Trains and holiday traditions go together for several in the East Valley and across the Phoenix metro area.
Each year, train lovers and model train enthusiasts who are members of the Arizona Big Train Operators (ABTO) welcome thousands to their Annual Trains in the Garden Christmas Open House and Tours.
ABTO, founded in 1996, promotes and advances “large-scale garden railroading in Arizona,” the group’s website states. Members of the group are fans of the “G-scale” garden railroads, the largest of their kind, with train cars that are 1/24th scale and stand 5 or 6 inches tall.
This year, ABTO’s 15 members will open their large-scale backyard railways for the public to view and enjoy during the Christmas tour. Each of the displays has its own unique features.
Among those who will be part of this year’s tour is a large display at the home of Dennis and Lizabeth Sirrine in Mesa. Sirrine said his interest in trains began as a young boy.
“I was 3 years old when I got my first train, and I’ve been addicted to trains ever since,” Sirrine said.
He started with the G-scale trains in 1982 and said he adds to his backyard layout each year. This year is the sixth year he has opened his acre and a half display for the Christmas tour.
“I run very long trains, and I have more than 6,000 feet of track,” he said.
Along that 6,000 feet, which is lit with stadium-style lighting, are “mountains, streams, lakes people, buildings, a round house, refinery, and all kinds of things,” Sirrine said.
During the Christmas tours, the layout is decked out with Christmas decorations and lights and “Santa Claus is here, and we have food and refreshments. It’s quite a big deal,” he said.
Last year, approximately 18,000 people participated in the four-night event. “This event offers family-style fun for children of all ages to come out and enjoy. It is great to see the expressions on the faces of all ages when they see the miniature world of railroads,” event organizers say.
As part of the tour, the public is invited to visit the train layout at the Cardon Children’s Medical Center at Banner Desert Hospital in Mesa. The railroad there has three trains, plus a trolley that run through a large display of well-designed scenery.
The $2 per person or $10 per family charged at the Sirrine display, along with optional donations collected at any of the other layouts, are used to support ABTO activities throughout the Valley, including the maintenance of the train layout at the Cardon Children’s Medical Center. According to Sirrine, all proceeds go to the same place, so visitors are not expected to make a donation at each layout.
The railroads are located around the Phoenix area, several of them in the East Valley, and will be open four days each from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. The Sirrine’s display, at 1924 N. 24th St. in Mesa, will be open on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 6, 7 and 13, 14, and others will be open on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 7, 8 and 14, 15. For exact dates and details, including a printable timetable and maps to the locations, visit the ABTO website at azbigtrains.org. The site includes a number of pictures showing details of the layouts that will be open during the open house tour.