mention that the entire world fit within a 4′ x 8′ rectangle with abrupt declivities on each edge. Yet I could somehow overlook those signs and still be bothered by the third rail.

On the other hand, the third rail was a reminder that I didn’t have the less realistic American Flyer train that my friend Jeff had. My locomotive and cars, as well as my accessories, were all more real, and the third rail spoke to that. In a practical sense, the third rail also permitted more “realistic” wiring of the tracks and switches.

One might say that the third rail marked a gateway between reality and fantasy. It was an icon, drawing me into the model railroad world. I spent hours and hours in that world, which felt more real than many other parts of my life. At other times, though I would look at it and be reminded that that world wasn’t as real as I hoped.

Now, as an adult, rushing to catch the “real” train to the airport, I had the opposite reaction. The beautiful train layout caught my eye, and I immediately wished there was more time to study it. But there was easily enough time to notice a key feature, that characteristic third rail.

This time I knew. That third rail told me that this was a real Lionel train, not some second-rate substitute. This train layout was a real world, with City Halls and rivers, trolleys and people. It was a place I’d once again be happy to lose myself within, as opposed to the false world outside, with all its fake products, commercialism, planned obsolescence, and unkept promises, not to mention the wars, institutional violence, and injustice that belie its values.