Steve Sanders' train collection has a new home.
Steve Sanders' train collection has a new home.
Jacob Vaughn

TrainTopia: A Man’s Life Laid Out in Model Train Tracks

Deep in Frisco’s Discovery Center, a man’s life is laid out in model train tracks in a 3,000-square-foot room. When no one is around, the room is quiet and dark. As the project nears completion, the site of TrainTopia, a new model train exhibit in Frisco, is littered with boxes of unopened railroad cars and locomotives.

“We’re about 95 percent finished right now,” says Bob LaPrelle, CEO of the Museum of the American Railroad. “[It’s] all the little, finite details.”

This one-of-a-kind, $1 million model train exhibit is a reflection of the life of Steve Sanders. He and his wife, Jane Sanders, owned a hobby shop in North Dallas. This is when the massive collection of trains began.

As the years went by, Steve Sanders’ model train layout got bigger and bigger. It was originally constructed in a room about the garage in the Sanders' home off Royal Lane in Dallas. The layout consists of 200 cars and locomotives, a 1950s view of downtown Dallas, West Texas oil refineries, the Palo Duro Drive-In Theater, sawmills and mountains of Colorado, and Union Station.

“This layout is Steve’s life. It’s a history lesson, a geography lesson, and it’s all about the trains,” Jane Sanders told Lifestyle Frisco. “Steve would be thrilled because he wanted a lot of people to see his trains.”

The trains would travel along an intricate design throughout the room and eventually make their way to a hidden loop track into the attic. The train would elevate 14 feet before it came out of the attic through the other side, LePrelle says.

“It gave it the effect that the train was going off somewhere, and then all of a sudden, the train was back going the opposite direction,” he says.

LePrelle says Steve Sanders only lived about a year after his layout was complete, so he really did not get to enjoy it. One day, LePrelle received a call from Jane Sanders, who said she wanted to donate the layout to the Museum of the American Railroad. At the time, however, there simply was not a space for the collection.

Jane Sanders was persistent and got LePrelle out to the family’s home to see the layout in person. LePrelle was in awe. He was sold. He went back to his board to say the museum had to have it.

“I met with some of the city officials here in Frisco, and we set up another meeting in her home. We took the mayor and the deputy city manager,” LePrelle says. “They beat us there. When we got there, they were down on their knees with their phones, taking pictures.”

During the months after the mayor and the deputy city manager saw the model train layout, they were trying to find a place for it. Several months passed, and the model railroad had a new home at Frisco’s Discovery Center. However, this was only the beginning of the line for what would become TrainTopia.

Nearly all model train layouts were built with the idea that they would be permanent. Although there was a place to put it, LePrelle and his board needed to find a way to disassemble and reassemble this massive collection. These things come at a cost.

Several funders were approached to help pay for this project. Amanda and Brint Ryan of Dallas were among them.

Brint Ryan agreed to fund the whole project, throwing in $300,000.

The ball was finally rolling. A company out of Cincinnati that specializes in model railroads was brought in to deconstruct the new addition to the railroad museum. There were 37 modules where strategic cuts had to be made before the structure could be moved. Once it was taken apart, it was stored at the Discovery Center for several months before the painstaking process of reassembling it began.

The whole process took more than 1,060 hours, according to Lifestyle Frisco. The remainder of the job consists of plastering and repainting where some of the cuts were made, expanding the downtown scene and finalizing the operating system. This system will allow the trains to run on their own and was designed to help preserve the individual railroad cars.

“It is part of the Museum of the American Railroad, but we’ve kind of branded it as its own attraction, TrainTopia," LePrelle says. "[Some days,] you can buy a combination ticket in conjunction with seeing the real trains outside."

The exhibit is set to open July 18 and will operate from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets for TrainTopia at the Frisco Discovery Center are $10 for adults and $5 for children. 

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