SANTIAGO, Chile — Railway fanatic José Zagal never quite shook his fascination for trains as a child, so he started building a train set right in his own back garden.
These are real trains.
The Chilean’s gigantic haul includes two locomotives and 12 passenger carriages, cabooses, and even freight cars.
Lovingly restoring the trains he has "saved," his private fleet is now worth an estimated at $1 million U.S. dollars, even though Zagal paid scrap metal prices due to the derailment of Chile’s train network.
The 68-year-old scientist even has 300 meters of railroad in his garden, along with rail signals and a working railroad switch — to change the tracks.
Saving the trains the dictator dismantled
Chile’s railroad network was broken up in the 1980s by former military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Only a few lines still operate.
During his 17 years in power, thousands of his political opponents and civilians — now know as ‘The Disappeared’ — vanished without any record. Tens of thousands more people, fearing the same, fled the country in exile.
The Chilean general was eventually arrested in London in 1998 in connection with human rights violations, before dying in 2006. But during his rule, Pinochet favored roads as the country’s primary option for land travel and transport.
The trains and the rail network that once ran across the entire country disappeared too.
“I love everything to do with trains, the sounds, the machinery, the smell," Zagal says. “In my childhood, the trains were still running in Chile and I was always fascinated, watching them on holiday at the beach and places like that.”
Most Chileans today travel long distance on buses, with first-class options that include fully-reclining chairs, table-service and broadband internet.
“It’s not the same,” says Zagal. “On a train you have lots of space and you can walk around, or have a proper dinner served to you in a luxury dining car illuminated with dim lights, all with that special a-chuck-a-chuck sound like you are in an old movie. It’s a different world.”
Following the derailment of the trains, the former engines and carriages lay rotting around the country, or were destroyed.
“A lot of people just broke them up for the metal, or for firewood,” says Zagal. “Some piece of Chilean history is gone forever.
“I’ve tried to save as many as I can," he says, "and put them in my garden.”
'I've been playing with trains all my life'
It all makes for the perfect illusion of a real railway station when he plays train driver, shuttling his carriages around at the helm of his electric mining locomotive. And when he does, he likes to conduct himself properly by dressing up as a Victorian-era controller.
Zagal's private railway mirage is made more convincing by his house and other buildings he erected in his garden. He converted the back of his home into a replica of a station, complete with a large clock. And he added railroad style buildings around his home to perfect the look while simultaneously protecting his collection from the hard Chilean winter.
He even ponders on being buried in a train-style coffin. “I’ve been playing with trains all my life. When I got bored of models, I started buying real ones."
Zagal's home in Santiago, Chile, is full of hundreds of miniature model trains and other rail paraphernalia like lanterns, signs, clocks and clothing.
But his real passion is writ large by the full-sized trains in the garden, which include a steam locomotive and the smaller mining engine, which he bought for its power.
“I bought the electric locomotive from a Chinese company online, so I could move the others around,” he says. “It can shift a lot of weight.
“The people at the company I bought it from couldn’t understand it was just for my garden, for fun. They thought I was going to mine something and kept asking the weight of the minerals I needed to move.”
His favorite item in the entire collection is a caboose, with its accommodation quarters for the crew. Made in New York in 1895 by Pullman, it has a fully functioning kitchen, toilets and bedrooms.
“I love to sleep in there, but my partner Erika only lets me do so when she’s out of town. She finds them a bit spooky," he says. "I filled it with other things I like to collect, like mannequins in old war uniforms."
Guests sometimes like to sleep in the trains too, so he fixed up the plumbing and facilities to make them livable.
The obsession, which started when Zagal was a small boy, seemed to grow as he did, like the size of the collectibles.
After he got bored of his model train set — at age 35 — the fanatic started buying up actual trains and now proudly has his full-size fleet at home.
And while his first love is trains, Zagal is also a distinguished professor of chemistry. He says his background in science has helped him install the collection.
As a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom and Emeritus Member of the Electrochemical Society of the United States, he used a scientific approach to the complicated delivery of the huge machines to his home.
“I didn’t want to have trains sinking into my lawn,” he says. “And I wanted to be able to move them around and drive them. So I planned the track and the sleepers first, laying them out ahead of the first delivery."
He had to model the angles of his garden and driveway to ensure he could get the Pullman in.
“The delivery prices are sometimes higher than the trains themselves. But fortunately Chile, as a mining country, has lots of options for the delivery of large machines.”
Do the neighbors mind when a train is delivered to their street?
“Not at all,” says Paulina Duclos, who lives directly across the road, flanked by towering canyon walls. “José is a special person and we know he’s a little eccentric. He brings something different to our neighborhood.”
"I'm running out of garden"
Following their delivery, the trains need maintenance. Only Zagal's loving attention has brought them back from their formerly vandalized states.
His partner Erika, 60, says: “If I can’t find José, I know he’s in his shed fixing a part for the trains.”
All the hours of planning, maintaining and polishing — along with all the money he spent on them — might not have been a total labor of love.
“Based on my research and the current prices of what people are paying for restored trains, it’s worth close to $1m U.S. I’m not going to sell them but maybe my children will after I’m gone. They’re not crazy about trains, like me."
Zagal says he's spent "some money" on making his collection, but only what he could afford.
"I think hobbies are important, so why not? We are prisoners of money in a way, so I have no issues spending on my trains, which bring me so much joy."
“My main issue is space," he adds. "I’m running out of garden.”